Sunday, February 28, 2010

New Fisk

Scenes from a busy Beirut correspondent's notebook

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Key's big idea fails

A year ago today, John Key came up with a big idea to save the New Zealand economy: a cycleway the length of New Zealand, costing $50 million and creating 3,700 jobs. A year on, the reality is a bit different: the cycleway has been reduced to a collection of local tracks, and not one cent of the money appropriated has been spent:

A year after John Key announced plans for a national cycle trail, not one metre of trail has been built using money from the new cycleway fund.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail Project has given a preliminary nod to 13 new stretches of trail, and agreed to give money to six others that were nominated for quick start funding to get the project off the ground.

A spokeswoman said none of the money had yet been paid.

As for the jobs, not one has been created.

A cycleway, or even a collection of them, isn't a bad thing to have. But as a response to the recession, it was just a joke, a flashy piece of PR designed to make it look like the government was doing something, while in reality they sat on their hands and left the market to sort itself out. The consequence of that can be seen in the unemployment statistics: there are now 59,000 more people out of work than when National came to power. Rather than protecting jobs, National has just abandoned us to the market.

Open justice wins again in the UK

Two weeks ago, the UK Court of Appeal forced the government to reveal evidence it held showing that Binyam Mohamed had been tortured by the US. They also took a swipe at MI5, accusing them of lying to Parliament and having a "culture of suppression". The government was outraged - the courts couldn't be allowed to conclude, based on the evidence, that MI5 lied repeatedly about torture - that might make the government look dishonest. And so in an unprecedented move which ignored 400 years of legal protocol, a government lawyer wrote to the judge to have that criticism removed from the final judgement.

But while they were successful in removing the words from the formal record, they weren't able to do it in secret. The government's letter (and the information it contained on the draft judgement) was immediately leaked to the press, and several groups immediately went to court in an effort to have it restored. Today, the Court of Appeal agreed, and published their criticism in full. You can read it here.

As a result of this case, and several others like it, human rights groups in the UK are now pushing for a full judicial inquiry into MI5's complicity in torture. Hopefully they will succeed. This rot must be cut out, by dragging the spies out into the light of day and prosecuting them.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The government is afraid II

They've taken Regulatory Impact Statements out of bills.

A Regulatory Impact Statement is a formal summary of the case for a particular piece of legislation. It sets out the problem, the possible options to solve it, which option is preferred and why, as well as who was consulted. It lets policymakers and legislators see the government's thinking and that they've considered some alternatives, and whether the case for action is strong or weak. Since 2007 (and possibly earlier), the RIS has been included in the explanatory note to a bill for the information of MPs. This led to several embarrassing incidents for the National government, when RISs on important legislation (such as the "boy racer" laws or its modified ETS) were publicly declared to be inadequate by Treasury right there in the bill itself.

In response, the government has decided to hide the RISs. Instead of being printed with the bill, they will be put up on a website somewhere, with only a URL provided. The government is clearly hoping that no-one will bother to look - or, in the case of MPs, that they won't be able to, since hardcopy doesn't do hypertext. In other words, they hope to prevent further embarrassments by hiding the information. And they've already been successful, in that Treasury's adverse comments [PDF] on the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill (basically, that the government makes no case for its preferred option of disconnecting people from the internet) has been buried.

This is not the action of a government which believes it is making good legislation which can withstand public scrutiny. Instead, it is the action of a government which knows that it cannot make a rational case for many of its "reforms", and is desperately trying to stop people from learning that until it is too late.

Unions support secret ballots

The Council of Trade Unions has discussed Tau Henare's Employment Relations (Workers' Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill, and come out in support of it. That's a bit of a no-brainer really. Unions are democratic institutions, and the secret ballot is a basic democratic right. Requiring unions to hold them simply reinforces existing practices and removes the right's propaganda about workers being bullied into strikes. What's not to like?

They also point out that what's good for the goose is good for the gander:

“unions are critical of the lack of balance in the bill and believe it must be changed to also require employers to follow democratic procedures including a secret ballot of shareholders prior to a lockout”.
They have a point. Henare's justification for his bill is that strikes impose significant costs on workers and that they should therefore have a democratic mandate. But the same applies to lockouts, which result in reduced income and significant reputational risks to businesses. A decision to lock out workers directly affects the interests of shareholders, and so should be put straight to them (by secret ballot, of course), rather than left to management. Anything less would simply be undemocratic...

New kiwi blog

Soap Box - New Zealand

A sham consultation on mining

When questioned on National's plans for mining in national parks, government ministers have repeatedly referred to a consultation document due out next month. "Wait for the discussion document", they've said. "The public will be able to have its say then".

Now it turns out that Cabinet has already approved stripping protection from 7,000 hectares of schedule 4 land. So the "discussion document" and public consultation is a sham - the decision has already been made, and the discussion has already happened - around the Cabinet table, without any input from the public. Its a perfect example of the autocratic style of this government, and one which is not going to endear it to voters.

On the plus side, the government has apparently reduced the amount of land it wants to mine. That's good, but any mining in national parks is too much. They are our most valuable natural areas, and they need to be preserved, not dug up.

A sense of entitlement

The Dominion-Post this morning reports that former Housing Minister Phil Heatley was repeatedly warned by officials that his abuse of Ministerial credit cards for personal spending was against the rules:

In July and September, Mr Heatley was told by a Ministerial Services manager: "Due to the scrutiny that credit cards attract we would like to remind you that all records are open to review and should comply with the five expenditure principles ... of the Ministerial Office handbook."

The principles include that spending is for official ministerial purposes only, they are properly documented, able to withstand audit scrutiny and comply with department delegations. They must also be "reasonable for the circumstances and able to withstand taxpayers' scrutiny".

Despite these warnings, he continued to use his Ministerial credit card for personal spending, including wine and holidays.

Sounds like he had entitlement issues. Good riddance, and hopefully he won't be back.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hands off our dial


Labour's Brendon Burns has responded to the Save Radio New Zealand campaign by creating an e-petition campaign, Hands off our dial. They're calling on the Minister of Broadcasting and the government to follow the Radio New Zealand Charter and ensure that Radio New Zealand "has the resources to continue providing services of the highest quality, which inform, entertain and enlighten the people of New Zealand".

You can sign up here.

And remember, if you're in Auckland, you can protest to save Radio New Zealand on Monday.

More good news for MMP

A UMR poll [PDF] on MMP has found 49% support for the current voting system, and only 42% support for changing it. As before, support for democracy was higher amongst women and young people, while support for change was concentrated amongst men, the old, and rural people. As before, FPP is the most preferred alternative, and no-one likes John Key's preferred Supplementary Member system.

The poll also asked about possible changes to MMP, and found wide support. UMR spins this as "majority support for either changing MMP or ditching it entirely"; a better way of looking at it is that there is majority support for keeping MMP (though possibly with a few tweaks), with only a third wanting change. The fact that the government has announced plans to review MMP and modify it if necessary. This means that people won't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

More stats on urgency

Over on Red Alert, Charles Chauvel has the headline stat on urgency for last year: 254 hours and 53 minutes out of 644 hours 1 minute, for a total of 39.5% of the House's time (compare this to just 10% of the time in the entire 48th Parliament).

But buried in the full stats (courtesy of the Parliamentary Library) is something even more interesting: 165 hours 6 minutes of that time was spent in committee - and 107 hours 48, nearly two thirds of the total, was spent under urgency. The committee stage is where the House considers possible amendments and final changes to a bill before passing it. And the government is systematically abusing urgency to limit that process. The result is insufficient scrutiny, and bad law.

This government has made a remarkable change in the way our Parliament makes law. And it is not one for the better. Instead, we're seeing laws rammed through under urgency in a deliberate effort to prevent debate and limit adverse media coverage - just like they did in the 90's. Old undemocratic habits die hard, I guess.

Not an honourable resignation

Phil Heatley seems to be attracting some favourable support for his resignation this morning, with a number of comments on blogs and elsewhere saying that he did the honourable thing by resigning over what seems to be "trivial" amounts of unlawful Ministerial expenses.

Bullshit. The honourable course of action for a Minister caught charging private expenses such as booze and family holidays to the taxpayer is not to resign - the honourable course of action is not to bloody do it in the first place.

If Heatley was an honourable man, he would have kept his spending within the rules, rather than flagrantly and consistently ignoring them and then claiming ignorance later. If he was an honourable man he would have stopped when first forced to repay money by Ministerial Services, rather than using his Ministerial credit card as a personal slush fund. Heatley did neither of these things. He is therefore not an honourable man. One mistake, I can accept. But this is an intentional pattern of abuse.

We should have neither pity nor mercy for those who abuse the public trust in this fashion. We certainly should not think better of such people for quitting. The fundamental truth behind this is that Heatley only resigned when he was caught. And if the Dominion-Post had not been diligent in OIAing Ministerial expenses, he'd still be buying booze and holidays, and getting us to pay for them.

Question Time

It seems the complaints yesterday worked - the government has, by leave, allowed a Question Time today. So, they'll be being held to account today (and Tolley will be given her usual opportunity to show she knows nothing about her portfolio).

Unfortunately, Phil Heatley resigned after the deadline for questions, so they won't be facing any questions about that until March 16. Convenient, neh?

Save Radio New Zealand


In addition to their Wellington protest, Save Radio New Zealand will also be protesting in Christchurch today against planned cuts to New Zealand's premier public broadcaster:

When: 12:15 - 13:00, Thursday, 25 February
Where: Radio New Zealand House, 51 Chester St West, Christchurch

They're also planning one in Auckland next week.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The government is afraid

They've used urgency to cancel Question Time.

Question Time is the primary day-to-day means of holding the government to account. While urgency normally overrides this, the recent practice (since at lest the mid 90's) has been to hold it anyway by leave. The government has chosen not to do this. As a result, they will not have to face a question time until March 16.

For a government facing regular daily grilling over its decision to raise GST, its destruction of democracy in Auckland and its plans to destroy it in Canterbury, its health cuts, not to mention the sheer incompetence of its floundering Education Minister, that probably looks like a good idea. But democracy is all about holding governments to account, and that is supposed to make them uncomfortable. The public of New Zealand are being robbed here of our right to see our government tested - and we should not accept it.

Protest tomorrow to save Radio New Zealand


Save Radio New Zealand, the facebook group which has grown to more than 10,000 members in a week, has organised a protest outside Parliament tomorrow:

When: 13:00 - 14:00, Thursday, 25 February
Where: Parliament buildings, Wellington

Be there, and show your support for public broadcasting in New Zealand.

Update: Added picture. BTW, any public servants in receipt of an email from their CEO advising them not to attend are most welcome to forward that email here.

Proroguing democracy in the Cooks

Its official: the Cook Islands Parliament will not meet until September. Which means a government which has lost the confidence of the House and therefore has no mandate to govern will be able to collect its salaries and perks and limp on by the simple expedient of proroguing democracy.

This is possible because the Cooks still effectively runs on the Royal Prerogative. Legal authority flows down from the monarch rather than up from the people, and Parliament is still seen in its C16th way as an adjunct to the government's will rather than as the true source of legitimacy. Its a strong argument against such constitutional arrangements.

Fortunately, it can't happen here. The NZ Parliament is not at the beck and call of the Prime Minister, but sets its own timetable by motion every year. While a Prime Minister can advise the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament and delay its sitting, by convention that now requires the confidence of the House (as does calling elections). So a PM who loses confidence over the summer break cannot escape their democratic doom.

A fundamental difference of perspectives

Yesterday in Question Time, during a question over irrigation in Canterbury, John Key said the following:

Hon JOHN KEY: Yes, I do agree that there is pressure on the aquifers in the Canterbury region. The way to resolve that is potentially to build greater water storage, so that less pressure is on those aquifers, and less of the water that currently pours out to sea continues to do so.
Key (echoing Federated Farmers) sees water "pour[ing] out to sea" and sees money wasted. The rest of us see a river - a place to swim, play, fish, or just look at. You don't get a more fundamental difference of perspectives than this.

If Key had his way, there would be no rivers - all that water would be fed to cows and turned into milk, rather than being "wasted". This would destroy their environmental, recreational and amenity values. The benefits of this destruction would go directly to a handful of rich farmers, who would effectively be allowed to privatise a public resource. The rest of us would suffer a real and substantial loss as our water is effectively privatised for the benefit of a few.

This is why National wants to destroy Canterbury's democracy: to privatise its water for the benefit of his rich mates. We cannot let this happen. But if they take the vote of us, and remove the decision from the oversight of the people, what can we do about it?

No conflict of interest

Yesterday I attacked Foreign Minister Murray McCully for an apparent conflict of interest over his holding of mining shares. It turns out that the shares are worth $30, meaning that there is no conflict of interest. More importantly,

Mr McCully denied there was a conflict of interest because he had declared his shareholding in the register of pecuniary interests, and had not been present at any Cabinet discussions about mining.
So, even if there had been a serious amount of money on the line, McCully handled it properly by not being there. Good.

McCully no doubt feels hard done by by being questioned over a trivial amount of money. But he has only himself and his colleagues to blame. The MPs register of pecuniary interests does not include any details on the size of those interests, at the insistence of MPs. The result is that if something is listed, it is assumed to be significant. If MPs disclosed the value of interests, then the public would be better able to judge whether an interest is important or not. Transparency, as always, is the best solution. MPs would no doubt claim privacy, but that is more than outweighed by the public's right to honest government (and not just honest, but seen to be honest). Anyone who disagrees and wishes to engage in secret financial deals for their own aggrandisement simply should not be an MP.

(Yes, I know MPs disclose the value of interests to the registrar. But they are kept secret from the public. And the that is the fundamental problem: if it is secret, it cannot be trusted. Only full transparency lets us see that our MPs are above board).

Update: A source tells me that Ministers are routinely reminded that they can take the opportunity to rearrange their interests before the "as-at" date of 31 January each year. So it is not as if McCully wasn’t warned.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Urgency again

Last year, the government systematically abused urgency to rob members of Member's Days and ram through legislation without proper select committee scrutiny. And in just the second third week back, they're doing it again, calling urgency to push their ACC bill and other legislation through its remaining stages. They're not introducing bills in secret this time, or bypassing select committee - but they will eat Wednesday, with the result that there will be no member's day this week.

So, it wasn't a first-year aberration, after which things would settle down. Instead, the abuse of urgency is standard operating procedure for this government. That has to change - or we should change them.

Correction: Its Parliament's third week back; I was thrown by Key's opening statement leading to a week of nothing.

New kiwi blog

Policy Progress - a policy "think-site" devoted to developing and supporting progressive initiatives and ideas in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

The think-site idea is good, similar to the ideas behind the NZ Progressive Bills Project, but with a much broader focus. They'll be aiming to do three to four reports a year on policy issues. Its work programme isn't online yet, but will be up soon. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Cutting out our tongues

The government has released its proposed replacement for the hated s92A. Its better than the original, in that it provides for some judicial oversight - but it still has disconnection from the internet as a penalty.

That may not sound like much to old politicians - but we live in the 21st century. The internet is now a pervasive part of people's lives, and an essential means of participating in society. It is used for everything from staying in touch with friends and family to work to shopping to political organising to paying your bills and taxes. Without it, I wouldn't be able to do any of those things. Or write this blog.

In a modern, wired society, disconnection amounts to an active denial of citizenship. Its the same as cutting out our tongues. And that is not the sort of punishment any civilised society should be handing out. It should be voted down - and the corporate cronies who proposed it voted out.

A conflict of interest

The Standard has a major scoop this morning, revealing Foreign minister Murray McCully's conflict of interest over mining. McCully sits around the Cabinet table deciding on issues such as whether to mine on conservation land, and whether to boost subsidies for oil exploration. But according to the MPs’ Register of Pecuniary Interests [PDF] he owns shares in Widespread Portfolios, a self-described "mining sector venture capital investor" which funds mining companies such as Widespread Energy and Glass Earth. Both those companies - and therefore McCully - stand to profit handsomely from the government's rape and pillage policy.

The Cabinet Manual is very clear: Ministers must at all times conduct themselves in a manner "that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards". They must ensure that "no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty". Where a conflict of interest such as McCully's appears, they must at the least declare it and withdraw from all relevant Cabinet discussions (in the long-term, they should divest themselves of the relevant assets). There is no suggestion that McCully has done this. This is something that needs to be thoroughly investigated. We can not tolerate any suggestion that Cabinet Ministers are making decisions they stand to personally profit from. "What's good for me is good for the country" is not an acceptable attitude in a modern democracy.

The Standard also highlights a gap in Parliament's handling of pecuniary interests: 46 National and ACT MPs (and a fair few Labour ones) have trusts, which effectively hide assets and interests from the scrutiny of the public. And that is not good enough. MPs and Ministers must be seen to be above reproach. As with election funding, its time we busted open those trusts and had a look inside. And any MP who objects is simply unfit to hold their seat.


A special ballot for three member's bill was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Employment Relations (Workers’ Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill (Tau Henare)
  • Smart Meters (Consumer Choice) Bill (David Clendon)
  • Minimum Wage (Mitigation of Youth Unemployment) Amendment Bill (Roger Douglas)
Two of the bills have previously been covered in "In the ballot": Henare's bill here, and Clendon's bill here. Douglas's bill was new to the ballot this week, and restores discriminatory wages for young people. It will be interesting to see how the government responds to that - whether it keeps its promise and stays moderate, or lurches hard right.

The full list of bills is on Red Alert.

Drinking Liberally / the Rogers

Drinking Liberally is on again in Wellington next month - and this time they're teaming up with CAFCA and Gatt Watchdog to present the annual Roger Awards. The Roger is given for the worst transnational corporation operating in New Zealand, and in the past has been won by such upstanding corporate citizens as TransRail, Westpac Bank, and British American Tobacco. This years finalists include ANZ, BNZ, Infratil, Newmont, Rio Tinto Aluminium NZ, Rymans, Telecom, Transpacific and Westpac. The Business Round Table and Auckland City Council have been nominated for the accomplice award (the Prebble?)

When: 17;30, Thursday 11 March
Where: Southern Cross Bar, 39 Abel Smith Street, Wellington

Silencing the Atheist Bus Campaign

Last year, the Atheist Bus Campaign raised $20,000 in the space of a few days to stick the message "there's probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life" on the side of buses. Unfortunately, there's a problem: NZBus, which had previously accepted the advertisements, has suddenly changed its mind and refused to carry them after pre-emptive complaints from members of the public. The bigots have exercised a heckler's veto.

The problem for NZBus is that their behaviour is blatantly unlawful. The Human Rights Act 1993 makes it clear that religion, or its absence, is a prohibited ground of discrimination - making it illegal to discriminate on religious grounds in the provision of goods and services. Just as a shopkeeper can't refuse to sell their product (say, bread) to Maori, NZBus can't refuse to sell their product (advertising) to atheists.

NZBus clearly knows this - they've refused mediation through the Human Rights Commission. The Atheist Bus Campaign is now looking at taking them to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (let's hope they don't get Brian Neeson as a panel member, since they clearly won't get a fair hearing under him).

In the meantime, its worth remembering that NZBus receives millions of dollars in subsidies to run public transport services in Auckland, Wellington, the Hutt Valley and Whangarei. If you think its inappropriate for your rates to fund unlawful discrimination, perhaps you should raise this with your city councillor.

Monday, February 22, 2010

No justification for overthrowing democracy in Canterbury

On Friday, a government-appointed review team recommended that Environment Canterbury be replaced with a commission for three years in what would effectively be a farmer coup against Canterbury ratepayers. So what was their justification for this radical and undemocratic move?

Reading through the full report [PDF], its hard to find one. Environment Canterbury has unarguably failed to manage Canterbury's water resources effectively, in that it does not have proper planning documents and the consents process for large water projects is poorly managed (one might also view overallocation and the rivers filling with shit as a failure, but the review doesn't seem to - instead, they seem to think the failure is a failure of ECan to give dairy farmers as much water as they want). The review team thinks Canterbury's water allocation is an issue of national importance - so important it should be hived off under an unelected special-purpose board which could manage it "effectively" without being subject to democratic constraints. But even if you grant them that, that doesn't seem to be any reason to replace the rest of ECan with a Commission and deny Cantabrians the right to elect their own local government for three years.

Reading further, and the decision makes even less sense. The review team does not regard ECan as fundamentally dysfunctional, saying

with the exception of water, the council functions as an effective body (in some areas the Review Group considers ECan to be well ahead of most other local authorities)
And yet replacing the council with a commission is regarded as an advantage of the preferred option (and the destruction of local democracy is not regarded as any sort of disadvantage). Further on, it seems that ECan actually has a full water plan in the pipeline, the Natural Resources Regional Plan - but this won't be ready until August this year, which is "too long" to wait. But as the review notes, creating a special-purpose water board and replacing the council will require legislation - which means six months to a year for the full legislative process. In other words, the earliest a water board could be appointed and begin work is around the same time as ECan has completed it. And even if the government used urgency to ram such legislation through in a week, and staffed it with former National MPs appointed without interview in the manner of Brian Neeson, its difficult to see how such a body could formulate, consult on, and finalise a water management policy any quicker than ECan is scheduled to. In other words, the supposed "benefit" of overturning democracy - quick action - just isn't there.

So what's the real reason then? The review team gives it away when they accuse ECan of focusing too much on protecting the environment and having an "imbalance" between environmental, economic, social and cultural perspectives. But as they admit, there is no legislative requirement for such "balance" on regional councils, and ECan's environmental focus is largely driven by its voters. In the 2007 elections, 4 councillors were elected on a platform of opposing the dairy-driven Central Plains Water scheme, and other councillors (particularly in Christchurch) recognise that they need to protect Canterbury's waterways or face de-election. The review team clearly sees this sort of voter pressure for tougher environmental regulation as illegitimate, and something decisionmakers need to be insulated against so they will make the "right" (for farmers) decisions. I regard it as democracy in action. One of the core ideas of the RMA is that (within the bounds of national standards) communities get to set their own level of development and find their own balance between the environment and the economy. The people of Canterbury should be left to do just that.

A useful addition to the political vocabulary

Courtesy of Public Address' David Haywood: Gluesniffer: an advocate of ACT-style free-market policies:

Hide's forehead gleams with enthusiasm as he explains to me how the experience led to his political enlightenment. "Prior to regular sniffing, I'd thought that ACT's policies were crazy. They seemed to be the very opposite of what was needed to fix this country. But as soon as I started to sniff then it all began to make perfect sense. And the more I sniffed, the more sense it made."

Fired-up on solvents, Hide introduced himself to ACT leader, Sir Roger Douglas. "It turned out that Roger was a sniffer from way back," recalls Hide. "So, of course, he invited me to be president of the ACT party. Those were great days. Roger and I used to pass around a tube of Ados S4, and churn out policy as fast as we could type."

Read the rest here. It's the best sort of satire - absolutely ludicrous, yet scarily believable at the same time.

Meanwhile, now I'm wondering what the Commerce Commission has been sniffing...

Taking the government to task over Neeson

Labour is finally speaking up on the appointment of Brian Neeson to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, with state services spokesperson Grant Robertson criticising the appointment process:

"As Justice Minister, Simon Power agreed to a process where candidates for appointment to the Tribunal were interviewed. This happened for a number of candidates, but it is clear from the papers that have been released that Brian Neeson, Ken Shirley, Ravi Musuku, Wendy Gilchrist and Gavin Cook were suggested as members by Ministers late in the process, and did not go through the same process as others who had been nominated," Grant Robertson said.

"It is not unusual for Ministers to suggest nominees, but in this case it goes directly against the advice of the Chair of the Tribunal Royden Hindle. The papers note his view that "without interviews by an appropriately selected interview panel the process will not provide an opportunity to properly assess the candidates suitability and thus will fail to provide sufficient security that conflicts of interest and any other potentially adverse issues are identified.

"The papers go on to note Mr Hindle's view that "appointment of members without interview would be at odds with the practice of past years and with practice followed in appointing members to other Tribunals having less constitutionally significant powers."

Meanwhile, The Press has actually spoken to Neeson about his appointment, and has this lovely response:
Neeson said last night it was "fine" that he and the others had not been interviewed for the positions. "[It is] not [a problem] if you know the people who you are putting in those positions on their record."

He said it was "not quite right" that he had voted against protections for gay people. He would not elaborate further.

The first part is simply privilege in a nutshell. As for the second, I think Neeson's record speaks for itself. The man is a bigot, and completely unsuitable to be sitting on this sort of body. As I said earlier, appointing him to the HRRT is like appointing Taito Philip Field to an anti-corruption taskforce.

Simon Power has some serious questions to answer on why he appointed a totally unsuitable candidate to an important semi-judicial role without any interview (or even proper vetting). And hopefully we'll see those questions asked in Parliament this week.

Fiji: A call for democracy

Fiji's people have been fairly meek and accepting in the face of three years of military rule - but not any longer. On Friday, they submitted a petition to the military regime calling for the restoration of democracy and elections by the end of the year. It was backed by over 680,000 people - more than 80% of the country's population.

It will be interesting to see how the regime responds to this. With that level of mass opposition, its not as if they can arrest everyone (besides the obvious problem of numbers, the soldiers may not be willing to arrest their families). OTOH, unless the people are willing to turn their mass opposition into colour-revolution-style mass protests, then the regime may not in fact have to do anything.

New Fisk

An eventful, yet typical, day out with Our Man in Jerusalem

Friday, February 19, 2010

Australia does something about whaling

The Australian government has stepped up on whaling, telling Japan to stop its "scientific research" in the Southern Ocean or be taken to the International Court of Justice. Good. Meanwhile, I recall that last month, John Key got an easy headline by declaring that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War end Southern Ocean whaling. And since then, nothing. I guess the lesson is that Rudd acts, while Key just engages in cheap talk.

The cost of pollution

How much environmental damage do the world's largest companies cause? US$2.2 trillion, according to a draft UN report. That's the cost of their air pollution, water pollution, carbon, and deforestation - a cost being paid by the people of the world rather than those responsible for it. In other words, a direct environmental subsidy, which goes straight to their shareholders, and which amounts for about 30% of their total profits.

This cannot be allowed to continue. This is real damage, and it imposes costs on the public. Polluters, rather than the people, should pay those costs. And if this drives them under, then we are all better off as a result. Companies which are not "profitable" without massive hidden environmental subsidies were never profitable in the first place.

A farmer coup at Environment Canterbury

Last year, by legislation rammed through under urgency, the government established a dictatorship in Auckland. The decision-making powers of the elected councils and mayors were made subject to an unelected body appointed by the Minister in Wellington. The will of Aucklanders was ignored.

Now they want to go even further in Canterbury. Under the guise of fixing the dysfunctional regional council, they want it simply replaced by a special commission appointed by the Minister, with elections to follow in 2013. In other words, for an entire local government term, the people of Canterbury will be denied any say in about who sits on their regional council. Worse, when democracy is restored, the council's most important responsibility - water - will be taken away from them, given instead to a special-purpose commission. Its members will be - you guessed it - appointed by the Minister, accountable to Wellington, not Canterbury. So we have Fiji on the Rakaia. Lovely.

The government's excuse for this abrogation of democracy is that Environment Canterbury is not meeting statutory timeframes for handling resource consents, and that it has not solved the problem of water overallocation and pollution in Canterbury (where greedy farmers are sucking the rivers dry to make milk, and filling them with shit). But the solution to these problems is assistance and (if necessary) funding, not the abrogation of democracy. A fundamental principle of resource management law in this country is that local policies and plans are made by elected bodies accountable to local people. They must be consistent with central government plans, but beyond that, it is up to the elected councillors. And that is as it should be. The balance between environmental and development is a matter for each local community - not central government.

At this stage its worth highlighting that one of the reasons for Environment Canterbury's dysfunction is a split and increasing polarisation between pro-environment and pro-development councillors. These represent different constituencies (the former are mostly urban, the latter are mostly rural). National sides with the latter, and their solution effectively strips the vote from the former to unilaterally impose a solution in favour of the latter. In other words, what they are proposing is a farmer coup to control and pollute Canterbury's water resources, and impose unwanted water storage projects without democratic oversight or accountability. This cannot be allowed.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little the people of Christchurch can do about it - except to make it clear that if they are robbed of a vote for ECan this year, they will use their vote in 2011 to punish those responsible.

Its not terrorism unless you're Muslim

This morning, a man crashed a plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. He left behind a manifesto, an angry rant which made it clear his actions were based on libertarian / teabagger ideology.

US Law defines "terrorism" as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents". International law defines it as violent acts motivated by a political, religious or ideological cause carried out to coerce, intimidate or influence a government or population. This act meets either definition. But the White House is saying its not terrorism.

The message is clear: crazed right wingers who murder because they hate taxation aren't terrorists. Instead, you're only a terrorist if you're Muslim. Its a disgusting double-standard, and another example of US bigotry.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More proof that Brownlee lied

In the House today, Labour's Charles Chauvel took Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee to task over his lying to the public about not being influenced by L&M Mining in his decision to bully the Minister of Conservation to exclude an area over which L&M had an exploration permit from the Oteake Conservation Park. As part of that, Chauvel tabled in the House advice from Crown Minerals [PDF], which made it very clear that the pressure to change the boundaries came from L&M. The relevant section:

L & M has advised [Withheld under s9(2)(b)(ii) - commercial sensitivity] L & M is confident that it can attract significant investment to New Zealand resulting in the commercialisation of major projects bringing much needed investment, income and infrastructure development to the country.

While securing the necessary financial investment is an important factor, the successful development of the Hawkdun project is contingent on L & M gaining access to the entire lignite resource. The proposed reclassifying of the land that hosts the central portion of the deposit to conservation park status is potentially a significant investment barrier because of increased uncertainty (real and perceived) given that the new 'specially protected' designation should substantially influence the Minister of Conservation's consideration of any exploration or mining access arrangements.

Following this, Conservation Minister Tim Groser claimed that all the government's advice showed that L&M's project was highly unlikely to proceed. Which begs the question: why did they exclude the land for a project which they thought would never happen?

New Fisk

Britain's explanation is riddled with inconsistencies. It's time to come clean

Equal pay day: Time to take the government to the UN

In my previous post, I said that the government's wilful ignorance in the face of our 12% gender pay gap violated our international obligations. What are these obligations?

In 1981, the United Nations promulgated the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW committed its parties to eliminate discrimination against women "without delay". Article 11 requires parties to "take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment" and specifically to ensure

The right to equal remuneration, including benefits, and to equal treatment in respect of work of equal value
New Zealand became a party to CEDAW in 1985. Its been 25 years. In that time, the gender pay gap has narrowed, but not closed - and the present government seems to have simply given up on it.

This isn't good enough. Fortunately, there is a solution. In addition to ratifying CEAW, New Zealand is also a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [PDF], a side-treaty which allows the Convention to actually be enforced on its parties.

Complaints can be brought by individuals or groups of individuals, or by NGOs on their behalf. Complainants must have exhausted all domestic legal remedies - but there are no legal remedies to institutional arrangements which permit widespread discrimination, or to the government turning a blind eye to them. A complaint would be investigated by a UN committee of experts (specifically, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), and if successful would see New Zealand named and shamed before the international community, which would almost certainly force policy change.

Its time someone did this. Women have waited 25 years for pay equity - and that's long enough. The government clearly won't act unless a gun is held to its head. Its time the women of New Zealand did that, and exercised their legal right to seek a legal remedy under international law.

Support pay equity on equal pay day


Today is equal pay day, the day on which we draw attention to pay inequity and the gender pay gap. Currently, New Zealand women are paid around 12% less than men (their median wage is $17.50 / hour vs $20.00 for men) - an absolute disgrace in a modern democracy. And the government's response to this has been to disestablish its pay equity unit - akin to sticking its fingers in its ears and going "la la la I am not interested in gender discrimination".

This is not good enough. A government which actively ignores pervasive discrimination can only be regarded as complicit in it, in violation of both its international obligations and basic human decency. We expect much, much better from our government.

Time for a new national anthem

Hot on the heels of the Herald's campaign to change the flag, we also have a campaign to change the national anthem. Quite apart from sounding awful, "God defend New Zealand" does not reflect the realities of modern Aotearoa, where a growing number of us (over 40% at the last census) are godless. While it was adopted after a petition to Parliament in 1977, nowdays it would almost certainly be rejected on the grounds of religious favouritism.

This sort of religious exclusion fails to reflect kiwi values of tolerance and equality. It has to go (as does its co-anthem, the equally exclusive, as well as bigoted and undemocratic "God save the Queen"). The question is what we change it to. But by proposing change, Anthem for Everyone will hopefully open a space for new anthems to be proposed which better reflect modern New Zealand as a 21st century Pacific nation.

But a new flag and a new anthem aren't enough. We also need to change the name. Currently we're named after an English mis-spelling of a Dutch province. Instead, we should move into the 21st century and acknowledge our Maori heritage, and adopt "Aotearoa-New Zealand" instead.

You can follow the Anthem for Everyone campaign on Facebook here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fixing member's day

Last year Parliament had a persistent problem with Member's Day: certain MPs repeatedly delayed their bills in such a way as to prevent other bills from being balloted, while those bills were never debated (the government eating ballot days through urgency didn't help either). As a result, several times member's day simply ran out of business, with MPs debating only two bills before going home early.

(The government's coalition partners are prime culprits here, having two bills (on the foreshore and seabed and smacking) which they want to keep around as a perpetual hanging threat, but never actually debate)

So, today Parliament acted to prevent this, with Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee introducing a sessional order so that

where the member in whose name a member’s bill stands postpones the order of the day for its first reading for a second or subsequent time, on the members’ day on which the bill next becomes available for debate, it is set down for first reading after all other orders of the day for the first reading of members’ bills (Standing Order 71 to be read accordingly); that the number of orders of the day for the first readings of members’ bills that may be before the House at any one time be increased from four to six (Standing Order 272(1) and (4) to be read accordingly).
Which seems to mean that repeatedly delaying bills will mean a boost in the cap, and more bills drawn to compensate for the wasted slots. Which hopefully means we'll finally see some real member's day action soon.

WINZ rips off its clients

Frogbog has an interesting post about WINZ's failure to pay Temporary Additional Support. TAS is a last-ditch benefit, paid to people whose income is insufficient to meet their essential costs such as accommodation and disability support. It is therefore a vital part of the welfare safety net, protecting people from falling completely into poverty.

According to statistic obtained from WINZ by the Beneficiaries Advocacy Federation, 82,519 beneficiaries are listed on SWIFT (WINZ's computer system) as having insufficient income and therefore being eligible for TAS. But WINZ only pays 47,878 of them. The others - 34,641 people, more than 40% of the total - miss out.

This is absolutely unacceptable. WINZ's job is to make sure that everyone gets the assistance they are entitled to. And they are simply not doing it. And as a result, almost 35,000 of our most vulnerable citizens are left to fend for themselves.

Frog argues that Social Development Minister Paula Bennett should focus a little less on the few who are ripping off the system, and a little more on how the system rips off the many. I agree entirely.

New Fisk

Passport to the truth in Dubai remains secret

Reviewing MMP

Yesterday, the government released its plans for the upcoming referendum on MMP. yesterday, I focused on the questions and lack of spending limits. But one point I haven't highlighted is that if we vote to retain MMP, the system will be reviewed to see if there is any way it should be modified.

Good. As the Herald's John Armstrong points out,

the prospect of a "modified" MMP may be enough to sway those who are still ambivalent about the proportional voting system not to dump on it in the referendum which will be held with next year's election.
The problem is that the sorts of changes politicians and the public may want - an end to dual candidacy (or as they call it, "zombie" MPs), the removal of the "electorate lifeboat", or fewer list seats - are the sorts of changes which make the system worse, not better. Dual candidacy is necessary to allow small parties to contest electorates (and gain visibility by doing so); it also reflects the fact that list MPs are national, not parochial, that one electorate shouldn't have a veto on a candidate if they have national support. The electorate lifeboat boosts proportionality and provides some protection against the unfair and undemocratic 5% threshold; removing it would give us a less proportional, less democratic system. Fewer list seats means regular overhangs and a rapid breakdown of proportionality - again, producing a less democratic outcome (but one which favours the big parties).

MMP has problems, but these are not the solutions. Instead, we should be trying to make the system more democratic, by removing the 5% threshold, opening the list, and introducing preferential voting for electorate seats. The latter two would require a supermajority or referendum, and so probably beyond the scope of this review - but we can certainly do the former. And faced with results like 2008, when 137,500 New Zealanders were disenfranchised by an arbitrary threshold designed by the big parties to limit competition, it is long past time we did.

Brownlee lies about mining influence

Last June I blogged about how Minister of Energy Gerry Brownlee had bullied Minister of Conservation Tim Groser into excluding a lignite deposit from the Oteake Conservation Park. The Standard picked this up on Monday, pointing the finger at lignite and mining company L&M, and now it has hit the news, with Brownlee denying any outside influence:

However, Brownlee denied any pressure from L and M Mining.

"We had no representations from L and M Mining. I want to make that very, very clear. There was, however, a proposal to place ... 70,000ha into the Oteake Conservation Park. We made the decision to keep 200ha out on the basis that it may have significant mineral deposits, mainly lignite."

Brownlee said that decision was not made on the insistence of L and M Mining.

(Emphasis added)

Brownlee is lying. Here's a copy of L&M's submission to DoC on the park boundaries [PDF]. And here's the notes by DoC staff of their verbal submission to the hearing [PDF]. As can be seen, they were very keen on getting the park boundaries shifted so it wouldn't interfere with their future plans for mining and a coal-to-liquids plant. Crown Minerals also made a submission, which lobbied on their behalf. DoC briefings on the topic (29 August 2008 [PDF], 3 December 2008 [PDF]) were very clear that the pressure to shift the boundaries came from L&M (they were also very clear on the conservation value of the area in question). L&M very definitely did make representations - but these were unsuccessful until National came to power.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Industrial dairying violates crown leases

In Parliament today, Green co-leader Russel Norman asked:

How many hectares of land does the Government own in the Mackenzie Country, and has the Government given consent for any of this land to be converted to irrigated dairy farming?
It seems that much of the land which dairy polluters want to convert and irrigate for industrial dairying is held under a crown pastoral lease. Such leases require permission for any activity disturbing the soil or for any increase in stock numbers. The dairy polluters have apparently not applied for such permission. Permission is in the discretion of the Commissioner of Crown Lands, who must consult the Director-General of Conservation and consider
The desirability of protecting the inherent values of the land concerned (other than attributes and characteristics of a recreational value only), and in particular the inherent values of indigenous plants and animals, and natural ecosystems and landscapes
It is difficult to see how converting the MacKenzie country to an irrigated dairy farm could be consistent with that.

The upshot: this isn't just about resource consent, the government has a veto. And it will be on their shoulders if they refuse to exercise it to protect our environment.

Good riddance to racist rubbish

Washed up racist fish and chip shop owner Pauline Hanson is leaving Australia for Britain. Good riddance. At the same time, there's a beautiful irony in someone so opposed to immigration becoming an immigrant herself. But no doubt she'd claim that's "different" somehow.

Unfortunately she's coming here first, with plans to spend "a few months" in the South Island. I guess he thinks she'll fit right in there, though I'm hoping the people of Christchurch or wherever do their best to prove her wrong.

Election funding: "Reform" that isn't

The government has also released its proposals for electoral finance reform, and decided to do nothing much. There will be some minor tweaks - a clearer definition of election advertising, inflation indexing of spending limits, clarifying the use of Parliamentary Services funds - but they are dodging on the core issues of disclosure, parallel campaigning, and public funding. Justice Minister Simon Power claims this is due to a lack of public support - but as The Standard points out, tighter disclosure, spending limits on parallel campaigns, and public funding were all strongly supported by submitters. But I guess when Power says "public", he really means "the National Party".

And so we get "reform" that isn't. Parallel campaigners will be required to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend over $20,000 $12,000 - but won't have to tell us how much they are spending to try and buy our democracy. Parties will still be able to keep the identities of major donors secret. TV advertising will still be a self-fulfilling prophecy, where small parties are denied access to the airwaves. And parties will still be beholden to large donors, who will exact policy concessions from them in exchange for their support. There is one good thing: parties will now have to disclose their total donations in bands (something I suggested in my submission). But that's very small beer. Overall, the government's reform process has been a miserable failure and a complete waste of money.

The Cabinet paper for this farce can be read here [PDF].

Correction: Fixed third-party disclosure threshold.

MMP referendum: Good news and bad news

The government released its plans for the upcoming referendum on MMP today. The good news is that it will be a straight question of different voting systems, with no muddling of the issue by introducing the size of the House or the future of the Maori seats (and no chicken-strapping as they did in 1992 / 93 by running 120-seat MMP vs 100-seat FPP). Put like that, its difficult to see how MMP can lose; its undeniably superior to the other systems on offer, and without the temptation of fewer MPs, FPP just looks like a large-party gerrymander.

The bad news? There will be no spending limits. In 1993, Peter Shirtcliffe spent $1.5 million to try and buy the outcome of the original referendum. Cabinet has just given him permission to do so again - and he won't even have to say how much he is spending. Reading the Cabinet Paper [PDF], it seems that they diverged significantly from the proposals. Simon Power recommended they agree to either promoter statements only, promoter statements combined with registration and expense returns over a $40,000 threshold, or promoter statements, expense returns, and spending caps. Cabinet seems to have taken the middle option, lowered the disclosure threshold to $12,000, then dropped the disclosure requirement - so large advertisers will be required to register with the Electoral Commission, but will not have to tell us how much they have spent. That is not acceptable in a democracy. We're looking at a significant constitutional question here, on which some rather nasty people are going to try and buy the outcome. At the very least we should be able to find out how much that costs.

Correction: Edited to clarify spending limit (again). The initial decision was for $20,000, and this was subsequently lowered to $12,000.

Chauvel on energy policy

The annual Power and Electricity World Conference is happening in Auckland today. Normally the Energy Minister gives the opening speech to the audience of New Zealand's top energy and electricity-sector executives, but for some reason Gerry Brownlee has chickened out. So instead, they gave his slot to Labour's Charles Chauvel, who has made good use of it. In addition to criticising the government's lack of a plan for the energy sector (deregulation and leaving it all to the market isn't a plan, its an abrogation of responsibility), he has also taken the opportunity to signal Labour's direction in energy policy.

Some of this is expected: restore the New Zealand Energy Strategy and biofuels obligation, and tighten up the ETS to send a real market signal for the adoption of renewables. But there's also some solid new policy, such as:

  • gradually replacing all baseload thermal generation with geothermal, supplemented by wind and other renewables. We have the resources and the expertise to do this, and by focusing on geothermal, it neatly sidesteps any quibbling from electricity companies such as Genesis who do not believe in wind.
  • using ETS revenues to fund "complementary measures" (which means emissions reductions). Previously the government has been reluctant to do this because our neo-liberal policy community doesn't believe in complementary measures (plus Treasury hates any suggestion of revenue tagging).
  • a proper smart meter standard which gives domestic users access to lower tariffs when industrial usage is low.
This is good stuff, and it shows that Labour is still committed to a sustainable future - unlike National.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A question for the government

So, what are you going to do about unemployment then? Particularly the third of Maori and Pacific young people who can't find work?

Leaving it to the market is no solution - thats just leaving people on the scrapheap. We expect more than that. So again, what are you going to do?

Households and tax cuts

DPF criticises my post on the realities of income distribution in New Zealand (and how few will benefit from National's latest promise of tax cuts for the rich) as "all theory, no reality". Rather than talking about individuals, he'd prefer to shift the goalposts to talking about households:

So ignore the stupid stats and graphs about individual incomes. They are relevant to academic theory, rather than the real world. Household Family income is what affects most people.
So, what are the facts about household income? Information on income distribution within households is hard to come by. The tax system focuses on individuals, and so does not collect it, while studies on household income itself focus on the aggregate rather than who earns what (and usually use equivalised figures in order to draw conclusions about actual living standards to boot). But we can get some rough ballpark figures. According to IRD's 2008 income data [XLS], there were 296,640 paying the top tax rate, and a further 447,130 paying the middle rate (for a total of 743,770 paying the middle rate or above). This sets an upper bound on the number of households affected by National's proposed tax cuts, but in practice the actual number will be lower as some households will have more than one high-income earner.

According to the most recent Household Labour Force Survey, there were 1,426,000 households in New Zealand. So, at most, 20% of households will benefit from cuts to the top tax rate, and slightly over half - 52% - from cuts to the upper middle rate. Which sounds a lot better than the individual figures, but the fundamental reality is unchanged: cuts to the top rate are irrelevant to fully 80% of households. Cuts to the middle rate go further, but still leave around half the population out in the cold. Which is a long, long way from National's rhetoric of "everyone will be better off". For many of us, National's tax cuts are tax cuts for someone else.

But no doubt tomorrow DPF will be dismissing these unpleasant facts as "stupid stats... relevant to academic theory, rather than the real world" as well.

Support the campaign for MMP!

Next year, despite the lack of any public demand for it, we will be voting on the electoral system. While the public seems quite happy with MMP, big business isn't. Results which actually reflect the way people voted, permanent minority government, a need for consensus and compromise and consequent limit of government power - democracy, in other words - is seen as a barrier to "reform", which they want but the people don't. And so there will be a referendum, where they will try and buy the outcome, in order to give us a less democratic electoral system where politicians will be less accountable to us.

They have to be stopped. And so a group of people who support democracy have come together (or in many cases, rejoined) to campaign for MMP. At the moment, they're focused on ensuring a fair referendum, with an unbiased question and spending limits to prevent big business from buying the outcome (as they almost did last time). Later on they'll move on to serious campaigning. If you're interested, then you can sign up here. There are already regional groups in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin, Nelson, Palmerston North and Hamilton; hopefully Christchurch and other areas will be coming soon.

We can't take our democracy for granted. I'm old enough to remember the days of unrepresentative elections, when a few hundred voters in marginal seats determined the outcome, parties became government despite winning fewer votes than their rivals, and governments did what they liked, unconstrained by public opinion. I don't want to go back to them. If we want to keep our democracy, we need to speak up for it. So, sign up, and do your bit to defend MMP!

Just wrong

One of the recognised strengths of our democracy is our MPs' focus on constituency work. If you have a problem with a government department or service - a school or hospital, Housing NZ, WINZ, IRD etc - your MP can and will investigate it, advocate for you and sort it out for you to the best of their ability. They will do this regardless of whether you voted for them or not, because it is their job. Its both a vital means of ensuring that people get the services they require, and also a vital check on government to ensure it is acting lawfully. It requires the cooperation of government departments, but that has always been forthcoming.

At least, until now. Last week, Labour MP Ruth Dyson made a routine inquiry on behalf of a constituent to the Ministry of Education about why their child had lost special needs funding. The response?

"I have requested some guidance and the advice received confirmed the current process whereby operational issues raised at a local level by government MPs can be dealt with locally. On the other hand requests for information from non-government MPs have to go to the relevant Minister formally for a response."
(Emphasis added)

This is a gross politicisation of the public service, and a blatant attempt to prevent non-government MPs from doing their jobs and effectively representing their constituents. And that is just wrong. This is not how politics is done in New Zealand (in fact, it smells more like Baltimore), and National should be deeply ashamed that they have introduced this sort of corruption into our political culture.

New Fisk

Arieli is a man with a plan. The trouble is, it's a map of Israel

What part of "court ruling" do they not understand?

Last week, the UK Court of Appeal ordered the release of part of a ruling which implicated MI5 in torture. In doing so, one of the judges strongly criticised MI5 as not respecting human rights, of lying to Parliament, and of having a "culture of suppression" which made their assurances (and those of other government departments where those departments relied upon MI5) completely untrustworthy - a criticism the government tried to have suppressed.

The UK government's response? To accuse the media of publishing "groundless accusations" and "ludicrous lies".

But these aren't the media's claims - they're the ruling of the UK's second highest court. And if the government believes they are "groundless", it has a clear course of action: appeal it to the UK Supreme Court. Instead, they have again chosen to slander the courts in the media - thus making it clear to all that they are simply lawless thugs.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Show your support for a living wage today

Unite is holding a series of protests around the country today in support of their campaign for a $15 / hour minimum wage:

  • Whangarei: outside Phil Heatley's office, cnr Deveron Street and Hatea Drive, 12:00 - 13:00;
  • Auckland Central: Nicky Kay's Office, 82 College Hill, Freemans Bay, 12:30 - 14:00
  • Waitakere: Paula Bennett's Office, 429 Great North Road, Henderson, 12 noon
  • Hamilton East: National MP David Bennett, 510 Grey Street (Corner Grey and Bridge Streets) at 12 noon
  • Whanganui: assemble at Majestic Square, 11:30am
  • Palmerston North: The Square, opposite High Flyers, 11am
  • Wellington: assemble at Cenotaph for picket of Parliament, 10 am
  • Nelson: Nelson Markets, Montgomery Sq, Protesting @ Nick4Nelson Caravan, 10:30am
  • Christchurch: outside Nicky Wagner's Christchurch Office, 189 Montreal St (opposite South City Mall), 10am - 12 noon
  • Oamaru: Jacqui Dean's office, 42 Thames St, Oamaru, 11:15 - 15:15
  • Dunedin: March and Picket of National Office, leaves the Octagon 1.30pm
There's a Facebook event page here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An obscene lack of accountability in the supercity

The Herald this morning reports on the government's plans to keep key decisions on governance of the Auckland supercity out of the public eye, by devolving power to a host of Council-Controlled Organisations (CCOs). One example of this is the proposed Auckland Transport Agency:

The Auckland Council will set the strategic direction of the "council-controlled organisation", but Auckland Transport will be responsible for transport matters right down to the location of bus stops and footpaths.

It will be run by between six and eight directors, two of whom can be members of the Auckland Council. The New Zealand Transport Agency can also appointed one non-voting director.

Local Government Minister Rodney Hide and Transport Minister Steven Joyce will appoint the initial directors.

This is simply obscene. As Brian Rudman points out, Auckland Transport will spend about half of Auckland's annual budget. That sort of spending requires serious accountability and the ability for the public to oversee exactly what is happening at every stage of the process. Instead, meetings will happen behind closed doors, with the public shut out and only able to access decisions after the fact through the LGOIMA.

The core problem here is the decision to devolve key local government functions - roads, sewage, even parks - to undemocratic, unelected, and unaccountable CCOs. And the result of this will be to reduce Auckland's local government to a DHB-like joke: elected, accountable, but with no actual power to do anything the public asks of them. In other words, a blame sink for decisions really taken by central government and imposed by Ministerial appointees.

This is no way to run a city. Auckland belongs to Aucklanders, and it should be run by and for them, not by and for a Minister in Wellington.

Neeson's shoddy vetting

In his Cabinet paper on the appointment of Brian Neeson and others to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, Justice Minister Simon Power confirms that

an appropriate process has been followed in selecting the proposed appointees, in terms of the SSC appointment guidelines
Those guidelines recommend that departments ask candidates about potential conflicts of interest and conduct appropriate due diligence checks, by (for example) searching the Companies Office website for directorships. So, did Ministry of Justice staff do this?

Apparently not. Neeson's standardised curriculum vitae form in the Cabinet Paper lists his private and/or voluntary sector board appointments held as "None indicated". Yet a search of the companies office website reveals that he is a director of two companies: Apollo Property Investment Limited (currently in the process of being deregistered), and B K & V S Neeson Limited. There's no suggestion that either of these would constitute a conflict of interest with the HRRT - but the fact that he did not bother to mention them, when other candidates made a much fuller disclosure, and that the Department apparently did not check, is not a good look.

Exclusive: The magical appointment of Brian Neeson

Back in December, Justice Minister Simon Power appointed a number of National party cronies to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Among them was Brian Neeson, a former National MP and outright bigot. I was curious about the process used to make these appointments, so I asked. The response arrived today, and its more interesting for what it doesn't say than for what it does.

The documents show a fairly standard appointments process. Nominations were sought from interested bodies such as the New Zealand Law Society, Ministry of Women's Affairs, TPK, and the government caucus and coalition partners. The people proposed were vetted, shortlisted, and interviewed by a panel which included the HRRT chair. A July 2009 briefing paper on the appointments noted that

It is the Chair's view that without interviews by an appropriately selected interview panel, the process will not provide an opportunity to properly assess the candidates' suitability, and thus will fail to provide sufficient security that conflicts of interest and any other potentially adverse issues are identified. the Chair considers it to be essential that any new member must demonstrate the ability to be able to contribute meaningfully to the decision-making process in cases that are often complex, and that the required skills cannot be evaluated without interview. He has also expressed concern that the suggested appointment of members without interview would be at odds with the practice of past years, and with practice followed in appointing members to other Tribunals having less constitutionally significant powers.
That last bit is prescient, because that robust interview process was seemingly never applied to Neeson or his fellow cronies. The panel recommended the appointment of five candidates (one of whom later dropped out) - and the cronies were added to their list by the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee:
At a recent meeting of the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee, the Committee identified Mr Brian Neeson, Mr Ken Shirley, Ms Wendy Gilchrist and Pastor Ravi Musuku as candidates suitable for appointment...
(Briefing to the Minister of Justice on Human Rights Review Tribunal Appointments, 15 September 2009).

Wendy Gilchrist was nominated by Minister of Agriculture David Carter in a letter to the Minister of Justice. There is no indication of where the other names came from (a followup OIA has been lodged with the Committee). Former HRRT member Gavin Cook was subsequently nominated by Minister of Immigration Jonathan Coleman.

Following this, there is no indication that these nominees were interviewed or subjected to any real scrutiny. This seems to be borne out by the Cabinet Paper on the appointments (Human Rights Review Tribunal - Panel Members, APH (09) 210), which explicitly contrasts the process for the two groups of candidates:

11. I invited nominations from the Government Caucus and leaders of the coalition partners. The Ministry of Justice also approached the New Zealand Law Society, the Ministry of Maori Affairs, the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Office of Disability Issues for nominations. An initial assessment of the candidates knowledge and experience was carried out by Ministry of Justice officials, in consultation with the Chairperson of the Tribunal, and an interview process followed.

12. Ministers nominated Ms Wendy Gilchrist, Pastor Ravi Musuku, Mr Brian Neeson, Me Ken Shirley, and Mr Gavin Cook.

Just before that, Power formally confirms that "an appropriate process has been followed in selecting the proposed appointees, in terms of the SSC appointment guidelines". Those guidelines require [PDF] that before shortlisting,
Candidates [are] assessed against competencies/skills required and for conflicts etc. Process documented & a shortlist agreed with selection panel.
There is no evidence beyond a standardised curriculum vitae form that this was done for the appointments suggested by Ministers. There is none of the required documentation of the process, no mention of any interviews, and no mention of any results before the appointments are finalised. The idea that it was in fact done, but the result was never formally reported to the Minister making the appointment, is simply unbelievable. The only conclusion then is that it was never done. Whichever way you look at it, this is no way to make an appointment, particularly to a semi-constitutional body such as the HRRT.

There is no suggestion that Mr Neeson's record of bigotry and support for discrimination during his time as an MP was ever raised during the process, let alone regarded as potentially incompatible with the position.

Neeson will be paid $475 a day, for an estimated 20 - 30 days of work a year, for the next five years, for a job he was never properly interviewed and which he is eminently unsuitable for. And that is pure cronyism.

Brownlee steals a Member's Day

Parliament resumed this week, which means I have stuff to blog about again. One of the things I'm particularly looking forward to blogging about are Member's Days, since that's where a lot of the interesting legislative action is. These happen every second sitting Wednesday, so I was looking forward to one next week.

Unfortunately, it won't be happening. The reason why is contained in Brownlee's business statement this week:

When the House resumes on Tuesday 16 February, it is the Governments intention to make progress on the debate on the Prime Minister’s statement and other Bills on the order paper. It is anticipated that the debate on the Prime Minister’s statement will conclude on Wednesday 17 February.
I was wondering why the House suspended debate on the PM's statement on Wednesday and went on to normal business, and now I know: it overrides all other business on the Order paper, and so delaying it until Wednesday effectively eats Member's Day. Its just another example of how this government is abusing the Parliamentary process...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Some facts on income distribution in New Zealand

Yesterday in a post about the ODT's airbrushing the many out of the discussion on tax policy, I said this:

The ODT can get away with this because the facts on income distribution in New Zealand aren't widely known. As a result, most people can think of themselves as "middle income earners" when they are anything but. Maybe that's something we on the left need to do something about.
The Standard has followed up on the same point, with a useful graph, reproduced below:

The scale isn't the best, but you can at least see roughly where you stand. Here's some rough deciles (using the IRD's 2008 income distribution data [XLS]; differences in decile size are due to the data being banded. Spikes around deciles 3 and 4 make this rather difficult, but the decile 4-5 boundary is in about the right place overall):

Decile# of peopleIncome range
1350,720Under $3,000
2355,940$3,000 - $10,000
3402,040$10,000 - $14,000
4236,130$14,000 - $17,000
5357,060$17,000 - $23,000
6360,680$23,000 - $32,000
7338,530$32,000 - $40,000
8325,230$40,000 - $50,000
9353,430$50,000 - $67,000
10335,070Over $67,000
Top 5%168,140Over $87,000
Top 1%33,940Over $165,000

So, the median income is around the decile 5 boundary of $23,000 a year. But the median income for wage and salary earners for that year was $729 a week, or $37,908 a year, putting a median wage earner squarely in decile 7. MPs BTW earn $131,000 a year plus expenses (and more if they have a select committee chair or a party position), putting them in the top 1.7% of income earners; Cabinet Ministers earn $243,700, placing them in the top 0.4%.

Comparing this distribution to the tax scale, of the 3,414,830 taxpayers:

  • 1,108,700 of them (32.5%) have incomes less than $14,000 a year, and so pay only the bottom tax rate of 12.5%;
  • A further 1,562,360 (45.8%) have incomes between $14,000 and $48,000, and so pay the lower middle tax rate of 21% on some of their income;
  • 447,130 (13.1%) have incomes between $48,000 and $70,000, and so pay the middle rate of 33% on some of their income;
  • Only 296,640 (8.7%) have incomes over $70,000 and so pay the top tax rate.

So, 78% of us don't even pay the middle tax rate, and the top tax rate is utterly irrelevant to 91% of the population. Remember that next time the government or the media talk about "middle-income" tax cuts - they're not talking about you, or most of New Zealand. Instead, they're only talking about themselves.

New Fisk

State of denial: Robert Fisk searches for peace in Israel

The Robin Hood tax

UK comedy director Richard Curtis - partly responsible for the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign - has teamed up with Bill Nighy to promote a Tobin Tax, a tax on financial speculation. While set at a very low rate - 0.05% of each transaction - due to the enormous volume of speculative transactions, it could conceivably raise hundreds of billions of pounds a year to support public services and global development, while curbing a parasitical and economically damaging activity. Plus, it sticks it to the bankers, whose clever little schemes to move money round in circles almost destroyed the global economy.

This is a fundamentally good idea, and I'd love to see it implemented. if you'd like to learn more, go to

The evidence finally comes out

What sort of government would try and suppress evidence of crimes of torture on spurious grounds of "national security"? The British government, that's who. 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. The British security services were deeply involved in this process, supplying questions to the torturers and even directly questioning him after a torture session in Pakistan. As a result, at least one MI5 agent is now facing prosecution, and more will hopefully follow. But key evidence in the case has been suppressed, ostensibly on grounds of "national security".

Until today. Last night, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the evidence must be released, and that deference to the executive in matters of national security did not extend to covering up criminal wrongdoing. Along the way, they reserved special criticism for the government's position:

In damning references to claims made by Miliband and his lawyers, and stressing the importance of the media in supporting the principle of open justice, they said the case raised issues of "fundamental importance", of "democratic accountability and ultimately the rule of law itself".

Publication of the material Miliband wanted to suppress was "compelling", Judge said, since they concerned the involvement of wrongdoing by agents of the state in the "abhorrent practice of torture". The material helped to "vindicate Mr Mohamed's assertion that UK authorities had been involved in and facilitated the ill- treatment and torture to which he was subjected while under the control of USA authorities".

That's well-deserved - the Foreign Secretary had fabricated a US threat to withdraw intelligence cooperation in order to convince the High Court to back secrecy while his minions claimed that an independent judiciary was a threat to national security; previously, an MI5 witness had committed outright perjury. But it's the censored version. It turns out that the government's lawyer - in violation of 400 years of legal protocol - had secretly written to the judge asking him to tone down his draft judgement, which found that the security services had a culture which did not respect human rights and which supported torture, that they had deliberately lied to Parliament, and that their internal "culture of suppression" was "such as to undermine any UK government assurances based on the Service's information and advice". Which is just another example of the lawless culture pervading the UK government.

As for the suppressed evidence itself, it shows that MI5 was aware that Mohamed was subjected to continuous sleep deprivation and threats of further disappearance by US authorities, which had caused significant mental stress and suffering. In the court's eyes, this constituted "at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities". And to keep that secret, the UK government has lied, perverted the course of justice, committed perjury, and violated basic legal norms. I am very glad they have failed.