Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Canterbury is now a dictatorship

Earlier tonight, the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill became law. Canterbury is now a dictatorship, its people stripped of their right to vote in regional council elections, its water resources set to be parcelled out to the government's farmer mates so they can turn it into milk and cowpiss. And Canterbury ratepayers will be paying for it all. Taxation without representation? That's the next four years in Canterbury.

While our shoddy electoral finance laws mean there aren't any formal records, it is likely that Canterbury farmers gave tens of thousands of dollars to the National Party last election. I'd say they just got a hefty return on their investment. And we'll be paying the environmental price of this dirty deal for decades to come.

Finally, I am deeply disturbed that the Bill of Rights Act does not protect the right to vote in local elections, in violation of the ICCPR. Hopefully some politician will be doing something about that soon. This year is the twentieth anniversary of the BORA, and while it has served us well, its time to look at closing some of the gaps in it. Fixing this one would be a good start.


In Question Time today, Green co-leader Russel Norman asked the Prime Minster whether any Cabinet Ministers had declared a conflict of interest when discussing the Canterbury dictatorship bill. Key replied that, as far as he could recall, none had. This is interesting because as Norman proceeded to point out, Agriculture Minister David Carter owns a farm in the Hurunui District with an irrigation consent. The bill not only replaces ECan with an unelected commission in order to give away Canterbury's water to farmers, it also includes specific provisions regarding the current application for a Water COnservation Order on the Hurunui River which remove it from the jurisdiction of the Environment Court and give it to the government-appointed dictators to decide. If the WCO is refused, a major irrigation plan could proceed, and Carter could make a lot of money.

Key's flustered response to all of this was that "something that might happen does not actually raise a conflict of interest until it does happen". Bullshit. It is well-established that there must merely be a reasonable prospect of gain or loss. And any reasonable person would see that replacing ECan with a dictatorship tasked with refusing the WCO and giving away the water to farmers would creater such a reasonable prospect.

Just a few months ago, the Auditor-General found that four ECan councillors had a conflict of interest over water issues because they held irrigation consents. The same must surely apply to the Minister. As someone who would profit from irrigation in the Hurunui District, he must recuse himself from any discussion of any measure which might boost it in that region or more widely. Anything less is not just dishonourable - it is corrupt.

A stupid, empty threat

John Key apparently threatened that if the Maori Party don't like National's foreshore and seabed proposals, the present Act will remain in place. It's a stupid, empty threat. To point out the obvious, National's polling is only going to go down, and they are only 2% and a coalition realignment away from opposition. Which means that if Key fails to satisfy the Maori Party, then he won't be Prime Minister after the next election. It really is that simple.

Foreshore & Seabed v2.0

Last year, a Ministerial Review into the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 concluded that the Act was "simply wrong in principle and approach", that it had discriminated against Maori by stripping them of their right to their day in court, that it was based on foreign legal principles and that the thresholds it set for proving customary ownership were too high. Today, the government released its proposal [PDF] in response to that review. The headline is that the Act will be repealed. But the regime which replaces it looks a lot like... the Foreshore and Seabed Act!

There are changes. Rather than being owned by the crown, the foreshore and seabed will be placed in the public domain. Unexplored customary title extinguished in 2004 will be restored. Iwi and hapu will be able to go to court to prove their customary title.

But there's a big similarity: the courts will not be able to award ownership. Instead, claimants who prove their customary title will be given a package of rights, rather than fee simple. Its a much better package, including an absolute veto power over coastal activities in the relevant area, just as a landowner would have. But its not ownership. This isn't really a surprise - as I've noted before, the original Act was likely where we would have ended up anyway if a solution had been negotiated in good faith rather than imposed unilaterally to pander to a backlash by entitled Pakeha rednecks. But presenting Maori with essentially the same solution with a few symbolic cosmetic changes may not be enough to satisfy those like Hone Harawira to whom legislated Maori ownership has become a touchstone.

But Hone Harawira isn't the whole of Maoridom, and if the majority of iwi (and the Maori Party) are happy with this framework and satisfied with the symbolic repeal of the insult of 2004, Parliament should pass the bill. And that includes Labour. While people like Chris Trotter have been urging them to pull a Brash and cynically pander to racists to win power, its worth remembering the response of Jim Bolger to such suggestions: that he'd have to govern the country in the morning.

Frantic over nothing

Over in the UK, the media, the politicians, and the public service are frantic over something we in New Zealand take for granted: the prospect of a hung Parliament. The next election may see no party holding an outright majority, leading to uncertainty about who will form the next government. And this could lead to a constitutional crisis, a run on the pound, The End Of The World As We Know It.

Bullshit. As we've seen in 15 years of proportional representation in New Zealand, it leads to none of those things. We haven't elected a government with an outright majority since the introduction of MMP. But then, we have a well-developed caretaker convention which is activated every election, and we spent some time developing conventions around government appointment which remove the uncertainty from the process (short version: public statements by party leaders determine confidence. If none happen, then Parliament sits and votes on it, and the chips fall where they may. But we've never got to that stage yet, because its always been clear enough who had the confidence of the House). The UK doesn't (hence the running around like headless chickens). The "Mother of Parliaments" is so used to autocratic rule that its institutions can't handle the alternative. Another example of how their democratic cloak is more than a little threadbare.

As for that alternative - and the cooperation, consultation, and policy moderation it brings - it probably looks exactly like TEOTWAWKI to FPP-politicians champing at the bit for their turn at absolute power. But the people of the UK seem quite keen on it. Which raises the question: why doesn't Parliament give them what they want, a fair electoral system producing a hung parliament and coalition or minority government as the norm rather than the exception? Or would that be too democratic for the UK's tastes?

No members day again

At the moment the House is sitting under urgency to strip 560,000 Cantabrians of their vote and impose a dictatorship to give away the region's water to farmers. Which means that once again, there is no Member's Day. I've made this point before, but it needs to be said again: the National-ACT government has a systematic policy of abusing urgency to both prevent scrutiny and debate of controversial legislation, and to prevent Parliament from advancing any alternatives to government policy. This is deeply undemocratic, but par for the course from National. They won't permit democracy in Auckland, they won't permit it in Canterbury, and they won't permit it in Parliament.

Nick Smith doesn't trust democracy

In an interview with the Timaru Herald yesterday, Environment Minister Nick Smith admitted the real reason behind his push to deprive Cantabrians of the vote: he doesn't trust democracy:

Dr Smith said part of the reason he replaced the council with commissioners – rather than appointing a commissioner adviser to oversee water management issues, as ECan suggested – was he was wary of the outcome of the October elections.

"ECan put forward a negotiated solution, but one of the downsides is that there was no guarantee the commissioner-adviser would have the same powers come October," he said.

(Emphasis added)

And the reason for that is that the "wrong" people might be elected. People who want to protect Canterbury's rivers rather than give all the water to farmers and use the beds as open sewers for their effluent. Armed with a fresh democratic mandate, they might not be willing to cooperate with a government appointee with the opposite goals.

Last election Christchurch elected four councillors on just that platform - putting the rest of the council on notice that they needed to start caring about water or face de-election. Its no coincidence that ECan has got stricter about water use since then - it is responding to the will of its voters. And that is what Nick Smith wants to avoid.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Canterbury dictatorship bill

Is up here. The Regulatory Impact Statement is here. It makes for interesting reading. Just at the beginning:

There are significant risks associated with the Review Group’s recommendation to temporarily suspend planned triennial elections for regional councillors (scheduled for October 2010) and to transfer the functions and responsibilities of Environment Canterbury’s (ECan) elected councillors to government-appointed commissioners until elections in 2013 at the latest. Elections are a right and privilege of any citizen in New Zealand. The suspension of such a right should only be considered in exceptional circumstances. Such a decision is correct to sit with Parliament.

The Minister for the Environment intends to progress the proposed legislation under Urgency. This, alongside the proposal to limit appeal rights on decisions/recommendations made by commissioners on Canterbury’s Natural Resources Regional Plan and on water conservation orders in the region potentially alienates Canterbury rate payers and the general public from decisions made on natural resources in the Canterbury region. This raises equity and access to justice issues.

That's a taste; there's more further down. But MfE doesn't exactly sound keen.

Key lied about mining donations

A friend sent me an article from the West Coast Times [PDF], dated 8 June 2007, about a pre-election trip by John Key to the west Coast, which reveals that National received at least one donation from the mining industry in the last election cycle. While on the coast, Key attended a fundraising dinner. The article notes:

The fundraiser dinner attracted 167 people who had paid $50 each to attend and further funds were being raised with the raffling of a $1000 gold nugget donated by Birchfields Ross Mining.
(Emphasis added).

So, when John Key said at his press conference the other day that he didn't know whether National received donations from the mining industry before the last election, because he didn't handle that stuff, he was lying. A mining company made a donation (and a valuable raffle prize is a donation), and Key was there when National received the benefit from it.

Which raises two questions: who else in the mining industry gave money to National? And is Birchfields Ross wanting to dig in national parks? Perhaps some journalists might want to start asking some questions, rather than focusing on trivial scandals about people pissing on trees?

And this, BTW, is why parties should be forced to disclose all donations.

DPF doesn't care about democracy

A couple of years ago, DPF went apeshit about the then-Labour government's Electoral Finance Act. While intended to protect democracy from the unequal influence of the rich, DPF saw it as an attack on democracy. So he vented online, raised funds, even launched billboards comparing the government to Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-Il, and Frank Bainimarama. So you'd think that when the present government announced plans to sack an elected council and strip 560,000 people of their vote in regional council elections for four years, as a "defender of democracy", he'd be similarly outraged about it, right?

Yeah, right. He supports it. Taking people's votes off them is fine if you take them from people who vote the "wrong" way.

So much for DPF's commitment to democracy.

A gaping hole in the BORA

This afternoon, the government plans to put the House into urgency to sack Environment Canterbury and deny Cantabrians the right to elect their regional council until 2013. As a result, 560,000 people will be deprived of the right to vote. So you would expect that our core human rights document, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, would have something to say about it, right?

Wrong. While the BORA affirms electoral rights, it only protects the right to vote in national elections:

Every New Zealand citizen who is of or over the age of 18 years—
(a) Has the right to vote in genuine periodic elections of members of the House of Representatives, which elections shall be by equal suffrage and by secret ballot; and
(b) Is qualified for membership of the House of Representatives.
So, the government can take your local body vote away from you without even having to face a wagging finger from the Attorney-General.

But while the BORA only protects the right to vote at a national level, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which it is supposed to implement, is stronger. Article 25 of the ICCPR affirms that

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

The UN Human Rights Committee interprets the right to participate in public affairs as
cover[ing] all aspects of public administration, and the formulation and implementation of policy at international, national, regional and local levels.
(Emphasis added). The government's move violates democratic principles, and violates international law. It will put us in direct contravention of a core UN human rights instrument which we claim to uphold, and will attract international criticism as a result. And it will strip us of any basis to complain about undemocratic regimes which deny their own people the vote. After all, we'll be doing that too, now. But hey, anything to give the farmers "their" water, right?

This is the sort of thing the BORA was designed to stop. It doesn't. Time for an amendment.

Fiji on the Rakaia

The Press has the bad news: Canterbury will become a dictatorship:

The Press understands Environment Canterbury councillors will be replaced, following a decision made during a telephone conference with ministers in Wellington this morning.

ECan councillors were meeting at their Kilmore Street offices at 10.30am for a telephone conference with Environment Minister Nick Smith and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide.

Former National deputy prime minister Wyatt Creech's report into failings at ECan recommended sacking its 14 elected councillors and replacing them with appointed commissioners.

If the government sticks to the report, then the people of Canterbury will not be allowed a vote over who controls their water until 2013. In the meantime, a government crony will give away those resources to National's farmer-supporters, allowing the aquifers to be sucked dry and the rivers to be filled with shit. They will make out like bandits from selling environmentally unsustainable milk; we will be left to drink cowpiss and swim in cowshit.

I've just heard that the House will be put into urgency this afternoon to pass the required legislation. All three stages, with no select committee hearing. Democracy in Canterbury will be gone by 10pm tonight. If you live in Christchurch, you might want to speak up about that outside your local National MP's electorate office while you still have the chance.

Reminder: Anti-mining protest today in Wellington

2Precious2Mine is holding a protest against mining on schedule 4 land at Parliament today:

When: 12.30-1.30pm, Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Where: Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

Be there, and show your disgust at National's plans to despoil the most sensitive parts of our environment for the profit of their foreign big-business mates.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Leave medical decisions to clinicians

On Q&A on Sunday morning, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett claimed that the government's plans to work-test sickness beneficiaries would actually be good for sick people:

Bennett has a message for some on the sickness benefit: working can make you well.

"People with low level depression and low level mental illness are often better off in work and it's actually a road to recovery for them it actually helps them get better," she says.

That may very well be the case in some cases. But it's a medical decision, and one which should therefore be made by patients and their clinicians. Imposing a bureaucratized, one-size-fits-all solution by slashing benefits is simply a recipe for disaster. And applying it to the clinically depressed means that we will be counting the cost in suicides.

Reality trumps satire again

Over in the UK, the Tories have released their latest election ads: a series of attacks on Gordon Brown's record in government, including the following:

Yes, that's right: the party of Thatcher, who reversed the postwar trend of increasing equality and widened the gap between rich and poor to a canyon [PDF], are attacking Labour for its failure to fix the problem they created. What next? Something like this?

Reality has trumped satire yet again.

"A postcard on Eden Park"

That's how Gerry Brownlee described the impact of mining on the conservation estate. But thanks to Coromandel Watchdog, we have the reality:

(Click for larger version).

We are talking holes the size of entire suburbs here, with mountains of toxic waste. This is National's vision for the conservation estate. Don't let them do it. Sign the petition [PDF] and submit on the discussion paper today.

Update: Added link to big version.

New Fisk

On the streets of Pakistan, it's as if the sun hasn't set on the Raj

Reported back

On Friday, the Law and Order Committee reported back [PDF] on the government's Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill. As expected, they've rubberstamped the government's changes to the bill's "three strikes" regime, reducing the third strike penalty from mandatory life imprisonment with a 25-year non-parole period to the maximum for that offence (which may range from 7 years to life) without parole, but also reducing the threshold for a "strike" from the imposition of a sentence of five years imprisonment to mere conviction for a specified offence (meaning that more people will be subjected to the regime, for far less severe offending). Like I said, Draco would be proud.

When the bill was initially introduced, the Attorney-General reported to the House [PDF] that it was inconsistent with the BORA ban on disproportionately severe treatment or punishment:

Absent manifest injustice, the sentencing court is obliged to impose a sentence on a qualifying offender that may be significantly more severe than that imposed on a more culpable, but non-qualifying, offender. As a result, the scheme does not ensure a consistently rational connection between the offence and the penalty.
That still applies. This bill will subject offenders to disproportionate sentences which bear no relation to their actual degree of culpability. And that is simply wrong. The third-strike penalty for manslaughter is a perfect example of this: judges will be required to impose a life sentence with a 20-year minimum non-parole period, unless that would be "manifestly unjust", in which case they are required to impose a 10-year non-parole period. At the low-end, manslaughter gets a term of community service. Receiving even ten years for an offence which would ordinarily attract community service would seem to be the very definition of "manifest injustice" - and our courts will be required to commit it. That's the extreme example, in that manslaughter has a floor on its sentence even in cases of manifest injustice, but its the same story for other offences. Offending which would normally attract a sentence of one year will instead receive one of seven, or ten, or fourteen years. People will be punished disproportionately to the scale of their offending, simply to satisfy a bloodthirsty public's desire to fuck them over in revenge.

I can think of no better way to bring the law into disrepute than to abandon justice for vengeance.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Graham on ECan and sustainability

In his general debate speech on Wednesday, Green MP Kennedy Graham launched a blistering attack on the government's plans to overthrow Canterbury's elected regional council and replace it with an appointed dictator:

the Creech report is a shoddy piece of work and fails rudimentary tests of professional standards. First, the report lacks intellectual integrity. It criticises Environment Canterbury for being science-driven and not science-informed. The Creech report is politically-driven and not politically-informed. If it were politically informed, it would acknowledge that democracy is bigger than business; that the subsidiarity principle is bigger than government; and that one does not replace elected councillors with appointees of central government, just because they are making decisions one might not like. That is political arrogance of the highest order.
But its not just arrogant - its also a perfect example of the clash of worldviews in New Zealand, between those who want to grow endlessly, like a cancer, and those who want us to live within our environmental means. Canterbury is at the sharp end of that clash, its aquifers sucked dry and its rivers filled with shit, to meet the demand of farmers for more water to feed more cows making more milk producing more money for their corporate owners (the family farm have gone the way of the Moa long ago). This is opposed by people who see rivers not as "water pouring out to sea", but as valuable in and of themselves, and who want to be able to drink what comes out of their tap without being poisoned by cowpiss. But when the people cry "no more" and elect councillors who work (albeit too slowly) to protect the environment, the advocates of growth try and remove their right to vote. Growth, it seems, comes before even democracy.

Fundamentally, the growth lobby is unsustainable. You can't shit in your own nest forever. If we poison our rivers and drain our aquifers, there will be no economy. Canterbury's farmers, pushing for unfettered water use, are like the people on Easter Island cutting down the last tree. But they're not just destroying their own futures - they're destroying ours as well.

New Fisk

Face to face with Pakistan’s most wanted
Hafiz Muhammad Saeed: 'Do I look like a terrorist?'

The ugly face of the American right

Earlier in the week, the US House of Representatives passed a landmark (for the US) healthcare reform package. The debate was marked by ugly scenes, in which Democratic congressmen were called "nigger" and "faggot" and spat on by Tea Party (Republican) protestors. And now that the law has passed, its got even uglier, with top Democrats receiving death threats, abusive phone calls, and bricks through windows. In one disturbing case, an attempt was made to burn down a legislator's (misidentified) home. In another, a Congressman was sent white powder in the mail.

This is the true face of America's right: ugly, racist, homophobic and violent. Rather than respecting democracy, they prefer to wage a campaign of threats and thuggery in an effort to intimidate and punish those who disagree with them. This sort of behaviour has no place in a democracy, and it should be universally condemned across the political spectrum. But Republican politicians have remained silent. And that silence speaks volumes about what they think about democracy and the acceptability of violence in politics.

Addendum: And just after posting that, I got pointed at a poll by Harris Interactive showing the true insanity of the American right. More than half of US Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, almost half think he was born outside the US, and a quarter of them think he is the antichrist. These people aren't just ugly - they're batshit insane.

A good idea

Over on Public Address, Graeme Edgeler gives a good overview of the government's Electoral Referendum Bill, which provides a legal framework for the upcoming referendum on 2012. One aspect he draws attention to is the statutory review of MMP if it wins. This will be conducted by the Electoral Commission, a fair and impartial expert body, and by taking it out of the hands of self-interested politicians, it will boost public confidence in the outcome and the necessity of any changes they come up with. This is a good idea, says Graeme,

In fact, it's so good an idea that I think we should expand upon it. If MMP loses its first round, it will be placed against an alternative voting system in a referendum at the subsequent (presumably 2014) general election. But that alternative system is still pretty hypothetical, just a number of acronyms on a voting paper which might mean different things to different people. It could be an STV system with 60 two-MP electorates, or an STV system with 15 electorates with an average of eight MPs, but ranging in size from six to ten. It could even be a first-past-the-post system with a single MP to be colloquially known as the dictator.

Exactly how that system is designed is pretty important, and it could make or break any second referendum. So my simple proposal is to ask the Electoral Commission to make the first attempt at designing it. As with the Commission's MMP review, Parliament could ultimately tell them to stuff off, but the sight of self-interested politicians messing with the independent recommendations of an expert body to try to jack-up the second referendum to get a particular result might get people riled in a way that might not happen if the jack-up occurred inside the machinery of Government.

I agree. As Graeme points out, we had a Royal Commission design our MMP system, which our MPs were forced to swallow mostly unchanged (though they did make a self-interested and democratically unjustifiable decision to raise the threshold in an effort to protect their own interests). If we're going to be seriously considering change, then we should pay the same care and attention to the design of the alternative system. Otherwise, we may end up with a politically designed strapped chicken, designed to either be unworkable or to appeal to the public dislike of politicians in an effort to discourage or force change.

The bill hasn't passed its first reading yet, but when it does, this is something to put in your submission to the select committee.

Racing for the last fish

Last week, the National government betrayed New Zealand's environmental values by voting against a ban on international trade in the critically endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna. Today, they went one better, raising the catch limit for the critically endangered Southern bluefin tuna from 420 to 532 tons [PDF]. The government's justification is that we've been allocated a greater share of the international resource. But as Greenpeace points out, that resource is declining, and other countries are cutting their catches by 20% or more in an effort to preserve it. Against that, it looks like we are racing to catch the last fish.

But apart from being immoral, the decision is almost certainly illegal. Southern bluefin tuna is a schedule 3 fish, and the setting of catch limits is governed by s14 of the Fisheries Act 2996. This allows the Minister of Fisheries to ignore the normal process for setting catch limits and instead set any limit they want. The only restriction is that the limit must be "appropriate to achieve the purpose of this Act". The prime purpose of the Act? Sustainability - meaning "maintaining the potential of fisheries resources to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations".

Increasing the catch limit on a species which is critically endangered and declining both internationally and locally (the estimated stock of Southern bluefin fell 4.6% last year) is the very opposite of sustainability. While it may mean a windfall for fishing companies (who have basically all been given a 27% increase in their annual allocation for the year), that comes at the expense of future generations, and it puts their ability to catch this fish at risk. That is contrary to the purposes of the Act, and it means that the Minister's decision could be overturned by judicial review. Sadly, the tuna don't have lawyers...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The right to die

The front page story in the Dominion-Post this morning is about disabled woman Margaret Page. She wants to die, and so is refusing food and water, effectively starving herself to death. The hospice she is in, St John of Godhome, is refusing to intervene.

And so they should be. This is fundamentally a question of autonomy. Our lives belong to us, not to someone's Invisible Sky Fairy, and certainly not to the state. It is up to us not just how we live them, but also how, when, and where we want to end them. If someone decides that the pain, suffering, or just plain boredom is more than they are willing to tolerate, then that decision should be respected, because it is theirs to make. We may feel sad, but it is not our right to interfere and force someone to live when they do not want to - that would be to deny their autonomy, and supplant their decisions with our own.

But while I respect absolutely Margaret Page's right to die (and her corresponding right to live if that is what she chooses), she shouldn't have to die this way. Starvation is a long, drawn out and unpleasant way to die. Unfortunately, thanks to politicians who do not respect personal autonomy, and who think they know better than people whether they want to live or not, it is one of the few methods available. Someone who provided her with a quicker method - an overdose of painkillers, for example - would face criminal prosecution.

This is a cruel and unjust state of affairs, and it is long past time we overturned it. Twice in the last decade brave MP's have put forward bills allowing death with dignity. It's time for someone to step up, and put forward a bill to allow people like Margaret Page the painless, humane death, and the control over their lives, that they are asking for.

Some "analysis"

Today the government introduced its Electoral Referendum Bill, providing for a referendum on MMP. In accordance with their policy of suppression, the Regulatory Impact Statement for the bill was hidden away on the web to make it difficult for MPs to read it while debating the bill. There followed the extraordinary scene of the government objecting to the RIS being tabled in the House.

And no wonder. The rules on advertising during the referendum are highly controversial, amounting to no restriction on the power of the rich to buy the result. So what does the RIS have to say about this?

The rationale for regulating advertising is to avoid the influence of wealth on the outcome by overwhelming other voices, in particular, the public information campaign. On the other hand, the influence that wealth can have on the outcome of a referendum is debatable.
(Emphasis added).

Yeah right. Lest anyone forget, polling in the 1993 MMP referendum showed a clear majority for change. Peter Shirtcliffe threw his millions at it, and almost won as a result. Its a perfect example of why spending caps are necessary: to prevent, in the words of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System [PDF], "some in the community us[ing] their relative wealth to exercise disproportionate influence in determining who is to govern and what policies are to be pursued".

The Ministry of Justice's "analysis" of this issue is simply inadequate, reflecting the ideological biases of the government rather than reality. Our public servants are supposed to offer free and frank advice without fear or favour. In this case, they have failed us.

Arresting Blair

The Arrest Blair campaign has just seen its second attempt at a citizen's arrest of Tony Blair for war crimes (the first happened in January; I missed it). If it meets their criteria, the arrester will be in line for around £2,800. In the meantime, you can read their story here.

This is not going to stop. Blair is going to be hounded until the day he dies - or the day he faces international justice in The Hague.

Brownlee lied

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee has admitted he "overstated" the value of gold and silver on Great Barrier Island. His discussion document [PDF] asserts "a potential value of $4.3 billion at today’s prices", but the underlying geologists report [PDF] estimates the value at only $1 billion. Brownlee's response to this disparity?

"Look I think &the numbers are always going to be all over the show until you get something out of the ground, you simply don't know what the story is," Brownlee says.

"I'd go with Richard Barker; he's the expert on these things," says Brownlee.

Which invites the question of why he didn't "go with Richard Barker" in the first place. But I guess his numbers were just too small.

Its also an awfully casual attitude to a $3 billion error. In case anyone's forgotten, this is a key government document, aimed at making the case for a highly controversial policy. You'd expect the numbers it gives to be accurate. The fact that they are not calls the rest of the government's figures - and indeed, its self-proclaimed desire to have a "rational discussion" with the public - into doubt. Even if we were interested in approaching this as a cost-benefit analysis (and I'm not, anymore than I'm interested in a CBA on killing my cat), this is impossible when the government straps the chicken by lying about the benefits while refusing to calculate the costs.

Protest to protect our national parks on Tuesday

2Precious2Mine, an umbrella group of environmentalist and outdoor organisations, is organising a protest against the government's plans to dig up our national parks.

When: 12:30 - 13:30, Tuesday, 30 March
Where: Parliament Buildings, Wellington

If you can't make it, there's a list of other things you can do on their website.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yours, not mines

Labour has just started a campaign against mining in schedule 4 land. They're late to the party - the Greens have been hammering on this issue for months - but every bit helps. And their picture accurately summarises the choice we have as kiwis: whether to keep our precious natural places, or dig them up so that a few people (mostly foreigners) can get rich.

They've also got a petition [PDF] on the issue, which is almost identical to the Green one [PDF]. But interestingly, their list of actions does not include submitting on the discussion paper. That's the most effective form of protest, in that a loud enough scream of outrage might convince the government, which does care about public opinion, to back down. Hopefully Labour will be rectifying that omission soon.

Greenpeace's dubious fundraising

Greenpeace do a lot of good work, but a lot of people (including me) are cynical about their high-pressure fundraising tactics (I find their chuggers, who are a constant presence in central Palmerston North, particularly obnoxious; they're as bad as the Hare Krishnas). That cynicism has just received a boost from a letter a friend received from them:


Thank you so much for your ongoing commitment to Greenpeace ....

From next month we would like you to consider a $3 increase in your monthly gifts to $23 per month. If you are able to increase your support, you do not need to respond to this letter - we will increase your monthly donations beginning on April 7th.

We are extremely grateful for your support and are asking for an increase to your monthly donations in this way to reduce our fundraising costs and maximise the funds we direct to our campaigns.

If you would prefer not to change your monthly support amount or do not wish to receive future letters like this, we will need to hear from you, so please contact our Supporter Relationships team by emailing, OR by phoning 0800 22 33 44, OR by simply returning this letter to us in our reusable envelope.

That's right: if you give money to Greenpeace through a direct debit, they've unilaterally decided that you will be giving them more. It's perfectly legal (Fair Go covered this sort of practice last year), but morally dodgy as hell. "Opt out" isn't acceptable from spammers, and its certainly not acceptable from people who want to take money off you. I'd expect an ethical environmental organisation to behave better than this.

My friend has been left feeling "like someone who narrowly avoided an unwanted goodnight grope after a perfectly pleasant dinner with a friend". Way to go to poison a relationship, guys.

Three strikes?

When National ran for power in 2008, it promised three core policies: it would get tough on crime, with a three strikes policy and automatic DNA testing of those arrested. And it would get tough on beneficiaries, particularly solo parents, by forcing them back to work.

Every single one of those policies has now been found to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act.

I think that says a lot about National's commitment to fundamental human rights.

Discriminatory, unjustified, sadistic

Yesterday the government released its latest beneficiary-bashing plans, aimed at forcing solo parents to ignore their kids and dumping the long-term unemployed from the welfare rolls. Today, the Attorney-General declared them inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF]. Work-testing widowed men but not widowed women discriminates on the basis of sex, while work-testing those who are divorced but not those who have always been single discriminates on the basis of family status. Both are unjustifiable in a free and democratic society.

But its not just discriminatory - the bill's Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF] - carefully hidden away in accordance with the government's policy of suppression - admits on its first page that the reforms are unjustifiable:

There is no research currently available which accurately quantifies the size of the behavioural response from these changes in policies. This prevents estimates, with the degree of accuracy required, from being made of the number of people who will move from benefit to work over a year, as a result of the proposed changes. The inability to determine firm numbers of people shifting from benefit to work as a result of these changes is due to the difficulty of separating out the effect of the policy changes from the effect of changes in other influences such as economic and labour market settings (e.g. employment growth, minimum wage increases).
(Emphasis added)

So, they have no idea what it will do, or whether it will do anything at all - but they're doing it anyway. its an ideologically-driven change, not an evidence-driven one. And that's putting it kindly. In fact, there is evidence on what work-testing DPB recipients will do [PDF] - and the answer is that it makes those people and their kids actively worse off. The single mother The Press interviewed this morning is the norm, not the exception.

The RIS also says

The key assumption underpinning this analysis is that work will become available for people as the economy recovers and that the implementation of the work-test can be matched to the employment capacity in local labour markets.
But then goes on to say
There is traditionally a lag between when the economy recovers and when the number of jobs increases.
The economy hasn't really recovered yet, and unemployment is not expected to drop significantly until 2012, you'd expect a long lag-time, right? Wrong. They're planning to impose work-testing by October 1 this year, before there are jobs available. As I noted yesterday, this is pure sadism, simply punishing people for being poor. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

Paying the price

The Herald this morning quotes Tourism Research Institute director Simon Milne as being concerned about the risk the government's plans to dig up our national parks pose to our "100% Pure" brand and our $20 billion a year tourism industry. The plan is likely to be noticed by international media, causing fallout for the tourism industry.

It's already started. The Economist today has an article which highlights and criticises the move as part of a broader attack on NZ's green credentials:

In February, the government revealed it was considering opening some of the country’s pristine public land up for mining—an activity to which the dwarves in “The Hobbit” are much given, but which is not popular with more elvish sensibilities. Energetic lobbying by environmental groups forced it to scale back the amount of land under consideration, but on March 22nd it announced that it still intended to open 7,000 hectares of conservation land to mining, with other conservation areas to be surveyed for their mineral potential.
The article also attacks the present government's focus on road building, its gutting of the RMA, and its anaemic ETS which gives massive subsidies to polluters and gives dairy farmers - our biggest greenhouse polluter - a free ride until 2015.

The Economist is influential. The piece is likely to be picked up by other media, resulting in exactly the effects Milne warned about. Way to go, National!

Billions from nowhere

The government's main strategy in arguing its case for digging up our national parks is that it will make us rich. They rely heavily on the mining lobby's assertion of the value of New Zealand's minerals, while ignoring the much lower value calculated by Statistics New Zealand, an impartial government agency, using an internationally accepted method. They extend this strategy to talking about individual areas of schedule 4 land. For example, here's what their discussion document [PDF] says about the mineral value of the Otahu Ecological Area and the Parakawai Geological Area in Coromandel:

The Otahu Ecological Area and the Parakawai Geological Area are located within the formations that confine several significant gold deposits, including Te Aroha, Karangahake, Golden Cross, Wharekiraponga and Ohui. The two areas are likely to have excellent potential for development of medium-grade, medium-tonnage, gold-silver vein deposits, which would become apparent with exploration and increased knowledge of the areas. It is estimated that there is potential within the two areas for a million-ounce ore body, which would be worth approximately $1.5 billion at today’s prices.
Sounds impressive. $1.5 billion! What's a bit of intact native forest, a river, and some Hochstetter’s frog's compared to that? So you'd expect that number to be reflected somehow in the respective geologists reports on those areas, right?
There is no reliable basis for determining a dollar value for Crown minerals within the Otahu Ecological Area, due to a lack of sub-surface information.

[T]he [Parakawi] Ecological Area has the potential to contain a significant rock resource with a potential value of several tens of millions of dollars, and could host gold-silver mineralisation at depth.

Apparently not. In fact, there's no suggestion of any such gold resource in the geologists reports. The most they say is that the Otahu Ecological Area is near an area which is "highly prospective" for gold, and that "this mineralisation may extend beneath the ecological area". But neither report makes any sort of claim of a "million-ounce ore body", let alone put a value on it of $1.5 billion. Those figures seem to have come from nowhere.

As The Standard points out in passing this morning, its a similar story with Great Barrier Island. There, the discussion document asserts gold and silver "with a potential value of $4.3 billion at today’s prices". But the geologists report [PDF] estimates the value at only $1 billion. At the least, the government is padding its case, inflating mineral values in order to persuade a sceptical public. In the Coromandel, they seem to just be making shit up. The government says it wants a "rational discussion"; it should at least show us the respect of not trying to bullshit us from the beginning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Digging up our natural heritage... for shingle

The government has released some of the background geologists reports on areas it wants to remove from the protection of schedule 4 and mine. The one on the Parakawai Ecological Area [PDF] makes interesting reading. It identifies the primary resource in the area as "aggregate". Yes, that's right - the government wants to dig up an ecological reserve for a shingle pit.

Aggregate is not exactly rare. Statistics New Zealand puts the total resource as "undefined, but large" - meaning we have enough to last us forever. So why would we want to dig up a protected area for it? There's plenty is less valuable parts of the country. It seems like pure ecological vandalism, driven by anti-environmentalist spite.

Mission accomplished

John Key, 20 December 2007:

We would love to see wages drop.
Wages set to fall, Stuff, 23 March 2009:
Real wages are set to fall over the coming year as rising prices and extended unemployment keep the labour market subdued, economists say.

The value of wages will decline 0.5 per cent in the 12 months through March 2011 as inflation exceeds salary growth, while unemployment remains elevated, according to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research’s consensus forecast of ten financial and economic agencies.

I bet he's happy now.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

A question

If the total value of New Zealand's mineral resources is $194 billion, and the area Gerry Brownlee wants to mine in is 0.024 percent of the total land area, doesn't that mean that the value of minerals in that area is likely to be a lot, lot less than the total (on the order of $50 million to use Brownlee's favoured back-of-the-envelope calculation method)?

Hardly seems worth it, does it?

(I'm not actually interested in approaching this as a cost-benefit exercise, any more than I'm interested in doing a CBA for cutting off my own arm. But those who are should be aware of the government's spin: that they're conflating the value of a tiny subset with that of the whole. They might also be interested in what Statistics New Zealand, rather than the mining industry, thinks those minerals are worth).

The return of the nasty party

The government has released its latest welfare "reforms" - and as floated last year, they centre on forcing sick people to work, parents to ignore their children, and the long-term unemployed to re-apply after a year in the explicit hope that the new administrative barrier will cause some of them to fall through the cracks. Not only is this simply nasty - it is also (in the case of work-testing DPB recipients) ignoring the lessons of history. As was pointed out during the 2008 election campaign, MSD's evaluation [PDF] of solo parent work-testing from last time National imposed it found that it made them worse off and led to child welfare problems. That's why Labour reversed that policy: because it was actively bad for kids.

Then there's the question of where the jobs these people are supposed to do are going to be coming from. We're in a recession, and unemployment is at a 15-year high. Under these circumstances, imposing work requirements on beneficiaries is simply sadism. But again, that's the point: by making demands which are near-impossible to meet, the government will be able to throw these people off their benefits, thus cutting welfare costs. As for the actual welfare of those people or their kids, well, this government doesn't care about that. Tax cuts for their rich mates and "shrinking the size of the state" are more important than whether every New Zealander has food, clothing, and a roof over their heads.

This is a nasty, sadistic move, by a nasty, sadistic government. And it shows that despite its spin and PR, national hasn't changed. They're still the nasty party, just like they were in the 90's.

Underwhelmed by "reform"

While I was focusing on the government's plans to dig up our national parks yesterday, there was an even more dramatic political landmark in the US: the US House of Representatives passed President Obama's healthcare reform package 219 - 212, extending healthcare to 32 million Americans.

This is an enormous change in the US, and it means Obama will go down in history not just as the first black President, but also as a President who actually did something. But to foreign eyes, the "reform" seems somewhat underwhelming. In NZ, as in the rest of the civilised world, if you get sick, you get treated, and the government pays. Oh, there may be some waiting if surgery is "voluntary" (meaning "not immediately life-threatening"), but that's the general principle. Healthcare is seen as a public good, like sewers and a fire service and a welfare system - something necessary for people to get on with their lives. Private health insurance is for stupid people who don't know they don't need it (alternatively, snobs who don't want to mingle with the hoi polloi), or for people with cosmetic surgery addictions.

The US sees healthcare as a private good, and so their health infrastructure is centred on privately-owned insurance companies and hospitals. Obama's reforms work within this framework rather than tearing it down, and so the expansion is achieved primarily by requiring people to buy insurance, coupled with tax credits to help them do it. There is some expansion of government-funded healthcare, but its mostly a giant subsidy to the insurance industry.

(Oh, and the price of this reform? Preventing federal subsidies from being used for abortions. But if all insurance programs are (or are potentially) subsidised, then this means that abortion will suddenly become a lot less accessible. Oh, it will still be legal - just unavailable in practice. Thanks, Obama).

As healthcare goes, this is a crazy way to do it - a bastard hybrid of public and private which will primarily benefit insurance companies. And it makes you wonder why the government didn't just set up its own "insurance" provider / health funding agency, and avoid paying for the profit of grasping insurance companies. These Americans really are crazy...

This is just the beginning

Yesterday the government released its plans to open more than 7,000 hectares of high-value conservation land to mining. So far I've focused my criticism on the areas they have said they want to remove from schedule 4 - parts of Great Barrier Island, the Coromandel, and Eastern Paparoa National Park. But that's just the beginning. But according to the discussion document [PDF], the government will also be investigating the mineral resources of other areas in schedule 4 with an eye to opening them. These include:

  • the rest of the Coromandel
  • the rest of Paparoa National Park
  • Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island
Gerry Brownlee's "envelope on Eden Park" is just the beginning. He wants it all. And we have to stop him.

One way of doing so was suggested last night. When an interviewer pointed out to Gerry Brownlee that mining on Great Barrier Island - one of the areas he wants to open - is prohibited by the district plan, he suggested that anyone can get a plan change. But this cuts both ways - if mining companies can apply to have that prohibition removed, environmentalists can apply to have similar prohibitions enacted by the Thames-Coromandel, Buller, and Southland District Councils. And with local body elections due later this year, I think making such a proposal would be a wonderful way of focusing the mind of candidates and councillors on the political cost to them of permitting schedule 4 land to be despoiled. It may also create space for anti-mining candidates to be elected to those bodies, in the same way that concern over water use in Canterbury saw a number of environmentalist candidates elected to ECan last election.

In the long run, though, the only way to assure the safety of these areas is to change the government. And Brownlee has just given a lot of people a strong reason to do just that.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Labour steps up on mining

Today the government released its plans to dig up our national parks. And for once, Labour has stepped up:

Labour leader Phil Goff claimed the Government planned to "let the bulldozers in" to large areas of highly sensitive conservation land that National had once protected from mining in the first place.

"What they are saying is that they are planning to dig up some of the most beautiful areas of the country."

He said Labour would return any land removed from Schedule 4 back under the legislative protection from mining if it won the next election.

People now have a clear choice. If you want to live in a strip-mined wasteland, vote National. If you want our environmnt to be protected, vote Labour. It's that simple.


The government has released its discussion paper [PDF] on their plans to dig up our most precious natural areas. You can submit on the proposal using a handy online form here. Submissions are due by 5.00pm on Tuesday 4 May 2010.

My inner cynic says that this is the usual sham consultation, a box-ticking exercise on a fait accompli. But it is still important to submit. A strong show of public disapproval may cause National to back down. And if they don't, we'll just have to de-elect the orcs in 2011.

"Hysteria" becomes policy

Last week, when Forest & Bird revealed leaked documents showing that the government planned to open more than 7,000 hectares of schedule 4 land to mining, including the Te Ahumata plateau on Great Barrier Island, the Otahu Ecological Area and Parakawai Geological Reserve in Coromandel, 2,500 hectares near Thames, and the Eastern Paparoa National Park, near Inangahua, the government was quick to claim that the information was false, and that it was all "scaremongering" and "hysteria". Today, they released their plans to open more than 7,000 hectares of schedule 4 land to mining, including the Te Ahumata plateau on Great Barrier Island, the Otahu Ecological Area and Parakawai Geological Reserve in Coromandel, 2,500 hectares near Thames, and the Eastern Paparoa National Park, near Inangahua - the exact areas Forest & Bird had indicated. Last week's "hysteria" is today's policy. The lesson is clear: if the government claims something is "hysterical", it is almost certainly true.

The government is trying to spin this as only taking a little bit - only 0.2% of current schedule 4 land. But this ignores the fact that Schedule 4 land is our most ecologically sensitive areas. No part of it shoudl be dug up. As for their claims that they are adding more than they are taking away, this is land which had been earmarked to be added to Schedule 4 for some time, and which was going to be added anyway. In other words, more spin and bullshit.

As Forest & Bird pointed out, the areas in question provide critical habitat for endangered native species such as the brown teal and Hochstetter's Frog, as well as native fish and plants. The government wants to run them all over with a bulldozer. The areas are described as "outstanding" by DoC. The government wants to cut down the trees, dig up the land, and leave us with a moonscape. Its as if we're governed by orcs...

People are not going to let this happen. There will be protests, blockades, and people lying down in front of bulldozers to protect these precious natural places. But the most effective protest will come at the ballot box in 2011. Thanks to MMP, National is only 2% and a coalition realignment away from opposition - and they've just given people a real reason to make that happen.

Update: Added link.

Government sucking up to Fiji

Fiji's military regime is busy disappearing its opponents. Meanwhile, our government is relaxing travel bans to let their unelected, illegitimate "ministers" into the country to attend a rugby meeting.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. National put rugby before democracy in 1981, and they're doing it again now.

Fiji: Peceli Rinakama is still missing


It has now been more than two weeks since former Fijian MP Peceli Rinakama was abducted by soldiers in Suva, and ten days since the government claims to have released him. But according to the latest update by Coup 4.5, he is still missing, and his family still haven't seen him.

So, where is Peceli Rinakama? The Fijian regime needs to answer, and soon.

More UK torture

In the 1970's, during its own "war on terror" in Northern Ireland, the UK military went down a dark path, using the "five techniques" - wall-standing, hooding, noise, sleep deprivation and starvation - in an effort to break and intimidate the Irish. Ireland took them to the European Court of Human Rights, and in 1978 the court ruled that those techniques constituted inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of the ECHR. In response, the UK government gave a solemn and "unqualified" undertaking that the five techniques "will not in any circumstances be reintroduced as an aid to interrogation".

It seems they lied. A UK intelligence unit has been running amok in Iraq, using exactly those techniques in an effort to break and intimidate the Iraqis:

Fresh evidence has emerged that British military intelligence ran a secret operation in Iraq which authorised degrading and unlawful treatment of prisoners. Documents reveal that prisoners were kept hooded for long periods in intense heat and deprived of sleep by defence intelligence officers. They also reveal that officers running the operation claimed to be answerable only "directly to London".
This is not a few "bad apples", using methods they have seen on American TV. They claimed to have been trained in these techniques back in the UK - meaning a conscious decision was made to ignore the court ruling and the UK government's undertaking. It also means a conscious decision was made to ignore the UN Convention Against Torture, which classifies both hooding and sleep deprivation as torture.

Torture is a crime under both UK and international law. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, the UK government has a positive obligation to prosecute it. The question now is whether they will uphold that obligation, or treat it with the same contempt they have showed for their previous undertakings.

New Fisk

As things get worse in Pakistan, the optimism continues to soar

Shitting in our water

Drinking water is one of the key functions of local government, and they have a wide range of powers to ensure that it meets basic quality standards. So you'd think that when a local farmer starts letting his cows shit in the river providing the water supply to a local community, the appropriate local authority - in this case, the Northland Regional Council - would be able to do something about it, right?

Apparently not. Farmers in this country it seems have impunity to pollute our drinking water and poison the rest of us. Their right to make a profit is apparently more important than our right to life.

This has to change. Now. Local authorities must be given full powers to regulate farming, to impose stocking limits, to require waterways to be fenced and farmers not to pump their shit (or let it trickle) into them. Otherwise, our rivers and streams will continue to be polluted, and small communities like the one Russel Norman talks about will continue to be poisoned by farmers' toxic waste.

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Fisk

The mysterious case of the Grey Lady of Bagram

No opposition allowed in Samoa

For the past two years, the Samoan government has been trying to evict its opposition from Parliament. Yesterday, they finally succeeded, invoking a new anti-party-hopping law to force three opposition MPs to resign from Parliament:

The Samoa government’s new amendments to the Electoral act has now become law, leading to three members of the Tautua Samoa party stepping down, leaving their seats vacant.

The new law, endorsed by the head of state last week, requires that all MPs remain loyal to the political party they entered Parliament in on, and has been described by the government as a measure to prevent party hopping.

The Tautua Samoa party was formed during this parliamentary term.

The RNZ story is incorrect - the three MPs are not members of Tatua Samoa. But they openly support it, and under the new law, that is enough. As a result, there will be by-elections in the next couple of months.

Forcibly breaking up opposition parties, and forcing its elected opponents to resign from Parliament: that is how Samoa's Human Rights Protection Party has stayed in power for the past 20 years.

Worrying IV

This week, the Samoan government established a Commission of Inquiry to review freedom of religion. Today, the Chair of the Samoan Council of Churches made it explicit what the aim of the review would be: limiting the competition.

Rev Fauolo said the Samoa Council of Churches started from 1971 with three main line churches; Congregational, the Methodist and the Roman Catholic.

“At that time, perhaps about 90 per cent of the population were in those three main line churches,” said the respected Revered.

“So there is thinking of SCC that we ask the government then and that we did I think 2008, to stop accepting any new religions into the country, except a religion that is applying for registration through the prime minister and under the advice of the SCC, that would be the only opening for a new church to come in.”

Rev Fauolo said the presence of new religious groups can upset social relations. He is also unsure about the way some of them seem to operate.

As for the fundamental right of people to believe whatever they like, Fauolo says that "disobeying the will of the will of God is sin". So much for that, then.

The inquiry is stacked with religious leaders. Samoans should be very, very afraid.

Winning a battle, losing the war

As I'm sure everyone has heard, Southdown Holdings Ltd, Williamson Holdings Ltd and Five Rivers Ltd have withdrawn their applications for resource consent for industrial dairying in the Mackenzie basin over concerns about the cost of the call-in. This is great news for the environment. The industrial dairying proposal would have fundamentally changed one of our most striking natural landscapes, competed with electricity generators for water, and polluted some of our most pristine waterways, as well as raised significant animal welfare issues. Now none of that will be happening. We won!

But while we won in the Mackenzie country, we're losing everywhere else. The latest report from Fonterra on their Clean Streams Accord (a voluntary measure to reduce dirty dairying) shows that overall compliance has dropped from 64 to 60 percent. In other words, our farmers are getting dirtier, pumping more shit into the rivers, and doing less to clean up after themselves. In Canterbury, where the government is soon to install a dictatorship to ignore "solve" water quality issues, the compliance rate is even worse, at 43%. So more than half of Canterbury's dairy farmers don't give a shit about the environment.

This is unacceptable. These are our rivers, our streams, our lakes that these selfish pricks are polluting. And the result of their pollution is to ruin them and deny their use to the rest of us. Who wants to swim in a river full of cowshit? Not kiwis, and certainly not the foreign tourists who are our biggest export earner.

Its clear from these results that the Clean Streams Accord has failed (not that we didn't know that already). Farmers will not voluntarily clean up their act. Therefore, they need to be made to, by tightening environmental standards and resource consent conditions, and prosecuting those who fail to comply. More broadly, Green co-leader Russel Norman points out the lacuna in the RMA: that while you need resource consent for practically any other polluting industrial process, you don't need it for sticking cows in a paddock. "Production land" is excluded.

This has to change. Farming is a polluting activity, with significant environmental effects, and it needs to be regulated as such. Otherwise, we will continue to see our greenhouse emissions rise, and our rivers and lakes turn into sewers and effluent ponds.

The PM's private spy agency

While the public has been focusing on the acquittal of the Waihopai Three, there's been a quiet revolution in our intelligence community. The Prime Minister has got himself a private spy agency.

OK, so he's always kindof had one. Since 1990, the External Assessments Bureau, part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has been providing assessments to the government on foreign events. This was pretty uncontroversial - EAB had no operational role, was focused strictly on analysing information, and its target was strictly foreigners. It could not be considered any form of threat to the New Zealand public.

Now, thanks to the Rugby World Cup, its been renamed the "National Assessments Bureau", and has got itself a domestic focus. As well as looking at the politics of other countries, it will be looking at those of New Zealand. As well as looking at foreigners, it will also be "assessing", and advising the government on, the beliefs, actions, and plans of New Zealanders.

This should be deeply worrying. The Police and SIS are bad enough, without another bunch of spooks sniffing everyone's underwear as well. What's worse is that the organisation has no statutory basis, and operates solely on the royal prerogative. Overseas - as with MI5 in the 70's - that has been found to be a recipe for unlawful behaviour and gross human rights abuse.

The problem is compounded by the lack of oversight. Unlike the SIS and GCSB, the NAB is not subject to the "oversight" of the Intelligence and Security Committee, or of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Not that those safeguards are worth very much - the ISC meets for about half an hour a year, where it is mushroomed by those it is supposed to oversee, while the Inspector-General has been shown to be just a pawn of the SIS. But NAB has no controls at all. It does not even have to issue an independent annual report giving a broad idea of the scope of its activities. And when they are assembling dossiers on New Zealanders for the Prime Minister's consumption, that is simply unacceptable.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ending youth-pay discrimination for good

Three years ago, Parliament passed the Minimum Wage (New Entrants) Amendment Act 2007, which effectively abolished youth rates. But while it ended pay discrimination against young people in a practical sense, this discrimination is still present in our law, in that section 30 of the Human Rights Act 1993 contains exemptions allowing it:

(2) Nothing in section 22(1)(b) of this Act shall prevent payment of a person at a lower rate than another person employed in the same or substantially similar circumstances where the lower rate is paid on the basis that the first-mentioned person has not attained a particular age, not exceeding 20 years of age.

(3) Nothing in section 22(1)(a) of this Act shall prevent preferential treatment based on age accorded to persons who are to be paid in accordance with subsection (2) of this section.

In English: you can pay an 18-year old less than a 20-year old, and you can refuse to hire someone because you won't be able to discriminate against them on the basis of age. And thanks to the quasi-constitutional status of the Human Rights Act, this discrimination is an underlying principle of New Zealand law. The existence of these exemptions means that laws permitting pay discrimination against young people do not violate the right to be free from discrimination in the Bill of Rights Act. And that is simply unacceptable. The Human Rights Act sets a default age above which it is illegal to discriminate of 16 years. And that should apply across the board.

Fortunately, Gareth Hughes, the Greens' newest MP has a bill to fix this. Hopefully it'll be drawn from the ballot soon. And then we can see where the Nats really stand on youth discrimination.

New Fisk

Into the terrifying world of Pakistan's 'disappeared'

ACT and democracy

Writing in the Independent, Nick Smith (not him, the other one) put his finger on the core problem with the government's Auckland "SuperCity":

At the heart of Hide's reforms is a fanatical belief that he and his mates know best and the populace can't be trusted to make decisions.


One of Hide's ideological fellow travellers, Business Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr, recently voiced similar views in a speech to the Wellington Rotary Club.

"Fiscal decisions by simple majority rule, we believe, are too exposed to the biases of special interests to reliably reflect genuine collective preferences," he said, going on to add that the Government's mandate to make laws was "determined by transient political majorities".

Apparently, New Zealanders are too immature to govern themselves properly and people like Hide and Kerr know better.

Smith calls this "nanny state", but its worse - its the old aristocratic anti-democratic paternalism of the feudal era. The right has always hated democracy, thinking that power must be kept out of our grubby little hands. But their attempts to retain control by restricting the franchise failed in the C19th in the face of mass popular opposition and a gradual internalisation of democratic values. Their original ideological justification - that the wealthy were naturally more fit to rule by virtue of their birth or wealth - is simply laughable, and so the diehards have sought another one, under the guise of public choice theory. But it boils down to the same idea: that we dirty peasants can't be trusted with any access to any of the levers of power, and that power should instead be left in the hands of an unaccountable elite insulated from democratic pressures "for the common good". Hide's plan for Auckland is a classic example of this thinking. But its not democratic, and we should not be tolerating it. And if National continues to support it, we should use what democratic power we still have to replace them.

National's forced moderation

Three years ago, parliament passed the Minimum Wage (New Entrants) Amendment Act 2007, which effectively abolished youth rates. At the time, the National Party fulminated against it, saying that it would do nothing to help young workers and even that it would increase youth unemployment. They voted against it at every stage in the House - first, second, and third readings. So you'd think that when ACT managed to get a bill drawn which would roll back the change and return to the discriminatory pre-2007 status quo, National would be all for it, right?

Wrong. National announced in the House yesterday that they will be voting against the bill. Why? Because in 2008, they were elected only after ditching Don Brash and promising that they would not restart the revolutionand follow a hard-right ACT platform. While they've been pushing hard against that promise of moderation - the 90 day probation period for new employees or their plans to eliminate the requirement that employers treat their workers fairly and reasonably are hardly "moderate" - they seem to have realised that an attack on vulnerable young workers at a time when they're already facing pressure over plans to dig up national parks and turn Auckland into a corporate state would be a bridge too far. The threat of de-election restrains them - at least a little.

We have MMP to thank for this. By giving us a fair electoral system where the outcome accurately reflects the will of the voters, we have gained much more fearful - and hence responsive - politicians. Despite National's impressive polling, they are just a few percent and a coalition realignment from opposition. No wonder their hard-right, no-liberal faction wants to get rid of it...

Worrying III

Earlier in the week I blogged about the Samoan government's plans to review freedom of religion. Last night, I finally found a report in the Samoa Observer which made it very clear what the government's problem is:

With most of the cases brought before the Court in the past, it ruled in favour of the freedom of religion, and with the authority of the indigenous Government found wanting.
Courts upholding people's fundamental (and in Samoa, constitutional) rights! Quelle horreur!

The Observer article also has the inquiry's membership:

The Commission is chaired by Ombudsman, Maiava Iulai Toma.

The members are Dr Iutisone Salevao, Father Spatz Silva, Reverend Vaiao Eteuati, Te’o Eteuati, Leva’a Sauaso, Pastor Uili Solofa, Papali’i Alema Fitisemanu, Pastor Viliamu Mafo’e, Arthur Lesa – Counsel Assisting, Office of the Attorney General and Peter Bednall – Counsel Assisting, Office of the Attorney General.

So of 11 members, at least 5 are religious leaders (Dr Salevao is the secretary of the Fijian Congregational Church). Talk about setting the fox to guard the henhouse.


Tonight I witnessed an absolutely shameful scene in the House, in the voting down of Winnie Laban's Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Amendment Bill. The bill would have amended existing mental health legislation to expand upon and reinforce the current requirement of clinicians to consult the family or whanau of patients about their treatment, where it is reasonably practicable, in their interests, and with their consent. The bill was supported by mental health service providers, psychiatrists, support groups, the Families Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, and families of those in care. It responded to a definite need - despite the law, families and whanau were not being adequately consulted or informed on how best to support their loved ones.

This is the sort of non-partisan member's bill which could have brought out the best in our politicians. In the past, similar bills, such as Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers With Babies) Amendment Bill, have been debated in good faith and passed with broad consensus. The bill at least deserved to be sent to select committee, so that mental health patients, their families and whanau, providers, and other interested groups could formally have a say on it. Instead, National simply voted it down. Regardless of the merits, regardless of the support, regardless of whether it was a good idea or not, it wasn't theirs, they wouldn't get the credit for it, so it had to go. It was that simple.

This is a shameful example of the toxic partisanship of the National government. Once upon a time (not that long ago, even), they were a better party than this. But power corrupts, and the absolute power of an easy majority has corrupted absolutely.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Waihopai three acquitted!

Two years ago, three men from Ploughshares Aotearoa broke into the Waihopai spy base in Marlborough, and defalted one of the domes covering its satellite dishes. They were subsequently charged with burglary and willful damage. But this evening, they were acquitted by a jury, who agreed that their actions were necessary to save innocent lives which were threatened by the GCSB's spying.

Take that, spies.

The sinking lid is back

During the 90's, the government maintained a "sinking lid" policy on public spending, whereby departmental budgets were never increased for inflation, resulting in an effective cut in real spending. The public service was expected, in the words of The Wire, "to do more with less". The result was that they did less, and worse, with overpaid consultants hired to fill the gaps, and vital infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals left to decay.

You'd think that after that experience, the "sinking lid" would be recognised as the stupid idea it is. But now its officially back. National's response to its (partly self-induced, through tax-cuts) "decade of deficits" is a decade of decay. I guess they're not planning on being in power when the bill for that comes due.


Last month, Paul Quinn's Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill was drawn from the member's ballot. Today, Attorney-General Chris Finlayson formally notified the House that it was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF], as it unjustifiably infringes the right to vote.

Finlayson isn't taking any great leap here. In 1993, before the current law was enacted, the High Court found that the then-prohibition on all prisoners voting was inconsistent with the BORA. That's why we got rid of it. The same logic has applied overseas, with rulings in both Canada and from the ECHR. The UN Human Rights Committee has ruled that any deprivation of the right to vote for criminal offending must be objective, reasonable, and proportionate. Quinn's proposal does not meet any of these criteria. It applies regardless of the seriousness of the offence, excludes those convicted of equally serious offences who for one reason or another (e.g. making reparations - i.e. wealth) are not sentenced to prison, and would be effectively a lottery based on the sentencing date. It is unfair and disproportionate.

So naturally, National will be voting the bill to select committee...

Rather than stripping prisoners of the vote, we should be doing the opposite. Prisoners deserve the vote. They live here, they have an interest - a very strong interest - in how this country is run, and that interest is no less important than anybody else's. As for the common claim that they've shown by their actions that they cannot be trusted with the vote, I could equally make the same claim about ACT voters (I mean really, electing a dead guy and a madman? What were you thinking?) But in a democracy, we don't get to second-guess each other's choices or their competence; we just have to accept them. We all have interests, everyone's interest counts equally, and so we all get to vote. Anything less is undemocratic.

Some better ideas

Yesterday I blogged in support of DPF's suggestion that Cabinet papers and related material be automatically placed on the internet within six months. Its a good idea, which would significantly boost the transparency of our government. But why stop at Cabinet?

One of the innovations of the UK Freedom of Information Act is the idea of a publication scheme - a legally binding document, approved by the Information Commissioner, which requires an organisation to publish certain classes of information. The model publication scheme [PDF] requires organisations to publish information on:

  • Who we are and what we do
  • What we spend and how we spend it (including information on procurement methods and contracts)
  • What our priorities are and what we are doing (targets, performance indicators, and reviews)
  • How we make decisions (including "policy proposals and decisions")
  • Our policies and procedures
  • Lists and registers (information held by the organisation on others in its regulatory role)
  • The services we offer
All of this information must be published online. NZ government departments already do much of this, but not all of it, particularly around contracts and tenders. They should be required to.

A second UK innovation is a "disclosure register" (example here) - basically an online archive of recent requests and responses. This lets people see what is being requested, and also saves time by avoiding multiple requests for identical information (in that people will hopefully Google or check the register first). No legislation would be required for an NZ government department to implement such a register, and I'm surprised that none have yet.

Both of these measures are aimed at overcoming the fundamental flaw of the request-response-appeal model: that information is given only to the requestor. In some cases, e.g. requests for personal information, that is appropriate - but the overall effect is to limit the dissemination of public information unless it is more widely publicised. To give an example, I just wasted some time requesting information on police handling of electoral act complaints (including a complaint to the Ombudsmen because the police, as usual, did not give a shit and were late). I found out last night that that information had been previously requested by DPF. A disclosure log would have saved everyone - me, the police, and the Ombudsmen's office - a lot of trouble.

More generally, information held by government departments is public information, it belongs to us. And we should have a right to access it whenever we choose. In an internet age, where government departments manage their work through internal document databases, we should be able to access those databases directly, and read the work of government in near-real time. We have the technical capability to do this - just mirror the database on the web, containing those documents cleared for public release (under the same criteria that would apply if it was requested the moment it was created) and the titles and metadata of all other documents. The question is purely one of political will. The OIA has already transformed our system of government, and made it far more open. But we can, and should, do better.