Friday, July 30, 2010

OIA performance stats: Standards

Over the past couple of months I've been running a little project aimed at learning how government agencies track OIA requests, with the ultimate goal of generating performance statistics to allow non-compliant departments and Ministers to be publicly named and shamed for their failure to obey the law. The project is almost done - most of the data is in, with just a few laggards to chase up, and I hope to post some initial results next week. But this has turned my mind to the question of what standards we should hold Ministers and Departments to in meeting their obligations under the Act.

On the one hand, the law is very clear: requests must be responded to

as soon as reasonably practicable, and in any case not later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is received
Which suggests a 100% performance standard. But even I think that's a little high. In a large organisation, there is an inevitable level of mistakes. Requests will be misplaced, the need for an extension forgotten, responses unable to be signed off because the Minister or Chief Executive is away. Expecting perfection from bureaucracies is a recipe for disappointment.

So, what are the alternatives? One obvious one is to hold Ministers to their own standard. Every government department has a "purchase agreement" with its Minister which includes certain performance requirements (whether those requirements are met is reported in their annual report). One of those requirements is always that 95 or 100% of Ministerial drafts - such as OIAs forwarded to departments for answers - are completed on time. Taking the lower of those gives us our standard. Its what Ministers demand of their departments, and we can demand no less from them.

National is wrong on ECE

Over on Pundit, Andrew Geddis has an interesting post on the value of early childhood education. His chief talking point? A study from the US showing that a qualified ECE teacher is worth US$320,000 a year. And that's just considering the net present value of the increased earnings of their students - not of deferred crime and healthcare costs. If teachers are worth that much, why are we cutting the subsidies to ECE centres to hire them?

The answer is twofold: firstly, of course, National wanted to spend that money on tax cuts for its rich mates. But the reason it cut ECE rather than, say, secondary schools, is because they basically see it is valueless. In National's eyes, ECE isn't education, but babysitting. And this is simply false. The study cited in the NYT is just one of a large pile, showing (in the words of The Spirit Level) that

Early childhood education programmes can foster physical and cognitive development. They can alter the long-term trajectories of children's lives, and cost-benefit analyses show that they are high-yield investments. In experiments, disadvantaged children who have received high-quality early childhood education are less likely to need remedial education, less likely to become involved in crime, and they earn more as adults. All of this adds up to a substantial return on government investment in such programmes.
National has entirely the wrong view of ECE, and this causes them to devalue it and underfund it. And the result is that we are robbing the future of brighter, healthier, better educated and better adjusted kids, so that a bunch of 50-year old males can get a tax cut.

Washing his hands

Yesterday in Parliament, Green MP attempted to hold Agriculture Minister David Carter accountable for the Pork Industry Board's conspiracy to circumvent the Official Information Act. The Minister responded by washing his hands of the matter:

SUE KEDGLEY (Green) to the Minister of Agriculture: Is he taking any action in response to reports that the Pork Industry Board sought to avoid the public embarrassment of reporting conditions in New Zealand piggeries by deliberately evading the Official Information Act; if not, why not?

Hon DAVID CARTER (Minister of Agriculture): No, and for a very simple reason: I have no responsibility for the Pork Industry Board being compliant with the Official Information Act.

The law however begs to differ. The Minister is responsible for appointing "at least 1, but not more than 2" directors on the Board's recommendation (the rest are elected by pig farmers), and has statutory powers to remove directors for
disability affecting performance of duty, bankruptcy, breach of any duty set out in Schedule 1 that applies to the director, or misconduct, proved to the Minister's satisfaction.
Those duties include a duty to exercise powers for a proper purpose, a duty to act within the Act, and a duty of care and diligence. Arguably the Board's conspiracy against the law violates those duties and constitutes misconduct. The Minister can therefore remove them from office.

Carter cannot be allowed to wash his hands of this. A statutory body within his portfolio is conspiring to breach the law. He must step in and make it clear to them that the government expects them to obey the OIA. If he refuses, then he should resign and make way for someone who will.

Crunch-day in the Cooks

The Cooks Islands Parliament is scheduled to sit today for the first time in eight months after being adjourned to prevent a confidence vote. However, it won't sit for long. Instead, the government will table its budget, as it is legally required to do, then adjourn again before putting it to the vote - allowing it to continue on until November without testing whether it holds the confidence of the House and hence a democratic mandate to govern.

This is not democracy. Instead, it is an abuse of the Parliamentary process and a perversion of the Westminster system to maintain an illegitimate government in power (and Ministers in their perks). But its what happens when your Parliament depends on the royal prerogative, rather than its own authority, to meet.

Why we need transparency on Cabinet conflicts of interest

So why am I kicking up such a stink about John Key's secrecy about conflicts of interest in his Cabinet? Simple: its a matter of accountability and protecting ourselves from corruption.

We expect our politicians not to be corrupt. We expect them, in the words of the Cabinet Manual, to "ensur[e] that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty". This is a political standard, ultimately judged by the public through the ballot box. But monitoring it requires us to know what is actually going on, what potential conflicts exist, and what decisions Ministers are making.

John Key's secrecy denies us this possibility. It means we have no way of telling whether conflicts exist or appear to exist, and no way of telling whether they are handled appropriately. Which in turn means we have no way of telling whether our Ministers are clean or corrupt - and no way of voting them out if they are, because we can't know. Secrecy denies us accountability, while protecting potentially corrupt Ministers.

This is not good enough in a democracy, and its certainly not good enough in a country that prides itself as being one of the least corrupt places on Earth. We should not have to take the integrity of our politicians on faith. Instead, we should be able to see it, every day. The fact that we cannot do this both invites and entitles us to believe the worst.

Still no transparency on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Back in June, I blogged about John Key's refusal to answer questions about conflicts of interest in his Cabinet. I thought this was unacceptable, so I asked him about it. DPMC refused to answer, on the spurious grounds that it would require "substantial collation and research".

That refusal is currently the subject of a complaint to the Ombudsman. But in the meantime, in the hope of getting at least some information out of them, I narrowed my request, asking specifically for information on the number of times the Prime Minister has been advised in writing of a serious conflict of interest that requires management, and for details on each instance. The number of times this has happened should be relatively small, meaning that DPMC couldn't refuse the request on the grounds that it required substantial collation and research. Some friends of mine made similarly narrow requests, seeking information on explicit declarations of a conflict, not receiving papers, and the transfer of decisions. Again, in a well-managed Cabinet, these should be rare occurrences, meaning no excuse that it was too much hard work.

All of those requests have also been refused. The reason is the same in each case:

No information exists in the form you have requested it. The Official Information Act does not require me to create information. Some information relevant to your request does exist, however, including advice provided by the Cabinet Office to the Prime Minister in his capacity as Chair of Cabinet. I am withholding this advice under [long list of OIA clauses]
Bluntly, this is bullshit. DPMC aren't being asked to "create" information. As they admit, the information already exists. What they are being asked to do is collate it. And they have a statutory duty to do so, unless it would impose an unreasonable administrative burden and a charge or extension cannot be agreed. As for the withholding reasons - privacy, confidentiality (yes, whether our Ministers are corrupt is "confidential"), Cabinet collective responsibility, confidential advice and free and frank expression - while some of these reasons may apply to specific cases (if, for example, a conflict was declared on a matter which has not yet been finalised and is therefore still under consideration), they must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and weighed against the public interest in disclosure (which is extremely strong). And there seems to be no good reason for not at least giving the number of occasions such events have occurred.

Naturally, this has resulted in another complaint to the Ombudsman. In the meantime, I have come up with another avenue of attack. Keep watching this space.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Absolutely unacceptable

The Dominion-Post reports this morning that the Pork Industry Board - a statutory body established to boost returns to pig farmers - is attempting to evade the Official Information Act. Faced with the possibility that they will have to make the results of an audit of pig farms public, they have instead hatched a scheme to keep it secret:

The leaked email, sent to farmers on behalf of the Pork Industry Board, said: "It is likely there will be a number of farms requiring corrective actions and ... those actions could cause embarrassment to the farmer if made public and could cause embarrassment to the industry if used by animal welfarists, [so] some alternatives to current procedures were put forward."

A suggested alternative would mean only the farmer and auditor would hold "completed documentation", with the board notified of pass, fail, or "pending corrective actions (unspecified)".

Board chief executive Sam McIvor said its legal advice suggested the audit report would belong to the farmer, meaning it was personal information.

Fortunately, the attempt is unlikely to succeed - information held by a private contractor is deemed to be held by an agency and so "official information". But it is absolutely unacceptable. The board is a statutory body, scheduled in the OIA. It has a duty to obey the OIA - and not just its letter, but its spirit. And if they won't, then the Minister should exercise their power (under s2(1) of Schedule 2) to remove them from office for breaching their duties.

More pinot, Minister?

The Department of Internal Affairs has just done its latest release of Ministerial expenses, and I'm busy going through the credit-card receipts. So far we've got minibar habits and Rodney "perkbuster" Hide sticking the taxpayer for his valet parking (you can just imagine how loud he would have screamed about that a few years ago). But the best is Murray McCully's $2,855 dinner for 14 [PDF, p. 6] to host the IRB - including almost $1,200 of booze. Of that, $740 was spent on 4 bottles of 2006 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir.

Hosting dinners is part of McCully's role, but there's ordinary extravagance (it seems usual for Ministers to drop $70 - $100 a head on food) and extraordinary extravagance. And $185 / bottle wine is definitely in the latter category.

More pinot, Minister? It's on us.

The end of ASBOs

The UK government has announced it will scrap Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. Good. ASBOs are an affront to the justice system, allowing effectively criminal punishments to be dispensed without any of the usual safeguards. They use a civil standard of proof and hearsay and gossip are admitted as "evidence". The system has seen a large number of cruel and absurd results, from the targetting of children with autism and tourettes for their disabilities to the attempt to ban someone from wearing low-slung trousers and a hoodie (plus of course the woman jailed for having sex too loudly and the man banned from dressing as a schoolgirl). Their demise is something we should all celebrate.

As for the replacement, the Conservatives are apparently looking at an NZ-style system of restorative justice. You know, something that works, rather than simply criminalising young people while providing authoritarians with a power-trip.

And hopefully, this will end any suggestion of imposing such orders here. Though with Judith Collins as Minister of Police, we can never be safe.

"Higher standards"

During the 2008 election campaign, John Key ran on a platform of bringing higher standards of government. And yet today we have another Minister who appears to have used a trust structure to disguise substantial shareholdings - and a whopping potential conflict of interest - from the electorate.

Tim Groser owns 40,000 shares of New Zealand Farming Systems, currently valued at $22,000. He's registered as their owner, but for the purposes of his pecuniary interest declaration, they are "owned" by his superannuation fund, so we don't get to know about them:

"The distinction here is, in a legal sense, I don't own shares. A trust, of which I am the beneficiary, owns the shares and it's standard practice for all trusts not to note the nature of the investments," Groser said.
Meanwhile, in his role as Trade Minister, he actively promotes this company, and tries to negotiate deals to its advantage. Ordinary people would call that a conflict of interest - something both Cabinet and Parliamentary disclosure rules are supposed to avoid. But John Key says he's "100% comfortable" with it, as usual (but he guess he has to be, given that he's pulling the same scam himself).

As a member of the public and a voter, I am not comfortable, either with a Minister promoting and negotiating on behalf of a company he has a direct financial interest in, or with the secrecy. Once again, legal structures are being used to thwart oversight. But with conflicts of interest, the perception is as important as the reality - something that the Cabinet Manual recognises:

Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty. Ministers must conduct themselves at all times in the knowledge that their role is a public one; appearances and propriety can be as important as an actual conflict of interest.
Tim Groser has failed to meet that standard. His shareholding creates a perception of a conflict of interest, and his attempts to keep it secret make it look like he has something to hide. Its time for him to choose: he can either dabble in dairy investments, or represent New Zealand on the international stage - but not both. Either he sells his shareholding, or he resigns. It is that simple.

Meanwhile, the core problem here - the ability of MPs and Ministers to hide conflicts of interest by using a trust - needs to be addressed. The current rules do not provide the level of scrutiny and oversight the public expects. And they do not provide the level of protection from corruption we expect either. This is not an area where we can trust politicians - that is basically just asking for it. Instead, we must make them prove every day they are not corrupt. And that requires full disclosure. Not half-disclosure, not semi-disclosure with everything significant hidden by trusts and corporate fronts, but full disclosure. Parliament and Cabinet must amend their rules to bust the trusts and require full disclosure of all assets screened in this fashion. Otherwise, the public are fully entitled to judge every MP with any trust structure as prima facie corrupt.

Their own fault

Police Minister Judith Collins has launched an extraordinary attack on the media, blaming them for the decline in the respect for the police. Bullshit. The media have simply reported accurately on the police's actions (such as e.g. raping vulnerable women, beating prisoners, and covering for their own). If those actions cause the public to think less of serving police officers, then the police have no-one to blame but themselves. And if they want to restore that reputation, they need to put their house in order - which, to be fair, they seem to be attempting to do, in fits and starts.

But quite apart from the empirical argument, Collins seems to believe that the police are worthy of respect simply by virtue of having power. Such an attitude has no place in a democratic society. Hierarchy died with universal suffrage. And you would think a politician, of all people, would have figured that out by now.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A disaster

Stuff reports that John Key has called the student loan scheme a disaster. He's right, but not for the reason he thinks he is. The problem isn't that the government is only getting 53% of its money back, but that half a million kiwis (and the number is growing every year) have been saddled with over $11 billion of unnecessary debt, which many of them have no chance of repaying.

This is an economic, social, and political timebomb. Economic, because as Key admits, the "debt" cannot be repaid (and therefore won't be) - meaning that at some stage the government is going have to admit this and confront a large hole in its books. Social, because pervasive indebtedness among our best and brightest is forcing them overseas, to defer having children, and putting the kiwi dream of home ownership out of their reach. And political because those half-million debtors and their worried families are a constituency and a growing one, who will increasingly start agitating for their unrepayable debt to be forgiven. Reimposing interest on student loans won't change that; instead it will just make matters worse (and as Key admits, result in the de-election of any government which tries).

The scheme exists because the government in the 90's chose to underfund education to pay for tax cuts for the rich. And that is why it continues to exist today. In this Budget, the government gave away enough money to fully fund student fees in tax cuts for the rich. Priorities, I guess - John Key would rather continue to force students to borrow to eat than forgo the opportunity to enrich himself and his rich mates. But it can't continue forever. A smart government would be working towards that day, rather than trying to pretend it can continue to steal from the young to fund the greed of the old.

Utterly unprincipled

Before the UK election, New Labour was pushing for a referendum on the alternative vote. Not out of any real desire for electoral reform, you understand, but for shabby, tactical reasons: they thought it would

encourage anti-Tory tactical voting in the general election, and also help form a platform for a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament.
Now, having lost the election, and faced with a Conservative - Liberal Democrat plan for a referendum on the alternative vote, New Labour has anounced they will vote against it. Their reason? The bill will also include boundary changes designed to equalise the size of electorates in the UK. This will apparently make it "impossible" for Labour to win elections in future - this apparently taking precedence over the democratic basic of all votes having equal value.

Once again, New Labour has shown how utterly unprincipled it is, and how it puts its own success ahead of basic democratic values.

Shining a spotlight on prison slave labour

Buy organic vegetables? Eat meat? Drink milk? Congratulations! You're unwittingly ingesting the fruits of prison slave labour!

Last year, the Corrections department employed 2230 low-security prisoners in its Corrections Inmate Employment scheme, in which they are rented out to outside companies (in violation of international law) or work in Corrections-owned businesses within prison walls. Those prisoners were collectively paid $1.69 million - or about 40 cents an hour. Their labour is effectively forced, the products they make the fruits of slavery.

So, what are those products? Following the Herald story, I asked. According to the response [PDF], the following companies purchased goods and services produced in prison:

Corrections refused to name other businesses on the basis that "supplying this information 'would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of the person who supplied or who is the subject of the information'".

Corrections also admitted supplying work-parties [PDF] to several city councils and LATEs, as well as commercial forestry companies such as Pan Pac Forest Products, Craigpine, and Proseed. Several of these companies (and several of those named earlier) are exporters. Their exports are now at risk. Quite apart from the reputational risk of using slaves, most countries (including, ironically, New Zealand) ban the import of goods produced in whole or in part by prison labour. Sourcing goods from Corrections' prison labour scheme could see those goods barred from overseas markets.

(It should also result in consequences on the domestic market. People don't like slavery, and are unlikely to react well to companies sourcing their goods from prison slave labour. And contra Corrections, this is not an unreasonable prejudice. Instead, its the natural consequence of these immoral companies' actions. Unfortunately, Corrections' secrecy and the lack of any product labelling requirements prevents us from exercising consumer choice in this matter).

As I've noted previously, I support education and training schemes in prison. But the CIE scheme isn't rehabilitation - it is the exploitation of a literally captive labour market for profit. It is slavery, and it is wrong.

"Closing the gap"

At the 2008 election, National campaigned on "closing the gap with Australia", specifically the gap in wages and living standards. But on their watch, that gap has grown wider:

a comparison of average weekly earnings in November 2008 and February this year shows New Zealand wages grew by 5.2 per cent over that period while Australia's grew by 6.7 per cent.

Australia's ordinary average wage rose from A$1165 to A$1243 while New Zealand's went from NZ$891 to NZ$947. On yesterday's currency rates, the gap widened from $540 a week in December 2008 to $580 in March this year.

The article attributes this to the recession, which Australia avoided with a well-targeted stimulus package. Meanwhile, National was using accounting tricks to pretend it was doing something, while in practice leaving everything to the market - giving us lower wages and higher unemployment. But that's not the whole story. Australia also strengthened its labour laws, repealing John Howard's hated "workchoices". National weakened them, introducing a 90-day fire-at-will period. Australia has strong unions. We don't, and National is trying to crush even the feeble remnants by removing the right of access to workplaces. These are policies designed to widen the gap, not shrink it.

Meanwhile, the government admitted in the House yesterday that it has targets for its "closing the gap" goal - but refused to say what they were. And in light of the above, its no wonder. Targets mean accountability. They mean that we can see if the government is performing according to its own expectations and judge accordingly. But that is the last thing National wants - because ultimately, its "closing the gap" policy is just empty rhetoric, a prop used to justify attacks on workers and kiwi living standards for the benefit of its rich clique of cronies - all in the name of "boosting economic growth", of course.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Not just public servants

In a comment yesterday about the government's witch-hunt against those who leaked information on its mining plans, John Key pointed the finger firmly at the public service:

Government relied on having a neutral and independent public service and most people in the public sector operate without political bias, Mr Key said.

"You have to acknowledge there might be one or two people that don't and if they chose not to then that information is quite easily distributed to others."

Mr Key said he was reluctant to limit access to cabinet papers because it could reduce the quality of the advice the Government received.

But of course its not just public servants who have access to this information, but also Ministers and their (politically appointed) advisors. And as John Key well knows, they may also have reason to leak. But I guess its just more politically convenient to blame the public service and impugn their professionalism rather than admit to divisions within the Cabinet.

The problem with Nauru

Now that Timor has said they don't want Australia's refugees, John Key has joined the Australian opposition in backing Nauru as a solution. But there's a problem: Nauru doesn't have a functioning government at the moment, and certainly not one with any democratic mandate to negotiate. But more importantly, it is also not a party to the Refugee Convention, meaning that any attempt to refoul refugees there will effectively be placing them outside the protection of international law. Which is not something a decent country with an interest in strengthening international law should even contemplate.

This is an immoral policy, based on a racist fantasy, and aimed squarely at depriving refugees of the protection of international law. We should have no part of it whatsoever. If Australia wants to regress back to the racism of John Howard, then we can't do much about it - but we certainly shouldn't be joining them.


That is the only way to describe the government's decision yesterday not to lower the blood-alcohol limit for driving from 80 to 50 mg/100 ml and instead punt it for two years to allow for "further research". As the National Addiction Centre points out, we do not need more research: there have already been 60 studies whose results support the reduction. As for the effect of a reduction,

the Ministry of Transport had estimated reducing the blood-alcohol limit to 50mg could save between 15 and 33 lives, prevent up to 680 injuries and save between $111 million and $238m every year.
With its gutless decision, this government has clearly signalled that it would rather see those people killed and maimed than risk offending the subset of its supporters who refuse to take responsibility for their own behaviour. We should pile the corpses on John Key's lawn, and see how he feels about it then (something we should also do for their similarly gutless decision on air pollution).

It is not difficult to not drink and drive. It is simply a matter of taking responsibility for your own behaviour and planning ahead. Once upon a time the right purported to value that sort of thing. I guess they don't anymore. Instead, they'd rather kill 30 of us a year, maim another 680, and spend $238 million cleaning up the mess because they're too scared to confront the fact that some of their friends are irresponsible drunks.

More hearts and minds

Another day, another 50 dead civilians in Afghanistan, killed by American carelessness. The Afghan government is furious, and rightly so - the Americans and their NATO vassals are meant to be helping Afghans, not killing them randomly.

No doubt the US and NATO will investigate, and no doubt they'll issue the usual whitewash which fails to hold anyone accountable - just as they have in cases of deliberate murder. And so the killings will continue, fuelled by an attitude among soldiers which values their own lives far higher than those of the people they are supposed to be protecting. And the net result will be to turn more people to the Taliban. The US might as well set up a recruiting stand for them right in the middle of Kabul- at least that way fewer people would die.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Justice for the killing fields

Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch has been found guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention by an international tribunal. Good. While in charge of Tuol Sleng prison, Duch was responsible for the murder of 15,000 people. Inmates at the prison were tortured with beatings, electric shocks, hanging, burning, and waterboarding to force them to "confess" to crimes against the regime; after confessing, they were executed. Duch oversaw all of this in minute detail, and so is responsible under the Nuremberg Principles for every act of torture and every killing. And he's likely to end up in prison for the rest of his life for it.

This should be a warning to other international criminals: if you organise the machinery of torture and genocide, we will get you. And that applies to the architect's of America's policy of torture as much as it applies to Duch. Torturers are hostis homini generis, the common enemies of all humanity. And they must all be brought to justice.

A smaller target

The Dim-Post notes that National seems to be reviving its pre-election "small-target strategy" of refusing to talk about its policies. Over the weekend, Employment Relations Minister Kate Wilkinson was invited to appear on Q&A to discuss her proposed changes to employment law, but refused to front up. There's another example this morning, with Gerry Brownlee refusing to appear on Morning Report [audio] to discuss his draft Energy Strategy.

While this is politically convenient for the government, it is unacceptable in a democracy. The government is imposing policies on us. And that means they have an obligation to front up and explain those policies so that we can judge them. If they don't, then they are behaving not as an elected government, but like an unelected king.

New Fisk

We should mourn these desert staging posts

NZ in the Afghan warlogs

In case you're curious, this is what shows up about NZ in the Afghan warlogs:

  • 19/05/2005: "TF Thunder submits Medevac request from the Bamian PRT (42STC7410131926) 83K N of FB Anaconda. The PT is a New Zealand soldier with Gastro Enteritis"
  • 24/05/2005: "TF Thunder reports cache IVO Bamian PRT... EOD confirmed the munitions and all items were taken back to New Zealand PRT Bamian for disposal"
  • 25/01/2007: "Wind Power contractor and expert arrive in Panjshir: CPT Chris Nuckols (Minnesota National Guard) currently serving as an ANA trainer, but a wind power engineer in his civilian job, again arrived in Panjshir. With him was Tony Woods, a wind power contractor from New Zealand."
  • 25/01/2007: NZ LtCol Fotheringham at UNAMA meeting in Kabul with US commanders.
  • 27/01/2007: Wind testing station mentioned on 25/01/2007 (an anemometer mast, from the sound of it) completed. "The New Zealand company, Empower Consultants Limited, finished the work this morning."
  • 19/02/2007: "During a meeting with the ANP [Afghan National Police] , New Zealand forces were given two VO ["Victim Operated"] IEDs... New Zealand personnel reverse engineered one of the devices."
  • 12/03/2007: News report: New Zealand extends Afghanistan deployment to Sept 2008
  • 18/09/2007: Visit by ISAF commanders to Bamiyan. "Party arrived at the New Zealand PRT and was met by the Kiwis with their traditional Powhiri greeting. After the greeting concluded, COMISAF presented the NATO ISAF medals to the New Zealand PRT members. The New Zealand PRT Commander provided COMISAF with a their mission brief and discussed challenges the New Zealand team faced and what issues they weren't prepared to deal with."
  • 22/09/2007: News report on "Bamyan Peace Day" related to previous meeting.
  • 13/10/2007: "TF Helmand reported insurgents engaged with indirect fire at 41S PR 3212 6694, 20.0km southwest of FOB ANP Hill in Now Zad district, Helmand province. Friendly forces requested close air support and attack helicopter. Friendly forces convoy was moving but was last reported static due to vehicle breakdown. At 1320Z Reports indicate insurgents have 82mm mortar in place and all forces are in heightened alert. At 1348Z, F15 can see approximately 30 pax (possible Taliban) moving northwest from Thala. The intention is to fly over pax for a show of force. At 1404Z convoy has now linked up with force protection from New Zealand at 82N."
  • 30/03/2008: report on NZ convoy hit by IED
  • 11/04/2008: NZ soldier medevaced after being backed over by a patrol vehicle at the firing range. The soldier was eventually sent on to Germany with a broken leg.
  • 7/10/2008: report on NZ convoy hit by IED. Interesting that some of those Toyotas have anti-IED ECM on them.
  • 16/10/2008: Report of bicycle bombing in Bamiyan City.
  • 13/05/2009: NZ forces find cache of weapons.
  • 7/11/2008: NZ forces find cache of weapons.
  • 29/11/2008: Afghan forces hit by IED. "NZPRT deployed to site to investigate and discovered a secondary IED (initially reported as 2x landmines). NZPRT EOD TM [bomb disposal unit] is en route to site. No casualties or damage reported."
  • 20/01/2009: NZ soldier medevaced for suspected Appendicitis.
  • 30/04/2009: NZ forces find cache of weapons. Detailed list of weapons found.
  • 6/05/2009: NZ forces find cache of weapons.
  • 30/05/2009: "NEW ZEALAND PRT reports FF were dispatched to an IED site to investigate a Possible IEd. FF arricved on the site and started to search area and an IED detonated. Searching for signs of seconadary device ATT"
  • 20/10/2009: "A new Zealand C-130 on short final landing at KAIA recieved a missle warning indicator and deployed flares over Kabul. The A/C landed safely and no injuries or damaged occured. No missile was seen." This was Wayne Mapp's Hercules.
If you're wondering how to do this, the data is in a zipped csv file. Download it, import the first 64K records into Excel, and use the find function. Alternatively, you can just suck the whole thing into Notepad and grep it.

The Afghan warlogs

Wikileaks has struck again, with a leak of the US's Afghan war diary, a collection of 91,000 reports covering on the US war in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2010:

The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces' activities. The reports do not generally cover top-secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually, in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

There's been a simultaneous release in the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, with each media outlet focusing on different reports within the massive dataset. But the overall picture is bad, with news of unreported civilian deaths, a US death-squad (which frequently kills the wrong people), drones that fall out of the sky, a failure to deal with IEDs, and reports that Pakistan is helping the Taliban. Its a deeply embarrassing leak for the US; no wonder they regard Wikileaks as a threat. But this is stuff we have a right to know - people are being killed, and our governments are doing it in our name. We have a right to scrutinise their conduct and hold them to account (particularly if, as this leak shows, they are lying to us).

As for New Zealand, while the logs do not generally cover non-US forces, there are a few mentions of us. Some routine reports of political meetings and discovered IEDs and weapons caches, a report on the IED attack on an NZ convoy, a kiwi soldier medevaced for Gastro Enteritis, another after being backed over by a patrol vehicle at the firing range, Wayne Mapp's Hercules getting a missile warning on approach to Kabul (confirmed in a Sunday News story here). There's no mention of the SAS, or of any misbehaviour of combat by NZ forces. Within the limits of the dataset, its actually reassuring about the NZ deployment - they seem to be doing exactly what they say they are, and not getting into trouble (at least according to the Americans). And that is good to know.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Absolutely unbelievable

As some of you may know, I've recently been running a project to gather performance information on OIA compliance from government Ministers and departments. The system for this is simple: first, ask how the agency tracks requests. If they say they use a spreadsheet or database, request it. If they don't, or if the data is inadequate, ask them to compile the information from filed correspondence.

Today I received the most appalling response yet to one of these requests. In response to a request to Nick Smith's office for a trawl of paper records (brought on by their crap tracking spreadsheet), I was told by his Senior Private Secretary that:

the Minister's office does not keep paper or digital records of its OIA correspondence.
This is absolutely unbelievable. Quite apart from it being a basic part of office administration to keep file copies of all correspondence, Ministers have a statutory duty under the Public Records Act to
create and maintain full and accurate records of its affairs, in accordance with normal, prudent business practice
If Smith's SPS's contention is true, his office is managed incompetently and behaving unlawfully. Alternatively, they're just blatantly lying in an effort to make an unwelcome request go away. Since its Nick Smith, I'm not really sure what to think. But I'm sure the Ombudsmen will get to the bottom of it for me.

A closer look: National's Energy Strategy

Yesterday the government released its Draft New Zealand Energy Strategy [PDF] for consultation. So, how does it compare with Labour's 2007 version? The difference is easy to spot. Labour's energy strategy was about shifting to a sustainable, low-emissions energy infrastructure. National's is about finding oil.

And that is about the size of it. Of twelve specific goals, "develop petroleum and mineral fuel resources" is first, while "reduce energy-related greenhouse gas emissions" is last. The environment has been reduced to an afterthought, a commitment to "best practice" (which means doing nothing), rather than being put at the core of the document. As for sustainability, its a dirty word, without a single mention in the entire document.

In keeping with National's climate change policy, there's a massive disconnect between goals and action. The government has retained the target of 90% renewable electricity by 2025, but has no plans on how it will be achieved. It seems to think the market will do it itself, rather than pursuing the cheapest, dirtiest technology. Ditto their plans for "an energy efficient transport system", where they say they will "focus on improving vehicle efficiency" while shitcanning plans to do exactly that (and building more roads, subsidising poor choices, while starving public transport). Only on finding oil do they have concrete plans, with promises of more fat exploration subsidies to the oil industry in the place of research into renewables. Isn't it time we stopped subsidising the dirty, polluting oil industry? After all, they are the problem, not the solution.

Appended to the Energy Strategy is a new National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy. This sets more ambitious targets than the 2007 version, but again there's the disconnect between goals and actions. For example, they aim to reduce transport energy use by 29 PJ a year by 2015 (vs 20PJ a year in the 2007 version). The first specific action they give for achieving this? Building roads. Yes, seriously. Other than that, its just "provide information". Again, they seem to think the market will produce these reductions by magic - because that's so obviously what its done in the past. Similarly, they plan to save 21PJ a year by 2015 from business. Their chief policy? "Encourage a long-term view". This isn't "light-handed regulation" - it's doing nothing.

On products, specific targets to have Minimum Energy Performance Standards for 17 new classes of products and EnergyStar labelling for 15 has been replaced with a vague goal to extend such regulation "in line with major trading partners". Again, a "do nothing" approach. And on government, they've reduced the target for the public sector, eliminating carbon neutrality targets and pushing the deadline for a 10% reduction in per-employee energy use from 2012 to 2015. Only on homes do they have actions to bring about their goals, with a massive expansion of insulation programmes compared to Labour. And that's all due to the Greens.

In opposition, National derided Labour's strategies as "hot air". In government, that's exactly what they are producing. A 4-year-old can understand that things don't happen by magic, and that setting goals without any plans on how to bring them about will result in failure. Sadly, that logic seems to escape Gerry Brownlee.

New Zealand's next Governor-General

New Zealand is due for a new Governor-General sometime next year. Unfortunately, we don't get to choose them - the decision is entirely in John Key's hands. But we should be able to. And the Republican Movement is highlighting the democratic deficit in our highest office by running its own selection process online.

You can nominate people here. Presumably, they'll be publishing the list and running an "election" for it - exactly as should happen in reality (though given the nature of the office, I'd be happy enough if Parliament chose them by a supermajority process).

As for who I'd prefer, I prefer former judges as Governors-General for two reasons. First, they know the constitution. And second, they know their place. The role of the Governor-General is to host dinner parties, sign whatever is put in front of them, and keep out of politics. Judges seem to understand this well. Former politicians don't. Unfortunately, given National's approach to important constitutional offices, the odds are they'll choose one of the latter.

Women shouldn't have to pay for protection from their abusers

There's a disturbing story on Stuff this morning about a serious decline in the number of protection orders issued by the courts to victims of domestic violence over the last decade. Permanent orders have dropped from 4322 in 1999 to 2595 in 2010, while temporary orders have fallen from 5247 to 3171 over the same period. Women's Refuge attributes this to an increase in the legal threshold applied by judges before granting an order, but they also note in passing that many women are concerned about costs and may not be able to get legal aid. Which begs the question: why the hell are they forced to pay for it in the first place?

Protecting people from violence is a core duty of the state. Protection orders are an essential mechanism for protecting women from domestic violence. This is something the government should be paying for, not the victims - just like the government pays for the police. And costwise, we're looking at peanuts - less than $10 million.

This is money the government should be spending. No-one should be denied protection or justice on financial grounds.

A dangerous decision

The decision not to prosecute the police officer who killed Ian Tomlinson isn't just wrong - its is also dangerous. Here's why.

When it comes down to it, I am some form of Hobbesean. No, not his absolutism, or his idea that there was an actual contract, but his core idea (which is the foundation of most modern political theory) that government exists by consent and that its primary purpose is to save us from the state of nature. One of the ways it does that is by protecting people and arbitrating disputes. Locke refines on this and basically says that government has to deliver justice; while he shrouds this in superstitious nonsense about "implementing the law of god", the cynical reason is more compelling: because otherwise people take matters into their own hands.

When the government's justice is so transparently biased, it raises the risk that people will seek their own justice. Now, I don't really think the aggrieved family of Ian Tomlinson are going to get a lynchmob together (and sadly, they can't afford to mount the private prosecution this case deserves) - but the fact that that looks like a more just solution than what the government is offering fundamentally undermines the government's legitimacy, and its a sad commentary on the state of the British government today.

No justice for Ian Tomlinson

On 1 April 2009, a London police officer beat Ian Tomlinson from behind with a baton. Tomlinson, whose hands were in his pockets and who posed no threat to police, died shortly afterwards, his insides pulped by the blow. Today, the Crown prosecution Service announced that the police officer will not face charges for the death - not manslaughter, not grievous bodily harm, not even common assault.

There's more detailed dissection (and the family's reaction) in the Guardian. The CPS's decision on manslaughter is based on the strong disagreement between pathologists - the police having given Tomlinson's body to an incompetent (who is coincidentally about to be struck off) to cover up their wrong-doing. He concluded that Tomlinson had died naturally of a heart attack; it took a second post-mortem, after video evidence of the beating was exposed by the media, to show the real cause. Despite this, the Independent Police Complaints Commission had pushed for manslaughter charges - presumably on the grounds that a jury could decide between differing experts. As for grievous bodily harm and assault, despite the clear video evidence, the CPS dismissed Tomlinson's injuries as "minor", while their sitting on the file for a year meant that the time-limit for an assault charge had expired (how... convenient).

The decision comes five years to the day after the murder by police of Jean Charles de Menezes. The decision not to charge was made by the same lawyer who whitewashed the police in that case as well.

This is simply a cover-up. Once again, we have been shown that there is no justice in the UK. Once again, we have been shown that the British establishment protects its own, even when they kill and maim innocent people. Once again, we have been shown that the government and the police do not work for the people, but for themselves.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The domino effect

Last week, Argentina legalised same-sex marriage. But the law change hasn't just affected Argentina - now two of its neighbours, Paraguay and Uruguay, are also looking at legislating for marriage equality.

So, when is New Zealand going to catch up? Or are we going to continue to pander to bigotry by denying gays full equality and instead offering them only "separate but equal"?

New Fisk

Why Jordan is occupied by Palestinians

Breaking Westminster

Earlier in the year, the Cook Islands provided a startling example of how to break the Westminster system. In the wake of a party dispute which had eradicated his majority and facing an imminent vote of no confidence, Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai found a way to avoid losing office: he adjourned Parliament until further notice. No Parliament, no vote. No vote, no loss of office and perks.

Unfortunately, it seems that other people were watching. And as a result, the same dirty trick has just been pulled in Papua New Guinea. The governing party there has just splintered after a court case overturned the anti-party-hopping law which artificially held it together, with the result that long-serving Prime Minister Michael Somare has lost his majority. Rather than facing his fate, he instead got the Speaker to adjourn Parliament until November, giving him another four months in office (and time to bribe or threaten his way to a majority again).

In both cases (and that of Canada a few years ago) the move is legal. But its also grossly unconstitutional, violating the central tenet of the Westminster system: that the government must have the confidence of Parliament at all times. And the result is that both the Cooks and PNG are now effectively governed by dictatorships without any democratic mandate.

This is an appalling abuse of the Parliamentary process, and it exposes a fatal flaw in the heart of the Westminster system, born of the royal prerogative. The only way to save democracy is to eliminate that prerogative. In New Zealand, we've largely done that - our Parliament sets its own sitting timetable, rather than sitting on the whim of the Prime Minister, while the prerogative power to dissolve (and by extension, prorogue and adjourn) Parliament now requires the confidence of the House. Clearly, our Pacific neighbours need similar reforms. Otherwise, they will remain at the mercy of unscrupulous, power-hungry politicians with a contempt for democracy.

National loves loan sharks

Last night, in another despicable display, the National government voted down Carol Beaumont's Credit Reforms (Responsible Lending) Bill. The bill would have put restrictions on loan sharks, setting a maximum interest rate, requiring them to reasonably believe loans could be repaid, and preventing them from recovering anything more than the principal in the event of a default. These are all good ideas which deserved the scrutiny of a select committee. Instead, National voted it down. They'd rather see the current situation, in which predatory loan sharks exploit poor communities, continue unchanged.

But then, is anyone really surprised? As Campbell Live pointed out, these loan sharks are National people, living in big houses in Remuera while inflicting debt and misery on the poor in South Auckland. National is just sticking up for its own in opposing this bill. And that is another reason to oppose them.

Sympathy for Bruce Emery

I don't like Bruce Emery. I don't like what he did. Like many people, I think the media and the law went easy on him in both charging and sentencing because he was a white man who killed a poor brown kid. If the colours had been reversed, and an angry Maori guy had killed a white teenager after intentionally taking a knife and intentionally chasing him for several hundred metres, the media would have been howling for blood, and the police would have given the crime the charge it deserved: murder, not manslaughter.

But that's done now. Emery has been tried, convicted, and sentenced, and he's now up for parole. Which has been denied because prison has made him depressed and this makes him an "undue risk" to the community. Having been a poster boy for white man's justice, Emery has now become a poster boy for the cruelty of our prison system and our society's misunderstanding of the mentally ill.

This is where "tough on crime" has taken us. We put a man in prison, making him mentally ill, then we use that illness as a reason to keep him in prison - which will make him iller. And so we continue to imprison a man who is unlikely to reoffend, at huge expense, all the while denying him treatment. The likely result is that when he is eventually released, we'll have a basket-case on our hands. Anyone who thinks this is a sane outcome is probably an "undue risk" to the community.

Meanwhile, its worth pointing out: the Convention Against Torture includes the infliction of severe mental suffering in its definition of torture. Our jails seem to do that as a matter of course. Its completely unnecessary - countries which treat their prisoners like human beings do not have this problem - and it undermines rehabilitation. Instead of running an effective prison system, we're running a mass-torture operation instead. Its time we cleaned it up.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time to protect Te Wāhipounamu

Yesterday, the government listened to the people and backed down from its plans to mine our national parks. But as WWF-New Zealand point out, this doesn't mean our precious places are properly protected. Te Wāhipounamu is a UNESCO World Heirtage Site in Fiordland and Westland, recognised for its outstanding environmental value. The area includes Fiordland, Mt Aspiring and Mt Cook national parks, which are protected under schedule 4, but also large tracts of conservation land which are not protected. And with the government's new plans to encourage mining on the rest of the conservation estate, those areas in Te Wāhipounamu are now under threat.

It doesn't have to be this way. The New Zealand Conservation Authority recommended in its submission [PDF] that World Heritage Sites be added to schedule 4 to ensure their protection. That seems like a damn good idea to me.

"Choice" on retirement

Don Brash has reared his ugly head again, this time suggesting that workers should be given a "choice" over their retirement age, with financial incentives to encourage people to keep working. Brash is quick to say that this isn't an attempt to screw people out of money - the incentive would be "actuarially equivalent to drawing the pension at the age of eligibility". So what's the benefit?

Brash seems here to be labouring under a preconception that being paid superannuation means that people stop working. That's not a legal requirement and while it was once the norm, that is changing. Older people who are still fit seem quite happy to collect their universal pension and work as well. This is effectively what Brash wants them to do, so why offer "choice"?

The only reason is to soften us up for an increase in the retirement age - an increase which would be unfair to Maori and unfair to the poor, who are more likely to die before retirement age. We know Brash doesn't care about those groups - his willingness to use racially divisive politics and his advocacy for the abolition of the minimum wage shows that clearly enough - but the rest of us should. A retirement benefit that is paid only to the rich and lucky is no benefit at all.

The Hurunui gets a breather

The one good part of the Canterbury Dictatorship Act was the power to impose moratoria on the allocation of water from overallocated rivers, effectively ending the water rush and giving the council time to come up with a proper management plan. That power has just been used for the first time, with a 15-month moratorium on applications to take water from the Hurunui River. The net result will be that there is time to consider the current application for a Water Conservation Order on the river, without the risk that all the water will be taken for cows before it is decided.

Unfortunately the WCO process is still unfair, being decided by the government's crony dictators rather than the impartial Environment Court. But this is still a good move. In fact, I'm wondering why other regional councils don't have this power as well - or a wider version which can apply to discharges. After all, if you have a mess, surely the first stage in sorting it out is to stop making it bigger. Under the current process, there's no effective way for councils to do this. And our environment is the loser.

Christian bigotry

The Press reports that a sports coach has been sacked from a Christchurch Christian school because he is gay:

[The coach] was later told by the principal that the school's Board of Trustees has decided his homosexuality was a problem and he could not continue in the position.

The newspaper reports today that the decision was made based on Christian beliefs that homosexuality is a sin.

When are Christians going to learn? It is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, and it has been now for almost twenty years. Religion, even running a religious school, is not a licence to discriminate on this front, any more than it is a licence to be racist. The only exemption for religious schools allows them to discriminate on the basis of religion to ensure they have appropriate teachers; they don't get to panty-sniff everyone to ensure they conform to their weird little moral strictures.

As I said, this has been the law for almost twenty years; you'd think the bigots would have caught up with it by now. But I guess the whole problem is their failure to adapt themselves to the modern world...

Update: More here. The good news is that staff and parents at the school did not support the board's bigotry. At least some of them understand that that sort of institutionalised hate is not acceptable.

Member's Day

Unless Gerry Brownlee abuses urgency to kill it, today will be a Member's Day - the first in a long time. And it looks like the government will be making some unpopular decisions and pissing off core constituencies and its coalition partners.

First on the Order Paper is the Rodney District Council Bill. This is a local bill, pushed by the Rodney District Council, and it would exclude the Rodney District from the Auckland Supercity and instead establish it as a unitary authority. Because amalgamation has gone so far, this is quite complicated; it would for example require local body elections in Rodney to be deferred for a year to allow the Local Government Commission to establish new ward boundaries (for some reason they can't just use the old ones), plus it would require allocation of ARC assets to Rodney rather than Auckland. National / ACT will vote this down of course but in the process they'll offend one of their safest seats.

Second is the second reading of Te Ururoa Flavell's Public Works (Offer Back of and Compensation for Acquired Land) Amendment Bill, which would provide fairer treatment for iwi and hapu whose land was seized under the Public Works Act but not used. The Local Government and Environment Committee has recommended that the bill not be passed, so its doomed to failure. The interesting question is whether Labour will support it.

Finally, there's the interesting stuff: Jackie Blue's Consumer Guarantees Amendment Bill, which will pass and deserves to, and Carol Beaumont's Credit Reforms (Responsible Lending) Bill, which deserves to pass but probably won't. The latter I think will show us just how vile National is, supporting the right of loan sharks to charge obscene interest rates on loans they know cannot be repaid, then profit when you default. These people are basically scam-artists exploiting poor communities, and they desperately need to be regulated. But regulation goes against National's free market ideology, and they see no value in protecting the poor (now, if they were ripping off people in Remuera, that would be another story - but these scum live in Remuera). So, I expect National to vote the bill down rather than send it to select committee as it deserves. Though maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The end of reasonableness

Huh. It turns out the government's proposed change on sick leave - allowing employers to demand proof from the first day that someone is sick - is already law. The difference? It requires the employer to have reasonable grounds to suspect that someone isn't really ill. So what National is demanding is that employers be allowed to do this on unreasonable grounds.

This is neither fair nor reasonable - but its the common theme running through National's whole approach to employment law: removing the requirement for employers to treat people reasonably as human beings. Instead, National is shifting employment relations to a "grace and favour" model, where employers can exercise arbitrary power without restraint, and where those of them who are unreasonable arseholes (or who just got up on the wrong side of bed that morning) carte blanche to abuse with impunity. Basically, they want to treat us like peasants - and we should not put up with it.

[Hat-tip: Matthew Poole]

No wonder

As I noted last week, I've had a lot of bad OIA experiences with the police. It's not just the quality of the answers, which betray a pathological desire for secrecy and a "you have no right to know" attitude (sorry guys, the law begs to differ) - its the fact that every time I OIA Police National Headquarters, they seem to "lose" my request, meaning a late answer or one only received after hassling them.

Now I know why. According to an OIA I received this morning (which was, for once, not late),

Workgroups at PNHQ do not currently use an OIA tracking system.
Yes, that's right - nothing. Not even an Excel spreadsheet (which is the preferred solution for ad-hoc tracking, and not exactly difficult to set up). This is pure administrative incompetence - and its almost certainly reflected in their performance. Unfortunately, proving that would require them to dig through paper records (assuming they keep any), which they could claim constitutes "substantial collation and research" - so that incompetence becomes its own cover.

The good news is that they are working on a special-purpose tracking system, which will apparently be in place later this year and cover all police districts (assuming it doesn't go the way of INCIS), so we'll be able to get hard data on their performance next year. But the fact that they've waited so long to do this, and have had nothing in the meantime speaks volumes about their attitude to the law.

Trial periods: employment and discrimination

When the government announced its plan to extend the 90-day employment trial period to cover all new workers, it did so on the basis that the trial periods had been "a huge success" at creating jobs. Unfortunately, as Derek Cheng points out in the Herald this morning, the evidence doesn't support that. While the Department of Labour's review found that trial periods appeared to have encouraged 40% of employers to hire people, it also noted that

without any counterfactual evidence it cannot be stated categorically that trial periods had created extra job opportunities. The international literature suggests that exemptions to employment protection legislation, such as the trial period legislation, increase both hiring and firing but have an unclear overall impact on unemployment.
Or, to put it more bluntly: they had no way of telling if the result was real, or if employers were telling them what they wanted the government to hear for political reasons.

One thing trial periods do create, however, is discrimination. According to the survey, 43% of those hired under trial periods were young people aged 15 - 24. This is massively larger than the proportion of young people in the general population, or of young people currently looking for work, so the upshot is that young people are significantly more likely to have a trial period imposed. In other words, employers are offering young people less favourable terms of employment on the basis of their age, in direct violation of the Human Rights Act.

"But its not age, it's experience!" people will cry. Bullshit. The report also notes that of the people hired on trial periods, only 10% were first time workers. In other words, the vast majority of young people forced onto trial periods had experience; employers chose to disregard that, seeing only the young face in front of them.

This is discriminatory, and it is unlawful. And rather than expanding this behaviour, the government should be putting a stop to it.

The people win on mining

It's official: the government has backed down completely on mining our national parks. Not only will they not remove any areas from Schedule 4 - they will also amend the Act to automatically add areas to Schedule 4 when they are designated as national parks, reserves etc. We won!

Thanks to everyone who protested, everyone who emailed the Minister, everyone who signed a petition and everyone who made a submission. Your voices made a difference. If enough people scream loudly enough, the government has to listen. Remember that.

Unfortunately, the government is still pressing ahead with its plans for joint approval of mining permits on the rest of the Conservation estate. That's a serious muddying of the waters which disregards the purpose for which the land is held - conservation. But the main threat - bulldozers in our national parks - is gone. And I think it will be a long time before National raises the issue again. We have put the fear of the people into them - and it feels good to have done so. Now, if only we can do the same on workers rights...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Climate change: Shamed again

Climate change talks are currently stalled, with rich polluter nations currently holding out for doing nothing - effectively commiting us to three degrees of warming and the consequent disease, famine and war which will accompany it. Sadly, our own government is part of the problem, with an utterly pathetic reduction target of 10 - 20% which is so hedged and conditional that it may end up being nothing.

Meanwhile, while we're stalling, the poor world are leaving us behind. Last year, the Maldives, Tokelau and Tuvalu all announced they were going carbon neutral. And now Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and Samoa have joined them. These are some of the world's poorest, least developed countries. But they recognise that this problem affects all of us, rich or poor, and that doing something about it is a matter of national survival.

John Key claims he is "ambitious for New Zealand". On this issue, he's clearly not ambitious enough. We're meant to be a world leader on this issue, a champion for the environment. Instead, we are being outpaced by some of the world's least-developed nations. The Marshall Islands are offering a bigger emissions cut than we are. That's something we ought to be deeply ashamed of.

State child abuse in the UK

Another victory for freedom of information in the UK, with the government forced to reveal its manual on Physical Control in Care provided to private contractors running "secure training centres" - effectively privatised youth prisons. And the contents are horrifying, with guards instructed to:

  • "Use an inverted knuckle into the trainee's sternum and drive inward and upward."
  • "Continue to carry alternate elbow strikes to the young person's ribs until a release is achieved."
  • "Drive straight fingers into the young person's face, and then quickly drive the straightened fingers of the same hand downwards into the young person's groin area."
Remember, these are children they are talking about. And the guards are being instructed to beat and torture them, potentially with lasting or even fatal results, not for self-defence but to maintain "discipline". Kids have died while being subjected to these techniques. Others have suffered broken bones, or been humiliated and driven to suicide.

The Children's Rights Alliance for England has called the manual "state authorisation of institutionalised child abuse". They're right. If parents did this sort of thing, they'd go to jail. And the same should apply to the staff in these facilities.

New kiwi blog

WCC Watch - keeping an eye on the Wellington City Council and elections.

The national conversation about work

Continuing on today's theme, the Human Rights Commission has just released a solid chunk of empirical evidence on the labour market in New Zealand. What next? National Conversation about Work is based on interviews with over 3,000 employers and employees across the entire country, and has some interesting and disturbing findings. On the first one, they found that workers are not slackers; rather than seeing work as a burden, most saw it as a vital part of their lives and a source of wellbeing; they were proud of what they did, generally enjoyed it, and made sacrifices for the business they were in. So much for the government's basis for its petty fascism over sick leave.

At the same time, the HRC also found a culture of long working hours, which interfered with life and family relationships as well as posing a threat to health and safety. This means that work is often taking over people's lives to an extent they are not comfortable with. Unlike most of the rest of the world, we have no legal limit on working hours, and no legislated disincentive in the form of statutory overtime; imposing them would prevent this from happening.

But the really disturbing stuff is about gender discrimination and pay equity. In 2010, women are still being paid less than men. And its a problem even in the state sector (which has had a statutory duty to end this discrimination for almost forty years):

Discrepancies in starting salaries between men and women were found in many organisations in the state sector, in apparent breach of the Equal Pay Act. Women in the private sector advised us that this was also a problem for them. Lack of transparency about salaries, however, made it very difficult to raise awareness about pay inequality. There was little confidence in existing mechanisms to challenge gender pay inequalities.
One of the suggested solutions to this was greater pay transparency. One interviewee noted that women are strongly discouraged from discussing their salaries, which means they have no way of knowing if discrimination is occurring. The HRC doesn't make a specific recommendation about this, but one solution overseas is to legislate to give workers a statutory right to compare their pay for the purposes of uncovering discrimination, overriding any secrecy clause in an employment contract. That seems like a good start.

Finally, there's some good stuff about the need for affordable, quality early childhood education in order to boost employment access for parents. This doesn't just affect women - the report notes that on the West Coast, the lack of ECE means employers can't retain staff, because their spouses can't get childcare, meaning they can't work, meaning they leave for somewhere with proper services. Its apparently a problem across provincial New Zealand, and the HRC recommends that the government step in to ensure equality of access. Some of the people they interview go further, suggesting that ECE be made a tax-deductible expense. That's one way of fixing it, but I think it addresses only part of the problem. ECE is vital to giving people a good start in life. It irons out inequalities, ensures better outcomes in employment, and is essential to allowing full workplace participation by women. Its at least as important as primary and secondary education, and we should be adopting the same model: free, universal government provision. Anything less is just subsidising private profit.

Unfortunately, with the expansion of 90 day trial periods, the disestablishment of the government pay equity unit, and attempts to kill off 20 hours free ECE, the government seems to be moving in exactly the wrong direction on all of this.

National Radio has an interesting interview with Judy Macgregor, EEO Commissioner, which discusses the report. You can listen to it here [audio]

New Fisk

They're all grovelling and you can guess the reason

The wrong approach on sick leave

Over the weekend, the government declared war on every employee in New Zealand, with its announcement that it planned to extend the 90 day trial period to cover all employers. But that wasn't the only "reform" they announced - they also plan to make it more difficult for employees to take their sick leave by allowing employers to demand proof (at their own expense, fortunately) that an employer was really sick after one day.

You can see how this panders to the prejudices of National's business supporters. In their view, employees are lazy, shiftless shirkers, who abuse their sick leave when they just want a day off. Forcing them to prove they were really sick will end this practice. Productivity will rise, and with it growth (and profits).

Except that it won't. All it will do is force employees to come in to work when they're sick but walking, because they don't want the hassle of dealing with a shitty boss. This already costs New Zealand $2 billion a year due to lower productivity, and Key's policy looks set to increase that number. In other words, Key's policy will have exactly the opposite effect than intended. That's what happens when you base your policy on ideology rather than empirical evidence.

In fact, the empirical evidence suggests that that the real problem with sick leave isn't that people use it too often - but that we don't use it often enough:

The research found the average time off work due to illness was 4.2 days per year, while the average number of days where employees went to work when they were too sick to be fully functioning and productive was 11.1 days.
And that means the solution isn't cracking down on sick leave and encouraging presenteeism, but instead increasing the entitlement and encouraging employees to use it, so they can actually get better rather than dragging themselves into work to function at low efficiency while infecting everybody else. Most of the rest of the developed world (including Australia, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore) get ten days annual sick leave. We get only five. We're behind even the anti-worker Americans on this (they get seven days). National is taking exactly the wrong approach here. But then, that's par for the course for them, isn't it?

Friday, July 16, 2010

More British torture

Another day, another revelation of British torture. Today, its not just collusion with the Americans, but active cooperation, with allegations that a British army unit was involved in the beating, waterboarding, and mock execution of an Iraqi prisoner:

Mr Eedan, who is being represented by human rights solicitors Public Interest Lawyers, says he was a senior member of Iraq's National Intelligence Service before his arrest and detention. In his witness statement he alleges that a joint unit of American and British soldiers raided his Basra home at around 1am on 11 August 2008 while he, his wife and four children were asleep.

He claims a British soldier hit him in the face and when he fell to the ground three others stamped on him. Another British soldier terrified his family by firing his rifle inside the house.

"I was led to my bathroom. A British interpreter and soldier arrived, together with two US soldiers," recalled Mr Eedan, who now works as a Basra restaurateur. "The American soldiers started to interrogate me with the British soldiers translating."

After he failed to identify four photographs of Iranian suspects linked to rocket attacks on British bases, the American soldiers began to beat him with their rifle butts, he alleges. A British captain then started questioning him about the whereabouts of rockets.

"The American soldier threw me on the floor, took his gun out, stuck it to my head and began swearing at me. He wanted to shoot me and I thought he was going to. The soldiers took a bucket, filled it with water and pushed my head into the water many times, pulling it out each time it looked I was about to lose consciousness ... they continued for almost three hours."

Mr Eedan also claims that both the US and British soldiers beat him severely. "One of the soldiers was particularly tough. He kicked me and struck me repeatedly with a rifle butt. It was relentless. As for the British captain, he was swearing at me, insulting my family and my mother. He said, 'You used those rockets against us and we are going to get our own back on you.'"

At the end of this ordeal, he was turned over to the Americans, who tortured him further. When he was released, they explained his imprisonment and torture had been the result of "mistaken identity".

Torture is a crime under both UK and international law. It is not enough for the British government admit wrongdoing and pay compensation - it must also track down those responsible and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. Anything less is granting impunity to torturers - a war crime in and of itself.


Last month, Radio New Zealand obtained leaked advice from the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs on the granting of $4.8 million in non-contestable funding to the Pacific Economic Development Agency - a private company run by National party crony J R Pereira. The advice was highly embarrassing to the government, so they did what they always do in these circumstances: started a witch hunt.

That witch-hunt has finished, and has failed to uncover any information about the source or manner of the leak. Good. Leaks are a vital part of our democracy, essential to telling us what the government is up to. While governments hate them, they are very much in the public interest. Stringing up leakers may prevent further embarrassment for self-interested politicians, but we would all lose if the government was successful in shutting down this information flow.

Class warfare

That is the only way to describe the government's plans to extend the 90-day employment trial period to cover all new workers. Big business wants higher profits. And so they're going to take them out of us, by making our employment less secure, preventing us from effectively organising, and removing pressure for pay rises. Oh, and preventing us from enforcing the terms of our contracts by limiting personal grievance claims.

As with their tax cuts, this is National's agenda stripped down to its core: fucking over the many for the benefit of the wealthy few.

The "justification" is that the trial period has "been a huge success". Obviously. That's why there's still 140,000 unemployed, and 30,000 fewer young people employed than there were when National took office. And it's why unemployment continued to rise after the law change took effect, and only dropped this year. If that's a "huge success", it really makes you wonder what failure looks like.

Ah, but I'm using the wrong metric. Wage growth has collapsed, while quarterly earnings are down. See? Success!

In reality, the government cannot measure how often trial periods are used, or whether they are being abused. The official advice was that it was

difficult to evaluate the outcomes for employers and employees who are affected by / make use of the 90 day bill.
And that the Department of Labour was not able to effectively measure what is occurring. Which makes any claim of "success" highly tenuous. But I guess if they came clean, and said "we have no idea if this policy works or not; in fact, we can't know - but we're going to extend it anyway", people would think they were mad. And they'd be right.

The good news is that Labour has said straight out that they will repeal this. Good. Now all they need to do is win an election.

Protecting Canterbury's rivers

Earlier in the year, the government abolished democracy in Canterbury, replacing the elected Environment Canterbury with unelected dictators and cancelling this year's local body election. While ostensibly about governance, the imposition of a dictatorship was all about the water; "sorting out" water rights in Canterbury means giving all the water to National's farmer-mates, so they can suck the rivers dry and fill them with shit, turning them into open sewers and the lakes into giant effluent ponds.

But National didn't just do violence to democracy - they also brutalised the rule of law as well, intervening in the current process to impose a Water Conservation Order on the Hurunui River to remove the decision from the fair and impartial Environment Court and put it in the hands of their crony dictators. The dictators would also gain special rights, existing only in Canterbury, to "vary" existing WCOs to allow farmers to take more water and spew more pollution - a fundamental violation of the purpose of those orders.

Now Labour's Ruth Dyson is proposing to put a stop to that, with a bill to repeal those special provisions and restore the status quo around Water Conservation orders:

A new private member's bill from Labour Party MP Ruth Dyson hopes to address concerns about water conservation orders in Canterbury.


"If it is drawn, and it gets through, it will repeal the section that lets the commissioners intervene in water conservation orders. I hope the National Government will at least let it get to select committee, but I'm not holding my breath."

Hopefully it will be drawn, and the quicker the better. And the same goes for Brendon Burns' democracy restoration bill. The people of Canterbury deserve democracy, and the full protection of the law for their rivers.

For fixed election dates

Over on Pundit, Andrew Geddis pushes for a fixed election date as a solution to the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill's stealth rise in spending limits. If the date of the election is fixed, then we can simply start the regulated period 90 days (or longer IMHO) beforehand, rather than effectively from the date the election is called as is proposed. That way our electoral system retains its integrity in the face of big money, and all parties get a level playing field.

But its not just electoral finance rules which suggest a fixed date, but democracy and fairness as well. In New Zealand, we don't elect a government, but a Parliament - and the politicians have to play the hand we deal them. The ability to call elections on a whim undermines this - if the government doesn't like the coalition partners we have saddled it with, it can go to the people; if it thinks they're demanding too much, it can threaten to roll the electoral dice; if relations break down entirely and it is on the verge of being voted out of office, it can dissolve the House and call an election as a final "fuck you" to those who have defeated it.

Outside of coalition squabbles, a Prime Minister can time elections to maximise their chances of returning to office. That's an obvious stacking of the deck in favour of the incumbent.

Fixing the election date removes these problems. It forces politicians to respect our will and play the hand they're dealt. It removes the gun from the government's hand in its negotiations with small parties, preventing them from being so one-sided. It eliminates one advantage of incumbency. And it ensures a level playing field on spending limits.

The UK is moving ahead on this. We should too.

Update: And Andrew has the bill to do it here. Any takers?