Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The do-nothing government

Just last month, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was praising her "community max" scheme as the solution to youth unemployment. Today, she's killing it off:

A recession programme to help young people find jobs is being wound up, disappointing a council that took on young workers.

The Community Max programme was introduced by the Government last year and aimed at unskilled 16 to 24-year-olds with few or no qualifications.

It provided thousands of youths with six months' work placement on a community or environmental project. Work and Income subsidised each person's wages and also provided a training component of up to $1250 a person. It cost the Government $40.3 million.

So what's changed? Youth unemployment is still at a staggering 18.2%, compared with 10.8% before the recession (HLFS June 2010 and September 2008). Young people are still failing to find work. But the scheme has apparently reached its maximum 3,000 placements (less than 5% of the total number of unemployed young people), so that's that. Its a perfect example of National's arbitrary and ineffective policies for handling the recession, and the way they have been aimed more at presenting the impression that the government is Doing Something, without actually doing anything useful.

This isn't good enough. Faced with the worst recession in 80 years, the government has basically abandoned the public and done nothing, while helping themselves to tax-cuts and taxpayer-funded pinot. They're simply the modern incarnation of Nero or Marie Antoinette, telling us all to eat cake and fiddling while the economy burns. Kiwis expect better than that, and we should make that expectation plain at the next election.

Strengthening the BORA

Over the weekend, in my post celebrating 20 years of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, I called for the BORA to be entrenched and strengthened to allow inconsistent laws to be overturned. Today, Green MP Keith Locke has announced a Member's Bill which does half of that job, and takes an interesting approach on the other half. His New Zealand Bill of Rights Amendment Bill [PDF] entrenches the BORA, requiring a referendum or a 75% supermajority in the House to repeal or amend it. And it allows the courts to declare legislation to be inconsistent with our supreme human rights law. But instead of allowing those laws to be overturned or rendered invalid, it instead requires Parliament to be formally notified of, and to formally respond to, any inconsistency. We already use such a provision in the Human Rights Act (see s92J and s92K), but that applies only to the right to be free of discrimination. Locke's bill would extend it to all rights. So, for example, in future the courts could find s11 of the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 to be in violation of the right to freedom of expression, and Parliament would have to say publicly what, if anything, it was going to do about it. While its not overturning, this would still be an advance, as the pressure will then be on Parliament to repeal or amend offending provisions so as to make them consistent.

The bill also has a couple of other amendments around s7 notifications, requiring the Attorney-General to give reasons backing up a notification of inconsistency (not required; they always do), and select committees and members proposing amendments to legislation to assess their consistency with the BORA (a role which should instead go to the Attorney-General). A more important change is to clarify that a justified limitation must be the least restrictive measure reasonably possible. This still involves a judgement call, but it again forces government to pursue less restrictive over more restrictive alternatives.

Overall, these are positive changes, and I look forward to them being passed. And while the entrenchment is a big move, I don't think it is such to require a referendum - the inconsistency provisions still leave ultimate power in the hands of Parliament, rather than the courts, so its not the sort of constitutional change that must be put to the people. Instead, these are changes which will make our BORA work better, make the politicians justify any deviation from it, and symbolise our commitment to human rights. And that's definitely worth doing.

New Fisk

Battlefield stereotypes that were fed to young minds

Moral hazard

So, South Canterbury Finance has gone into receivership, and the government has obligingly bailed out its investors to the tune of $1.7 billion. Each and every New Zealander has effectively just paid $340 - half a week's wages - to refill the pockets of 35,000 investors too stupid to understand that high interest equals high risk.

I think this displays perfectly the stupidity of including finance companies in the Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme. Banks have customers, who are innocent victims in any collapse. Finance companies, OTOH, have investors, people who are effectively gambling. Guaranteeing them against losses is no different from guaranteeing the pokie zombies or TAB addicts - and just as pointless and reprehensible.

It also raises the question of what sorts of controls we have on the RDGS, and why companies like SCF were ever allowed to join it in the first place. Every insurance company in the world protects itself against the extremes of moral hazard - e.g. house and contents policies exclude owner-arson. I'd expect the RDGS to at least protect us from the financial equivalent. The fact that it apparently does not suggests extreme incompetence on the government's part, and something they should be held to account for.

OIA performance stats: Ministers

For the past three months, I've been working on a project to compile performance statistics for Ministers' and government departments' handling of Official Information Act requests. The first results, for Ministers, are presented in the table below:

All information was obtained from the relevant Ministers using the OIA. Requests is the total number of requests received by the Minister during FY2009 (1 July 2009 - 30 June 2010). Excluded is the number of requests which were excluded from the data set due to poor data or being cancelled. Transferred is the number of requests transferred to another Minister or Department. Complete is the number of completed requests with good data. Incomplete is the number of requests which had not been completed at 1 July 2010. Late is the number of complete requests which were late; a request was counted as late if it had taken longer than 20 working days and had not been extended . Late & Incomplete is the number of incomplete requests which were late (as defined above) at 1 July 2010. Mean and Median are the mean and median response times in working days. On-time is the percentage of requests answered on-time. Chris Finlayson's data covers only the period from 1 January - 30 June 2010, and earlier records could not be obtained. Paula Bennett does not appear on the table because she refused to cooperate with the project, offering various excuses before ultimately claiming that compiling the data would not be in the public interest. Her refusal is now the subject of a complaint to the Ombudsman.

This is the crudest of performance data. It does not look at the quality of responses, or take any account of the size or complexity of requests. It looks only at timeliness. Even so, the picture it paints is appalling. Only one Minister, Chris Finlayson, met the legal standard of responding to requests "as soon as reasonably practicable, and in any case not later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is received". Every other Minister is breaking the law. Overall, only 71% of requests were answered on time, while four Ministers - Jonathan Coleman, Tim Groser, Judith Collins, and Gerry Brownlee, made timely responses in only 50% of cases.

This is not a problem of ignorance. While the survey of departments is not yet complete, they showed a far better overall record, with 88% of requests answered on-time, and three (DPMC, the ERO, and Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs) achieving a 100% on-time rate. Their mean and median response times were far quicker, with several taking less than ten working days (indicating a commitment to the "as soon as reasonably practicable" standard). The busiest department, the Ministry of Justice, managed a 97.7% on-time rate and 5 working day median response time despite receiving more than 1800 requests. We know how to deal with OIA requests in a timely fashion. But Ministers appear to have chosen not to. The OIA has been law for 28 years. After that long, their failure can only be interpreted as wilful and deliberate.

They get away with this for two reasons: firstly, there are no legal penalties for ignoring the OIA. They are not fined or censured for late requests, or even for the sort of gross thwarting of the law we see from Ministers like Collins and Brownlee. Secondly, they publish no statistics on their performance, so we can't tell if they're behaving lawfully.

The results above should convince everybody that this situation needs to change. You can't manage what you can't measure, and we can't hold politicians accountable for their actions when we do not know about them. Accountability demands transparency, which is why we have the OIA in the first place. Compiling and publishing these sorts of statistics should not be left to unpaid volunteers - it should be a statutory requirement of every Minister and every agency. That way, we can see who is performing and who is not, and hold politicians accountable in Parliament, in the media and at the ballot box for any failures.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

20 years of the BORA

Twenty years ago today, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 became law. Criticised during its third reading as "a Claytons Bill of Rights", "a diversion", and "an absolute waste of time" which would "achieve nothing", it has since grown into a fundamental pillar of our constitution.

The BORA affirms basic human rights guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - the right to life, the right to be free from torture and discrimination, the right to vote, the freedoms of conscience, expression, religion, assembly, association, and movement, and basic due process rights around search, arrest and detention. Originally it was envisioned as superior law, with the courts able to overturn any legislation incompatible with these rights. However, the select committee process found that New Zealanders did not want such an instrument - in those pre-Bolger days, they trusted politicians more than the courts. And so the power to overturn laws was removed, and the "teeth" of the bill reduced to two clauses: one requiring the Attorney-General to notify Parliament of any inconsistency, and a second requiring the courts to, insofar as it was possible, interpret all laws so as to be consistent with the BORA. That doesn't sound like much, but it turned out to be all we needed to create a revolution.

The first change - s7 notification - meant that all legislation and policy had to be scrutinised for consistency. This deterred governments from some breaches (though not all), but more importantly, by building human rights into the process from the start, it prevented them. Its not perfect - all governments pass legislation which is notified as being inconsistent with the BORA - but it makes them stop and think and ask themselves "is this really necessary? Can we make a case?" This at least prevents casual and inadvertent breaches. Now the government only violates fundamental human rights when it means to (unfortunately, the current government seems to mean to with alarming regularity).

The second change, meanwhile, meant that as laws came before the courts, they were progressively reinterpreted (if necessary) to recognise prevailing international human rights norms. This slow process has meant much greater protection for protest, for free speech, for the rights to natural justice and a fair trial, and for the right to be treated with dignity by the state. In extreme cases - e.g. the anti-flag-burning provisions of the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 - the law has been reinterpreted so far as to practically gut it. And the result is a much freer society. Thanks to the BORA, we can now protest on Parliament grounds, we can't (legally) be arrested for protesting peacefully, we can't be subjected to a secret trial by a stooge judge with secret evidence, and we can't be subjected to prolonged solitary confinement in prison. And we can burn the New Zealand flag. These are all important rights, and they have come not from politicians, but through the reinterpretation of New Zealand law through the lens of human rights.

This is far more than the politicians of 1990 expected, but at the same time its not enough. Despite the BORA, some important human rights violations - e.g. the current heteronormative Marriage Act - remain on the books. Meanwhile, politicians come up with new ways to violate human rights in their efforts to grub votes. The only way these problems will be overcome is if the original vision of the BORA is realised and the courts are given the power to declare laws to be inconsistent and overturn them. Twenty years is long enough to wait in the half-way house; its time we had a real Bill of Rights Act with teeth.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ideological bullshit

OK, so we know that National's employment relations and sick leave policies are ideological bullshit, aimed at restoring workplace relations to their "proper" state of one between "masters" and "servants". But I expected them to have at least been informed by research and advice from the relevant Ministry. The Herald this morning reports that this was not the case - the universal "fire at will" provision was imposed by the ACT party against the recommendation of the Minister of Labour (who only wanted it extended to businesses with 50 employees), while the changes allowing employers to demand a medical certificate on unreasonable grounds were made without any advice at all.

Regardless of the merits of these changes - and I think they are bad - this is not a good way to make policy. It is one thing to look at the advice on costs, benefits, and effects, and choose to do something anyway; it is quite another to just not ask for such advice at all. The first means that the Ministers are at least making an informed decision. The latter is religious thinking. Wilkinson might just as well have pulled her sick leave changes out of her arse for all the connection with rational policymaking. Now, as an elected official, that's her right - but we should have nothing but contempt for policymakers who treat their jobs (and by extension, us) with such contempt.

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Auckland for the weekend. Normal bloggage will resume Monday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Worse than the Blitzkrieg

Roger Douglas is considered the acme of contempt for democracy. Back in the 80's, he and his NeoLiberal clique inflicted a revolution on New Zealanders against our will. Douglas knew that his policies would not be accepted if implemented in a democratic fashion, and so he sought to bypass democracy, ramming his demented market Darwinist vision through under urgency, in accordance with his (self-named) "Blitzkrieg principles". As a result, Parliament spent a large amount of time sitting under urgency - 454 hours out of 1606, or 28.3%, during the 1987 - 1990 term (figures obtained from the Parliamentary Library).

As I noted the other day, as of July, the House had spent 37.6% of its time under urgency - almost a third more than the worst days of Douglas. That's right: National is worse than the blitzkrieg.

Correction: Douglas did not name his approach the "Blitzkrieg principles".

"Extremely supportive"

That's how Education Minister Anne Tolley described school trustees attitude to her national standards last month:

"The trustees, who govern schools on behalf of communities and parents, were extremely supportive," says Mrs Tolley.

"They have a positive approach to the Standards, and are clear that parents should be given plain language information about how their child is progressing in reading, writing and maths.

Meanwhile, Ministerial correspondence uncovered with the OIA shows a different picture, with 96% of school boards who wrote to Tolley opposing the standards, and only one supporting them. So if 2% is "extremely" supportive, what's 96%? Universally opposed? And if the government's standard for action is 75% (as expressed by Steven Joyce) does this mean they'll dump this stupid policy?

One thing is clear: Tolley's support exists primarily in her own mind. She's delusional. And that is not a good trait in a Minister.

No milestones, no targets

For the past month, Labour has been quizzing the government on its plans to "close the gap" with Australia by 2025. Labour thinks such an ambitious goal should have targets and milestones, against which progress - and failure - can be assessed. And in July, Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee claimed to have such targets and milestones, but refused to say what they are. Intrigued by this, I asked Brownlee for the details, submitting an OIA request seeking the milestones, information on how they had been set, and any advice on their setting and whether they were being achieved. I received the response today, and it shows how empty the government's rhetoric is on this issue.

According to Brownlee, the "milestones" are those identified by him in Question Time on August 5:

  • to remove the millstones from around the neck of the New Zealand economy placed on it by the previous Labour Government; ["millstones" like zero net crown debt, structural surpluses and record low unemployment - I/S]
  • to assist the Government's programme to undertake comprehensive economic reform of the New Zealand economy; and
  • to rebalance the economy towards export-led growth.
It is my view that if we are successful in achieving these targets, we will achieve the Government's milestone of achieving income parity with Australia by 2025.
Which no doubt sounds great to the spindoctor who dreamed it up, but note what's missing here: any solid, quantitative targets or timelines. If the goal is to match Australia's per-capita GDP by 2025, then you'd expect intermediate targets along the lines of "per-capita GDP of $X by year Y", or more detailed subsidiary targets of "unemployment reduced to X% by year Y", "labour productivity to be $Z per hour worked by year Y", or even "export earnings to be $X by year Y". Instead we have waffle and bullshit. And there's a reason for this: the government has admitted that the growth targets to catch Australia are steep, and that it does not expect to meet them any time in the next five years. Which rather blows their whole "goal" out of the water. "Catching Australia by 2025" is simply empty political rhetoric, a slogan produced to make it sound like the government has some grand plan to make us all better off, when in fact they have nothing of the sort.

As for the rest of the questions: these "targets" have not been published, and they were "set" "taking account of all available advice that the Government has received since taking office in November 2008 as well as drawing on the experience and perspectives that my colleagues and I have gathered over our careers to date". The request for government advice was refused on the basis that it would require "substantial collation and research". And if you believe that, I have a round building in Wellington to sell you.

The blunt fact is that Brownlee made up these "targets" on the fly in response to opposition Questioning. They have not been agreed by Cabinet, and he will not provide advice on them because there is none. Its a perfect example of the emptiness at the heart of this government. This is supposedly their key economic policy - and they have to milestones, and no targets; all they have is a slogan.

Justice is more important than efficiency

Justice Minister Simon Power spoke at Otago University today about his latest plans to reform criminal trials, including doing away with juries in almost all cases (something I've argued against here), cutting legal aid (so poor people will be easier to convict), and requiring lawyers to cooperate more to speed the process. Also mentioned was

requiring defence to identify issues in dispute so courts can focus on those issues at trial
Which sounds innocuous. But think about it for a moment: in our criminal justice system, the accused is presumed innocent, and the burden of proof lies wholly on the prosecution. It is the crown's responsibility to prove every element of the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Requiring defendants to "identify issues in dispute" not only lets the prosecution skip important parts of that process - it also effectively requires defendants to give evidence against themselves, and confess to aspects of the crime, in contravention of both the Bill of Rights Act and accepted standards of justice.

Power's proposal would undoubtedly be more efficient. So is strapping defendants to chairs and beating them with rubber hoses until they confess. But neither is just. And that ultimately is what matters in a justice system - not efficiency, but justice.

Power is willing to sacrifice that justice for the sake of a few dollars, so he can give his mates a bigger tax cut. It's appalling and shameful. But again, so very, very National.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Police Commissioner Howard Broad has said he is "disappointed" in the promotion of Dave Archibald, who had previously been reprimanded for accessing police files on the victim of police pack rapists Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum to pass to their defence team. That's nice, but at the same time, its an evasion of responsibility. As Police Commissioner, Broad is responsible to the Minister for what happens in the police; Archibald's promotion happened on his watch, and its his fault, if only by negligence. And he should admit that and promise to correct it, not simply express disappointment as if its something that happened in another country and has nothing to do with him.

The speaker is a technophobic old fart

I've just been watching Question Time, and been stunned by a ten minute argument over whether an MP could ask to table a DVD-ROM full of TV ads. Permission to ask for leave was denied summarily by the Speaker, despite having been granted in the past. His reason? Standing Orders allow for the tabling of "documents", and

A document is a piece of paper.
Yes, that's right - our Speaker is firmly stuck in the C19th, before the advent of digital media. He's simply a technophobic old fart, futilely shaking his stick at the future.

Spot the difference

Man jailed for part in $30k burglary (Southland Times, 22 May 2010):

An Invercargill couple had a devastating end to their honeymoon when they returned to find more than $30,000 of goods had been stolen from their house, the Invercargill District Court was told yesterday.

Tahi Wano, 26, was yesterday sentenced to jail for his role in the burglary, when he appeared before Judge Kevin Phillips.


He sentenced Wano, who also appeared for sentence for escaping custody, theft, being unlawfully in an enclosed yard, and unlawfully interfering with a motor vehicle, to two years' and two months' jail.

Artist jailed on burglary and theft charges (Timaru Herald, 4 March 2009):

A Timaru artist, who was told to capitalise on his talent and stop ripping people off, was sent to prison for 18 months yesterday.

Richard Paul Bain, 39, appeared in the Timaru District Court before Judge Michael Crosbie yesterday for sentence on a charge of theft of grocery items and two charges of burglary.

The court heard Bain took a steel bar from a bench and smashed his neighbour's garage door. When approached he said he was "attempting to fix the lock".

Six days later he entered the Park Night and Day store where, after he had ordered milkshakes, he stole several wallets from staff lockers.

Ex-MP Roger McClay sentenced to community service (New Zealand Herald, 25 August 2010):

The judge who sentenced disgraced ex-MP Roger McClay to 300 hours community service has urged him to pick up litter or clean up graffiti.


She imposed the maximum sentence of 400 hours community work, but McClay received a 25 per cent discount for the early guilty pleas to the three representative fraud charges.

So, steal $30,000 - or much less - from people, go to jail. Steal the same amount from charities aimed at helping starving children in the third world, get community service. And this is supposed to be "justice". Bullshit - its rich man's privilege.

Not that I think jail really does anyone any good, or that it would help McClay. But the sheer disparity in sentences based on nothing more than the social class of the offender is outrageous and unjust.

No Member's Day

Today was scheduled to be a Member's Day. However, the government has once again moved urgency on not-particularly urgent legislation. They're not ramming anything through in all three stages this time, but the fact that they're once again eating a Member's Day is bad enough. Sadly, it is typical of National's style - as of last month, the House had spent 37.6% of its time under urgency - almost four times the rate in Labour's last term. We're not just back to the sort of regular abuse seen under FPP - we've exceeded it.

There are two problems here. The first is that (as the statistics linked above show) National has a far lower regard for democracy than Labour: if given the chance, they will abuse urgency. The second is that they are unconstrained by their coalition partners, and so get that chance. Its a clear warning of the dangers of majority government, and an example of why we should work to prevent such outcomes in the future.

The police have not changed

In 2005, Senior Sergeant Dave Archibald was given a formal reprimand for accessing police files on the victim of police pack rapists Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum to pass to their defence team. So naturally, the police have promoted him and set him to impart his values to new officers at the Police College in Porirua.

To call this a mistake is an understatement. This is a man who has betrayed the trust the New Zealand public places in the police, who abused police resources to help criminals, who put his mates before the law. Such a man should not be being promoted; he should instead have been told that there is no future for him and men like him in the police.

Meanwhile, the message from this is loud and clear: despite all their assurance, the police have not changed. And they wonder why people don't respect them? They have no-one to blame but themselves.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Fire at will" loses in court

Heather Smith used to work at the Stokes Valley Amcal Pharmacy. But after the business changed hands, she was forced to reapply for her job, then put on a 90 day "trial period", despite having worked there for three years. A few weeks later, she was sacked. But now the Employment Court has ruled that she was unfairly dismissed - despite being on a "trial period":

The CTU determination to stick by workers unfairly dismissed under the 90 day law delivered results today after the Employment Court found young pharmacy worker Heather Smith was not only unjustifiably dismissed by her employer (due to a failure to comply with the contracting requirements of the Employment Relations Act), but the employer’s failure to treat her in good faith or to comply with her employment agreement gave her several grounds for compensation for the appalling way she was treated.


The Government intended to allow the reckless dismissal of workers without reasons and without giving reasons. What the Court has found is that the Good Faith requirements prevail and while an employer still may not have to have reasons, where they do, and where they are considering dismissing someone – they will need to tell them.”

“Heather’s employers relied on the law to completely indemnify them from any standards of decent employment practice. They have been found to not only have breached good faith requirements but even the terms of the employment agreement they entered into her with.”

The government has avoided taking any position in Question Time on whether good faith applies during a trial period. But now they'll have to. This is unlikely to be what they expected, and no doubt employers will be demanding they legislate immediately to allow completely arbitrary treatment.

Meanwhile, hopefully Heather's employer will be taken to the cleaners over this. They're scumbags, and they deserve to be punished for it.

Guess who's making our liquor laws?

So, why is the government;'s liquor policy so focused on pedophobia and lazy authoritarianism? John Armstrong's column in the Herald this morning provides a few clues:

Justice Minister Simon Power acknowledged alcohol consumption is affected by price, but added that given other tax priorities, "now is not a suitable time" to raise excise taxes on alcohol. On that logic, "not now" means "not ever".

Similarly, the Government's reluctance to fully raise the drinking age to 20 is rationalised in part by noting the financial impact of removing 132,000 18- and 19-year-olds from the alcohol industry's market.

Meanwhile, that industry has been given a year to help work out a minimum pricing scheme to stop supermarkets selling booze at below-cost. So much for urgency.

The Cabinet has also rejected recommendations aimed at reducing younger persons' exposure to alcohol advertising and restricting the promotion of alcohol through sponsorship.

What this shows is economic considerations - stressed by the retail and liquor lobbies - guided much of the Cabinet's decision-making on the forthcoming new liquor law.

92% of problem drinkers are over 20. But doing something about that might affect the profits of the booze barons. So instead they focus on shitting on young people, who make a convenient whipping boy for the sins of middle-aged drunks.

What's disturbing is that the government has been advised that this policy will be ineffective. But they're not interested in being effective - they're interested in ensuring they continue to receive donations from the Hospitality Association.

[Hat-tip: The Dim-Post]


Dairy farmers are our worst polluters, poisoning our rivers with shit and fertiliser runoff and warming our planet with the gases produced by their animals. So its good to see the Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Council finally cracking down on them with its new One Plan. The plan requires nutrient budgeting, fertiliser controls, and the fencing of waterways for all dairy farms in polluted zones, and for all new farms. This isn't enough - there's a large pool of existing farms which will not be covered and so free to pollute - but its a start. And hopefully the regulations will be widened and made to apply to all farms.

Those who enforce the law should also be subject to it

As we all know, the government is cracking down on drinking. Except, apparently, drinking by police. They will get to keep their total exemption from liquor licensing laws, despite their being no justification for it at all.

When asked about it, Police Minister Judith Collins said that she was "very comfortable with trusting police to run the police bars" and that they "run their bars very responsibly". Yeah, right:

n 1997, The Evening Post reported internal allegations that some officers had dealt out kickings to fellow officers during "jug sessions" in the Wellington Central police station bar.

Two senior investigators were among those that complained after drunk, aggressive officers punched and kicked colleagues as "punishment" during drinking games in the bar.

Police managers denied allegations of kicking, but three officers were given a warning for "pushing and shoving"


Boisterous jug sessions are still a part of police culture after shifts and are used by general duties staff to unwind from the rigours of the job and to help bond the team.

The sessions usually involve "punishing" officers for minor indiscretions by forcing them to down beer.

Plus of course there's the endless stories of police driving home drunk from their private bars - behaviour enabled by the fact that the bar doesn't lose its license for serving them.

The overall message this sends is one of rank hypocrisy: that those charged with enforcing the law consider themselves to be above it. I can think of nothing more likely to encourage general and widespread contempt for the law than that.

How do coalitions work?

(Originally posted on Larvatus Prodeo and aimed mainly at foreign readers)

With Australia staring down the barrel of the first federal coalition government in 70 years, lots of people are asking "how does a coalition work?" New Zealand has had coalition governments of one form or another since 1995, so we have some experience with this. Unfortunately, the answer is "it depends".

As I explained in my pre-2008 NZ election post, A beginner’s guide to coalitions, New Zealand has tried various coalition models through the years. First, we had the "ironclad coalition agreement" of Winston Peters, a document which sought to lay out exhaustively the policies of the 1996-98 National - NZ First coalition, and which bound both parties to agree on everything. This failed because a) the parties didn't agree on everything; and b) the shared caucus model allowed NZ First to simply be outvoted then forced to support policies they opposed - a model which turned them into the political equivalent of a doormat. So, since then, New Zealand governments have pursued successively looser arrangements, which now seem to have stabilised around the following features:

  • Support on "confidence and supply", the regular votes which make a government a government in the Westminster system (which Australia and New Zealand share).
  • A general agreement on direction and key policies, along with a few trophy policies for minor parties to wave at their supporters;
  • An agreement to consult on all matters of policy (a necessity if the government is to get the numbers to pass legislation); and
  • Ministerial positions outside cabinet for support party leaders.

Note what's missing here: an agreement to support every piece of government initiated legislation. This is because we have realised that trying to force parties to support policies they fundamentally disagree with results in them splintering under the pressure. So we have the somewhat odd - to outsiders - practice of parties which support the government, and whose leaders are Ministers, voting against government legislation (e.g. the Maori Party opposing National's employment law changes, the ACT Party opposing the Emissions Trading Scheme). This doesn't mean the government loses votes - under the current arrangement, a National / ACT / Maori Party ménage à trois, National can gain a majority with either one of its partners, so it simply alternates as necessary, using ACT to pass more right-leaning legislation and the Maori Party to pass other stuff. But the key point is that it does not put up legislation unless it is assured beforehand it has the numbers to pass it. And that's what the consultation process is all about - running ideas past the other parties, asking "will you support this? What would we have to change?" While the other parties could play hardarse and demand something in return for every vote, or threaten to pull the plug if they don't get their own way, they don't. The reason for this is that they all understand that a coalition is an ongoing relationship, and that they need to get along or else they'll be punished by the electorate. And in hindsight, that was Winston Peters' big problem: as an FPP politician, who had never known anything else, he saw coalition as a single-round game rather than an ongoing one. Though to his credit he eventually learned the ropes, and by 2002 was playing the game just like everybody else.

Will it turn out like this in Australia? I really don't know. We've learned over 15 years how to make coalitions work for both parties. Australia is being thrown in at the deep end, with politicians who are not used to it, and with numbers that leave no alternative partners and so make every vote crucial - a situation likely to encourage bad behaviour. OTOH, Australian politicians can look across the Tasman, and try and construct their coalition arrangements with the benefit of the New Zealand experience. They don't need to learn the lessons of coalition politics the hard way - we have already learned them for you.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The rest of the proposal

The government released its liquor policy today. I've already commented on the discriminatory and pedophobic split drinking age and authoritarian national closing time. So what do I think of the rest of the proposal?

Mostly posturing, I'm afraid. The requirement for parental consent and restrictions on RTDs are prime examples of this, continuing the trend of demonising the young while ignoring the real problem of middle-aged drunks. Though they're unlikely to have much practical effect - the parental consent law will probably be widely ignored (in that the sorts of adults who will give someone else's kids alcohol aren't going to ask for a note first), while the RTD restrictions will simply restrict serving sizes (which is fine; the joy of RTDs is their taste, not their alcohol content). Meanwhile, other aspects, such as restrictions on small outlets and local alcohol plans are troubling. The first favours large industry players while also promoting the idea that alcohol is a taboo (the wrong approach), while the second is a licence for local wowserism. As for the ability to ban products, it sounds like a good idea, if it weren't for the likelihood of it being subject to enormous amounts of anti-competitive lobbying, plus I don't trust the National Party not to ban absinthe (which some of them have grumbled about in the past). About the only good move in the entire package is the focus on enforcement and the greater ability to strip liquor licences from repeat offenders.

Overall, this is a poor package, which focuses on the wrong problems. Don't get me wrong - alcohol causes harm - but the fact that we live in a liberal society sets very strong constraints on how we deal with that harm. This package has too many policies which grossly violate those constraints. Meanwhile, measures which might actually reduce harm, such as a lower drink-drive limit, have been ignored. What we're left with is authoritarian posturing which rather than producing a sensible drinking culture, will simply promote contempt for the law.

Like a zombie from the grave

Four years ago, Parliament voted down the Manukau City Council (Control of Street Prostitution) Bill, which aimed to ban prostitution within Manukau. But bad ideas never die (just look at NeoLiberal economics), and thanks to Labour's wowser-in-chief, George Hawkins, the bill is back, like a zombie from the grave.

The new version removes the most odious provisions of the old bill, which were formally recognised as violating the BORA. But the core is still there: a local ban on street prostitution, so the Decent Folk of Manukau won't have to be reminded that not everyone shares their values. This is both illiberal and constitutionally improper; the Parliament of New Zealand has legalised prostitution, and it is not the place of local authorities to second-guess that decision.

The bill is a local bill, so it will take precedence on the Order Paper on Wednesday next member's day. I'll be paying close attention to the vote.

Correction: The bill is up for first reading next member's day, not this one.

What next? A national bedtime?

The government will be unveilling its liquor policy today, and a core element seems to be national opening hours, with off-licences restricted to opening between 7am and 11pm, and bars and nightclubs between 8am and 4am. According to the government, people shouldn't be hanging around in bars at 4am - they should be tucked up in bed, getting a good night's sleep so they can get up for work in the morning. While I loathe the phrase "nanny state" and the propensity to apply it to any measure which advances equality, this seems to fully deserve it. What next? A legislated national bedtime?

In a liberal society, insofar as we do not cause harm to others we should be free to live our lives as we please. It is none of the government's business when I drink, and it is none of the government's business when I buy that alcohol. If people want to spend all night partying, then they should be allowed to. The state only has licence to intervene when that behaviour causes harm to others - when it causes assaults, vandalism, drunk driving etc. Restricting everyone's liberty to prevent these harms is like arresting people at random to prevent burglary - utterly unjust and a gross intrusion on liberty.

This is just lazy authoritarianism on the government's part. But the alternative - higher excise taxes to make drinkers pay the full long-term costs of their activities, actual enforcement of the law against serving intoxicated people, and stripping liquor licences from bar-owners who serve drunks, might really affect the profits of the hospitality industry. And National wouldn't want to offend that possible source of donations, would they? So instead we get lazy, knee-jerk policies, which victimise the innocent rather than punishing the guilty.

20 years of the BORA: Public lecture

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 turns 20 this weekend, and Victoria University’s Centre for Public Law will be celebrating with a public lecture on the topic. First up is a talk by its architect, Geoffrey Palmer renowned jurist Kenneth Keithon about the aspirations for the legislation at its inception; after that there will be a second talk by 17-year old student Rayhan Langeana, about "what the Bill of Rights means for a young person in New Zealand".

When: 12.30, Thursday, 26 August
Where: Lecture Theatre 4, first floor, Old Government Building, Lambton Quay, Wellington
How much: Free!
RSVP: nzcpl@vuw.ac.nz

This is a significant constitutional milestone, and one worth celebrating. Go along and learn about the past and future of one of the most important parts of our constitution.

Update: Apparently there's been a change to the programme due to Palmer's international activities. Also note that you're meant to RSVP (which means free food).

New Fisk

Even the little dog was not spared by Cromwell

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Says it all

Interim Australian election results, from the AEC (seat numbers from here):

Party% VotesSeats% Seats
Australian Labor Party38.517147.3
The Greens11.4310.7
Liberal National Party of Queensland8.952114.0
The Nationals3.8674.7
CLP - The Territory Party0.3410.7
Seats in doubt042.7

While this is a preliminary result, with 4 seats still in doubt, it shows the fundamental unfairness of the Australian election system. The Greens, with 11.43% of the vote, got a single seat. Meanwhile, the Nationals, with 3.86% of the vote, got 7, while the Queensland LNP, with 8.95% of the vote, got 21. Describing this outcome as anything other than perverse, is, well, perverse.

An electoral system which distributes power in a way which bears no apparent relationship to the total vote cast is not just unfair and irrational, it is undemocratic. Australians deserve better than this - they deserve a properly democratic system. They deserve proportional representation.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A problem of dates

I've run into a problem with analysing my OIA performance statistics. The problem? Agencies can't count! Most data includes a field for the date a request was due to the requestor as well as the day it was sent. But these dates are frequently incorrect, and do not match the Ombudsmen's online calculator.

This causes problems when it comes to extensions. The OIA allows the 20 working day deadline to be extended, and its obvious when a request which has taken 40 days has been extended or not. But when a request has taken 21 - 25 days, its not so clear. Is the due date beyond the calculated 20 working days because it has been extended by a day or two (rare in my experience; they tend to take five or more), or simply because the agency calculated it incorrectly? At the moment, I'm assuming that they can't count, which means I'm potentially giving a harsher assessment of performance than they really deserve. But giving them the benefit of the doubt ignore the very real failure of agencies to calculate their due dates correctly (which is a significant cause of minor lateness).

New Fisk

US troops say goodbye to Iraq

What does this look like to you?

A wealthy overseas investor wants to buy a large company in New Zealand. However, due to overseas investment laws, the bid is uncertain. At the same time, one of their friends to donate $200,000 to the governing party.

Regardless of whether this is an attempt to buy an exemption from the Overseas Investment Act, or a fortuitous coincidence, it looks bad. The mere fact that a donation has been made, at this time, calls the entire process into question, and both Chou and the National Party into disrepute. And if the government ultimately decides that Crafar Farms can be sold, the decision will be indelibly tainted with a perception of corrupt influence that will be impossible to dispel.

57 more years of discrimination in the UK

Whenever the issue of he gender pay-gap is raised, people say "just wait, it'll go away eventually". That's true - but it turns out to be a lot longer than people think. A study released today by the UK's Chartered Management Institute calls bullshit on that view. According to the study, it will take 57 years for the pay gap in senior management salaries to close. A clearer example of Martin Luther King's "'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never'" would be difficult to find.

What makes it even more disturbing is that this year the UK's Equal Pay Act will mark its 40th anniversary. The Act outlawed paying women less than men for doing the same work, and affirmed the principle of "equal pay for equal work". But a woman born when the law was passed will almost certainly be dead long before that equality is actually achieved.

Women shouldn't have to wait a human lifetime for equal pay. Forty years of discrimination is enough; they should not have to put up with it for another 57. Women deserve equal pay now. And that means taking immediate and strong action. Currently, UK employers have no obligation to conduct regular pay audits to uncover gender discrimination - which, given the secrecy around pay in the UK, means they have no obligation to do anything proactive to solve the problem at all. This has to change. Forcing them to assess the gap every year, and publish the results, will force them to end discrimination. Sweden requires this for every company employing more than 10 people. Oddly, their gender pay gap is much smaller than the UK's.

Meanwhile, I'd be interested in seeing an assessment from the Minister of Women's Affairs on how long it will take the gender pay gap to close here under current policy - and what (if anything) she intends to do to make it close faster. This is clearly not something we can leave for the passage of time to solve. Justice delayed is justice denied. Women deserve justice now, not for their granddaughters.

One more to go

Paraguay has become the 19th country to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Convention comes into force after the 20th ratification, so it only needs one more. And with the International Day of the Disappeared less than two weeks away, hopefully that ratification will come soon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Stamping on the fingers of the poor

I've snarked before that National thinks that ECE is about babysitting, rather than education. Anyone looking for a graphic demonstration of this only has to look at their funding priorities: while they're slashing $100 million a year in subsidies for centres with highly qualified staff, and instead channeling that money into playgroups:

“The $91.8 million made available in Budget 2010 will see an extra 3500 children gain access to ECE in areas of the highest need.

“This includes five intensive community-led projects, starting in Waitakere and Northland in October 2010, with three other areas to be announced next year.”


The new programmes in Waitakere and Northland will build on the experience of the Counties Manukau participation project, which has placed hundreds of extra children into new, quality ECE services. It involves building new services and funding supported playgroups, street side playgroups and play days in local communities, to attract families into ECE.

As Labour says, playgroups have their place - but they're not education, and they won't help eliminate inequality and disadvantage, or result in the enormous benefits (better health, higher educational achievement, higher wages and less crime) that flow from high-quality ECE. but National doesn't care about that. Instead, like their welfare policies, this is aimed at entrenching disadvantage, not eliminating it. The government of the rich is stamping on the fingers of those who are trying to climb the ladder of opportunity. And that is simply immoral.

Afghan torture not just a problem for the government

Over on Frogblog, the Greens' Dr Kennedy Graham points out that the SAS's turning over prisoners to the torturing Afghan secret police isn't just a problem of the government failing to meet its obligations under international and domestic law - it could also see individual kiwi soldiers prosecuted, both here and overseas. If anyone they have captured has been tortured, then SAS soldiers could face charges under the International Crimes and Criminal Court Act 2000, Geneva Conventions Act 1958, or Crimes of Torture Act 1989, or equivalent overseas legislation (since every civilised country in the world claims universal jurisdiction for such crimes). Graham goes on:

This is more than just a matter of state responsibility for which the Government should investigate. It involves the personal interests of our individual soldiers, for whom the Government carries a responsibility to ensure they are not given legally precarious roles.

The government owes our soldiers a duty not to put them into situations where they will have no option but to capture and transfer. The dilemma is that this is essentially part of their mandate – their reason for being there.

And that's why we need to get them out, now. If the SAS cannot serve in Afghanistan without colluding in torture, then they should not be there. It is that simple.

Laissez-faire is a recipe for failure

The National government's economic policy (and its response to the recession) can be roughly summarised as laissez-faire - take a hands off approach, and leave the market to sort itself out. And somehow, miraculously, by the power of the invisible hand, this will close the gap with Australia by 2025.

Today the new Zealand Institute called bullshit on that approach. Their latest report, A Goal is Not a Strategy looks at the reasons for the gap with Australia and how it might be closed. They find that, contra National, its not a problem of too much public spending, or too few people in jobs. Instead, its a problem of labour market productivity. And this requires strong state intervention to resolve.

The average New Zealand worker is only 57% as productive as an Australian one, creating only $42 of GDP per hour worked compared to Australia's $74. This is a legacy of two things; undercapitalisation - New Zealand managers prefer to strip mine businesses rather than invest in them - and a longstanding "low skill, low wage" employment policy. The solution to this isn't more trial periods or lower wages; that just perpetuates the problem and allows those crap managers to escape the consequences of their short-sightedness by gaining increased profits at the expense of their workers. Instead, the solution is greater investment in education and skills, both for the workforce and for managers and entrepreneurs. Which means that National, with its education cuts and caps on student numbers, is doing exactly the wrong thing.

The NZI compares New Zealand to Denmark. Both countries have similar levels of agricultural exports, but Denmark has a vastly larger manufacturing sector, despite having a similar population to New Zealand. Part of this can no doubt be explained by its being in Europe - they have 80 million Germans just to the south, which provide a ready market for their goods. But that's not the only explanation. Denmark has consciously invested in building and diversifying its manufacturing sector, precisely to avoid the trap of being a low-value agricultural exporter. The NZI suggests that we could do the same.

The catch? It requires intervention in the market - an anathema to both the current government and much of the policy community, who are still slaves to the market Darwinism which was so spectacularly successful in the 80's and 90's (irony, for the impaired). While not promoting "picking winners" at the level of particular firms, the NZI is advocating an active industrial policy, with strong government support at the subsector level to help niche sectors grow and provide alternative sources of growth to the farming sector.

National, dominated by jealous farmers and free market purists will no doubt ignore this advice. And by doing so, they'll ensure that their goal of matching Australia by 2025 is never met. Achieving that goal requires active intervention. Laissez-faire is a recipe for failure.

Cutting and running

After seven long years, the last US combat brigade has left Iraq:

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division began crossing by land into Kuwait in the early hours of Thursday, said a spokesman.

The US combat mission in Iraq is scheduled to end on 31 August.

But the Pentagon has not confirmed that the move by the 40,000 Stryker Brigade troops marks an early end to combat operations.

Most of the troops drove out of Iraq in a convoy of armoured vehicles, say reports.

The journey along potentially hostile desert roads had been carefully planned for weeks.

Some of the brigade remained behind to complete logistical and administrative tasks but would leave the country by air later in the day, the Associated Press reported.

But this isn't quite the end - there's still 56,000 US soldiers in Iraq "to advise Iraqi forces and protect US interests" - that is, to keep the place subjugated and ensure it remains a US client-state. The war won't truly be over until the last one of those occupying soldiers packs up and leaves, taking his American flag (and his veto on Iraqi democracy) with him.

#OpenLabourNZ Wellington event

As part of its OpenLabourNZ project into increasing government transparency, Labour will be holding a public miniconference on open government in Wellington next weekend, with Andrew Rasiej of techpresident.com as guest speaker:

When: 10:00 - 15:00, Saturday, 28 August
Where: Lion Harbourview Lounge, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
How much: Free! Email: open@labour.org.nz to register

Unfortunately I won't be going - I have places to go, people to be that weekend. But I look forward to hearing how it goes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Australian bigotry: Its the electoral system, stupid

Most Australians are now in favour of same-sex marriage, but both major Australian political parties oppose it. Why? Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tim Dick points out the obvious: its the electoral system, stupid. Australia still uses an unfair electoral system in which the proportion of seats in the House does not match the votes cast, and elections are decided by a small number of voters in key marginal seats. Who lives in those marginal seats? Bigots. The result:

Marriage equality is not the victim of the tyranny of the majority.

It is a victim of the tyranny of a powerful minority living in important electorates, a tyranny assisted by the ambivalence of some who would benefit from it.

In a country with no bill of rights, the courts cannot uphold human dignity in the face of such prejudice.

If Australia wants equality, it needs to either change its electoral system, or get a bill of rights. Otherwise, its politics will continue to be dominated by the battle for conservative votes in marginal seats - a battle which undermines human dignity and distorts and corrupts progressive politics.

The racists are back

In 2005, a clique of racists within the National Party ran a vicious racial hate campaign designed to whip up fears over the government's foreshore and seabed legislation. Since then, National has come to its senses, and reached a deal which might settle that issue. So naturally, the racists are back, this time targeting National:

The signs were designed by advertising executive John Ansell, who produced the hard-hitting billboards for National Party leader Don Brash in the 2005 election campaign. Where the target then was Labour and Helen Clark, this time Mr Key is given the treatment. He is in a Maori cloak and waving the tino rangatiratanga flag on the side of iwi, who the coalition suggests will be granted ownership rights, mining rights, development rights and veto rights that might impinge on Kiwis' rights to visit the beach.

Other proposed billboards would carry the same image of Mr Key with the alternative slogan "Speak now or forever lose your beach".

So, when the crown hands over foreshore and seabed to private interests for uses which entail the restriction of public access e.g. mining or the construction of a marina or private wharf, then that's fine and business as usual. Give a brown person a sniff of that, or the right to say "no" to such activities on their land, and its the end of the world. uh-huh. This isn't about protecting the right to visit the beaches - a right which is not practically under threat from this proposal anyway - but about racism, pure and simple.

Against a split drinking age

With liquor law coming back before the House, it looks like many MPs are settling on supporting a split drinking age - 18 for bars, 20 for off-licences - as a "happy medium". I oppose this change, and any attempt to increase the drinking age, for a simple reason: it is discriminatory. While the default age of majority in New Zealand is still technically 20, the Human Rights Act outlaws discrimination on the basis of age, and for the past twenty years (since ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defined childhood and therefore adulthood) we have operated a de facto policy that adulthood begins at 18. Where specific age limits have been put in place, they have been set at 18 or younger; it is very hard to find a law enacted in the last twenty years which sets an age limit at a higher age.

(I can find one obvious one: the Gambling Act 2003, which bars under-20s from entering casinos, though ironically they can still buy lotto tickets and scratch cards and play pokies. The BORA report on that is not available, so I have no idea if the matter was even considered, but I'm not sure such an age limit would pass muster today).

In our society, 18 year-olds are adults. They pay taxes. They get paid full wages (discriminatory youth rates were repealed some years ago). They can get married or civilised, serve on juries, vote. They can even sell their bodies for sex. The remaining age limits - forbidding 18 year-olds from driving trains or holding office in a building society - are legacy code, which is gradually being expunged.

Advocates of a split age or a higher drinking age argue that there is strong evidence that alcohol causes significant social harm. I agree, it does. But policies to combat that harm must be non-discriminatory. A harm-reduction policy which discriminates against 18 year-olds is as morally untenable as one which discriminates against women or Maori. And that applies no matter how strong the evidence is. No amount of evidence can outweigh the fundamental right to be free of discrimination, and if society would benefit from infringing that right, then society can go burn. These people are adults, full citizens, and they must be treated as such. If 50 year-olds can drink, then 18 year-olds must also be allowed to. Anything else is just bigoted pedophobia.

Yes, that's right, its bigotry. Age discrimination is every bit as pernicious as discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation or religion, and those advocating it are in the same boat as the racists, sexists and bigots. And if people don't like that comparison, then perhaps they should be a little less bigoted in their behaviour.

A positive resolution

Last month I blogged about the absolutely unbelievable response to an OIA request I received from the office of Nick Smith. Having asked for his staff to trawl through their file copies of OIA requests to compile basic performance data, I was told that no file copies were kept - a violation of both basic office procedure and of the Public Records Act. So, I complained to the Ombudsman. And lo and behold, they managed to find some records and compile the data. Its amazing what they can find if they bother to look.

Smith was right to be ashamed of his data. It shows an appalling negligence in handling OIA requests, with only 61.5% answered within the statutory 20 working days. His average response time was 21.1 days, and his median 20 days - meaning that fully 50% of responses were handled beyond the timelines envisioned by the Act (the difference between this and the late stat is because some requests were extended). The scary thing is that Smith is by no means the worst of National's Ministers - hell, he's not even in the lower quartile. Unlike the rest, though, he seemed to feel decently ashamed of it. Unfortunately, that shame was expressed in trying to hide the details, rather than improving performance.

The lesson in this is do not take shit from Ministers. If a response looks dubious, complain to the Ombudsmen. Its what they're there for. And usually all it takes is for them to let the Minister know that a complaint has been lodged for the bullshit to stop.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Income splitting discriminates

Today Peter Dunne introduced his bill for income splitting to the House. As widely explained everywhere, this would allow couples with children to split their income for tax purposes. The Standard has already pointed out how this benefits a tiny clique of wealthy couples at the expense of everyone else, but there's another reason to oppose it as well: as pointed out by the Attorney-General in a report to the House today, the bill is discriminatory and violates the Bill of Rights:

The ISTC takes a narrow view of family, parenting, and family care arrangements for children because there must be a "couple" with dependent children. the ISTC gives rise to a distinction on the ground of marital status because it explicitly distinguishes between couples with children and sole parents. For the purposes of this report, sole parents include caregivers without a partner, widows and widowers with children but without a partner, separated parents who have not repartnered and sole parents who share childcare responsibilities with another person.

The ISTC results in a comparative financial disadvantage for sole parents of up to $9,080. In effect, the ISTC also stigmatises sole parents as less worthy of tax relief than couples and perpetuates the stereotype that to be a "real" family there must be two parents in a relationship to raise children.

But that's not the only problem. The bill also indirectly discriminates on the basis of sex, as 83% of sole-parent families are mother-only families. While it is not mentioned, the bill obviously also discriminates on the basis of family status, because it applies only to people with children.

Is this discrimination justified? No. While supposedly aimed at allowing couples more flexibility to spend more time with their kids (something which would unquestionably be an important public purpose), the actual effect is to allow couples more flexibility to spend more time with their kids than sole parents. Furthermore, the means the bill proposes to achieve this is not rationally connected to the objective:

Income and marital status determine the amount of and eligibility for the ISTC. However, the need to work fewer hours or more flexible hours in order to care for dependent children flows from the age of the children (infant versus school-age), the individual needs of the children, the number of dependent children and the availability of support and assistance from other people. However, the actual needs of parents do not change the amount of the ISTC available to couples.
Basically what we have here is not a child welfare scheme, but conservative bigotry through the tax system. And that's just not acceptable. National will have to vote this bill to select committee as the price of Dunne's support, but that is more than it deserves. Instead, it should be dumped.

A good investment

In September 2008, John Boscawen donated $100,000 to the ACT Party. In exchange, he got a high list ranking, leading to an MP's salary of $131,000 a year plus expenses. And now with the overthrow of Deputy Leader Heather Roy, he looks likely to turn that into a Ministerial position paying $204,300.

Looks like Boscawen made a pretty good investment.


Late last year, the Environment Court rejected Meridian Energy's proposal for a 630MW wind farm in the Lammermoor Range in Central Otago, finding that its effect on a nationally significant landscape was too high and there were other alternative sites Meridian could pursue. Today, the High Court upheld an appeal against the latter part of that decision, ruling that the Environment Court erred when it compared the environmental effects of Project Hayes with theoretical alternatives. It has not granted the consent, but instead sent it back to the Environment Court to be reconsidered on its own merits. The upshot: Hayes gets another chance.

I've always been of two minds about this project. On the one hand, I support wind power as the clean, cheap alternative, and a wind farm of such size it would make a significant difference to the sustainability of our energy system. On the other, Central Otago really is a significant landscape, and one I don't think would be improved by turbines. So I wasn't really upset when the Environment Court rejected the plan. But on the gripping hand, the Environment Court has to get it right, and has to use a fair process in doing so. If that process was wrong, then sending it back is the right thing to do.

The Environment Court will now have to reconsider Project Hayes on its own merits, looking at the actual proposal, without the cop-out of "you could build it somewhere else". The landscape may still win here, or it may not. But that's what the RMA process is designed to do: reach a judgement on the competing values of development and the environment. And whatever the outcome, the court will have to reach a decision on landscape values without fudging - and that benefits us all.

Starvation benefits

What a National government means: people slowly starving on benefits:

A sole parent says she has lost a sixth of her bodyweight because she has not been able to eat properly since the Government tightened access to training subsidies for beneficiaries last year.

Sara, a 35-year-old West Auckland mother in her second year of an applied science degree at Unitec, gets $517 a week in welfare but needs $668 a week to pay rent, drive to her classes and run a home for herself and her 12-year-old daughter - a shortfall of $151 a week.

This is someone who is doing everything right, upskilling herself in order to get decent work and support her kid. Instead of rewarding her, the government cut her Training Incentive Allowance, sentencing her to a death by slow starvation. And there is nothing WINZ will do to help. And now, because she has publicly complained, Paula Bennett will no doubt splash her personal information across the media in an effort to smear her.

But while the proximate cause is Bennett's TIA cut, there is an underlying problem of benefit adequacy, dating back to the 1991 benefit cuts. As explained in Alister Barry's In a Land of Plenty [part 5, from 10 mins, to part 6] experts worked out minimum food budgets for beneficiaries based on nutritional needs and different expectations of diet. Treasury took the lowest level - which was inadequate to meet basic nutritional needs - and cut it by 20% to provide an "incentive". And while benefits have been inflation adjusted, that basic gap between benefit levels and minimum nutritional needs has remained ever since. And now we're back in an era of mass unemployment and longer durations on benefits, it is again coming back to haunt us.

This is indecent. No-one should starve in our country, and a government system which guarantees starvation is simply immoral. But it is also stupid. Kids who grow up malnourished and starving have higher health costs and do not reach their full potential. In other words, the short-term "saving" of benefit cuts in fact produces long-term costs. But it won't be the present government paying those costs - they'll be well out of office when the bill finally comes due, and cleaning up the mess will be someone else's problem.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Looks like I struck a nerve

It looks like my post last week about how equality for all means exactly that has struck a nerve, with Chris Trotter declaring that he is not a Trotterite and declaring that the left is not about equality, but justice:

The first and most obvious riposte I would offer to this curiously naïve statement is that Mr Savant fundamentally misunderstands what the Left is all about.

For the Left, the quest for equality is not an end in itself but the means to achieving its ultimate objective – a just distribution of social and economic power.


This is what Mr Savant doesn’t "get" about the Left. That it is not simply about "the equality of all", but about transforming society to the point where power and wealth are so justly distributed that the word "equality" merely describes the way human-beings interact with one another.

Oh no, I get all that. But I'm left wondering why Trotter doesn't, at least when it comes to anyone is not white and straight and male.

Women also deserve justice. Maori also deserve justice. Gays also deserve justice. Children also deserve justice. And they deserve it every bit as much as Trotter's favoured Waitakere man.

Whether you couch it as equality for all or justice for all, the key point is that its for everyone. Saying "Maori aren't important", "Women will have to wait", "gays are a distraction", "protecting children from violence was a mistake", Trotter and his ilk are committing the same sin as the National Party: denying justice to some for the unjust benefit of others. And when women, Maori, gays and children always come last in the queue behind the white working class, its difficult not to see that as a power relationship - exactly what Trotter purports to want to abolish.

Key's sophistry on Afghan torture

John Key's response to allegations that the New Zealand SAS are handing over prisoners to the Afghan secret police, where they are likely to be tortured? Pure sophistry:

Mr Key said when New Zealand troops handed over someone they had detained they made sure that person would not be tortured later on.

Where the New Zealand SAS worked alongside the unit in Kabul it was not the detaining force, Mr Key told NewstalkZB.

"In that instance, it's not our responsibility when it comes to those people that are detained."

This is simply bullshit. Kiwi soldiers are helping to capture these people. Therefore we bear moral responsibility for what happens to them. We cannot simply wipe our hands of that responsibility by drawing an arbitrary box around it and saying "not our problem".

New Zealand is a better country than this. Our response to Afghan torture should be to protect people from it, not enable it. And if the SAS cannot serve in Afghanistan without colluding in torture, then they should not be there. It is that simple.

Coddington on same-sex marriage

Writing in the Herald on Sunday, former ACT MP Deborah Coddington makes a rare (for an ACToid) principled defence of a right other than the right of the rich not to pay taxes, and comes out in support of same-sex marriage:

Imagine if our law forbade marriage between Maori and Pakeha, tossing them instead a compromise - civil unions? Finlayson, who prides himself on his Treaty work, would swiftly change the law, with overwhelming Kiwi support.

So why do we continue to hold the same moral discrimination against gays?

Its a good question. And the answer basically comes down to cowardice on the part of our politicians. Everyone knows that the current law is discriminatory and morally untenable. But after prostitution, civil unions and banning child beating, they don't want to annoy the religious right (and provoke more nastiness) by amending it. And so by being vicious and creating fear, the bigots get a veto on equality and fundamental human rights.

Climate change: PR, not science

Yesterday our local denialist cranks in the New Zealand Climate "Science" Coalition launched an unprecedented lawsuit against NIWA over their climate data. According to their statement of claim, NIWA was unreasonable and failed in its statutory duty to "comply with any applicable ethical standards" by allowing Jim Salinger, an experienced and professional climate scientist, to compile a temperature record.

Put like that, the absurdity of the case becomes apparent. And its difficult to see how the cranks can succeed, given the high degree of deference the courts are likely to show NIWA over a decision like this. As Dean Knight has pointed out, there are varying levels of review in administrative law, and the most intense - a fresh look at the facts, with the court drawing its own conclusions - is not the one which will be applied here. Instead, the court will ask whether it is unreasonable, and likely demand a fairly serious error of logic or outright bad faith in order to overturn the decision. Appointing a suitably qualified staff member to perform duties within their area of expertise is unlikely to meet that threshold.

So why are they doing this? Its hard to escape the conclusion that having decisively lost the scientific debate over a decade ago, the deniers are now trying to relitigate it in a less demanding forum, by seeking to bamboozle judges (who are not experts in climate science). Its PR, not science. If the NZCSC had scientific evidence proving that climate change wasn't happening, they'd publish them in scientific journals. The fact they're resorting to the courts, and essentially mounting personal smears against individual climate scientists, is effectively an admission that they do not.

Read more at Hot Topic and Public Address.

New Fisk

Our language has a way of turning women into men

Sunday, August 15, 2010

New Zealand colludes in torture

The Sunday Star-Times has a major news story this morning: the New Zealand SAS are turning over prisoners to the Afghan secret police. Those secret police are known torturers, who use amputations, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, starvation, beatings and burns to extract "confessions". So basically kiwi soldiers are turning people over to be tortured.

Our Defence Minister's response to this? The prisoners are "an Afghan responsibility". So he's basically washing his hands of the whole matter.

Fortunately, he can't. New Zealand has specific obligations under both international and domestic law to prevent torture and not turn people over in this way. The Convention Against Torture is pretty clear:

No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.
While phrased in terms of immigration law, its application is wider, and applies to any transfer of any form. Domestically, the Bill of Rights Act affirms that
Everyone has the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, degrading, or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment.
The government's obligation to uphold this right is not limited geographically; it applies to any act or omission by any branch of the New Zealand government, whether it is done in Wellington or Kabul. If the SAS turns people over to an organisation which uses torture, or assists in their capture so they may be turned over, then they are violating it. That's exactly what the UK High Court found, under an almost identical provision in the UK Human Rights Act, when they banned the British armed forces from transferring prisoners to the NDS facility in Kabul - the same facility the SAS are sending people to.

If the government won't do the decent thing here, and ban the SAS from transferring any prisoners, then we will have to make them. The Bill of Rights Act gives us one lever for doing so. Amnesty or some other human rights group should bring a case.

(Another option is a complaint to the Ombudsman. This has the advantage that it is free, and if taken up would likely have the same result. But it would hinge on the questions of whether a decision to turn someone over to torture was "a matter of administration", and on whether anyone other than a victim of such mistreatment had standing to complain. And it would need more information than is contained in the SST story to back it up. But if any human rights group can build a case, I'd urge them to pursue this avenue as well).

None of our business

For the third day in a row the sordid details of Michael Laws' relationship is splashed across the news. Its in every newspaper, and on every TV channel. And it shouldn't be. To put it bluntly, in small words so that even the tiny brains of media executives can understand, it is none of our business who Michael Laws fucks. Everyone involved is a consenting adult, and so his private life should be treated as exactly that: private.

The fact that Laws issued a media statement on the matter doesn't change that. That justifies reporting the initial statement (because he has obviously consented to it, though even then I'd question whether its newsworthy except as evidence of "Laws mad, egotistical"), but it doesn't justify the subsequent digging into and reporting of every sordid detail. Its no more of public interest than the private lives of newspaper editors and political journalists are.

Bluntly, if I wanted to read this crap, I'd buy the Women's Weekly or New Idea. Its a "story" worthy of them. Its not a story worthy of anywhere that considers itself to be a serious news organisation. And that fact that it is being published by institutions which do simply shows how far our media has sunk.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The opposite of conservation

Under National, the Department of Conservation has become more business focused, establishing a commercial business unit to work with businesses to deliver "increased economic prosperity and conservation gain". Unfortunately, in some cases, the latter part of that statement seems to have been forgotten. According to Mike Joy in the Dominion Post this morning, DoC is licensing the fishing of a threatened species from the conservation estate:

The longfin [eel] is listed as a threatened species by the Conservation Department but inexplicably at the same time it is "managed" as a commercial fish species by the Fisheries Ministry.

Under this so-called management by Fisheries, longfin eels are showing all the classic signs of collapse: a decline in distribution, average size, biomass and recruitment as well as grossly altered sex ratios.

A further clear sign of fishery collapse is that Fisheries can't drop its quota limits fast enough for fishermen to be restricted by them (the fishery is declining so fast that fishermen can't catch enough to reach their quotas so the quotas have had no effect).

In an even more ludicrous turn of events, DOC has recently given consents for commercial eel fishermen to harvest longfins in the conservation estate.

This was driven by fishermen needing to find new places to fish because of declines in catch rates as they have progressively fished out the rest of the country.

As outrageous as that sounds, DOC receives money in the form of a concession payment from commercial fishermen to harvest a threatened endemic species in the conservation estate.

(Emphasis added)

Call me naive, but I thought the purpose of our conservation estate was to conserve, particularly when it came to threatened and endangered species. Instead, DoC is allowing them to be killed for private profit. That's not conservation, but the exact opposite.

Something to go to next weekend

The CTU will be holding nationwide rallies against the government's next weekend, to oppose the government's labour market "reforms" and call for fairness at work.

Auckland: 13:00, Saturday 21st August, QE2 Square (bottom of Queen St, opposite Britomart)
Wellington: 13:00, Saturday 21st August, Civic Square
Chrsitchurch: 13:00, Saturday 21st August, Cathedral Square
Dunedin: 11:00, Sunday 22 August, Dental School, Great King Street, and marching to the Octagon.

If you care about fairness in the workplace, and making sure you have a secure job with decent pay, then please go along.

The path to sustainability

Researchers in Australia have laid out an ambitious plan to transform Australia's electricity supply from primarily coal-based to 100% renewable energy within a decade:

Under the plan, 60 per cent of the nation's electricity would be sourced from 12 huge solar thermal power plants, which use Australian-developed technology to store heat in molten salt, allowing them to operate for long periods when there is no sunshine. The remaining 40 per cent of the power grid would be filled by about 6500 wind turbines at 23 large-scale wind farms dotted mainly around the coast. The plan would generate 325 terawatt hours of electricity a year, meeting the nation's entire power demands in the year 2020, if a comprehensive energy efficiency plan is also factored in. Any shortfalls could be made up by biomass energy generation, using a portion of the stubble from the nation's wheatfields.
The cost? A$37 billion a year for a decade. That sounds staggering, and it is - its about 3% of total GDP. But that's the sort of price you pay when you replace a country's entire electricity infrastructure in a short space of time. Not pursuing a crash program and extending the time period would reduce the cost substantially (as well as avoiding any costly block-obsolescence problems further down the track). Doing it over the lifetime of the infrastructure with a "no new fossil fuels" policy (meaning old stations get replaced with renewables as they retire) would effectively reduce it to zero.

I don't expect Australia to pursue this plan, but it shows the sort of challenge the world is facing. In order to deal with climate change, we need to decarbonize our energy infrastructure. And if we want it to happen in time to make a difference, we need to start now.

Nominally, the New Zealand government is already starting, with a target of 90% renewable electricity generation by 2025. But we don't actually have any policies to achieve that goal, and the construction of a single large gas or coal fired power plant will make it unachievable (as well as spiking electricity prices due to high carbon costs). The lowest-cost option is clearly gradual replacement and requiring new generation to be renewable, but that's not something we can leave in the hands of the market. If we want to meet that target, rather than being forced to abandon it or start an expensive crash program, we need to reinstate the thermal ban now. Otherwise, it may cost us all a lot more in the future.

How it works in PNG

As I noted last month, the government of Papua New Guinea is currently teetering on the brink, after a host of defections undermined the government's majority. While the government has (unconstitutionally) adjourned Parliament, that has simply delayed the inevitable, and the government will almost certainly face a confidence vote when it resumes. But Prime Minister Michael Somare has a solution for his disloyal MPs: bribe them with public money:

About 50 MPs in Papua New Guinea have reportedly each been paid around 740,000 US dollars to ensure they continue to back the ruling coalition.

The newspaper, The National, reports its information comes from sources within the Finance Department.

It’s alleged that Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and his son Arthur Somare, as former acting Finance Minister and Treasurer, instructed the release of the funds to the MPs soon after Parliament adjourned last month.

US$740,000 split fifty ways is about US$15,000 each - more than ten times the per capita GDP of PNG (and, more staggeringly, 0.1% of PNG's total GDP in total, given to 50 people). Meanwhile that's money that won't be spent for its intended (and legally appropriated) purpose: helping the people of PNG.

This is corruption on a massive scale. Its undemocratic, it robs from the poor to support a pseudo-aristocracy of cronies, it is immoral. But that, apparently, is just how it works in PNG.

Correction: Whoops, math-o. I was out by a factor of one hundred error - not even good enough for astrophysics.

Correction 2: Its really not my day, is it? A correspondent has pointed out that its not US$740,000 between all 50 MPs - its US$740,000 (or about 60 times per-capita GDP) each. Which works out to US$37 million, or (double check the figures this time) 0.47% of total GDP for this one bribe. The lower figure was obscene enough, but this is beyond obscenity. US$37 million is about 100 million kina - more than they spend on prisons, twice as much as they spend on judges, a third of the entire education budget [PDF]. And its going straight into the pockets of a handful of corrupt politicians so the government can retain power.