Thursday, September 30, 2010

Scotland goes greener

Back in July, the government released its Draft New Zealand Energy Strategy. A key part of the strategy - though one without any actual policies to make it happen - was retaining the goal of 90% renewable electricity generation by 2025. Despite the fact that we already generate over 70% of our electricity by renewable means, this is considered to be a difficult task by the present government.

Meanwhile, Scotland, with a similar total generating capacity to New Zealand, has just announced it is increasing its 2020 renewables target from 50% to 80%. They're expecting to be at 31% next year, and their total installed capacity is over 10GW, so this means they will need to build around 5 - 6 GW of new renewable generation in the next decade. The scary thing is that they can do it - Scotland has an estimated 62GW renewable resource, mostly in wind and wave power, and there has been an explosion of investment. Scotland has built a hundred windfarms totalling 2.1GW in the last decade, and that is only just scratching the surface of their total resource.

So, why is decarbonising the electricity supply so easy in Scotland and so hard in New Zealand? It's not lack of resources - we have a slightly larger wind resource than them (40GW all up [PDF], compared with 36.5GW). Unlike Scotland, though, our electricity companies are constrained by domestic demand, whereas Scottish generators can export to the UK. But the real answer is policy - where our government has left it to the market to decide what sort of generation gets built, the Scottish government [PDF] has targets, a renewables obligation, and feed-in tariffs, as well as an infrastructure plan [PDF] to promote a domestic wind and wind-servicing industry. In other words, they do something to make it happen. We OTOH do nothing.

Scotland shows what can be done if a government sets their mind to it. We could do the same here. All it requires is political will. Unfortunately, that's what we seem to be short of.

The EU acts to protect Roma

For the past two months, as part of a racist crackdown, the French government has been deporting Roma. The move has been condemned by the European Parliament, and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who called it "a disgrace" and "a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the second world war". Now the European Union is finally, belatedly, taking action, ordering France to obey EU law on freedom of movement or face legal action:

"France is not enforcing European law as it should on free movement, so we are launching an infringement process against France," Ms Reding told France 24 television.

Ms Reding says France has failed to transpose into law a 2004 EU directive on freedom of movement, which sets out procedures for deporting migrants deemed to be staying illegally.

The Roma sent home to Romania and Bulgaria are EU citizens, so they have the right to move to another EU country. But host countries can deport people considered to be a public security risk or a burden on the welfare system.

Unfortunately, they backed away from the obvious and strong case that France was engaging in racial discrimination. Orders to the French police make it clear they are targeting Roma on the basis of their ethnicity, contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, and they need to be held accountable for it. But stopping the deportations should be the immediate goal, and hopefully the EU action will be enough to achieve it.

Another world

Ever since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, astronomers have been waiting for imaging techniques to advance enough to detect earth-size bodies close in in the habitable zone of stars. Now, they've found one:

Gliese 581g is the first world discovered beyond Earth that's the right size and location for life.


The discovery caps an 11-year effort to tease out information from instruments on ground-based telescopes that measure minute variations in starlight caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

Planet G -- the sixth member in Gliese 581's family -- orbits right in the middle of that system's habitable region, where temperatures would be suitable for liquid water to pool on the planet's surface.

Which means we now have a possible answer to one of the variables in the Drake Equation - the likelihood that a life-zone planet will in fact develop life. Unfortunately, its 20 light years away - which absent Einstein being wrong, means it is completely physically inaccessible. We can look at it, and if we get a really, really big orbiting telescope, we can study it remotely and detect whether it has water and clouds. We might even, if we want to burn a substantial fraction of our gloabl energy output and wait a lifetime, send a tiny probe to take a closer look. But we can never go there. And we certainly can't go there to set up the new frontier beloved of science fiction and Libertarian space cadets.

The news of habitable extrasolar planets is fascinating, and it will tell us interesting things about the universe (not least: where the hell is everybody else?). But the cold reality of relativistic physics means we are pretty much stuck here. For practical purposes, the Earth and the rest of the solar system are all we've got, and all we'll ever have. So we'd better take care of them, because we have nowhere else to go.

[Hat-tip: Kiwipolitico]

A closer look: The Law Commission on the OIA

Today the Law Commission released its issues paper [PDF] on the Official Information Act. This is the second stage of their review, aimed at getting public feedback on preliminary recommendations. I'll have some more thoughts on particular areas soon, but here's the general overview.

Firstly, the Herald is highlighting the suggestion to scrap the executive veto over release (which is a good idea), but that's burying the lead. The real story from this is that in a paper entitled The Public's Right To Know, the Law Commission is proposing to restrict that right by expanding the withholding provisions applying to "confidential" and "free and frank" advice. These are so vague as to allow Ministers and agencies to drive a cast-iron rhinoceros through, and as a result they are widely abused. Pretty much anything can be hidden this way - and because its secret, we don't know if its dubious or not.

These provisions exist for two reasons. Firstly, to protect the ability of Ministers to receive blunt advice. There's a definite public interest there, in that if an idea is bullshit, public servants need to be able to say so. But I don't see why it requires secrecy. Those public servants are professionals, and are expected to give such advice as part of their jobs. The "free and frank" clause in fact protects Ministers from having the quality of their decision-making scrutinised. And that's not something they deserve protection for. If a Minister was advised that a policy would lead to a disastrous outcome, and they pushed on and did it anyway, that is something we deserve to know. More secrecy in this area is the exact opposite of what we need, and what we have a right to.

The second reason is summed up by the Law Commission as

The ability of the government to govern requires some room for deliberation in private to develop and consider ideas without fear of adverse consequence
Or, to put it another way, apparently government can't operate if us dirty peasants are looking over its shoulder all the time. Which is exactly the sort of monarchical bullshit the OIA was passed to eradicate.

Here's a thought: rather than trying to hide behind secrecy, Ministers could explain their decisions. If they were advised that a particular course of action might lead to a bad outcome, but want to press ahead with it anyway, they could explain why and what precautionary measures they were taking to mitigate that outcome. In short, they could treat us as democratic citizens with an interest in government, rather than as subject peasants who must be kept away from it. But that would require Ministers to stand up and be accountable for their decisions - which is the very last thing they are interested in.

What else? The Law Commission discounts complaints of delays on the basis that

Recent research... indicates that the great majority of requests are responded to well under the statutory maximum of 20 working days.
I can't really fault them on this, as they went with the information they had at the time. But I think that contention is absolutely unsupportable in light of my research on Ministers, which showed that on average only 70% of requests were processed on time, and that the median time was around 20 working days. While I haven't posted it yet (I'm still waiting on a few), government departments showed a similar picture, with a few honourable exceptions like the Ministry of Justice who took the "as soon as practicable" clause seriously.

The good news is that they are recommending that somebody collect and publish these sorts of performance statistics as part of the ongoing monitoring of the Act. Which means we will be able to use them as an ongoing spur to drive performance. They're also recommending greater guidance by the Ombudsmen and/or SSC to give greater consistency in decision-making, which would be welcome.

Unfortunately, despite the massive advances in information technology (and public expectations of openness), they don't recommend reducing the 20-day limit, as

it would be unrealistic to reduce the maximum timeframe at a time where, for reasons of economic necessity, the public service is required to shoulder its core responsibilities with reduced or no increased resources.
They're absolutely right that this is a question of resources. But we shouldn't allow the government to use the recession as an excuse for secrecy. Freedom of information is like democracy - you pay whatever it takes. A shorter limit would mean a better democracy and a more responsive, accountable government. And that is something we should pay for, recession or no recession.

The review sidesteps the issue of whether Parliament should be covered by the Act on the grounds that that is being considered in a parallel review of the Civil List Act (which seems an odd place to do it). But they do recommend it be extended to cover the Parliamentary Counsel Office, and to operational aspects of the courts. They also recommend consolidating the list of bodies the Act applies to in one place, rather than having them scattered around the schedules to the OIA, Ombudsmen's Act, Crown Entities Act and various other places.

This is an important review, and one we should all speak up on. Submissions are due by December 10.

A combination of Hobbits

Film's backers told NZ law on their side against union, New Zealand Herald, 30 September 2010:

Yesterday, Mr Finlayson said in a letter to the studios - which was also copied to Sir Peter and Ward-Lealand - that legal advice from the Crown Law Office confirmed the Commerce Act prevented The Hobbit's producers "from entering into a union-negotiated agreement with performers who are independent contractors". Section 30 of the act, which deals with price fixing, "effectively prohibits" such arrangements, he said.
Combination Act of 1800 (UK):
No journeyman, workman or other person shall at any time after the passing of this Act make or enter into, or be concerned in the making of or entering into any such contract, covenant or agreement, in writing or not in writing ... and every ... workman ... who, after the passing of this Act, shall be guilty of any of the said offences, being thereof lawfully convicted, upon his own confession, or the oath or oaths of one or more credible witness or witnesses, before any two justices of the Peace ... within three calendar months next after the offence shall have been committed, shall, by order of such justices, be committed to and confined in the common gaol, within his or their jurisdiction, for any time not exceeding 3 calendar months, or at the discretion of such justices shall be committed to some House of Correction within the same jurisdiction, there to remain and to be kept to hard labour for any time not exceeding 2 calendar months.
And so at a stroke, by virtue of an arbitrary designation imposed by Jackson in an effort to shirk his responsibilities as an employer, labour relations are taken back two hundred years to the era when any effort by workers to improve their lot was an unlawful (seditious, even) conspiracy in restraint of trade. The only difference is that if they are successful in collectivising to press for their rights, instead of the actors being jailed or transported to Australia, Jackson's entire production is transported to Eastern Europe in search of lower costs and bigger tax breaks.

Frankly, if resurrecting the Combination Laws is the price of keeping him here, then I say let him go. He can leave his knighthood at the door, because clearly he doesn't deserve to keep it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A second go for equality in Australia

Same-sex marriage was one of the big issues in the recent Australian election campaign, despite the reluctance of either of the major parties to talk about it. Australian opinion has shifted dramatically away from the bigotry of the past, with 60% now in favour of marriage equality. And while the big parties voted down a Green bill on the topic back in February, its now back on the agenda:

The Greens will re-introduce their Marriage Equality Bill in the Senate today, delivering on a promise made during the federal election.

Greens spokeswoman on Sexuality and Gender Identity, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, told Sydney Star Observer, “On Wednesday I will re-introduce my Marriage Equality Bill, as promised, at the start of the new Parliament.”

Hanson-Young moved a notice of motion for the bill yesterday, so the bill could be introduced at the first available oportunity.

The Greens aren't playing hardball on this, despite the fact that they'll soon have the balance of power in the Senate. instead, all they want is a debate and a conscience vote. It will be interesting to see whether they'll get it, or whether the main parties will bloc-vote against it in pursuit of the votes of bigots in key marginal seats.

Meanwhile, while Australia debates same-sex marriage, over here we're stil stuck with civil unions. Isn't it time we reasserted our progressive credentials and took a stand for equality? Or is New Zealand as much a slave to bigots as Australia and the US?

Grossly illiberal

The USA. Land of freedom, where people are free to live how they choose. Unless, apparently, you live in Utah. There, one of the stars of reality TV show "Sister Wives", about a polygamous Mormon family, is being investigated for bigamy. Which is a little odd, given that he is in fact only legally married to one of his wives. But apparently in Utah,

a person can be found guilty of bigamy through cohabitation, not just legal marriage contracts.
Quite apart from the abuse of language, this is a gross intrusion into the private sphere. It is one thing for the state to police the integrity of its contracts and punish those who make false statements when entering them. Its quite another to try and dictate how people arrange their private lives. Provided everyone involved is a consenting adult then those decisions are properly the domain of individuals, and the state should keep its nose out of them.

(Note the important caveat there. I am aware that some of the Mormon subsects aren't too fussy about either the age or the consent of some of those involved in their marriages. But the proper charge there is rape, not bigamy).

Fearmongering on the foreshore

Last night, Three News had an appalling piece of fearmongering on the foreshore, with a report that a Northland iwi was threatening to block access to an iconic surfing spot:

A group of Maori are threatening to block access to an iconic Northland surf spot.

Shipwreck Bay, at the foot of 90 Mile Beach, could be off-limits - unless commercial operators, like tourism companies, begin paying them to use it.

The dispute is seen as a forerunner to other cases, with Maori claiming “customary title” under the Government’s seabed and foreshore legislation.

Well, that seems pretty clear cut. The beaches are under threat! From brown people! Panic! Except that if you read further, its not:
Mr Tepania says his people aren’t sick of the public – just those who use the beach to make money.

“How would people like it if businesses were crossing over their front drive or front lawn,” he says.


That access is through Maori-owned land, which gives them control. Control that will extend onto the beach and up to 20km out to sea if they get “customary title” under the Government’s new foreshore law.

So, in fact this has nothing to do with the foreshore, except for the possibility of a future claim. The dispute is actually over access to the beach across private land. This is a thorny issue in itself - one which saw the Labour government try and force public access, and then when faced with massive opposition from property owners (chiefly farmers), establish the Walking Access Commission to negotiate for it. But even that access applies only to people on foot. It does not apply to commercial operators with vehicles.

What Three News' story seems to boil down to is a claim that commercial operators should be able to use Maori land as of right, without paying for it - a claim that Maori have lesser property rights than other New Zealanders. There's a very simple word for that position: racism. And Three News should be ashamed of itself for spreading it.

Update: This seems to be an ongoing dispute up there. Here's a piece of background that puts it in context:

The dispute centres on a piece of Maori land between the beach and the end of the council-owned section of Foreshore Rd.

In the past, private vehicles had been allowed across the land, owned by Te Kohanga Trust, and businesses paid an annual concession to use it.

Claims of people driving recklessly on Foreshore Rd have seen the access closed regularly in recent months and frustrations boiled over on Sunday afternoon.

The trust closed their private road to commercial operators three weeks ago, after the incident in that article. And they have every right to do so (though not, I should add, to hijack cars).

Contempt for our constitution

Gerry Brownlee's reaction to yesterday's open letter from legal academics condemning the Canterbury Enabling Act? Utter contempt. Here's his response to NZPA:

Earthquake recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the Act wouldn't be changed and he was not worried by what "hand-wringing academics" thought.
And to Radio New Zealand:
The Minister of Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, says that the Government doesn't need to justify the law, and that any suggestion it will be misused is not worth responding to.
So there you have it: Brownlee thinks he can turn this country into a dictatorship without any need for justification, and that any concern is just "hand-wringing". It's the sort of response I'd expect from the king of Tonga, or from Bainamarama of Fiji, not from an elected Member of Parliament in a democratic country like ours.

But contrary to Brownlee, these concerns are serious. The law is an affront to our constitution, establishing Brownlee as a virtual dictator, able to change practically any law he wants, with no oversight whatsoever. Such powers are anathema to a democracy, and you need something more than the petty anti-intellectualism of a failed woodwork teacher to justify them.

Brownlee - and by extension, the government he is a part of - has shown their contempt for our constitution with this response. And that's not something we should tolerate. One of the few laws he can't change by fiat is the Electoral Act. And we should use it to vote him and his party out of office at the first opportunity.

Accountability, Icelandic style II

Earlier in the month, an Icelandic Parliamentary committee recommended that former Prime Minister Geir Haarde stand trial for misconduct in office over the collapse of the Icelandic banking industry. Today, the Althing agreed, voting to send his case to a special Court of Impeachment.

This is unprecedented. While Iceland's constitution includes these powers, they have never before been used. OTOH, its also well deserved - and if Haarde's deregulation and bail-out of the banks wasn't official misconduct, you really have to wonder what would be.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#OpenLabourNZ: The vote

Back in April, Labour began an experiment with crowdsourcing policy: OpenLabour. The aim was to produce a policy on open and transparent government. After much discussion, both on the net and at a mini-conference, OpenLabour came up with a list of proposals, which are now being voted on. To vote, go here, log in (either sign up or use Twitter), and simply select whether you agree or disagree with each policy.

So far, there's strong support for opening Parliament to the OIA and for a proactive release website (there's also strong support for greater BORA reporting, a lower MMP threshold and an entrenched BORA, though these have SFA to do with open government and transparency). The least popular idea? Compulsory voting.

Clare Curran, who is running this process, has noted that the votes are indicative only, and that Labour may not adopt all the policies (and may adopt unpopular ones). That's as it should be - they're the ones standing for election, after all. But at the same time, if they run an open policy development process and then flagrantly ignore the results, the people who have engaged with it in good faith may feel burned by the process and be far more reluctant to engage in future. Which would be a terrible result for something aimed at increasing participation.

A pyrrhic victory

Supreme Court judge Justice Bill Wilson has been successful in getting the High Court to overturn the recommendation of the Judicial Conduct Commissioner to form a judicial conduct panel to investigate his conflicts of interest. But while an apparent victory, when you look at the grounds of the decision, its nothing of the sort:

Justice Wilson sought a judicial review of that decision and has been successful on the grounds that the written recommendation failed to form an actual opinion as required to do under the Judicial Conduct Commissioner and Judicial Conduct Panel Act 2004.

The High Court also found that the commissioner needs to identify the matter or matters concerning the judge's alleged conduct that he believes warrants further inquiry by the panel.

So, the JCC will go back and reissue an opinion which is specific about the matters to be investigated and forms a provisional view about Wilson's misbehaviour. Which likely isn't going to make Wilson look any better.

But beyond that, the problem for Wilson is that he has already failed to meet the standard required to remain in office. The integrity and impartiality of our judges must be beyond question. Wilson's clearly isn't. He could perhaps have redeemed himself by submitting completely and fully to the judicial conduct panel and hoping to be cleared. The fact that he hasn't done that (and in fact has fought it tooth and nail) makes him look guilty.

No, that's not fair. But the standard Wilson is being judged by is not criminal or judicial, but political. The public are entitled to demand the very highest standards from our judges. Wilson no longer meets those standards. And that means he should resign.

Legal experts oppose Canterbury Enabling Act

Two weeks ago, Parliament unanimously passed the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act, which established Gerry Brownlee as a near-absolute dictator, able to amend almost any law with a flick of a pen, without any real oversight. While the blogosphere has been vocal in its opposition to this constitutional outrage, the mainstream media has been largely silent, likely due to the lack of "credible" voices willing to speak up against it. Now, New Zealand's legal academics have united to provide that voice, with an open letter calling for the law to be revisited. The core of it is in these two paragraphs here:

These matters are not simply "academic" or "theoretical" in nature. Over and over again history demonstrates that unconstrained power is subject to misuse, and that even well-intentioned measures can result in unintended consequences if there are not clear, formal measures of oversight applied to them.


Any claim that such safeguards are unnecessary because the Act’s powers will be wisely and sparingly applied, and that informal "consultation" and "public pressure" will ensure that this happens, must be resisted. Only formal, legal means of accountability, ultimately enforceable through the courts, are constitutionally acceptable.

Or, as Lew put it over at Kiwipolitico, there is no democracy on the honour system. Any law which requires us to simply trust the government not to be evil is not acceptable.

Hopefully, Parliament will listen, and revise the law. Its been a few weeks, and so it should be obvious by now which laws need amendment and which do not. Limited, reviewable, enforceable emergency legislation is acceptable. But this sort of blank cheque is not.

Political thuggery

The Supercity voting scam just gets worse and worse. Now in addition to people's votes being stolen, we also have death threats:

Police are investigating a death threat against a political organiser in relation to a possible Super City voting scam in South Auckland.

Citizens & Ratepayers campaign organiser Jim Stephens received a letter mentioning a "hit list" and "shooters" if the right-leaning ticket did not desist from maligning "our winning candidate Daljit [Singh]".

It was purportedly signed by "Daljit Singh supporters".

Something is clearly very, very wrong in Auckland Labour's political culture if someone thinks this sort of political thuggery is acceptable. What next? They'll start trying to intimidate people into voting for them?

The people responsible for this need to be exposed and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This is just not acceptable in a democratic country like ours.

[Hat-tip: DPF]

Water on stone

The biggest criticism of Labour's GST policy is that it won't make any difference. Yesterday, Bill English said it was worth only $1 a week, while today on Public Address Russell Brown argues

But assuming it is passed on in its entirety to consumers – not a given – a 15% move in fruit and vegetable prices is insignificant in comparison to the seasonal movement in prices, or even the gap between different outlets at any time of year.
Sure. And the same can be argued about the effect of the ETS on petrol prices (a 3.5c/l rise is well within the normal fluctuations caused by international supply, demand, and panic). But no-one (and certainly not Bill English) doubts its efficacy. Though perhaps that's because in the case of the ETS it was placed in an explicit market context.

Small changes in price add up to produce big changes in behaviour. That's how markets work. Make something cheaper, and if people want more of it, they'll buy more. Make it more expensive, and to the extent they can reduce demand, they'll buy less. Its like water on stone. One drip doesn't do anything. But let it drip for long enough, you get holes. Its not rocket-science.

Labour's GST policy applies exactly this logic to fresh fruit and vegetables. And the Otago study quantifies the effect. Doubters need to explain why that study is false, and why the same logic they accept everywhere else, for everything, doesn't apply in this case.

Meanwhile, as for retailers not passing any cut on, I think the solution to that is political pressure. At the merest hint of price gouging, the appropriate select committee should declare an inquiry, compel the gougers to appear and explain themselves, and shit all over them with bad PR. Again, its not rocket science - all it needs is politicians with a backbone. Though given the unanimous vote for the Canterbury Enabling Act, I really wonder whether we have any of them left.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Business is no friend of democracy

How utterly unsurprising: our local business community are enthusiastic supporters of the Canterbury Enabling Act:

The Government’s response to the Canterbury earthquake is not only a welcome relief to local businesses, it also provides a model for the kind of legislative environment businesses want across the country, according the latest MYOB Business Monitor.
(Emphasis added)

That model is one where Parliament surrenders its power completely to the executive, who can then use it with no oversight and no appeals - in short, dictatorship. And if that's their "preferred model", then they clearly haven't thought about how it could be used (hint: forced nationalisation with no compensation - not so keen now, are you?)

Once again our business community has shown that it is not just stupid and shortsighted, but also no friend of democracy.

Why we should remove GST from fresh fruit and veges

The Otago Daily Times summarises the empirical evidence on the effects of removing GST from fresh fruit and vegetables:

Professors Tony Blakely of the University of Otago, and Cliona Ni Mhuchu of the University of Auckland, gave the proposal cautious support as a move to improve health and reduce inequalities.

"Earlier this year we published research showing an 11 percent increase in purchasing of fruit and vegetables when 12.5% was taken off the price," Professor Ni Mhurchu said.

The finding was from a large randomised trial of 1,100 New Zealand shoppers, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

This increase equates to about half a kilo more fruits and vegetables per household each week, or about six extra servings.

That's a pretty significant effect. As for those who doubt whether its worthwhile, it is worth noting that we already run a 5+ a day programme to encourage healthier eating. This goes beyond mere advocacy to enabling. It would mean the government is putting its money where its mouth is.

Our homophobic police

More evidence that our police have failed to get the message on the Supreme Court's "new" (meaning: in the last five years) interpretation of disorderly and offensive behaviour charges: a man was charged with offensive behaviour for kissing a policeman:

Giving a police officer a huge kiss on the face after being offered a lift home did not end well for a Blenheim man, who instead got a ride to the police cells.

Constable Michelle Stagg said police were called to Wither Rd at 11.30pm on Saturday after complaints that a party was getting out of control. They found the offender unwilling to leave.

When police offered to take him home, the grateful man grabbed an officer and kissed him on the face, Miss Stagg said. He was promptly arrested for offensive behaviour.

Kissing a policeman may be many things (stupid, rude, an invasion of personal space, common assault), but it is not offensive in a legal sense. That requires behaviour which is so utterly beyond the pale of community standards as to create a real risk of public disorder and violence. This doesn't even meet the first test, let alone the second.

If the offender had been a woman, it is impossible to imagine the police charging them with offensive behaviour. Likewise if the police officer had been a woman rather than a man. This charge is simply a reflection of the culture of homophobia which still survives in the New Zealand police force - a culture which needs to be stamped out.

Labour's GST policy

Today Phil Goff committed to axing GST on fresh fruit and vegetables if elected. Good. While originally against this idea, I've changed my mind after seeing the evidence. According to research from Otago University's public health department, removing GST from fresh fruit and vegetables increased consumption by 11%. For a country facing an obesity epidemic and an explosion of lifestyle diseases caused by the modern, sugar-rich diet, that seems like a worthwhile goal.

Critics will say the shift is complex and unworkable. Bullshit. Labour has a solid definition of what counts ("unprocessed" and "fruit or vegetable" - no space for quibbling over salad rolls or tinned beans there), and they've committed to providing the necessary support through IRD to make it painless and risk-free for business. The Australians can manage this. Are critics really saying we're stupider than them?

Which really only leaves cost. This policy will cost $250 million a year. Labour says that will be "repaid many times over" from health savings, but that remains to be seen (those savings will also be long-term rather than short-term). Its a hefty cost, but not one that will break the bank, and whether we want to effectively spend money this way is simply a question of priorities. As Goff asks:

If it’s appropriate to put up the price of cigarettes by $200 million a year in tax because you want to discourage smoking, why wouldn’t you spend the same amount to reduce the price of healthy fruit and vegetables to encourage people to eat what is good for them?
(Though I'd put this as "enable" rather than encourage, a removal of a price barrier to healthy eating).

Though if we're looking at ways of paying for it, here's an idea: restore the top tax rate of 39% on the 3% of income earners who earn more than $100,000 a year. This would net more than $550 million a year - more than enough to pay for this change. Plus, it would be a "tax switch" which benefits the poor rather than the rich. Seems like a good idea to me...

Reported back

The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has reported back [PDF] on Tau Henare's Employment Relations (Workers' Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill. Like many people - and many unions - I'd backed the bill as a no-brainer; all it did was reinforce that unions were democratic institutions bound to represent the interests of their members. But amendments made by the select committee have gone further; rather than simply saying "unions must be democratic", the bill is now all about allowing employers to challenge the legality of strike action for minor defects of process (as used to thwart strikes in the UK).

This is going too far. To point out the obvious: whether a voluntary organisation abides by its internal rules is an issue for its members. If your local rugby club, or larp society, or students association fails to conform to its process or purpose, you can take them to court to force them to. But non-members can't, because they lack standing (they may also lack any interest whatsoever). What this bill does is let non-members barge their way in and challenge decisions which members are perfectly happy with. Its not about democracy at all, but allowing it to be vetoed by outsiders.

This is as ridiculous as allowing non-members to challenge political party candidate selections (and threaten to sue to intimidate, to drain funds, or in an effort to force the selection of a weaker candidate). And in fact, that's the perfect example, because we have an equivalent law in this area. Section 71 of the Electoral Act requires parties to follow democratic procedures in candidate selection - but unlike this bill, it does not attempt to lay down what those procedures must be, or allow them to be challenged willy-nilly by outsiders. And that's as it should be. Like political parties, unions are voluntary organisations. Their decisions should be made democratically by their members - not by non-members. If that's good enough for political parties, why isn't it good enough for unions?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

New Fisk

An artist who gave us life as it was lived


After a week of sitting on their thumbs, Labour has finally responded to the Supercity voting scam:

The Labour Party had co-operated with the investigation, and would support any action police decided to take, Mr Little said.

Some candidates were running under a Labour Party banner, and others were loosely associated with the party.

"The integrity of our electoral system is essential to the genuinely democratic basis of our elections and anything that undermines that integrity needs to be dealt with firmly and forcefully," Mr Little said.

"If as a result of the police investigation into the Papatoetoe irregularities we become aware that any Party member is involved we will also take appropriate action internally."

This is what I was hoping they'd say, and it is good to hear. Electoral fraud is absolutely beyond the pale, and all parties must take a firm line against it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Our army tolerates torture

Last year, a group of soldiers from Linton army camp got into a brawl in Palmerston North. Following the brawl, they began a witch hunt back at their camp, dragging soldiers from their beds and interrogating them. The interrogations were aided by beatings. One soldier was strangled. Another was questioned while a lit gas burner was held under their leg. At the end of the evening, they smashed someone's face in by throwing them down the stairs.

Yesterday, three soldiers were convicted on assault charges at a court martial. The ringleader got six months detention. The others got ten days and a fine, and 18 months stay of seniority and a reprimand respectively.

The sentences reflect the primary charge of assault, but that's missing the real horror here. These soldiers tortured people. They inflicted severe physical or mental pain or suffering for the purposes of obtaining information. And for it, they got a slap on the wrist. They weren't even discharged. While one has chosen to leave the army, the others will get to continue their careers and spread their poison - that its OK to hold someone down and burn them if you want answers.

The military justice system failed yesterday. These men should be sacked. There should be no place in our military for torturers.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bigger and bigger

Auckland's Supercity voting scam just gets bigger and bigger. Today's news is that votes have been stolen from around the North Island to pack the electorate in Papatoetoe:

One source told the Herald that more than 300 voters from Hastings, Tauranga and Hamilton were enrolled, and another 100 voters from Papakura had been shifted to the Papatoetoe subdivision.

Auckland electoral officer Dale Ofsoske has also given police information about a Papakura company which allegedly tried to re-enrol hundreds of people from within Auckland and outside it as well to Papatoetoe.

As for the victims, the first they know about it is when their voting papers fail to arrive. People are being disenfranchised in an organised, systematic attempt to steal an election. Its the sort of thing you expect to happen in Afghanistan, not in New Zealand.

The good news is that police are finally speaking to the candidates, and have reportedly seized Labour candidate Daljit Singh's computer. Again, if he is responsible, then I expect the Labour Party to dump him the moment it becomes clear. Anything less is supporting electoral fraud. And no decent kiwi can support a political party which supports that.

Meanwhile, if you live in Papatoetoe, you might want to delay voting until the culprit becomes clear, lest you support a crook. Alternatively, you could just avoid any of the suspects, and vote for someone who isn't tainted by this scandal.

Guest column: Perspective

By Rich d'Rich

Looking at my Twitter feed and various websites, there has been much complaint about France implementing "three strikes" policies against Internet filesharing.

For those not following this debate, the French government, in an attempt to prevent minor copyright violations, is mandating that ISPs will be required to send warning letters to those sharing copyright files, and, should these warnings be ignored, to disconnect them if required by a judge.

In other news, the same government is deporting Roma travellers, including those who are EU citizens and have lived in France for many years. This is something that hasn't happened in Europe for over sixty years, and is a flagrant violation of the EU constitution and the ECHR. Indeed, preventing this kind of thing is a core reason why the ECHR was adopted and the EU created in the 1950's. Sadly, although the deportations are prima facie illegal and will probably be denounced by the courts, the slow speed of international justice means that this won't happen for several years, by which time many families will have been torn apart and people driven from their homes.

From where I'm sitting the outrage against putative Internet bans vastly exceeds that against Roma deportation. While I don't personally support punitive copyright enforcement measures against individuals, this seems a tad disproportionate. Surely throwing somebody out of a country on racial grounds is way worse than banning them from downloading Avatar? Much as technotopians think otherwise, you can't live on the Internet.

A perfect example

On Wednesday, when posting about the Land and Water Forum's proposal for a tradable permit system for water rights, I snarked about the fisheries Quota Management System and the way its caps are set by politics rather than science. Over on SciBlogs, Rebecca McLeod has a perfect example of this today. For the past year or so, the government has been considering adding Giant Bladder Kelp to the QMS. There are serious concerns about the effects of widespread kelp harvesting on the marine ecosystem, and large degree of uncertainty about the effects such harvesting would have. Together, these suggest a precautionary approach should be used, at least until there is better data.

So naturally, the Minister has set a limit three times larger than the largest option suggested in the official advice [PDF](which is itself ten times larger than the second largest option - which shows the uncertainty we're dealing with here). He calls this "a cautious approach to management".

Marine scientists are appalled - not to mention wondering why they bother when the science is just ignored. Meanwhile, a handful of kelp harvesters are laughing all the way to the bank. Thanks to the requirement that new quota be allocated on provisional catch history, a handful of existing permit holders (who presently harvest 20 tons a year) will gain a quota windfall of fifty times as much as they catch at present (no, its not a maths error, the difference is due to the SeaLord settlement).

Phil Heatley just made a few people very, very rich. I wonder if they'll repay him? Unfortunately, thanks to our non-transparent electoral donation regime, we'll never know.

Against compulsory voting

Over on Red Alert, Clare Curran argues that people should get out and vote in the local body elections. But she goes further:

There’s no law in New Zealand requiring you to vote. Personally I support such a law. I believe it’s not only the right of every citizen to vote, it’s a responsibility.
While I agree strongly with her urge to participate, I disagree absolutely with the latter. Here's why.

Firstly, why you should vote: because politics matters. The decisions politicians make, about the environment, about the economy, about human rights and foreign affairs have real consequences. Our rivers will be dirtier and our greenhouse gas emissions higher because of decisions made by this National government. Some people will have more money in their pockets, but a lot more will be worse off, because wages won't rise or they've been thrown out of work. Some people won't be able to vote, others will receive unjustly long prison sentences because of National's pandering to sadists. Some will die avoidably on the roads. And at least one man - Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell - is dead because they decided to suck up to the US and keep propping up a corrupt and morally indefensible government in Afghanistan.

The decisions politicians make can make a real difference to people's lives, for better or for worse. The general direction of those decisions is determined by the politicians in office. So, the decisions we make about who will represent us matter as well. Which is why I vote, and why I try to persuade other people to do so as well (and lobby, and protest, and submit, and generally involve themselves in government - because its our government, damn it, and if you don't do this, you'll get stomped all over by someone who does).

But I don't think voting should be compulsory. This is not due to any snobbish beliefs about the need to make an "informed" vote (whatever that means) and desire to exclude those who can't be bothered. Instead its because in a democracy, voting is a formal act of consent to government. By voting, I help to legitimise the government and the decisions it purports to make on my behalf. But in order for that consent to be meaningful, I need to be able to deny it. On this view, compulsory voting is effectively forced consent to government, a fundamental denial of the beliefs underlying democracy.

But that's not the only reason. I've talked above about how politics matters. But it doesn't always. In New Zealand, we're lucky - MMP makes our votes meaningful and our choices real. But other countries suffer under unfair electoral systems which effectively artificially constrain political choice. In others, the choices on offer are so narrow as to be no choice at all for many people. You see this in the US, where voters can choose between one bunch of plutocratic arseholes or the other, and regardless they'll get tax cuts for the rich, welfare cuts for the poor, and trillions wasted on foreign wars. These parties basically offer nothing to ordinary Americans, and so half of them have stopped voting. And you can see it in the UK, where turnout plummeted when it became apparent that "New" Labour was just old Thatcher in drag. Once it became apparent that it made no difference, people stopped voting.

Closer to home, I had exactly this experience in my uninspiring local body election: none of the candidates for mayor deserved my vote, so I left that part of the ballot paper blank. If it had been the only decision in this election, the entire thing would simply have gone in the bin.

So, on this view, compulsory voting effectively forces some voters (those in such jurisdictions who feel disenfranchised and who cannot be bothered writing "fuck you all" on their ballot paper and wiping their arse with it before putting it in the box) to support politicians and parties that offer them nothing or are actively opposed to their interests. That is also a fundamental denial of the beliefs underlying democracy.

So what to do about low turnouts? First, we need to recognise that the problem lies not with voters, but with politicians. That's not "apathy' - its rejection. And its not "cynicism", but a recognition by many that there are no real choices on offer. And that means the solution has to come from politicians as well - not by forcing us to support them, but by convincing us to, and offering real choices. And if they they're too lazy to do that, then they deserve our rejection.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Telling us what we already knew

In May, Israeli commandos seized an aid flotilla heading for Gaza, murdering nine protestors in the process. Today, a panel of international human rights experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council told us what we all knew: that it was a crime. But not just any crime - they're accusing Israel of grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and calling for the prosecution of those responsible:

"There is clear evidence to support prosecutions of the following crimes within the terms of article 147 of the fourth Geneva convention: wilful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health," the report said.

"A series of violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, were committed by the Israeli forces during the interception of the flotilla and during the detention of passengers in Israel prior to deportation."

They also found Israel's blockade of Gaza to be utterly unlawful due to the humanitarian crisis there.

The report will be debated by the UN Security Council, where no doubt the US will use its veto to prevent any formal criticism of Israel's actions. That's not good enough. Those responsible for these crimes need to face justice. If Israel will not hold them to account, then international arrest warrants should be issued so they can stand trial before the International Criminal Court.

The full report is here [PDF].


National's big promise is that it will be a better economic manager than Labour. Today, we've received another reminder that hat promise is false. Statistics New Zealand's GDP figures showed a stangant economy, with economic growth only a quarter of what was expected. On the back of Tuesday's news that unemployment would remain over 6% for the foreseeable future, its bad news.

Meanwhile, in the House today, Bill English called this "a different kind of recovery". Yes - its a jobless one, which will bring no benefit to the vast majority of New Zealanders. And yet English calls this "the right direction". If this is the right direction, you really have to wonder what the wrong one would be.

Good riddance

David Garrett has resigned from Parliament. Good riddance. We knew he was a scumbag long before we found out he was a criminal, and what's surprising is that it took so long. But I guess racism, sexism, homophobia and drunkenness play well to ACT's new redneck base.


The Māori Affairs Committee has called for submissions on the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. Two copies, by Friday, 19 November 2010, to

Māori Affairs Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
Or you can use the handy form above.

The bill is National's answer to the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and basically repeals that Act and restates it under a different name with minor changes. Its an important bill, and if you have an opinion on the issue, you should submit on it.

If you don't know how to make a submission, the Office of the Clerk has a handy guide here.


It turns out that the Supercity voting scam is more serious than I thought. Rather than people being encouraged to enrol in places they didn't live, people were being enrolled without their knowledge - their votes were being stolen. So we're not talking about an administrative crime of falsifying an official document, but attempted personation.

As for who's responsible, Three News points the finger at Labour candidate Daljit Singh:

One of the properties searched was the real estate office where Labour candidate Daljit Singh works. He said today police had not contacted him.

"What we're doing at present is investigating the enrolments," says [Det Insp] Gutry. "As part of that process we are going to end up speaking to candidates right throughout the Papatoetoe area."

Another address visited was Indo Spice World, where coincidentally today a support vehicle for Mr Singh was parked at his office next door.

The business is owned by Gurinder Atwal, who also owns a house where 48 people were registered to vote.

In the Herald Singh claims its "a Citizens and Ratepayers smear campaign". If so, its a very well informed one which has gone to a lot of effort. But regardless of who is responsible, their party needs to disown them immediately. Otherwise, they will be directly supporting electoral fraud. And that is something no decent kiwi can support.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Key on Hide on Garrett


Yes, John Key really said that about Rodney Hide's coverup of David Garrett's criminal past. As was quickly pointed out, he must be about he only person in the country who believes that.

While he was at it, he also claimed that "Ministers are responsible to me for their ethical behaviour, not for their judgment". This is what National calls "higher standards".


Earlier in the month, Iain Lees-Galloway's Smoke-free Environments (Removing Tobacco Displays) Amendment Bill was drawn from the member's ballot. The bill would require retailers to remove tobacco and smoking-related products from display, effectively making cigarettes an "under the counter" good. But today the Attorney-General formally notified the House that the bill was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF].

But not for the reason you think. The core aim of the bill - banning display to prevent tobacco companies from circumventing advertising restrictions with "powerwalls" - isn't any sort of problem. Reducing the harm done by tobacco use and preventing advertising to children are important public purposes, and the ban is rationally connected to those purposes. In the case of tobacco products themselves, its also undoubtedly proportionate. No, the Attorney-General's concerns centre around the existing definition of "smoking accessory" - items such as pipes, papers and ashtrays - and the effects of the ban in preventing display of antiques. I agree that this is clearly disproportionate to the objective - but it is also minor. And it should be able to be fixed with a simple amendment at the select committee.

A closer look: The Land and Water Forum

Water is one of the most controversial environmental issues in New Zealand at the moment, with serious problems around water quality and allocation. In an attempt to find some sort of consensus on the issue, back in 2009 the government asked the Land and Water Forum - a private stakeholders group - to expand its membership and try and come up with a consensus solution. The forum released its report [PDF] today. So what does it say?

Firstly, they're clear that we have a problem and we need to do something about it. Central government and regional councils have failed to set effective limits on water use, resulting in overallocation and pollution. Monitoring and enforcement can vary significantly between regional councils, so even the weak restrictions are frequently not enforced. Meanwhile, there's a lack of investment in water research, meaning that our knowledge about water is sometimes uncertain.

On the solutions front, they propose setting limits on water use and requiring regional councils to meet them. They suggest managing allocation by abandoning "first in, first served" in favour of rules in regional planning documents, and possibly a resource rental. They also want to see greater ability to transfer allocations, which points to a tradable permit system. While this is a good idea for managing a scarce resource if done properly, the two examples of such systems we have in New Zealand - the fisheries Quota Management System and the Emissions Trading Scheme - give me no confidence that that would happen. Both are overallocated, with the cap effectively set by politics rather than science. In the case of the ETS, we also have massive ongoing free allocations which turn the scheme into a giant pollution subsidy. If that's how "cap and trade" works in New Zealand, then we should eschew such mechanisms in favour of a regulatory system combined with usage charges.

Oddly, they promote water storage schemes as having environmental benefits. But water storage is about increasing intensification, which increases pollution. Farmers want water storage schemes; the rest of us, who care about the environment, should oppose them.

One area which ought to be cause for deep concern is the Forum's proposal for a "non-statutory" National Land and Water Commission to advise the government, draft a formal National Land and Water Strategy, and advise on how money should be spent. These are key government functions, but they will effectively be exercised by a private body, unelected, unaccountable, and with no transparency (as a non-statutory body, the Commission will not be subject to the OIA). This is deeply undemocratic and deeply unconstitutional. But it seems to be par for the course for National at the moment.

Overall, there's some good stuff in here. But the devil is going to be in the details. While everyone agrees that there should be limits on use, there is going to be massive disagreement about what those limits should be, and they are going to be the subject of endless lobbying and litigation. The apparent unity on this issue is an illusion, an exercise in papering over the cracks. The real struggle is going to be to ensure the setting of limits doesn't end up as an ETS-style resource and wealth transfer to farmers.

Members' Day

Barring further abuse of urgency by the government, today is a Member's Day. Unfortunately, there's very little member's business to deal with. Instead, the Order paper is packed with private and local bills - legislation promoted by and for the benefit of local authorities and private statutory bodies such as the Royal Society to tweak their governing statutes. Because of this, everyone seems to have taken the opportunity to delay their bills - the only actual member's bill up today is the second reading of George Hawkins' Sale of Liquor (Objections to Applications) Amendment Bill, which will be voted down as it has been overtaken by government legislation.

Almost all of the delayed bills will be back before the next member's day, so there won't be a ballot tomorrow.

Action on electoral fraud

Ten days ago, the Herald exposed a serious case of attempted electoral fraud, with the result that over three hundred people were removed from the electoral roll. I was concerned that the police would treat this with the same lack of interest they treated overspending in the 2005 election - but it seems that this time, they're taking it seriously:

Police have raided homes and businesses in Auckland as they investigate alleged super city electoral roll fraud.

Detective Inspector Mark Gutry, crime manager with Counties Manukau Police, said over the last two days police had carried out searches in the Papatoetoe ward as part of and inquiry into electoral roll enrolment irregularities.

He said the search warrants were executed at "properties of interest" by up to 40 police following a complaint from the Electoral Enrolment Centre.

Forty officers is a serious investment of resources by the police, and hopefully they'll get to the bottom of this. Electoral fraud has no place at all in our democracy, and those who organised this attempt need to be prosecuted for it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Something to go to in Wellington

Animal welfare advocates will be protesting at Parliament tomorrow in support of Sue Kedgley's Animal Welfare (Treatment of Animals) Amendment Bill:

When: Noon, Wednesday 22 september
Where: Parliament Buildings, Wellington

Just an estimate

Steven Joyce's response to being exposed as deliberately choosing to murder 60 people int he name of liquor industry profits? Dismiss the death toll as just an estimate:

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said the ministry's figure that 30 people a year would be saved if the blood alcohol limit was lowered was an estimate.

"It's effectively a projection of what they think will happen, can't be anymore accurate than that."

This belongs in the same intellectual bin as those who say evolution is "just a theory". The question here isn't whether its a theory or an estimate - but whether its a good one. And Joyce gives us no reason at all to doubt that.

The government makes decisions based on estimates and projections every day. Its decision on tax cuts was based on projections and estimates of their effects. Ditto the ETS. Ditto road user charges. The government accepts those estimates, but not this one. Why not? They haven't said, won't say, can't say - because they have no grounds to question it.

The brute fact here is that the government made a blatantly political decision to not lower the drink-drive limit to avoid being tarred with the "nanny state" brush. They blatantly ignored the empirical evidence in doing so. And 66 people (give or take) will die as a result.

No jobs under National

When National came to power in 2008, unemployment was at 4.6%. Thanks to their "do nothing" response to the recession, it has since skyrocketed to almost 7%. But what's worse is that it looks like it will not be coming down anytime in the near future:

A report out today showing unemployment is expected to remain over 6 per cent for the foreseeable future is grim news for jobseekers, Labour’s social development spokesperson Annette King says.

The bad news is contained in NZIER’s Consensus Forecasts, an average of New Zealand economic forecasts from surveys of economic and financial agency agencies, which was published today.

“The report shows that the combined wisdom of New Zealand’s economists is that the jobs outlook is not expected to improve anytime soon,” Annette King said.

“Economists are saying the labour market recovery is ‘delayed’, with unemployment – currently at 6.8 per cent – not dropping below 6 per cent till late 2012 or early 2013.

John Key will probably try and dismiss this terrible news with some more spin about how unemployment is a lagging indicator - but we're talking here about real people and real suffering. That 6% figure means 140,000 people without jobs. And if it lasts too long, we could be looking at 140,000 people without a future. National needs to do something to stop that. Spinning while slurping $185 a bottle pinot won't cut it. Neither will cutting job schemes. As for their kneejerk sadism of "cracking down" on beneficiaries, kicking people into work requires that there actually be work to do - otherwise its just sadism. National needs a real plan to create jobs. And so far, they have nothing.

Kiwis expect more from our government than that. And if National doesn't have a plan to get people back into work, then we should toss them and get someone who does.

Cabinet of murderers

Back in July, the government decided not to lower the drink-drive limit from 80 mg / 100ml to 50 mg / 100ml. They claimed that there was no clear evidence on the benefits of the change, and instead proposed two years of research to gather that evidence.

They lied. Advice on the decision, released under the OIA, shows there was strong evidence that a lower limit would save lives. And they could even put a figure on it:

The Government was told that, based on data in about 300 international studies, a lower limit would save up to 33 lives and prevent up to 686 injuries each year. Aside from social cost savings of between $111m and $238m a year, ACC expected additional savings of up to $94.5m on claims.

There was no support for the option the Government chose – more research on the limit.

"In the ministry's view, delaying lowering the adult limit would unnecessarily forgo the saving of lives and prevention of injury that could otherwise be made."

So, Cabinet decided to kill 66 people and pay more than $500 million so the liquor industry could continue to make money. They're murderers, nothing more. And we should hold them to account for it.

Fiji: The military mind in action

Fiji is currently suffering from a severe drought, with emergency regulations being used in the Western Division to restrict water use. So what's the response of the dictatorship? Ban the media from reporting on the weather:

After months of no news in the newspapers, Fiji residents are now banned from getting reports of bad weather. "Drought reports and updates will only be issued by the National Disaster Management Office, reports the Fiji Times Online, following a directive to the Fiji Meteorology Service to stop issuing media statements on the current dry spell. Ministry of Works and Public Utilities head Colonel Timoci Natuva said the directive was intended to prevent any negative comments that would impact on the country's economy, particularly the tourism industry.
And this is the military mind in action. Reading something as trivial as a weather report might be "bad for morale", or "bad for tourism" so it must be censored. I guess when all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target...

Monday, September 20, 2010

My uninspiring local democracy

My local body ballot paper arrived in the post today. Unfortunately, while local government is vitally important, my choices are rather uninspiring.

None of the mayoral candidates deserve my vote. The incumbent, Jono Naylor, doesn't seem to have done a terrible job), but I didn't vote for him last time, and I'm buggered if I'm voting for him now. His major rival, Mark Bell-Booth, has two claims to fame: he's a former mayor ousted from office for being crap after a single term, and he sold "fertiliser" that wasn't. As for the also-rans, we have two businessmen, a joke, and a convicted fraudster. None of them are even remotely close to my preferences, so it looks like I'll be abstaining on the mayoral front this year.

My local council candidates are all spouting the same mantra of "cut rates, cut debt, be positive about Palmerston North", which leaves very little to distinguish them. They include the daughter of a current councillor, who seems to think that genetics is a qualification for elected office. There's at least one person I can support, but I'm struggling to find a home for all three of my votes (Palmerston North labours under the undemocratic block-vote system; time for an STV referendum again).

There are non-binding polls on whether to cut the number of councillors and on whether to keep the ward system or move to at-large election. The latter especially seems aimed at undermining democracy rather than strengthening it, especially given that block-vote. Palmerston North used to have at-large election, and the result was that almost all councillors lived within a block or two around Victoria Avenue. That doesn't seem very democratic to me.

The real race seems to be over the regional council, where concern over the Manawatu River has led to a flood of environmental candidates. Among these is Amey Bell-Booth, daughter of the aforementioned former mayor. I hate hereditary candidates, but she's an environmentalist, which is a bit of a dilemma. Meanwhile, most of the incumbents go on the shit-list because they support at-large election. That's enough to eliminate them from consideration even if they're on a completely different elected body.

DHB is one long list of conflicts of interest. It would be nice if people didn't try to advance their business by getting elected to a board which can give them contracts. There's also another hereditary candidate, the wife of the current mayor (though she is at least a nurse, I'm not sure I like the combination). Fortunately, we use non-exhaustive STV, so I'm not required to vote for the ones I hate (unlike the poor Australians); instead I'll just rank the top five or six candidates, and screw the rest.

And that's my local democracy. Not pretty, is it? Still, at least I get to vote - unlike the poor people of Canterbury.

Geddis on prisoner disenfranchisement

Over at Pundit, Andrew Geddis has a blistering attack on Paul Quinn's Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill and the boneheaded select committee who recommended it be passed despite a declaration from the Attorney-General that it violated the Bill of Rights Act. His summary:

This proposal is downright wrong in its intent, outright stupid in its design and (if finally enacted) would be such an indelible stain on the parliamentary lawmaking process as to call into question that institution's legitimacy to act as supreme lawmaker for our society.
The latter point is important. We have a tradition of Parliamentary sovereignty, but that tradition is retained for two reasons: trust, and because the alternative of a judicial veto over the law seems worse. Parliament passing this bill will blow both those reasons out of the water. Parliament will have shown that it cannot be trusted to respect fundamental rights. And the obvious solution is to emasculate MPs and bind Parliament to obey a sovereign BORA.

But in addition to that, the select committee (which included David Garrett) has made a major mistake in the drafting of the bill, meaning that anyone denied the right to vote under the current law will be allowed to. Which is the sort of thing that happens when you send a bill to a committee which knows nothing about the topic, and they then steadfastly refuse advice from anyone who does. As Danyl puts it, its a miracle that the bill "wasn’t written in crayon with fairy dust and bits of macaroni glued to it". And that I think highlights that some of the damage has already been done.

Like Andrew, I'm hoping that smarter heads within National will prevail. And if not, well, the legislative equivalent of the required pair of rusty clippers is already in the ballot...

The "out of scope" game

The latest tactic by the government in their war to avoid the OIA: unilaterally withholding material as "out of scope" of the request. This is generally within the Act - they only have to give you what you have asked for. However, when they suddenly start deciding that parts of individual documents are somehow outside the scope of your request, its a bit suspicious. Especially when you have asked for "all advice" on a particular topic.

Today's abuser is of course Climate Change Minister Nick Smith, whose devotion to secrecy has extended so far as to claim he was violating the Public Records Act by not keeping copies of any OIA correspondence (the Ombudsman called bullshit on that one pretty quickly). Back in July he promulgated regulations setting allocative baselines for "trade exposed" industrial emitters. I was interested in finding out whether those baselines were set at a fair level, or just a giant money grab by greedy polluters, so I asked for all advice on their setting. A week after the 20-day deadline had passed, I finally received a fat file full of documents, and was somewhat surprised to see great chunks of them (including all information on costs, and other mysterious sections) labelled as "out of scope". They might as well have labelled them "place followup request here", so that is exactly what I did.

The result - stamped last Wednesday after 22 working days, but not actually emailed until today (so 25 working days - naughty, naughty) - saw some of the information (e.g. on costs and the names of specific companies, though we know who they all are anyway) still withheld, though at least now Smith has been forced to give a reason. As for the rest, I'm at a loss to see how it was not "advice" falling within my original request. I'm equally at a loss to see why Smith wanted to hide it in the first place, beyond a pathological desire for secrecy on his part.

For example, Smith originally withheld part of a document advising that manufacturers of fruit pulp and agricultural lime likely did not qualify for a pollution subsidy as they were not sufficiently polluting or not trade exposed, and that they would be notified of this. Clearly "advice", but I'm not sure what he was trying to hide here. There was a similar withheld section on problems with getting data for glass containers, but from the advice in a later Cabinet paper and presence in the regulations, these seem to have been solved. Finally, great chunks of a Cabinet paper in which Smith advised that he needed an exemption from the normal 28-day rule in order to get the regulations in force in time but advised them that the consultation process meant everyone had had enough time to prepare. Again, "advice", but difficult to see what the harm was. Oddly, he also tried to withhold all his certifications that various consultation and legal provisions had been complied with, which is just a little odd.

So what the hell was Smith doing? I don't know. But what I do know is that this information clearly fell within my request and was initially unlawfully withheld for no apparent reason. But what can I do about it? A complaint to the Ombudsman at this stage is simply a waste of their valuable time, which could be spent dealing with other cases where something important is at stake (such as this one). OTOH, not complaining lets the Minister get away with ignoring the OIA - not something we should accept, even in minor cases like this.

Either way, there's a clear lesson here: if a Minister labels something as "out of scope", request it. That way they'll have to find an actual reason, or come clean.

New Fisk

Steam trains, relic of a bygone era that will outlast us all

The perils of emailing your OIAs

From a letter I received from the Ombudsman today. Names have been omitted to protect the repentant:

[Department] has acknowledged the failure to meet its obligations under the OIA in this case and expressed regret for the delay. It has advised me that your request was not received by a person at [Department], as a combination of words used in the email meant that it was quarantined as a possible phishing scam...
And this was for a request for OIA stats (dubious words: "performance", "Excel"). Cthulhu only knows what will happen if I try asking Pharmac about whether it subsidises anti-impotence medication, or MFAT about relations with Nigeria, or Internal Affairs about common types of spam.

The good news is that saying "we didn't receive it" doesn't get a department off the hook. The Ombudsman takes the view that email is received by a department the moment it hits the server (something which a few Ministerial staffers need to learn as well). This department agrees, and is refining its software so it doesn't lose requests in future.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How we should celebrate Suffrage Day

Being the first country in the world with full universal suffrage is a key part of our democratic heritage, and something we should celebrate every year. So here's a little bill to do that. Any takers?

Holidays (Suffrage Day) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Holidays (Suffrage Day) Amendment Act 2010.

2. Commencement
This Act comes into force on the 1 January 2011.

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Holidays Act 2003 to make Suffrage Day a public holiday.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Holidays Act 2003.

5. Suffrage Day a Public Holiday
Section 44 (1) is amended by adding the following paragraph:

(l) Suffrage Day (19 September)

6. Transfer of Suffrage Day
The following new section is inserted after section 45:

"45A Transfer of Suffrage day as public holiday
For the purposes of this subpart, if Suffrage Day falls on a Saturday or a Sunday, it must be treated as a public holiday falling on the following Monday."

Suffrage day

Today is Suffrage Day. One hundred and seventeen years ago today, on September 19 1893, the Electoral Bill became law and New Zealand women gained the right to vote in Parliamentary elections. Its a day worth celebrating, one we should be marking as a public holiday. But its also a day for reflection. And this year I'd like everyone to reflect on the remarkable difference MMP has made to women's representation in New Zealand.


(Graph from Representing Women: MMP and women’s political representation in New Zealand, by Ana Gilling and Sandra Grey).

Up until 1981, you could generally count the number of women in the New Zealand Parliament at any one time on the fingers of one hand. Things began to change in the 80's, with women's representation rising to 10% of the House, and then 20% in 1993. MMP almost doubled that, and while the proportion of female MPs slipped in 2002 (thanks to NZ First and United Future), it has generally stayed above 30%. This is not a change that would have happened under FPP - the data on electorate MPs shows that. MMP has meant a significant advance for women's representation, with a consequent flow-on effect on policy. We have MMP to thank for paid parental leave, flexible working hours, the families and children's commissioners, and the anti-smacking law. And these are policies the suffragettes would have been proud of.

Next years referendum puts that representation and those achievements at risk. Don't let it happen. If we want to protect women's voice in parliament, then we need to protect MMP as well.

Correction: Corrected figures. This is what hapens if you a) change graphs halfway through writing the post; and b) misinterpret the original graph from the Social Report. Mea culpa, mea culpa etc. But the key point remains: MMP has massively increased women's representation in Parliament, and that progress is potentially at risk.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A stark reminder

Today the Law and Order Committee recommended that Paul Quinn's bill to strip all prisoners of the vote be passed. The bill is predicated on the idea that anyone in prison is a "serious offender", and so does not deserve to vote. Its also predicated on the idea that there is a rational connection between the seriousness of the offence and the sentence meted out. Meanwhile, we've just had a stark reminder that that is not always true. Sentencing decisions are significantly influenced by the social class of the accused. And this can lead to unjust outcomes, which will be magnified by this bill.

For an example, we need look no further than David Garrett (who ironically, spoke in favour of the bill at its first reading). He committed a serious crime - passport fraud. But because he was rich and a lawyer, he was discharged without conviction and was granted name suppression to "maintain his reputation". Meanwhile, someone else who committed the same offence was sent to jail for seventeen months.

Under Quinn's bill, one of these people would be allowed to vote, and the other would not. But the decision would have been made primarily on the basis of wealth and class, not severity of offending. Result: poor people lose their votes, while rich people retain them.

That's not just unjust, its discriminatory and undemocratic. But isn't it so very, very National?

Reported back

The Law and Order Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill and recommended it be passed, despite a declaration that it is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act from the Attorney-General and overwhelming public opposition in submissions. The latter is significant - of the 54 submissions, 50 were opposed, and only two in favour. And this on a bill which should be red meat to the hate-filled hypocrites in the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

If Parliament passes this bill, we will be effectively derogating from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Human Rights Committee has already ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting is inconsistent with the right to vote we have given our word to protect. Passing the law will therefore mean the shame of violating human rights on the international stage, as well as the humiliation of a formal complaint under the Covenant's Optional Protocol.

Not that any of this will stop National. We've already seem from ECan and "three strikes" that they have utter contempt for democracy and human rights. And they'll stomp all over both if they think it'll get them "tough on crime" headlines and a few votes from rednecks.

Canterbury Enabling Act enables privatisation

On Tuesday, Parliament unanimously passed the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act, giving Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee absolute dictatorial power to change any law he wants. Brownlee is one of the last Ministers I'd trust with such power, and he's already committed his first abuse, in the form of the Canterbury Earthquake (Local Government Act 2002) Order 2010. The order exempts the Canterbury Regional Council, Christchurch City Council, Selwyn District Council, and Waimakariri District Council from the decision-making and consultation provisions of the Local Government Act - which means they don't have to identify alternatives and weigh costs, benefits and impacts, or consider whether a decision is inconsistent with their long-term plans, or consult the community. They can just make a decision and bulldoze it through. Bob Parker must be creaming his pants.

But that's not all. The order also exempts those local authorities from sections 88 and 97 of the Local Government Act. The first requires the authority to use a special consultative procedure if they wish to change the mode of delivery of council services. The second requires them to use that procedure if they wish to no longer provide significant services, or transfer the ownership of strategic assets. Together, the exemption means that those councils can privatise local assets without any form of consultation. To turn that into a concrete example, Gerry Brownlee just gave Bob Parker the power to privatise Christchurch's buses without consultation.

This is exactly what people were worried about when the Canterbury Enabling Act was passed. Not the extreme examples, which served primarily to demonstrate the absurd breadth and overreach of this constitutional outrage, but the little things, all bulldozed through in the name of "earthquake recovery". And it took them all of one day to demonstrate that those fears were justified.

Thanks, Labour and Green MPs. I hope you're happy now.

Update: Retitled, to avoid burying the lead.

And correction... I failed to notice the exemption of s97(1)(b), which specifically covers asset transfers. So Bob will have to consult if he wants to sell the buses. But he can still privatise services by contracting them out - and that's bad enough.