Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Fisk

Assad: The Arab Spring stops here

Faith-based policymaking

Today Rodney Hide released the official advice [PDF] on his Regulatory Standards Bill. It is the most thorough trashing of a stupid idea I have ever seen in a Cabinet Paper. Starting on page 6, Ministry after Ministry questions the need for action, the chosen principles, the role of the courts under the bill, and the costs of certification and court action. Here's a good sample, from a joint comment endorsed by 11 government agencies, including Justice, Crown Law, and the Parliamentary Counsel's Office:

The principles of responsible regulation in the Bill would be benchmarks against which all legislation would be assessed. They should therefore be clear, well understood, durable and almost universally accepted. That is not the case here. Some are untested, uncertain, and bear little resemblance to the more flexible fundamental common law principles identified in the LAC Guidelines. Given that the principles go wider than those in the LAC Guidelines, the choice of certain principles over others (e.g. a principle against the taking of property is included while the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi are not) requires a more thorough analysis and justification than has been provided.

The novel and wide-ranging nature of the principles could mean that certifying compliance with them becomes a bar even to legitimate law-making. Almost any proposed restriction or requirement in legislation could, for example, be said to diminish a person's freedom of choice or action in some respect, thereby infringing the liberties principle. The certification process may also lead to strained relationships between Ministers and Chief Executives where each reaches a different conclusion about compliance with the principles.

Judges would have to prefer interpretations of legislation that were compatible with the principles, which could produce unintended consequences, such as unexpected changes in the law with retrospective application, as discussed in the RIS. The resulting uncertainty about the meaning of legislation could be significant for business and others with legislative rights and obligations.

The RIS outlines the expected costs for government of complying with the Bill's certification requirements. The cost of vetting the existing stock of legislation against the principles, which apply to them after ten years, would also be significant. Amending legislation to make it compliant would incur additional costs and reduce the House time available for other matters. The Crown would face increased litigation risk and costs, not only due to the need to defend applications for declarations of incompatibility but also due to the risk of other litigation becoming more protracted, particularly litigation under BoRA and judicial review proceedings.

Hide's response? A prolonged injured whine, culminating in this:
I consider that my officials have overestimated the costs of the Bill while underestimating the benefits.
No evidence is presented for this view. No reasons are given to ignore the considered opinions of an army of paid policy professionals, including those best-placed to know, in favour of Rodney's ideological assertions. But that's exactly what Cabinet did [PDF]. Its a perfect example of faith-based policy making. While that is the prerogative of democratically-elected policymakers, at the same time it doesn't exactly make them look good, does it?

For Pasifika bilingualism

Last year, in a shoddy attempt to boost National Standards stats on English literacy, the Ministry of Education suspended publication of Pasifika-language teaching materials. The decision led to a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, and now to a discrimination case before the High Court. But it has also led to a pushback from the Pasifika community, with a petition circulating demanding that bilingual education be restored and that the Niuean, Cook Islands Maori, Tokelauan, Samoan and Tongan languages be officially recognised in New Zealand.

I'm not qualified to comment on the legalities, but they have a strong moral case. Tokelau is part of New Zealand, while the Cook Islands and Niue used to be (and still retain a constitutional relationship). Every Tokelauan, Niuean and Cook Islander is a New Zealand citizen. Most of them live here. They are, in every sense of the word, our people. And we therefore have a clear obligation to protect, preserve and promote these languages, just as we do for Te Reo.

With Samoa the relationship is weaker, but still strong. We were colonial occupiers for almost 50 years, and while they are now independent, we still have a strong relationship. many Samoans became New Zealand citizens as a result of that occupation, and many moved here. Samoans are now our 4th largest ethnic group, and have become a core part of our culture. Arguably, we have language obligations towards them as well.

Tongan is the odd one out. We don't have a shared history with them. But even so, the Ministry of Justice argued in 2000 that we have obligations to protect and preserve the culture and language of our Tongan minority as well.

Bilingual education does not come at the expense of English, and usually helps it. It will result in better educated children, not worse. And this is not about "cultural separatism". These are our cultures in need of protection. But beyond that, culture is no more an either/or thing than language. You can speak more than one language, and you can belong to more than one culture. You can be Pakeha and a New Zealander, Maori and a New Zealander, Chinese and a New Zealander. And as we're seeing in South Auckland today, it is perfectly possible to be both Pasifika and a New Zealander. And we should be supporting that, by supporting these languages.

Still collaborating in torture

When the UK's coalition government took power last year, it promised to end the intelligence services' collaboration in torture.

They lied:

An alleged terrorist says he has been interrogated by British intelligence officers after being severely mistreated at a notorious prison in Uganda, in what appears to be the first major challenge to the coalition government's renunciation of the use of torture.

Omar Awadh Omar, a Kenyan businessman, has been charged with involvement in the planning of suicide bomb attacks in Kampala last July in which 76 people died and more than 70 were injured.

Awadh was abducted in Nairobi two months after the attacks and illegally rendered to Uganda to be interrogated and charged. Since then, according to his lawyers and relatives, he has been repeatedly beaten, threatened with a firearm and with further rendition to Guantánamo by Ugandan officials, before being questioned by American officials. They say that on at least one occasion he was also questioned by men who identified themselves as MI5 officers.

This is exactly the sort of behaviour the UK has engaged in in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh, in Morocco and Guantanamo: questioning people after foreign torturers have done their dirty work, so as to gain the fruits of torture. Its exactly the sort of behaviour David Cameron promised would stop. So, was he lying? Or do the UK's spies not accept that they are subject to democratic control?

Climate change: A dishonest target


The government today formally adopted its climate change target of a 50% reduction (from 1990 levels) by 2050. This sounds, and is intended to sound, as if they're Doing Something about climate change. But this is a lie. As I've pointed out before, the target is meaningless. While they're legally obliged to set one, there’s no mechanism to ensure it is met, and no obligation to even try. And in fact, thanks to National's "reforms" of the ETS, we are already statutorily committed to failure; the target is 50% of 1990 emissions, but the government is legally obliged to hand out an estimated 70% of 1990 emissions in polluter subsidies in 2050.

This target is simply an exercise in dishonesty. Faced with the biggest environmental challenge humanity has ever faced, our government has simply decided to lie about it, secure in the knowledge that they'll be out of office (and in some cases dead) before the consequences come back to bite us. It is a cynical, dishonest move. But its par for the course for National.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An authoritarian kneejerk

Over the weekend, 250,000 people marched against cuts in London. A small number of them engaged in violence (though its worth noting that of the 149 people charged, only 11 are accused of violent disorder; the other 94% were arrested after a peaceful sit-in). The government's response? Threaten to ban "troublemakers" from going to protests.

This contravenes the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in the European Convention on Human Rights (and translated into UK law by the Human Rights Act). While those freedoms can be limited to protect public order, the barrier to do so is very high. In order to pre-emptively ban expressly political speech, as is being considered here, the police would have to have cast-iron evidence of violent intent. In which case, they can already support a conspiracy charge, and do not need this sort of political control order.

So why is the government pushing this scheme? Because they regard anyone who protests against the unjust status quo as a "troublemaker" who needs to be silenced. They are pushing this scheme precisely because they do not accept our right to protest. And that is not acceptable in a democracy.

Climate change: A pathway to failure

Earlier in the week the International Energy Agency released its assessment of New Zealand energy policy (offline). The media - based on the online executive summary [PDF] - reported the review as "mixed". The IEA praised our use of renewable energy, but had some damning criticism of National's new energy and energy efficiency strategies, basically saying that they set goals without any concrete measures to achieve them.

But it gets worse. Buried in the report was some damning criticism of the ETS as well:

Charles Chauvel, Labour's Environment Spokesperson, says that in a study released on Monday, the Paris-based IEA concludes:

- Keeping a fixed carbon price at current levels (NZ$25/tonne) will fail to phase-out the use of carbon-intensive coal in electricity generation by 2021;

- the current design of the ETS means that NZ will probably not meet its domestic targets of a 10-20 per cent emission cut under 1990 levels by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2050.

As Chauvel points out, these are both changes introduced by National. And what it means is that rather than being a mechanism to reduce emissions, National's ETS has become a pathway to failure. Sure, we knew this all along, but its nice to have it confirmed. Faced with the greatest environmental challenge humanity has ever faced, National's response is to spin and pretend it is doing something, while letting business as usual - the problem - continue. Just like they did with the recession (and look how well that's worked out!)

I expect better from our government. I expect honesty and action. And so should you.

Another question for Bill English

And while we're asking questions about the government's priorities, here's another: if the government is so short on money, why is it spending billions on highways that don't meet its own cost-benefit test?

The SAHA Report shows that three of the expressways had negative returns when assessed conventionally - the value of the benefits generated, in terms of travel time, fuel savings and reduced accident costs, is less than the sum of the costs to build and maintain them.

Among these is the Wellington to Levin expressway. It has a benefit-cost ratio, or BCR, of only 0.6, meaning that the project would generate benefits amounting to only 60 per cent of the costs.

And even when you add in wider economic benefits - something the government does not believe in when it comes to Auckland rail, but does believe in when it comes to their pet roads - it only comes out as positive in the most optimistic scenario.

NZTA's normal BCR threshold is 4 - that is, a road must generate benefits equal to four times the costs before they will build it. Unless, apparently, its in a marginal electorate National wants to shore up support in.

A question for Bill English

Yesterday Bill English announced another assault on public services, saying that the revenue hole he'd driven the government into meant that it had to make cutbacks:

"This is not a time we can afford to indulge in a whole lot of 'nice-to-haves', even though for sections of the population, they feel the loss of those services or funding streams.

"The alternative is that 'nice-to-haves' come at the expense of necessities and at the expense of fairness to people with more need."

So, a question: are tax cuts for the rich - which BTW English and all his Cabinet mates benefit from - a necessity, or a "nice to have" (for some) benefiting a small segment of the population "at the expense of fairness to people with more need"?

The invisible hand in action

Meridian Energy and Mighty River Power are accusing fellow state-owned generator Genesis Energy of market manipulation after it hiked prices during a planned maintenance shutdown to make instant windfall profits:

Supplies to the upper North Island were restricted for about six hours, and Meridian Energy says its fellow state-owned rival, Genesis, took advantage by quadrupling the price it normally charges for electricity from its Huntly power station.

Meridian says it could lose a lot of money as a result.

Another state-owned generator, Mighty River Power, has put a figure of $25 million on its potential loss.

This sort of market manipulation is not new. In electricity crises in the 90's, generators were spilling water during a shortage to hike prices. And California's 2001 energy crisis was caused by corporations deliberately restricting supply, then further exploited by companies taking plants down for "maintenance" so as to profit from price spikes. In this case, we have a company exploiting a planned outage which removed the competition from the market - effectively abusing a (temporary) dominant market position. And we'll all end up paying for this, through higher power prices in the future. As for the "invisible hand of the market", rather than leading people to a socially beneficial outcome through greed and selfishness, it instead seems to be giving us the fingers.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Canterbury Enabling Act II

Back in September, in response to the first Canterbury earthquake, Parliament effectively made Gerry Brownlee a dictator, granting near-absolute power to suspend or amend laws as he saw fit to aid recovery from the earthquake. While the powers have not yet been abused, the total lack of checks and balances in the law made it a constitutional outrage. Its sole saving grace was that it would expire on 1 April 2012.

Today, the government announced its response to the second Christchurch earthquake. In the simplest terms, it is to extend Brownlee's dictatorship for five years. There will be some new checks and balances - notably a committee headed by a retired judge to review law changes - but nowhere near the level of oversight or appeal rights that such powers need. And there will be new powers, ripe for abuse. For example, a power to compulsorily acquire land and buildings. But according to the FAQ [PDF], this won't just be for public safety or infrastructure purposes:

Acquisition of land powers are considered to be necessary in order to facilitate the recovery of Christchurch. It may be necessary for CERA to demolish a building (that is otherwise sound), or rebuild on a site, or otherwise take control of land and use it in a new way (such as to form part of a new commercial centre, or a park, or for remediation).
So, the government can take your home, not for a public work, but because one of its mates wants the land to build a new mall or office block. This is a massive expansion of government power, ripe for abuse, and a standing invitation to corruption. But to Brownlee, those are probably features, not bugs.

The devil is very much going to be in the details, and the new law is going to need serious scrutiny by Parliament. Hopefully they'll do a better job of it than they did last time.

No jury for the Urewera 18

Just before christmas, the High Court ruled that the Urewera 18, accused of firearms offences in a hugely controversial and highly political case, would be denied a jury trial. Today, that decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal. I have not seen the ruling yet, but the same criticisms I made of the original decision apply: a jury is the primary signifier of a fair trial in this country. Without one, we can have no confidence in the verdict. And that ought to be deeply concerning, no matter whether you think the accused are innocent or guilty.

This is an important issue, and I hope it is appealed to the Supreme Court. The public deserves to know whether the government can get away with this atrocity against justice.



Yes, Phil Goff is really trying to claim that. It may very well be the case within the Labour Party, if everyone else is too chickenshit or obsessed with their careers to do what is necessary and replace him. But with the public? I don't think so. Instead, this just adds to his reputation as a vacillating weakling, terminally incapable of doing the right thing until he has focus-grouped it, after which it is too late. Its exposed him - again - as a leader lacking in virtù, an object of weary contempt. And people are not going to want such a man to be their Prime Minister.

Speaking out against the 90-day law

The government's latest employment relations "reforms" come into force this week. From Friday, anyone starting a new job, or whose employer changes hands, can be subjected to a 90-day trial period. Unions will be unable to visit workplaces to assist their members without the permission of bosses. Together, these are a fundamental assault on worker's rights, which will help achieve John Key's goal of keeping wages low and his mates' profits high.

The EPMU, as predicted, isn't happy about this, and have launched a campaign against it. All over the country, workers will be asking their bosses to agree not to impose 90 day trial periods and to allow union access, with the underlying threat of naming and shaming those who refuse. As they point out,

"Employers are very good at demanding standards of behaviour for employees. Employees are also entitled to demand acceptable standards of behaviour from their employers."
I'd add that the public are entitled to judge employers on how they treat their workers - and take our business elsewhere if they fail to meet basic standards.

If you want to support the EPMU's campaign, they have an online petition here.

The Kiwi Party: racist as well as bigoted

The Kiwi Party is a small Christian Party, one of the fragments of United Future. As expected, they're bigots, opposed to same-sex marriage and to homosexuality. But that's not the only hatred they espouse. Here's what they have to say in the "media" section of their party principles:

The media play a vital role in a democracy informing citizens, facilitating public debate, and providing a forum in which differing voices can be heard. This important role carries with it responsibilities: to make a balanced and equitable selection of the facts of any matter to put before the public; to present information in an impartial fashion; and to ensure that every effort has been made to establish accuracy in reportage. Since the media has the power to shape social norms of conduct it has the responsibility to make a balanced selection of the facts of any matter to put before the public. It must therefore maintain high standards and make responsible, impartial and accurate choices when considering the content of programming and publications, especially in relation to sexuality, language, alcohol, drug use, violence, and inter-racial relationships. Government must ensure there are appropriate independent authorities with sufficient power to enforce these standards.
(Emphasis added)

That's right: the Kiwi Party think inter-racial relationships are bad and shouldn't be on TV, lest it promote and normalise the idea that skin colour doesn't matter and that such relationships are acceptable. And they think this is so important that its in their party constitution.

The Kiwi Party is a racist party. There's just no other way to interpret it. Fortunately, with only 0.54 percent of the vote (fewer votes than the joke campaign of a pair of second-rate TV comedians), they're unlikely to be inflicting their concern with racial purity on the rest of us. But it really does make you wonder about the ethics of the 12,000 people who voted for them.

[Hat-tip: FrogBlog]

Monday, March 28, 2011

GE: Corporate thieves

General Electric is the world's second largest company. Last year, it made profits of US$14.2 billion, including US$5.1 billion from the US. So how much tax did it pay?

Nothing. In fact, it gained a US$3.2 billion rebate thanks to clever accountancy and rorting the tax system.

Thieves and parasites doesn't even begin to describe it...


A couple of interesting elections happened over the weekend. Firstly, in Australia, the New South Wales state Labor government - which had become a byword for corruption, incompetence, and undemocratic manipulation - was handed a well-deserved electoral kicking. Unfortunately, the people who have replaced them seem to be a bunch of muppets as well, but in this case the devil people knew was vile enough that they were willing to take the risk. Its also another demonstration of the unfairness of the Australian electoral system - the Liberals got 38.3% of the vote, but 63.75% of the seats; the Greens got 9.9% of the vote and nothing. Australia needs MMP. Unfortunately both their major parties benefit from the status quo, so they are unlikely to push for fairness.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Christian Democrats have lost control of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which they have ruled since 1953. Better, the Greens look like they will be leading the coalition government. Its a first for the German Green Party, and hopefully it won't be the last.

Finally, Canada is going to the polls on May 2nd, after the Conservative government there lost a confidence vote. The result will probably be little change - no party seems like they'll win a majority, and Canada apparently hates coalitions, so it will mean another two years of electoral chicken from one side or the other.

New Fisk

Ottoman adventures hold lessons for our leaders

Phil Goff has no virtù

I thought I had little to add to what Lew and Russell have said about Phil Goff's disastrous leadership of the Labour Party. But actually, I do. And its right there in the title: Phil Goff has no virtù.

For those who don't know: virtù is a key concept in Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Roughly translated it means "political virtue", competence in political management and the application of power. The other key concept is fortuna, or as Harold Macmillan would put it, "events, dear boy, events". A politician with virtù is able to manage events to their advantage, or at least to avoid serious disadvantage.

Helen Clark had virtù. Whatever else people may think of her, she displayed consistently good political management, making the right choices for the maintenance of her power (and then fell because, lets face it, a third term is a tough enough hand to play, without throwing in the complicating factor of coalition with Winston). I initially thought Goff was cast from the same mould, only a weaker model - an uninspiring managerial politician, but a safe pair of hands. Since then he's established a consistent pattern of poor decision-making, failing to seize opportunities and act decisively; trying to seize the moral high ground and then failing to follow through; ruining his big policy launch by failing to do the maths; and now a ham-fisted mushroom strategy on Darren Hughes which has left his caucus and party president in the dark and looks like a shoddy attempt at a coverup. Machiavelli warned that

It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate ["weak" - I/S], mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock
Goff has managed to make himself appear all of those things. His default response of echoing John Key with an "and my wife too" just makes him seem pathetic.

Phil Goff has no virtù, and without it he cannot possibly win the upcoming election. The question now is whether anyone else in Labour does, and wants to make a go of it.

Friday, March 25, 2011


The Herald reports that the Auckland SuperCouncil is refusing to release background papers on its proposed funding arrangements for the Maori Statutory Board. Their reasons?

"The principal reasons being that it is material that is currently a matter for proceedings in the High Court and/or relates to commercially sensitive information," said council public information manager Bruce Thomas.
This is unlawful. The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 does not allow for information to be withheld because of an ongoing non-criminal court case. Legal advice is protected, but ordinary information does not suddenly become secret simply because it has become the subject of a dispute. And how can an agreement between one statutory body and another over non-commercial activities possibly be regarded as "commercially sensitive"?

The Auckland Council cannot be allowed to get away with such an abuse of the law to avoid its statutory disclosure obligations. The Herald should be taking this to the Ombudsman ASAP.

Fallow on the Regulatory Standards Bill

Yesterday, the Herald's Brian Fallow took on the topic of Rodney Hide's Regulatory Standards Bill. His view? The bill would be a "lawyer's charter", a standing invitation for vested interests to relitigate every policy provision affecting their profitability:

One of the Regulatory Standards Bill's central principles against which legislation is to be measured, if taken literally, would tend to freeze the existing distribution of wealth.

It says legislation should not "take or impair ... property" unless it is necessary in the public interest, the owner receives full compensation and that compensation is provided, to the extent practicable, by or on behalf of those who benefit from the taking or impairment.

On the face of it this would debar Parliament from doing anything redistributive.

But not just redistribution. Taxation and the social wage aren't the only things which impair the property rights of the rich. Environmental regulation, food and product safety standards, building codes, even the road code (what is the speed limit, except an impairment of your right to enjoy your expensive, fast-moving property?) And while there is a "justified limitations" clause (the meaning of which, contra Fallow, is well-established), that is not going to stop vested interests from trying it on (particularly when the alternative is going out of business). And that, in turn, is likely to deter lawmakers from trying to advance the public interest by regulating such matters.

Fallow thinks its an appalling bill. So does Treasury. And so do I. While the government has committed to supporting this mad idea to select committee, it should not go any further.

Foreshore and seabed: This isn't over II

Yesterday, I pointed out that the passing of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act by Parliament did not mean that the matter was settled, no matter how many times Chris Finlayson stamped his foot and said "over!" In that post, I'd focused on those groups pushing for a better deal for Māori - Hone Harawira, the Iwi leadership Group, and to some extent Labour. But of course there's the racists as well, and they don't seem to be willing to let the matter go either. The redneck Coastal Coalition has announced they will be campaigning for a Citizen's Initiated Referendum on the issue. Meanwhile, Winston Peters is promising repeal and a restoration of crown ownership (i.e. further raupatu). The former will be good for a laugh, and is another reminder (alongside last year's pro child-beating referendum) of the problems with referenda unchecked by protections for fundamental human rights. Winston, OTOH, is more interesting. If he makes it back into Parliament, then it could be a very interesting coalition formation process. And if a multi-party coalition is required, then the result will likely be three years of stasis, keeping the issue live for the next election...

Enjoining democracy

Today is Friday. This means that all around the country, MPs will be sitting in their constituency offices, talking to their constituents, listening to their concerns and acting as an interface between them and the government in order to solve problems. Its a role they take seriously, and a role they do well. Its a largely invisible function, but an important one, and a basic part of our democracy. And while we've never actually written it down anywhere, I think its fair to say that we regard being able to talk to your MP as a basic democratic right.

The UK has a similar culture (of course they do - we got it from them) - but over there that right is under threat. Some courts, in family cases, and ordinary civil cases, have started issuing "hyper-injunctions" prohibiting people from talking to MPs. The practice was revealed in Parliament by the LibDems' John Hemming, under the protecting of parliamentary privilege. And the list of examples he gives is very troubling indeed:

  • a man who was subjected to a gag order after a dispute with social services, extorted by threat of removing his children from him, which prohibited him specifically from contacting his local MP;
  • a woman in state care who is trying to escape it, but whose representatives have been forbidden by the judge from talking to their local MP;
  • a civil case involving a serious risk to public safety, in which a party is barred from talking to the media, MPs, or even non-instructed lawyers; they were given a suspended sentence simply for contacting a lawyer to try and find out if they would represent them
These are people who need help and advice. And that assistance is being denied them by court orders which are arguably a Contempt of Parliament. It is simply obscene. Even moreso when you realise that in many cases, these injunctions are gained by parts of the government seeking to escape scrutiny and accountability for their actions.

Super-injunctions, which prohibit any mention of a case in the media, are bad enough. But these "hyper-injunctions" are an outright attack on democracy. The UK Parliament needs to act, and act now, to protect the democratic rights of its citizens.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Foreshore and seabed: This isn't over

The Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill has just passed its third reading, 63 - 56. The bill is an improvement on its predecessor, but only a slight one. While it restores the right to test claims of aboriginal title in the courts, it subjects them to such a high test as to make them virtually impossible. And in the unlikely case that those tests are met, it denies real redress. This is not just; it is not right; and it is not in accordance with our obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

The good news is that it will not last. The bill has been rejected by Maori. And this means that it will be relitigated through the courts, Parliament, the UN, and ultimately the electoral system until a just solution is arrived at - just as the original Foreshore and Seabed Act was. Labour has already promised repeal. The Māori Party have made it clear that they will seek amendments when the political balance of power changes. The upshot is that we will be debating this in three years' time, and three years after that, and three years after that, until we get it right.

As for the Māori Party, the Greens' Metiria Turei made it clear: they were the real decision-makers on this bill, with the power to pass it or not. Their votes were the key. People thought that if Māori had the power, they would get a just result. They've been betrayed. And the Māori Party will be judged on that at the ballot box in November.

National's "step-change"

In 208, National campaigned on the promise of a "step-change" in our economy. And as this chart from the Dim Post shows, they've produced one:

Unfortunately it goes the wrong way, down instead of up. Somehow, I don't think that was what people were expecting.

Emergency advice

Last month, in response to the Christchurch earthquake, the government declared a national state of emergency (which, I note, is still in force 4 weeks later). I raised some questions about this, as it seemed to be another authoritarian over-reach which did little in practice to help. I also noted that I would OIA the government's advice on the matter, so that people could judge for themselves.

That advice has now been released. The publicly available documents consist of a background briefing [PDF] and an aide-memoire [PDF]. Two further documents containing legal advice were withheld. There is no discussion in the released advice of alternatives or whether a national rather than local state of emergency was necessary; they simply assume that one will be declared. For such a significant constitutional move, I would have expected some justification. None has been given.

As for the practical difference, the background briefing notes:

The key difference between a state of local emergency and a state of national emergency is that during a national emergency, the National Controller can direct the response to the emergency on a national basis. The response itself though would still be directly managed at the local and regional level.
The aide-memoire notes that this gives the National Controller the power to direct other Civil Defence regions to assist. Whether he actually has, and how, and what difference it has made would be the subject for another OIA.

Generally, when the government adopts a policy, the relevant documents go to some lengths to justify it. Here, they don't. The government deserves some slack because of the short response time, but again, for such a significant move, I would have expected a little bit more than this.

Maybe this time

On Friday, Canada's Parliament will vote on the country's Budget - a vote the opposition parties have said they will oppose, and which the country's minority government is expected to lose. Which means a snap election. Unless of course the Prime Minister repeats his 2008 trick - since adopted by tinpot democracies across the Pacific - of proroguing Parliament to avoid the vote.

As for the immediate cause, it's pretty good:

A parliamentary committee ruled on Monday that Mr Harper's government had acted in contempt of Parliament by hiding details of the full costs of spending on tougher crime legislation, corporate tax cuts and plans to purchase stealth fighter jets.

It was the first such contempt ruling in Canada's history.

Here, the government is required to keep honest books and not lie to the people about the state of its finances. In Canada, not so much. And hopefully Stephen Harper will be paying the price for his lies tomorrow.

Feeling better off yet?

In 2008, National campaigned with an implicit promise to make everyone better off, with the slogan of "choose a brighter future". How has that "brighter future" turned out in reality?

I think that speaks for itself. We haven't seen stats this bad since last time National was in office, back in the 90's.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Zombie Member's Day

Today, barring urgency, is a Member's Day. And it looks like we're having the same Member's Day we did two weeks ago, with the committee stage of Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill returning like one of the walking dead. It won't get far this week though - there's a couple of local bills ahead of it on the Order Paper, which means plenty of opportunity for Labour to filibuster. Which in turn means another zombie member's day next time round.

With three bills in their later stages lined up after Roy's, there's no chance of a first-reading debate any time soon, and no chance of a ballot. The Member's Business part of the Order paper is logjammed, probably until the election.

Using the earthquake as an excuse

Over on Public Address, Keith Ng digs into the government's books, and discovers what we all suspected: National is using the earthquake as an excuse. Its budget hole is caused not by the earthquake, but by its failure to get us out of recession. Here's the key figure:

So, rather than facing cuts to government services because of the earthquake, we're facing cuts to government services because National are shit economic managers, and that's their preferred solution. But to follow up on yesterday's thought, there's no difference between ripping money out of the economy through cuts, and ripping it out with permanent tax increases. It is, again, just a distributional question. And one of these solutions is a lot fairer, distributionally speaking, than the other. The fair way to solve this problem isn't through cuts, but by reversing National's unjustified tax cuts for the rich, which have created a structural (and strategic) deficit.

Of course, that's not what National is going to do. Instead, they're going to look after their mates, while making the poor pay for the recession. That is unfair and immoral. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

Standards of accountability

The big news this morning is that Labour MP Darren Hughes is being investigated by police over unstated allegations involving an 18-year-old Labour activist. So far everyone is being very careful; Hughes is on leave (having named himself to prevent other Labour MPs from being unfairly suspected), and people are repeating the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" as if its the Litany Against Fear. The implication: if the police conclude that no charges will be laid, then everything goes back to normal.

The problem is that this isn't just a criminal matter. There's also a political standard of accountability in play here. And under that standard, Hughes may already be finished. We don't know what he's alleged to have done yet, and hopefully it isn't anything too bad. But if the allegations are anything like those made against Richard Worth, then he should be resigning from Parliament. Because even if they are subsequently disproven, there will likely have been sufficiently dubious behaviour that people will not want the smell of it in their caucus room, or on their ballot paper.

Labour, Trotter, and abortion

Over the weekend, in a guest post at The Standard, Queen of Thorns argued that it was time for Labour to support a change in our outdated abortion laws. In response, Chris Trotter trots out the usual line, and threatens that if these uppity women don't shut up, National might win the election.

Big deal. Because fundamentally, I am not interested in who wins elections. I am not interested in whether John Key or Phil Goff gets the $500,000 salary, free home, fancy business card and lifetime pension. I do not give one shit who gets to be driven around in the back of a ministerial limo for three years. Neither do I care which pack of apparatchiks get cushy jobs as Ministerial Advisors.

I am interested in specific policies. The Labour Party is simply a vehicle for delivering those policies. And the thing about vehicles, and tools in general, is that when they don't work, when they don't do what you want them to do, you either fix them or ditch them and get new ones.

Beyond that, there are two broad strategies to achieve a desired policy. One is to work within a party, get it to commit to change, get it elected, and hope that it keeps its word. The other is to work outside a party, target the public rather than political insiders, and change enough minds so that the parties have no choice but to follow.

Queen of Thorns and others are pursuing the second strategy. This may be inconvenient to Labour, who would rather dirty peasants didn't interfere with their carefully focus-grouped non-divisive (except where they want it to be) election-year agenda. Tough shit. We're not part of your party. We owe you nothing - not our votes, not our support, and certainly not our silence. If Labour wants those things, it can pony up on policy. Otherwise, it can face a chorus of inconvenient questions about its hypocrisy on abortion rights every time it opens its mouth. The choice is up to them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Compare and contrast

Chris Trotter, 2008: NZ's Taleban on the march:

Because behind National, hidden by all those glossy placards depicting the handsome John Key, marches a much less appealing army of fanatical right-wing activists, all of whom are impatient to advance the conservative causes that nine years of Labour-led government have held in check.


All that stands between them, and the anti-abortionists' long- delayed revenge, are the young, confident women of 21st-century New Zealand – and their brothers – who still believe in a woman's right to choose.

Chris Trotter, today: Harping On About The Abortion Issue
What QoT and a host of other feminist bloggers objected to so strongly back then, and are even more vociferously opposed to now, is the notion that reforming the abortion laws might take second (or even third) place to other political considerations. I don’t believe I’m in any way misrepresenting their position when I say they consider anyone who counsels letting sleeping dogs lie on this issue as “objectively” (if I may resurrect that fine example of Leninist jargon) locating themselves in the anti-abortionist camp.

There’s a bullying aspect to this style of politics which takes me all the way back to the late 1970s – when the only acceptable position for a man to adopt in relation to feminist political priorities was one of enthusiastic and unquestioning support. (As I scrolled down the hundreds of passionate comments elicited by QoT’s posting, I must confess to experiencing a wave of nostalgia for those ideologically invigorating times.) But nostalgia is no substitute for hard-headed political analysis. Abject surrender to ideological extremism and political solipsism is no more intelligent now than it was 40 years ago.

It is worth re-stating, therefore, that the heedless pursuit of abortion on demand could very easily prove counter-productive [to Labour's election chances]

...and therefore women should shut up (rather than "harp on") about it.

The conclusion? That to Trotter, a woman's fundamental right to control her own body is just ammunition, to be used to whip people into toeing the party line. And his expressed concern about saving solo mothers from Paula Bennett should be seen in the same light: he doesn't really care about them - he just sees them as a useful weapon to kick people back into line behind his precious Labour Party.

Its as cynical as it is hypocritical. But it is basically Trotter in a nutshell.

There is now no principled argument against an earthquake levy

Last week, I posted about the idea of an earthquake levy, and took the position that while a progressive levy (as suggested by the Greens) is absolutely the fairest way to pay for rebuilding Christchurch, raising taxes in the depths of a recession isn't a good idea and so it would have to wait. The government's planned spending cuts have made me change my mind about this. Why? Because there is no effective difference between sucking $800 million out of the economy through increased taxation, and sucking $800 million out of the economy through reduced government spending.

The question thus becomes purely distributional: who pays, and how? And on that, an earthquake levy wins hands down. National's cuts would put the costs of the earthquake squarely on the poor, through reduced government services and rotting infrastructure. An earthquake levy puts it on those most able to pay. And that is unquestionably the fairer solution.

As for the government, its clear now that their response to the greatest natural disaster to affect new Zealand in living memory is to use it as a cynical excuse to wage class warfare against ordinary New Zealanders. That is absolutely despicable. And hopefully they will be paying for it in November.

New Fisk

Right across the Arab world, freedom is now a prospect

What the US does in Afghanistan

Murders children, then poses, smiling of course, with the corpses:

Kill Team Afghanistan

(Image stolen from Der Spiegel; original here)

This is just one image of over four thousand taken by a group of US soldiers who operated as a de facto death squad, murdering civilians and taking body parts as souvenirs. Those soldiers are currently being court-martialed on charges of murder, desecration of corpses, illegal possession of photographs of corpses, drug abuse, and assaulting other soldiers. The US will no doubt roll out the usual line about how these are just the actions of a few "bad apples", just as they did at Abu Ghraib. But when they foster and tolerate an attitude of contempt towards the Afghan people, elevate US over Afghan lives in the name of "force security", and blame an entire religion for the crimes of 9/11, its not exactly surprising that incidents like this happen. And no doubt we'll see more of them before this whole sorry business is done.


While National is planning the biggest assault on government services since the era of Ruth Richardson, it is also planning more tax cuts for the rich. The Finance and Expenditure Committee - on which the government has a majority - has reported back [PDF] on the Taxation (Income-sharing Tax Credit) Bill and recommended that it be passed. The bill allows couples with children to split their income for tax purposes - a feature found to be explictly discriminatory in violation of the Bill of Rights Act by the Attorney-General [PDF]. The total cost of the measure would be over $500 million a year - and 78% of it would flow to households earning over $70,000 a year (which is roughly the median for households consisting of a couple with children). While not mentioned in the report, that benefit will skew heavily towards the top end - in other words, the usual story of giving the most to those who need it least.

So, the poor get to pay for the earthquake. Meanwhile rich families with kids get a tax windfall. National is looking after its base again - and everyone else gets to pay for it.

What "no new spending" actually means

Yesterday, John Key announced that there would be no new spending in this year's budget. In order to meet the costs of the Christchurch earthquake, the government was going to cut everywhere else, reducing its already penurious $800 million allowance for new spending to nothing. Health and education would still get an increase (purely so they can respond to cries of "cuts" with claims that they are spending more money than ever before), but this would come at the expense of savings elsewhere.

Over on The Standard, Marty G analyses what this means for other government spending. And the answer is that it is dire. Depending on what is locked in, the remaining departments are looking at cuts of between 18 and 32 percent. That means shutting down between a fifth and a third of their current services, sacking between a fifth and a third of their staff. We haven't seen this sort of slash and burn exercise since the 90's, last time National was in power. In fact, even Ruth Richardson's infamous "Mother of all Budgets" didn't do this. What we're looking at here is a truly radical exercise, using a natural disaster as an excuse for a wholesale attack on core government services. Meanwhile, of course, the rich's tax cuts remain sacrosanct. So, rather than the burden being shared equitably, it'll be the poor who will pay for the earthquake, while people like John Key sip champagne and laugh.

Monday, March 21, 2011

New Fisk

Remember the civilian victims of past 'Allied' bombing campaigns

Proof of National's systematic abuse of urgency

I've been browsing the submissions to the triennial Review of Standing Orders, and discovered something interesting: the New Zealand Centre for Public Law has an "Urgency Project", the aim of which is to examine the use of urgency in the New Zealand Parliament. Their submission [PDF] makes for very interesting reading, particularly the statistical appendix, which has the data on every urgency motion (bar one) since digital Hansard records began in 1987. One thing it shows conclusively is that the current government is on track to become the worst ever in its abuse of urgency.

Don't believe me? Here's the graph of the percentage of total sitting hours taken under urgency. As you can see, they're right up there with pre-MMP governments:


And here's the graph of the number of bills taken through all stages under urgency, with no select committee process. And National's figures are only for their first two years:


As the Urgency Project points out, the abuse of urgency undermines the democratic legitimacy of legislation. National has used it consistently to ram controversial legislation through while stifling debate. And while they say it is all about getting extra sitting hours and "making the House work harder", it is extremely telling that their sessional order to gain that extra sitting time without procedural abuse has languished on the Order Paper for over a year. They're not interested in fixing the problem - because then their abuse would be even clearer.

(The Urgency Project makes some extremely useful suggestions on how to resolve these problems, including an investigation into sitting hours and a distinction in Standing Orders between "extra time" and true urgency. But the abusive legislative habits of this government do not bode well for reform).

Reported back

The Commerce Committee has reported back [PDF] on Amy Adams' Fair Trading (Soliciting on Behalf of Charities) Amendment Bill, and recommended a complete substitution of the bill. The bill proposed a statutory regime to force charitable collectors to disclose how much they were keeping, and how much was actually passed on to the charity. The committee decided that this didn't quite work, and has proposed a regulatory power instead. It seems like a workable solution, and I'm hoping the bill will be passed.

However, there is one oddity. First, the new section repeats the now standard principle that the Minister may not prescribe a regulation unless they have consulted with affected parties and considered their views. Then it says that a failure to consult does not affect the validity of the regulation - effectively overturning the principle. The net effect is that the Minister doesn't have to consult or consider, and can ignore the law saying so with impunity. Great work, guys! You've shat on one of our evolving democratic constitutional principles in favour of unreviewable executive authority! Again! And all to pre-empt an expected legal challenge. Really, the Commerce Committee has done us proud today...

Never let a crisis go to waste

Last weekend, economic commentator Rod Oram warned of the dangers of exploiting the Christchurch earthquake to slash government services, saying it would "weaken support for Christchurch, demotivate large chunks of the population and hobble the economy". Yesterday on Q & A, John Key announced that he planned to do just that, with $800 million in across the board cuts which will wipe out the annual new spending allowance. I guess the chance to do what they've always wanted to do was just too great to ignore, especially when they get to accuse anyone who objects as "hating Christchurch" and "politicising the issue".

Much of the cost will be borne by health and education. These need significant new funds each year, just to keep pace with inflation, technology, and population changes. They're already being starved, and now they'll be starved more. Welfare is also being targeted, with Bill English flagging the prospect of Working For Families cuts (which, if they are to save any actual money, will cause serious pain to the middle class) plus the threat of the Welfare Working Group's "reforms". We're all going to suffer for this, with rotting schools and hospitals, worse education for our kids and poorer healthcare for everyone else, and a reduced social safety net at the very time when we need it most.

Well, OK, not all of us. There's one group who will be absolutely unaffected by the government's cuts: the rich. In a time of national crisis, where you expect equality of sacrifice, English is looking after his rich mates and making sure they won't suffer at all. Our schools and hospitals are up for grabs. Their tax cuts are sacrosanct. Its nice to know where National's priorities are...


The secret ballot is one of the necessary conditions for democracy, ensuring that people can express their choices without fear of intimidation by the powerful. However, in order to detect dual voting, many countries - including New Zealand - use a system in which ballot papers are numbered, with the number and voter identification noted on a receipt.

Samoa is one of these countries. After concerns were raised about the secrecy of the ballot after the recent election, the country's Electoral Commissioner, Tanuvasa Isitolo Lemisio, tried to reassure the public. Yes, in theory people can match the numbers. However, the ballots and records are held securely and only examined by order of the court. As for why they might want to do that, here's his example:

[Tanuvasa] described a scenario where a court may order the Electoral office to find out who a person has voted for.

"A candidate can go to court and say he has lost a fortune because people have said they have voted for me and I have given them money over the years. The candidate assumes that the people did not vote for him.

"How can you trace something like that that is so devastating on a person [candidate], the court can then order us to look into the votes in the presence of officials."

Yes, that's right: Samoa's chief electoral official thinks its acceptable and legal to examine ballot papers to see if corrupt candidates are getting what they pay for when they illegally bribe voters (and it is illegal - see s96 of the Samoan Electoral Act). He also thinks that "complete secrecy of votes could lead to increasing threats to candidates by voters".

FWIW, I am unaware of any such case. But I am still stunned that the country's chief electoral official is so unfamiliar with the basic precepts of democracy - and the law he supposedly operates under - to think this is acceptable.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Fisk

First it was Saddam. Then Gaddafi. Now there's a vacancy for the West's favourite crackpot tyrant

Friday, March 18, 2011

An earthquake levy is still a good idea, but not now

Duncan Garner's latest blog post suggests that the government should stop borrowing and pay for the earthquake now with an earthquake levy. I've supported this idea in the past. But after an online discussion with Keith Ng and others a couple of weeks ago, I've changed my mind somewhat. A short-term earthquake levy targeting the rich is absolutely the fairest way to pay for the immense cost of rebuilding Christchurch. But given the weakness of the economy, now is probably not the best time to impose it (raising taxes in recessions is generally a bad idea, as any Keynesian will tell you). So, its better for the government to borrow in the short-term, and commit to imposing such a levy later (in a year or two, when things have hopefully recovered a little) to cover the costs.

Meanwhile Garner has this to say about the prospect of cutting Working for Families at the top end:

it won't save huge money. A few hundred millions dollars at most. That won't pay for Christchurch.
"A few hundred millions dollars"? Try one. And there's no way of getting that without making the ordinary families everyone agrees should get WFF worse off.

It would be nice if journalists checked their figures before mouthing off. Garner has done the public a tremendous disservice here, and it is a discredit to his profession.

Nothing changes in Australia

Back in 2004, Mulrunji Doomadgee was died after being beaten by Australian Police on Palm Island. After heavy pressure from police (including a threat to strike if charges were laid), the alleged killer was acquitted at trial. And now, a group of police officers who helped cover up the crime, and who obstructed the investigation and lied at the coronial inquest to help out their mate will not face disciplinary proceedings:

The failure of police to conduct a proper investigation into the 2004 death of Palm Islander Mulrunji Doomadgee at the hand of a veteran policeman will not lead to disciplinary charges, with Queensland's anti-corruption watchdog powerless to take court action against any of the officers involved.

Crime and Misconduct commissioner Martin Moynihan QC will today announce he is unable to challenge a decision by the Queensland Police Service to reject the watchdog's recommendation for disciplinary action against six officers involved in the now discredited investigations.

The decision of police Deputy Commissioner Kathy Rynders to reject the CMC's recommendations and instead find that the officers face only "managerial guidance" is understood to have created a legal loophole that prevents a court appeal.

The CMC can seek to overturn the decision only if it is in the formal police disciplinary process.

The Australian is right - this is an inexcusable failure of justice. Australian police have been allowed to interfere with an investigation and potentially cover up a serious crime and have been allowed to get away with it by their superiors. The only conclusion we can draw is that the entire Queensland police force is absolutely rotten to the core, racist to a man - and that they will not provide justice when crimes are committed by their own.

A no-fly zone

The UN Security Council has authorised the imposition of a no-fly zone in Eastern Libya to protect civilians from attack. At the same time, it has specifically excluded the use of ground troops. This is what Libya's rebels wanted and have been begging for; at the same time, it may now be too late. And of course, there's the usual risk, almost always realised, that military intervention will make things worse. But now the decision as been made, we just have to cross our fingers and hope it turns out for the best.

And while we're at it...

You'd think that when the government sets up a body for a particular purpose - say, soliciting and distributing charitable funds to help the residents of Christchurch - there'd be some basic transparency, and we'd be able to see how that money is spent. But you'd be wrong. Because its legally a separate entity, not part of the government (though, as noted below, utterly dependent on them for administrative support), the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust is not subject to the Official Information Act. Which means that we cannot, for example, find out how much it is spending, who it is going to, or whether it is engaging in discrimination in the distribution of those funds.

As with the inclusion of the advancement of religion in the trust's objects, this is simply wrong. If the government does something, we have a fundamental right to keep an eye on it. It should not be able to escape that obligation and hide its activities by engaging in corporate shell games.

Against government promotion of religion II

Yesterday, I raised some questions about the appropriateness of the government's Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust having "the advancement of religion" as one of its objects. Today the National Business Review weighs in with a story on the issue: Quake charity accused of blending church and state (paywalled), which includes some reaction from the trust's head, Mark Weldon:

Criticism over the blending of church and state was met with a sidestep by Mr Weldon, who insisted the government¹s Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust was not part of government.

"It's certainly supported by the state, but the Trust is not an instrument of the state."

I call bullshit. The trust was established by the government. Its trustees are public servants. According to its registration details, its official address is the Department Of Internal Affairs. But more importantly than that, establishing the trust was an act of the government. That act is clearly covered by the Bill of Rights Act, and the government had a duty to abide by its human rights obligations in drafting the trust deed. The fact that the trust is now supposedly a separate entity does not affect that duty one bit.

But besides that, should the government really be able to sidestep its fundamental human rights obligations by establishing special-purpose private bodies? I don't think so.

But it gets worse, because Weldon admits the inclusion of religion was quite deliberate:

He said the inclusion of religion as one of the charity's seven categories of investment was a pragmatic move to draw in more funds from overseas.

"When you're talking to some of the super-wealthy overseas, their trusts have particular categories they look to donate to.

"If it¹s just an undifferentiated bucket, you¹re off the list. So there's a practical aspect to this," he said.

So there you have it: the government violated the Bill of Rights Act and established a trust to advance religion in pursuit of the overseas bigot dollar. Lovely. It may result in more money for Christchurch, but its still absolutely wrong.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The US and Bahrain

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the king of Bahrain's murder of his own people, and demanded they "show restraint". That's good, but the US can and should do more. The photo in that Guardian article is clear: those are American tanks occupying Pearl Square. The soldiers who murdered those civilians were armed with American guns, firing American ammunition. If the US doesn't want its allies to murder civilians, maybe it should stop selling them the weapons to do it?

Spinning on dirty dairying

MAF has released the latest snapshot of progress on its Clean Streams Accord (download here). The government is proudly announcing that farmers are "getting the message" on dirty dairying. But the report tells a different story. According to the table on p6, compliance levels have remained static for the past three years (and have fallen when you look at older reports), while levels of significant non-compliance have risen. The culprit is the Waikato, home to a third of the country's dairy farms, where levels of significant non-compliance have almost trebled in three years, from 10 to 27%. Rather than "getting the message", farmers in this region are polluting worse and faster than ever before.

Its time the government stopped pussyfooting around on this issue. We have environmental standards, and they should be enforced. Farmers who fail to comply should be fined and prosecuted until they do. Repeated non-compliance should be punished with the review and cancellation of resource consents (a power now available thanks to the government's RMA reforms). Anything less is tolerating serious criminal behaviour.

The judiciary on justice reform

The government's Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill is currently before select committee. The bill would eliminate jury trials in most cases, while also eroding the right to silence by forcing defendants to effectively admit to elements of the case against them. While undoubtedly efficient, this is fundamentally unjust. But don't just take it from me - here's what the Chief Justice (on behalf of the Supreme Court, High Court, and Court of Appeal) had to say [PDF]:

The second matter concerns the requirement for notification of issues in dispute in advance of trial and also at the commencement of trial, together with related provisions providing for sanctions in the event of non−compliance both at sentence and by way of costs orders against defendants and their counsel. I have previously recorded my grave concern that these provisions are contrary to longstanding principle, being inconsistent with a defendant's right to have the prosecution prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, not being obliged to assist the prosecution by volunteering information. I appreciate that some defendants and counsel are guilty of abusing the system but, on balance, the judiciary is not persuaded that this provides good reason for the departure from basic principle which is involved in any requirement for advance disclosure of an intended defence.
And its not just them. The District Court [PDF] calls the idea of inferring guilt based on procedural failure to notify "conceptually incoherent, and therefore arbitrary". And they've basically put the government on notice that due to the likelihood that such procedural defect is the fault of the lawyer rather than the defendant, they are highly unlikely to infer guilt in such a fashion. The net result: the idea isn't just unjust, but it will also be ineffective.

[Graeme Edgeler has more on this at Public Address]

Against government promotion of religion

I've blogged before about the problem of promoting religion being a "charitable purpose" - something which seems to violate the right to be free from discrimination (and arguably the right to freedom of religion) affirmed in the BORA. Today, we have a concrete example of that, in the form of the government's Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust. The trust has been established by the government as a charitable vehicle for assisting victims of the Christchurch earthquake. Its trust deed (offline, as far as I can tell) lists its purposes as:

The specific objects of the Trust are:

(a) the relief of poverty; and

(b) the advancement of education; and

(c) the advancement of religion; and

(d) the advancement of any other purposes beneficial to the community; and

(e) the advancement of any other purposes that are charitable under the law of New Zealand.

(Emphasis added)

On the one hand, this is simply a statement of the definition in the Charities Act 2005. But OTOH, this is a government body, and it is fundamentally inappropriate for any such body to be advancing religion. Our state is supposed to be religiously neutral. It should not be taking sides in religious debates, seeking to influence people's religious decisions, or assisting one religion over another (or any religion over none at all).

And no, this isn't just a case of them incorporating the definition to ensure the widest possible purpose. PR material around the establishment of the trust makes it clear that when they say "the advancement of religion", they mean "the advancement of religion":

The seven categories of the Christchurch Quake Appeal:


Spiritual and faith For the advancement of religion, including: places of worship, books, clothing, artefacts, musical instruments.

(Their emphasis)

So, if you donate to the trust, your money will be used to rebuild churches (regardless of their classification as heritage buildings) and provide religious texts. That's perfectly appropriate for a private body (though it should not be granted charitable status). But it is absolutely inappropriate for government.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An ignorant redneck

That's the only way to describe ACT MP Hilary Calvert. Quite apart from her simply strange claim that Maori couldn't have any rights in the foreshore and seabed because no-one could hold their breath for 170 years (yes, really), there's her view of tikanga:

"Tikanga is an 'Alice in Wonderland' word. It means whatever the Queen - I think it was the Red or White Queen - said it would mean, no more and no less."

Under the bill tikanga covered inherited rights and interests, she said.

"So we are to believe that this Alice in Wonderland word, a word that can be defined by the person claiming some property in our coastal land, creates legal rights based entirely on the say-so of the claimant. We might just as well ask iwi for a list of what they want and put through a legal transfer."

In fact, tikanga over land ownership and customary rights is well understood, and has been recognised in New Zealand law in one way or another for almost 150 years (first through the Native Land Court in translating titles, then more recently through the Treaty settlement process). But Calvert and the rest of her party subscribe to the Prendergastian view that Maori were "savages" and "barbarians" with no body of customary law and therefore no system of property rights. Its as ignorant as it is racist - but its absolutely par for the course for ACT.

Tyranny in Bahrain

Yesterday, Bahrain's monarch invited a foreign army into his country to suppress pro-democracy protests. Today, he declared martial law and sent them into action. The cost? Two dead and 200 injured:

At least two people have been killed and as many as 200 injured in clashes between anti-government demonstrators and security forces in Bahrain.

A doctor told the BBC he was treating many people with head and gunshot wounds, and that soldiers and police were using ambulances to attack people.

As in Libya, we are seeing a government murdering its own people to stay in power. Such governments deserve to fall.

Irony II

Yesterday, Rodney Hide introduced his Regulatory Standards Bill to the house. The aim of the bill is to improve the quality of legislation by requiring Ministers to certify that new laws comply with a set of highly ideological "principles of responsible regulation". One of the less-contentious of these principles is that a law

be the most effective, efficient, and proportionate response to the issue concerned that is available.
According to Treasury's just-released Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF], the bill clearly fails to meet that criteria. In fact, like Kate Wilkinson, Hide appears to have chosen the worst possible option. The short version is in the table below:


Rodney's bill is the top option. As can be seen, it ranks worse on every criteria than the other possible options. As for why:

  • Rodney's preferred principles are highly ideological and therefore will have little buy-in, either from the public or from Ministers. This will reduce certification to a compliance exercise. Meanwhile, the requirement for dual certification by both Ministers and officials creates strong pressure on the latter to agree with the former, reducing the integrity of the process. Ministers aren't qualified to certify, and officials may lack the proper resources to do so.
  • The interpretation clause and ability to declare legislation incompatible creates significant legal uncertainty, particularly given the vague nature of some of the principles.
  • The resource requirements for certification are extremely high, and will continue to be high even if there is no benefit.

The two major options proposed addressed these flaws. The first of these modified the bill to remove the more ideological principles and the interpretation and incompatibility clauses. But given that this imposition of Libertarianism by stealth was the bill's real purpose, you can see why Hide rejected that option. Meanwhile, Treasury's second option - basically requiring Ministers to highlight potential problems in their bills, and beefing up Parliament's ability to address them either through enhanced select committee support or a dedicated Officer of Parliament would actually significantly improve things, while not costing a lot or tying us to Rodney's peculiar ideology. This option - the most effective, efficient, and proportionate one - was also rejected.

The upshot: if Rodney's bill was law, it would not itself be able to be certified as meeting its own principles. But that's hardly surprising. As noted above, the whole purpose of the bill is to impose those highly contentious and ideological principles, with a right to challenge primary legislation for non-compliance, so as to deter and undermine environmental, health and other regulation and protect the profits of existing vested interests. "Quality legislation" is just right-wing code for further kneecapping government and preventing it from working in the public interest.

The end of lese majeste in Europe

Arnaldo Otegi is a Basque separatist leader. In 2003, after Spanish police raided and closed down a Basque leader and tortured its staff, he accused Spain's king, as head of the armed forces and police, of being ultimately responsible for torture and the oppression of his people. He was subsequently convicted of insulting the monarch - lese majeste - and sentenced to a year in jail.

Today, the European Court of Human Rights overturned that conviction on freedom of speech grounds, and ordered that Otegi be compensated. But its not just a victory for freedom of speech in Spain - other European nations, including Germany, Poland, Italy and Turkey also have lese majeste laws (laws protecting the "dignity" of monarchs or those in power from "insult" by being criticised). And those laws have now been effectively overturned. Given their abuse to stifle dissent, protect dictators, and punish protest, that can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


One of the "principles of responsible regulation" that Rodney Hide is pushing through his Regulatory Standards Bill is that laws should not be made unless there has been a careful evaluation of the issue, the effectiveness of the proposed measure, the alternative options, and the costs and benefits of each. The government does this at present, through a "Regulatory Impact Statement" attached to each bill (the guidelines for which are here).

Guess what's missing from Hide's bill...?

Elevating property over human rights

Today the government introduced its Regulatory Standards Bill into the House. The bill is a rewrite of ACT's Regulatory Responsibility Bill (currently hanging around on the Order Paper), and aims to force all laws to comply with a set of "principles of responsible regulation". Many of these principles around clarity, the role of the courts, consultation and policy evaluation are good ideas, and capture existing practice. However, there are also principles based explicitly on libertarian ideology, prohibiting government from taking or "impairing" property without full compensation. And the aim of these principles is to deter any policy not profitable to existing vested interests, and allow open-ended challenges to any attempt to strengthen environmental, health or employment protections. There is a BORA-style "justified in a free and democratic society" clause, which is going to be doing a lot of work, but the courts are going to be spending a lot of time and money telling farmers and polluters that actually, the RMA and ETS and smokefree legislation are demonstrably justified. I guess that's why Simon Power wants to free up time by eliminating jury trials...

But there is one very odd feature of the law: the protections for those property rights are greater than those of the BORA for fundamental human rights such as the right not to be killed or tortured. For example:

So, property rights for polluters will have greater institutional protection than fundamental human rights. Its completely topsy-turvy - but it speaks volumes about ACT's, and National's, priorities.

Eroding the right to bail

Not content with moving to eliminate jury trials for most crimes, Justice Minister Simon Power is already mounting another attack on the rights of the accused - this time on the right to bail:

People accused of serious drug charges would face tougher tests to be granted bail under proposals set out by the Government.

Justice Minister Simon Power has just launched a discussion document on reforming the bail system that would include a reverse burden of proof for people charged with serious Class A drug offences, such as those involving P.

A reverse burden would require the defendant to prove to the court that they should be granted bail rather than the prosecution having to show the court why they should be remanded in custody.

Power said the Government was also exploring issues such as whether people accused of murder should lose the right to bail.

The problem with this lies in one word: "accused". People accused of a crime have not yet been found to be guilty. They may in fact be innocent. But Power is proposing throwing them in jail for two years or longer, simply on the basis of a police accusation. And that's just wrong.

Currently our bail laws generally recognise this. Despite National's "tough on crime" changes, bail is still a human right in this country. And this is recognised in section 24 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which provides that everyone charged with an offence

Shall be released on reasonable terms and conditions unless there is just cause for continued detention
A real risk of non-appearance, reoffending, or interference with the trial process is "just cause". Public outrage at the crime, or a desire to take a tough line against a particular type of offence isn't. Power's proposal would see innocent people imprisoned for prolonged periods of time, losing their jobs, families, and sometimes even lives, with no apology or compensation from the government. It is unjust, it is unfair, and it is just plain wrong.

"Boosting science and innovation"

For the past year, the government has been talking a lot about "boosting science and innovation" as the "keys to economic growth". Today, we saw the reality behind that talk, with news that NIWA is planning to sack 5% of its total workforce:

The crown research company NIWA is proposing to cut 17 science and 17 support staff positions. Most of the science job to be cut are at the company’s Wellington regional office but nationwide include marine taxonomists, molecular biologists, fisheries stock assessment scientists, an environmental economist, a renewable energy scientist/engineer, a catchment water quality modeler, an atmospheric physicist, a marine ecologist, and a remote sensing scientist.
SO much for boosting innovation. But hey, who really needs to know how many fish we've got, or what sort of fish they are, or how they work anyway? And who needs to know what our climate is doing, whether our lakes are polluted, and how to build wave turbines? Its not as if these things let us understand our world, manage our resources, and identify and deal with environmental problems, right? We can just rely on Gerry Brownlee to tell us these things, the same way he tells us whether heritage buildings can be preserved...

Note that scientists aren't accountants; when you sack one, their NZ career is over. They are too highly specialised, and there are too few NZ employers, for them to find work elsewhere in their field (sometimes, they are their field). The lucky ones go overseas. Most get out of science altogether. Either way, we effectively lose their knowledge, permanently. But its not just them - this also sends a message to everyone considering a scientific career that they shouldn't bother, or that they should go overseas - because they won't find a stable research environment here

Its stupid. Its short-sighted. It will result in a permanent loss of scientific knowledge and expertise to the country. Far from "boosting science and innovation", this government is doing the exact opposite.