Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A victory for the environment

At the beginning of the month Australian mining company GreyWolf announced that it was applying for exploration rights in and around Golden Bay, including the coastlines of Abel Tasman and Kahurangi national parks. Today, they announced that they are withdrawing those applications. The reason? Public opposition:

Mr Rutherford, a Christchurch lawyer and ironsands mining advocate who joined the Greywolf board "a month or two" ago, said the Australian company had met with considerable public opposition in the Nelson region.

"It is pointless Greywolf putting millions of dollars into the area to find out what is there, if the public are so opposed to it."

This is a definite victory for the environment. But it also shows that public opposition and protest can change things. If we scream loud enough, they have to listen.

Disconnection violates international law

Back in April, the government abused urgency to ram the final stages of a guilt by accusation through Parliament. The law includes the option of mandatory disconnection from the internet, though this provision must be brought into force by an Order in Council. Now, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression has declared such laws to be a violation of international human rights norms.

The full details are in a report [PDF; UN doc A/HRC/17/27] by the Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council. After talking about the importance of the internet to freedom of expression, and some of the attempts by governments to control it, the Special Rapporteur concludes:

The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Special Rapporteur calls upon all States to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest. In particular, the Special Rapporteur urges States to repeal or amend existing intellectual copyright laws which permit users to be disconnected from Internet access, and to refrain from adopting such laws.

This will matter. Our Supreme Court pays attention to UN human rights norms in interpreting the Bill of Rights Act (which is explicitly designed to implement them). So, the bar just got raised on disconnection. Which hopefully will mean that the government never implements it.

A bloody nose for Berlusconi

Italy went to the polls in the second round of local elections today, and attention was focused on Milan. Faced with a strong challenge from the left on his home ground, Berlusconi's candidate sank into the gutter with an outright appeal to xenophobia and racism:

Wearing an elegant silk jacket, carrying a white Dolce & Gabbana handbag and sporting her customary silver eye shadow, the beleaguered mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, cut an incongruous figure as she scrunched across the gravel at an old Gypsy campsite in Milan last week.

The 1,500 Gypsies who once lived here have long gone, which is why Moratti had brought the TV crews with her. "When I first came here, I saw an undignified way of life. Now there are zero Gypsies," she said, before listing the other Gypsy settlements around Milan that she plans to shut down if re-elected this weekend.


"If Pisapia wins, Milan will became a Muslim town, a Gypsyville of Roma camps, a city besieged by foreigners," Berlusconi has warned in one of a series of increasingly irate video messages on his website. He told one TV interviewer that anyone voting for the centre-left had "left their brains at home". Meanwhile, young activists brought in from throughout Italy fanned out across Milan telling locals Pisapia would open "injection rooms" for drug addicts.

"If Pisapia wins, there will be a boom in rapes and prostitutes on the streets," said Massimo Corsaro, a Freedom People MP.

Its appalling stuff, and it makes our politicians look good by comparison. But the good news is that after all that, after deliberately inciting racial hatred, Berlusconi lost. Maybe there's some hope for Italy after all.

Back to the 90's

Is anyone else getting a horrible sense of deja vu? National is in power, the economy has tanked, they're talking tax cuts for the rich and privatization. Which means some election-year beneficiary-bashing is right around the corner.

And as if on clockwork, we have National's latest plans to demonise and victimise the poor and unfortunate, and drive their faces even further into the mud. All predicated on magical thinking that jobs somehow become available if only you beat the poor enough. Its cruel, its sadistic, its irrational. But its so very, very National, isn't it? A bunch of rich pricks sitting their on their fat piles of cash, shitting on the people beneath them.

While every government wants to get people off benefits, the idea that you can do so when there is 6.6% unemployment is simply madness. Of course, Treasury thinks that will drop, and 170,000 jobs will be delivered by faeries with magic wands over the next four years. And if you believe that, I have an ugly round building in Wellington to sell you. Even when unemployment was at record lows under Labour (remember that?), the numbers on benefits other than the unemployment benefit continued to rise, because these people have problems that are not economic in nature. The problem is not that they won't work, but that they can't. Solving those problems requires investment: investment in healthcare, mental health services, and addiction services, to solve those underlying problems which are ruining people's lives; investment in training, to upskill people who have been abandoned by the government; investment in childcare and disability services, to enable people to work. And this investment is expensive. While the government is making a few noises in this area, they're not going to follow through on it. Being cruel is cheaper (and gets more votes, which is what this is primarily about: a blatant play for the arsehole vote).

Still, as Gordon Campbell points out, it does put an end to the idea that John key is moderate. having sold us a continuation of Labour's polices in 2008, National is now aiming to drag us back to the insanity of the 90's. Fortunately, we have a chance to stop them in November.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Don't shop at Whitcoulls

When Whitcoulls was rescued by new owners last week, I thought it was good news. However, it turns out that their "rescue" is going to be funded by screwing over their workers:

The National Distribution Union says it is outraged at proposed contract changes for staff at Whitcoulls and Borders, which were sold last week by administrators.

The contracts, given to staff on Friday to review over the weekend, scrap any previous redundancy payments and force workers to sign away any claims or grievances from their previous employer.

Employees have been given until the end of today to sign up to the new agreements.

Businesses who treat their employees this way don't deserve my money, and they don't deserve yours. So, I suggest not shopping there if you have the option.

Climate change: Emissions rise again

Bad news on the climate change front: greenhouse gas emissions have reached their highest level ever, spiking 5.5% in the past year:

Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.


Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.

This means that the goal of restricting climate change to two degrees is becoming unachievable, and dangerous levels of climate change - with all the human suffering that entails - unavoidable. And all because governments have dragged their feet, delayed, engaged in special pleading for the oil and coal industries, and generally impeded a global deal to limit emissions. That delay may have been profitable for polluters - but it will be deadly to the rest of us. The current emissions track puts us in line for four degrees of warming, which means desertification in temperate zones, the death of the Amazon, melting icecaps, and 5m of sea-level rise.

The primary duty of a government is to protect its citizens. our governments have failed to do this. Instead, their pissing about has endangered us, and our children, and our grandchildren. And we should hold them accountable for it.

New Fisk

Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says?
A tale from the frontline of Palestinian protest

A good reason to vote for MMP

One of the most memorable pieces of advertising from the original campaign for MMP in the 90's was a Footrot Flats cartoon [sadly not extant on the internet], in which the Dog asks "Want a good reason to vote for MMP? Just look at the people who oppose it".

The same argument could equally be made today. After all, just look at who will be running the anti-MMP campaign: DPF. WhaleOil. A couple of Don Brash's bagmen and Brethren allies. These hollow men are not by any measure supporters of democracy or political accountability. And Supplementary Member, the replacement system they support? I'd call it "FPP in drag", but that's insulting to crossdressers. Contrary to the propaganda, it is not proportional and was rejected by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System as not really dealing with the unfairness inherent in FPP. But that unfairness, the exclusion of minor parties and the granting of disproportionate power to the largest party, is exactly what opponents of MMP seek to resurrect.

MMP has given us accountable government, enacting policies with true majority support. It has given us a Parliament that looks like New Zealand, rather than the Business Roundtable. It has given us real representative democracy that works for the people rather than a mad cult of radical NeoLiberals. If you value that, then you need to vote for it in November. Otherwise, we may well end up with a return to the unrepresentative and undemocratic governments of the 80's and early 90's, inflicting lunatic policies on us without popular support.

The Green list

The Greens have released their party list for this year's election. There has been enormous change in the Greens this term - with the current retirements, Metiria Turei will be their only MP from before 2008 - and the list reflects this, with a lot of new faces.

As with previous elections, I've done a table showing candidates relative placements with last time:

2011 RankName2008RankDifference
1Metiria Turei4+3
2Russel Norman20
3Kevin Hague7+4
4Catherine Delahunty8+4
5Kennedy Graham9+4
6Eugenie Sage----
7Gareth Hughes11+4
8David Clendon10+2
9Jan Logie----
10Steffan Browning12+2
11Denise Roche----
12Holly Walker----
13Julie Anne Genter----
14Mojo Mathers13-1
15James Shaw38+23
16David Hay21+5
17Richard Leckinger170
18Aaryn Barlow----
19Jeanette Elley18-1
20Sea Rotmann----
21Michael Gilchrist33+12
22Dora Langsbury----
23David Kennedy----
24Tane Woodley----
25Joseph Burston----
26Mikaere Curtis16-10
27Shane Gallagher----
28Saffron Toms----
29Steve Tollestrup----
30Jack McDonald----

Further candidate details can be found here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I don't think that word means what you think it means

Every month, Te Manawa, my local museum, hosts an event called "science cafe", designed to educate the public about science. This month, they're hosting a climate change denier (and yes, it is the same person - see here and here).

So much for "science". What next? Homeopathy? Astrology? Flat-earthers?


Contact Energy has been granted resource consent for its planned Hauāuru mā raki windfarm. The site seems to be north of the Rotowaro-Huntly grid constraint (meaning it is well-placed to ensure clean security of supply to Auckland), and at 504MW, it will be the biggest windfarm in New Zealand - if it is ever built:

it unlikely to see development start in a hurry, with Contact's former managing director David Baldwin indicating in February that construction could be some years away while the company develops more cost-efficient geothermal options.
The problem is that if they wait too long, they may be crowded out by Genesis Energy's Rodney Power Station, which is also consented but on hold. We have a clear choice here, between a clean future and a dirty one. With our current problems, our regulatory framework should be pushing us towards the clean choice. Instead, thanks to national's repeal of the thermal ban, we may well end up going down the dirty path, which will cost us and the planet in the long run.

"Mum and dad investors"

When the government has been pushing privatization, it has relentlessly pushed the idea that the buyers of these state assets will be "mum and dad investors". The implication: the buyers will be ordinary kiwis (though why anyone would want to buy something they already own is beyond me).

Now it turns out that that's not the case. Bill English has been touring Singapore and Hong Kong pimping our assets to the Chinese, who are of course very interested in getting their hands on profitable state-owned monopolies. So much for the idea of "mum and dad" investors...

Something we shouldn't be proud of

For the past two years, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index as the most peaceful country in the world. Now, we've dropped to second place. The reason [PDF]?

[New Zealand's] overall score deteriorated as a result of changes to three of the 23 indicators. There was a rise in the number of internal security officers, which reflects the Labour-led government’s plan in 2006 to increase police resources, committing to recruiting and training 1,000 additional police officers over the following three years. New Zealand’s jailed population rose to 203 per 100,000 in 2010, a level notably higher than most other OECD countries (71 per 100,000 in Norway, 96 in France and 133 in Australia according to the International Centre for Prison Studies). There was also an upturn in the number of external conflicts fought according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, which records conflicts that started in 2004 and were extant in the 2004-09 period.
Both parties share the blame for the first two reasons, as both are committed to ineffective, wasteful, and cruel "tough on crime" policies (though National has taken them to new heights of wasteful, pointless cruelty). The last problem is all National's fault. They've escalated our involvement in America's war in Afghanistan, to the point where our soldiers have been made complicit in torture. And as a result, we've fallen down the index to be overtaken by Iceland (and nearly overtaken by Japan). Unlike DPF, I don't think second place is good enough here; we should be striving to be a better country, not a worse one.

The full index is here.

Twitter and electoral law

The Electoral Commission is warning people not to tweet political advertisements on election day. They have a cast-iron legal case - the law prohibits attempting to influence voters on the day, on pain of a $20,000 fine - but at the same time its obvious that its a bit of an ass. Our electoral law was written back in the dark ages, when the internet meant "newsgroups" (remember them?), advertisements needed a printing press, and so could easily be controlled. As British judges have just learned over superinjunctions, the world doesn't work that way anymore, and attempts at suppression can simply result in mass rebellion. The only way publication restrictions hold anymore is if people want to keep them.

So, rather than making empty threats of enormous fines - because let's face it, the Electoral Commission wouldn't be able to prosecute everyone, or even a reasonable faction thereof, if the law is broken - I'm going to try and convince you to obey it.

The restriction on election-day advertising exists for a simple and very good reason: so the day belongs to us, the voters, not to the politicians. It means we aren't bombarded with advertising while we are trying to make up our minds. It means we aren't harassed by sign-waving hacks when trying to get to a polling booth. It means we don't have to put up with the very worst politicians have to offer in a desperate, last-ditch effort to influence us (and they will save their worst till last, when the returns are highest and the costs lowest). In short, it means we can vote in peace. They've said their piece; now we get to judge them on it.

And it works. Election days here have a carnival like atmosphere. Freedom from politicians IMHO contributes to this. That, and a strong tradition of election-night parties.

The law is not difficult to comply with. As a blogger, I've done it for the last two elections. Say my last words the night before, ask people not to post infringing comments (back when I had them), and don't blog anything that influences voters until the polls have closed. This year, I'll do the same. As for Twitter, I'll probably tweet that I'm going off to vote.

As for people who want to tweet "vote for Foo!", that's what a "Block spam" button is for. Because that's what they will be: spamming hacks, a botnet made of meat cluttering my feed with irritation. And any party who organises twitter spam on the day deserves to be nailed for it - not just under electoral law, but antispam law as well.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Paul Quinn is the new David Garrett

ACT's David Garrett had a rather chequered career as an MP, hitting the bigot trifecta of racism, sexism and homophobia before being drummed out of the House for stealing a dead baby's identity. Parliament is a better place without him, but sadly it seems we have a new contender: National's Paul Quinn. And he's already hit the double. First there was his homophobic comments [video] a couple of weeks ago about Chris Carter and his "pink toothbrush" (why pink, Paul? Are you trying to suggest something?) And now there's his appalling suggestion that drunk women deserve to be raped. While he's tried to back away from them, as the Hand Mirror points out, his excuses raise as many questions as they purport to answer. Notably, what the hell he thought he was talking about when he responded to a question about women "asking for it" by saying

I think there’s a real issue with young ladies getting drunk.
So what did he mean? What does Paul Quinn think drunk women are asking for? Speak up, we're all ears.

Rodney Hide's bastard offspring

Last year, Rodney Hide foisted a supercity on Auckland, amalgamating parts of it that didn't want to be amalgamated, under a council structure designed to shut Aucklanders out of the government of their own city. Now, that amalgamation is having some unforseen consequences. Back in 2010, Len Brown's Manukau City Council put forward a local bill to recriminalise street prostitution in their district - a singularly bad idea which would have returned prostitutes to the status of outlaws, allowing them to be victimised and abused at will. Now, thanks to Rodney Hide, that bill is going to be extended to cover the whole of Auckland.

The details are in the latest Puketapapa Local Board agenda [PDF], as item 18. The council is putting up a supplementary order paper to amend the scope of the bill to cover all of Auckland. Which means that the council will be able to impose their particular moral view not just on the people of Manukau, but also on the rest of Auckland as well. The bill is currently before a select committee, but is scheduled to report back in early September - just in time for the election.

The amendments mean that the bill is no longer what was voted on at first reading. Those who helped pass it to select committee - the list of the guilty is here - might want to consider whether they really support the effective recriminalisation of prostitution, with all the evil that that entails, in New Zealand's largest city. And if they do, they should have the guts to be open and honest about it, rather than hiding behind a collection of local body wowsers.

Something to play with

What do you think is important in a country? Its a serious question, and the answer can have serious policy consequences.

For example, our political class thinks economic growth is important. For the past three decades they have been obsessed with shifts in NZ's OECD economic ranking. This monomania gave us Rogernomics, Ruthanasia, and the whole NeoLiberal obsession with cutting taxes for the rich while giving them state assets for a song - policies with seriously unpleasant social consequences. But those consequences weren't reflected in the indicator they were measuring success by - economic performance - and so they did not matter to them (plus of course, those politicians were rich, and did not suffer with the rest of us).

The OECD, however, recognises that its not so simple. So they've created the Better Life Initiative - a tool which allows you to rank countries based on your priorities. Think that income is all that matters? New Zealand is in the middle of the pack. Think its more about quality of life, a mix of environment, life-satisfaction, and community? New Zealand is a lot closer to the top. Its a useful illustration that New Zealand doesn't suck as much as the NeoLiberals claim it does - we do very well on non-economic metrics, metrics that matter a lot to people - and that we can pursue other goals beyond the endless mantra spewed by the business community and their pet politicians of growth, growth, growth.

Take a look at it. Have a play. Decide what you think is important. Then let the politicians know. Because unless we take that last step - through the ballot box, if need be - then our politicians will continue pursuing growth uber alles, and sacrifice other values (which they are blind to) to achieve it.

This stinks

One of the fundamentals of governance in this country is that when the government spends significant amounts of money, it runs an open tender. This not only ensures that we get the best deal, but it also protects us against corruption and prevents the procurement process from turning into a mechanism for the government-of-the-day to dispense largesse to its mates.

So, guess what Paula Bennett didn't do when she handed out $2.4 million to her mate Bruce Pilbrow? That's right - run an open tender process. It stinks, and it creates the perception of corruption - something Ministers should be at pains to avoid.

As for Pilbrow, he said the no-tender process was due to the time he had spent (while a public servant) "building relationships with different ministers". Which is exactly what the tender process is supposed to protect us against. Governments should award contracts based on who offers the best deal - not who is the best arse-licker. But then, this is what happens when you bring corporate values into government: corrupt backroom deals like this.

Pacific Forum silent on Fijian torture

The Pacific Islands Forum is our regional body, covering the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. Among its regional goals is the promotion of human rights, with the objective of

a Pacific region that is respected for the quality of its governance... the full observance of democratic values, and for its defence and promotion of human rights.
Despite this, the forum is staying silent on Fijian torture. Which invites the question: what bloody good are they? What is the point of a regional organisation which won't do its job, and stays silent in the face of gross human rights abuses?

We have a torture state in our midst. It is the Pacific Forum's job to show leadership and condemn it, and work to put an end to those abuses. If it won't - if it will look the other way on torture because its not "the Pacific way" to criticise your neighbours - then I think we should be looking at getting a new regional body which better reflects our values.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Justice for Egypt

Earlier this year, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak killed hundreds trying to prevent the revolution which overthrew him. Now, he will stand trial for their murders.

Good. Dictators who kill their own people should be held accountable for their crimes. At the same time, there is one problem: Mubarak could face the death penalty if convicted. If applied, it will reduce an act of justice into a judicial lynching. Egypt can, and should, be a better country than that.

Justice delayed again

Its official: the trial of the Urewera 18 has been postponed till next February to allow the Supreme Court to consider appeals on evidence and a jury. Which means that the accused will be hanging around in legal limbo for four and a half years.

This is ridiculous. Quite apart from the obvious problems such a long delay poses for the prospect of a fair trial, it also means another year of onerous bail conditions for the accused - effectively punishment without trial. And all of this for offences the government advised would likely only be punished with fines.

The normal wait for a trial in New Zealand is one to two years. This has already dragged on for twice that long, with no end in sight, and it has now reached the stage where it is questionable whether justice can be done at all. Serious cases have been thrown out for shorter delays. If the police persist in their efforts to hold a single, judge-alone trial, this cases may join them. And that would be a loss to us all.

Update on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Last year, after the Prime Minister refused to answer questions in Parliament about Ministerial conflicts of interest, I submitted an OIA request seeking information on whether Ministers were obeying the relevant portions of the Cabinet Manual. Predictably, the government refused to answer, so I complained to the Ombudsman. The process so far has taken almost a year - not unusual with complicated issues like this - and is still not complete. But I thought I should update you on how its going.

The Ombudsman's initial views [PDF] were quite promising. Statistics on conflicts should be disclosed, unless there was administrative reason not to. Measures taken to manage a conflict of interest - basically those laid out in section 2.70 of the Cabinet Manual - should be released unless there was "some sensitivity attaching to any of the requested details". Correspondence between the Cabinet Office and Ministers would not be released, unless the Minister referred to it in public, in which case any confidence would be effectively waived. In other words, if a Minister stood up in Parliament and said (as some have) "I informed the Cabinet office, and we took appropriate steps to ensure the conflict was managed", we'd be able to check and see if they were telling the truth.

The Chief Ombudsman has since refined her views on the last matter [PDF]. Now we only get to check on a Minister if the Cabinet Secretary decides they are lying to us. In other words, we don't get to decide for ourselves that everything is above board - it gets filtered through the machine first, by people with a vested interest in not rocking the boat. So much for transparency.

The core problem, I think, is this:

Public assurance that Ministers are observing the rules on conflict of interest does not, and cannot, come from Ministers themselves. it can only come from a respected and impartial source. The Cabinet Secretary is this source...
I disagree. Public assurance can only come from public compliance, from the public being able to see that the rules are being obeyed (and not just in letter, but in spirit). The decision on whether a conflict was properly managed is not one for a public servant, but for the public. It is, after all, our government.

Anything less means that we have to take it on trust. And that is something we simply cannot afford to do in a democracy.

Brownlee puts his foot down

When Gerry Brownlee was made dictator of Christchurch, with powers to amend any law and interfere in the resource consent process, the concern was that he would abuse those powers to favour specific projects and impose his own vision over that of the local community. And that is exactly what is happening. Shortly after the earthquake, Port of Lyttleton was pulled up for reclaiming land without resource consent; Brownlee has now demanded that they be given the consent on a non-notified basis, without the usual process, and subject only to a "consultation" with various groups. Which given how meaningless such consultations are, effectively means ordering that they be given the consent. Its a perfect example of everything that is wrong with National's approach. The people of Christchurch are being shut out of decisions about their own city, their own future, by back-room deals cooked up by a micromanaging dictator. They deserve better.

Key lied on KiwiSaver

Last week, John Key cut KiwiSaver. But he claimed he was keeping his election promise not to change the scheme [PDF] because the changes wouldn't kick in until after the election.

He lied. And its right there in black and white in the law: section 7, which halves the member tax credit, comes into force from 1 July this year, and

appl[ies] for calculating a tax credit for the year starting on 1 July 2011 and later years.
Tax credits are paid at the end of a tax year, but accrue daily. So National are cutting KiwiSaver before the election, and stealing your tax credits every day from July. Its not what was promised, and its not what they said they were doing. I guess they thought that no-one would notice, and that they could bury it with some clever spin.

This is a foretaste of what is to come if National wins a second term: not just the cuts, but the deceit, the fundamental contempt for the electorate. If you want to stop that from happening, you know how to vote in November.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Justice for Ian Tomlinson

In 2009, a UK police officer beat newspaper-seller Ian Tomlinson from behind during a protest. Tomlinson, whose hands were in his pockets and who posed no threat to police, died shortly afterwards, his insides pulped by the blow. Now, PC Simon Harwood, who struck the fatal blow, will face trial for Tomlinson's manslaughter.

It's a victory for justice and accountability. The police have fought tooth and nail to cover up and minimise Harwood's crime, withholding evidence from the IPCC, and lying to pathologists and the media about what had occurred. That cover up has now failed. The question now is whether a jury will convict, or whether they'll look the other way on a killing simply because the killer wore a uniform.

The death of superinjunctions?

If you've been watching the news, you'll know that the British courts have just been comprehensively schooled in the Streisand Effect and the futility of attempting to suppress information by the internet. They've also been given a sharp lesson in parliamentary Privilege. But what of the underlying issue?

I've taken a consistent position that people's sex lives are not news. But that's a different issue from whether we should be legally forbidden from talking about them. Prior restraint is a serious business, and requires the highest justification. That justification exists in criminal cases where it is used to protect the rights of the accused, or the identity of minors. It does not seem to exist in these cases. Here, courts are granting prior restraint to protect people's reputations from the damage that would naturally result from their own actions. It smacks of privilege, of the rich and powerful abusing the courts to keep their indiscretions secret and their hypocrisies intact, of aristocrats using force of law and threats of imprisonment to stop the peasants from sniggering at them. Its absolutely unjustifiable - but so very, very British.

The courts can posture all they like. The world simply does not work like that any more. As the UK has learned this week, the internet provides a free market in legal jurisdiction, allowing such injunctions to be broken with impunity. And if court orders are as blatantly unjustified as these ones are, then that is exactly what will happen.

Britain's racist police state

More evidence today of the racist application of anti-terror laws, this time the ugly fact that Asians (which in the UK means Indians and Pakistanis) are 42 times more likely than white people to be detained at airports under stop and search powers. That's not really surprising; previous studies had shown that UK police used other stop and search powers disproportionately against ethnic minorities; this is a different arbitrary search law, but its the same racists applying it (naturally police refused to give a force-by-force breakdown on "national security" grounds, it apparently being vital to public safety that certain police organisations avoid being publicly labelled as racists).

But what's really scary is what they're abusing it for - not just to question "potential terrorists", but to browbeat people into becoming informants, on pain of torture:

One of those stopped, Asif Ahmed, 28, said he was asked to spy after landing at Edinburgh airport.

He said he was separated from his wife and taken to a room and told he must answer questions about his beliefs and faith. "They asked if I would like to work with special branch, to keep an eye on the Muslim community in Edinburgh. They asked me three times. They said do it covertly."


One person subjected to a schedule 7 stop has provided a written statement alleging an MI5 officer tried to recruit him as a spy. When he refused, he says he was threatened with torture abroad.

Which tells you that despite all their public protestations, the British Security Services' enthusiasm for torture remains undiminished.

The good news is that with such obvious abuse of an arbitrary power, it should not be too difficult to have it declared illegal under the ECHR. That's what happened to the "normal" stop and search powers, which had a similar lack of reasonable suspicion required to search someone, but arguably stronger safeguards; getting the courts to overturn this, which violates the right to silence as well as the right to be free from arbitrary search and seizure, should be a piece of cake.

Climate change: Farmers can afford the ETS

Phil Goff's announcement over the weekend that agriculture will be brought into the ETS has met with the usual response from farmers: whining. They can't afford it. It will bankrupt them. We should "revere" them as the backbone of the country (and no doubt offer them rows of nubile young sheep into the bargain). So, how much would it actually cost them?

2.5 cents per kg of milk solids, according to the Ministry for the Environment [PDF, p. 4]. Compare that to their expected payout this year of over $8 per kilo, and you can see that they're bullshitting us. They can afford it; its just that they'd rather shirk their responsibility and force us to pay in their place.

Judicialising the Treaty

The history of Treaty-related court cases in New Zealand is one of failed attempts at enforcement. Right from the beginning, with R v Symonds, Maori have gone to court in an effort to force the crown to obey the Treaty and return land that was stolen from them. While claims under the doctrine of aboriginal title met with some success (at least until Justice Prendergast's ruling in Wi Parata v the Bishop of Wellington), the general position on the Treaty itself was that it had no legal force unless it was incorporated into domestic law. That process of incorporation really began in the 1980's, when Treaty clauses started being added to legislation, and as a result Maori were able to win significant cases over broadcasting rights, SOE assets, and fisheries.

A consequence of the SOE case (New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney General (1987)) was that the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 was amended to give the Waitangi Tribunal judicial powers to order the return of land held (or previously held) by SOEs or in crown forests. This power has apparently only rarely been used. But on Friday, the Supreme Court handed down a judgement which may see it being used a lot more. Alan Haronga v Waitangi Tribunal and Others [summary, full judgement] has a messy history involving a successful Treaty claim and subsequent troubles in settlement talks, but ultimately it challenged the refusal of the Waitangi Tribunal to grant an urgent hearing on the use of the power to return land. The Supreme Court upheld the appeal, on the basis that the Tribunal has a statutory obligation to hear claims, and that in this case there was a real chance of the claim being frustrated if no hearing was granted. In the short term, this means that Mr Haronga gets his hearing, and ultimately a decision. But its the longer term consequences which are interesting. The Supreme Court ruled that:

Where the Tribunal has decided a claim is well-founded and the remedy sought is return of Crown forest land, the inquiry must address whether the land is to be returned to Maori ownership, any terms and conditions of return, and, if applicable, to which Maori or group of Maori the land is to be returned.
(My emphasis)

Which means that the Tribunal is going to have to decide on the return of land in every case before it (and may face further appeals from parties who have not yet settled as well). They can prioritise cases, and adjourn to allow the parties to reach a settlement, but ultimately they must consider it if asked. Which is going to turn the government's settlement model, and its billion dollar fiscal cap, upside down. Claimants will have the whip hand if their claim includes crown land; if settlement talks are not going well, they will be able to go back to the Tribunal and pursue a judicial path instead, with full appeal rights to the Supreme Court. The crown will have to take this risk into account, and offer more generous settlements. Which in turn may create obligations on it to top up past settlements (notably Ngai Tahu and Tainui).

It needs to be emphasised that this is not a new power, or "judge-made law". This is a straight application of statute law passed by Parliament in the 80's. The Waitangi Tribunal has ignored the law for twenty years in favour of pushing claimants towards settlements. Now they will have to do their job properly.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A timely reminder

Over the weekend, the Sunday Star-Times gave us a timely reminder that National is full of anti-abortion fruitcakes who want to restrict abortion rights and control women's bodies:

POLICE MINISTER Judith Collins has pledged to support a call for laws to prevent girls under 16 having abortions without their parents being told.

Collins said she would support a private member's bill requiring parents to be involved before a termination could take place.


Collins said she was aware there was interest among some National backbenchers in putting forward an amendment again, but any private bill would have to be drawn from the ballot on members' day before it could be introduced.

This isn't surprising - as the article notes, Collins supported a similar amendment back in 2004 - which "liberal" John Key voted for. But it is useful to have it highlighted in election year, so people can make an informed decision before casting their vote.

As for the merits of Collins' proposal, we don't let parents whore their children out; why on earth would we let them force their kids to have kids?

Labour opposes same-sex marriage

Phil Goff is currently holding a live chat on Twitter. I got in early and asked him whether Labour would support same-sex marriage. His response?

Labour supported civil unions, when National opposed them. Not intending to make further changes.
At least we got a straight answer. At the same time, it sends a clear message: if we want real equality in New Zealand, we won't be getting it from Labour.

Labour and the ETS

Labour's plans to pay for policy by bringing agriculture into the ETS (something which has, predictably, got the farmers whining) has got me thinking about their other options regarding this boondoggle. The present level of ETS subsidies is unaffordable, costing a total of $130 billion to 2050. Eliminating them and making polluters pay for their own shit would make a serious difference to the government's books in the long term. So, can Labour tap more money by making changes?

Sadly, no. The biggest short-term subsidies - National's $25 / ton price cap and 2-for-1 pollution deal - expire at the end of 2012. If Labour was elected, they would not be able to make the required legislative changes in time. Instead, they will have to let these subsidies quietly expire and let these polluters pay the full price from 1 January 13.

So what about the long-term? At the moment, industrial and agricultural polluters will get intensity-based subsidies (so the more they pollute, the more they get), starting at 90% and decreasing by 1.3% a year (meaning we will be subsidising them until the end of the century). This is where the real money is, especially as the carbon price is expected to rise over that period. Unfortunately, unless subsidies are completely eliminated overnight - something which would cause an undue shock - then reducing them won't free up a lot of money immediately. It has to be done, but its not something Labour can use to pay for its social policies.

As for what they should do, pretty obviously the phase-out rate has to change. Ten years is more than enough time for business to clean up its act and upgrade its plant (especially as most businesses don't even last that long); given the lack of short-term options for farmers, that could be pushed out another five years for them, but fundamentally they have to join the modern world and accept that their actions have consequences for other people, and that they should pay for those consequences. There's also the question of capped vs intensity-based allocation; the latter stinks, but it would be a much simpler change, requiring a lot less regulatory work. And Labour will have to work fast. The first year it can conceivably save money in from reduced allocations is 2013, so it would have to have the policy work done, and the bill passed in a single year. That's a big ask in our political system. But if they want a fair ETS, then they need to be planning for it now.

Update: According to Stuff, it looks like Labour is planning to go back to their original allocation scheme of capped subsidies with a phase-out by 2025:

Cabinet papers showed cancelling the delay for bringing agriculture into the ETS would save $570m and going back to Labour's original free allocation formula would save a further $270m.
Industrial polluters better start planning to pay.

Labour's alternative II

On Saturday, Phil Goff gave us a glimpse of Labour's economic policy with his keynote speech at the Labour Party Congress. The core, as you've no doubt already heard, is a promise to lift the minimum wage to $15/hour, and to restore R&D tax credits to provide an incentive for innovation. Because they're in a fiscal straitjacket, they've also been clear about how they're going to pay for the latter: by bringing agriculture into the ETS in 2013, and forcing farmers to pay for their pollution. These are good ideas, but there's more there as well: a commitment to trades training (underfunded by this government, despite regular skills shortages), a crackdown on tax cheats, and a suggestion of restoring a top tax rate for top earners. These are sensible ideas, and I'm looking forward to seeing more. There's also a solid commitment to boost KiwiSaver as they can afford to do so.

Labour's big problem is that delivering progressive policy costs money, which the government doesn't really have (and may not have for a long time, if the recession drags on). If it wants to retain its image for fiscal probity - something that Michael Cullen more than earned - it needs to ensure that it can pay for every policy. But as Vernon Small points out, you can only get so far by switching stuff around; new spending requires new money. So he's picking Labour to not only go for a new top tax rate, but also to be seriously considering looking at a land tax or capital gains tax. These are good ideas too, but there are other ways of doing it as well. To point out the obvious, not every progressive policy is funded by the government; some are delivered by the government shifting the balance of the law to favour the weak over the strong. The minimum wage is an example of this - the government requires employers to pay their workers more. It costs the government nothing, while delivering a progressive outcome. The same could be done with KiwiSaver, by increasing contribution requirements for employers (but not employees). The result: higher net savings, without busting the government's books. If Labour is feeling fiscally tight, then we may see a move in this direction as well.

New Fisk

Uneasy times in Lebanon as Syrian revolt simmers

Friday, May 20, 2011

Another bite at the cherry

Back in February, a government-appointed board of inquiry granted resource consent for Mighty River Power's proposed Turitea wind farm. However, Mighty River didn't get everything it wanted, with consent granted for only 60 turbines out of a planned 105. This threatened the viability of the project, so Mighty River is back for another bite of the cherry:

Mighty River Power has reignited the battle over the Turitea Wind Farm with a push to add 12 extra turbines to make the project viable – despite a draft decision already being issued capping the number at 60.

The power company has asked the board of inquiry that heard its application for resource consent last year to reconvene to hear its revised plans.

Opponents who have made what they thought were final submissions on the board's draft decision are aghast at the prospect.

This makes a mockery of the entire process. The board of inquiry has already held hearings on these issues, and reached a decision. The law simply does not contemplate this sort of "do-over". But because it doesn't explicitly rule it out either, Mighty River can try it on, and try and bully the board into giving them what it wants. And sadly, the board has only themselves to blame on this; they've been slack about producing a final report (despite a legal requirement to produce one "as soon as practicable"), which leaves space for Mighty River to try this sort of stunt.

Once the Board produces a final report, Mighty River can appeal it to the High Court. The fact that they are instead trying this sort of whining speaks volumes about their expectations of winning there.

New Fisk

Lots of rhetoric – but very little help

Treasury's nonsensical projections

Yesterday, I highlighted Treasury's rather heroic prediction of 4% annual wage growth for the next six years [PDF; Table A3.1]. The prediction allows the government to project the higher future tax revenues which underpin its projected return to surplus. Unfortunately it doesn't seem very likely. Why not?

Well, firstly, there's the problem of the policy signals pointing in exactly the opposite direction. A browse through past editions of the Quarterly Employment Survey (which is the statistic they are projecting) will show you that annual wage rises are driven by the (highly unionised) public sector. But the government has just put the screws on them, meaning job cuts and pay cuts. So they won't be dragging the average up. As for the private sector, the government has just legislated for pay cuts through higher KiwiSaver contributions, and of course there is the strong downward pressure on wages created by their labour market and welfare policies.

Secondly, there's the historical record:

While this shows a period of prolonged 4%+ annual wage growth from 2006 - 2009, its worth noting what underlay that: an engineered labour shortage, which reduced unemployment to below 4%. The government's projections meanwhile show this wage growth during a time of high (4.5%) unemployment (in fact, its projected to start while unemployment is still at 6%!). Either Treasury thinks the law of supply and demand no longer applies to the labour market, or they've juked their projections to give the Minister the numbers he wants. Either way, those projections are simply nonsense, and the policy decisions which rely upon them doomed.

Sacrifice for some, but not for others

The Day After, and Bill English is trying to sell this as a sacrifice budget. Money is tight, so sacrifices have to be made. It would be a compelling argument, but for two things. Firstly, the reason money is tight can be laid directly at the government's door, thanks to conscious decisions to gut the government's revenue base and do nothing about the recession, while handing out a billion dollars a year in subsidies to polluters. Quite apart from a sense of disgruntlement at being made to pay for their fuckups, the government has other options available, options which inflict less pain on ordinary kiwis; they have made a conscious decision not to pursue those options. Which feeds into the second problem: that sacrifice is not evenly distributed. Farmers get to keep their subsidies (and get more besides). The rich get to keep their tax cuts. Ministers get to keep their BMWs and gold-plated superannuation schemes. Its only ordinary people who pay.

So, the next time Bill English talks of "sacrifice", we should stand up and ask him: what are you sacrificing, Bill? And if you're not sacrificing anything, why should we?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Key's spin on Working For Families

Back in march, when John Key first signalled that he was going to take the razor to Working For Families, he criticised the "quite extraordinary" reach of the scheme. The clear implication: WFF would be cut for high-income earners.

Today, we see what that means: comparing these two tables, it seems that he's lowered the cutoff for the family tax credit by all of $2,000. The price of that? Lower payments for everyone else, and a commitment to erode the scheme in the long term.

In other words, that suggestion that there would be significant cuts at the top was just spin (as we knew it was, because there's no money to save there), cover for a broader attack on the living standards of ordinary kiwis. Meanwhile, Key gets to keep his thousand dollar a week tax cut. Which is what happens when you have a government of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich.

Digesting the Budget

What to make of the Budget? Firstly, it will make you worse off. If you're receiving Working For Families, in KiwiSaver, or planning an education, you've just been shafted. On the first, while the WFF cuts were not as bad as feared, the government will be slowly reducing your payments (either directly or by inflation) through a combination of lower thresholds, higher abatement, and a payment freeze. Their carefully chosen examples, which show lower-income people receiving higher payments, do that because they're counting the inflation-adjustment, not because they've actually made the scheme more generous. In real terms, their entitlements have been cut. On the second, the government has just legislated you a 1% pay cut from 2013, plus another 1% if (like many) your employer rips KiwiSaver payments directly out of your wages. Plus, they're cutting their contribution, while sticking a stealth tax on your employers (meaning, in fact, that you will be no better off due to their increase). And if you're planning an education, you're not going to be allowed to do it part-time unless you meet your course-related costs. Which makes it far more difficult for those already in the workforce to better themselves.

In addition, we have health cuts, thanks to a sub-inflation increase, education cuts, thanks to the Ministry of Education having to meet superannuation costs out of its own budget, and selling the family silver. And all of this so the government can reach surplus one year earlier (if everything goes right). I remember when government's delivered surpluses without these sorts of cuts. But that was back when we were governed by competent people, rather than self-interested looters.

But don't worry! Good times are just around the corner! Treasury says so, so it must be true! Oddly, though, they're projecting record 4% wage growth [PDF; Table A3.1], while at the same time sticking the screws on public servants through the requirement to internally fund superannuation. So who is going to get these supposed wage increases? Un-unionised wage-slaves on 90 day contracts? Somehow I don't think so.

All told, this is going to make people worse off. The government is cutting spending while the economy is stagnant. This is likely to make things worse, rather than better - just as Ruth Richardson did in 1991.

As Stuff notes, John Key has put his job on the line over this. If you don't like his cuts and his privatisation, you can vote him out and have them reversed. I suggest you do so.

A distorted perspective

One of the problems with discussing tax and inequality in New Zealand is that there is very little public information about income distribution, which leads to some rather weird ideas both about how much people are paid, and what counts as "rich". And those ideas are on display this morning when Jane Clifton complains about the idea of raising taxes:

Ms Clifton says the difficulty for Labour is what the alternative is because the tax increases it's suggesting are aimed at people who are not wealthy in reality.

"It got into trouble when it was in Government for just that reason because what it deemed the wealthy income earners are actually mostly wage slaves like doctors, plumbers, teachers, nurses, police officers and so on," she told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking.

(Emphasis added)

While I have no information on plumbers (who are businesses anyway), for the record teachers salaries top out at $71,000 for primary and $69,000 for secondary (with a four-year degree or higher); a registered nurse with five years experience can earn $60,000 plus overtime [PDF], and police salaries start at $51,000 plus benefits. The only people in Clifton's list who might be more than marginally affected by the top tax bracket are doctors (who bloody well ought to be). But that's the sort of distorted perspective you get when you consider yourself middle class (as most kiwis do) despite being hitched to a $250,000 a year plus perks Ministerial salary...

The truth is that higher taxes on the rich will not impact ordinary people like teachers, nurses, or police officers. They would however impact people like Murray McCully, Bill English, and John Key. Which is one reason they're so dead-set against them.

Budget Day

It's Budget Day. In two and a half hours, Bill English will tell us exactly how he's going to screw us over.

And screw us over he will. The government has loudly signalled cuts to KiwiSaver and Working For Families, plus general belt-tightening all round (except for the rich, of course; they get to keep their unaffordable tax cuts). The only question is how badly he'll do it. This is an election year, and National wants to win, so they won't want to inflict too much pain. But since they're putting the pain off until after the election, maybe they're banking on it not sinking in before we vote.

Twitter is tracking the Budget on #budget2011. I'll be contributing to the swarm. I'll have another post when I've actually seen the thing and had a chance to read it.

Update: Meanwhile, over on Red Alert, David Cunliffe has a couple of posts on National's growth fantasies vs reality and the sources of the defecit. They make interesting reading. And no doubt, Treasury will add another set of fantasy projections this year, which National will in turn fail to meet.

New Fisk

President's fine words may not address the Middle East's real needs

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Key lies about tax cuts

For the past two days, John Key has been defending his government's tax cuts for the rich by claiming that two-thirds of the cuts went to the bottom two tax brackets. This is, to put it bluntly, a lie. Those in the bottom two tax-brackets, the 76% of New Zealanders earning less than $48,000 a year, gained only 31% of the total - the exact opposite of what Key is claiming. Meanwhile, the 12% earning over $70,000 walked off with $1.6 billion a year, 43% of the total, while the top 2% of taxpayers, meaning Key and his rich mates, gained a staggering 11.5% of the total.

Make no mistake: National's tax cuts were not fair in any sense of the word. They were a giveaway to the rich, whose effects on the government budget have made life much harder for everyone else. But guess who Key will be protecting in tomorrow's Budget? Hint: it won't be you or me.

Climate change: Ambition in the UK

While New Zealand is shirking and trying to avoid doing our bit on climate change, the UK has stolen a march, committing to a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2025. Its an ambitious target, all the more so because it must be met without the fudge of buying credits on the international market. At the same time, its achievable; the UK's emissions are already ~20% below 1990 levels, and they've only just begun to exploit their offshore renewable energy potential.

The target is part of a long-term plan to make 80% reductions (on 1990 levels) by 2050. New Zealand also has a 2050 target, but we haven't bothered to set any goals in between. That might mean accountability - the last thing our politicians want. So instead we have the usual cycle of meaningless targets backed by no or ineffective policy leading to failure. By contrast, the UK's is legally binding, and feeds directly into the settings of climate change policy. Which means there will automatically be a credible effort to meet it. Beyond that, there is a recognition across the UK's political spectrum that this is something they have to do. The contrast with New Zealand - where our Prime Minister and half our governing party are unrepentant climate change deniers half-heartedly going through the motions - couldn't be greater.

Something to go to in Wellington

Tomorrow is Budget Day, on which the government is expected to hand down vicious cuts to KiwiSaver and Working For Families, while protecting their rich mates' tax cuts. If you don't like this, then you can speak up about it at a rally outside Parliament:

When: 12:15 - 13:00, Thursday 19 May
Where: Parliament grounds

A tide of shit in Southland

Radio New Zealand reports that dirty dairying is up in Southland, with almost 50% of farms inspected recently found to be seriously breaching their resource consents. What that means is that they're pumping cowshit everywhere, polluting local waterways and groundwater with a tidal wave of shit, endangering both the environment and human health.

(A brief in the Manawatu Standard last night about this mentioned that the pollution topped the scale. These are not minor, technical breaches we are talking about...)

The regional council is considering taking legal action. Considering? These farmers are committing a serious crime, with a penalty of up to two years imprisonment or a $300,000 fine. Faced with such serious offending, other bodies wouldn't "consider" laying charges - they'd actually do it. The Southland Regional Council must do the same. Farmers clearly will not change their polluting behaviour unless they are forced to. It is time local authorities stood up for the environment and the law and do just that.

Bride of the Zombie Member's Day

Today, barring urgency, is a Member's Day. Unfortunately, its the same Member's Day we had two weeks ago, and two weeks before that, and two weeks before that. The top of the Order paper is logjammed with committee stages of local bills, Labour is filibustering, and so the same Member's Day keeps shambling back again like one of the walking dead.

The House might get to the committee stage of Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill today, but they're unlikely to finish it. Even if they do, the third readings of those two local bills will clog the Order paper next member's day. The net result: its not becoming law for at least another two or three Member's Days. And if National uses urgency anytime in that period (as they will), then its going nowhere until September. I don't think Labour will be lucky enough to be able to bury it until the election, but if Gerry Brownlee eats too many Wednesdays, they just might get away with it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Goff on the Urewera 18

Phil Goff has weighed in on the Urewera 18, saying that the repeated delays to their trial (now unlikely to happen until next year) mean that justice is being denied. He's right. These people have been accused of a serious crime. They deserve a speedy trial, rather than having to wait around in limbo for four years. While the reason for the most recent delay is the appeals process from certain dubious lower court decisions, fundamentally it is due to the crown's decision to try them all at once, which creates timetabling problems with the single courtroom that will fit them all. If the government had not insisted on this, then we would likely have seen a verdict long ago.

As Goff points out, no Minister can interfere in the trial process. But they need to take a long, hard look at the policy and resourcing issues around this, to make sure it never happens again. People shouldn't have to wait this long for their day in court. Justice delayed is justice denied.

A conflict of interest

Today, Parliament released its Register of Pecuniary and Other Specified Interests [PDF]. Most of it is boring: a disturbing number of MPs using trusts to hide their conflicts of interest, some accepting gifts from dodgy foreign governments (Wayne Mapp loves South-east Asian dictatorships, it seems, while Anne Tolley prefers the Saudis), and some Ministers receiving free electronic toys from multinationals (John Key preferred to get his bribes in free sports tickets). Two MPs - Rahui Katene and Chris Carter - didn't submit declarations at all. Katene has an excuse - she's MP for Te Tai Tonga, and her return may have been screwed up by the earthquake. As for Carter, his refusal is nothing less than a contempt of Parliament, and he needs to be hauled kicking and screaming to the Privileges Committee and fined a large amount of money for refusing to abide by even the minimal standards of transparency we set for MPs.

There was one big discovery, though: Hekia Parata declared a shareholding in Contact Energy, our largest privately-owned electricity company. Parata is also Minister of Energy, so this is a prima facie conflict of interest. How strong depends on the size of the shareholding, but at the very least it looks bad. For obvious reasons, Ministers should not be financially involved in industries they are supposed to regulate. If they are, then it creates a perception that decisions may be made for personal financial gain.

This is not good enough. I expect our Ministers to be seen to be clean. Parata needs to explain what her holding is, so that we all know the extent of any conflict, and then she needs to sell it. Otherwise, she must give up her position as a Minister. It is that simple.

Key on Working For Families

John Key has admitted that some families will be worse off due to his cuts for Working For Families. But he tries to have it both ways as well:

Prime Minister John Key confirmed yesterday that there would be cuts to the Working for Families scheme in Thursday's Budget. He insisted many would be better off under the changes, but for the lowest-income-earners he could only guarantee increases to reflect inflation.


The cost of the $2.8 billion scheme would come down "slightly". "Overall, the emphasis of the Government is to try and reorientate more towards lower-income New Zealanders – at least that's where any kind of future gains would be. There is less higher up and, overall, I would describe the changes as modest."

This is confusing, to say the least. Cuts will be made, but some will be better off because of them. But not the poor, despite the scheme supposedly being reoriented more towards them. Does Key have any idea what his policy actually is, or is he just blowing smoke?

Meanwhile, the Herald's Simon Collins lays out the options for cutting Working For Families. He shows that there is no real way to cut the top without also cutting the bottom and the middle. And unless payments are increased for people on higher incomes - an outright regressive move - there is no way to deliver the policy Key is claiming.

Labour's alternative

I was unfair to Labour in my previous post. While I was writing it, David Cunliffe was giving a speech on Labour's budget priorities. Its a high-level framing exercise, but well worth a read.

Like the Greens, Cunliffe lays the blame for the government's current dire straits squarely at National's door. They've mismanaged the economy, standing by and waiting for the market to sort itself out while things got worse. And they've blown out the government's books with tax cuts to their rich mates, pushing us into a revenue crunch. Cunliffe is making a play for the title of "good economic managers" here, and based on Bill English's performance, it shouldn't be hard to get.

Cunliffe also lays out some high level ideas of what to expect from a Budget:

  • A good Budget would have to rebuild and reorient our economy towards exports and sustainable high-value production and employment;
  • A good Budget would rebuild savings and redirect investment to its most productive uses, not see it drain offshore or be wasted on property speculation;
  • A good Budget would lift living standards for all New Zealanders and not just a few, and would provide some urgent relief to the acute of living pressures being felt by many;
  • And a good Budget must reduce debt over the medium term to ensure that we are living within our fiscal means, which means being real about priorities and the need for everyone to pay their fair share...

He then goes through each of these points, expands on it so its clear what he's talking about, and gives some ideas on how Labour will achieve this. There's some concrete policy ideas in there, for example about monetary policy, but most of it is vague, high-level stuff. So for example there will be a "fair tax package", but there's no details on what that will involve, or what difference it may make to the government's books. This is unsatisfying to someone like me who likes policy specifics, but the signals are at least in the right direction.

Overall, its a strong critique of National's performance, which lays out what they should be doing. National, of course, is going to do the exact opposite, slashing living standards and reducing investment in our economy to protect the rich's tax cuts. And if it hurts badly enough, then Labour may just be in with a chance in November.

The Green alternative budget

One of the traditional duties of the opposition is to present an alternative Budget, to show what else we could do and give voters an inkling of the alternatives, that they do have a political choice on what they want government to do. Labour has surrendered that duty, so this year it has fallen to the Greens. And they've risen to the occasion with a short alternative Budget paper [PDF].

The Greens identify the core problem as National's tax cuts, which gave away billions in revenue at a time when the government books were already heading downhill. On top of that, we have the cost of the Christchurch earthquake, and National's blank-cheque bailout of South Canterbury Finance. The government is trying to cut its way out of the resulting hole, but that has a real risk of strangling the economy, just as Ruth Richardson did in 1991. So instead of cuts, privatisation or borrowing, the Greens offer a solution well outside the Neo-Liberal consensus: raising additional revenue. To use the overstretched household analogy, the Greens are suggesting that rather than tightening our belts, we go out and get a job.

What are their suggestions? Firstly, there's an earthquake levy, targeting the rich to raise a billion dollars a year for five years. Secondly, a capital gains tax on property which excludes the family home. This seems to be more of a long-term measure, though it is not clear how it would be phased in. But it would eventually raise $4.5 billion a year. Thirdly, a resource use charge for industrial and agricultural use of water. This is entirely sensible, limiting use as well as charging business for the use of a public resource, and would raise around $750 million a year. Fourthly, an increase in the minimum wage, which would boost the living standards of those on the bottom while also resulting in higher tax revenue for the government. Finally, they recommend cuts to National's road-building program, with some spending shifted to public transport, as a way of reducing investment in a losing proposition (oil). Mentioned in the press-release, but not one of their five core alternatives, is the idea of slashing National's ETS subsidies to polluters, which would save us a billion dollars a year.

These are all good ideas. They'd all help with the Budget, while reducing inequality and shifting us towards a more sustainable future. But National isn't interested in that; instead they're slashing public services while protecting their rich mates, as part of their class war against the vast majority of New Zealanders. Still, the Greens have shown us that there are alternatives. And in November we can decide which we prefer.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Police support collective punishment

Over the weekend, the Manawatu Standard (offline) reported that a senior member of the New Zealand Police was advocating collective punishment:

Friends and family of repeat drink-drivers who kill other motorists need to be made accountable as much as the offender, a top ranking police officer has told a Rotorua inquest.


[National road policing manager Superintendent Paula Rose] said police would support legislation which recognised the culpability of people who failed to prevent a drink driver reoffending. Current legislation set the bar too high to prove someone was a party to the offending.

"It is a community responsibility as well as a police responsibility to crack down on recidivist drink drivers," she said.

Punishing people for crimes committed by others, in which they had no part, has a name: Collective punishment. It is recognised as a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention. There is no prohibition against it in international law in times of peace, because it is so patently unjust as to be unthinkable in any justice system worthy of the name. Sadly, our police seem not to be interested in justice anymore. All they care about is order, and they're quite willing to punish the innocent to achieve it. Sadly, with Judith Collins as Minister, I expect it to become government policy in short order.

National covers up torture

Last month, allegations were made suggesting that the government's policy on prisoner transfers in Afghanistan had made the SAS complicit in torture, in clear breach of domestic and international law. The allegations are serious and backed by multiple witnesses; on the face of it, the government has a case to answer. The best way to answer that case is through an independent inquiry. Such an inquiry must get to the truth, uncover any wrongdoing, ensure prosecutions if necessary, and ensure that the policy is changed so that nothing like this ever happens again.

Last week, the government had a chance to establish such an inquiry, though the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. They voted against it. By doing so, the National Party MPs on that committee - Jacqui Dean, John Hayes, Paul Hutchison, and Todd McClay - have made themselves complicit in torture, accessories after the fact. They have brought Parliament, this country, and themselves into disrepute. But that's what happens when you fight other people's wars and ally yourself with torturers: you end up complicit in their crimes.

(As for the MP's themselves, people shouldn't vote for people who cover up for torture. Remember that on election day, and de-elect these scum).

Schools and abortion

Others have already posted about the Sunday Star-Times' hatchet job on schools and "secret" abortions, but I think its worth highlighting anyway. The thrust of the article was that it is wrong for schools to enables their student's choices in this way, and that they should inform the parents. This is wrong for two reasons. First, as the statistics at the bottom of the article show, the vast majority of schoolkids having abortions are legally adults, sexually speaking. They're considered to be legally competent to decide who they fuck. Why shouldn't they also be legally competent to decide to have a private medical procedure? It is, bluntly, none of their parents fucking business anymore. Whether they choose to tell them or not is up to them, and no-one else.

What about those who aren't legal adults? Its still none of their parents fucking business, for the simple reason that pregnancy is a fundamental matter of personal autonomy, and no-one other than the person involved has a right to make those decisions for them. As I pointed out back in 2004, when Judith Collins was banging her conservative drum about this, the enormous coercive power of parents over their children means parents forcing kids to have kids. It means treating young girls in bad circumstances as brood mares. That is a morally repugnant position, and one that children need to be protected from. The current law, which allows privacy, does that.

If parents are concerned that their children may have an abortion without telling them, then perhaps they should ask themselves why their kids don't trust them, and work on fixing that relationship, rather than demanding a law change to create morally repulsive proprietorial rights over other people's bodies.

Something to go to in Auckland

Looks like I wasn't the only person who thought of a counterprotest in response to the Right Wing Resistance's planned anti-Asian hate march. Someone on FaceSpy is organising an Inclusive Diversity March in Auckland for next Friday:

When: Friday, May 27, 11:00 - 14:00
Where: Outside IMAX on Queen St

Go along, and show you won't tolerate racism in New Zealand.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

National's war on freedom (campers)

New Zealand has an environmental problem. No, not the millions of cows pumping their shit into our waterways and making our lakes and rivers unswimmable, or the cars and cows spewing carbon dioxide and destroying the climate. Not even the poor air-quality, due to lax regulation of industrial and vehicle particulate emissions, which kills over a thousand people every year. No, our environmental problem is freedom campers, and the government has decided to Do Something and eradicate them.

You can see why: freedom campers are messy, untidy, and occasionally leave their shit lying around for other people to tread in (which is not just unsightly, but also a health hazard). But these problems could be solved, by (for example) providing free public facilities, backed by fines for pollution. Instead, they've decided to enable and encourage councils to ban camping, with instant spot fines. You'd almost think they were more interested in pushing people to use private, for profit campgrounds than in solving the actual problem...

But while this will lead to tidier roadsides and public reserves, it is also a massive attack on the rights of New Zealanders. Its not just foreign tourists who camp in public space; these sorts of camping holidays are a long kiwi tradition. National would outlaw that tradition, unless you pay one of their mates for the privilege. When you look at it like that, their policy represents a further privatisation of New Zealand. And all kiwis are the losers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

New Fisk

Why no outcry over these torturing tyrants?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hansen in Palmerston North

For those who don't know, James Hansen, one of the world's most famous climate change scientists, is currently touring New Zealand (FaceSpy here). Yesterday I went to see him in Palmerston North. The lecture theatre was packed, with people sitting in the aisles; I'd estimate three hundred people, mostly Massey staff and scientists from the local CRIs.

The topic was "Human-made climate change: A scientific, moral and legal issue". After running us through the evidence for climate change - that it is happening, that its our fault, and that its going to get worse if we don't stop doing what we're doing, Hansen pointed out some of the problems in dealing with it. The key one IMHO is inertia in the climate system, which both hides the fact that there is a crisis, and commits us to more climate change even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today. Because of this inertia, there's every chance that we could push the climate system beyond its tipping points before we realise it.

This is a huge problem. Human civilisation is dependent on a particular climate (which, for example, allows us to grow enough food to feed 6.8 billion people). If we want to protect that climate, then we need to keep atmospheric CO2 levels below 350 parts per million. We're already at 393 ppm (and going up by ~2 ppm a year), so that means we not only need to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to a greener energy system, but we also need to soak up that excess carbon in the atmosphere as well. Hansen thinks this can be done if we plant enough trees, but its a big ask.

As for why, Hansen's reason was simple: he showed us pictures of his grandchildren. He doesn't want to leave them a radically worse world than the one he inherited, one where his generation has burned all the fossil fuels and fucked the climate, and left their generation to suffer the consequences. Its a powerful moral argument. The question is whether coal company executives love their granschildren too.

Naturally, the lecture attracted the obligatory grumpy old denier, whose sole purpose there seemed to be to witness to the environmentalists (seriously, he didn't even ask a question, just made a statement about recognising people's "sincere beliefs", as if this was a fact-free zone where everything was simply a matter of opinion. Religious people are so amusing). Hansen's answer was simple: real sceptics change their minds in response to the evidence. Climate change deniers don't. They are neither good sceptics or good scientists.

Hansen's next talk is in Wellington on Monday evening. After that, he's hitting Dunedin, Gore, Christchurch, and Auckland (again). I recommend going.

Blogger outage

In case anyone was wondering what happened yesterday, the short answer is that Blogger went down. Then, in their efforts to get themselves back up, they temporarily removed everything posted on Thursday. But everything is back to normal now. Hopefully.

Handwringing for privilege

On Thursday night, 3 News pointed out the yawning gap between MP's superannuation scheme and ours, with the implication that if they are cutting KiwiSaver, they should share the pain and cut their own superannuation contributions too. Over on Kiwiblog, DPF responds by arguing that there's no point - the Remuneration Authority sets salaries on a total remuneration basis, so any superannuation cut would just result in a pay rise.

Bullshit. Firstly, Parliament can always change the law. But secondly, they don't even need to do that. In 2009, the Remuneration Authority deferred MP's usual annual salary rise in response to a request from Parliament. It could do the same again. The power is entirely in MPs' hands. DPF knows this, but as usual, he's just handwringing for privilege.

I've said before that our MPs work hard and should be well-paid for it. At the same time, they must lead by example. If they're cutting the taxpayer contribution to our retirement savings by 50%, they should do the same to themselves. Anything less would simply be hypocrisy.