Thursday, June 30, 2011

Small on SM

In his Stuff blog today, Vernon Small eviscerates the "Vote for Change" clique's preferred "Supplementary Member" system:

[W]hile SM can claim to be a partly proportional, the proportionality is a fig leaf on a FPP system. It is a counterfeit, four-flushing, phoney option for a true proportional system.

Under the proposed SM system, there would be 90 electorate seats and 30 list seats. Only the list seats are distributed according to the party vote – or support a party gets in an election.

As the table [offline] shows, the net effect in 2008 would have been to give National a huge boost; and for this reason SM is known around the world as a "winner's bonus system".

Assuming voting patterns were the same, National would have ended up with 57.5 per cent of the seats for its 45 per cent of the vote. Labour would have won 33 per cent of the seats for its 34 per cent of the vote and the Greens would have won just two seats; 1.6 per cent of the 120 seats for 6.72 per cent of the vote. On the other side of the ledger, the Maori Party would have won 5 per cent of the seats against a party vote of just 2.39 per cent.

That's an obviously unfair outcome, and one which would return government to being an unaccountable elected dictatorship. But that's precisely what Peter Shirtcliffe wants - because a properly democratic government (as we have now) simply cannot impose the radical policies he favours.

Dodgy as hell

Back in April, Jonathan Coleman appointed Richard Griffin to chair the board of Radio New Zealand. It was a nakedly political appointment; Griffin used to be Jim Bolger's press secretary back in the 90's, and therefore someone who shouldn't be allowed near our state broadcasters at any costs.

Now Coleman has done it again, appointing former NBR editor (and National party-aligned lobbyist) Saunders to the board of TVNZ. So, they've just appointed two nakedly partisan hacks to run our major state broadcasters in an election year. And that is dodgy as hell.

Treasury on an earthquake levy

Treasury has released a pile of Budget-related papers, including one on temporary taxes as a way of paying for the Christchurch earthquakes [PDF]. They considered four options: a payroll levy, increased GST, a surtax on income tax, and higher rates, and ultimately discarded them all. Why? In short, because Treasury has an ideological hatred of hypothecated taxes. Instead they recommended that

the appropriate fiscal response is to borrow to fund the shock and permanently raise taxes by a little to fund the now-higher expected costs.
National, of course, only did half of this, borrowing to fund the shock and refusing to raise taxes, because that would be rolling back a core commitment to their rich mates. So, instead, we seem to be funding the earthquake from cuts to core public services – effectively responding to one disaster with another. Thanks, National!


Greece's quisling government

Last night, the Greek government voted for austerity. Meanwhile, outside, their citizens rioted in the streets in protest. And they're right to be pissed - the austerity vote effectively turns them into a colony, with economic policy set by outsiders. Rather than working for Greeks, their government has exposed themselves as a pack of quislings, willing tools for foreign bankers.

The Greek people now have no-one they can vote for. The ruling party, elected in 2008 after the first economic crisis, has betrayed them. The main opposition only objected to the austerity measures because it did not include tax cuts for the rich (which tells you what sorts of dicks they are). And when your entire political class exposes themselves as traitors, that doesn't leave much scope for peaceful politics anymore. As the BBC's Paul Mason puts it, what is burning is consent:

What Greece is being forced to do is threatening the legitimacy of a democratically elected government and putting at risk the legitimacy of the political system in general. And the question for the EU and IMF is simple: is it worth it?
And the answer is also very simple: no. Because the consequences are exceedingly unpleasant. But I suppose (as always) it comes down to distribution: those unpleasant consequences will be suffered by Greeks, not by foreign bankers. So the banks are quite happy to burn Greece's democracy and turn the country into a quisling dictatorship in order to get their money.

The problem for this plan is that it might not work. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya showed that even dictatorships cannot stand against their people. Greece's new foreign masters may be about to learn the same lesson. But even then, it comes down to distribution again: it will be Greek politicians, rather than foreign bankers, getting strung up with piano wire. The bankers are protected by the angry mob simply by virtue of not being there, living somewhere else. And so they can visit misery and destruction upon the rest of us, safe from ever having to suffer the consequences themselves.

[More on European Tribune here]

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Want a reason to support MMP?

"Just look at who opposes it"

That was the tagline of a classic cartoon by Murray Ball which helped tip the balance of the 1993 referendum on the electoral system. Back then, the opponents of electoral reform were a who's who of market fundamentalists: Peter Shirtcliffe, Michael Bassett, and Roger Kerr - the same people who had driven the country into the ground since 1984, who rightly feared that real democracy would put an end to their agenda. So, who's supporting it today? Peter Shirtcliffe, Michael Bassett, and Roger Kerr. Need I say more?

Life under National

Another day, another 600 job losses - 300 from the NZDF (who will apparently be able to reapply for their old jobs, though with reduced pay and conditions - something which would be unlawful for any other employer), and 300 at a meat works in Waipukurau. This is what happens when you leave the market to "sort itself out". This is what happens when the government sits on its hands and does nothing: ruined lives, insecurity, and misery.

I expect better from government. I expect them to protect the livelihoods of ordinary kiwis. I expect them to prevent this sort of shit from happening, to arrange policy so that people keep their jobs in a recession, rather than everyone being laid off. At the least, I expect them to have a plan to reduce the impact on people and communities, and to get things going again.

This government has nothing. It just abandons people to the market, leaves us to fend for ourselves, and beats us into the bargain. The alternatives, you see, might cost business, might result in lower profits for their rich mates. And National works for them, not us.

An alarming alliance

So, John Key goes to India seeking progress on a free-trade agreement, and comes back with closer defence ties. Its completely out of the blue, and quite alarming. India is a nuclear-armed nation and one of the few non-parties (along with Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea) to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - closer to a rogue state than a good international citizen. it has an ongoing conflict with Pakistan, and a long-term rivalry with China. And we have just taken sides in those conflicts. Woo-hoo!

But quite apart from questions of ethics and interests, there's also a question of democracy. To put it bluntly, we weren't asked about this. The government did not say "we're looking at closer military ties with India, what do you all think of that?" They didn't seek a mandate for buying into a possible nuclear conflict and the superpower rivalry of the late 21st century. Instead, they did it over our heads, and without our consent. This is par for the course for our foreign policy, which regards the people of New Zealand as dirty peasants to be ignored rather than citizens to be obeyed, but it means that their deals have no democratic mandate, and thus no legitimacy.

This is not the 18th century, when inbred absolute monarchs could cut deals amongst themselves without reference to their people. We're supposed to be a modern democracy, and we should act like one. That means seeking consent for foreign policy as well as domestic. That means asking us first what we want to do and who we want to pursue alliances with. Democracy does not stop at the water's edge. And if our government thinks it does, then they're no better than those eighteenth century hereditary dictators.

New Fisk

Iran's war games go underground

A recipe for privatised roads

Today the government announced plans to "reform" the Land Transport Management Act 2003. This is being sold under the empty slogan of "cutting red tape", but looking closely at the changes, we are looking at less democratic control over roads, combined with a push to privatisation.

On the first point, its worth noting that that "red tape" binds the government, and forces it to be open about what it is doing. So various bodies are forced to prepare transport strategies and plans according to a set of statutory criteria, consult on them, and publish them. National is proposing to reduce the frequency of consultation, and restrict it by e.g. making use of the Special Consultative Process (which requires a formal proposal and hearing of public submissions) "optional". Which, in English, means that the government and councils will be able to do stuff without telling us about it. So, the usual undemocratic authoritarianism from national then.

While they're at it, they'll also be rewriting the purpose of the Act to remove "affordability" and "sustainability" as criteria for transport planning. So, we'll have unaffordable, environmentally unsustainable roads. Nice.

But the real threat is in their proposed changes to the provisions on tolling and Public-Private-Partnerships. Currently, the government cannot impose tolling without public consultation. That provision will be replaced with one requiring that the Minister "be satisfied that adequate consultation was conducted". When you combine this with the lowered consultation requirements (which lower the bar on adequacy), and the weakening of the requirement for public support, the result will be a framework which allows the Minister to impose toll roads on communities without their consent.

On PPPs meanwhile, they're planning to remove the requirement for Ministerial approval, devolving it to road controlling authorities. Which they can in turn defund to force privatisation. They'll also be increasing the maximum lease period from 35 to 49 years, so the new private road owners can gouge us for longer.

It is difficult to see how these "reforms" serve the public. Instead, they make government transport decisions less accountable and less democratic, while enabling central government to force the privatisation of our roads. National's rich mates and trucking-industry cronies will do very well out of these reforms. As for the rest of us, we all lose. Unless, of course, we vote to prevent them in November.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Doublethink on SM

While the "Vote for Change" campaign doesn't have an official position on which less democratic system they'd prefer instead of MMP, they are pretty keen on the Supplementary Member system. Here's Shirtcliffe-frontman Jordan Williams praising it this morning:

SM allowed allowed [sic] the big parties to bring in their technical experts such as (former finance minister) Michael Cullen or (Attorney-General) Chris Finlayson, rather than "seat-warming backbenchers who keep their party bosses happy under MMP."
This is pure doublethink. SM uses exactly the same list system and selection method as MMP; all that changes is whether the list seats are allocated to give overall proportionality or not. This is apparently bad when it leads to democracy, and good when it does not. And we're expected to take this seriously?

Next up: scary anti-MMP ads with faceless list MMPs with paper bags on their heads, pushing for a change to SM so that Don Brash doesn't have to risk defeat in an electorate.

Google are evil tax-dodgers

Google's corporate motto is (famously) "Don't be evil". Sadly, they're not applying it in New Zealand. Instead, they're dodging their taxes, using a dodgy method called the "double Irish":

The company uses a controversial commission model, in which earnings on advertising sales in New Zealand are booked in Ireland, where the company tax rate is lower.

In return, Google Ireland pays a commission to Google New Zealand to cover its expenses.

Google New Zealand is understood to have sold about $150 million worth of advertising in 2009, but its reported revenues hover between $3m and $4m.

The most recent accounts show Google's income tax expense for 2010 is $203,349, including $86,000 extra in tax for 2009 after receiving an additional payment for that year from Google Ireland.

Its all legal, of course, but it robs the New Zealand government of millions of dollars of tax revenue - revenue which could be used to pay for schools and hospitals for ordinary kiwis. And its not as if that money is instead going to help ordinary Americans or Irish instead - the whole point of the arrangement is to arbitrage different jurisdictions to avoid paying tax in any of them. And that is simply evil.

But this isn't just a question of Google's lack of ethics - as Stuff's Tim Hunter points out, it highlights a general problem with foreign owners, and therefore with the government's privatization plans. Currently, our SOEs pay tax. But if they are sold into foreign hands, they may start pursuing these sorts of arrangements instead. So not only will we lose the dividend stream; we'll also lose the tax revenue as well. Just another example of how National is undermining New Zealand.

The "vote for change" campaign

So, Peter Shirtcliffe has crawled out from under his rock, and lauched his "vote for change" campaign. I say peter Shirtcliffe, rather than his frontman Jordan Williams, because he owns it lock, stock, and barrel. This is a personal campaign by a wealthy reactionary, not the grassroots, democratic organisation they claim it is. Disagree? Read their constitution.

As for their goal, while it would be change, it would not be positive change. What Shirtcliffe wants is a less democratic political system, which will allow a return to the blitzkrieg politics of the 80's and 90's, when radical "reforms" which left the vast majority of us actively worse off were rammed through over our heads and without our consent. MMP ended that, by the simple measure of aligning electoral outcomes to votes cast. As no party has yet won a majority of the party vote (and no party seems likely to), this is effectively a recipe for permanent minority government. Which means that even if a radical clique can dominate one party (as they did successively with Labour and National between 1984 and 1996), it has to convince others in order to enact its agenda.

To Shirtcliffe, this is unacceptable. But its simply democracy in action. "Majority rules" requires a majority. And what we have seen is that there is no public majority for ACT's policies in this country (and never has been). Hence Shirtcliffe's need to undermine our democracy: he needs a Parliament that does not reflect the votes cast, so he can get a government which does not reflect the will of the people. And that simply isn't democratic.

New Fisk

How the demise of a trusted adviser could bring down Ahmadinejad

No press freedom in Israel

Last years Gaza flotilla, which resulted in the murder of nine activists at the hands of Israeli commandos, was a public relations disaster for Israel. They are eager not to have it repeated, or if it is repeated, not to have it reported. So, they're trying to threaten the media into not covering this years flotilla:

Israel has warned foreign journalists they face being barred from the country for 10 years if they board a new Gaza flotilla.

Some 500 pro-Palestinian activists are said to be preparing to sail in as many as a dozen ships to carry aid supplies and break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In an emailed statement to Reuters and other international news organisations, Oren Helman, director of Israel's government press office, said participation in the flotilla would be "an intentional violation" of Israeli law.

Israel claims to be a democratic and law-abiding country. Instead, they're acting like a shitty little dictatorship. Democratic and law-abiding countries do not try and bully the media into silence.

(The good news is that the Israeli media are not affected by such threats, and are covering the flotilla. But I'm sure the Israeli government will start thinking of ways to punish and intimidate them for daring to report on its actions...)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Te Tai Tokerau

I wanted to post about the Te Tai Tokerau by-election, but realised that I have nothing useful to add. So instead, I'll point you to two people who do: Morgan Godfery at Maui Street on the failure of the (Pakeha) media and Labour's "turnout machine" (which does not bode well for November), and Graeme Edgeler at Public Address on how this is good for everyone (if the Maori Party returns to sanity, which they aren't).

Fish in a barrel

Chris Trotter on the Te Tai Tokerau by-election:

WHEN WILL THEY EVER LEARN? Listening to Labour’s Kelvin Davis putting the boot into Hone Harawira and Mana on Radio New Zealand this morning, I was reminded of the petty viciousness that also attended the birth of the NewLabour Party in 1989.

It was all there: the same overweening arrogance; the same blithe assumption that only the Labour Party has anything to contribute to the development of progressive politics in New Zealand. And, worst of all, the same sneering, belittling, mocking and disparaging tone.

It was the tone Labour adopted 22 years ago to deride and undermine Jim Anderton. Now it was being deployed against Hone Harawira.

And its the same tone that Trotter has consistently deployed against the Mana Party and its advocates (and indeed, anyone on the left other than Labour). While I'm glad to see he's changed his mind, an intellectually honest man would acknowledge it.

New Fisk

Ahmadinejad seizes on America's retreat at 'anti-terror' conference

Gutting the state housing system

One of the reasons the New Zealand public have such a dim view of politicians is because they have shown time and again that they are cheats and liars. They set themselves performance targets (whether explicit or implicit) in opposition, then juke the stats and distort the facts in government so they can claim they met them. National did it back in 1990 with its promise to remove student fees (they didn't; they simply devolved responsibility for charging them to the universities), and Labour did it with hospital waiting lists in the 2000s (by the simple expedient of throwing people off and making them wait again - "solving" the problem in the statistics, but not in reality). And now National looks set to repeat the latter trick with state housing. Faced with growing waiting lists for state houses, despite their attempts to discourage people from applying, they are going to just chuck people off the list and forbid them to reapply rather than do anything to deal with the housing crisis.

It is cynical. It is unethical. But its what politicians will do to avoid a bad headline. Which is why people think they're scum. Anyone who thinks their reputation and/or re-election is worth more than the housing prospects of 4,700 needy families is either a colossal egotist or has a black hole for a heart (and probably both).

National is of course trying to downplay the status of those it is going to abandon. But Housing NZ's own assessment categories [DOC] make it clear that they will be denying help to those who need it. This is what they call "moderate need":

The household is disadvantaged, and this is likely to compound over time due to housing circumstances that are unsuitable, inadequate or unsustainable. The household is unlikely to be able to access or afford suitable, adequate and sustainable housing without state intervention.
Under National, these people will not even be allowed to apply for a state house. They will be left to the market, which Housing New Zealand has said will not provide for them. As for the state housing system, it will become a system for emergency accommodation for the truly desperate only, people who are actually homeless or living in garages. These people should obviously be the priority, since their need is greater - but the system should provide for more than that. And its here that National's true goal becomes apparent: they're planning to effectively gut the state housing system and reduce it to a rump. And having "reduced" demand (by defining it out of existence and making it someone else's problem), they're promising to privatise the "surplus" state houses, while removing income-related rents for the remainder if re-elected.

This is an outright abandonment of a core government responsibility. But National isn't interested in a government that meets its social obligations - instead, they want more profit opportunities for private landlords. Those profit opportunities will come at the cost of homelessness and overcrowding, with all the consequent health and educational problems and misery, just as it did in the 90's - but National don't care. Their mates will be making money. And that is all they really care about.

A warning on investment clauses

For the past year, people have been warning against the inclusion of investment clauses in the free-trade agreements (such as the TPP and ACTA) that National is currently negotiating with the US. We've now received a definite warning of the dangers of such clauses, with tobacco company Philip Morris suing the Australian government for theoretical future profits "expropriated" by the shift to plain packaging:

International tobacco giant Philip Morris will take legal action to try and force the Gillard government to back down on its plain-packaging legislation.

"We don't take legal action lightly, but we have no other option. We believe we have a very strong legal case," spokeswoman for the company, Anne Edwards, told the Australian newspaper on Monday. The legal action by the company, which manufactures brands such as Marlboro and Peter Jackson, will occur under a bilateral investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong.

The company will argue that because its Australian operation is owned by Philip Morris Asia (PMA), which is based in Hong Kong, the plain-packaging legislation will adversely impact upon an investment protected by the treaty.

That "investment" is the addiction of millions of Australians, which Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have spent billions cultivating. Plain packaging will certainly undermine this investment and cost them money - but that is the point: to remove the last avenue by which tobacco companies can market cancer as being sophisticated and fashionable, rather than simply an olive-drab health hazard. This is a straight-out health measure, something governments should be able to do in the public interest. And if the Australian government have signed away the right to protect the health of their citizens through regulation and legislation, then they need to repudiate that deal immediately, or else be de-elected in favour of a government that will.

Meanwhile, this is a warning to us: what is happening in Australia today will happen in New Zealand tomorrow if we permit these sorts of clauses in our FTAs. Worryingly, the New Zealand government is currently negotiating just such a clause as an additional protocol to the New Zealand-Hong Kong, China Closer Economic Partnership. If those negotiations are successful, then we can no doubt expect our own lawsuit from Philip Morris on our anti-powerwall legislation and other health measures. If you want to speak up about this threat, then submissions close on Thursday; you can use the online form here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

New Fisk

Words of wisdom from an Irish Renaissance man

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The price of equality in New York

New York's Marriage Equality Act just passed the State Senate, 33 to 29. Sadly, it was amended to allow religious groups not just to refuse to provide facilities (which respects their freedom of association), but also to engage in wider discrimination (with specific reference to provision of housing) to "promote their religious principles". This doesn't just apply to same-sex married couples, but to divorcees, de facto couples, single parents, and in the case of some US "religions", black people.

Way to go, guys. I bet you're real proud of yourselves there.

This sort of odious "compromise" - "you can have marriage, but it will not be legally enforceable and we're going to stick you in a ghetto" - is why it is better to go to the courts for justice on this issue. They will uphold equality, as required by law, without the nasty clawback.

Friday, June 24, 2011

An interesting solution

The UK has set itself some extremely ambitious climate change targets, with the aim of decarbonising their economy by 2050. To achieve this, they need to switch their entire electricity-generating infrastructure to low-carbon sources. The Fukushima meltdown has effectively taken one of their favoured components, nuclear, out of the equation, which leaves them with wind - but they're not sure they have enough to meet their interim targets, and turbines attract strong local opposition from people who think their particular hill is "special". So, they've hit upon a novel solution: build it in Ireland:

THE BRITISH government could massively subsidise the Irish wind energy industry under proposals to be considered in London today.

Britain believes the west coast and the seas around Ireland can provide it with a large amount of its renewable energy and could be willing to subsidise offshore wind farms there.

Industry groups here say such a move could be worth up to €1.6 billion a year to the Irish economy.

This is an obvious win-win solution. Ireland, which likes turbines, gets a major export industry, green jobs, and help meeting its own climate change targets. The UK gets clean electricity. Both countries will have to interconnect their grids more strongly, which will in turn give them some security against poor weather and local disruptions. The only losers will be the coal industry.

[Hat-tip: European Tribune]

Waiting on equality in New York

New York's same-sex marriage debate looks like it is finally coming to a head today. A bill - the Marriage Equality Act - passed the State Assembly last week, and is just waiting for a vote in the Senate to become law. Initially it wasn't certain whether the Senate would vote before its session ended, but that's now looking likely; the word is that it will come to a vote today and is likely to pass (though with the usual US "compromise" endorsing Christian bigotry against gays). So, I've been hanging around on Twitter, watching the New York Senate feed for news of a vote.

The Governor has already indicated he will sign the law, so if it passes it will make New York the sixth US state (after Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire) to recognise full marriage equality. It will also significantly increase the pressure on other states to do the same.

Hopefully I'll have more news on this later this afternoon. But even if the bill fails, it'll be back next year, and the next one, and the next one, until it wins. Meanwhile, while New York is debating this, the silence from our political parties is deafening. What's the matter, guys - afraid of a few bigots?

Update: And having just posted that, they're adjourning for the night. So maybe tomorrow...

Back for more

Right To Life are appealing their abortion case to the Supreme Court. As I said earlier, bring it on. The Court of Appeal made a robust decision against Right To Life. The idea that the title of a bill creates enforceable rights which trump statute law is simply absurd, as is the idea that the Abortion Supervisory Committee was intended to poke its nose into individual clinical decisions. A further appeal is simply tilting at windmills. Still, that's Right To Life in a nutshell, isn't it? Desperately trying to refight the battles of 1977, failing to understand that they lost decades ago.

(Not that this means that we have won fully yet. Our abortion laws desperately need to be reformed to end the stigmatization of women having to declare themselves mentally ill to access a basic medical procedure. But given that even the present situation is unacceptable to the anti-abortion loonies, I think its fair to say they have lost).

Attacking 100% Pure New Zealand

We already know that National treats the idea of "100% Pure New Zealand" as a joke, a marketing slogan rather than a core value to be defended. And now we have more proof, with news that a hundred jobs are to be axed at DoC. DoC directly manages a third of the country, protecting the environment in our forests, conservation areas, national parks, and marine reserves. It is a core part of delivering that idea of "100% Pure New Zealand". Now, they're going to be expected to do it with 5% fewer people - and there are likely to be several hundred more job losses in the pipeline next year, thanks to National's unfunded devolution of superannuation responsibilities in this year's Budget.

I guess its all part of the great management lie - that you can "do more with less" forever. But eventually you run out of real inefficiencies to cut, and start slicing into core capability. And we're at that stage with DoC. This is their second round of restructuring since National came to power. They've already made cuts. Now they're being forced to make more, and more. Their overall workforce is likely to shrink by 15% in just two years. And that is going to have a real effect on the "frontline" - which means a real effect on our environment, a real effect on 100% Pure New Zealand.

But then, since when have National cared about the outcomes of their cuts? All they care about is scraping up more money to fund another round of tax cuts for their rich mates.

DoC are the defenders of our environment. They protect the kakapo from the rat, the kiwi from the stoat. National is stopping them from doing that job properly. Its shortsighted, its wrong, and we're all going to end up paying for it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ardern and Kaye on same-sex marriage

The Herald's "broadsides" column this week asks Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye for their views on same-sex marriage. Unsurprisingly, being young MPs, they both support it. Here's Ardern:

Votes in Parliament on issues like civil unions, prostitution and alcohol are generally conscience votes so, just as my vote is my own, so are my views. But if a vote came up tomorrow on the question of gay marriage, I would give my support because of the same principle - fairness.

I don't believe it's for me, the state, or anyone else to determine how a couple wants their relationship recognised; that is for them to decide. But it is absolutely our job to remove the barriers that stop people from having the same choices as everyone else and to ensure we are all treated equally and fairly by the law.

And Kaye:
If legislation came before Parliament I'd vote for it. I understand that for some gay and lesbian people the Civil Unions legislation represented a compromise and enabling same-sex marriage would be hugely symbolic.
(Kaye also comes out in support of removing the bar on same-sex adoption, BTW)

It would be great if these MPs got to vote on this change. Unfortunately, their parties are too scared of the bigots, too chickenshit, to permit it. John Key won't even talk about it. As for Phil Goff, he explicitly opposes any further progress. And so discrimination continues, because our politicians are too cowardly to confront it and call it what it is.

Murray McCully never learns

Back in the 1990's, Murray McCully gained a reputation for cronyism, appointing a pack of his mates to the Tourism Board, then dismissing them with unlawful golden handshakes when things fell apart. He was forced to resign as a Minister over this, but he doesn't seem to have learned anything from it - because now he's Minister of Foreign Affairs, he's up to the same old tricks. First, there was his corrupt awarding of a $78,500 untendered aid contract to former National MP and McCully crony Marc Blumsky. And now he's given another $54,000 of our money to another of his mates, Charles Finny, again without any sort of tender or proper process.

McCully seems to regard public money as his own personal piggy bank, which he can distribute to his mates. That is simply corrupt, and it is not how government is supposed to work in this country. If McCully can't follow the rules and administer his Ministry without engaging in corrupt cronyism - and he's had more than enough chances, and failed on every one - then he should be sacked. We cannot allow this sort of behaviour in our government, and a Prime Minister who tolerates it can only be regarded as aiding and abetting McCully's corruption.

Still digging

This morning, Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Alasdair Thompson claimed that women are paid less because they menstruate. He's subsequently issued a press release which he clearly hopes will undo the damage he's caused. It hasn't. Instead, its just digging a deeper hole. Why? Just look at the second sentence:

Alasdair Thompson, chief executive of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, says its only right that women should be paid more than men when their output and productivity is greater than men.
Subtext: where women are paid less than men it is because they are less productive than men. Not that the EMA thinks women are paid less than men, as they go on to state:
"The Equal Pay Act 1972 already makes it illegal to pay a different rate to a man and a woman doing the same work at the same standard and if there was widespread discrimination you would expect to see numerous court cases under the Equal Pay Act - there aren't.
Personally I think that the 12% gender pay gap speaks for itself. The reason there aren't more court cases over it is because a) it is expensive; and b) the privacy of pay details mean that it is often unclear that there is discrimination in any particular workplace. Catherine Delahunty's bill would solve the second problem, by forcing employers to disclose the data necessary to bring them to court. No wonder the old men of the EMA hate the idea.

Making Parliament more democratic

Via DPF, I learn that the Human Rights Commission has published a discussion paper on Strengthening Parliamentary Democracy [PDF] as part of its submission on the triennial review of Standing orders. The key recommendations are:

  1. A minimum 12 week period for submissions to select committees
  2. Establishing a dedicated Human Rights Select Committee
  3. All international reports and recommendations on human rights be tabled in Parliament and referred to this select committee
  4. Standing Orders to forbid major legislative provisions by way of Supplementary Order Paper
  5. Amend Standing Order 246 to make it a right for dissenting members to publish a minority report
Like DPF, I think these are all good ideas, though I can see exceptions to (1) for the (very few) occasions when real urgency is justified, and (4) will be difficult owing to disagreement over what constitutes a "major change" (still, establishing a culture that refers significant changes back to select committee for proper consideration is highly desirable). Unfortunately, the HRC is up against the natural desire of politicians to behave undemocratically to advance themselves politically - to ram bills through under urgency, or spring major and controversial changes by surprise via SOP in order to limit debate and political damage. Our democracy isn't just a matter of good rules - though they help enormously - but of what we let our politicians get away with. And fundamentally, if we want a better democracy, we need to vote for it, by turfing out those who consistently abuse it (I'm thinking of you, Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce), and making it clear to the survivors that they will face the same fate if they step out of line.

DPF also suggests extending the Attorney-General's responsibility under the Bill of Rights Act to report on inconsistent bills to apply at all stages of Parliamentary debate (so human rights violations cannot be introduced without review in later legislative stages). I support this measure. As for the HRC, while its a bit beyond the scope of a review of Standing Orders, they suggest broadening the responsibility, so that the Attorney-General must report on any prima facie inconsistency, so that their judgement on whether it is justified or not can be properly scrutinised and debated. This wouldn't require any legislative change - the law requires them to report on any provision that "appears to be inconsistent", which could easily be interpreted to require reporting on justified limitations - and it would not violate legal privilege. The government already publishes this information; this would simply ensure that MPs have it in time to inform their debate.

Why women are paid less

Because they menstruate, according to Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Alasdair Thompson. Yes, really.

Which is a perfect example of the real problem: the dominance of our management class by old-fashioned misogynists like Thompson. Its also a perfect example of why the government needs to act: because with people like Thompson in charge, then business is not going to solve this problem by itself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Good news on Auckland prostitution ban

It looks like the Manukau City Council (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill - which is being extended to cover the whole of Auckland - is going to be voted down:

A bill giving Auckland Council the power to ban street prostitution in public places like Hunters Corner and Northcrest looks unlikely to be passed into law, the MP sponsoring it says.

Manurewa MP George Hawkins says soundings among MPs from all parties indicate the bill "won't get very far at all" even if it gets out of select committee before the November elections. There's little support for it, despite MPs voting 82-36 last September to send it for public submissions, Mr Hawkins says.

"People from right across the House weren't in favour of seeing the bill passed into law but they were prepared to let people have their say on it in select committee."

This is good news. The bill was an abomination which would have effectively overturned the Prostitution Reform Act in Auckland, reducing prostitutes to outlaws again and allowing them to be victimised and abused at will. The problem it purported to solve was one of Manukau City Council's own making, caused by their attempts to outlaw small brothels. I'd like to think that the bill failing a second time (it has already been voted down once) will cause them to rethink their approach and remove the ban which is causing the problem; sadly, I suspect they'll simply put it up again, in the hope of getting it through if they just keep on whining.

Jim Anderton plans his legacy

Jim Anderton is retiring at the election, but he's just posted the policy he hopes will be his legacy: a plan for free, universal dental care in New Zealand. Currently, 44% of us never see a dentist, and there are significant access problems for pensioners and the poor. Meanwhile, increased rates of obesity and diabetes - both of which are linked to dental decay - mean that these problems are likely to increase.

Anderton estimates the total cost of free universal dental care at between $670 million and $1 billion per year. He proposes several options for financing it: a levy on soft-drinks (a primary cause of dental harm), a dedicated levy similar to ACC, or rolling back tax cuts for the rich. To make it more affordable, he also proposes a staged implementation over 10 years, first targeting vulnerable groups such as pensioners and then gradually extending to cover everyone, in a similar manner to Labour's extension of primary health care. This would keep the annual cost increase manageable, effectively turning a big expensive policy initiative into a series of smaller, cheaper ones.

In short, its a good, progressive policy for New Zealand, something which will benefit all of us. I guess National will be opposing it then.

As for Labour, they've agreed to take this on after Anderton's retirement. So while Anderton may not get to do it himself, we will hopefully see it eventually from a future Labour government.

Schrödinger's Prime Minister

Schrödinger's cat is a famous thought experiment in quantum physics, which illustrates the indeterminacy of quantum events. A cat is stuck in a box with a tiny amount of radioactive material - enough to statistically produce a 50% chance of a radioactive decay within an hour - and a mechanism designed to break a flask of poison gas if it detects a radioactive decay. Quantum mechanics describes the situation as a superposition of states, in which the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.

Now we seem to have a Schrödinger's Prime Minister. In response to questions in the House today about his comments on the safety of the Pike River mine, John Key initially sought to blame the previous government. When it was pointed out that the mine was initially consented in 1998, he suddenly claimed not to know when it had happened. When asked which response was correct, he then claimed "both". So, he claims both to know and not know when the mine was consented.

Clearly we need to collapse his wavefunction. Anyone got a box?

The Greens move on equal pay

Almost forty years ago, Parliament passed the Equal Pay Act 1972, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of gender in wage rates. Since then, the gender pay gap has decreased, but not disappeared; it currently remains stubbornly at around 12%. Successive governments have ignored this, believing that the problem would work itself out eventually, but after 40 years, I think its clear that stronger action is needed. And the Greens have stepped up, with a new Equal Pay Amendment Bill.

Like the recent Equality Act in the UK, the bill is aimed at providing more information about discrimination, so that it can be identified and removed. Unlike the UK law, it does not require employers to publish this information themselves; instead they must forward it annually to the Department of Labour for publication in statistical form, and make it available to any employee or their representative on request. The bill includes provision for independent review if the information is deemed "confidential". The net result will be that employees who suspect pervasive discrimination will be able to legally obtain the information required to bring a case, while the government will be able to better identify which types of employers (and which geographic areas) still discriminate so as to craft better policy. These are good measures, though I also think self-publication will help as well, in that it forces employers to directly confront their own statistics, and maybe think a little about whether there is a problem and how to correct it.

As with Labour's anti-privatisation bill, there is no hope of this bill being drawn before the election. But that's not the point; instead, this is about raising the issue, highlighting the problem, and forcing the government (and opposition) to front up and respond. And if it shifts the conversation, and forces one or other of the two major parties to promise this sort of action, then it will have been a success.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NZSF supports nuclear proliferation

New Zealand has a proud record of opposing nuclear weapons both domestically and on the international stage. We banned nuclear ship visits in 1984. We helped establish a South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone in 1985. We have consistently advocated for nuclear arms reduction and spoken out against nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, our superannuation fund is helping India build nuclear-armed submarines:

The Green Party is calling on the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to divest from its $2.1 million stake in Larsen & Toubro, a Mumbai-based multinational involved in designing and building a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines for India.

A response to a Green Party Written Question revealed that the New Zealand Superannuation Fund holds 44,595 shares in Larsen & Toubro Ltd, which had a valuation of NZ$2,082,736 on June 9, 2011


Larsen & Toubro is India’s largest defence engineering company and is partnering with the Indian Navy to manufacture their new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. They also hold a contract to develop a missile launcher for the Sagarika — a nuclear-tipped, sub-launched cruise missile.

Its not illegal, but it is grossly inconsistent with our foreign policy and our national values. I would expect the Cullen Fund to do better, to be better than that.

The Big Push 2.0


Back in February, the NZEI planned a protest march against the government's ECE cuts. Then an earthquake happened, and it was delayed. But now its back on next month:

When: 10:30 - 11:30, Saturday 9 July
Where: Queen Elizabeth Square, Auckland, marching up Queen St
Bring: Children, friends, prams

Wiggs on renewable energy

Last week the government released the latest edition [PDF] of the New Zealand Energy Quarterly, its regular compilation of energy statistics. The headline result is that the weather has been good - meaning that renewable energy generation has increased to 79% of the total - but that's not the only good news. Over on his blog, Lance Wiggs analyses the data, and concludes that coal use is dying out, causing a significant decline in electricity sector emissions. The cause? The ETS, which has made it more economic to run Huntly on gas than dirty coal. Meanwhile, both wind and geothermal are increasing, and wind is now producing more electricity than coal. And hopefully these trends will continue.

New Fisk

'No wonder they were rioting in Damascus. This was insulting both to the living and to the dead'

Fiji: Tevita Mara cannot be extradited from New Zealand

Runaway Fijian colonel Tevita Mara is reportedly heading for New Zealand. So, predictably, the Fijian regime is trying to have him extradited on charges of sedition and mutiny. But the law is crystal clear: they can't.

Extradition from New Zealand is governed by the Extradition Act 1999. In addition to providing a general framework for extradition decisions, it also includes a number of limits on who can be extradited and on what charges, including a list of mandatory restrictions on surrender. These include the offence being "of a political character", the supposed offence being a pretext for persecution (including political persecution), the likelihood of not receiving a fair trial, and the offence being under military rather than civilian law. Mara's extradition request fails on all four of these counts. Sedition is a purely political offence, mutiny a military one, and it is clear both that there is no such thing as a fair trial in Fiji anymore and that the charges themselves were bought to persecute someone who had fallen out with the dictator over the direction of the coup.

This is a matter of clear statute law. I can only presume that Fiji's lawyers either hadn't bothered to read it before demanding extradition, or that they thought that our legal system was like Fiji's, with the law actually depending on the whim of the dictator. Either way, they've wasted their time; Mara cannot be extradited from New Zealand.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Submitting on my local democracy

According to a brief in Saturday's Manawatu Standard (offline), the Palmerston North City Council is consulting on introducing Maori wards and changing the voting system to STV. I'll be writing a submission supporting both changes.

Maori are significantly under-represented in local government, with an estimated 5 - 7 percent of local authority councillors claiming Maori descent, versus ~15 percent of the general population. Dedicated Maori seats would ensure a Maori voice and help solve this problem, just as it has in central government. Currently, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council has such seats, and the experiment has been so successful that the Human Rights Commission is arguing for their adoption nationwide [PDF]; I'd like my council to do the same and be part of the solution, rather than clinging to the racist past.

As for STV, it is unquestionably a fairer system than the current block vote, which allows a narrow plurality to utterly dominate each ward and gives us no diversity of representation (either demographically or in worldview). STV would give us fairer electoral results and a better democracy, and could be easily retrofitted over the existing ward system with minimal change. The issue was last considered a decade ago, in 2002, and while it was voted down, I think its time to look at it again. If its rejected again, then people really will be getting the democracy they deserve.

The cost of cuts

The cost of National's cuts to public spending? Shit in the drinking water in our rural communities - at least according to our DHBs:

“The Government’s sixteen month freeze on the drinking water capital works assistance program has limited communities’ ability to address drinking water concerns that were highlighted by the Ministry of Health a year ago.”

Information obtained by the Green Party under the Official Information Act shows that some District Health Boards (DHBs) have made progress in their efforts to help communities improve drinking water, but thirty percent of DHBs said that the freeze on funding had been a limiting factor for some communities to improve their drinking water and monitoring regimes.

There's a concrete example of this down the road from me in Shannon, where residents have been coping for years with unsafe water contaminated with giardia and E coli. The local council wants to fix the problem, but its small rating base means it can't afford to. They had been hoping to access a pool of money from central government, but National froze and cut it. As a result, they keep getting sick. But the rich get marginally lower tax rates, which is all that appears to matter to National.

This is a basic failure of the National government to provide proper living standards to kiwis. Everyone in New Zealand should have access to clean, safe drinking water. Everyone. We're not the third world, and its not expensive. Its just that National are too cheaparse to help out where help is needed.

New Fisk

We can't tell the victims to leave mass graves in peace

Preventing privatisation

A couple of years ago, Labour proposed a Local Government (Protection of Auckland Assets) Amendment Bill, designed to stop the new Auckland supercity from privatising its strategic assets against the will of its people. Now, they're proposing an equivalent at a national level. The State-Owned Enterprises and Crown Entities (Protecting New Zealand's Strategic Assets) Amendment Bill would effectively entrench public ownership of SOEs and other strategic assets such as TVNZ, Radio New Zealand, and the Crown Research Institutes, requiring a 75% supermajority or a referendum before they can be sold.

It's a solid, democratic idea, which rightly recognises that this decision belongs to the people and that politicians (inevitably tainted by corrupt donations from would-be purchasers) cannot be trusted to make it unsupervised. Sadly, it is unlikely to ever become law. Standing Order 262 [PDF] requires that any proposal for entrenchment be passed in the Committee stage by its proposed supermajority. National - ideologically and corruptly in favour of privatisation - is unlikely to vote for it. So, even if the bill is drawn, or put up by a future Labour government, its sole effect will be to put National on the spot and remind everyone that they cannot be trusted when it comes to deciding ownership of state assets. Which is a perfectly valid purpose for a member's bill, but sadly one that is unlikely to lead to positive change.

(If Labour really wanted to put National on the spot, they'd get the bill endorsed by a public referendum first. But I doubt even that would convince National to vote for it. The entire problem is that they genuinely don't care what we think about this issue, and are quite willing to sell public assets with no mandate and in the face of enormous opposition from the public).

Friday, June 17, 2011

The right thing for the wrong reason

Refugee politics is a perennial topic in Australia, with government's and oppositions competing, regardless of political stripe, to see who can be the most racist towards desperate people in need. The government's current plan, in the wake of the failed "Pacific solution", is to forcibly transfer refugees to Malaysia. This is deliberate denial of rights under the Refugee Convention (which requires that Australia provide sanctuary to anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution, regardless of how they happen to arrive); worse, Malaysia isn't a party to the Convention, and has a record of abusing and mistreating refugees [PDF]. Which, I suspect, is exactly why Australia is trying to send them there: as a "deterrent".

So its good to see the Australian Parliament voting to condemn the deal. While its not legally binding, its a shot across the government's bow, and suggests that the Australian Labor Party's coalition partners might not vote for money for the program. Unfortunately, this isn't due to any real respect for refugee rights on the part of Australian MPs. The Greens have taken their usual principled and humanitarian stand, but the coalition is opposing the deal because its not nasty and vicious enough. So, they're doing the right thing, but for terrible, terrible reasons.

Shuffling the deckchairs in Greece

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's response to protests and backbench rebellions against his austerity program? A cabinet reshuffle. Because obviously, swapping who gets to ride in which Ministerial limo will magically fix everything!

This is shuffling the proverbial deckchairs on the Titanic. It does not solve his underlying problem: that his proposal has been utterly rejected by the Greek people, to the extent that the message has even gotten through to their Parliament. But it buys a few more days while they piss around with a confidence vote, before having to confront that problem again and risk giving either the IMF of the Greek people a definitive answer (resulting in either default or serious unpleasantness).

Labour fails again

Kate Wilkinson's admission about her plans to lower wages by applying discriminatory youth rates to 24 year olds last night was a total gift for Labour, showing National's true, radical, batshit-insane-like-Roger-Douglas colours. So you'd expect them to have a strong response about it, right?

Wrong. Having trawled their website and Red Alert, there's nothing but dead silence and blowing tumbleweeds.

Thanks, Labour. No wonder National feels it can get away with running on an agenda of naked privatisation, wage cuts, and upwards wealth transfer: because you dicks are too fucking lazy to even voice your outrage on a core issue. Which raises the obvious question: if you won't fight for us, why should we fight for you?

Update: Jacinda Ardern has a press release up here. Meanwhile, two of Labour's senior figures have spent the afternoon slagging me off on Twitter. Stomping on disloyalty from people they incorrectly perceive as their vassals is apparently more important than contesting government policy in a key area in their book.

National to introduce "youth rates" for adults

In 2007, Sue Bradford abolished youth rates, ensuring that workers would be paid on their skills and experience - merit - rather than discriminated against solely for being young. Now National wants to bring this discrimination back. Worse, they want to extend it to 24-year olds:

The government looks set to propose the re-introduction of special lower pay rates for young workers. There are signs it may even extend the definition of a youth so that workers into their early 20s may be forced to accept lower pay rates.


National isn't ruling anything out.

When asked what her definition of a ‘youth’ was, Wilkinson said the bracket used was "15 to 24," but she had no view as long as they got jobs.

This is simply wrong. You wouldn't pay someone less because they're a woman, or gay, or Maori. So why the hell is it OK to pay someone less because they're young? It is discrimination, oure and simple. But National doesn't care about this; instead, they just want to see wages drop, so their corporate mates can make bigger profits. And they're quite happy to effectively legislate pay cuts for hundreds of thousands of workers to do it.

As for those who think youth rates affect youth unemployment, bullshit. It tracks overall unemployment, though at a higher level. That higher level is an indicatation of the pervasive discrimination against young people in the employment market - discrimination which will not be reduced by officially sanctioning it.

Correction: Corrected obvious braino.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Killing the kiwishare

When the government sold Telecom twenty years ago, they reassured us that free local calling would be protected under a "Kiwishare". Now National is repealing it, with an SOP to the Telecommunications (TSO, Broadband, and Other Matters) Amendment Bill removing the relevant provisions "reflect that the KSO will not be operative following the structural separation of Telecom". Note that there has been no public debate over this; National has done it out of the blue, by stealth. They're even refusing to front up in the House to explain the amendments.

This will allow Telecom's foreign owners to introduce American-style local call charging. And it has significant implications for access to information in this country. It should not be rammed through in this fashion,without consultation, without debate. The only reason for the government to do so is because they are afraid of that debate, and seek to limit the politicla price they will pay for an unpopular move with no benefits to New Zealanders.

This is how National operates: undemocratically. They're making a major change to the structure of telecommunications in New Zealand, one which affects every single one of us. They should at least be saying why. Instead, we have arrogant silence.

Speaking out of both sides of our mouth

Yesterday, I noted that the New Zealand government had endorsed the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression which found that disconnection from the internet is grossly disproportionate and a violation of international law. Today, Labour's foreign affairs spokesperson Maryan Street asked in parliament whether this meant that they would be repealing the disconnection provision. The government gave a surprising response, denying that we had endorsed the statement.

Except that we have. Here's the statement, and here's the preamble to it:

I have the honor of addressing the Human Rights Council on behalf of

Austria, Bosnia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Lithuania, fmr Yugoslav Rep of Macedonia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palestine, Peru, Poland, Senegal, South Africa, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, the United States, Uruguay

Our name did not get on that list by accident. New Zealand diplomats will have formally agreed to be on it, and formally agreed to the exact text of the statement being made in our name. And MFAT will have the documents to prove it (though our chances of extracting them via the OIA are about zero, given MFAT's dislike of democratic oversight).

Finlayson has now put those diplomats in a difficult position. Because of his wriggling to avoid domestic political embarrassment, their word can no longer be trusted. And, by extension, neither can ours. On the international stage, we are now speaking out of both sides of our mouth, not practicing what we preach. And quite apart from being dishonest, this undermines our entire mana-based foreign policy.

Getting ugly in Greece

Two years ago, the Icelandic people rebelled and threw out a government who had sold them out to the banks. Now, its happening in Greece. The Greek parliament was supposed to pass a new austerity package last night to satisfy the IMF - the usual mess of public service redundancies and pay cuts, selling everything that isn't nailed down, and imposing harsh and retrospective tax increases. It failed, and now it is teetering on the brink of collapse. The Prime Minister is trying to put together a government of national unity, but that's unlikely to work. When it fails, there will probably be new elections. Which will probably see the right-wing New Democrats - turfed out two years ago after trying a similar sellout - take power and try and impose the same program of radical austerity and mass privatisation. And it will probably suffer the same fate.

The core "problem", from the government's point of view, is that the Greek people will not accept these measures. Greece has always had general strikes and riots, but what they're seeing now is something different. The entire political establishment has discredited itself, and is being told to leave "by helicopter or by hearse". Its the sort of thing seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen - not what you'd expect in a western democracy, where politicians are supposed to listen to their electorates. But then the whole point is that Greek politicians aren't listening, or rather, listening only to the IMF and European Central Bank, not to their own voters. Its no wonder they're regarded as quislings and traitors.

This is going to have long-term consequences, and I'm not just talking about default (which worked quite well in Argentina, IIRC). When a political class discredits itself so thoroughly, people look for alternatives. And as we saw in the 1920's and 1930's, some of those alternatives can be pretty ugly. Greece has real live communists in its Parliament as well as some rather unpleasant neo-fascists. And the bankers are driving people right into their arms.

[More commentary on European Tribune]

The VSM bill is doomed

For the past few months, Labour has been carrying out a highly successful filibuster of Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, talking out local and private bills (which take precedence) to ensure it is never debated. And it looks like the filibuster will be successful. Here's the details from todays progress in the House:

The resumed committee stage of the Royal Society of New Zealand Amendment Bill was interrupted with 15 clauses still to be considered.
So, they spent about two hours debating three clauses of the bill. They're entitled to one hour per clause, so we are looking at between ten and fifteen sitting hours to finish the committee stage, plus two more hours for the third reading. At four effective sitting hours per day, this eats every Member's Day from now until September, when conveniently there are two more local bills due back from committee to take precedence on the Order Paper.

Alternatively, we can look at it another way: there are 16 hours of member's time between now and the election, less if the government uses urgency (and they will). Roy's bill needs at least five hours to pass. Unless you're Bill English and believe in special Treasury maths, its pretty obvious that Labour doesn't need to work very hard at delay to ensure that Roy's bill does not receive a third reading this term.

So what if it doesn't? Well, then it all depends on the results of the election. The bill won't go away - if Roy loses her seat, it can be picked up by another member, as happened to Matt Robson's liquor advertising bill in 2005. But Labour is hoping that the numbers will be less favourable for it after the election than they are now. It's a gamble - but its a lot better than certain defeat now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An interesting question

How many of our state and integrated secondary schools are bigots?

We could find out - an OIA request to each asking whether they hold a school ball or formal, whether they have a policy on same-sex dates, and if so what that policy is - but given that there are hundreds of schools, it would take a prohibitive amount of time (especially given their likely lack of experience with the OIA, and thus the need to complain frequently to the Ombudsman). Which means that we have no idea how widespread this problem is, and what we need to do about it.

More maths denial

Yesterday Bill English denied the fundamentals of mathematics, when he claimed that the average wage did not increase when those at the top got richer and the poor got sacked. You'd think he would have found a better way to answer this tricky question overnight, but no; he was at it again today:

Hon Trevor Mallard: Does he understand that real average wages go up when high-income earners get massive tax cuts—$1,000 a week, in his case—and low-income workers lose their jobs?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: No, I do not understand that, because it is not true.

On the one hand, I'm not really surprised; English used to work for Treasury, and they're not exactly connected with reality. Or maybe its simply that for every mathematician who thinks that, English can provide another one to give us a counterview...

Labour backs transparency over lobbyists

Earlier this week, the Greens introduced a Member's Bill requiring public registration of political lobbyists. At the time, I predicted that the other parties would ignore the issue. I am glad to be proved wrong. Labour has come out in support of the bill:

"We agree that transparency around lobbying is appropriate. Ministers are responsible for decisions that can affect people's economic and personal interests to a very great extent. It should be possible to know who has lobbied them, when the lobbying has occurred, and on whose behalf it has been done".

"We will be asking for a copy of the bill so we can review its details and determine whether our 'in principle' support will be able to extend to supporting its detailed provisions", Charles Chauvel said.

So, the ball is now in National's court: do they support transparency, or corruption?

NZ government agrees disconnection violates international law

Back in April, the New Zealand government abused urgency to ram through a "three strikes" guilt by accusation IP regime which would see people disconnected from the internet for repeat violations. The law was indirectly criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, who declared that such regimes were grossly disproportionate and a violation of international law. And now, the New Zealand government has endorsed the Special Rapporteur's report:

Michael Geist notes that on Friday, Sweden made remarks at the UN Human Rights Council that endorsed many of the report's findings, including the criticism of "three strikes" rules. The statement was signed by 40 other nations, including the United States and Canada. The United Kingdom and France, two nations that have enacted "three strikes" regimes, did not sign the statement.

"All users should have greatest possible access to Internet-based content, applications and services," the statement said, adding that "cutting off users from access to the Internet is generally not a proportionate sanction." It also called network neutrality and Internet openness "important objectives."

Interestingly, the report is signed by New Zealand, which enacted legislation in April that sets up a special Copyright Tribunal for expediting file-sharing cases. The penalties available to the New Zealand government include Internet disconnections of up to six months.

So, does this mean that the government has realised it is wrong on disconnection? if so, it should introduce a repeal bill immediately. Alternatively, they could just be hypocritically trying to have it both ways, criticising these laws while still keeping them on the books here. But they'd never do that, would they?

Return of the Bride of the Zombie Member's Day in 3D!

Its Member's Day, and like a bad series of zombie movies, the saga of Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill drags on and on. Its been successfully filibustered by Labour for the past few months by the simple expedient of talking out the local bills which come before it. But the filibuster might be coming to a natural end, with the Westpac New Zealand Bill due to receive its third reading. Which means that this week, or in a fortnight, the House is going to have to make some progress on Roy's bill.

I expect that progress to be slow - there are all sorts of tricks you can use to drag out a committee session, and Labour will use them all. But they can't do it forever. OTOH, they don't have to. Beyond today, there are only five scheduled member's days left in the sitting (and the last one, in early October, won't happen as Parliament will be in the pre-election washup). The bill will take a minimum of two of those days to pass. That sounds comfortable, but it doesn't take much slippage, either due to filibustering or government urgency (and the government will be using urgency in this period - they have a booze bill and justice system reforms they want to get in place before the election) to push it out beyond the election.

As for those complaining about this process, this is what Oppositions are meant to do: oppose. And they have done it skilfully and well. They may still fail, but I cannot fault them for representing their constituents effectively and trying.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


One of the more odious beliefs of the right is their view, expressed everywhere in the sewer at the drop of a hat, that beneficiaries are not entitled to have political opinions, and that any one of them who expresses a political view should be investigated and persecuted for daring to do so. This isn't just a denial of freedom of speech and the right not to be discriminated against for your political opinions; its a throwback to the comfortable nineteenth century prejudice that government was the domain of the rich, or at least "decent people" with property and a job (who could of course be trusted to vote the "right" way). It is thus a denial of our basic moral equality and a rejection of fundamental democratic norms - the idea that everyone, rich or poor, employed or not, has a stake in our society and a say in its government.

So its especially disappointing to see The Standard spewing this shit, and attacking Cameron Slater for being a sickness beneficiary:

National knows that the public oppose its agenda of asset sales, lower wages, and service cuts. So they’re going to campaign dirty. They’re running this week’s muck-throwing via sickness beneficiary* Cameron Slater.


*for a sickness beneficiary, Slater’s pretty active, eh? Full-time blogging, breaking into websites, hunting, cycling (well, if you can call only being able to cover 20km in 50 minutes on a brand new racing bike ‘cycling’). Might be time for WINZ to take a closer look at this guy who’s living off the public teat.

There are many good reasons to attack Cameron Slater, but this is not one of them. No matter what you think of him (and personally, I try not to), he is entitled to express his political views without fear of persecution, regardless of his socioeconomic or health status. Those attacking him in this way might want to consider what they're opening the door to, and how they'd react if the political affiliations were reversed and the boot were on the other foot.

I thought this only happened in Alabama?

A Wellington school is refusing to allow a student to bring a same-sex date to the school ball. Unsurprisingly, its a Catholic school, and no doubt they'd claim that they are merely following their religious beliefs. But that's no excuse - because this is clearly unlawful. Sexual orientation is a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Human Rights Act; educational establishments are forbidden from denying or restricting access to any of their services or subjecting students to any detriment on any of those grounds. While there is an exemption allowing same sex or religious schools to discriminate on those grounds to maintain their character, it does not permit discrimination on other grounds. A Catholic school cannot engage in homophobic discrimination simply because it is Catholic, any more than they can kick someone out for being Maori. Or, in this case, ban people from bringing Maori dates to a school event.

The school in question is an integrated school, so your tax dollars are paying for this bigotry. That too is unlawful, and the Ministry of Education should be stepping in to stop it. If the school refuses, then its Board of Trustees should be dismissed and replaced by a commissioner. Schools cannot be permitted to flout the law and engage in discrimination in this manner.

In defence of public service neutrality

Over on KiwiPolitico, in the context of the threatened leak of Labour Party membership and donation data, Anita asks:

Why is it that our public servants, often people who take their jobs out of a genuine belief they can make things better, are so confined in their political activities?
The short answer to this is "so the public service can do their job properly". At its heart, the public service is about providing advice to the government of the day. In order for them to do that effectively, the government has to be able to trust them. Fairly obviously, that trust cannot exist if they are seen collectively as being staffed by "the other side". Likewise it cannot exist if a senior advisor is publicly or strongly affiliated with a political party. While things may be fine while said party is in power, their ability to do their job would be compromised should power change hands.

It is also a question of professionalism. Public servants are supposed to give free and frank advice, uncoloured by their personal political beliefs. That cannot happen if they are publicly affiliated with a party. It creates at least the perception of a conflict of interest, taints their advice, renders it useless.

In practice, how neutral you have to be depends on high up the ladder you are. The guidelines are laid out in a document called Understanding the code of conduct - Guidance for State servants, under the standard of impartiality. The short version is that if you work in service delivery, or a low-level role, its not a problem; you can belong to, donate to and campaign for a party (though you should still take care not to conflate your private and professional interests, and you should ensure your political statements are not identified with your department). If you're a senior public servant, a manager or someone who regularly provides advice to Ministers, you shouldn't. Even though political donations are normally private (absent totally incompetent IT security), senior public servants should probably avoid them.

The problem, of course, is "how senior"? The SSC will have one idea, Ministers will likely have another. And if the latter demand a witch-hunt against low-level public servants who have exercised their political rights in accordance with the code of conduct, it is the duty of the relevant Chief Executive and the SSC to stand up and say "No, Minister, you can't do that". As the guardians of public service ethics, they also have an obligation to protect public servants from the partisan hackery of Ministers and their political cronies. If they fail to do so, then they will have failed not only those public servants, but the public service as a whole.

New Fisk

I saw these brave doctors trying to save lives – these charges are a pack of lies

Another bloody nose for Berlusconi

Last month, Italian Prime Minister received a bloody nose from the Italian people, with the defeat of his candidate in regional elections in his home city of Milan. Today, he received another one, losing a series of abrogative referenda on his policies.

The media are focusing on the defeat of Berlusconi's plans to reintroduce nuclear power in Italy - but that wasn't the only question. He also lost on water privatisation, and (more significantly) on his attempts to pervert the legal system to insulate himself and his cronies from prosecution. The latter is extremely significant, and not just because it means Berlusconi and his Ministers will face trial on corruption charges. It also means that the Italian people have woken up, called bullshit and demanded higher standards from their government. Again, its a sign that Italy's democracy may not be as sick as it seems, and that there may be some hope after all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Time for transparency on lobbying II

Last weekend, Dominion-Post columnist Tracy Watkins highlighted the lack of transparency around lobbying in this country, and called for change. We're now seeing the first concrete steps towards that, with the Greens' Sue Kedgley putting up a member's bill to require public registration of lobbyists.

The bill is here [PDF]. It is heavily based on the Canadian Lobbying Act 1985 and defines "lobbying activity" as seeking to influence or arrange meetings with MPs, Ministers or ministerial staff, for payment and on behalf of another. It does not cover ordinary citizens seeking to influence their representatives, and it does not cover requests for information or publicly available submissions. Lobbyists must be registered, and will be subjected to a Code of Conduct. Failure to register will attract a $10,000 fine for an individual, or a $20,000 fine for a company.

The interesting issue is the registration authority. The Greens have chosen the Auditor-General, but I'm not sure they're the right choice. They're right I think to choose an Officer of Parliament - someone responsible to the House rather than Ministers - but its a fair stretch from the Auditor-General's normal activities. It probably would have been better to create a new Oficer of Parliament - a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner - and task them not just with lobbyists but also with the register of pecuniary interests. But this is a Member's Bill, so the shortcut is expected.

The question now is what the other parties think of the idea. I predict a deafening silence - unless the media stand up and ask them about it.

New Fisk

Swat the flies and tell the truth – live on al-Jazeera

Poor analogies

With the furore over Labour's leak, the usual poor analogies are going round. "Taking something from an unlocked home". "Taking a wallet from inside an unlocked car". Quite apart from the failure to grasp the nonexclusive nature of digital information - copying doesn't deprive the owner of possession - they're also completely inapplicable to this case, because what seems to have happened is that Labour left stuff lying around in a public directory on a public server for anyone to read. This isn't "taking something from an unlocked home"; its Labour standing around on a street corner handing out money to anyone who walks up and asks. And then changing their mind and demanding it back.

Which is why allegations of criminality here are utterly ridiculous. Publication on the web is prima facie intentional. Sure, it happens by accident, but the idea that something can become retrospectively criminal because someone else has changed their mind flies in the face of our entire legal tradition. Meanwhile, if something is up and public, then you have a hell of a time proving that it was accessed with criminal intent, rather than in good faith (and knowing that other people are being stupid is not a sign of criminal intent).

Labour made a stupid, careless mistake. They now get to live with the consequences. Including a reputation that they are a bunch of muppets who are careless with other people's privacy.

Labour's leak

Over the weekend, we learned something important: the Labour Party has unforgivably bad IT security. This is already being used to embarrass them, and there's the promise of more on the way - specifically information on their online donors.

Over at The Standard they're crying foul and "theft!" - exactly the opposite of their position on the Don Brash emails - but nothing of the sort seems to have occurred. Instead, Labour seems to have just left stuff lying around on the web for anyone to look at. The only breaches of law and ethics here are on the Labour Party's side; their donors and members have privacy and information security rights, which Labour has violated. If people give you information, you have a duty of care over it, and this is enshrined in law through Principle 5 of the Privacy Act. And anyone whose information was treated so carelessly has recourse to the Privacy Commissioner.

(There is apparently evidence that National accessed the data first, before turning it over to one of their pet bloggers to publicise while keeping their hands clean. Good tactics, but it only works if its secret. And none of that excuses Labour's unforgivable slackness and incompetence).

As for the leakee, what they should do depends on what they have discovered. There are obvious ethical questions about whether to publish the information. While there is a strong public interest in identifying large donors or dubious behaviour so as to hold the party and the powerful to account, there is no public interest in identifying ordinary citizens giving small amounts of money. Given the identity of the leakee, I expect those questions to be completely ignored.