Thursday, May 31, 2012



A reminder for Labour

Update 1/6/2012: Louisa Wall has released her bill [PDF], and it has no nasty surprises. I'm glad to have been wrong.

In case Labour is getting any crazy ideas about protecting bigotry in their "marriage equality" bill, they might want to check out the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan ruling In Re Marriage Commissioners Appointed Under The Marriage Act 2011 SKCA 3. That ruling upheld earlier rulings by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission and the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench that marriage celebrants had no right of "conscientious objection" (i.e. bigoted discrimination) to same-sex marriages, and that any law allowing them to do so would violate Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A core part of the ruling was the finding that:

Marriage commissioners do not act as private citizens when they discharge their official duties. Rather, they serve as agents of the Province and act on its behalf and its behalf only. Accordingly, a system that would make marriage services available according to the personal religious beliefs of commissioners is highly problematic. It would undercut the basic principle that governmental services must be provided on an impartial and non-discriminatory basis.
New Zealand is not Canada, but the same logic applies here. All celebrants here are public officials. They do not solemnise marriages as private individuals, but as people performing a public function - which means the Bill of Rights Act applies to the performance of that function. And the BORA forbids discrimination by the government on any of the grounds listed in the Human Rights Act - grounds which include sexual orientation.

A marriage celebrant cannot refuse to marry someone because they are Maori, or Catholic, or pregnant, or disabled. Why should they be allowed to refuse to marry people because they are of the same sex? If bigots don't want to perform same-sex marriages, they can simply not be celebrants.

(Of course, who the hell wants to be married by a celebrant who doesn't want to do it? But there's an important principle of secular, non-discriminatory government at stake here).

It is hard to see how an amendment to allow private bigotry by public officials would not attract an adverse BORA report (in which case why would anyone vote for it?) And it is hard to see how it would not subsequently be overturned by the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Either way, it wouldn't be worth supporting. Equal marriage yes, bigotry no.

Cunliffe on marriage equality

I've been contacted by David Cunliffe about yesterday's post on where MP's stand on marriage equality, which incorrectly put him in the "no" camp. Here's his explanation:

You have cited the MarriageEquality.co.nz team, who listed me as ‘anti-equality’ on their website. It appears they made this judgement before actually asking for my opinion.

I have advised them of my position, which is to support Marriage Equality.

My Labour Party colleague Louisa Wall is arranging a Marriage Equality member’s bill which progresses human rights while protecting existing religious freedoms. I look forward to seeing the text of Louisa’s bill, and to supporting it.

Which is good to hear (and the spreadsheet has now been corrected).

At the same time, I'm a little worried about this talk of "protecting existing religious freedoms". Is Labour going to put up a US-style bigot-amendment? Are they going to allow marriage celebrants - who are public officials, performing a public function - to discriminate on a ground prohibited by the Human Rights Act in the performance of their public duties? I'd love to know.

Update 1/6/2012: Louisa Wall has released her bill [PDF], and it has no nasty surprises. I'm glad to have been wrong.

Another nasty surprise

While we're on the topic of the government's new Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill, it has another nasty surprise: mergers. Currently, local bodies can only be reorganised (have their boundaries or responsibilities changed, or be merged or split) on application from the local authority, the Minister, or a petition signed by 10% of the electors of that authority. The new rules would abolish the petition requirement and instead allow "any body or group with an interest in the governance of the area or areas that the reorganisation application relates to" to make an application. So your unelected local Chamber of Commerce can force a reorganisation proposal, without any democratic mandate to do so.

It gets worse. Currently if a reorganisation involves a local authority being abolished, merged, or split, it must be put to the voters. In order to pass, it must gain a majority in each district affected. Under the new rules, there's no requirement to have a vote. If local residents want one, they have to get 10% of eligible voters (which means about 20% of actual local body voters) to sign a petition demanding one. Otherwise, it just happens. How much time do they have to gather those signatures? 40 working days. That's not a "democratic check"; it's a bad joke. And even if they gather those signatures to force a poll, it passes or fails on a simple majority. So people elsewhere can vote to abolish your local government, take over your community, and sideline you from control of it.

...which is precisely the point: to let big communities take over and rule smaller ones against their will. Whatever you want to call this, it isn't democracy.

A recipe for local body dictatorship

Two years ago, the Government imposed a dictatorship in Canterbury, suspending elections to Environment Canterbury, removing the elected councillors, and replacing them with a pack of unelected cronies with a mandate to run Canterbury in the interests of Wellington, not local residents. The move went far beyond what was permitted under the Local Government Act, and required special enabling legislation (which was of course rammed through under all-stages urgency). Now the government wants the power to do this to any council, whenever they want.

The new Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill introduced to the House yesterday contains exactly that power. Here's how it works: first, the Minister of Local Government declares that there is a "problem" in a local authority. What's a "problem"? Pretty much anything they want:

a matter or circumstance relating to the management or governance of the local authority that detracts from, or is likely to detract from, its ability to give effect to the purpose of local government within its district or region
Note that such a "problem" doesn't actually have to be occurring; a potential problem - something the Minister thinks might happen - is enough.

The next step is to appoint a Crown Review Team. Currently, this requires that there be outright refusal by local government to comply with the law, which is impairing good governance or endangering public health. Now it merely requires the Minister to believe on reasonable grounds that there is a "significant" (meaning: likely to have adverse consequences - note the lack of scale in there) problem that the local authority can't or won't solve. Finally, if the Crown Review Team recommends it - and of course if the Minister picks the right crony, they will recommend whatever is desired - the Minister can roll the elected members, suspend elections, and impose a dictatorship (complete with terms of reference requiring them to act against the will of local voters). And this isn't a short-term, limited power - such a dictatorship can last indefinitely.

Want a concrete example? Consider this: Christchurch has had an earthquake. This is a "problem" in terms of the new amendment. It is struggling to pay to rebuild its infrastructure after said earthquake, and raising rates and borrowing money in the process. This too is a "problem".

The government thinks Christchurch should pay for that rebuild by selling its local body assets to their cronies, so they can extort monopoly rents from earthquake victims while paying lower rates on their expensive houses in Fendalton and Merivale and Cashmere. The council, responsive to its people, disagrees. At this stage, the government can either appoint a crony to "review" the council and recommend that it be rolled, or it can just declare that the earthquake rebuild is a "significant" problem, that failing to deal with it (e.g. by quickly rebuilding sewers and water infrastructure) endangers public health, that the Christchurch City Council isn't willing to deal with it properly (because they're not willing to pillage their city against the will of its people "take the financial steps necessary to ensure a faster rebuild"), et voila! Jenny Shipley gets another crony job, as unelected Mayor of Christchurch.

Don't think it will happen? Wait and see.

(Interestingly, under the new rules, it will be easier for the government to suspend elections than call new ones. Which is a little odd, when you think about it)

Ministerial intervention powers are necessary when local government fails. But these go well beyond what is necessary, and allow the democratic decisions of local communities to be overturned by a central government which thinks it knows better. That is undemocratic, and it is wrong. These powers should not be enacted.

The Assange decision

So, Julian Assange has lost his appeal against extradition to Sweden. Extradition decisions do not consider the actual merits of a case, only whether the formal requirements for extradition have been complied with. And in this case, they seem to have been. While there's a legal wrinkle in there which has allowed the possibility of a further appeal, that's a forlorn hope; the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties is a significant metalaw governing international relations, and it seems unlikely that it will be overturned.

Which means that Assange will finally face justice in Sweden for what his alleged sexual assaults. That's entirely appropriate, and there's no doubt that he'll receive a fair trial under the Swedish justice system. As for the question of potential extradition to the US to face charges for telling the world about US foreign policy, that's a different matter, and will no doubt be litigated through the Swedish courts (and the ECHR) if it becomes necessary.

Time to protect our wild and scenic rivers

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has released a report [PDF] on hydroelectricity and wild rivers, looking at the conflict between the two. Both have environmental benefits, but the current legislative scheme seems to favour hydroelectricity. Renewable electricity generation is encouraged by the RMA and by a National Policy Statement, while the legislation around conservation stewardship land allows Ministers to sidestep protections by exchanging land with developers (frequently while not being allowed to consider the river, because it is managed by LINZ rather than DoC). Meanwhile, the NPS on freshwater management does not protect wild rivers, protection in local plans is inadequate, and Water Conservation Orders are prohibitively difficult to get (and utterly worthless in Canterbury).

The PCE suggests rebalancing the legislation, with explicit protection for wild and scenic rivers in a National Policy Statement under the RMA, and amendments to make it easier and quicker to apply for a Water Conservation order. They also recommend a stocktake of rivers, either for protection with WCOs, or protection under the Conservation Act, depending on ownership (they also recommend transferring riverbed ownership from LINZ to DoC so there is one manager). Finally, they recommend changes to the interface between DoC concessions - required to do anything on DoC land - and the RMA, either by requiring the concession application to go first, or holding joint concession/resource consent hearings. The former is a much better idea than the latter, and it will save both applicants and submitters time and money.

The ball is now in the government's court to act on these recommendations. Sadly, given their general attitude to the environment, I suspect they won't.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012



Guest column: The usual channels

By Phil Lyth

At Parliament, some of the most important roles are filled by the MPs who preside in the debating chamber and who chair select committees. These roles are not for the hot-headed, and require people who are sticklers for proper process, and who can accept responsibility if they make a mistake. Today, we saw that National's Tau Henare, chairing the Maori Affairs Select Committee made not one, but five mistakes this week before, during, and after the committee meeting today. Followers were alerted when he petulantly tweeted:

Greens deny leave to progress 5 treaty Settlement bills from Maori Affairs select committee.
followed by several more tweets including "No Metiria, and I wont give leave for anything the Greens want."

So what happened? What went wrong?

The chair of a select committee has the responsibility for setting the agenda, and instructing the committee clerk to circulate the notice of meeting. At a meeting, the committee can only conduct the business set out on the notice, unless leave is given. Not all business before a committee is dealt with at every meeting. It is a long-established principle that notice has to be given the day before, including notice of any deliberation. This allows all members of a committee to prepare for the meeting.

The first mistake, on Monday, was to have a notice of meeting circulated that said the five Treaty Settlement bills would be "considered" (discussed), when it should have said "deliberated" (decided, by voting if necessary). At least one MP queried that. Tau could have fixed things by circulating an updated or amended notice of meeting on Tuesday. The second mistake was to fail to do that.

But remember, the committee can do things by leave? (That is, everyone agreeing - it only takes one objection to block leave.) You'll hear whips in Parliament sometimes talk about things which "have been discussed through the usual channels". They mean that there has been discussion beforehand, in the lobby or by phone, to get agreement where possible. And there are times when agreement is not found, so leave is not sought. Sometimes leave is sought without going through the usual channels, when an MP wants to make a point knowing that leave will be denied.

Tau's third mistake was to fail to talk to members of the committee before the meeting to see if leave would be forthcoming to deliberate on the bills this morning. His fourth was to charge ahead at the meeting, seeking leave as if it was his by right. He was brought up short when Metiria Turei rightly decided he needed an education, and denied leave. (After the event and in response to Tau's one of subsequent tweets, she replied:

next time Mr Chair, do your job and tell me first. Don't abuse process and complain later when you are snapped.
And Tau's fifth mistake was to attempt to blame another MP, in this case Metiria Turei, for his shortcomings as chairperson.

Is this a big deal? In some ways no. It won't stop Maori Affairs reporting the bills, nor will it delay eventual passage of the five bills. But it is an object lesson in how a chairperson should not conduct themselves. Lockwood Smith is big enough to apologise when he makes a mistake. Tau Henare would be wise to reflect on what happened this week and learn to do a better job in future.

Challenging royalism in the UK

Its the foreign monarch's nominal birthday on Monday, and in the UK they're gearing up for a great patriotic wank to celebrate the current incumbent's 60 years as a royal parasite. Meanwhile, in the courts, they're still cleaning up after the last one.

Before last year's royal wedding, British police rounded up scores of activists and detained them without charge, in order to prevent any protests which might remind people that not everyone in the UK agrees with the monarchy. Twenty of them have now gone to court to challenge the legality of that detention:

The case related to "the most important of constitutional rights, namely the rights to free expression and to protest, both of which are elemental to a properly functioning democracy", Monaghan told the court.

In policing the royal wedding, the Met "operated a policy of equating intention to protest, whether perceived or actual, with intention to cause unlawful disruption".

The commissioner had "adopted an impermissibly low threshold of tolerance for public protest, resulting in the unlawful arrests of those who were viewed by officers as being likely to express anti-monarchist views".

The threshold was so low as to amount to the suppression of anti-monarchist sentiment.

Sadly, a ruling will come too late for this weekend (how convenient for the British establishment). But it will hopefully prevent such abuses in the future.

A move towards transparency in Auckland

The Auckland Council is working on a register of councillor's financial interests, modelled on that used for MPs. Good. Such registers are a vital mechanism for ensuring clean government and ensuring that elected officials are not using their positions to enrich themselves. The question now is whether councillors support such transparency, or whether they support corruption. Fortunately council votes are public, so we'll be able to see exactly where they stand.

(Meanwhile, the Department of Internal Affairs' review of the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests) Act 1968 has been sitting around for six months, and action should be coming soon. I'm surprised though that the submissions haven't been published. It would be nice to see whether any of our councils were actually shameless enough to oppose greater transparency...)

Where MP's stand on marriage equality

Kurt Sharpe of New Zealand for Marriage Equality has put together a spreadsheet of where our MPs stand on marriage equality. So far, it shows 46 in favour, 19 against, 4 undecided, and 52 unknowns. As for the distribution, its pretty much what we expect: the Greens, Maori Party and most of Labour are in favour, and most of National are bigots (or don't even want to talk about it).

There are some surprises. I didn't know that Rajen Prasad was a bigot, and I'm appalled that a man with such an impressive human rights background could be so backward about sexual orientation. As for David Cunliffe, I'd expected a lot better from him as well. [note: see update below - I/S]

(Labour meanwhile continues to tolerate Damien O'Connor and Ross Robertson, both old-fashioned bigots who have consistently voted against equality. Such people have no place in a party committed to equality).

The good news is that there are six National MPs in favour so far: Amy Adams, Chester Borrows, Tau Henare, Nikki Kaye, John Key, and Jami-Lee Ross. Add in NZ First's Denis O'Rourke, and we're halfway there in terms of National votes we need. That's not enough of course, but with so many unknowns, its a good start.

Update: The file has now been updated; Cunliffe is now a "yes" (as is National's Colin King), and Goff is now a "no". I'm pleased that Cunliffe has changed his mind. As for Goff, again I have to ask: why does Labour tolerate bigots?

Update II (7/6/2012): And Goff has now moved back to the "yes" column. Sadly, Prasad, O'Connor and Robertson are still bigots

One education system for them, another for us

When the government started talking about increasing class sizes, my first question was "I wonder how many Cabinet Ministers send their kids to private schools?". Thanks to the Herald, now we know:

A Herald survey of ministers found that at least seven of the sixteen Cabinet ministers with school-aged children sent all or some of their children to private schools. Four ministers refused to say where their children attended or could not respond, and five ministers said they had enrolled their kids in state schools.
And John Key, of course, is one of the former.

Meanwhile, only 4% of children overall attend private schools [XLS], and only 20% or rich kids (decile 10). So Cabinet Ministers are disproportionate even among the wealthy in their preference for socially segregated education.

Which neatly explains why they are happy to wreck the state education system: because its not their kids who will suffer. It also explains why they are so keen to give public money to private schools: because this directly advantages their kids, and lowers the fees they have to pay. So we end up with one education system for politicians, and another for us.

(Meanwhile, its worth noting that while only 4% of kids go to private schools, 25% of Cabinet Ministers did. This is privilege in action, and it needs to be destroyed)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012



Headdesk

A study on the Greens' home-insulation plan was released yesterday, and it looks like it has been a roaring success:

A series of studies commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Development said the $347 million Warm Up New Zealand programme, which subsidised the cost of insulation and heating homes, had generated significant health benefits since its introduction in 2009.

University of Otago researchers found that households which had installed insulation had cut their hospital and prescription costs.

In research published yesterday, it was also estimated that the scheme had prevented 18 deaths among people 65 or older who had previously been hospitalised with respiratory illness.

The combined benefits of reduced mortality and illness, and increased energy efficiency, was measured at $1.58 billion over nearly four years. More than 99 per cent of the economic benefits came from reduced health costs.

The estimated return is four times the money invested. So naturally, the government is killing off the scheme after 2014 "to save money". Meanwhile, they continue to piss billions away on flagship roads whose costs outweigh their benefits...

This is what National calls "responsible economic management". And it isn't.

The police haven't learned

Last year, the Police bought themselves a PR-nightmare by arresting singer Tiki Taane for singing the classic "Fuck the Police" at a concert. The charges were later dropped, but it seems the police have learned nothing from the debacle:

Chart-topping musician Tiki Taane could face charges after he chanted obscenities in front of police officers at a Palmerston North gig.

[...]

Acting Palmerston North Inspector Brett Calkin said police entered Mr Cue to perform a routine inspection about 1.15am on Sunday.

Taane began chanting the words "F*** the police", prompting the officers to speak to a person associated with the singer, Calkin said. "He apparently stopped using that terminology."

But when police went to leave, Taane resumed his earlier chants, Calkin said.

"It would appear that he has begun taunting the police again by yelling "F*** the police" and pointing to the door as they left.

Again, the police need reminding that we have freedom of speech in this country. It is not a crime to dislike them, and it is not a crime to sing songs they don't approve of. If they don't like that, then they can turn in their badges - because lawless thugs who would arrest people to force them to respect their "authority" have no place in our police force.

New Fisk

The West is horrified by children's slaughter now. Soon we'll forget

A hate crime

New Zealand likes to think of itself as a modern, tolerant, liberal society. We've decriminalised homosexuality, outlawed discrimination, and largely - with the obvious exceptions of marriage and adoption - changed our laws to make that a reality.

Sadly, its just not true:

A young Auckland man says he was knocked unconscious and left lying in a gutter over the weekend following what appears to have been a homophobic attack.

Zakk d'Larte, 18, was approached by three men near Westhaven at 7pm on Saturday after walking a group of friends to a boat party at the marina.

[...]

D'Larte believes his attackers initially thought from a distance he was female and wolf-whistled at him and called him "sweetie", before getting closer and realising he was a male.

It was then their tone quickly changed to aggression and the men started making hateful, anti-gay remarks. He does not know why the men thought he was a girl as he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

"I think they soon realised I was a male and were really disgusted with themselves.

"And then they just started saying I was a burden to society and they wished they could do to the gays what Hitler did to the Jews, and that sort of thing."

The men started punching him, continuing to hit him when he fell to the ground.

He believes they still beat him after he was unconscious and suspects injuries to his back and ribs are a result of them kicking him while he was knocked out.

This is a hate crime, pure and simple. And it shows that we have a long, long way to go before we can truly call ourselves modern, tolerant and liberal.

The Greens vs Labour

Yesterday's Dominion-Post had an interesting editorial about how the Greens are "eating Labour's lunch":

While Labour's leader and senior spokespeople um and ah about what they would do differently from the Government, its putative ally, the Green Party, is eating its lunch.

Having shed itself of the nutty Sue Bradford, now helping the Mana Party plumb public opinion poll depths, its 14 MPs are bringing a previously unseen focus to environmental issues.

There will be many who shudder at the prospect of the introduction of a carbon tax, and the other tax changes proposed by Green Party co-leader Russel Norman in a pre-Budget article in last week's Dominion Post. The party's philosophical objections to major roading projects and its feel-good plans for state-owned power companies are equally alarming.

However, there is no disputing that the Greens know their stuff and are arguing from a position of principle. The contrast with Labour could not be starker. It is apparent every day – in Parliament during question time, and on the airwaves.

The Greens are sharper and more intellectually rigorous. Labour's MPs give the impression they are waiting to be told by their researchers what the public thinks about an issue before taking a position. The Greens, on the other hand, are setting out to change public opinion.

There are a few problems with this - most notably that the Greens are not just focusing on environmental issues, but have been going to town on the government on inequality, fiscal responsibility, and overall economic policy as well. Which shows up Labour's haplessness even more. But the final point is spot on. Labour's internal culture is one of helplessness and passivity. They really do think they are "logs floating down a river" with no ability to shape the political conversation. Which invites the question: if all Labour is going to do is echo what its polling and focus groups tell it, why not cut out the middle man?

This passivity has led Labour to abdicate any pretence of leadership - and therefore any pretence that they are a government in waiting. Not to mention any pretence of fighting for office. They're just logs, waiting for the river to bend so they can float on over to the government benches. Until then, they'll just keep floating along (and collect their fat apparatchik salaries while doing so).

Meanwhile, nature abhors a vacuum, and the Greens are filling the "credible opposition" niche Labour has vacated, and reaping the benefits of doing so. And Labour has no-one but themselves to blame for that.

Monday, May 28, 2012



Breaking our word on the environment

Twenty years ago, New Zealand attended the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. While there, we signed up to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the "Agenda 21" sustainable development plan, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in the process making a host of promises on the environment. Twenty years on, WWF is examining whether we have kept those promises [PDF]. Their assessment is not good:

A World Wildlife Fund report claims New Zealand has failed to meet any of the major commitments agreed to at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years ago.

New Zealand was among 178 countries at the summit which committed to cutting greenhouse gas emission, improving water quality and protecting biodiversity.

However the Beyond Rio report, which document progress since the summit, said New Zealand has little to be proud of.

To give just a few examples:
  • In 1992, we promised to limit greenhouse gas emissions - a promise we reaffirmed in Kyoto in 1997. We then did nothing for two decades while they increased (now we have an ETS, but it excludes our biggest polluters - farmers - while subsidising the rest).
  • In 1992, we promised to preserve our lakes and rivers and protect them from pollution. We then did nothing, and allowed the dairy boom to turn them into open sewers.
  • In 1992 we promised to conserve our native biodiversity. We then did nothing to do so, with the result that the number of threatened or at risk species has quadrupled in the last decade.
  • In 1992 we promised to sustainably manage our fisheries. We then set fishing quotas too high, and according to industry lobbying rather than the science. The result has been a collapse of important fisheries, and a rise in the number of species that are known to be over-exploited.
Looking at this record, I really wonder why anyone accepts our word on anything. As a country, we are cheats and liars, and our promises are worthless. We "commit", then we do nothing, while wearing that worthless commitment like its some sort of badge of honour.

As a small country, with a mana-based foreign policy, the importance of keeping our word on the international stage should be paramount. We need to start living up to these commitments. And that means holding politicians to account for doing so.

Key misses the point on same-sex adoption

John Key has signalled his support for same-sex adoption, in his usual wishy-washy "support to first reading" leaving-room-to-back-out-if-the-bigots-give-him-money way. Which is good, or at least better than his previous "we're fixing the economy, we've got no time for it (and no we can't walk and chew gum at the same time)" bullshit. At the same time, he completely misses the point of a law change:

However, the problem was there were not enough babies to adopt.

"There was less than 100 or 200 non-family adoptions last year. Because we have the domestic purposes benefit and we have a policy or try to have kids looked after by family members, there is very few adoptions available. We can have a debate over whether gay people should adopt or not, but really it's a very small group."

Key said he had "great sympathy" for people who wanted to adopt but couldn't.

Same-sex adoption isn't so much about allowing gay couples to adopt random children - its about them being able to be legal parents to their own kids. This is a question of basic parenting rights, and its appalling that we leave people in this legal black hole. A decent government would commit to fixing it as quickly as possible, not leave it for a member's bill which may or may not be drawn from the ballot.

Appealed

Tame Iti is appealing both his conviction and sentence from the Urewera 4 trial.

That's not surprising. Justice Hansen's sentencing comments [PDF] made it clear that the judge was substituting his own opinion for that of the jury, and sentencing Iti for a crime he had not been convicted of - in the process turning him into a martyr like Rua Kenana. The conviction will be harder to overturn - but being able to test it is part and parcel of having a robust justice system.

So, this is going to go on for a while longer, it seems.

New Fisk

The going price of getting away with murder... would $33m be enough?

Progress on same-sex adoption

Nikki Kaye and Kevin Hague have finally gone public on their member's bill to legalise gay adoption. It's a good move - and a necessary one. Our adoption laws were written in 1955, and are geared mainly towards stranger adoption. Stranger-adoptions are now a tiny minority, and most adoptions are about getting the paperwork for blended families. What this archaic law means is gay couples not being legal parents of their own kids. And now, thanks to the High Court, we're in the absurd situation where that discriminatory restriction probably doesn't apply to same-sex de facto couples, but does to those who are civil unioned. The law desperately needs to be changed to update it for the modern world.

Ideally, the government would rise to the challenge, and do a thorough review of adoption law (that will also fix all the other problems with the Act). But National isn't interested in progressive social legislation, so its left to Kaye and Hague to do it via a member's bill - which will increase the chance of technical mistakes being made. Its not idea, but when the government abdicates its responsibility, its what we're left with.

It will apparently be a few months before the bill is ready for the ballot. If drawn, I think it will pass - the flaws in the Act are obvious, and I don't think the bigotry of a few is going to stop Parliament from fixing them. And hopefully, it'll convince them that these issues are not toxic, and that they can move ahead on removing marriage discrimination from the books as well.

Friday, May 25, 2012



Invasive politics

Currently, the government is trying to push through a Corrections Amendment Bill, which among other things removes restrictions on the use of strip searches in prisons while making them more invasive and humiliating. But yesterday, the Corrections Association came out against the bill, calling it unnecessary:

Corrections Association of New Zealand president Beven Hanlon said the current strip search procedure was highly successful and he did not believe corrections officers needed greater powers.

"I'm not aware of any statistics that say we've got a problem with prisoners concealing things inside them that we're not able to find during a strip search process."

The Corrections Association are not people you expect to care about the rights or dignity of prisoners. So when they say a law is unnecessary, it almost certainly is. Meanwhile, both the Ombudsman's Office and Human Rights Commission have criticised the bill for violating our international obligations on the treatment of prisoners and inviting torture and abuse.

So why is the government pushing this? As with most of their law and order legislation, the primary motivation seems to be to get "tough on crime" headlines, regardless of whether the measure is necessary, proportionate, or effective. Its a purely political measure, nothing more.

While prisoners are in jail for breaking the law, they deserve better than to be treated as a punching bag by a bullying government desperate to appeal to the vicious old sadists of the "hang 'em high" brigade.

Arrogance

Yesterday, in one of the most effective student protests in years, 400 students blockaded a major Auckland street for several hours over cuts to student funding. Bill English's response?

"Yes, there's a protest movement out there but who's really listening to them?" English said, in response to a question from the audience.

"They get on TV and they can make a bit of a racket ... dragging a few rubbish bins around, they need some Greeks to show them how to do it," he said.

Firstly, this is the usual arrogance we've come to expect from the National Party. "A few peasants are protesting? Well, its not as if their opinions matter, is it? Its not as if they're bankers or the gambling industry..." But apart from that, English ought to be careful what he wishes for. In Greece, protest means pitched battles in front of Parliament and Ministers unable to appear in public for fear of being lynched by an angry mob of now-destitute people. And its ended up that way precisely because their government has expressed the arrogant, dismissive attitude to popular discontent displayed here by English.

Police drunk in charge of guns

Alcohol and firearms don't mix, to the extent that being drunk in charge of a firearm is a criminal offence. But apparently, it's OK if you are a member of the New Zealand Police:

Fourteen armed offenders squad members who responded to a hostage siege in Opunake in which a gunman was shot dead had been drinking beforehand, police have revealed.

[...]

Assistant Commissioner operations Nick Perry said the fact members of the AOS had been drinking before responding came to light during the inquiry into Ratahi's shooting.

The amount of alcohol drunk by the officers varied from a glass of wine with a meal to five pints during the previous five hours, Mr Perry said.

The officer who fired the fatal shot had not been drinking, but it really makes you wonder how many other times police are pissed on duty, or have their judgement impaired by "a few drinks" before work? We know they have a heavy-drinking culture, but when they're on-call, that's pretty obviously inconsistent with the job.

Naturally, no criminal charges have been laid - laws are for peasants, not the boys in blue - but it has at least resulted in a change in policy to clarify that AOS members rostered on for duty may not drink. It remains to be seen whether that policy will be adhered to in practice, or whether police will actually punish those of their own who violate it.

How it works in PNG

Last year, Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court ruled that the ousting of Prime Minister Michael Somare was unconstitutional and ordered his reinstatement, sparking a constitutional crisis. The government, military and police ignored the ruling, but the crisis simmered on, with a law purporting to give the government the power to remove Supreme Court Justices (quickly declared unconstitutional), and efforts to delay scheduled elections. Now it has flared back up.

The original ruling was confirmed on appeal in a split decision. The point is fairly moot, as elections are less than a month away, but the constitutional principle is still important. The government's response was for the Deputy Prime Minister to personally lead a squad of soldiers and police to the Supreme Court to arrest the Chief Justice for "sedition". The charge is ludicrous - you can't prosecute a judge for a ruling you disagree with - but what's worse is the contempt shown here for the separation of powers and the rule of law. Politicians dictating charges, using the military as a political tool, and directly involving themselves in arrests. A government disobeying the court. These are the actions of dictators, not an elected government.

And now, as a result, another faction of police is blockading Parliament, apparently in an effort to stop it from meeting and delaying elections...

This shows how fragile the constitutional norms underlying democratic societies are. In Papua New Guinea, those norms - always weak - now seem to have broken down completely.

Thursday, May 24, 2012



Playing with fire

Over the weekend, in an extraordinary racist outburst, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that illegal African immigrants threatened the Jewish identity of Israel. Today, we saw the effects of that: race-riots in Tel-Aviv:

Dozens of African asylum seekers were injured as race riots broke out in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night.

Thousands of protesters joined politicians to protest against the arrival of an estimated 60,000 asylum seekers in Israel in recent years. But after inflammatory speeches the demonstration broke out into violence.

Witnesses reported seeing men and women being beaten and shops and properties being attacked. Police said nine people were arrested.

This is what happens when you play with fire, and deliberately whip up hatred of a minority group for political gain. And you would expect an Israeli Prime Minister of all people to know that.

More nonsensical projections

Today's budget included the Budget Economic and Fiscal Update, the government's forecast of economic performance, which underlies its projections of the government books. And as usual, it has some heroic assumptions about unemployment and wage growth [PDF, p. 3]. Unemployment will apparently remain above 5% all the way to 2015. Meanwhile, wages are expected to grow by nearly 4% a year over that period.

As I've pointed out before, this flies in the face of the historical record. We don't get that sort of wage growth without unemployment below 4% and labour laws designed to promote collective bargaining. So, Treasury is basically publicly dreaming - just as they have every other Budget.

So what does this mean? I think the table below, from the Risks and Scenarios chapter [PDF, p. 9] speaks volumes:

budget2012risks

Basically, if they fail to meet those wage-growth dreams, then that's their 2015 surplus gone. And given that they are already planning to enact "reforms" to crush collective bargaining, I think we can say it now: there will be no surplus in 2015.

Shuffling the deckchairs

Bill English is presenting the Budget at the moment. The first impression? He's shuffling the deckchairs. Money is being shifted from one program to another, usually at the expense of the poor, but the fundamental problems facing the government - the tax cuts for the rich which have crashed the books - remain unaddressed.

Apparently, there will be a surplus in 2015. In reality, exports just dropped by 17% today. So if you believe their forecast of surplus nirvana, I have a round building in Wellington to sell you.

As noted above, the victims of the government's changes are largely the poor. The low-income tax credit will be cut. Prescription charges will be increased. ECE subsidies will be cut (on the Treasury-logic that doing so will somehow increase participation). The latter in particular is hugely shortsighted, in that ECE is one of the most beneficial investments a government can make. But National regards it as babysitting, so it gets cut to allow the rich to keep their tax cuts.

Students, of course, get whacked with a big stick. Allowance threshold freezes, student loan repayment increases, no allowances for postgrad (which also means teacher training). The message is clear: tertiary education isn't worth it. Or, if it is, its because you're fleeing to Australia and leaving your debt behind you.

This is a budget without hope and without solutions. And if its National's vision for New Zealand, then its time we got rid of them.

Looking out for their mates

Today is Budget Day, and while we're waiting, the Greens have released an analysis [PDF] which shows what National has done to us so far. The short version: looking out for their rich mates:

New research by the Green Party shows an ordinary working family could be more than $11,000 worse off this year due to budget changes made by the National Government, while high income earners are better off by tens of thousands.

A single mother, working part-time while retraining, could have lost a sixth of her income – nearly $6000 – due to policy changes that are entrenching inequality in New Zealand.

[...]

Meanwhile, the research shows families in the top 10 percent income threshold are more than $12,000 a year better off under National.

“And on John Key’s prime ministerial salary, he would have an extra $19,000 to spend each year.

Under National, ordinary kiwis get screwed, in order to further enrich those at the top. It is robbing from the poor to pay the greedy rich.

This is not fair, it is not just, and it is not right. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

Sentenced

Two of the Urewera 4 have been sentenced - Tame Iti and Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara to two and a half years' imprisonment. Urs Signer and Emily Bailey's sentencing has been adjourned pending a hearing on home detention, but the signal is that they will get something on the order of six months.

The fact that the obviously Maori defendants have received the harshest sentences, despite being convicted on identical charges to Bailey, is I'm sure pure coincidence. Or maybe I've just missed the part of the Sentencing Act where it says that brown skin moko is an aggravating factor.

Meanwhile, the judge in his sentencing comments said that "A private militia was being established". Which suggests strongly that the defendants are being sentenced for a crime they were not convicted of. The jury rejected these fantasies; the judge should do likewise.

There will no doubt be an appeal. In the meantime, the obvious discrepancy in the sentences, and apparent punishment for an unproven crime will undermine the perceived fairness of the sentences, and of the justice system itself.

Update: Yes, Bailey is Maori. At the same time, there's a pretty obvious difference in appearance here, and its one which plays to common prejudices. I've corected the post to make it clearer where I think the problem lies.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012



Rotten to the core

First, we learned that members of the London Metropolitan Police were taking bribes to corruptly provide information to Sun journalists. Now we learn that the Met's anti-corruption unit has been doing the same:

Scotland Yard is investigating allegations that detectives working for its anti-corruption unit have been paid thousands of pounds by a firm of private investigators.

A parliamentary inquiry was told today that invoices, also seen by the Guardian, purport to show how a firm of private investigators made payments in return for information about the Metropolitan police investigation into James Ibori, a notorious Nigerian fraudster.

On Tuesday, the Commons home affairs select committee was told by a lawyer involved in the case that invoices showed about £20,000 of potential payments to police officers in what amounted to an undetected case of "apparent corruption right at the heart of Scotland Yard".

UK police seem to be rotten to the core.

Noses in the trough

The annual Register of Pecuniary and Other Specified Interests of Members of Parliament [PDF] has been released, and the big story this year seems to be just how many of our MPs had their noses in the corporate trough at the Rugby World Cup:

The MPs register of pecuniary interests, released today, has revealed that almost all of the cabinet attended games as guests of Sky TV, Westpac, Fonterra, Vector and other big corporates.

Labour MPs Clayton Cosgrove, Grant Robertson, Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff and Kris Faafoi were guests of Sky City.

The casino firm is behind a controversial deal for a national convention centre.

Among those who took advantage of the rugby freebies were Paula Bennett, David Carter - who was hosted by Fonterra, KPMG and Westpac - Judith Collins, Peter Dunne, Tim Groser, Nathan Guy, Phil Heatley, Steven Joyce, Nick Smith and Kate Wilkinson.

Labour leader David Shearer received 12 free tickets to various games - two for a pool game came from Sky City. He was a guest of Sky TV at the final and Telecom at the opening ceremony.

The revelation that Labour accepted Sky City's hospitality is particularly damaging, and creates an image of hypocrisy. It also highlights the danger of MPs accepting gifts from anyone: no matter how innocuous, it will be perceived by the public as compromise.

Speaking of compromise, Rajen Prasad reported receiving director's fees from Bank of Baroda. Not only does this create an obvious conflict of interest (he's a paid employee of a bank sitting in our Parliament), it also raises questions about his effectiveness as a representative. MPs are supposed to be full-time representatives, and are generously remunerated as such. Outside employment undermines that, and invites the question of why we're paying him. Though it perhaps explains Prasad's virtual invisibility in Parliament...

Other highlights: John Key received an awful lot of expensive gifts from New Zealand companies, including meat from CMP (before or after the strike, I wonder?), clothing from 3 Wise Men (an Auckland suit store), and Whiskey from Pernod Ricard. Again, compromise. While the $50 million man would no doubt pooh-pooh a gift as trifling as a mere five hundred dollar (minimum) meat-pack, from this end of society it looks like a bribe. Not to mention inconsistent with the spirit of the Cabinet Manual (though not with its letter: obviously Key simply gave himself permission to retain them - a decision rife with conflict). Again, the public's expectation is clear: we want clean politicians. And that means simply not accepting such gifts.

For a living wage

The Service And Food Workers Union kicked off a campaign in Auckland today for a living wage: a wage sufficient to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life and allow them to live with dignity and participate fully in society. In theory, that's what the minimum wage is meant to do. But it has been eroded and eroded and eroded, to the extent that those receiving it can barely scrape by.

The campaign will focus on calculating a living wage, then on persuading employers - and particularly central and local government and their contractors - to agree to pay it. There are obvious advantages for employees, and for employers - lower staff turnover and absenteeism, higher productivity and morale, and an improved public image - and a similar campaign in the UK is already delivering benefits. Hopefully the SFWU's campaign will be even more successful.

The biggest problem with our economy is not government debt; it is low living standards, caused by low wages. If we want to "close the gap with Australia" (as the government insists it is doing, while implementing policies to do the opposite), we need to target wages directly.

If you'd like to get involved inthe campaign, you can contact them here.

National increases inequality

Campbell Live has been running a series on living on the median income in New Zealand, which pointed out that the median household income fell last year, while the average rose. Browsing back through old Household Economic Surveys, it looks like the median household income has dropped by roughly $1000 over the past few years, from $63,900 in 2009 to $62,900 in 2011 (these are from rounded decile boundaries, so its pretty crude, but the pattern is clear).

(I am assuming here that these are real figures. If not, then inflation makes the change even more extreme, as can be seen using the RBNZ's online calculator).

Meanwhile, the average household income has risen by the same amount, from roughly $78,019 in 2009 to $79,159 in 2011.

We've seen this pattern before, during the 80's and 90's. When the median falls while the average rises, it means that incomes are dropping at the bottom and growing at the top. Or, in English: the rich are making out like bandits, while ordinary kiwis are going backwards, making us a more unequal society.

This is what National does to New Zealand. They did it in the 90's, they're doing it now. And its not just unfair that they arrange policy to advantage themselves and their rich mates at the cost of the rest of us; such inequality imposes real costs on everyone, in the form of worse health, education, and violence in our society.

Tomorrow's budget promises more of the same, with public services slashed to protect tax cuts for the rich. It will do nothing to reduce this inequality, or restore the living standards of ordinary kiwis.

New Fisk

Cloud of Syria's war hangs over Lebanese cleric's death

Tuesday, May 22, 2012



Shane Jones made the right decision

Shane Jones has come clean to 3 News on why he granted Bill Liu citizenship against official advice: because an Internal Affairs official told him that Liu would be arrested, convicted, executed, and his organs harvested if he was sent back to China. And he claims to have the file note to prove it.

Fair enough. Under those circumstances there's a clear humanitarian case. So clear, in fact, that it would be unlawful to remove Liu from the country. We don't extradite people to execution. We don't deport them to it either. Any Minister in Jones' position would have made exactly the same decision. And if not, the courts would have made it for them.

I guess the question now is why Immigration didn't get the memo about this.

A miscarriage of justice

The Herald over the weekend had a story about what appears to be an appalling miscarriage of justice. Back in 1994, 17-year-old gang associate called Teina Pora was arrested and convicted of a particularly nasty rape and murder, after making multiple, inconsistent, and in some cases provably false "confessions". But in 1996, DNA evidence showed that serial rapist Malcolm Rewa had in fact committed the crime. Rewa was tried twice, but acquitted, largely because the police had already convicted someone else of the crime. As for Pora, he got a retrial, which convicted him because of Rewa's acquittal. He's been in jail now for almost twenty years, for a crime which it appears he did not commit (and of course can't be granted parole because he refuses to admit guilt).

The police, of course, don't want to know. They've got their man (well, a man), and reopening the case would be messy ad ruin the stats (not to mention result in embarrassing questions about how they got a teenager to confess to something he didn't do). As with Arthur Allen Thomas, police prestige is apparently more important to them than justice. And then they wonder why people don't trust them...

Pora has applied for a retrial under the prerogative of mercy. Hopefully he'll get it. But is a bit haphazard. In the UK, there is a specialist body, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, specifically to assess possible miscarriages of justice. It sounds like we need one of those here as well.

National does a good thing for once

The government is banning foreign charter fishing vessels, requiring them to be reflagged in order to fish in New Zealand waters. Good. What's been allowed to go on on these ships - slavery, beatings, sexual abuse, unsafe working conditions - is an absolute scandal, which shames us all. We should not be allowing it to happen in New Zealand. And now, we won't.

But while this will prevent the problem from happening in future, there's still one aspect that needs to be dealt with. Slavery is a crime in New Zealand. Assault is a crime in New Zealand. Rape is a crime in New Zealand. Killing and maiming your workers is a crime in New Zealand. These crimes need to be punished. Those who ran the slave ships and those who hired them need to be held to account in the courts. Until we do that, the stain of this crime will remain.

A victory for worker's rights

The Affco dispute has finally been settled, with the union retaining collective bargaining rights, employment security, and their wages. Given that the Talley brothers' goal was explicitly to crush the union and remove those provisions, this can only be seen as a victory for worker's rights. At the same time, these workers were locked out for twelve weeks in an effort to rob them of basic employment protections: the right to belong to a union, the right to set working hours, and the right to a safe workplace. That should never have happened.

Meanwhile, it seems that the Iwi Leadership Group played a big role in forcing Affco to a settlement. This is good to see. Approximately 75% of union members at Affco are Maori, and its great to see iwi standing up for their members like this.

Saved

The Mokihinui River has been saved:

A decision by Meridian Energy to exit a controversial Mokihinui hydro project on the West Coast has been welcomed by environmental groups and the Department of Conservation.

Meridian Energy announced this morning that it will not proceed with the project that had been planned for the West Coast of the South Island, citing high costs and risks surrounding a project that encroached on environmentally sensitive land.

The project has been formally withdrawn from the Environment Court process, the state-owned energy firm said.

Good. I support hydro power, but not at the cost of flooding such an environmentally sensitive area. And its not as if we're so short of options to generate electricity that we have to make such choices. The proposed dam was the equivalent of a single medium-sized windfarm, which could be built elsewhere with far lower environmental impact.

Exposing Nathan Guy's racism

Back in March, Immigration Minister Nathan Guy went on TV to explain the government's crackdown on immigration. His reasoning?

During the interview the Minister confirmed "…. those [immigrants] that have been coming in previously have been very reliant on benefits. Even though they have had to have a job offer, in a lot of cases we have found that after a study we have done on the first 18 months that a third of them have ended up requiring a benefit."

The Minister went on to say that "Hard working taxpayers in New Zealand need to know that their money is being well invested, not spent on people sitting around on benefits".

It was a nasty little dogwhistle, which both smeared immigrants as shiftless layabouts, while also telling those thinking of coming here that they had poor employment prospects and might as well not bother. But, as exposed by Move2NZ using the OIA, it was based on some very shonky figures:
Information used by Mr Guy was taken from the Department of Labour's Long Term Immigration Survey (LISNZ) which followed 5,144 migrants who took up residency in New Zealand between November 2004 and October 2005. Data was collected at 6 months, 18 months and 36 months after arrival.

However the LISNZ confirms in its summarised May 2009 report entitled ‘New Faces, New Futures, New Zealand’ that: "less than 2% [of migrants surveyed] had received a core benefit".

Responding to a request lodged by Bell under the OIA about his comments on "migrants claiming benefits, Mr Guy responded: "only 66% of migrants who obtained residence through the Sibling and Adult Child Category reported having a job when surveyed 18 months after taking up permanent residence in New Zealand."

(Emphasis added)

There are two problems here. The first is that the Minister confuses "not being in paid work" with "being on a benefit". I guess students, retirees, and parents just don't exist in his world. Secondly, the Sibling and Adult Child Category makes up just 2.5% of residence applications. So the Minister is using statistics relating to a tiny fraction of immigrants - which show that yes, they too go to university, care for children, and get old - to demonise everyone who comes here as shiftless bludgers, in blatant contradiction of the facts. But clearly, the Minister is pretty comfortable with that.

Monday, May 21, 2012



National's Big Lie

National's Big Lie since taking office has been to blame Labour (which consistently ran surpluses - a fact national complained loudly about at the time) for the poor state of the government books. And it has succeeded. According to a poll by Fairfax, voters blame Labour for the debt. Meanwhile, courtesy of Paul Le Comte on Twitter, here's the facts:

That ballooning debt? Its all National's. And its time we held them to account for it.

Corruption in the police

Stories of police letting people off charges in exchange for sexual favours are something that happens in American fiction such as The Shield, right? It doesn't happen here in clean, non-corrupt New Zealand, right?

Not any more:

A police officer has been charged with corruption for seeking sexual favours in exchange for dropping an alleged driving offence.

Police said the officer was suspended from duty in February and appeared in court today over the charge.

It was alleged he had sought a bribe of sexual favours in return for not proceeding with a prosecution for a driving offence, police said.

Its good that the police are prosecuting, rather than covering this up as they did with police rapes. At the same time, its a terrible blow to the integrity of our police force. And if officers are getting caught doing this, it makes you wonder what other corrupt practices they're getting up to.

The cost of low rates

"Rates are too high" is one of the mantras of local body politics. We hear it every year from businesses and residents groups when councils set their budgets. We hear it every three years from councillors seeking (re)election. And we hear it increasingly from central government, which has brought into the whole ideology of low rates just as it has for low taxes.

Meanwhile, in Auckland, people are seeing just what low rates gets you: stormwater pipes at risk of collapse:

Hundreds of kilometres of Auckland's ageing stormwater network are not up to scratch and at risk of collapse.

ONE News has obtained council documents and a map showing the strain the system is under.

The pink areas on the map show where a staggering 375km of bad pipes lie underneath Auckland suburbs, in need of priority repair or replacement.

The worst areas are in west Auckland, the North Shore and Hibiscus Coast.

The council plans to fix the pipes slowly over the next 20 years, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But with winter coming, officials admit pipes could collapse under the pressure of wet weather.

They've already had some pipes fail, causing millions of dollars of damage. And unless the pipes are fixed, there will be more.

This is what low rates gets you: failing public services, and a big bill in the future. Its not a "saving", its just a way of putting off costs while letting them grow. And we shouldn't fall for it. If we want public services that work, we have to actually pay for them.

Labour gives up

Labour's election policy of raising the retirement age (after they've all got theirs, of course) was one of the stupidest moves of the election campaign. Presumably, it was meant to signal fiscal credibility - "Labour tackling the big problems which National are afraid to face" or some such narrative. Instead, it signalled that Labour was giving up on social solidarity, and wanted to impose another student loan scale intergenerational inequity (and on the very same victims, to boot).

So naturally, David Shearer is pushing it again:

Labour leader David Shearer has revived calls to raise the pension age and is calling on National to support the policy.

In a speech due to be delivered today, Shearer said the existing pension age of 65 was unsustainable and the Government should be "straight up" with people about that fact.

"Labour will be straight - the status quo is unsustainable. We need a genuine cross-party solution that ensures a fair outcome for everyone, especially those who need to retire earlier and as we move to a gradual rise in retirement age."

Of course, its only "unsustainable" if you rule out policies such as increasing taxes now to pre-fund retirement costs (which is what the Cullen fund was supposed to do). But expecting Boomers in their peak earning years to pay more of the costs of their own retirement would apparently be unfair. So we have to further punish their children, already denied the education and healthcare their parents received, by expecting them to work longer to fund their parents in their twilight years.

(As for "sustainability", Labour might want to think about the political sustainability of that plan, and what it does to their values of social equality and solidarity to set up a straight-out intergenerational conflict like that).

Again, as noted when Labour first drank this kool-aid, longer life-expectancies provide a moderate argument for a slight increase. Against that, we have significant ethnic disparities in life-expectancy (meaning: Maori will be expected to pay for a benefit they will never receive), plus the above-mentioned intergenerational inequities. If Labour really wants to confront this issue, it needs to put all the policy options - including higher taxes and pre-funding - on the table. If they won't, then they've basically given up on the entire left-wing project. And in that case, I don't see any reason for anyone who believes in equality, in progressive taxation, in generous social services to vote for them.

New Fisk

Megrahi is dead. Now we'll never know the truth about Lockerbie
The Belfast hotel where you check in but never leave

"Assurances"

So. Shane Jones has assured David Shearer that he did not behave corruptly in granting Bill Liu citizenship against official advice. And Shearer has accepted those assurances. Which means that if any evidence emerges that Jones has been less than honest, he should be finished (at least if Shearer has any spine).

Unfortunately, Shearer isn't exactly looking hard to make sure that evidence doesn't exist:

Although he did not have access to departmental records, he had looked at the information Mr Jones provided him from the time and "it appears that the process through which Yong Ming Yan was granted citizenship was considered and proper."
Of course, those departmental records are subject to the Official Information Act. Will Shearer's office OIA them? Because other people certainly will be...

Friday, May 18, 2012



Must-read: Nagel on MMP

The latest Policy Quarterly has a fascinating article by political scientist jack Nagel on "Evaluating Democracy in New Zealand under MMP" [PDF]. Nagel assesses our MMP experience against some basic democratic questions: do majorities rule? Do governments receive support from the median voter? Are there permanent minorities or perpetual parties of government? Do small parties have disproportionate power? He finds that our MMP system has performed well, with answers of yes, yes, no, and no respectively. The information on median voters and time spent in government or as an ally of government in particular is fascinating, and shows that MMP is delivering the governments we vote for, and that there is a high degree of political movement, meaning our politics avoids both complacency and corruption, or pushes permanently-excluded minorities to non-democratic alternatives.

Nagel attributes this success to several factors. Our system is - thanks to the electorate lifeboat, which acts as a correction on the 5% threshold - highly proportional. We have multiple minor parties, meaning multiple possible majorities. We have developed a culture of minority government, with ad-hoc coalitions on non-core legislation. And (despite National's efforts over NZ First) we have no "pariah" parties, which are a major cause of instability in both anti-MMP whipping-boys, (pre-Berlusconi) Italy and Israel.

As for the implications for the current review, Nagel thinks that our high degree of proportionality is crucial, and so recommends against removing the electorate lifeboat unless there is a significant reduction in the MMP threshold to 3%. Obviously I'd go lower (we shouldn't have a threshold, and then electorates would be irrelevant), but if there is to be a trade-off, it must be one which advances democracy rather than undermining it.

[Hat-tip: Bryce Edwards]

Leading by example

France's new government formally took office yesterday, and their first act was to give themselves a 30% pay cut. It seems appropriate in these tight times, where governments are demanding sacrifices from their citizens, for them to lead by example.

Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, our government is imposing austerity, and demanding greater cutbacks in the services it provides to ordinary kiwis, while leaving their own fat Ministerial salaries unchanged. Shouldn't they also lead by example? Or are we expected to tolerate a pack of fat cats telling us to tighten our belts while resolutely refusing to do the same themselves?

(Yes, I'm aware that Ministerial salaries are set by the Remuneration Authority. I'm also aware that Parliament can pass laws. One of these trumps the other).

Why aren't we doing this here?

The BBC has an interesting piece on the European Marine Energy Centre, a facility in Orkney used to test wave and tidal turbines against the roughest conditions nature can throw at them. It provides a berth, power cable and bad weather - and technology companies are lining up to use it to test their designs.

Which invites the question: why aren't we doing this sort of thing here? New Zealand's marine energy potential has been estimated at 7000 MW of generation [PDF] - about 70% of our total installed capacity. A purpose built research facility would help exploit that resource, as well as helping build a wave-energy sector as a potential export industry.

If we want to shift our energy generation to more renewable sources, we actually need to do something about it. "Leaving it to the market" (with the odd piddling research grant) simply won't cut it.

Deeply disturbing

That's the only way to describe the claims, made in court today in an immigration fraud case, that a man would be granted citizenship because he had MPs in his pocket:

A Chinese millionaire on trial in the High Court at Auckland for fraud boasted to immigration officials that he had MP friends who would ensure he got citizenship.

The high-ranking officials were stunned when then Cabinet minister Shane Jones approved the application one day after getting his file. They were certain Yong Ming Yan, also known as Bill Liu, who had been red-flagged by Interpol, stood little chance.

But Yan leaned back in his chair, with his arms behind his head, and said he was 99 per cent confident he would get citizenship, the court was told yesterday.

"He said he had a lot of support from members of Parliament ... he was going to take them to China," Internal Affairs case officer Olele Johannes Gambo said.

The decision to grant Yan / Liu / whatever he calls himself this week citizenship seems to have been wholly unreasonable, and deserves a public explanation from those responsible. Obviously, they shouldn't give that explanation in the middle of a court case, as it could be prejudicial to the defendant's fair trial rights. But once this is over, I think we deserve an explanation from Shane Jones about exactly why he did it. Because absent one, the natural suspicion is that such an unreasonable and unjustifiable decision can only have been the result of corruption.

Update 22/05/2012: Jones has now given that explanation, and I think it is convincing.

Thursday, May 17, 2012



Fiji's homophobic regime

Fiji's military regime has cancelled a gay rights march:

Meanwhile, the march through city streets planned for tonight to mark support for gays, lesbians and transgendered, has been cancelled.

The early evening march had a permit, allowing it to proceed from the Flea Market to Ratu Sukuna Park.

According to organisers, the Fiji Police Force cancelled the permit, saying quote…“we didn’t realise that this was a march for gays and les” unquote.

Organisers also say that according to police, they had received a directive from the Ministry of Defence to cancel the march.

So, Fiji's military doesn't like gays. Why am I not surprised?

Highways and fiscal responsibility

This week the government is pre-announcing the Budget, softening us up for higher prescription charges, fewer teachers, and a further assault on beneficiaries. Meanwhile, they're spending billions on "Roads of National Significance" that do not meet basic cost-benefit tests, to service a declining demand for road transport.

The Greens are right: this is not "fiscally responsible". It is waste, pure and simple. And if we cut it, we wouldn't be needing to cut the education, health and welfare services that ordinary kiwis depend on.

Justice for Khaled el-Masri

In 2003, Khaled el-Masri, a German car-salesman, was kidnapped by the CIA in Macedonia. He was rendered to a CIA's secret CIA prison in Afghanistan for interrogation, during which he was beaten, tortured, and raped. Why? Because the CIA couldn't spell; they thought he was Khalid al-Masri, al-Qaeda mastermind. When they realised their mistake after four months of torture, they dumped him on a roadside in Albania without funds to return home, let alone an apology.

Now, the Macedonian government is going on trial before the European Court of Human Rights for its complicity in el-Masri's kidnapping and torture:

The grand chamber of the European court of human rights in Strasbourg began hearing a case brought by el-Masri's lawyers which alleges a breach of his European Convention rights to liberty and freedom from torture.

Several other European states are expected to face proceedings before the European court as more details emerge of complicity in acts committed during the US's post-9/11 counter-terrorism operations.

The Macedonian government has insisted that while its police did detain el-Masri, he was later permitted to leave the country for Kosovo. That claim is expected to be contradicted at court by a statement from a former Macedonian government minister.

[...]

Inquiries by the Council of Europe and the German Bundestag have also largely corroborated el-Masri's account. In December 2010, US diplomatic cables posted on the internet by WikiLeaks showed that American diplomats persuaded Germany not to seek the extradition of several US officials allegedly involved in el-Masri's rendition, following an investigation by the Bavarian state prosecutor's office.

Its a civil case, so no-one will go to jail. But it will mean that the truth about this crime will finally be officially acknowledged. And that at least will be some justice.

Will Parliament hold its own to account?

Parliament is less than six months old, and already we've had the first case of an MP falsifying their pecuniary interest declaration, with John Banks failing to declare a $1000 gift from Kim Dotcom. I guess people just give him thousand-dollar gift baskets all the time, so it just slipped his mind. Anyway, he will be adding it to his return of pecuniary interests. But in doing so, he will be admitting that his initial disclosure was false.

Which is a problem. Knowingly falsifying your pecuniary interest disclosure is a contempt of Parliament (Standing Order 407(h)). Which raises the question: will Banks be held to account for this breach of Standing Orders? Or will MPs look the other way as they have done in the past?

This is important. The credibility of Parliament is at stake. Either these rules mean something, or they don't. And if MPs fail to enforce them, then they will confirm the public's perception of a culture of corruption and a conspiracy of silence around it.

An interesting question

Why are we paying for Murray McCully to stay in hotels in Auckland?

According to his latest Ministerial credit card receipts [PDF, p. 12], we paid for McCully to spend two nights at the Heritage Hotel in Auckland. The expense is justified as "accommodation during RWC". This would be entirely uncontentious, except for one thing: McCully represents an Auckland electorate, and I am informed he is on the electoral roll there. Which means he has a home of his own to go to in Auckland. So again, why the hotel?

As rorts go, its a small one; its not as if he's being paid tens of thousands of dollars a year to live in his own home in Wellington. But its still unacceptable. Ministers are given credit cards to cover actual, reasonable and necessary expenses - not because they feel like spending a night of luxury on the taxpayer, or just can't be arsed driving home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012



Back to his old habits

Back when Ministerial expenses were first released, they came with a shock: Murry McCully's habit of buying $185 / bottle wine on the taxpayer's credit card. Over the last few releases he seems to have restrained himself, but now he's back to his old habits: his latest credit card statements [PDF, p. 6] show an NZ$1200 feast for 8, including an A$175 (=NZ$233) bottle of Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay.

Again, hosting dinners is part of McCully's role, but there's ordinary extravagance (it seems usual for Ministers to drop $70 - $100 a head on food) and extraordinary extravagance. And this is definitely in the latter category.

Isn't there a name for this?

So, it turns out that John Banks asked Kim Dotcom for another donation when he was running for Epsom, and promised to be a "very good friend" to Dotcom if elected.

Isn't there a name for this?

Its one thing to ask for a political donation. But this goes well beyond that. If Tempero is to be believed, Banks explicitly offered to provide (undisclosed) political favours as an MP in exchange for cash. And that is simply criminal.

The Gambling Commission and "host responsibility"

SkyCity's dirty deal with the government or more pokies has meant further scrutiny of gambling in New Zealand. We've already seen some disturbing revelations about the Gambling Commission's relaxed monitoring of SkyCity Auckland's host responsibility program. And now, thanks to OIA site FYI, there's more.

First, some background: Casinos in New Zealand are required to have an Operator's Licence. This licence is granted by the Gambling Commission, and can be subject to conditions, which can be varied through a formal process. The licences for all New Zealand casinos can be found here. Every single one of them has a condition requiring the casino to have a host responsibility programme, which must meet certain conditions and be displayed on its website. Every single one of them also requires the casino to report annually (six monthly in the case of SkyCity Auckland) to the Gambling Commission on the implementation of that programme, and for the Gambling Commission to review that programme every two years.

Someone used FYI to ask for the dates of all such reports and reviews. The response was that with the exception of SkyCity Auckland (which has reported as required, but has never been reviewed), there weren't any [PDF]. A clarification from the Gambling Commission stated:

The first of the new HRPs was introduced into SkyCity in Auckland in 2007 at which point a reporting/review system was introduced. The choice of review method and why it varied from the original conception was explained in our letter.

As a result of that experience two further HRPs are soon to be released drawing on the Auckland experience – SkyCity Hamilton and Queenstown – after which a 12 monthly monitoring requirement will be introduced for them also.

The last three casinos – Christchurch, Dunedin and Wharf - will follow the same process once their HRPs are completed.

All these programmes are evolutionary and seek to lift the practice of casinos above the minimum requirements of the law, which all currently meet.

Which sounds fine. Except that the licence conditions talk about the host responsibility programmes as actually existing documents. For example, Dunedin Casino's licence [PDF] (which was varied in May 2008 [PDF], and the relevant sections do not appear to have been changed since), says:
Host Responsibility Programme means the Responsible Gambling Programme approved by the Authority in May 2002, as may be substituted or amended in accordance with licence conditions.
And here it is on their website, as required by the licence. So why is the Gambling Commission saying that it does not exist?

(As a side note: licence conditions can be varied, but this is a formal process, requiring notification to the casino, the Secretary of Internal Affairs, and other interested parties such as problem gambling groups, as well as formal submissions and notification of the decision. all Gambling Commission decisions are online here. I cannot find any which vary any casino's host responsibility programme to remove or waive reporting requirements).

This raises several questions, most notably whether the systematic failure to report puts all casinos (except SkyCity Auckland) in violation of their licences? But it also raises the question of whether the Gambling Commission is doing its job properly.

A competant authority would have noticed that it was not receiving reports. A competant authority would have demanded them. A competant authority would have threatend to suspend licences unless they were received. But as we already know, the Gambling Commission isn't competant. They don't do their job in regards to SkyCity Auckland, and they don't do it for other casinos. So why are we paying them a million dollars a year?

This needs to be investigated. The question is whether the Minister will step up, and demand that the Commission do its job - or whether they'll continue to look the other way on this rank incompetence and failure.