Tuesday, July 31, 2012



A tainted conviction

A Fijian court has convicted former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase of corruption and abuse of office. The charges date from before he entered politics, and carry a potential jail sentence. Normally I'd be celebrating the conviction of a corrupt politician, because its important for all of us that those that abuse their office are held to account. But the problem is that thanks to the Fijian regime's corruption of the judicial system and undermining of judicial independence, we can't actually have any faith in the verdict. Fiji's coup has indelibly tainted this verdict. And if you oppose corruption and want to see it eliminated, that's a very bad thing indeed.

NZ First comes out for bigotry

NZ First has announced that it wants a referendum on marriage equality, and so will be opposing Louisa Wall's bill.

This is probably a fair reflection of their elderly supporters' bigotry. At the same time, its deeply worrying, in that they think that matters of fundamental rights should be subject to a popular vote. Though somehow, I suspect they'd be less keen if it was their fundamental rights (e.g. to vote, to enjoy equal treatment under the law, or to live) in question.

Referenda are generally a good idea. But not where people's fundamental rights are concerned. People shouldn't be able to vote to have other people killed. And they shouldn't be able to vote to deny them full citizenship.

The other shoe drops in Christchurch

So, having dictated that Christchurch must spend a fortune on a covered stadium and a convention centre, Gerry Brownlee is now effectively demanding that they sell their assets to do so:

The pressure is coming on the Christchurch City Council to sell some assets to fund its share of the rebuild less than 24 hours after the release of the central city blueprint.

Today Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee reminded the Christchurch City Council it faces a big bill for some of the public facilities in the central city blueprint and it has options to deal with that.

At a breakfast of more than 200 business people this morning the minister did not directly call on the council to sell or partially sell some of its assets but alluded to that.

The Christchurch City Council owns its bus company and roading contractor, as well as majority stakes in Orion Energy, Lyttelton Port, Christchurch International Airport and Enable Networks. These are worth over $1.5 billion, and return healthy dividends to the Council which help to keep rates low. Selling them to fund Brownle's white elephants (which will not return these sorts of dividends) is simply madness. But then, this isn't about sensible financial decisions; instead, like the government's plans to sell its own assets, it is about ideology and wealth transfer, nothing more.

America's decline into totalitarianism

Spying on journalists and writers critical of the government is one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism. But thanks to the "war on terror", its now happening in America:

New documents reveal that the federal Counter-Terrorism Unit is creating reports and maintaining files about the writing, interviews, and lectures of journalists who are critical of the government’s repression of political activists.

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request in coordination with the Center for Constitutional Rights, raise a wide range of civil rights concerns... These documents show that the unit, which operates through the federal Bureau of Prisons, regularly maintains files on explicitly First Amendment activity.

Ostensibly, this is being done to prevent terrorist attacks. In reality, it seems that any activity critical of the government is being redefined as "terrorism" so it can be spied on, policed and discouraged. Yet another way in which the "war on terror" is fatally undermining US democracy.

A bad precedent comes home to roost

A couple of years ago, the Palmerston North City Council wanted to build a windfarm. But there was a problem: the proposed location was a reserve, where uses other than those specified (in this case, water conservation). So, the PNCC changed the purpose of the reserve to include "renewable electricity generation". Et voila!, problem solved.

(The windfarm in question was consented by a Commission, but thanks to the conditions attached seems unlikely to be built anytime soon)

Now that precedent has come home to roost, with Hutt City Council wanting to change the purpose of Naenae's Walter Mildenhall Park to include the provision of social housing. Think about that for a moment: it means that absolutely no park or reserve in the country is safe. If a local authority wants to develop them, then they can just change their purpose to something else, subdivide them, and turn them into suburban streets.

Full details of Hutt City's proposal are here. People who oppose the circumvention of the Reserves Act in this way may wish to submit on them.

Monday, July 30, 2012



Undermining the RMA

Not content with perverting the RMA by writing development into its purposes, National is now talking about cutting people out of all significant RMA decisions:

The Government is looking at ways of speeding up approvals for big mining projects because endless court action is "frustrating" companies and costing them millions.

The Ministry for the Environment is investigating new laws which would allow granting of resource consents for "regionally significant" projects to be accelerated.

So who will decide what is "regionally significant"? You'd think it would be up to regions, but National wants to put that decision in the hands of central government. The upshot will be that almost all large projects go straight to the Minister for a decision, massively magnifying the potential for corruption (and oh look! National has just raised the disclosure limit on electoral donations, so we'll never see the quid pro quo). Meanwhile, the RMA will become a law which only applies to "little people". If you want to put up a tall fence, you'll need consent from the council. but if you're rich enough to grease the plam of the Minister, it will be a whole different story.

And again, I'm hearing that piggy little cackle behind Heatley's voice. Muldoon may be dead and buried, but his undemocratic authoritarian centralising tendencies are alive and well in the modern National Party.

The expected decision

The waitangi Tribunal has recommended that the government's asset sales programme be halted until the question of water rights has been resolved:

It said selling shares in state assets before the Tribunal delivered its full findings could "cause a significant disadvantage to [Maori] claimants" if their claims were subsequently found to be well-founded.

As a result, it said the status quo should be maintained and the Crown should not proceed with asset sales until the Tribunal had completed its report into the issue, expected in September.

Given past precedent on asset sales and alienation of redress, this is the expected decision. The question now is whether the government will listen, or whether it will risk a court injunction and a fight with its coalition partner by ignoring it.

More Olympic madness

So, in addition to not being allowed to say "Summer" or "London" for fear of the sporting mafia, and having to have surface-to-air missile batteries on top of their houses and soldiers on their streets, Londoners now can't go for a simple bike ride without being kettled, beaten, tear-gassed and detained:

Police have charged three people involved in a mass cycle procession in London during Friday's Olympic ceremony. They confirmed that a 13-year-old was among the 182 cyclists who were arrested in what is believed to be the UK's largest mass detention since last summer's riots.

Some of those arrested have told the Guardian they were kettled and detained through the night in a windowless police "garage" and single-decker buses.

The operation by the Metropolitan police was aimed at halting about 200 cyclists on the monthly Critical Mass bike ride from travelling in and around the Olympic Route Network as Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" opening spectacle unfolded.

The UK police's justification for these acts is section 12 of the Public Order Act, which allows them to impose conditions on protests which threaten "serious disruption to the life of the community". But the only thing disrupting the life of the community here is the Olympics. Rather than arresting citizens going about their ordinary lives (and then banning some of them from continuing their everyday legal activities), perhaps they should be looking at the Olympic organisers and those who decided to spend billions on hosting them instead.

New Fisk

Syrian war of lies and hypocrisy
For the minorities, even neutrality is unsafe

Key supports marriage equality

John Key has come out stronger in support of marriage equality, saying he is unlikely to change his mind and vote against at second reading. I guess he must have done some polling over the weekend. Still, it is good to see politicians listening on this, and doing the right thing.

This move will hopefully encourage more National MPs to back him, rather than sitting on the fence.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to lobby those MPs, the Equal Marriage campaign has a handy online tool here. Just remember to be polite; we need as many allies as possible on this.

Friday, July 27, 2012



Unprincipled

As everyone by now knows, Holly Walker's Lobbying Disclosure Bill was unanimously sent to select committee by the House on Wednesday night. The bill has flaws, and this will be a chance to fix them and bring some regulation to this area. Meanwhile, Labour has already put some stakes in the ground, offering amendments which would limit the bill to commercial organisations and exclude NGOs and trade unions from its scope.

Quite apart from introducing loopholes you could drive a busload of lobbyists through, this also undermines the objectives of the bill. "National, patriotic, religious, philanthropic, charitable, scientific, artistic, social, professional, or sporting" NGOs - and unions - are lobbyists just like everybody else, and therefore their lobbying should be disclosed. Trying to exempt them simply makes it look like Labour thinks the rules shouldn't apply to their mates. And that is neither principled nor fair.

I will be submitting on the bill specifically to oppose these proposed amendments. I suggest others who want proper transparency (rather than just transparency for people Labour doesn't like) do likewise.

A milestone

The Greens have collected 100,000 signatures for the Keep Our Assets referendum petition, meeting their initial target in just four months. As for overall campaign,

The 100,000 figure is for the Greens alone. Other members of the coalition have also collected tens of thousands of signatures. The speed at which signatures are being collected makes an accurate combined total difficult, but it is approaching 200,000 and the coalition as a whole is collecting around 2,000 signatures a day.
Which, if you think about it, means the Greens are doing half the work (rather more if you look at weekly figures, where the Greens are getting 10,000 signatures a week). Labour people may want to think about what that means for their party, and what they can do to motivate and organise their remaining activists.

(Meanwhile, I'll be out collecting signatures again this weekend. I've done over 500 so far, and have upped my personal target to a thousand)

Compare and contrast

On Wednesday, the Law Commission released its review of the Official Information Act [PDF], recommending a rollback of transparency and a greater expansion of secrecy over the heart of government.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the UK House of Commons Justice Committee released its Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In contrast to the NZ Law Commission, they upheld the core principles of their freedom of information law, recommending only minor, technical changes.

So why the difference? well, Tony Blair probably helped, with his utterly self-serving opposition to the freedom of information law he passed and his refusal to engage with the committee reminding everyone the benefits of open government (remember, without the FOIA, the UK would have taken much longer to learn what a lying sack of shit he was). But more importantly, the UK committee heard not just from the usual self-serving officials interested in protecting themselves and their masters from accountability, but from freedom of information campaigners who spoke up for transparency and gave concrete examples of the benefits it delivered. Those voices (including my own) were conspicuously silent here - possibly because we were all busy, or possibly because we foolishly thought the Law Commission could be trusted. Either way, we fucked up, and as a result the Law Commission accepted the views of those self-interested officials uncritically.

Its unclear how the government will respond to the report yet. Unfortunately, Judith Collins is in charge of that response, and given her contemptuous attitude to the OIA in the past it doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. There's a real prospect that National will use this to roll back transparency and reintroduce secrecy. And the only winners from that will be the politicians.

A timely question

The NBR released its national rich list yesterday, showing the enormous wealth that the elite have accumulated. Meanwhile, the CTU asks a timely question: How many of these people pay their taxes? Sadly, the answer is "not enough" of them:

“According to information released to us last month by IRD, 50% of the wealthiest kiwis dodge their tax responsibilities.”

“In annual samples of 184 ‘high wealth individuals’ between 2009 and 2011, IRD found that only 49.5% of them reported personal incomes of more than $70,000 (the top tax bracket). This indicates that some of our wealthiest individuals are skirting on their tax contribution.”

Internationally, tax evasion by the rich costs governments $3.1 trillion US dollars. And just last week, we learned they'd stashed over US$21 trillion in offshore tax havens. Its time we cracked down on this, by closing loopholes, regularly auditing the wealthy, and busting trusts. The CTU also suggests a capital gains tax, and a more progressive tax system with higher rates on those earning twice or three times the median wage. Which sounds like a bloody good idea to me.

No democracy for Canterbury

Having assured us at the time that their replacement of the elected ECan with unelected, unaccountable dictators was a temporary measure, National is once again publicly musing about a permanent abrogation of Cantabrians' democratic rights:

The Government is considering placing Canterbury's regional council in a limited form of democracy at next year's local body elections.

The Government removed the regional councillors in 2009 and replaced them with commissioners.

The Local Government Minister, David Carter, says he's expecting a report from officials within a couple of weeks on whether to appoint some members of the council next year, rather than allow all of them to be elected.

Why? Because a fully elected ECan accountable to its voters may make the "wrong" decisions, like limiting pollution, protecting rivers, and opposing giant irrigation schemes. So obviously, they have to be prevented from that by destroying Canterbury's democracy.

Its an unpleasant insight into National's undemocratic attitudes. And it really makes you wonder whether they want to do the same at a national level as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2012



Police overstep their powers again

Last year, Brazillian oil giant Petrobras ran a seismic survey off East Cape. When local iwi protested, John Key sent in the navy and had the captain of one protest vessel arrested. Now, the charges have been thrown out of court, with the Judge finding the police had no power to act beyond the 12-mile limit.

So, what consequences will the police face for this false arrest and kidnapping? Sadly, I expect the answer will be "none". Even when the police act grossly beyond their legal powers, they face no consequences. No wonder their behaviour doesn't change...

Pull the other one

The other big news of the day is that the police will not be charging John Banks over his "anonymous" donations from Kim DotCom:

Referring to two $25,000 donations from Mr Dotcom, police said they had established Mr Banks personally solicited a donations which were subsequently recorded as anonymous in Mr Banks' Electoral Return.

However Detective Superintendent Peter Read said police were unable to establish thta Mr Banks had the necessary knowledge that the donation had been recorded as anonymous in the return before he signed and submitted it.

So basically they're letting him off because he didn't read the thing he signed and was legally responsible for. Its one law for finance company directors, and another for corrupt politicians.

I think this settles it: the police are simply not interested in enforcing our electoral laws. Time to take the job off them and give it to someone who will do it properly.

It's all on

Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would allow same-sex marriage, just got drawn from the ballot.

Take that, bigots.

The full results are:

  • State-Owned Enterprises and Crown Entities (Protecting New Zealand’s Strategic Assets) Amendment Bill (Clayton Cosgrove)
  • Resource Management (Restricted Duration of Certain Discharge and Coastal Permits) Amendment Bill (Catherine Delahunty)
  • Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill
  • Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Amendment Bill (Shane Jones)
  • Minimum Wage Amendment Bill (David Clark)
None of these bills had been covered in "In the ballot", but I'd talked about all but Cosgrove's in seperate posts.

The full list is on Red Alert, here.

New Fisk

Yes, there's violence, but some Syrians think it's time to return

OIA review: An appalling conclusion

Last night I read through the first couple of chapters of the Law Commission's review of the Official Information Act [PDF], covering decision-making and protecting good government. The decision-making chapter is pretty sensible: basically calling for better guidance from the Ombudsman on the interpretation of the Act, and greater access to past decisions, so they can be used as a guide by agencies and requesters. This is sensible stuff, and reflects current practice (at least from sophisticated users who have read the Practice Guidelines), and it would significantly improve matters.

The chapter on "Protecting good government" is another story. This is about the most controversial withholding clauses - "free and frank advice" and "confidential advice" - which are routinely abused to protect Ministers from accountability and hide embarrassing information. Reading through it, you get the overwhelming impression that the Law Commission thinks there is too much transparency at the moment, and we would be better off with more secrecy.

This is simply an appalling conclusion. But its not surprising. Law is made by those who turn up, and skimming the list of submitters, the absence of OIA users is notable. I'm guilty here - I was busy, and so ended up not submitting on the review. Neither did OIA academic Steven Price, researcher Nicky Hager, or other journalists and academics (though some media organisations did speak up). In our absence, the field was left to officials, each with their horror story of tiresome requesters polluting the sacred temple of government with their "fishing expeditions" (otherwise known as "wanting to know what the fuck is going on"). It is unsurprising that this material therefore coloured the Commission's conclusions. At the same time, I would have expected a more critical attitude from the Law Commission towards such obviously self-interested submitters.

So the Law Commission is suggesting a redrafting of these provisions. And in the process, they are strengthening some of these provisions. The "free and frank" clause, for example, which presently only protects "advice", will be strengthened to include factual information as well (so Ministers will be able to hide the fact they were ever told something). And the "confidential advice" clause, which presently protects information only until a decision is made (on the basis that government can't possibly operate with us dirty peasants looking over its shoulder) will have that qualification removed, turning it into a blanket confidentiality clause. Together, these are a substantial rollback of transparency, which will cloak significant portions of government in secrecy again.

And then there's the monarch clause. At present, communications with the sovereign or her representative can be withheld, basically on pre-democratic grounds that "the counsels of the Crown are secret" (i.e. government is not the business of mere peasants like us). On the urging of the Cabinet Office, the Law Commission has decided to expand this to communications about the sovereign, which they consider to extend to all members of the royal family. Most obviously, this will mean that information about the cost of royal visits will be off-limits (it being impertinent to ask). But it will also mean that we will no longer be able to scrutinise our governments involvement in plans to e.g. change the royal succession. Transparency and control over our government will be sacrificed in the name of a deferential and servile attitude to foreigners.

Overall, I am not impressed so far. Bureaucrats are using the Law Commission to try and roll back transparency, and reintroduce secrecy and unaccountability for themselves. And we should not let them get away with it.

Equality is coming to Scotland... kindof

The Scottish government has announced that it will legislate for same-sex marriage. But it comes with a bitter twist: in an effort to placate Scotland's religious bigots, they'll be adding in a bigot-clause allowing celebrants to refuse to perform such marriages. Think about that for a moment: while they may be a member of a religious group, when solemnising marriages, a UK (and NZ, and Canadian) marriage celebrant is a public official performing a public function under law. And the Scottish government is advocating that such officials be allowed to refuse to perform that function on grounds on which discrimination is specifically prohibited in every other area.

People would not accept this for other civil servants. We would be appalled if a government suggested that passport officers, or welfare officers, or schoolteachers or judges could refuse to perform their legal duties if they didn't like your sexual orientation. But marriage celebrants are no different. And they should be subject to equality law like everybody else. And if the bigots don't like that, they have a simple option: don't be celebrants.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012



Passed

David Clark's Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill has just passed its first reading 61-60 and been sent to the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee. This is a victory, but its not the war; there's still a second reading, committee stage and third reading before it becomes law. And at any of those Peter Dunne could be bought off, or the Maori party have an unexpected failure of proxying to stop the bill from passing.

The immediate threat is the select committee stage, where the government will try and abuse its majority to delay or sabotage the bill and prevent it from getting a fair hearing. Its important to let the fuckers know we are watching them, and its important to submit on the bill, to show there is public support. I'll be posting details on how to do that when they go up on the Parliamentary website.

OIA review: First thoughts

The Law Commission's review of the Official Information Act [PDF] has finally been released. Its a substantial review, 423 pages long, so its going to take some time to chew through it. But here's a few preliminary thoughts based on the summary.

Firstly, there's some good ideas in here, which deserve to be enacted: greater guidance from the Ombudsman, a new Information Commissioner to report on the Act, and expansion of the Act to cover parts of Parliament. But my overall impresison is negative. Egged on by secretive bureaucrats, the Law Commission has recommended an expansion of secrecy in the form of new withholding grounds and wider scope to refuse requests for "substantial collation and research" (derisively referred to by those secretive bureaucrats as "fishing expeditions"). If they get their way, officials will be able to refuse requests not because they require excessive time to find the information, but because they will spend excessive time deciding what parts of it to withhold. And that is simply wrong. They're also suggesting a new ability to complain to the Ombudsman for "wrongful release", particularly around personal or commercially confidential information. While there are real concerns in this area, this mechanism (and the resulting desire of agencies to avoid such complaints) will change the entire nature of the Act, from one which allows information to be withheld to one which requires it. And this will turn the OIA into the Official Secrets Act mk II.

Overall, this seems to be a rollback of openness in favour of greater secrecy and unaccountability. And that is something none of us should support.

Earning that reputation XII

Parliament's Government Administration committee has decided to hear evidence on MP's pay and conditions in secret:

Select committee lists circulated last night listed the committee as open and said Speaker Lockwood Smith would be giving evidence.

But Smith, who as Speaker is in charge of MPs' pay and conditions, apparently requested secrecy for his evidence.

What was Smith afraid of? The obvious answer is "public criticism of what he had to say". So instead of facing up to the public and making his arguments openly and honestly, he has further debased the reputation of Parliament and called its integrity into question. MP's wonder why the public thinks so little of them? This is why. And we'll keep thinking it until one of them stands up and lodges a complaint of Breach of Privilege against the Speaker for bringing the House into disrepute.

(Smith's evidence will of course be released when the Committee submits its report. But in the meantime, the damage to Parliament's reputation has been done).

Irrational, unnecessary, improper and unlawful

That seems to be the High Court's view of Christchurch dictator Gerry Brownlee's recent decision to abuse his CERA powers to pass a rezoning ordinance:

In a ruling released this afternoon the High Court's Justice Lester Chisholm granted the application for a judicial review of Mr Brownlee's decision in October last year in which he fast tracked a Christchurch land rezoning decision.

Justice Chisholm overturned Mr Brownlee's decisions which ruled out housing development on land near Christchurch Airport owned by Independent Fisheries, supermarket operator Progressive Enterprises and other property developers.

Mr Brownlee's decision also allowed development of land elsewhere and had the effect of terminating a number of appeals to the Environment Court.

Independent Fisheries which made the application argued that Mr Brownlee did not exercise his powers for proper purposes, misapplied statutory powers, exercised power that was not necessary, deprived them of their right of access to the courts and failed to take into account relevant considerations.

Justice Chisholm upheld the application on all grounds apart from the claim Mr Brownlee failed to take into account relevant considerations.

Brownlee will now have to go back and redo the decision using a proper process, rather than simply using CERA to launder Christchurch City Council's position. And he'll need to show why his decisions are necessary for Earthquake recovery, rather than merely convenient for the Christchurch City Council.

Meanwhile, this points to the need for greater oversight of Brownlee's dictatorial powers. His much-vaunted "oversight board" - which includes his old boss Jenny Shipley - didn't catch this, and it has cost the government a significant sum of money. At the least, we need greater checks and balances to prevent similar abuses. But what we really need is a full review of the Act, with an eye to limiting Brownlee's powers only to what is now necessary, rather than what seemed necessary two years ago.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and one which is likely to be quite exciting. First up is David Clark's Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill, which (as noted yesterday) seems likely to pass to select committee against the wishes of the government. This will be a major defeat for the government, and all the sweeter given that its inthe area of workers' rights. After that there is a non-controversial bill to repeal some outdated legislation (which ought to whizz through), and Lianne Dalziel's Illegal Contracts (Unlawful Limitation on Regulators' Powers) Amendment Bill (which you'd hope will do the same), then its on to the other controversial issue: extending paid parental leave. National likewise opposes this, and has even lied about the costs in an effort to make it seem unaffordable, but it also looks set to advance. The government is also threatening to use its financial veto at the third reading, and that promises a major constitutional shitfight about the balance of power between Parliament and the executive. It will be interesting to see how that turns out, and whether the principle of Parliamentary rule is upheld, or whether the government will be able to act undemocratically to veto a policy despite it having majority support in the House.

The House will probably make a start on Holly Walker's Lobbying Disclosure Bill as well, which means a ballot for four more bills tomorrow. And with bills for marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia in the ballot, that could get very interesting indeed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012



So much for "fiscal responsibility"

This morning, John Key tried to reassure people that his bribes to the rich privatisation-bonus scheme wouldn't cost that much. It turns out he was talking out of his arse. Here's what he told Parliament this afternoon:

David Shearer: Did he announce the loyalty scheme to the National Party conference without being aware of the cost?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I announced the intention to have a loyalty scheme. I do not know the exact cost at this point, but what I do know is that there may be no cost.

That's right: the government is planning to bribe the rich, without even any idea of how much it will cost. So much for "fiscal responsibility".

Drilling for mustard gas

Today Gareth Hughes was asking about deep sea drilling off Wellington in Parliament. His concern was the risk of an oil spill, but there's a worse one: chemical weapons. According to Owen Wilkes' History of New Zealand Chemical Warfare 1845 - 1945 [PDF], New Zealand maintained a large stockpile of mustard gas during WWII, primarily in the form of 25-pounder gas shells. These were stored in Auckland, and in Wellington at the Belmont Magazines. At the end of the war, they were dumped:

In April 1946 the hulk Rosomund was towed out to the l00 fathom line in Hauraki Gulf by the tug Maui Pomare from Auckland and scuttled. It was carrying 200 tons of chemical shell

In October 1946 some 1500 tons of 25 pdr chemical shell and 20 tons of bombs221 were dumped off Wellington by the Marine Department steamer Matai (normally used for lighthouse replenishment etc).

The location for the latter dumping was described as lying 50 nautical miles off Pencarrow Light on a bearing of l34 degrees.222 Assuming this is correct then the munitions are at about 175 deg 40' E, 41 deg 55' S, or about 45 km SE of Palliser Head, and well to the east of Cook Strait. Water depths here are of the order of 2800 metres, well beyond trawling depth.

According to the coordinates in the invitation for bids, that area is bang in the middle of exploration block 12PEG2. I wonder if the bidders have been informed they'll be drilling into a chemical weapons dump?

And yes, this is a problem and a potential risk to human health:

At least 21 and possibly as many as 50 ships loaded with 303 000 munition tons of allied mustard and German nerve gas weapons were scuttled off the coasts of Norway, Sweden and Denmark at the end of World War 2. The Soviet Union also dumped something like 50 000 tons of chemical munitions into the Baltic after World War II. Most of this was in fairly deep water but some is in quite shallow water only a few miles off shore. The munitions have been corroding steadily since, and mustard gas has leaked from them, in the form of’a jelly like substance which lies around on the sea floor without mixing in the seawater. Danish and Swedish fishermen often find soap-like lumps of mustard gas jelly attached to trawl nets, and on occasion Danish fishermen have been badly burnt by handling such nets.
(There's an example of such an incident here)

With drilling, the problem is going to be contamination of drilling equipment, but its still a risk, and one bidders need to be aware of.

$1,061 per person

That's the social cost of air pollution, according to the latest study from the Ministry for the Environment [PDF]. Air pollution causes 1,175 premature deaths, 607 hospital admissions, and 1.49 million "restricted activity days" a year, for a total cost of $4.29 billion. Which is almost five times the social cost of drunk driving.

Drunk driving is a good comparator, and the government rightly spends tens of millions a year on reducing its social cost (a program which has been quite successful over the past few decades). So what is it doing to reduce the cost of air pollution?

That's right: delaying implementation of even weak standards, statistically murdering 635 people over the next decade.

The government needs to get serious about this. Air pollution kills people. It costs our society. It deserves the same care and attention paid to reduce those costs as we do for drunk driving and other social harms. The fact that the government is refusing to do this speaks volumes about their priorities, and the value they place on people's lives.

Will Mondayisation pass?

David Clark's Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill will go to a vote on Wednesday, and it looks like it will go on to select committee:

Dunedin North MP David Clark remains confident his bill to Monday-ise Waitangi and Anzac Days should they fall at a weekend will pass its first vote tomorrow.

Recent reports had written off the chances of the Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and Anzac Day) Amendment Bill but Mr Clark said he had received pledges of support from United Future and the Maori Party - Government allies - along with all Opposition parties.

(For those who want to double check, Dunne's support is mentioned here, so he'll be going back on his word if he changes his mind).

This will be an embarrassing defeat for National, who are opposed to any extension of worker's rights, even one as reasonable as actually getting the days off you are entitled to. But its worth remembering that this is only the first reading; Dunne or the Maori Party could change their mind as a result of the select committee process, or because National uses the intervening time to strong-arm them.

Bribes to the rich are pure waste

The debate over John Key's bribes to the rich privatisation-bonus scheme have devolved into quibbling about cost, with Labour offering a figure of $1 billion (based on Treasury advice), while Key suggests a much lower $80 million (based on the back of an envelope in his office). Meanwhile, the key point is being missed: regardless of the cost, this is not money we should be spending. There's no benefit we gain by paying this cost; its just pure waste, money spent to bribe the rich so they make even more money by stealing our assets.

Meanwhile, Key's lower figure is a bit revealign in itself:

If the entire float earned $5 billion and 20 per cent of investors were 'mum and dads' the total cost would be $60m based on an Australian model, he said.
So what's he's saying is that he expects 80% of the investors to be foreigners and institutions. So much for his "kiwi mums and dads".

Monday, July 23, 2012



Dealing with dirty dairying

It looks like the courts are finally losing patience with polluting farmers, with the Environment Courthanding down a record fine of $90,000 for dirty dairying:

The company, White Gold Ltd, had resource consent permitting discharge of dairy effluent on to the land, but members of the public reported effluent flowing into drains that ultimately went into Lake Ellesmere.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) found about 45,000 litres of diluted dairy effluent was discharged during a three-day period in 2010, which resulted in extreme saturation of the land and a nearly 29,000-square-metre effluent pond, including up to 10 centimetres of effluent solids on the ground.

The fine is on top of the $20,000 fine and 260 hours' community service the farm manager received for the same offences late last year.

The indulgent attitude from the courts and local authorities over the past decade clearly hasn't worked, and provided farmers with no incentive to clean up their act. Now they're on notice: stop polluting, or be fined into bankruptcy. Hopefully they'll get the message.

The biggest thieves on the planet

We all know the rich are thieves, hiding their wealth and their income in complicated corporate structures and offshore havens to dodge the taxman and avoid paying their fair share. But how big is the problem? 21 Trillion US dollars, according to a report seen by the Guardian. That's as much as the US and Japanese GDPs combined.

If this wealth returned a mere 5% - a level which would have fund managers calling for heads on spikes - it would generate over a trillion US dollars in income a year. Which means around US$400 billion a year in dodged taxes. If it returns 10%, then we're looking at the thick end of a trillion dollars a year in theft.

This is bad enough in the rich world. But its effects on poorer countries have been absolutely crippling:

The detailed analysis in the report, compiled using data from a range of sources, including the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, suggests that for many developing countries the cumulative value of the capital that has flowed out of their economies since the 1970s would be more than enough to pay off their debts to the rest of the world.

Oil-rich states with an internationally mobile elite have been especially prone to watching their wealth disappear into offshore bank accounts instead of being invested at home, the research suggests. Once the returns on investing the hidden assets is included, almost £500bn has left Russia since the early 1990s when its economy was opened up. Saudi Arabia has seen £197bn flood out since the mid-1970s, and Nigeria £196bn.

Its not the whole story, but theft by the rich is a significant factor in keeping the developing world poor.

What can be done? Pretty obviously, we need to close the loopholes which let the rich get away with this theft. And we need to jail the people who do it and the people who enable them - the accountants, bankers, and other parasites who have made a business out of helping rich people steal from their fellow citizens. These people's job is essentially to conspire to rip us all off. And they need to pay for it.

Meanwhile, I'm curious: how much are New Zealand's overclass stealing from us? How much is John Key hiding? Its a fundamental question of moral decency here, and we deserve some answers.

The End of Life Choice Bill

Earlier in the year, Labour's Maryan Street indicated that she would be raising the issue of death with dignity again this Parliamentary term. Her bill, the End of Life Choice Bill [PDF], has just been submitted for the ballot. It's a different bill from Peter Brown's old Death With Dignity Bill, but the crux of it is the same: any mentally competent New Zealander suffering from a terminal illness, or an incurable one which in their opinion makes their life unbearable, can ask their doctor for help to end their life. Any mentally competent New Zealander can also make an advance directive specifying the circumstances in which they want such assistance should they become incompetent. Doctors and others who follow the procedures laid out in the bill are protected from prosecution for assisting suicide.

(Yes, "New Zealander". The bill only applies to New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, presumably in an effort to prevent euthanasia tourism from backwards countries like Australia. This seems unnecessarily restrictive IMHO)

In terms of safeguards, the doctor must get a second opinion, as with Brown's bill. Unlike Brown's version, there's no requirement for independent witnesses (though given brown's restrictions, these may have been very difficult to find in any case). There's also no requirement for the patient to undergo counselling. The doctor must encourage them to talk it over with a counsellor and their family, and advise them of other options (such as they are), but there's no requirement that they do so. This is appropriate; counselling requirements are an attempt to influence the decision and humiliate the patient by questioning their decision. This bill is far more respectful of personal autonomy.

One sticking point is that there's a requirement for a 7-day waiting period before the process can even start. That is, patients must suffer for at least a week before a doctor can consider their request. In practice, the consultation requirements mean some period of suffering regardless, but front-loading it seems unnecessarily sadistic; Brown's bill instead had a 48-hour waiting period once everything had been approved, which is both shorter and gets things the right way round. People shouldn't have to undergo torture before being able to consider their options to end it.

Finally, there's a central register for End of Life Directives, and a Crown Entity to review compliance and implementation with the law.

Overall, its probably a workable law. I'd like to see changes made, particularly around waiting periods and the residency requirement, but that's what select committees are for. And given the past history of such bills, it will almost certainly make it to select committee if it is drawn; the real battle will be at second reading.

New Fisk

If Alawites are turning against Assad then his fate is sealed
Sectarianism bites into Syria's rebels

Bribing the rich with taxpayer's money

John Key used the National Party Conference over the weekend to announce his latest bribe for his rich mates: a share bonus scheme for those investing in stolen state assets. Key says this will help ensure that "ordinary kiwis" buy in - but the problem is that those who will benefit are anything but ordinary. Only around 10% of New Zealanders own shares, and ownership is of course tightly concentrated among those at the very top of the wealth pyramid. What Key's scheme boils down to is offering these people, the ultra-rich like him, millions of dollars of taxpayer's money for supporting his asset theft policy. Its simply another exercise in cronyism and upwards wealth-transfer. But that, after all, is what the National Party stands for.

Friday, July 20, 2012



No justice for Ian Tomlinson

In 2009, UK police officer Simon Harwood beat newspaper-seller Ian Tomlinson from behind during a protest. Tomlinson, whose hands were in his pockets and who posed no threat to police, died shortly afterwards, his insides pulped by the blow. Eventually, after the police cover-up was unravelled, Harwood was charged with manslaughter. Today, he was acquitted by a jury. Immediately after the acquittal, the Guardian published the information that the jury was not allowed to know: that Harwood was a serial offender who had been repeatedly accused of using excessive force against the public, and who had dodged justice by changing police forces.

It was entirely proper that this information was withheld from the jury: Harwood was on trial for his specific actions in the case of Tomlinson, not his past. For whatever reason - and here its worth noting that in the UK, the police never get convicted by juries of crimes against the public - the jury felt those actions did not reach a criminal standard of guilt. At the same time, given what we know now, Harwood's actions are part of a wider pattern of brutality. The man is a thug and should not be wearing a police uniform.

Tomlinson's family will now be pursuing a civil case against Harwood. And hopefully they'll succeed where the British jury system has failed, and finally hold this uniformed thug to justice.

Overkill

So, it turns out the mystery injunction against the BBC's London riots anniversary documdrama was fair-trial related, but not directly. Instead,

Mr Justice Flaux, who was presiding over the murder trial of eight men who were acquitted at Birmingham crown court on Thursday, made the injunction on the grounds that the film raised issues which "echoed" arguments put before his jury.
Protecting the right to a fair trial is important, and one of the few reasons justifying prior restraint on free speech - but this is simply overkill. What next? Banning any television programme showing a burglary because it "echoes" ordinary burglaries?

Key the weasel

So, less than 24 hours after giving the Māori Party a pledge that he would not legislate to overturn any court decision upholding Māori rights and interests in water, John Key is speculating openly about legislating to overturn a court decision upholding Māori rights and interests in water. I guess he thinks the Māori Party don't read the media.

I take it back. The Māori Party have been had. And Key is just a weasel whose word cannot be trusted.

A meteorite

Earlier in the week, John Key likened the chances of his privatisation programme being delaye dby court action to those of a meteorite hitting the earth. He better hope he has a deep, deep bunker - because that meteorite has arrived:

Maori claiming ownership of the Waikato riverbed have confirmed they will seek a legal injunction to stop the sale of Mighty River Power.

And they're considering charging the electricity company rent - and back rent - for the three hydro-dams already there.

The group is the Pouakani people, who claim a 50 mile stretch of the Waikato River, and who just won a Supreme Court ruling [PDF] that the government did not own it under the Coal Mines Amendment Act 1903. The actual ownership of the river is still to be decided by the High Court, and will no doubt be subject to appeals whichever way it goes. But the fact that it is in serious dispute is a problem for the government. The blunt fact is that they're trying to sell something which may not legally belong to them. And it is entirely appropriate that the courts step in to halt the sale until the matter is resolved.

Thursday, July 19, 2012



Open and shut

Treaty lawyer mai Chen has an interesting piece in the Herald today, going through the precedents for Maori ownership of water. It's an impressive list:

In 1896, the Maori Land Court vested the Poroti Springs, in the Whangarei region, in six Maori owners. This was a significant recognition of Maori customary rights as it coincided with a period when lands were being alienated at a rapid rate through the Maori Land Court.

Then, in 1960, the Governor-General designated the springs and surrounding land as a Maori Reservation for the purpose of water supply for the common use and benefit of the local hapu.

In 1929, in a decision that the Waitangi Tribunal has revered as "one of the most perceptive judgments in the legal history of our country", Judge Acheson determined that Maori owned Lake Omapere and "that Maori custom and usage recognised full ownership of lakes themselves".

In 1998, the Waitangi Tribunal's Ika Whenua Report supported these precedents by finding that Maori ownership or property rights in rivers can be described as "being the right of full and unrestricted use and control of the waters".

In its 1999 Whanganui River report, the tribunal recommended the Maori claimant right of ownership in the river should be recognised in legislation without reference to the English legal conception of riverbed ownership. It reasoned that this was because the river, according to the Maori worldview, was a living taonga or treasure and an indivisible whole.

Comments of the Court of Appeal in the 2003 Ngati Apa case, which led to the Labour Government's controversial (and now repealed) foreshore and seabed legislation, support the findings that the law should recognise Maori customary rights in accordance with Maori custom.

So much for "no-one owns water". Despite the government's bluster, iwi have a strong case that they have rights and interests in water, and that those rights and interests will be adversely affected by privatisation (in that they are effectively being sold by the government, after which they will not be available as redress). I expect the Tribunal to rule in favour of the claimants, after which the government will either stop the sale process for negotiations, or have it stopped for them by the courts. The only question is how long it takes.

The OIA and costs

Solid Energy (and Air New Zealand) chair John Palmer appeared before a select committee yesterday, during which he made some claims about the "burden" of the OIA on the SOE:

Palmer, who is also chairman of state-owned Solid Energy, said the number of requests the coalminer received under the Official Information Act was “a very serious drain on management time, management effort and management costs”.
"It costs too much money" is a common claim by those seeking to evade public oversight (witness the sustained whinging by British officials during their recent FOIA review). I'd ask Palmer to substantiate it, by providing statistics on the number of requests received, the number of staff assigned to deal with them, the cost of those staff etc - but thanks to National's privatisation bill (which removed Solid Energy and other privatisation targets from the OIA), I can't. Palmer will no doubt be happy about that. But I don't think any of the rest of us should be. The OIA provided an invaluable window into what these government-owned companies were doing and how they were managing our money. Now, thanks to John Key, we've lost that window. And the cost of that, in waste, mismanagement, and anti-democratic behaviour, could be quite high.

Update: Apparently the State-Owned Enterprises Amendment Act 2012 (which removes those companies from the oversight of the Ombudsman and OIA) is not yet in force. As a result, someone is loding an inquiry today about Solid Energy's OIA traffic and costs, to see whether it really is the burden Palmer claims it to be.

New Fisk

Assassinations on an epic scale – but rebels will not claim their greatest prize

Is the SIS working for Bainimarama now?

Last night, news emerged that the SIS had raided several members of Auckland's exiled Fijian community, all of them members of the democracy movement, alleging an assassination plot against Fijian dictator Voreqe Bainimarama. No-one was arrested, but computers and cellphones were seized (and no doubt cloned for further study and compromised so as to provide a further source of intelligence).

Murder, even of a dictator, is a crime, and not something we should permit or condone. At the same time, its worth asking: was this a real plot, or were the SIS jumping at shadows? And were those shadows ones they'd seen themselves, or fed to them by Fiji's notoriously paranoid regime? Are the SIS effectively serving as agents of a foreign dictatorship to oppress its democratic opposition?

Sadly, the SIS won't answer questions about how they learned of this "plot", so we can only look at the public evidence. And here, the lack of arrests is significant. Planning a foreign murder from New Zealand is a crime here, and you'd expect that if such a plot was real, those involved in its planning would be looking at a courtroom by now. The fact that no-one is tells us that there is no evidence even to support the weaker "reasonable grounds" standard for arrest. In other words, they have no evidence that would convince a reasonable person to believe they were planning a murder.

Under those circumstances, raiding people's homes and taking their private communications looks decidedly dubious - and all the more so given the political nature of the group targeted.

A win for the Māori Party

The Māori Party finally met with John Key last night to discuss his stupidity over water rights, and walked away with an assurance that the government will not legislate to overturn any court decision. In some quarters, this is being portrayed as another sell-out. It's not. Instead, its a pretty useful victory, which resolves one of the primary fears around the Tribunal / court process: that the government will ignore the outcome, and simply confiscate the water on terms favourable to itself and its cronies if they don't like how things are going. Now, if they keep their word, they won't be able to do that, and will have to negotiate like a proper Treaty partner should. And that I think is exactly what the Māori Party is there to do.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012



Privileged!

Gerry Brownlee's appalling performance in the House yesterday over the cancellation of the Levin - Otaki Road of National Signficance has already attracted criticism elsewhere, and now Labour's Phil Twyford has responded by lodging a complaint for breach of Privilege. Obviously, Brownlee's comments were deeply misleading (if not outright lies), and so if Parliament took its own rules seriously, he should be dragged before the Privileges Committee and held to account for them. But Parliament doesn't take its own rules seriously; the current Speaker has ruled that a Member can only mislead the House in "a statement of some formality" such as an answer to a primary question, a personal explanation, or a Ministerial statement. Merely lying during a supplementary in Question Time just doesn't cut it, apparently.

Still, Twyford's complaint isn't pointless. It voices public disquiet about this behaviour, and so helps press for reform. I have no doubt that older politicians will resist such reform with all their strength, but the public wants an honest Parliament, one it can be proud of rather than regard with disdain or disgust. And if Lockwood Smith wants to improve the public esteem Parliament and MPs are held in, he should act on this complaint, and hold Brownlee accountable.

WTF?

Its the one-year anniversary of the London riots next week, and the BBC was planning to broadcast a pair of docu-dramas based on interviews with rioters and police. "Was", because the broadcast has been banned by a court under highly unusual circumstances:

The ruling from a judge prevented the docu-drama, which had been due to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday, from being broadcast "by any media until further order".

[...]

For legal reasons, the Guardian cannot name the judge who made the ruling, the court in which he is sitting or the case he is presiding over. However, it is understood that lawyers for the BBC strongly object to his ruling, the nature of which is believed to be highly unusual.

In a free and democratic society there should be a strong presumption against such prior restraint. There may be reasons which justify prohibiting broadcast - e.g. the classic one would be to protect the right to a fair trial - but no reason at all to justify the associated secrecy. Instead, it seems to be secrecy for secrecy's sake, and it suggests strongly that the underlying decision would not withstand public scrutiny.

Garth McVicar: Racist as well as vengeful

Twenty-five years ago, Parliament passed the Maori Language Act 1987, declaring Maori to be an official language of New Zealand. And next week, our court system will finally around to recognising this, with court announcements in Maori as well as English. However, not everyone is happy about it:

But Sensible Sentencing Trust national spokesman Garth McVicar called the move a waste of time.

"A lot of the victims that we deal with, their issues have been frustrated by the clogging within the court system at present.

"So in my opinion it's pouring salt into the wound. What's the benefit of it, realistically?"

The benefit is the same as for Maori signage, Maori broadcasting, and simultaneous translation into Maori in Parliament: ensuring basic access, and recognising that all of these institutions belong to Maori as well as Pakeha. but clearly, that's valueless to McVicar. He's not just a vengeful arsehole; he's a racist vengeful arsehole.

More evidence that Bennett made it up

Also from FYI this morning: Paula Bennett refuses to reveal advice she has received on her child-snatching policy. Apparently doing so

will prevent the White Paper development process and necessary consultations from proceeding in an effective and informed manner
Which is interesting, given that a previous request to MSD told us that
I am able to advise that the Reference Group has not considered any policy that relates to preventing abusive parents having children.
Someone is lying here. And odds are that it is the Minister. The Ministries who are supposed to be developing this policy know nothing about it. The Reference Group hasn't considered it. The Minister doesn't want to talk. I think its fair to conclude that she simply made it up as talkback-bait to distract from the government's other troubles. The question now is whether we're going to see them push on with this policy. If they do, it will be a horrifying insight into how policy is actually developed under National.

Key's unauthorised gifts

Back in May, Parliament released its annual Register of Pecuniary and Other Specified Interests of Members of Parliament [PDF]. In addition to revealing that many MPs had their noses in the corporate trough at the Rugby World Cup, it also exposed the Prime Minister's extensive gifts. According to the register, John Key was given:

  • Limited edition print – GBD Dezign
  • Bottled water – Premium NZ Trading Company
  • Elephant sculpture – Minister Sharma of India
  • Grain-fed, export-rated beef – CMP Canterbury Ltd
  • Wine, Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon – Prime Minister Gillard of Australia
  • Clothing – 3 Wise Men
  • Sword – replica of “Sting” from Lord of the Rings, made by Weta Workshop – President of the United States of America
  • All Blacks shirt, 2011 Tri-nations, signed and framed – New Zealand Rugby Union
  • Tickets, NRL grand final – NRL
  • Whisky, Chivas Brothers Royal Salute – Pernod Ricard
  • All Blacks shirt, RWC limited edition, signed and framed – RWC 2011
  • Rugby ball, match ball from NZ vs France pool match at RWC – IRB
  • Cricket bat, 2015 World Cup, signed by NZ and Australian captains – ICC
  • Tickets, Australian Open Women’s final – Tennis Australia
  • Wallabies rugby shirt 2011, signed – Prime Minister Gillard of Australia

The Cabinet Manual has some pretty strong rules around gifts. The basic rule is in Section 2.79

Ministers who accept gifts worth more than the prescribed value [$500, the same value at which they must be declared under parliamentary rules - I/S] must not only disclose them to the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, but also must relinquish them, unless they obtain the express permission of the Prime Minister to retain them. Any gift accepted by Ministers may be relinquished to the Parliamentary Service to arrange appropriate display or storage. Gifts that Ministers receive from close family members need not be relinquished.
WHich invites the question: did John Key obtain authorisation to retain (and in some cases, presumably consume) those gifts? Thanks to FYI, the public-access OIA site, we now know that the answer is "no":
Permission is sought to retain gifts at the point Ministers leave office rather than every time they receive a gift. The Prime Minister has not left office in the past year, so he has not sought permission to retain his gifts from 2011 (or any earlier years). Accordingly, I am refusing your request under section 18(e) of the OIA because the information you requested does not exist.
Which may be the practice - but its not what the Cabinet Manual says. Gifts from foreign governments (such as those from Barack Obama, Minister Sharma and Julia Gillard) may be held until a Minister leaves office (Section 2.80). The implication is that everything else must be surrendered or authorised immediately. At the least, the Cabinet Office are failing to properly police our Ministers' acceptance of gifts.

And then there's this bit:

To avoid creating or appearing to create an obligation, gifts in cash or kind are not to be solicited or accepted from a commercial enterprise or any other organisation, either in New Zealand or overseas. An exception to this principle would be the acceptance of some small unsolicited token, such as a presentation made during a visit to a marae or a factory. If a Minister wishes to keep a gift worth more than the prescribed value, the Minister may choose to pay full value for it. The gift still needs to be disclosed to the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, although an explanatory note might be added.
(Emphasis added)

Key's declaration of interests is full of corporate gifts. No such explanatory note has been added to the register. So, its worth asking: did Key pay for those gifts? Or is he in violation of the Cabinet Manual? Questions should be asked in Parliament to get to the bottom of this.

(And while they're at it, they could ask why the administrative procedures around authorising the retention of gifts are a fucking shambles, with no real mechanism to track whether retention of a gift has been authorised or not).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012



Still futile

While doing research for yesterday's post on party-pill regulation, I came across an old post of mine on the government's "war on P", commenting on their October 2010 progress report. This sparked my curiosity, so I dug up their most up-to-date progress report [PDF], which was released quietly back in May. what does it show? The price of P is stable at $100 a point, and has even dropped according to one survey. Availability and purity are pretty much unchanged. So, all of that effort the police put into combating P, all those raids and arrests and prosecutions and convictions? They've made no fucking difference whatsoever.

We're spending millions of dollars a year on this. And on an empirical assessment, it seems to be pretty much a complete waste of money. Time to try something else.

Silencing Chilcot

Three years ago, the UK government approved a wide-ranging inquiry into its involvement in the Iraq war. The inquiry finished taking evidence last year, but hasn't reported back yet. the reson? Because the government won't let them publish crucial evidence:

Fierce opposition in Whitehall to the disclosure of key documents relating to the invasion of Iraq, notably records of discussions between Tony Blair and George Bush, has meant the Chilcot inquiry will not now be able to publish its report for well over a year.

Sir John Chilcot has made it clear in a letter to David Cameron that he and his fellow panel members are deeply frustrated by Whitehall's refusal to release papers, including those that reveal which ministers, legal advisers and officials were excluded from discussions on military action. The papers still kept secret include those relating to MI6 and the government's electronic eavesdropping centre, GCHQ.

The inquiry panel has seen the classified documents in dispute but is being prevented from publishing them.

What a surprise. You'd almost think they didn't want the public to know the truth about how Britain went to war. And then they wonder why no-one has any faith in their whitewashes...

An improvement, but not democracy

The Labour party has approved amendments to its constitution to give the membership a say in leadership elections:

Under the current rules, only MPs vote on the leader, but under the proposed rules - due to be signed off at the party's annual conference in November - MPs will hold 40 per cent of the vote, members 40 per cent and affiliates 20 per cent.
This is obviously an improvement on the current situation, under which caucus imposes the leader. Equally obviously, its not fully democratic, in that the 34 members of the Labour caucus have an equal say to its ~15,000 members. It's "democratic" only in the Tongan sense. Real democracy would be one member, one vote.

"Opportunistic"

Last week, John Key damaged relations with his coalition partner the Māori Party by threatening to ignore the waitangi Tribunal if it upheld claims to water. This week, he's gone further by calling the entire claim "opportunistic". But apart from being a nasty example of dog-whistle politics, it also shows Key's ignorance on the matter.

Water has been the big sleeper issue in the Waitangi claims process, but its been able to be put off precisely because public policy has assumed that no-one has owned it, while giving Māori a strong role in management through the RMA. That policy is slowly being reversed, with pressure over allocation, particularly in the South Island, pushing the government towards reversing that policy in favour of a system of tradeable water rights. But progress has been slow precisely because all the bodies involved (DoC, MfE, MPI, TPK, MED, LINZ, and the Land and Water Forum) have recognised that the Treaty issue needed to be sorted out first, and that if the government started selling water (even in the form of usage rights), Māori would need to take steps through the Waitangi Tribunal and courts to protect their rights (and New Zealand Māori Council v. Attorney-General (1987) gives a good idea of how such a case would turn out).

...which is exactly what is happening now. The government is selling water, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of usage rights for Mighty River Power's hydro stations. It is doing this without having sorted out that water's real ownership. So Māori are having to go to the Waitangi Tribunal - and if necessary, the courts - to protect their interests in that water. It's no more "opportunistic" than trying to prevent a fraudster from selling your house out from under you.

And that's the real metaphor we should be looking at: the government is selling something which may not belong to it. It is entirely appropriate that the real owners be able to test their ownership, and halt the sale until that ownership is determined.

Monday, July 16, 2012



Institutional Islamophobia

Rizwaan Sabir is a British student. In 2008, while studying for a Master's in International Relations on terrorism at the University of Nottingham, he downloaded an Al Qaeda "terrorist manual" from a US government website and forwarded it to a university administrator for printing. As a result, he was arrested and detained for six days under anti-terrorism legislation. No charges were ever laid - the work in question could be purchased from bookshops - and in 2011 Sabir was awarded £20,000 for his arrest and subsequent harassment.

Now it turns out that police involved in the "investigation" fabricated evidence to keep him in jail:

A Muslim university student was held for seven days without charge as a suspected terrorist after police "made up" evidence against him.

Documents from the professional standards unit of West Midlands police reveal that officers fabricated key elements of the case against former University of Nottingham student, Rizwaan Sabir.

[...]

Now, however, the results of the internal West Midlands police professional standards investigation into the affair following complaints by Thornton over the police's handing of the case is complete. It found that officers effectively invented what Thornton, the university's sole terrorism expert, told them about the al-Qaida training manual in a police interview.

During the interview Thornton said that he merely told police that Sabir was studying al-Qaida, but was never asked to discuss the manual. Thornton says that officers invented claims that he had concerns over the manual which he says are an apparent attempt to justify the arrest and police anti-terror operation, codenamed Minerva.

The findings of the force's standard's inquiry upheld Thornton's claim that officers "made up what he said about the al-Qaida manual."

It also states that the actual minutes of the Gold Group meeting of the detectives assigned to the case "incorrectly recorded" their conversation with Thornton.

But despite this finding, the West Midlands police have confirmed that no officers will be investigated for misconduct. The message is clear: fabricating evidence is just fine, provided the victim is a Muslim.

More criminal bankers

Another day, another tale of outright criminality by banks, this time in the US, where three brokers have just been convicted of bid-rigging:

The defendants in the case – Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm – worked for GE Capital, the finance arm of General Electric. Along with virtually every major bank and finance company on Wall Street – not just GE, but J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, UBS, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Wachovia and more – these three Wall Street wiseguys spent the past decade taking part in a breathtakingly broad scheme to skim billions of dollars from the coffers of cities and small towns across America. The banks achieved this gigantic rip-off by secretly colluding to rig the public bids on municipal bonds, a business worth $3.7 trillion. By conspiring to lower the interest rates that towns earn on these investments, the banks systematically stole from schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes – from "virtually every state, district and territory in the United States," according to one settlement. And they did it so cleverly that the victims never even knew they were being ­cheated. No thumbs were broken, and nobody ended up in a landfill in New Jersey, but money disappeared, lots and lots of it, and its manner of disappearance had a familiar name: organized crime.
Three convictions doesn't sound like a lot, but that's because a bunch of the guilty had already settled and agreed to pay $673 million in fines and restitution. And that's just the tip of the iceberg:
Since that settlement involves only four of the firms implicated in the scam (a list that includes Goldman, Transamerica and AIG, as well as banks in Scotland, France, Germany and the Netherlands), and since settlements in Wall Street cases tend to represent only a tiny fraction of the actual damages (Chase paid just $75 million for its role in the bribe-and-payola scandal that saddled Jefferson County, Alabama, with more than $3 billion in sewer debt), it's safe to assume that Wall Street skimmed untold billions in the bid-rigging scam. The UBS settlement alone, for instance, involved 100 different bond deals, worth a total of $16 billion, over four years.
This is how the banks make their mega-profits: by systematic fraud and corruption. Again, time for a cleanout. Time to put the bankers in jail.

A police state

From the Guardian, another example of political policing in the UK:

Police carried out surveillance on political campaigners while they were at the Glastonbury festival, newly released documents show.

Details of their activities were recorded in a clandestine database run by the secretive police operation which has infiltrated a network of spies into political groups for 40 years.

Police logged how the campaigners had set up a stall at the festival and were selling what police termed "political publications and merchandise of an XLW anti-capitalist nature". The letters XLW are understood to mean "extreme left-wing".

They were mainly selling T-shirts and badges, along with DVDs and books. The police officers also recorded the home address and mobile phone number of the campaigner who had booked the stall.

There is a name for countries who monitor the political opinions of their citizens, and subject them to surveillance and harassment for expressing or communicating opinions deemed "undesirable" by those in power: "police state". And the UK is very rapidly becoming one, if it isn't there already.

New Fisk

Where is a Goya who could chronicle today's conflict?

More hypocrisy on party pills

The government today approved a new legal regime for party pills, requiring that they be proved safe before they can be sold. Its not an unreasonable move, which brings party pills under the same sort of regime which applies to other chemicals. At the same time, there's some unpleasant hypocrisy here. Party pills, which are psychoactive, will have to prove themselves safe before being sold. Meanwhile, traditional drugs alcohol and tobacco, which are psychoactive, won't. Under the new regime, its difficult to see how the latter would ever be approved for sale. But hey, they're owned by established interests, rich enough to buy themselves an MP, so they get a free pass, while those disruptive young upstarts get punished.

I favour harm-based standards for drugs. But they must be consistent. This isn't. And as a result, the only message it sends that the government is hypocritical and corrupt, and that the law is an ass.

Friday, July 13, 2012



Criminal banks

The latest scandal to engulf the banks centres on something called LIBOR - basically, an average interest rate UK banks pay other banks, which is used as a reference rate on all sorts of derivatives. Barclay's Bank in the UK has been fined £290 million for attempting to rig this rate. As a result, the bank's chairman has resigned in disgrace (though of course he's collecting a £2 million payout on the way to the exit).

But as London Banker points out, the scandal probably goes much wider than this. LIBOR is just one of hundreds or thousands of such reference rates, all of which are open to this sort of manipulation:

What I suspect is that this is not a flaw but a feature of modern financial markets. And if it was happening in LIBOR for between 5 and 15 years, then the business model has been profitably replicated to many other quotation-based reference prices.

[...]

How has it been possible for banks to grow from less than 4 per cent of the global economy to more than 12 per cent of the global economy without impoverishing others? How has it been possible for profits in the financial sector to be consistently higher than profits from other human endeavors with more tangible products or impacts on our daily lives - such as agriculture, transport, health care or utilities? How has it been possible that banks derive their profits not from the protected and regulated activities of deposit-taking and lending, but from the unsupervised and often unknowable escalation of off-balance sheet assets and liabilities? How has it been possible that pension savings have increased while pension returns have declined to the point where only bankers can expect a comfortable old age? Global banks have built the casinos and tilted the odds in the house's favour by rigging the data that determines the outcomes of most of the bets on the table. Every one of us that sits at the table long enough - whether saver, investor, borrower, taxpayer or pensioner - will be a loser. It is not a flaw; it is a feature.

Casino capitalism is simply rotten, based on fraud at the highest levels. Its time for a cleanout. And the first stage of that has to be putting the bankers who have stolen from us where they belong: in jail with the other thieves.

Sophistry from the government on water

The government presented its case on water to the Waitangi Tribunal this morning. The short version? Selling SOEs doesn't matter:

Lawyer Paul Radich opened submissions for the Crown by saying it agrees Maori do have interests in fresh water and geothermal resources.

Referring to Mighty River Power, he said the Crown was not selling 49% in water, but rather shares in a company.

Mr Radich told the tribunal that in order to stop the share sale in Mighty River Power it would have to be proven that this would be the only way to establish fresh water rights for Maori.

This is pure sophistry, which carefully elides the key point that the company they're planning to sell part of owns rights to use the water - rights would no longer be available as redress should a Treaty claim succeed. If this sounds familiar, its because its exactly the same situation we saw in New Zealand Māori Council v. Attorney-General (1987) over land. And it should have exactly the same solution: no sale until Parliament protects the right of redress.

The cost of foreign ownership

Scoop today has an editorial about the state of the media, presented as part of NetHui. In passing, it highlights the cost of open markets and foreign ownership. Currently, the New Zealand media is starved of revenue due to the internet disrupting its traditional advertising base. While internet advertising could potentially fill some of that gap - its worth $330 million a year - but most of it is foreign-owned, meaning the money goes straight offshore. But it gets worse:

And on most of this revenue (thanks to the great Irish tax dodge - and in Fairfax's case masthead writedowns) no tax is being collected either.

Practically speaking this means that revenue which was previously supporting the creation of NZ content is no longer doing so - in ever larger quantities. While newspapers are the worst hit, TV and radio are also having a hard time.

Finally it is worth noting that the tax avoided in the NZ online advertising market alone is significantly greater than the cost of supporting TVNZ7.

(Emphasis added. Google's cheating of the New Zealand taxpayer was uncovered by Stuff last year)

This is the cost of having great chunks of our economy owned by foreign tax cheats: not only do the profits go offshore, but they do so in ways which rob the government of revenue, and therefore us of public services. People might want to keep that in mind when considering the government's plans to privatise SOE's.

Thursday, July 12, 2012



A failing democracy

Yesterday I posted about corruption in the House of Lords and the apparent failure of the Commons to reform it - an example of the UK's sick democracy. but that isn't the only problem with the UK's democracy, as Democratic Audit has discovered:

A study into the state of democracy in Britain over the last decade warns it is in "long-term terminal decline" as the power of corporations keeps growing, politicians become less representative of their constituencies and disillusioned citizens stop voting or even discussing current affairs.

The report by Democratic Audit shared exclusively with the Guardian notes there have been many positive advances over the last 10 years: stronger select committees of MPs holding ministers and civil servants to account; devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and publication of much more information about politicians' expenses and party donors. But it found evidence of many other areas where Britain appeared to have moved further away from its two benchmarks of representative democracy: control over political decision-making, and how fairly the system reflects the population it represents – a principle most powerfully embedded in the concept of one person, one vote.

Among its concerns, identified from databases of official statistics and public surveys, were that Britain's constitutional arrangements are "increasingly unstable" owing to changes such as devolution; public faith in democratic institutions "decaying"; a widening gap in the participation rates of different social classes of voters; and an "unprecedented" growth in corporate power, which the study's authors warn "threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making".

Its a long article, but worth reading in full. And going through it, I'm struck by how many of the problems come down to the UK's archaic democratic institutions, and particularly their unfair voting system. First past the post means unrepresentative Parliaments, which combined with a long Parliamentary term means government strongly insulated from the people. It means MPs serving for life in safe seats. It means women and ethnic minority candidates not being selected, and thus being under-represented in the House. It means single-party government which can do whatever it likes (the present coalition being the exception which proves the rule). Throw in an unelected House of Lords, and you have government of, by and for the elite, not the people.

As Democratic Audit points out, other countries, even other Westminster systems, do much better in the democratic stakes, producing more response and representative government. For all it prides itself on being "the mother of Parliaments", Britain is uniquely bad at democracy.

So how to fix it, and drag the UK into the 21st century? Sadly, I don't think there's much hope. As we've seen over both electoral reform and Lords reform, Britain's MPs put their own interests ahead of democracy, and vote down or cripple any attempt at improvement. Mere preferential voting was unacceptable to them; imagine how they'd react to a truly democratic system such as MMP. But if they don't reform, they will face increasing problems of legitimacy, while pushing people towards non-democratic means of seeking change.

The full report, How Demococratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit can be read here]

McNaught on the media

the Herald today has "Twelve Questions with Anita McNaught". But rather than being the usual celebrity bullshit, there's actually some interesting stuff in there about modern journalism and the cost of our media's relentless cost-cutting:

I've watched foreign news coverage shrink year-on-year in the New Zealand media. I also think it's vital to have New Zealand voices out there in the thick of world events, reporting back. NZ television pays a lot of money to organisations like the BBC and ITN to run and re-edit their material.

But at the end of the day it's still the British perspective and the NZ one is different.

Very different. Ask a kiwi about the "war on terror", or the banks, or the European Union, and you'll get a very different answer from the one you'll get from the British establishment. We're being fed a foreign perspective on world events, which in turn influences how our government responds to them.

McNaught is also pretty blunt about the institutional limits on what she does:

it's hard now for journalists to openly question - let alone oppose - those who ultimately pay their salaries. Climate change is a much bigger story than Al Qaeda. The world economic crisis is the greatest unfolding investigative story ever still to be completely told. People are living in a criminal system masquerading as "free market economics". But is the corporate media equipped to tackle this?
And this is why we need well-funded public service media: to tell the truths the corporate media doesn't want us to hear. Instead, we're cutting it and preparing to privatise. This doesn't just undermine our media, but our democracy.

A fair deal on the TPP

While ACTA looks to be dead, the US has another vehicle for imposing its copyright tyranny on other countries: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While this is being negotiated in secret, leaked drafts and position papers have shown that the US is pushing for an extensive intellectual property chapter, which would result in significant changes to New Zealand law, to the detriment of us all. So, last night at NetHui, a coalition including internetNZ, Consumer NZ and the Telecommunications User Association (TUANZ) launched the "Fair Deal" campaign to oppose it:

The coalition is concerned the agreement could give copyright holders the power to veto parallel imports, which would push up the price of DVDs and books .

The group is also concerned that the TPP could make the term of copyright longer. Under existing laws, content stays in copyright for 50 years after the death of its creator. In the United States the term is 70 years, and the "Fair Deal" coalition believe the TPP could force New Zealand to match this.

The coalition also says the TPP could lead to internet providers becoming the "judge and jury when it comes to copyright infringement" and give them the power to cut users off from accessing the internet.

You can read more about the campaign here, and you can send an electronic postcard to the Minister of Trade here. overseas, governments have shown that they will respond to pressure on these treaties. We need to create that pressure, to stop Tim Groser from selling us down the river.