Wednesday, September 19, 2018



An open and shut case

When Massey University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas vetoed a speech by Don Brash on the Massey campus, she claimed it was due to "security". Now, an OIA request from David Farrar has revealed that she lied:

Thomas started discussing Brash's speech with colleagues on July 9 where she asked about options to not allow Brash to speak on campus and mentioned the "racist behaviour of Brash. She ended the email with, "would be good if we can cut off at the pass some how".

On July 10, Thomas sent another email saying the subject was on her mind.

"I would like to know what are our options re [regarding] not allowing politics clubs to hold event on campus - free to hold any event but not with any inference of support by university.

"Will hit the fan in the media if we go this way. However, racist behaviour of Brash - given te reo is a official language of NZ and we are a tiriti led university - can't be ignored."

On July 11, a Massey University staff member said there weren't grounds to say no to Brash speaking on campus and noted to Thomas that declining him "would present a very real risk of us being accused restricting free speech etc."

The vice-chancellor then replied, saying she was still "deeply concerned" about the matter asking if there was any mechanism the university could use to stop the event.


Which looks like an open and shut case that the cancellation wasn't really about security, but about Thomas simply not liking Brash's views. Those views are disgusting - Brash is a dirty old racist crank, a relic of the nineteenth century - but as a government institution, Massey is bound by the Bill of Rights Act and its affirmation of freedom of speech. It simply can not behave like this. As for what to do about it, Massey academic staff may wish to consider whether someone with such views is really appropriate to head an institution supposedly dedicated to free academic debate. And the politics club should be using this evidence to seek damages for the infringement of their right to receive information. And on the basis that bureaucrats don't learn unless you beat them, they should be seeking those damages from Thomas personally.

Grudging progress

After months of back-pedalling, the government has finally agreed to keep its promise and raise the refugee quota to 1500. But not until 2020:

New Zealand will lift the refugee quota from 1000 to 1500 within this political term, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today.

“I’m proud that the Coalition Government has today agreed to make such a significant and historic increase to the annual quota of refugees,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“This is the right thing to do. It fulfils New Zealand’s obligation to do our bit and provide a small number of people, displaced by war and disaster each year, a place to call home.

“The quota increase will take place from July 2020. In the meantime, we will work to increase the number and spread of refugee resettlement and support services. We need to make sure we’re prepared for this change in policy.”


So, grudgingly and leaving it as late as they possibly can. While I'm pleased, this is something the government had to be dragged into doing. Which the opposite of the impression they gave during the election campaign.

So, what's the next step to push for? 3000? Which would still be less than half of Australia's per-capita contribution, and less than 5% of Sweden's. In other words: we can do much better, and we should.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's day. First up there is a local bill: the Muldoonist Tasman District Council (Waimea Water Augmentation Scheme) Bill to enable the Waimea dam. This has the support of everyone by the Greens, so unless it is found to violate Standing Orders, it will progress to select committee.

Following that there's a couple of second readings: Jan Tinetti's Education (National Education and Learning Priorities) Amendment Bill and Gareth Hughes' Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill (which despite the name, has been gutted in select committee so it won't actually do what's on the label). The House will almost certainly wrap up Alastair Scott's Land Transport (Random Oral Fluid Testing) Amendment Bill, and will probably make a start on Darroch Ball's Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers Bill. If that happens, there will be a ballot for one bill tomorrow.

Another OIA review

Yesterday's announcement that the government would be proactively releasing Cabinet papers had a buried lead: the government may be planning another review of the Official Information Act:

The documents revealed the existence of a Cabinet business committee paper produced last month which noted Little “intends to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review of the OIA”.

Speaking to Newsroom, Little confirmed he was considering whether a full review of the OIA legislation was needed, or whether improvements could be made through non-legislative changes to departmental guidelines and policies.

“It wasn’t top of the priority list at the beginning of the year, but as we get to now embarking on a programme of proactive release then these things have come into sharper relief.”


But do they really need to? The OIA has been reviewed twice in recent years: by the Law Commission in 2012, by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2015, and by the NZ Council for Civil Liberties earlier this year. While none of them is perfect, these reviews contained useful proposals for reform, particularly around eligibility, oversight, coverage, and penalties. But despite public support by users of the Act, these recommendations have been ignored by successive governments. And now, instead of implementing them, Little is proposing another review.

Little's proposed review is a waste of our time. We already know what is wrong with the OIA regime and how to fix it. Rather than dragging his feet with yet another review, Little should actually do something to fix the Act. Otherwise, people might get the impression that he was trying to thwart change rather than enable it...

125 years

125 years ago today, the Electoral Act 1893 became law. The law allowed women to vote for the first time - back then a world first. Here's how it was reported in the Auckland Star:
SuffrageStar

[Auckland Star, 19 September 1893, via Papers Past].

It wasn't a full victory - women got to vote, but not to stand for Parliament - but it was a start, a start which made other change possible. There's still obviously a hell of a lot more to do around equality, the gender pay gap, and ending sexual harassment and violence, but all of that work would be much harder without basic electoral rights and the power that comes with them.

The anniversary is being celebrated around New Zealand today, as it is every year. Its something which has defined us as a nation and which kiwis are justifiably proud of. But on the 125th anniversary, its time to do more than that: we should make Suffrage Day a public holiday.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018



Netsafe defends freedom of the press

Last week, rich prick Ray Avery tried to use the Harmful Digital Communicatins Act to suppress media coverage about him. But approved agency Netsafe has rejected his complaint:

Internet regulator Netsafe has declined to pursue a complaint by entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery that Newsroom stories about him amounted to digital harm and harassment.

The publicly-funded agency, which is charged with mediating complaints of online bullying and harassment under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, told Newsroom today: "This complaint has now been closed at Netsafe."

It said the law was "not clear about how to treat HDC complaints as they apply to media, and there is limited case law from which to form our advice.

"Therefore we are not recommending you take any further action. We have recommended to Sir Ray Avery that if he wishes to pursue this complaint he has the option of applying to the District Court."

But this isn't over yet, because Avery has indicated from the start that that using the courts to suppress public-interest journalism is exactly what he intends to do. And while we can hope that the court will look at s14 of the Bill of Rights Act and interpret the law so as to be consistent with the right to free speech and freedom of the press and exclude public interest journalism, I would feel far safer if there was explicit protection. That would at least prevent rich pricks like Avery from trying it on, and forcing media organisations to rack up enormous legal bills defending themselves.

There is obvious scope for a member's bill here. I wonder if any of the "free speech loving" MPs in the opposition will take it - or whether the only speech they want to protect is that of racists and Nazis.

Belgium stands up for freedom of speech in Spain

Back in February, Spain sentenced rapper Valtonyc to three and a half years in prison for insulting the monarch. He promptly fled the country. Now, a Belgian court has refused to extradite him:

A Belgian court on Monday ruled that Spanish rapper Valtonyc should not be sent back to Spain, where he was sentenced to prison accused of writing lyrics that praise terror groups and insult the royal family.

The rapper, whose real name is Jose Miguel Arenas Beltran, was supposed to turn himself in voluntarily in May to authorities in Spain, where he faces prison sentences totaling three and a half years, but instead fled to Belgium.

"The judge has decided there will be no extradition and discarded all three charges," his lawyer, Simon Bekaert, told reporters near the court in the city of Ghent.

Bekaert said the judge ruled "there is no terrorism involved, there is no incitement of terrorism, so there is no question of a crime according to Belgian law." He said the judge also found that there is no crime to answer to over insulting the Spanish king and that no threat was made that could warrant extradition.


The Spanish government can still appeal, but success looks unlikely. Unfortunately, rather than accept that their laws are increasingly out of step with fundamental human rights, and will no longer be upheld or respected by other European courts (including the ECHR), Spain will probably double down on them and try and make them even more oppressive.

Proactive release

In a major victory for transparency, the government will start proactively releasing Cabinet papers:

Cabinet papers will be proactively released, Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins announced today.

The move is part of the Government’s wider plan to improve openness and reflects its commitment to the international Open Government Partnership.

The Cabinet papers will be released no later than 30 business days after a Cabinet decision. This process will be in place for Cabinet papers lodged from 1 January 2019, Chris Hipkins – who is also responsible for Open Government – said.

“This change is about being an open and accountable government.


On the one hand, this isn't that big a change - we already routinely have such releases when policy is announced. On the other hand, it is a huge step forward. In other parts of the world Cabinet material is tightly guarded (and this is then abused to hide other material), so we're displaying clear global leadership here. It would obviously be better if the timeline for release was aligned to the OIA's statutory 20 days, and I'll be interested in seeing the advice on why that wasn't done.

Of course, the problem with proactive release is that its grace and favour and cannot be contested except by filing another OIA making it clear that you want an unredacted copy (which may then be refused as the material "is already publicly available", even though the bits that you want are not). And this is clearly abused to hide material and steer the public conversation through selective release. One of the changes that needs to happen to the official information regime is bringing proactive disclosures under the Act and under the oversight of the Ombudsman, to prevent such abuses.

Monday, September 17, 2018



Bring them home

In 2016, Labour promised that they would withdraw kiwi troops from Iraq if elected. They lied:

New Zealand will extend its military presence in Iraq until June 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced.

Cabinet signed off on five military deployments on Monday.

The deployment in Afghanistan has also been extended to September 2019 alongside three smaller peacekeeping missions.


Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are neither moral nor necessary. In Iraq, kiwi troops have been directly assisting the Iraqi army in a murderous war. The Iraqi government has declared its enemies defeated. So why are we still there? And in Afghanistan, Kiwi troops have been directly implicated in war crimes, which are now the subject of an inquiry here in New Zealand. In both cases, all our presence does is directly support the corrupt, murderous regimes in Baghdad, Kabul, and Washington. Instead of doing that, we should bring them home - now.

Predator-free Waiheke?

Over the weekend the government announced an ambitious plan to make Waiheke Island predator-free:

Waiheke Island is set to become the world's largest predator-free urban island under a bold new $11 million plan to rid the Hauraki Gulf Island of rats and stoats.

Millions of passengers visit the Auckland tourist destination each year and the head of Fullers ferry company says it will be extremely difficult to introduce biosecurity measures similar to those imposed on other pest-free islands which involve checking visitors' gear, ensuring food is in sealed bags and cleaning footwear.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage will today announce plans to make the island, which is already free of possums, free of other pests by 2025.

This would enable North Island kākā, kākāriki, kererū, tūī, korimako or bellbird, piwakawaka or fantail, tūturiwhatu or New Zealand dotterel, ōi or grey-faced petrel and kororā or little blue penguins to breed safely and increase in number on Waiheke, she said.


While there's not a lot of money involved, this is a big, ambitious policy. It will also be a field-test for the wider goal of a predator-free New Zealand, and how to prevent rats spreading from urban areas into protected ones. But even if its not ultimately successful, and they end up merely vastly reducing predator numbers on Waiheke or restricting them to urban spaces, it will still have huge conservation benefits. And they can then take the lessons they learn and apply them to Stewart Island or the Coromandel.

No more charter schools

National's charter schools are now officially dead:

All 12 of New Zealand's charter schools have been approved for transition to state integrated schools.

It marks the end to a rather short era.

[...]

"We have worked with the charter schools to find a way forward for them within the state system and no existing charter schools are closing their doors," Education Minister Chris Hipkins said.

The last two schools to be approved for transition were Tūranga Tangata Rite in Gisborne and Waatea School in Auckland.

Te Kura Māori o Waatea will open as a year 1-8 state integrated school in 2019, and Tūranga Tangata Rite, which was not yet up and running, will open as a state-integrated school in 2020.


And that's that. No more second-rate, for-profit schools to exploit the poor with unqualified teachers and quack curriculums. Instead, they'll be required to have qualified staff, teach a proper curriculum, and be subject to the normal oversight of the Official Information and Ombudsman's Acts, just like any other school.

The police owe us some answers on Thompson & Clark

Back in March, the State Services Commission began an inquiry into government departments' use of Stasi-as-a-service firm Thompson & Clark. But there's one significant group which appears to have a deep and disturbing collaboration with TCIL which isn't covered by the inquiry: the Police:

There are calls for the inquiry into government agency links with controversial private investigation firm Thompson & Clark to be expanded to also take in the police, after a Stuff Circuit investigation exposed a long history of contact between police and the company.

"It's completely extraordinary that the police are not covered by the inquiry into Thompson & Clark," said Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman.

[...]

When police undertake surveillance there is oversight, from the judicial warrant system, for instance.

"Thompson & Clark don't go through any of those processes," says Norman. "They pay people who then turn up at groups and pretend to care about whatever the issue is and then if they're passing that information on to the New Zealand police without ever getting any proper judicial oversight of what the police are up to, that is very problematic."


The Stuff Circuit investigation makes a strong case that the police used Thompson & Clark to spy on animal rights activists, and has an admission from a police source that they shared a paid informant with them. And from reading the article, the police may also have lied on a search warrant application - a sworn statement to a judge - to hide the source of their intelligence. All of which is completely unacceptable. An investigation is necessary to uncover any police wrongdoing, as well as restore public confidence in the police. As for who should be tasked with getting to the bottom of it, it seems to fall within the ambit of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and if it doesn't, then its covered by the Ombudsmen (the police being a specified organisation). But the IPCA would require someone to make a complaint, and may be reluctant to look at general matters of police policy - something the Ombudsman is generally far more willing to do. And I think people would be far more willing to trust the Ombudsman than the police's patsy "investigators".

Amnesty International has a petition demanding an inquiry. You can sign it here.

Friday, September 14, 2018



New Fisk

A murder in Aleppo shows the Syrian war is not over yet

The "hostile environment" claims a life

One of the fundamental rules of refugee law is that you do not deport people to be murdered. Guess what the UK is doing?

An Afghan man who sought refuge from the Taliban in the UK has been shot dead in his home town after being deported by the British government.

Zainadin Fazlie had lived in London with his wife, who had refugee status, and their four British-born children. But after committing a number of minor offences, the 47-year-old was sent back to Afghanistan after 16 years in Britain, despite threats to his life.

Last Friday, his wife Samira Fazlie found out he had been shot by Taliban forces after seeing an image of his dead body on Facebook.


Fazlie was deported under the tories' "hostile environment" policy, under which Britain uses whatever pretext it can to throw out anyone non-white. Supposedly, that policy is subject to humanitarian safeguards. Clearly, it is not. Instead, it involves deporting people to be murdered, in clear contravention of the refugee convention and the ECHR.

By deporting him in the face of known threats to his life, the British government effectively killed this man. And the people who signed the papers should be prosecuted as accessories.

Thursday, September 13, 2018



More Australian refoulement

Australia is sending refugees back to persecution again:

At least a dozen Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been forcibly deported back to Sri Lanka, having been put on a specially chartered jet that left Perth at 2am on Tuesday.

Some of the men deported had been in detention for more than six years in Australia, while others still had challenges before Australian courts pending. The majority were Tamil, but at least one was Sinhalese.

Guardian Australia has been provided with details of some of those returned but has chosen not to name them out of concern for their safety. Several had reported to Australian authorities they had previously been abducted and tortured by security forces in Sri Lanka.

The asylum seekers were transported from detention centres across Australia and taken to Perth, from where they were flown out on a charter flight run by Skytraders. The flight left at 1.57am.

The group landed in Colombo on Tuesday but has not made contact with family or legal representatives. Returned asylum seekers are, without previous exception, interviewed, arrested and charged by Sri Lanka police on arrival.


Deporting people when they still have challenges before the courts seems to violate the rule of law. But more importantly, deporting people to persecution is illegal under international law. As noted above, Sri Lanka persecutes people who have fled, and tortures its opponents. But I guess Australia doesn't care about that anymore. All they care about is preserving a white Australia by throwing out brown people.

Why does Parliamentary Services need spies?

Parliamentary Services is currently advertising for a pair of "security intelligence officers":

Reporting to the Security Enablement Manager, this role will collect information of intelligence value, conduct analysis of the information collected and prepare standardised intelligence product, in order to inform and influence the security and risk posture of Parliamentary Service.
Why the hell does Parliamentary Services need this? Who will they be collecting intelligence on? Because ATM it looks like it will be spying on protesters and petitioners to Parliament, which doesn't fit well with the House's role as a place which is meant to be accessible to all. Throw in the complete lack of oversight - Parliamentary services is not covered by the Official Information Act or the Privacy Act - and it seems to be a recipe for abuse.

But I guess they decided that hiring Thompson & Clark would just look too bad.

No freedom of speech in Spain

How backwards is Spain? They don't just have a sedition law, but also a law against blasphemous libel:

A Spanish actor accused of ridiculing God and the Virgin Mary has been detained for questioning by a judge, police have said, in the latest high-profile case to raise freedom of speech fears in the country.

Willy Toledo, a cinema and television actor who is facing a complaint over a social media post last year criticising the blasphemy prosecution of three women, has twice failed to show up for questioning.

He will be questioned by a judge on Thursday, a police spokeswoman told AFP, adding that the police acted on the orders of a Madrid court.


This is simply medieval, and not the sort of thing which should happen in a supposedly modern democracy. And the natural conclusion to be drawn from Spain's continued use of these laws is that it is neither modern or democratic.

The EU acts on Hungary

Over the past few years, Hungary has been transforming itself into an authoritarian state. The government of Viktor Orbán has undermined human rights and the rule of law, attacked judicial independence, and shut down independent media. Not to mention being virulently Islamophobic. This is all a violation of European democratic norms, and its finally grown too much for the EU, which has voted to pursue disciplinary action against them:

The European parliament has voted to trigger the EU’s most serious disciplinary procedure against Hungary, saying the country’s government poses a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law.

The vote was carried with the support of 448 MEPs, narrowly clearing the required two-thirds majority, after Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was abandoned by many of his allies in the centre-right European People’s party (EPP).

[...]

It is the first time the legislature has triggered an article 7 procedure against an EU member state. The most severe punishment under article 7 is stripping a country of its voting rights in the EU.


Naturally the UK tories voted in support of Orbán, on the basis that the EU standing up for democratic norms would be a "dangerous precedent".

This is good news, and hopefully it will see the EU use these sanctions more widely against those members who are heading in an undemocratic direction. As for Hungary, ultimately Hungarians have to stand up for their own democracy. If they prefer to live in a dictatorship, there's not a lot the EU can really do, other than throw them out of the club until they've decided to be civilised again.

Priorities

Last month, Newsroom revealed that the bright-line test for taxing property speculators had a compliance rate of just two-thirds. But despite widespread tax cheating by wealthy property speculators, IRD isn't actually doing anything about the problem:

In spite of the bright-line test having an incredibly low compliance rate, Inland Revenue has no full-time staff chasing property investors who fail to pay what they owe.

[...]

Nearly one in three eligible property investors fails to comply with the test and documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the compliance rate is worsening. A report given to Revenue Minister Stuart Nash in May estimated bright-line test compliance could be lower than 50 percent.

Despite this, the IRD has not, in the three years since the bright-line test was implemented, established a team for chasing non-compliance and recovery.

Information released under the OIA to Newsroom said the IRD did not have dedicated teams for bright-line recovery nor did it have a separate budget for bright-line recovery activity. Instead existing staff were used to track down people who had not filed a return for possible tax due under the bright-line test.


Instead, they're targeting overseas student loan borrowers. Which tells us everything we need to know about IRD and the government's priorities.

But its worth noting that student loan debt is just that: debt. Whereas failing to comply with the bright-line test is a serious crime. IRD's refusal to enforce the bright-line test undermines both government policy and the rule of law, while setting clear incentives encouraging further tax-cheating by property speculators. And that is not something we should tolerate.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018



A revenge eviction

Last month, Checkpoint carried the story of an Auckland renter living in a house so poorly maintained that there was a literal swamp underneath it. Following the stories, the landleech was ordered to fix the house or face a $200,000 fine. The good news is that they've done that. The bad news is that they've evicted their tenant:

The tenants of an Auckland 'swamp house', which the Housing Minister labelled "third world", are being evicted after forcing their landlord to fix their home's issues.

After seeing the property on Checkpoint, Auckland Council deemed it insanitary and therefore unliveable on 31 August, meaning the landlord, Aven Raj, had 10 days to resolve the property's issues or face a $200,000 fine and an extra $20,000 every day the issues continued.

Those included uncompliant stormwater pipes, poor drainage, and mould.

Two business days later, on 4 September, the tenants were issued with a 90 day eviction notice. They weren't given a reason for the eviction.


As the article notes, retaliatory eviction notices are illegal. The Tenancy Tribunal can declare that they are of no effect, order that they not be repeated, and impose up to $4,000 in exemplary damages. The problem is that getting those orders, and the basic justice they represent, will likely see the tenant blacklisted by other landleeches and rental agencies.

And this is why our tenancy laws need to change. We need to make no-cause evictions illegal, protect the privacy of tenants at the Tribunal so they can't be blacklisted or punished for standing up for their rights, and make such discrimination illegal. We also need to make retaliatory evictions like this an actual criminal offence, since it shows an utter contempt for the law.

Labour is at least doing some of this. But they need to do more. Unfortunately half of them are landleeches too, so like tax rates, its another case where they have a huge conflict of interest over the law.

Labour isn't delivering

Writing in Stuff, Hamish Rutherford highlights the governments apparent backdowns over electricity prices and a capital gains tax and asks what is Labour for?

But beneath the pragmatism are more fundamental questions. Where the Government has promised intervention, the signs so far appear to be little more than tinkering.

If it isn't for tilting the scales of the tax system towards income earners, or simply intervening to lower electricity bills for all, what exactly is Labour for?


Its a good question. Labour was elected on a platform of hope and change. But in office it doesn't seem to be delivering much of either. In addition to the two backdowns highlighted above, its also refusing to eliminate 90 day trial periods and may not even abolish youth rates. Its dawdling on doubling the refugee quota and looks like it will keep on grovelling to farmers on climate change. But if they're not going to change anything, then people might just decide to vote for the other lot - because at least that way they won't suffer the bitter taste of disappointment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018



We told you so

When Parliament passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, people warned them that it threatened journalism. The lack of a public interest defence or explicit protection for media activities meant that:

If a current affairs investigation into a dodgy finance company offends that financier or his family... if a Fair Go report distresses some con man... or if a cartoon emotionally harms a pious soul, they now can use the law to ask for the offending item to be taken offline.

And now its happened, with rich prick Ray Avery seeking to suppress Newsroom's reports on his "background, products and promises":
Avery has told Netsafe, the legal agent for considering complaints under the Act, the reports have caused him serious emotional distress and amount to a form of digital harm - and wants Newsroom to consider removing them and to agree not to write further news stories about him.

"Ray believes these are written with the purpose of harassing him and contain false allegations," Netsafe has told Newsroom.


MP's who voted for the law are shocked, shocked! by this. But they were explicitly warned about it in submissions, and they explicitly rejected. And now the public are paying the price, with an attempted threat to our free press.

People are generally comfortable with the use of the law to prevent and punish actual online bullying. But this is too far. Parliament needs to take urgent steps to protect press freedoms by enacting a public interest defence. Otherwise, we can conclude that like Tracey Martin, they want the law to be used in this fashion, perhaps in an effort to protect themselves.

Good news for transparency

Good news for transparency: former Minister Clare Curran is being forced to archive all the official information she had tried to hide in Gmail:

Former government minister Clare Curran has assured Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern she is archiving all emails she sent using her personal Gmail account.

Ms Curran resigned as a minister last week after being unable to answer questions about what official work she had carried out on her personal email.

[...]

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said today work-related emails on Ms Curran's G-mail account would be saved as official records and be discoverable under the Official Information Act.

Ms Curran said she was working with the prime minister's office to archive the information.

"I've given the prime minister an assurance that I'm archiving all of my Gmails, and I'm working through all of that at the moment, and they will be publicly discoverable."


Of course, this means that we're trusting Curran to decide what was held in a Ministerial rather than personal capacity, which is an obvious conflict of interest which may also deprive the government of its records. It would be far safer if it was under the supervision of the Ombudsman's office. But sadly, they have no general jurisdiction over Ministers.

New Fisk

After warnings of mass murder and catastrophe in Idlib, I prowled the front lines for two days. I didn't find what I'd expected

Contempt for international justice

The International Criminal Court is the primary enforcer of international human rights law and norms against war crimes and crimes against humanity. So naturally, the United States is threatening its judges:

John Bolton, the hawkish US national security adviser, has threatened the international criminal court (ICC) with sanctions and made an excoriating attack on the institution in a speech in Washington.

Bolton pushed for sanctions over an ICC investigation into alleged American war crimes in Afghanistan. He also announced on Monday the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington because of its calls for an ICC inquiry into Israel.

[...]

He said the Trump administration would “fight back” and impose sanctions – even seeking to criminally prosecute ICC officials – if the court formally proceeded with opening an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by US military and intelligence staff during the war in Afghanistan or pursued any investigation into Israel or other US allies.

Bolton vowed that the United States would retaliate by banning ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the US, imposing sanctions on any funds they had in the States and prosecuting them in the American court system.

“If the court comes after us, Israel, or other US allies we will not sit quietly,” he said, also threatening to impose the same sanctions on any country that aided the investigation.


Afghanistan has been a party to the ICC since 2003, and any crimes against humanity that happen on its territory can be investigated or prosecuted by the court. The actions of US soldiers in Afghanistan are within the court's jurisdiction.

This is a clear attempt to interfere with the court's work and deter its investigation. If this happened in New Zealand, we'd call it contempt of court and perversion of the course of justice. But there are no similar powers on the international stage, nothing that signals to states that threatening international judges is beyond the pale. Clearly, we need to create some. As for the US, it is behaving more and more like a rogue state, and the international community needs to act to bring it back within the international legal order. Sanctions against US government officials like Bolton would be a good start...

Monday, September 10, 2018



The Brexit police state

Thanks to the British government's inability to agree on anything, a no-deal Brexit is looking increasingly likely. last week it emerged that the UK government was planning to use the Civil Contingencies Act - basicly their turnkey dictatorship law allowing rule by decree and any law (including key constitutional provisions) to be suspended or altered. And today, the other shoe dropped, with the police warning that it might see the army on the streets:

A no-deal Brexit could lead to the “real possibility” of police calling on the military to help with civil disorder, a leaked document claims.

Contingency plans are being drawn up by police chiefs if there is chaos on the streets due to shortages of goods, food and medicine,

The document prepared by the National Police Co-ordination Centre (NPoCC) warns of traffic queues at ports with “unprecedented and overwhelming” disruption to the road network.

Concerns around medical supplies could “feed civil disorder”, while a rise in the price of goods could also lead to “widespread protest”, the document obtained by the Sunday Times said.

The potential for a restricted supply of goods raised concerns of “widespread protest which could then escalate into disorder”.


"Disorder" in this case being Establishment for "people angry about starving to death due to government incompetence". So to prevent that, of course they'll be using military force - just as they did in the middle ages.

Of course we need rental warrants-of-fitness

Surprise, surprise: National, the landlord's party, opposes rental warrants of fitness, spouting the usual bullshit about how they'll drive up rents and see people sleeping in cars. Of course, what they're really worried about is that landleeches (like their very own Jian Yang, and other National MPs before him), will no longer be able to profit by renting out cold, damp, and unsafe homes. This is about them privileging their own profits over people's health.

But think about it: in virtually every other transaction, the goods you buy or rent are required to be of "acceptable quality": fit for purpose, free from defects, durable and above all, safe. And if its not, they're required to fix it. If its not safe, the government can impose safety standards, recall it, or even prohibit its sale.

Or, to put it another way: shops can't sell you products which are fundamentally unsafe or unfit for New Zealand conditions. So why do we let landlords do it?

Rental warrants-of-fitness are just basic product standards, and we shouldn't allow landlords to escape something so fundamental, especially when it imposes costs on the rest of society. Instead, houses should be regulated like any other product. And if landleeches don't like a warrant-of-fitness scheme, there's a much simpler solution: amend the definition of "goods" and "trade" in the Consumer Guarantees Act to apply to rental properties and landlords. Then let the Commerce Commission sort them out.

We've been had

When Labour formed a government last year, there was an expectation that they'd finally do what National had refused to, and introduce a capital gains or wealth tax to remove the richs' tax loopholes. But their tax working group apparently isn't going to recommend anything of the sort:

The Tax Working Group is understood to have stopped short of recommending a broad-based capital gains tax, in an interim report due out within days.

The working group chaired by Sir Michael Cullen was tasked with designing a capital gains tax for consideration by the Government, but is expected to push back any firm recommendation to its final report which is due to be published in February.

It had been widely expected that the Tax Working Group (TWG) would recommend a broad-based capital gains tax on the likes of sharemarket and property investments as the centrepiece of tax reforms on which Labour would fight the next election.

However, doubts began creep in earlier this year that the Government would ultimately back the plan, amid concerns the new tax would be unpopular and would cause rents to rise without delivering much in the way of extra revenue for at least a decade.


The tax working group has also ruled out environmental taxes, so that basicly means that the entire exercise has been a waste of time. Rather than designing us the tax system we needed to reduce inequality or pollution, we'll simply have paid Michael Cullen a thousand dollars a day for nothing.

Which invites the question of Labour: if you're not going to fix this, what is the fucking point of you? This is supposed to be a core issue, what you stand for. But if you're just going to sit there and do nothing about it, people might start to wonder whether there is any point to your being in government, or why they bothered to vote for you in the first place.

Friday, September 07, 2018



Dishonest

Clare Curran quit today. But just this morning, the Prime Minister was knowingly lying to us about it on the radio:

Jacinda Ardern insisted in an interview today that she would not fire Clare Curran - but the Prime Minister had accepted the errant MP's resignation the night before.

The under-fire Curran has quit as a minister, saying the pressure on her had become "intolerable". She becomes the first casualty in the Ardern administration.

Ardern had suggested in a radio interview with Newstalk ZB's Chris Lynch - recorded at 8am this morning - that Curran's job was safe.

But it has now emerged the errant minister told Ardern last night that she would quit - and Ardern accepted her resignation.


Its a lie of omission, but it is still a lie. Past Prime Ministers have fired Ministers who have knowingly misled the public in this way. We should expect our Prime Minister to be honest with us. Sadly, this morning, she failed that test.

Good riddance

After a flailing performance in the House on Wednesday, Clare Curran avoided having to answer further parliamentary questions about her use of a private email account to evade the OIA by the simple expedient of refusing to turn up for work. And now she's done the obvious and resigned entirely.

Good riddance. Curran was a disaster as a Minister, a secretive, incompetent control freak who seemed to go out of her way to make herself look suspicious. Lying to Parliament once about a secret meeting with a potential appointee could perhaps be excused as a mistake; doing it twice makes it a clear pattern of behaviour. But I guess that's what you get from pyramid-climbing party hacks.

The bad news is that Curran's obligations under the OIA ended the moment she resigned, and all of the government emails in her private Gmail account are no longer "held" and can therefore not be requested. Which insofar as they are government information, is outrageous, a theft from the public. It exposes a hole in our transparency regime which needs to be plugged.

New Fisk

When the battle for Idlib is over, where will the fighters who have sworn never to surrender go next?

Justice for the Rohingya?

In 2017, Myanmar stepped up its campaign of persecution against the Rohingya and began a campaign of outright ethnic cleansing. Villages were burned, women raped, and there was widespread murder. An estimated 10,000 were killed and 690,000 forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. A UN report has called the campaign genocide. And now, the International Criminal Court has decided that it can prosecute:

The international criminal court has ruled it can prosecute Myanmar for alleged crimes against humanity against the Rohingya people, an unprecedented decision that could expose the country’s politicians and military leaders to charges.

A pre-trial chamber at the court in The Hague said on Thursday that even though Myanmar was not a signatory to the court, its leaders could still be investigated for the crime of deportation, the forcible transfer of a population.

ICC prosecutors had mounted a novel argument that even though the allegedly coercive acts that forced the Rohingya to flee took place in Myanmar, the crime would not have been completed until the refugees entered Bangladesh, which is a party to the Rome statute that governs the court.

Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda likened deportation to “a cross-border shooting”, arguing the crime “is not completed until the bullet (fired in one state) strikes and kills the victim (standing in another state)”.

The decision opens the doors for ICC prosecutors to apply for a full-blown investigation into Myanmar for deportation and other crimes against humanity, including genocide.


Hopefully this means that those responsible for this genocide will soon be facing justice in The Hague for at least some of their crimes. But deportation is only part of the crime here. Most of Myanmar's crimes against humanity have occurred on its own territory, and are thus outside the jurisdiction of the ICC. Investigating them would require a formal referral from the UN Security Council. The sooner the UNSC provides that referral, the better.

Thursday, September 06, 2018



Progress in India

The Indian Supreme Court has decriminalised homosexuality:

A five-judge bench of the country’s highest court ruled on Thursday that a 160-year old law banning sex “against the order of nature” amounted to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and was unconstitutional.

“Sexual orientation is one of the many natural phenomena,” said the Indian chief justice, Dipak Mishra, in his decision. “Any discrimination on basis of sexual orientation amounts to violation of fundamental rights.”

“History owes an apology to members of the community for the delay in ensuring their rights,” wrote another judge on the bench, Indu Malhotra.


This is great news. But obviously this is only the first step. India has 160 years of British-imposed bigotry to overcome, and that's not going to end overnight. But it is a start, and a good one.

Disappointed

Before the Pacific Forum meeting on Nauru, there was hope that the Prime Minister would represent New Zealand values while she was there. Nauru is a concentration camp for Australia, a place of incarceration and torture for the refugees Australia doesn't want to acknowledge. Any decent New Zealand Prime Minister should have taken a stand, denounced this, and done something about it: rescued the refugee children whose torture at Australian hands is driving them to suicide; offered them the free seats on the 757 which flew her there; at least met with them.

But of course, Ardern did none of that:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with agencies helping refugees in Nauru yesterday but didn't meet directly with refugees.

Ms Ardern was in the country to attend the Pacific Islands Forum, but the issue of asylum seekers detained there on the behalf of the Australian government was also raised.

Ms Ardern had said she wanted to see what life was like for the refugees, but before leaving Nauru confirmed she hadn't had direct meetings because she didn't want to raise expectations.

"I do get letters from refugees here - I have had stories come in to me that way and I've read those letters, I've replied to them.

"But I was worred about raising those expectations."

Or, to put it another way, she was worried about giving them hope. The very thing she is meant to stand for.

Australia's Pacific concentration camp is something kiwis feel very strongly is wrong. Absolutely, fundamentally wrong. And not just kiwis: Australia has been refered to the International Criminal Court over its treatment of refugees, though there's no word yet on whether Australian political leaders will face the justice they deserve for it. The least Ardern could have done is represented that feeling.

But I guess you can always rely on a politician to disappoint.

Drawn

A ballot for four Member's Bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • High-power Laser Pointer Offences and Penalties Bill (Hamish Walker)
  • Crimes (Coward Punch Causing Death) Amendment Bill (Matt King)
  • Shark Cage Diving (Permitting and Safety) Bill (Sarah Dowie)
  • Education (Strengthening Second Language Learning in Primary and Intermediate Schools) Amendment Bill (Nikki Kaye)
So, a clean sweep for National, with two law and order bullshit bills, an interesting one about language policy, and a very timely bill about regulating shark cage diving. There were 73 bills in the ballot today. A full is is here.

Let's entrench MMP as well

Rino Tirikatene's bill to entrench the Māori seats passed its first reading last night, thanks to the support of NZ First. The bill will now go to the Māori Affairs Select Committee, who will debate NZ First's proposal for a referendum on entrenchment or abolition - something likely to be both unpalatable to the bill's supporters, and outside its scope. There's an argument - made here by electoral lawyer Andrew Geddis - that the seats may be entrenched anyway by implication, but that's a lot weaker than a clear legislative statement by Parliament that it considers Māori representation fundamental to our democracy. But getting that statement ultimately depends on the National Party, who still like to chase votes by pandering to racism. So unfortunately the bill seems unlikely to pass.

But while we're on the subject of entrenchment, maybe its time to look at the other huge unentrenched part of our electoral system: MMP. While there's a consensus among political parties that changing the electoral system requires a referendum, a consensus isn't law, and offers no real protection. And contrary to the Herald article, MMP isn't actually entrenched. Section 168, governing the method of voting, is entrenched, and it refers to a party vote. But the clauses governing the size of the threshold, or proportionality, or that there are list MPs at all, are not protected. So, legally speaking, nothing is stopping National from deciding that the way to win elections is to raise the threshold to 20% to return the old two-party duopoly, remove the requirement for overall proportionality and switch us to Supplementary Member, or just set the number of list seats to zero to re-implement FPP by the back-door. Our level of constitutional protection is so weak that they could even do all of this at the last minute before an election is called, though that would naturally invite a public backlash.

All of this would be grossly unconstitutional, in the sense that it would violate established constitutional norms around the electoral system and how we alter it. But it wouldn't be illegal. And as we've seen from Trump's election, constitutional norms aren't the defence they used to be. If we want to protect our democracy, we need solid law, not just convention.

In theory, both of the parties would support this, based on their respect for the convention that changes require a referendum. But we need to get them to put that in statute. Words are nice, but without law, they're just politicians' bullshit.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018



Mixed news on the OIA

The Ombudsman and State Services Commission have released their six-monthly OIA and complaint statistics. The short version is that both the number of requests and the number of complaints is up, but average timeliness has decreased slightly - something the State services Commissioner is disappointed in. However, almost all core agencies are over the 90% on time, and delinquent agencies TPK and MfE have improved their performance significantly. The worst core government agency - Ministry of Defence - still manages to respond to 86.1% of requests on time, which was just a middling performance when these statistics started being produced. For non-core agencies, the Maori Language Commission is the worst, with a 50% on-time rate, though small sample size matters there. The next worst is the Hutt valley DHB, with 68.8%. The previous worst agency, Hawkes Bay DHB, has managed to improve its performance significantly.

All of which sounds good. But as Proactively Open points out in a post on last year's statistics, the improvements probably just mean that agencies have learned to extend requests properly, or are some cases are gaming the ability to release a decision before the actual information. And as Mark Hanna pointed out last month, many agencies have a disturbing tendency to respond on the last day, rather than meeting the "as soon as reasonably practicable" standard.

What this shows us is that we need better statistics in order to get a full picture. Measuring median and average response time (or better yet, providing per-agency histograms) would allow those measures to be improved as well. As would measuring outcomes: refusals, partial releases, and full releases. Other countries produce these sorts of statistics. We need to as well. We also need timelines statistics for Ministers - something which is outside the SSC's jurisdiction, but which they could do voluntarily. The government's refusal to do this shows the level of its commitment to open government.

The number of complaints has again increased - something the Ombudsman blames on the electoral cycle (we'll see). The proportion of resolved complaints which resulted in a remedy - in other words, which found poor decision-making - was up slightly, from 65% to 66.2%. There's also been a shift in the balance of complaints about partial vs full refusals: complaints about full refusals are up 25%, while those on partial refusals are down 13%. Combined with the timeliness statistics, this suggests that agencies may be refusing requests in order to complete them in time. Its a typical bureaucratic response to being managed, and I'd hope the Ombudsman investigates the culture of agencies which display a pattern of this sort of refusal.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's day, and finally we're back to first readings. First up is Hamish Walker's KiwiSaver (Foster Parents Opting in for Children in their Care) Amendment Bill, and following that is the debate on Rino Tirikatene's Electoral (Entrenchment of Māori Seats) Amendment Bill. This is a potential flashpoint in the coalition, with Labour and the Greens supporting entrenchment, and NZ First almost certainly opposed. But the bill needs National's support to work anyway (because entrenchment bills need to be passed by the margin they propose), so we'll get to see whether they've really moved on from the Brash era or not.

After the dinner break the House will debate Ian McKelvie's Dog Control (Category 1 Offences) Amendment Bill, which will let JPs hear most offences involving dogs. After that is Chris Bishop's Arms (Firearms Prohibition Orders) Amendment Bill, which seems to be more pointless "law and order" grandstanding: firearms licences can already be revoked (and from people likely to supply as well as from those who are not "fit and proper persons"), and there are already a range of penalties (some serious, some not) for unlawful possession and selling to unlicenced persons. Most of the purpose of this bill could be achieved by increasing those penalties directly (though I'm not sure about the level National proposes). The only one which can't - prohibiting people from ever visiting gun shops and shooting ranges - is one which prima facie violates freedom of movement, and should require an actual court order, rather than the whim of the Commissioner of Police.

Finally, the House should make it to Alastair Scott's Land Transport (Random Oral Fluid Testing) Amendment Bill, which is yet more "law and order" grandstanding. Its as if National have a theme...

There should be a ballot for three or four bills tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018



No press freedom in Nauru

The Pacific Islands Forum is happening in Nauru, and the media focus has understandably gone on the refugees Nauru detains in a concentration camp on behalf of Australia. But it seems that Nauru's authoritarian government isn't very keen on that:

1 NEWS Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver has been detained by authorities in Nauru while covering the Pacific Islands Forum.

World Vision told 1 NEWS that Dreaver was conducting an interview with a refugee when detained by police around 1pm today.

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is with Dreaver but 1 NEWS is unsure of her whereabouts.


Detaining journalists for doing their jobs and reporting on matters of public interest is outrageous - but sadly what's expected now in Nauru. Once a democracy, the country has become an authoritarian state, driven in that direction by the flow of Australian gulag money. Australian racism has given us a dictatorship in our own back yard. And if Australia ever changes its policy and cuts off that money, then things on Nauru will likely get even worse.

Climate change: Reinventing the wheel

The Productivity Commission has released its report on transitioning to a low-emissions economy, and its largely an exercise in telling us what we already know: emissions are too high, they need to be reduced, and to do that we need to plant trees, decarbonise transport, and have fewer cows. On the latter, they seem much more aggressive than the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (who assumed that farmers were entitled to continue warming the planet exactly as much as they are now), to recommend "substantial" cuts in farm methane in order to allow a slightly higher budget for long-lived gases like carbon dioxide. And they recommend doing this by pricing methane within a tradeable system.

Where it goes off the rails is the policy mechanism for doing that. We already have a mechanism which would allow pricing and trading farm methane: just bring individual farms into the ETS, and let the market work out whether cars or cows are more valuable. But farmers might be the losers there, so instead the Productivity Commission reinvents the wheel and proposes a "Methane Quota System": a system of tradeable permits for farm and waste-produced methane, with free allocation based on historical pollution. In other words, a separate ETS, to give farmers a permanent budget and a permanent pollution subsidy.

Or, we could just use the ETS we've got, and start using a different GWP for biogenic methane, just as we would for biofuel-CO2. Simple, fast, and doesn't create immense transition problems from completely changing policy halfway through.

Having studied the history of New Zealand climate change policy, the Productivity Commission's recommendation for a separate ETS for farmers is just a recipe for delay. It sounds simple, but the details can be quibbled eternally. If you need an example, the Emissions Trading Scheme was originally recommended and designed by the Working Group on CO2 Policy in 1996. It took well over a decade for legislation to be passed, and over twenty years later the system is still full of "transitional" arrangements and not fully implemented. But in climate change policy, delay is the enemy. The planet is burning, and we simply do not have time to piss about designing and redesigning perfect policies. It is better to do something simple and imperfect but in the right direction, than wait for perfection. That way, the worst we'll do is over-achieve, cut too much, and save the planet by accident. Whereas if we wait another decade before farmers even have to start cutting their emissions, we are fucked. Which makes the Productivity Commission's arguments largely academic. Either we cut now and cut hard, or our kids all burn.

Something to go to in Auckland

Racist arsehat Nigel Farage is speaking in Auckland tonight. And people who don't like his racism, islamophobia and misogyny will be right outside to make that clear:

“Tāmaki Anti-Fascist Action is organising a peaceful anti-racism public demonstration outside of the Pullman Hotel on Tuesday 4 September at 7pm when UK far-right leader Nigel Farage is due to speak,” said Katjoesja Buissink, member of Tāmaki Anti-Fascist Action and spokeswoman for the demonstration.

“Speakers at our event will include Golriz Ghahraman from the Greens, Te Ao Pritchard from the Pacific Panthers, Azad Khan from the South Auckland Muslim Association, a member of Tāmaki Makaurau Anarchists, and a member of Dayenu - Jews Against the Occupation.”


If you want to speak up for kiwi values, then go along.

No freedom of the press in Myanmar

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who helped publicise Myanmar's campaign of genocide in Rakhine state. And for doing their jobs as journalists and exposing that crime, they have now been sentenced to seven years imprisonment:

Two Reuters journalists arrested in Myanmar while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims have been found guilty of breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are being held in prison in Yangon after being arrested in December, in a landmark case that has prompted international outrage and been seen as a test of progress towards democracy in the south-east Asian country.

In his ruling, judge Ye Lwin said the men “tried many times to get their hands on secret documents and pass them to others. They did not behave like normal journalists.”

As he was led to a police van in handcuffs, Wa Lone said: “I have no fear. I have not done anything wrong … I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.” Kyaw Soe Oo hugged his wife while she was sobbing and held her until police took him away.


Imprisoning those who expose state crimes is the hallmark of tyranny. But that's exactly what Myanmar is: a repressive, genocidal tyranny. The sooner they are prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, the better.

Monday, September 03, 2018



Federated Farmers tries entryism to protect pollution

Entryism is a political strategy normally associated with Marxists. But it turns out that dirty dairy excusers Federated Farmers are trying to use it to undermine environmental organisations:

If you can't beat them, join them - and then beat them.

That appears to be the approach being adopted by Federated Farmers as it encourages members to get elected onto Fish & Game's 12 regional councils.

The farming organisation has sent out a message to its members urging them to "consider the value of what they could bring to a role with Fish & Game".

Fish & Game has been a thorn in the side of dairy farming since it coined the phrase "dirty dairying" in the early 2000s and has not relented in its criticism.


Clearly, Federated Farmers think that the way to stop that is a takeover. But it may be harder than it sounds. Fish & Game and its regional councils are statutory entities established by the Conservation Act 1987, with a statutory duty to advocate for the interests of recreational anglers and hunters. If they neglect that duty, then council decisions can be judicially reviewed or members can be removed from office by the Minister. That still leaves a lot of scope for dirty farmers to impede Fish & Game's job, but they're limited in how blatant they can be.

The best way to avoid this of course is simply to not elect them. As with regional councils and parliament, if you want to protect the environment, don't vote for farmers.

Labour's challenge

An example of the challenge the government faces in building a fairer New Zealand: WINZ hardship grants have doubled in the past two years:

Spiralling accommodation costs are driving more people to ask for Ministry of Social Development (MSD) emergency grants than ever before.

The total value of Special Needs Grants (SNGs) has almost doubled from $16.7 million - in the year to June 2016 - to a whopping $33.1m in just two years.

Over the same period, the level of hardship assistance - which includes SNGs and at least two other grants has surged from $58.3m to $88.1m, a 51 per cent increase.


The cause of this is poverty, and the cause of that is National's bad economic management, which saw any gains go to the rich, while everyone else was left out in the cold. The government's increases to the minimum wage, better tenancy rights and tweaks to the Reserve Bank Act should help fix that, and see any growth distributed more widely, but with a pool of poverty this big, it will take time to fix. Still, at least they're now heading in the right direction, rather than trying to make things worse.

Friday, August 31, 2018



The Horizons by-election

Horizons, my local regional council, is having a by-election after someone died mid-term. There's only a small number of candidates running compared to the regular election, and almost all of them are at least paying lip-service to the interests of urban voters and say they want to clean up the river. So who are the options?

Given this lineup, I think my choice is clear.

Mushrooming the Minister

Ministers are supposed to be able to rely on public servants to give advice on the areas they request so they can make good decisions. Normally here the concern is public servants being too timid about telling Ministers things they don't want to hear. But Newsroom reports a case of the opposite in DoC: a department censoring information the Minister had specifically asked for, in an apparent attempt to mushroom them:

In January, Eugenie Sage asked for a Department of Conservation (DOC) briefing on biodiversity values in the Mackenzie. She specifically wanted it to come from Christchurch ecologist Nick Head, one of the country’s foremost experts on the Mackenzie.

Head, who left the department in June and is pursuing a personal grievance claim, provided the two-page briefing to his bosses on January 24. But emails released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show that DOC’s principal Mackenzie adviser, Jeremy Severinsen, deleted several key passages before it was sent to the Minister’s office.

It’s clear from the DOC emails that those passages related to Crown lease properties in the Mackenzie going through tenure review, their ecological values, and how they might help form a drylands park.


According to Forest & Bird, the censored advice showed that past tenure review decisions had undermined the environment and compromised the possibility of a drylands park. It is unclear if Severinsen was involved in those decisions, or simply covering up for people who were, but either way, it doesn't look good. While there's obviously a process of curation and quality control over anything that goes before a Minister, this seems to go a bit beyond that. And in the context of DoC's internal culture war, it looks decidedly dubious.

I can't imagine Sage, or any other Minister, putting up with this sort of behaviour, and i expect there'll be some pointed words directed at DoC's Chief Executive to ensure it does not happen again.

New Fisk

Lebanon is on a tightrope, balancing Saudi, Iranian and Western interests – its position is precarious

There should be no place for bullies in our Parliament

Yesterday Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri was stood down over a "staffing matter" - which allegedly involved not just a toxic work environment, but her shoving a staff member. While being a bullying thug is clearly a way to get ahead in a political party, it is not behaviour we should tolerate in a Minister or in our Parliament. If the allegations are substantiated, Whaitiri should resign - not just as a Minister, but as an MP.

Good

"Collateral Murder" leaker Chelsea Manning has been granted a special direction to apply for a work visa, effectively making her entry into New Zealand a formality. Good. Quite apart from showing a suitable respect for free expression, Manning is a hero whose leaks exposed war crimes and dubious decision-making by the powerful. While the party of the powerful (or rather, the party of toadying to the powerful) dislike this, New Zealand should welcome her.

Meanwhile, it seems that Australia intends to make the opposite decision and refuse her entry. Which is I think another example of how our countries are drifting apart. New Zealand is a much more liberal country than Australia, and a much more free one. Meanwhile, Australia, with its security laws and domestic religious oppression really seems to be trying to turn into a tyrannical shithole like the UK.

Thursday, August 30, 2018



Climate change: No free ride for methane

Back in June, the government released a discussion document on its proposed Zero Carbon Bill, where they attempted to back away from actually reducing emissions to zero by giving farmers (and their methane-spewing cows) a free ride. It was a concession which made no sense economically - the cost of ambition is basicly zero. And now, a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment shows that simply letting farmers maintain their current level of warming will require them to cut methane emissions by 10 - 22% by 2050:

New Zealand would need to reduce livestock methane emissions by up to 22 per cent by 2050 to stop any additional global warming, official research shows.

[...]

The release from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment throws a wrench into an emerging consensus across the country that "stabilising" NZ's short-lived methane emissions at current levels could be a viable option to stop warming.

It suggests that actual "stabilisation" would still require a reduction in livestock or the success of new methods to lower emissions, such as special feeds, vaccines or tweaking livestock breeding.


Of course, none of those new methods exist, largely because farmers refused point blank to pay for the research to develop them (they infamously drove a tractor up Parliament steps rather than pay their own way). And thanks chiefly to denier foot-dragging, we cannot wait any longer to develop them before reducing emissions. Which will mean we will have to reduce cow numbers. This will have significant benefits to nitrous oxide emissions and water quality, but its their least-preferred solution.

Its also worth noting that this assumes that farmers are entitled to continue to destroy the atmosphere exactly as much as they were doing in 2016 - a proposition I think many kiwis would disagree with. We have already emitted too much, and we need to reduce warming, not just hold it stable. And that will require an even further reduction in cow numbers. Given the lag-times involved and the significant environmental damage cows do to other parts of the environment, the quicker we do it, the better.

Online elections cannot be trusted

Local body elections are next year. And sadly, a group of councils are insisting on running unsafe, online votes:

Nine local bodies should know by Christmas whether online voting can be trialled in their elections next year.

The councils are seeking proposals from providers but the big question is whether legislation will be passed in time for the October 2019 poll.

The nine hope to jointly trial online voting alongside the traditional postal poll, with time tight to agree on a system without knowing exactly when Parliament would give the OK.

[...]

Auckland Council is joined by Gisborne District, Hamilton City, Matamata-Piako District, Tauranga, Palmerston North and Wellington cities along with the Marlborough and Selwyn District Councils.


If they continue with this plan, the net result will be that the election "results" in those areas simply cannot be trusted, because there is simply no safe way to run an online poll. Ballot secrecy directly contradicts security, while the fact that voting will happen in a remote location allows both credential harvesting and direct intimidation (oh, plus the spies want the system to be backdoored and vulnerable to anyone who wants to manipulate the vote). None of that matters for a Stuff poll, but when we're talking about who runs our towns and cities - and potentially our country - the risks are simply too great. Our democracy is too important to be left to such insecure methods. We should insist on paper ballots, and vote out any councillor who supports this madness.

The opposite of security

The GCSB's current motto on its website is "If New Zealand has secrets worth stealing, then they're worth protecting". Now, the GCSB and their Five Eyes masters wants to make it radically easier for people to steal those very secrets they claim to exist to protect. How? By backdooring the encryption which protects our networks, our filesystems, our financial transactions, everything:

Ministers from the Five Eyes grouping of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have agreed to new measures to combat global threats, including seeking access to encrypted data and communications.

[...]

Among them was agreement that there was an urgent need for law enforcement agencies to gain access to encrypted data and communications, subject to conditions.

"The inability of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to lawfully access encrypted data and communications poses challenges to law enforcement agencies' efforts to protect our communities.

"Therefore, we agreed to the urgent need for law enforcement to gain targeted access to data, subject to strict safeguards, legal limitations, and respective domestic consultations.

"We have agreed to a Statement of Principles on Access to Evidence and Encryption that sets out a framework for discussion with industry on resolving the challenges to lawful access posed by encryption, while respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms," the communique said.


But while that statement uses the language of "lawful access" and makes much of judicial oversight, fundamentally such access requires that those systems contain vulnerabilities. But as we've already seen, security agencies don't seem to care much for the law when they can hide behind secrecy, and vulnerabilities don't just get used by the (self-proclaimed) "good guys". There are already cases of security flaws kept secret by spy agencies being exploited by criminals, and that's just an ordinary operating system vulnerability. And secrecy is no defence: there's an entire ecosystem of people out there searching for holes in our systems to use. If a vulnerability exists, they will eventually find it, and when they find it, they will exploit it. And where the vulnerability is in something critical, like say the encryption which protects your online credit card transactions or the algorithm which identifies you as the author of a digital contract and makes it binding, then the consequences could be devastating.

Organisations like GCSB ostensibly exist to protect us from that. Instead, they seem to be more interested in building themselves a global surveillance state. And that is not protecting us. Deliberately introducing security vulnerabilities into critical systems is not "security" - instead its the opposite.

Steve Maharey's crony appointment

The previous government was notorious for cronyism, running fake appointment processes for form's sake before shoehorning their preferred cronies in at the last minute. That was pretty blatantly corrupt, but in less than a year the new government has managed to surpass them, with the appointment of former Labour MP Steve Maharey as chair of Pharmac. When Maharey was appointed, I submitted the usual OIA request seeking details on the process. The released documents show cronyism so naked that I have not seen it before in New Zealand.

How bad is it? First, Health Minister David Clark received advice to reappoint the existing board chair Stuart McLauchlan to manage Pharmac through upcoming changes, or at least temporarily reappoint him so a proper process to find a replacement could be run:
MahareyCronyism01

This advice was ignored. Which would be fine if Clark had then run a proper appointment process to appoint someone on merit. Instead, he simply shoulder-tapped Maharey, on the basis of "skills and experience which are well known to the Minister of Health".
MahareyCronyism02

No position description, no application, no interviews, nothing. Just $48,000 a year for knowing the right person. Its cronyism, pure and simple. Then, in the Cabinet paper formalising the appointment, Clark has the gall to say this:
MahareyCronyism03

The SSC Board Appointment and Induction Guidelines require that a position description is completed and strongly suggest that a wide pool of candidates be sought by a variety of methods (including advertisement, nominations from state-sector agencies etc) in order to get the broadest possible pool of high-talent candidates. They also assume that candidates will be short-listed, interviewed, and generally assessed on merit. Whether Clark actually did that, or misled his Cabinet colleagues, is left as an exercise for the reader.

What is clear is that this process undermines the concept of merit-based appointments in the public sector. The way to get a job under Labour is not to be good at it, but to be buddies with the Minister. This is not how our government is meant to work. But it also diminishes Maharey, in that he's not obviously unsuitable for the role, and if he'd been appointed by the previous government or by an independent, transparent and merit-based process, no questions would have been asked. Instead, the method of his appointment taints him, and he'll forever show up on Google as a crony. Those seeking government appointments might want to think about that.

As for how to fix this, I've said it before: if we want to eliminate cronyism, we must remove the power of Ministers to dispense patronage in this manner. We already do that for state sector chief executive positions by using an independent panel and we should do it for boards as well. As with CEOs, if Ministers want to override the recommendation they have received, then they should be required to publicly notify that fact - a mechanism which ensures that it hardly ever happens. If we do this, our public sector would be better for it, and appointments would be free of the taint of cronyism or the suspicion they had been purchased through donations.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018



Who do they work for again?

When NZDF learned that they had contaminated water at their bases with illegal PFAS firefighting foams, they initially tried hiding the fact from the public and their Minister. But they did tell someone: Australia:

The Defence Force told the Australian military it had contaminated water at its bases months before it alerted the New Zealand public for the first time, emails released under the Official Information Act show.

The newly released emails also show Defence gave the Australians a heads up, including about investigations at Devonport, before it told the government.

Defence told the New Zealand public about the contamination with long-lasting and damaging PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam, in early December last year.

It told the Defence Minister last August.

But two months before that, in June 2017, its Environmental Services unit emailed the Australian Defence Force saying it was "about time" they conferred about the contamination.


Which really makes you wonder who NZDF thinks they work for: the people who pay their wages, or a foreign power whose values are increasingly hostile to our own.

But in addition to raising questions about their loyalties, this release has also exposed the level of utter incompetence at NZDF. They have an environmental services unit and a gaggle of outside consultants to advise them. But despite that, they apparently didn't know that the foam was illegal until 2017 - when they found out from the media. Someone there really wasn't doing their job. And now the environment is going to pay the price for their muppetry.