Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Repealing Blasphemous Libel

Last month, Angie Warren-Clark's Crimes (Offence of Blasphemous Libel) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot, and the bill is likely to have its second reading tomorrow. But that apparently isn't fast enough for Andrew little - he's included a provision to repeal blasphemous libel in the government's new Crimes Amendment Bill, which he introduced to the House yesterday:

New Zealand's archaic anti-blasphemy law is to be scrapped under the new government.

Justice Minister Andrew Little introduced legislation on Monday to repeal the decades-old law.

Blasphemous libel is listed in the Crimes Act and comes with a punishment of up to a year in prison but has not been prosecuted since 1922 - and even then was unsuccessful.

Labour sought to repeal the law when in opposition last year, but National blocked its attempt, saying the public should first have a say.

The government's Crimes Amendment Bill will be considered by MPs later this year and people will have a chance to make submissions when it goes before a select committee.

The repeal is part of an omnibus to repeal old and outdated laws, including the year-and-a-day rule for homicide. Using a government bill generally means faster progress, though it can't have a first reading until Thursday.

Its unclear yet whether Warren-Clark will pull her bill, or let it proceed in parallel as a spur to government action. But either way, its good to see politicians falling all over themselves to do this, after years of inaction.

Climate change: The necessary transition

If New Zealand is to meet its long-term emissions goal of net zero emissions by 2050, we need to drive an enormous technological shift towards a decarbonised economy. Banning pointless oil exploration is a necessary part of that on the production end. What about the consumption end? Writing in Stuff, Thomas Anderson and Jonathan Boston suggest an obvious measure: banning fossil fuelled cars:

Of such measures, perhaps the most effective would be a ban on the sale of all new or imported used vehicles with internal combustion engines. Such a ban could take effect, say, from 2030. Many developed and developing countries have already introduced or are seriously contemplating such bans (see the accompanying table). New Zealand should follow suit.

As it stands, our transport sector accounts for around 18 per cent of annual gross greenhouse gas emissions and over a third of carbon-dioxide emissions. Emissions from road vehicles make up over 90 per cent of our total transport emissions. Hence, a ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel vehicles would, in due course, considerably reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, New Zealand is ideally placed to accelerate the switch to a low-carbon transportation system. Given current technologies, this implies relying heavily on electric vehicles (EVs).

About 85 per cent of our stationary energy comes from renewable sources and this percentage continues to increase. Accordingly, EVs can be recharged in New Zealand with a very low carbon footprint.

Several other countries have already adopted such bans, with varying target dates, and its easy to see why: if you want to drive technological change, then putting a use-by date on outdated technology is an easy way to do it. That's what we did with analog TV and cellphone networks. Of course, cars are more expensive than those, but that's just a question of lead-in time. And on that front, twelve years before an import ban seems like plenty of time to adapt. It'll take longer for the tail of existing fossil-fuelled cars to shrink, and they'll never completely disappear - there will always be antiques and museum pieces, just like the old Model T Fords or 50's gas-guzzlers you still sometimes see on the roads. But it will push the shift we need to make, and with enough time for infrastructure networks to prepare and adapt. And by having a long lead time, it uses the usual upgrade cycle to our advantage, minimising the costs of the transition.

I don't expect the government to announce this sort of measure in a hurry - it needs serious policy work on the implementation details. But I'm hoping they'll announce it in a year or two. The longer they wait, the further back it pushes the necessary transition, and the more we pollute. And that's something we can't afford to do.

Digging her own hole

Yesterday, while accepting a petition from 45,000 people calling for an end to oil exploration, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government was "actively considering" the issue. Then, faced with criticism from National and its oil industry backers, she tried to roll back the comments. And so this morning on Morning Report she's "refining" them and making it clear that she was talking about the annual block offer of exploration permits.

Which, when you think about it, is how you end oil gradually: you cut off new exploration, and simply refuse to grant new mining permits for it (or rather, introduce a clause into the Crown Minerals Act requiring the impact on climate change and New Zealand's emissions to be the overriding factor in decision-making, which would have the same effect). Existing emissions gradually taper off as fields are exhausted, problem solved. At the same time, by trying to be all things to all people, Ardern is just digging her own hole. It's the same problem Labour has always had: a refusal to actually say where it stands. But when you're going to talk big about climate change being this generation's nuclear free moment, you need to follow that up by actually picking a fucking side. And you certainly don't wibble around talking about how to accommodate the fuckers who are literally trying to turn a profit by destroying the global climate and ruining the lives of future generations.

Fundamentally, climate change means it is us or the oil industry. We know whose side the Greens are on. But people are doubting Labour, and they only have themselves to blame for it.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Tories kill

For the past seven years, the Tories have been turning the screw on the NHS and demanding that it do more with less. Now it turns out that those cuts have consequences:
Health cuts have consequences.

In the first seven weeks of 2018, over 10,000 (12.4 per cent) more people died in England and Wales than was usual for the time of year. No official explanation from government health officials for this sharp rise in mortality has been forthcoming.

It became crystal clear in early 2018 that the health and social care system was not coping with the demands being placed upon it. On 2 January, in an unprecedented step by the NHS, thousands of non-urgent operations were cancelled. Many hospitals were already at, or beyond, their safe working levels, even though the weather was warmer than normal so any surge in demand was not due to unusually cold conditions. Another suggestion has been that the main reason for there being so much demand was a rise in influenza.

Our analysis of the first available data finds that flu only accounted for a very small part of the overall rise in mortality in early 2018. The past five years have been extremely challenging in terms of health outcomes and what is happening in 2018 is likely to be a continuation of many of these challenges. For instance, year-on-year spending on health and social care has increased at a much slower rate than in previous years.

Improvements in life expectancy have slowed down significantly, while infant mortality has risen. There's a 30 year difference in life expectancy between the UK's poorest and most affluent areas. And this all began with the latest round of austerity. In other words, those 10,000 dead - this year - can be directly attributed to cuts. And the politicians who advocated for them, oversaw them, and voted them through should all be charged with murder.

Holding the government to account

Over the weekend, the Greens announced they would be turning their primary questions in Question Time over to the National Party:

The Green Party has today announced that, from this week, most of its allocation of questions for Question Time will be handed over to the Leader of the Opposition to use, in order to limit the prevalence of “patsy questions” in Parliament and to strengthen the ability of Parliament to hold the Government of the day to account.

The only exception is if the Green Party wishes to use a question to hold the Government to account on a particular issue, consistent with the party’s Confidence and Supply agreement with Labour, which acknowledges the ability for the parties to agree to disagree on certain issues.

Good. The purpose of Question Time is not for the government to praise itself or attack the opposition through patsy questions, but to hold the government to account. And that's a necessary task, whether you like the current government or not. Governments which are not held to account get lazy and incompetent, which is bad for everybody.

While National won't be asking the sorts of questions the Greens would ask, and will ignore establishment issues, they will at least be approaching things from the outside and a position as a critic - which is something the Greens simply cannot do any more as a support party with Ministers outside Cabinet.

The value of metaOIA's

Radio New Zealand has another story of OIA abusethis morning, this time from the Auckland Council:

Auckland Council senior executives stalled the release of a major report, for political convenience in a possible breach of official information law.

The study on the impact of moving the imported car trade away from Auckland was withheld from RNZ by the council for five months, and released only after intervention by the Ombudsman's office.

Email exchanges released by the council to RNZ include a discussion on how the report could be withheld to allow the council to better "manage" its release.

Another executive observed that it "might not be useful" having the report in the public domain during last year's general election campaign.

Almost all of the exchanges over how to handle RNZ's five-month long effort to get the report, include senior staff in the office of mayor Phil Goff.

Particularly telling is the way they concocted a plan for future release in response to the request, simply so they could refuse it. Which is a perfect example of bad faith and an abuse of power right there. The behaviour uncovered shows us how officials game the system, and why we need criminal penalties for doing so. Because without such penalties, there's simply no incentive to obey the law.

All of this information was uncovered by a metaOIA - a request for information about the processing of a request. Officials are required by the Public Records Act to document their decisions, and those records and the inevitable emails around them can be requested. Such requests have become an increasingly useful tool over the past few years for exposing poor OIA practice and naming and shaming abusive officials (here's another example). Officials who make poor or contentious decisions should expect to have those decisions scrutinised - not just by the Ombudsman, but by the public.

Friday, March 16, 2018

New Fisk

Al Jazeera did a hard-hitting investigation into US and Israeli lobbying – so why won't they air it?

MBIE conspires with spies

The State Services Commissioner has just appointed former Deputy SSC Doug Martin to investigate Southern Respones use of Thompson & Clark Investigations to spy on earthquake victims. Meanwhile, it emerges that despite being banned from hiring them, MBIE has an unhealthily cosy relationship with TCIL, and for some reason routinely gets sent intel on anti-mining groups and protests:

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show a close relationship between Thompson and Clark and MBIE going back five years.

"When you read these emails, it's amazing how friendly it all is. 'Let's go for a beer. Let's go for a coffee.' There's discussion of skiing together," Mr Norman said.

In 2015, Thompson and Clark began supplying MBIE with weekly intelligence reports it was pulling together for the oil and gas industry on protest groups.

Thompson and Clark then started using MBIE to drum up more work with foreign oil and mining companies.

Which is guess was the payoff for all the work they were doing: being sent customers. But none of this is ethical,and it all falls well below the standards we expect from a government agency. The SSC inquiry will apparently have discretion on whether to include MBIE's use of TCIL in their terms of reference; hopefully they will. Otherwise, it will effectively be saying that the standards it seeks to apply to Southern Response don't apply to a core government department, which is simply nonsensical.

Ministerial briefings: Energy & resources

What's the Minister for Energy and Resources been up to? I submitted an OIA request for their weekly ministerial briefings. They responded by claiming they were "confidential advice" and refusing to release them. I complained to the Ombudsman, and the Minister has issued a partial release. But she is still withholding all briefings from December as "confidential", even though a quick glance at the released material makes it clear that much of it (e.g. lists of meetings, lists of briefings received, lists of mining permits approved) is not advice and is not covered by that section. So I guess its not just a matter of waiting for the Ombudsman to educate the Minister about the law and the requirement to assess everything line by line on its merits and weigh the interest in withholding against the public interest in release, rather than trying to pretend that there's a class-based exemption allowing Ministers to keep secret anything they've seen for three months.

Meanwhile, while we wait for that, here's the Minister's briefings for November 2017:

Again, its an interesting look at what's happening in the portfolio, but there's also some real news buried there, in that Oceana Gold has apparently applied to extend some of its existing exploration permits in the Coromandel to cover Schedule 4 land. I don't recall seeing anything about this in the media, and unfortunately the briefings which would presumably contain further information have been withheld. I guess that's what the Minister didn't want us to see then.

The flip side of new taxes

The government's Tax Working Group is currently considering a range of new taxes, including taxing capital gains, land, pollution or wealth. The mouthpieces of the rich are outraged of course, and trying to present it as an attack on ordinary kiwis savings (instead of their hoarded wealth), but there's a flip side as well: taxing these new things opens up space to other taxes such as GST:

GST could fall if the Tax Working Group recommends new environmental taxes, its chairman Sir Michael Cullen has suggested.

The working group is considering changes to the tax system that could apply after the 2020 election.

Although the group will consider a variety of possible new taxes, Cullen has maintained its focus will be on changing the balance of taxation rather than increasing it.

There could be a case for reducing GST if the working group recommended new resources taxes to improve people's environmental behaviour, he said.

Good - because GST is effectively a regressive tax, which falls far more heavily on the poor (who have to spend their money) than the rich (who don't). At the same time, you'd need a significant tax to be able to reduce GST noticeably. Treasury's Revenue Effect of Changes to Key Tax Rates, Bases and Thresholds for 2017/18 estimates that a 1% change in GST costs about $1.5 billion. So in order to reduce GST by 1%, you'd need something like a fully functioning carbon tax capturing all emissions sources at a rate of at least $25 a ton. Or an annual land tax of ~0.2%. The first would really just swap one consumption tax for another (though I guess as ~50% of emissions are exported as milk powder, kiwis would be better off). The second would be a double-whammy against inequality. And of course, there's always the option of doing both...

The first thing John Key did in government was rejig the tax system to benefit rich people like himself. Its long past time we rolled that back.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Unlawful and unaccountable

The Independent Police Conduct Authority report on the police's use of a fake breath-testing checkpoint to collect the names and addresses of members of political group Exit International has been released, and it makes the expected finding that the checkpoint was an unlawful use of police power, and interfered with the right to freedom of movement. Oddly, though, it concludes that the police's subsequent visits to Exit International members - which the Privacy Commissioner considered to be an unlawful use of personal information - were justified as they were consistent with police policy. In other words, the IPCA thinks that it is just fine for the police to act on unlawfully obtained information.

And then we wonder why the police keep violating the law. The answer is right in front of us: because the IPCA consistently refuses to hold them to account for it.

Meanwhile, there's further disturbing information in the full report: the police didn't just spy on the meeting from outside and use a fake checkpoint to identify people - they also obtained a surveillance warrant to listen in on the meeting itself. That's right - they bugged a political meeting. The police are now directly intervening in politics.

The officers involved justified their subsequent actions on the basis that they believed attendees of the meeting were more likely to commit suicide afterwards. But suicide is not a crime, and has not been for over a century. The police were well outside their bounds here, and had moved from investigating and preventing crime to interfering in people's lives. And that's simply not acceptable.

There's no mention in the police's press release that the officers involved have been subjected to any disciplinary action whatsoever, despite abusing their powers and exposing the police to significant costs for BORA violations. Until individual police officers are held to account, this sort of abuse of power is going to continue.

Planning to fail

Two years ago, Environment Canterbury introduced Plan Change 5, which introduced restrictions on nutrient runoff and set ambitious targets for cleaning up the region's rivers. But it turns out that just like central government on climate change, they've set targets without any effective policies to reach them:

Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy says Environment Canterbury's proposals to clean up Canterbury's rivers lack teeth and won't stop the ongoing decline.

Dr Joy's comments come in the wake of ECan's plan to make 92 per cent of all rivers in the region swimmable by 2030.

He was sceptical that ECan's approach would achieve the goals, particularly with its apparent reliance on farm environment plans.

"The plans are nothing if they're not adhered to and properly monitored. It's like saying having a crash plan will stop drivers from crashing."

Joy said the levels of nitrate allowed in ECan's plan would simply lead to more degradation.


ECan declined to give specific information as to how much meeting those targets will cost the ratepayers, and what specific projects it will undertake to ensure it meets the targets.

And he's right. Restrictions mean nothing unless they're monitored and enforced, and targets are just hot air if they're combined with allowable levels of pollution which will result in them not being met. While any improvement in Canterbury's water is welcome, this is just the council failing to do its job of protecting the rivers for everyone.

The scary thing is that even these weak, unmonitored restrictions are too much for farmers - Federated Farmers and a host of irrigators are challenging the new rules in court. And if they get their way, they'll get to keep on destroying Canterbury's rivers and turning them into toxic sewers for their private profit.

"Unlawful and unfair"

That's the view of the Privacy Commissioner on the police setting up a fake breath-testing checkpoint to collect the names and addresses of members of political group Exit International:

In June 2017, OPC completed their investigation and advised the parties of its final view. It found the collection of personal information at the checkpoint to be both unlawful and unfair. The way information was collected breached principle 4 of the Privacy Act 1993.

“Police used an unlawful checkpoint to take advantage of the public’s trust in them and collect information from people who were not legally required to provide it,” Mr Edwards said.

“The primary function of Police is to maintain the law and there is an expectation that they will follow the law and their own policies at all times. This is especially the case when they engage with members of the public or use their powers to investigate offences.”

Some complainants said the visits from Police made them feel uncertain about their ability to speak freely and anxious that more visits would follow.

“Police approached them after unlawfully collecting their information, and questioned them about a socially and politically sensitive subject. It is fair to say that the actions by the Police officers caused those complainants harm,” Mr Edwards said.

The police have said they will delete the information they collected, though whether they really have is an open question. The only way we'll know is if Exit International is exposed to further persecution in future.

Meanwhile there was also an Independent Police Conduct authority investigation into the police's actions and use of the information. Hopefully we'll be seeing the results of that soon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The United States of torture

When he was running for election, Donald Trump said openly that he wanted to torture suspected terrorists as revenge for terrorist atrocities. Now, he wants to appoint a torturer as his new CIA director:

Donald Trump’s pick for head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, reportedly oversaw a black site prison in Thailand where terrorism suspects were tortured. She briefly ran the prison in 2002, anonymous officials told the Associated Press.

If the US Senate confirms Haspel, she would be the first female director of the agency, but the historic significance of her nomination was immediately overshadowed by her reported link to the black site, where two suspected al-Qaida members were waterboarded.

“The fact that she’s been able to stay in the agency, rise in the agency and now is in line to be director should be deeply troubling,” Larry Siems, author of the Torture Report, a book analysing government documents relating to Bush-era torture released in 2014, told the Guardian.

Haspel also drafted a cable ordering the destruction of CIA interrogation videos in 2005.

Haspel should have been prosecuted and sacked for her crimes. Instead, she's been repeatedly promoted. And now, a torturer is going to be positioned to implement Trump's psychotic dream. And the price will be paid by the entire world - because if there's one thing we know about torture, its that it produces more terrorists.

So much for lese majeste in Spain

In 2007, two Catalans set fire to a life-sized portrait of Spain's monarch to protest a royal visit to their town. For this, they were charged with "insulting the monarchy" and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment - though this was later reduced to a 2,700 Euro fine. But the European Court of Human Rights has just ruled that they should never have been prosecuted:

The European Court of Human Rights said on Tuesday that Spain had wrongfully condemned two Catalans for publicly burning a photograph of the king and queen, saying that the act was justifiable political criticism.

In their unanimous ruling, the judges said they were “not convinced” that the burning “could reasonably be construed as incitement to hatred or violence.”


In its ruling, the court said that the photo burning “had not been a personal attack on the king of Spain geared to insulting and vilifying his person, but a denunciation of what the king represented as the head and the symbol of the state apparatus and the forces which, according to the applicants, had occupied Catalonia.”

And just like that, Spain's archaic lese majeste law is dust. Spanish courts are bound to obey the ECHR, and its effectively just ruled out any prosecution for political criticism. Hopefully this will lead to a review of the cases of those currently jailed (including rapper Valtonyc) and compensation for the victims of this unjust law.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

NZDF admits they lied

In 2017, Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson published Hit & Run, an investigation into an SAS raid in Afghanistan which suggested that NZDF troops had committed war crimes. NZDF's response was crystal clear: the entire book was wrong, and the SAS were in a completely different village than the one Hager and Stephenson suggested:

He said he is not aware of any other attacks on the other two villages that could have been confused with Operation Burnham. Lt Gen Keating insisted that “it is irrefutable that we operated in a different place” than what was described in Hit and Run.

And now, thanks to an Ombudsman's investigation, they've been forced to admit that they were lying:
The New Zealand Defence Force has admitted that the photographs of an Afghan village shown in the book Hit and Run – the site where six civilians were killed and 15 civilians seriously injured during an NZSAS raid – are indeed the same place where the SAS conducted a raid that night.


Now, a year later, the Ombudsman has ordered the Defence Force to release more information, including on the subject of whether the photos in the book were the same location where the NZSAS was operating that night (22 August 2010). The Defence Force has finally admitted that the “three photographs in the book are of Tirgiran Village”, the NZDF's name for the place where the SAS conducted the raid.

This looks like a deliberate attempt by NZDF to mislead the public about the location and actions of our troops. The only question is whether Lt Gen Keating did it knowingly, or whether he was passing on lies crafted by his subordinates. Either way, someone has lied to us, and they need to be fired. And even if it wasn't Keating himself, he bears command responsibility for that lie and fostering an environment where soldiers felt it was acceptable - so he needs to go as well.

More on ministerial briefings

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about weekly Ministerial briefings as a really good target for OIA requests. Since then there's been another release, from Climate Change Minister James Shaw. And as with the Conservation briefings released earlier, its a treasure-trove of what's happening in the portfolio and what direction the government is taking. Progress on getting the Zero Carbon Act out for consultation, significant actions by other countries, international meetings - the latter with significant redactions for "negotiations" whenever carbon trading seems to come up, because MFAT wants to get us back into international carbon markets. They're well worth reading, and may suggest followup requests if you're interested in climate change.

Several people have got in on requesting these through FYI (example), but there's also been some pushback from Labour Ministers trying to withhold everything as "confidential". I've had a similar response to one of my own requests. But such responses don't seem consistent with the Ombudsman's guidance, and hopefully I'll get a formal ruling on that to wave at uncooperative Ministers in future.

And again, given how informative these are, they seem like a prime candidate for proactive release. Shouldn't the Minister for Open Government be doing something about that...?


Last week, we learned that government insurance agency Southern Response had been using New Zealand's most infamous private spy agency to spy on earthquake victims. Last night, Thompson & Clark got what was coming to them, with an effective ban on government contracts:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has banned all Government departments from using a firm of private investigators for spying.

It follows a Newshub investigation that found state-owned insurers Southern Response got the investigators from Thompson and Clark to snoop on victims of the Christchurch earthquake at the taxpayers' expense.

Ms Ardern says this was "totally inappropriate" and other Government departments should not be using them.

"Absolutely not. In fact, we had a brief discussion amongst a few Ministers this morning, to make sure that none of their departments are engaging Thompson and Clark in the same way," she explained.

"Their behaviour around spying and so on is totally inappropriate."

Good riddance. T&C are scum who have repeatedly engaged in infiltrating and suppressing civil society groups. No government agency in a democracy should have anything to do with such an organisation.

But while Ardern's actions looks decisive, note that she only mentions government departments. But there are other types of government agency, including Crown Entities, State-Owned Enterprises, and CRI's. Does the ban extend to them too, or will Southern Response still be able to spy on its victims?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Why are we still letting the police kill people?

Three people died in a police chase over the weekend. It was the usual story: someone fled a routine stop, the police chased them like rabid dogs until they crashed into another vehicle, killing two people in the fleeing car as well as a random member of the public.

Those three deaths were completely unnecessary. And if the police had listened to their own "Independent" Police Conduct authority on the issue, they would never have happened. Back in 2009, after 24 people had died in the previous 6 years, the IPCA took a look at police pursuit policy and found that the risks almost always outweighed any justification. They recommended a complete change to the way decisions to pursue were made:

“Pursuits can begin over relatively minor offending, or general suspicion, and end in serious injury or death,” said Authority Chair Justice Lowell Goddard. “In such cases, the benefits from pursuing and stopping an offender do not appear to have outweighed the risks.

“In our view, the Police pursuit policy could provide clearer guidance for officers on when they may pursue. We have recommended that they reconsider the policy, and have suggested that the risk to public safety from not stopping an offender should be the principal factor justifying a decision to pursue.”

The Authority has also recommended that the Police consider requiring that the decision to pursue should be based on known facts, rather than speculating about a driver’s reasons for failing to stop. Drivers who failed to stop may not have committed serious offences, but rather may be committing minor traffic offences and panic when confronted by the Police.

Naturally, the police ignored this, pursuing their theory that anyone who runs must be guilty of something, and that catching them justifies any risk to innocent lives. Gordon Campbell characterises this as an entrenched toxic culture of macho bravado and contempt for suspect's lives - and he's right. And it has to change.

Fundamentlaly, the police are there to protect public safety. Police officers who risk people's lives because they're angry at being disobeyed or afraid their dicks will look small have no place in the police force. They need to go. And if their superiors won't sack them to give us the safe police force we deserve, then they are part of the problem and need to go too. Just as they were on police sexual violence...

More generally, if the police can just laugh at the recommendations of the IPCA, then it serves no purpose other than perpetuating a public lie that the police are accountable to the law. Either it needs to be given teeth, or we might as well just end the pretense.

Friday, March 09, 2018

It really is an Auckland housing crisis

How bad is Auckland's housing crisis? This bad:

It takes Aucklanders on an average weekly income a punitive 16 years of hard slog to save for a house, new research from the Real Estate Institute has revealed.

"The average Auckland household looking to purchase a house that costs $670,000 - the price that 25 per cent of the houses in Auckland fell below - may have to save for 832 weeks, exactly 16 years, in order to have a $134,000 deposit for that property," REINZ said this morning.

The figures are based on an average weekly income, weekly tax payments and average weekly expenses required by couples in our largest city. REINZ then calculated any weekly surplus left over.

And of course the amount you need for a deposit will increase over that time, so you'll need to save for even longer. Meanwhile, in Wellington or Christchurch, you only need to save for three or four years for the same lower-quartile house. No wonder young people are fleeing Auckland to buy elsewhere.

But it also reinforces just how much the housing crisis is a primarily Auckland problem, which is going to need an Auckland solution. The problem is that any effective solution (e.g. building masses more houses) means lowering prices, which those who have already bought into (or expect to profit from) the bubble will hate. But if we want to ensure that all kiwis can own a home of their own, that's what we've got to do.

A meh deal for New Zealand

Trade Minister David Parker has signed the successor to the TPPA, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, in Chile. Meh. What I really hated about the TPPA (other than the secretive and undemocratic manner in which it was negotiated behind our backs and without our consent) was US copyright bullshit and ISDS clauses. The former has been "suspended", at least until the US wants to join up, and the latter has been weakened slightly and further limited with respect to New Zealand by side agreements with other countries, but is still there. Meanwhile, the deal is worth $1.2 - $4 billion a year in 20 years time - which is basicly nothing. While being praised as economic salvation by farmers, its net effect when fully implemented is so small as to be lost in currency fluctuations.

So colour me unimpressed. Sure, it could be a lot worse. We could have a 70 year copyright term and US pharmaceutical companies destroying Pharmac, for example. But given the meagre gains and the damage getting them has and will inflict on our democracy, I'd really rather we hadn't signed the thing at all.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Farmers ruin another lake

Farmers have ruined another New Zealand lake, flooding it with nutrients and causing a toxic algal bloom:

Another lake in the Far North has succumbed to algal bloom, with health warning signs going up at Lake Waiparera, north of Kaitaia.


Northland Environmental Protection Society president Fiona Furrell said the bloom was entirely preventable.

"Cattle graze both the DoC reserve and the council strip margin surrounding the lake, and cattle sunbathe themselves and cool off in the lake regularly. So if cattle defecate in a perched lake, that's exactly where it stays, because there is no river to flush that lake."

Ms Furrell said the Department of Conservation and the Far North District Council never bothered to fence the land around the lake.

I think the answer here is obvious: keep the cows out. But its a little late for Lake Waiparera.

New Fisk

If I were the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, I'd be cynical about this state visit

More government spying

Southern Response is a government agency responsible for settling claims arising from the Christchurch earthquakes. They've made a pretty shit job of it, but now they've done something even worse: instead of settling those claims, they've instead been using government money to hire New Zealand's most infamous private spy agency to spy on claimants:

A Newshub investigation has found Christchurch earthquake victims trying to settle insurance claims with the Government were spied on by private investigators, in operations paid for by the taxpayer.


The operation, running from February 2014 to April 2017, cost $177,349 of taxpayers' money. It's not known how many people were spied on, but hundreds of people were involved in protests following the Christchurch quakes.

Cam Preston, a father, chartered accountant, and victim of the Christchurch earthquake, was also deemed a "threat" who needed to be monitored.

Mr Preston was one of the main targets of an operation set up by Southern Response using "protection agency'' Thompson and Clark Investigations.

Yes, that Thompson and Clark Investigations. The ones who have previously been caught spying on Greenpeace and anti-coal activists, and which used illegal tracking devices on animal rights activists. You'd think that after all of these high-profile cases of democracy-suppression, no government agency would touch them with a barge pole. Instead, they're a recommended provider on MBIE's all-of-government procurement site.

Hundreds of people could have been spied on, because they quite rightly wanted what they were owed by their insurance company. The State Services Commission has already launched an inquiry into whether Southern Response breached government ethical standards, but I think we also need to be asking why we allow a company to provide democracy-suppression services in New Zealand, and why our government continues to hire it. We also need to ask who was spied on, what information was collected, and how many other people T&C falsely reported to the police in an effort to discredit them (which is what they did to Preston). Then, we need to hold Thompson & Clark accountable for those crimes.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Another failure of "collaboration"

When they were in power, National liked to use "collaborative processes" to deal with environmental issues. In theory, this means getting environmental advocates and environmental destroyers together in a room, to try and find common ground. In practice, it meant using the collaborative process to silence and suborn "critics" while increasing social licence to pollute. The process used for water fell apart messily, when environmental groups figured out it was a sham, publicly called bullshit and abandoned it. And now another of National's sham collaborations has fallen apart:

The group set up to get agreement for the first marine reserves on the Otago coast has failed to get consensus and handed in two different plans.

Representatives of the fishing industry and environmental lobby say the process has failed and they are bitterly disappointed with the outcome.

The South-East Marine Protection Forum has been meeting for four years to identify areas to protect on the coast between Timaru and Waipapa Point in Southland.


The report spells out two separate proposals, one by the environmental and tourism representatives to protect 14 percent of the coastline (covering 1267sq/km), and the other led by the commercial fishing industry for 4 percent (366sq/km) of the coast.

Neither proposal meets the aim set for the forum of reaching a single proposal to protect parts of all the marine habitats found along the coast, though the first, dubbed Network 1, is much closer.

The central problem here is that there really isn't any middle ground to find. Environmental advocates and the fishing industry have opposed goals, and so "collaboration" was always pointless. All it did was potentially boost social licence for the fishers. And why would anybody want to do that?

The decision on Otago marine reserves is now in the hands of Ministers. Hopefully we'll see something closer to Network 1 than Network 2.

Climate change: The PCE on a climate commission

Before she retired last year, former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright recommended that New Zealand enact a UK-style Climate Change Act, with a legislated long-term target, regular carbon budgets laying out a pathway to meet it, and independent advice and reporting on those targets by a climate commission. The new government has seized on this, and is promising to enact a Zero Carbon Act to implement it. But what would such an arrangement look like in New Zealand? A report from new PCE Simon Upton, A Zero Carbon Act for New Zealand: Revisiting 'Stepping stones to Paris and beyond', gives his views on the detail.

Firstly, Upton is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. But New Zealand is not the UK, and while all parties are in theory committed to stopping climate change, the blunt fact is that we have a less supportive environment for far-reaching change than the UK did when it enacted its legislation. In particular, the new leadership of the National Party has not yet gone on record as supporting strong action, rather than the lukewarm, farmer-protecting foot-dragging it engaged in in office. So this is likely to mean problems both in setting a long-term target, and with the shorter-term budgets.

Institutionally, Upton supports a primarily advisory body, with recommendatory and advisory functions. This seems weak, but the central problem here is one of getting future governments (e.g. a future National-ACT government in 3 - 9 year's time) to do things they do not want to do and which will hurt them politically. The way to do this is to make it institutionally unthinkable not to. It also respects a proper division of responsibility between unelected advisors telling us what we need to do and whether we are doing it hard enough, and democratically elected politicians making the actual decisions and being held accountable at the ballot box for it. While Greenpeace wants the climate change commission to have more teeth and direct executive powers to change ETS settings, what that does in practice is incentivise governments to appoint commissioners who will not exercise such powers - effectively undermining both action and the independence of advice. Its also strongly undemocratic for unelected agencies to be able to act without a democratic mandate in that manner (and the same applies to the Reserve Bank too).

There's some interesting technical suggestions in there about different targets for different gases, and for a six year budget period with an interim report to better align with New Zealand's three-year electoral cycle, and I expect these will be taken seriously by both the government and Parliament in considering the legislation when it eventually emerges.

The business geniuses in the National Party

Imagine that you're hiring a builder to do some repairs to your home. Now imagine that they refuse the job unless you include a clause in the contract indemnifying them from any costs arising from flaws in their work and promising you won't sue them if they screw up or don't do the work at all. You'd tell them to get lost and find someone else, right?

Unfortunately for the residents of Christchurch, the National government and EQC signed exactly such a contract for earthquake repair work with Fletchers. Naturally, its turned into a complete disaster, with shoddy work needing further repairs, affecting both existing homeowners and innocent third-parties who bought supposedly repaired houses. The public aren't happy, but Gerry Brownlee effectively gave away the right to sue when he allowed his department to sign the contract.
(Meanwhile, just two days ago National's Stuart Smith was suggesting the government sue Fletchers. I guess Brownlee just didn't bother to tell him...)

And yet somehow, people still seem to think National are business geniuses. The only "genius" they have is for signing shitty deals which fork over piles of cash to cronies. As for the public, we get robbed and screwed over. Thanks, National!

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Fuck up fucks off

Having failed to attract more than a handful of votes in the National Party leadership contest, Steven Joyce is retiring from politics. Good riddance. While he somehow had a reputation as a "Mr fix-it", like Gerry Brownlee Joyce fucked almost everything he touched. He fucked up transport by starving the regions of funding to build pointless superhighways in Auckland for the trucking industry. He fucked up science and innovation by stealing funding from CRIs, then making them compete for it all over again as laughably underfunded "national science challenges". He fucked up tertiary education by limiting access to loans and allowances, creating a teacher shortage which is going to last for years. He fucked up economic development by signing a crony deal with SkyCity allowing them more pokie machines for an undersized and unnecessary convention centre. And he fucked up finance by being memorably unable to count during the election campaign. This isn't a record any politician should be proud of, and I am glad he's fucked off, so the only thing he can fuck up anymore is himself.

New Fisk

To Putin, Assad’s enemies in Syria are the same as Russia’s in Chechnya

Less than open

Remember the Minister for Open Government? Last year she was publicly shamed in the House over her apparent refusal of a fairly standard OIA request (a refusal which it turns out was directed by a Senior Ministerial Advisor in the PM's office). But eventually she started releasing the basic lists of briefings people had been asking for, so I took the opportunity to request her Open Government Partnership briefings to see what she's been doing. The short version:

  • SSC is currently planning the engagement process around the 2018-20 OGP National Action Plan. There's an acknowledgement that they need to spend more time on it to better engage with the public, which is good.
  • Curran took a paper to Cabinet about proactive release of government information. Unfortunately, all the details are secret.
  • SSC has been thinking about a new "strategic approach" to Open Government. All the details of that are secret too.
  • Curran was invited to attend the OGP Asia Pacific Leaders Forum 2017 in December. But as there's no mention of it either in her official press releases or Twitter feed, it appears she blew it off and dumped the job on the local NZ ambassador instead.

Of course, that's just November. But if she's been doing more open government work since, she's kept it... secret. Which isn't exactly what I'd expect from a Minister of Open Government.

Shoulder-tapping a crony

Last month, the government appointed former Labour MP and cabinet minister Pete Hodgson as chair of Callaghan Innovation. As current chair of Otago Innovation Limited and with qualifications in veterinary science and public policy, on the face of it Hodgson is reasonably qualified for the job. But did he get it because of his qualifications, or because of his connection with the Labour Party? Sadly, it appears to be the latter. I sent in my usual OIA request about the appointment, seeking information about the process and how Hodgson had entered it. The appointment documents (such as they are) are here, but the real smoking gun is in the cover letter. The Minister. Megan Woods, is deliberately vague about how Hodgson's name entered the process:

The targeted search for potential candidates led by MBIE and with input from myself, resulted in a list of nine candidates. The list, which contains brief details on a range of experienced people alongside Mr Hodgson, was discussed With officials at a meeting of 20 November 2017.

A subsequent email got this admission from the Minister's staff:
The Minister initially raised Peter Hodgson’s name, along with a number of others, during a discussion with officials.

Note that Hodgson hadn't even been approached at this point. So basicly, the Minister shoulder-tapped him, then had him appointed without even the formality of an interview. There was no competitive process, and so no chance for the candidates to be assessed on merit.

If Hodgson had entered the process by e.g. applying in an open, transparent and competitive process, then it might be possible to believe he was appointed on merit. But with this process, its pretty clear that it was simply a crony appointment, Labour paying off a past MP and stacking the boards with people it trusts. And that is not how our public service is supposed to operate.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Time for new taxes

The Tax Working Group is considering a variety of new taxes:

A wealth tax, a tax on financial transactions, a broader capital agains tax, a land tax and new environmental taxes will all be options considered by the Tax Working Group, its chairman Sir Michael Cullen says.

Cullen said those new taxes would be among the options canvassed in a "background paper" that will be published on Wednesday week.


Speaking to the International Fiscal Association conference in Queenstown on Friday, Cullen gave several strong clues on his own thinking on the direction of the tax system.

Cullen appeared warm to the idea of taxes on environmental and social ills, such as greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and the causes of obesity.

Good. Firstly because the government clearly needs more money to rebuild the state after National's nine years of vandalism, secondly because we need environmental taxes to deal with pollution and climate change, and thirdly because taxing things other than income will reduce the opportunities for the rich to rort the system and avoid paying their fair share. The problem with taxing income is that it is relatively easy to hide - the rules enable rich people to hide income in companies, trusts, or overseas. And we know that they do this because it shows up every year in income distributions, in a spike just below the top tax-rate. That spike is rich tax cheats hiding their income.

I'm not sure what the best addition is. General wealth taxes on the uber-rich are appealing, but probably easy to avoid. Land taxes are very easy (you can't hide land, and the government already values it for rates), but don't capture all wealth (OTOH, some is better than none, and it would make farmers pay their way properly). Water and carbon taxes are obvious moves, though a bit messy to implement (requiring settling with iwi and repealing the ETS respectively). But throwing something else into the mix to make a fairer and environmentally better system seems like a no-brainer to me.

Secret trials are under the control of the SIS

Last week New Zealand had the appalling spectre of a secret trial, from which the public and the media were excluded and evidence was explicitly kept secret (and effectively insulated from challenge) from one party. But it gets worse - because the security rules mean the court is effectively completely under the thumb of the SIS:

A copy of the protocol governing passport cases where courts are asked to consider evidence classified as secret has been obtained by the Weekend Herald.

The protocol, signed last January by then-attorney-general Chris Finlayson and chief justice Sian Elias, prescribes: The extensive use of "tamper-proof envelopes"; requirements for court staff to stand watch over locked cabinets during lunch breaks, and; a ban on the public, media and even those accused by such evidence - or their lawyers - from being present during its presentation.

The eight-page protocol also allows for the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) to insist that hearings be relocated from a courtroom to any location or their choosing, or to require judges writing up their decision to only use a computer supplied by the intelligence.

As the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties points out, all this security theatre lends credence to the government's secret "evidence" - even if (as turned out to be the case in the past) its a collection of media reports from the internet. Meanwhile the ability of the SIS to set the location and even dictate how the judge writes up the case gives them complete control and makes a mockery of judicial independence. If a criminal trial took place in a police station, the police had a veto on who could enter, allowing them to exclude witnesses or lawyers, and arranged to give themselves the power to spy on (or even edit) the judgement as it was written (oh, and keep all records secret so any precedent could never be used), we'd call it what it is: a kangaroo court which cannot possibly produce a fair outcome. But that is exactly what is happening here. And we should treat the outcome of this mockery of a process with the utter contempt it deserves.

It just became easier to petition Parliament

On Thursday, Parliament adopted a temporary change to Standing Orders to allow petitions to be submitted electronically rather than on paper. And they've moved very quickly to implement it - the parliamentary e-petition system is now live.

You can start a petition here, but I'd recommend reading the guide first. To start a petition you will need to provide physical contact details, but these aren't published. However, your name and the subject of the petition will be. Once your petition has been started, it will show up for signature on the petitions page, and people can sign it by entering their email address.

Its great that parliament has done this, and it should make petitioning them far more accessible than the old paper-based system. And hopefully they'll follow it up with a system to enable petitions to force a formal government response or a debate in Parliament, as done in the UK.

A good move

The Green Party has a reputation for clean and open government. And at their conference over the weekend, they reinforced that, announcing proactive release of Ministerial diaries and a ban on all MPs and staff accepting corporate gifts:

Green Party Co-leader James Shaw has today announced two important new transparency measures, which will apply to Green Party Ministers, MPs and staff, to help counter the influence of money in politics.

Green Party Ministers will soon proactively release their ministerial diaries, to show who they’ve met with and why. Additionally, Green Ministers, MPs and staff will not accept corporate hospitality, such as free tickets to events unrelated to their work.

Good. While nobody calls it that, corporate "hospitality" is simply a bribe, an attempt to gain favour by picking up minor (or major) expenses. Corporations don't do it unless they expect to gain from it, and the tale the pecuniary interest records tell of how such bribes are distributed show us that that is exactly what is going on. Its good to see a party living up to its values on eliminating corruption from politics, and its a challenge to other parties to follow suit.

But while media attention has focused on the refusing bribes aspect, the proactive release of Ministerial diaries may be more far-reaching. This is something transparency advocates have been calling for for years, because it will expose who is attempting to influence Ministers. Lobbying is so effective partly because it is secret, behind closed doors. Being able to connect the dots between Ministerial meetings and policy changes will mean exposing that influence, and force Ministers to either publicly justify policies, or refuse lobbyists' demands. And that's good for the public.

It also puts Labour's "Minister for Open Government" to shame. Shouldn't she be announcing measures like this? Or does their view of "open government" not actually extend to real openness?

Friday, March 02, 2018

Past time to end fossil fuel exploration

Over on SciBlogs, Massey University's Ralph Sims argues that we should end exploration for oil and gas. The basic argument is that we have already polluted the atmosphere with too much carbon, and if we are to have any hope at all of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, most of the fossil fuels we know about will have to stay in the ground. Which means that future exploration is pointless - after all, what's the point in discovering new sources of fuels that can never be burned or utilised?

And he's right. In the current carbon situation, future exploration is pointless. All it does is create a temptation to destroy the planet, and ammunition for foreign fossil fuel companies to whine about how they should be allowed to profit by doing so. Instead of allowing exploration and issuing new permits, the government should be sending a clear message to the fossil fuel industry that it has no future. The foreign shareholders in that toxic industry will kick and scream, but its basicly them or the planet - and if we want to save the world and keep our own coastal cities above water, they have to go.

New Fisk

Erdogan has released the genealogy of thousands of Turks – but what is his motive?

Rebuilding state housing

During its time in office, National vandalised the state housing system, embarking on a mass-selloff of state homes, including disposing of all Housing New Zealand homes in Tauranga. Now, Labour is making a start on rebuilding state housing:

Housing Minister Phil Twyford has announced that up to 155 new state houses in the regions will be ready by June this year.

The houses will be spread across 15 regional centres, with Napier/Hastings getting almost 50.

The homes will be built on vacant Housing New Zealand land and on underutilised lots.

"This is the first step in building more new homes to help those most in need in our regions. In total, it will build more than 270 bedrooms for individuals or families in the areas where they are needed most," Twyford said.

A handful of small houses doesn't seem like a lot. But its a start, and a step in the right direction. And hopefully it'll be followed by a lot more.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Worth an OIA: Ministerial weekly briefings

Want to know what the government is doing? Every week, every Minister receives a weekly briefing for each of their portfolios, setting out what they need to pay attention to, areas of particular interest, upcoming events, current media coverage, Cabinet papers and OIA requests. Its basicly the Minister's high-level picture of their portfolio. These briefings are subject to the OIA, so they can be requested. And they're illuminating. I've recently requested the briefings from the latter part of last year from the Minister of Conservation, and while information has been withheld for various reasons (mostly because it is under "active consideration" or legal advice), they still reveal a huge amount about what the government is doing. Most notably - and something I didn't see any media reports of - the Minister of Conservation has already been protecting conservation land from mining by denying a "minimum impact permit" exploration permit to a mining company in Golden Bay (the application is reported here, but the denial seems to have gone unnoted). There's also regular updates on the battle for our birds, myrtle rust, and various one-off issues. The lists of Cabinet papers and briefings show that the Minister is looking at preventing mining and drilling, as well as the Kermadecs Marine Reserve proposal, while the list of OIAs give a good picture of what people ask DoC about (largely 1080, but it also shows how wrong Peter Dunne was about who uses the OIA).

The Conservation briefings are here:

Finally, these sorts of briefings would seem to be a perfect candidate for proactive release, in that they are hugely informative about the business of government and enable people to both see what is being done and follow up with more specific queries. An initial release after a month or two should give a good picture, but it would need a followup after six months to release information initially withheld for active consideration. Alternatively, people could just adopt a Minister and start requesting (ideally using FYI, so the responses are public), and eventually they'll get sick enough of the work to proactively release anyway.

Missing the obvious

The Court of Appeal has ruled on Phillip John Smith's right to wear a wig in prison, finding that it doesn't engage the protections of the right to freedom of expression affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. Reading the judgement, its a bit more complicated than that: technically they find the appeal moot, because Corrections has given Smith his wig back, and formally declined to answer the question - but said that that's how they would rule if they had to. Digging down, its essentially because they think wearing the wig wasn't an attempt to convey meaning to another (at 46) or because it attempted to convey normality rather than difference (at 51). Because obviously, being "normal" doesn't mean anything. Meanwhile, if you ask a person on the street what a bald man wearing a wig expresses, they will tell you quite clearly: insecurity. And beyond that, a desire to be seen as young, virile, whatever.

This part of the judgement misses the obvious: that even in what we think of as an informal society, we have elaborate codes of dress telling us what our clothes, hair, makeup and appearance in general express (even if its "fuck all that fashion shit"). If you look at someone, you make judgements based on their clothing and appearance, and people seek to manipulate these judgements by changing how they look. If I wear a suit to a job interview, I communicate one thing, if I wear combats and a hoodie instead, I communicate another. And only a moron (or a Court of Appeal Judge) would think that I wasn't trying to communicate information by how I chose to look. The judicial system is on-record as thinking disco-pants in court communicate something inappropriate, and you can bet that if I turned up in the Court of Appeal and just sat there wearing a parody judge outfit, with robes, a wig, and drunk-face makeup, the judge would damn well think I was expressing something (contempt, probably).

More generally, how we choose to appear is one of our most basic forms of day-to-day expression. Appearance expresses to ourselves and others who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be seen. That's why they seek to control it in prisons, schools, the military, and other conformist institutions such as the law. I'm not going to pretend that its high-falutin' Milton poetry or something a member of our snobbish judiciary would think is socially valuable, but to pretend it is devoid of expressive content and conveys nothing to others is a form of social blindness I'd expect only from aliens.

Time to lower the voting age

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft raised the issue of a lower voting age at Parliament yesterday, arguing that it would lead to stronger citizenship and improved policy:

Judge Andrew Becroft mooted the proposal at Parliament on Wednesday, when he appeared in front of the MPs on the Social Services Select Committee and said those teens would be "up for the responsibility".

"I'm calling for a genuine discussion," he said.

"All that I have seen about our democratic system, shows that those that are least involved and invested in it are our young. The lowest voting turnout is the 18-29 age group, we've got to do better.

"I think provided it went hand-in-hand at good civics education, with a commitment to teach about the operation of Government, how kids can be involved, what voting means, everything I've seen indicates that 16 and 17-year-olds will be up for that responsibility."

This is an issue I have long supported, and I would love to see progress in this area. The basic moral argument for a lower voting age is unassailable - young people have interests, and those interests should count equally with everyone else's. Denying them a direct voice and pretending they are represented by their parents leads to policy outcomes which favour the old over the young - policies like destroying the climate, running deficits to pay for tax cuts, and introducing student loans. Becroft is absolutely right that those policies would change if political parties had to appeal to those presently excluded.

But perhaps that's what they're afraid of?