Thursday, May 23, 2019



Climate Change: Submit!

The Environment Committee has called for submissions on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill. To submit, fill out the online form by Tuesday, 16 July 2019.

This is an important bill, and I urge everyone to submit on it. Farmers and other polluters certainly will be, so if you want a habitable planet, its important to make your voice heard. And while the fix may be in on this bill (it all having been pre-negotiated with NZFirst), at the least you will be helping pile up ammunition for future toughening.

As for what to say, I'd suggest supporting the general framework for the bill, demanding tougher methane targets so farmers are actually pulling their weight like the rest of us, urging the replacement of s5ZK with one which requires government agencies to take targets into account in decision-making, and removal of the odious secrecy clause. You should put all that in your own words, because if you just copy and paste it, the select committee will consider it a form submission and ignore it.

Again, the polluters will be out in force, trying to convince the government to let them drag their feet some more and destroy the world for private profit. Don't let them get away with it. Speak up, or drown.

Destiny's Child

Back in 2003, Destiny Church theocrat Brian Tamaki founded a political party, Destiny New Zealand, to rail against modern society. In the 2005 election, it gained just 0.62% of the vote. But Tamaki is undeterred, so he's trying again:

Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki has announced he and his wife Hannah Tamaki will lead a new political party - Coalition New Zealand.

"You're going to see politics with teeth," Tamaki said at a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

"Labour has been taking us in the wrong direction our freedom is endangered due to harmful politics coming from the government."


What are its policies? They don't say. Instead its all about "poor decision making" and "spin" and standing up for the "silent majority" (all 0.62% of them). But no doubt they'll add something in due course. In the meantime, it looks like just another ego-trip.

Meanwhile, the bigot party niche is looking increasingly crowded, with Coalition New Zealand, the New Conservatives, and Alfred Ngaro's planned handmaid party. So many parties fighting over so small a chunk of the vote! By party count, bigots are some of the most well-represented people in New Zealand. Sadly, our unfair MMP threshold prevents them from ever gaining parliamentary representation.

The UK has no friends left

Back in February, the International Court of Justice ruled that UK had violated international law in its ethnic cleansing of the Chagos Islands, and ordered that they be handed back to Mauritius. Today the UN General Assembly voted on a followup motion to that ruling, to condemn the UK's illegal occupation of the Chagos - and the UK found itself without any friends:

The United Nations general assembly has overwhelmingly backed a motion condemning Britain’s occupation of the remote Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

The 116-6 vote left the UK diplomatically isolated and was also a measure of severely diminished US clout on the world stage. Washington had campaigned vigorously at the UN and directly in talks with national capitals around the world in defence of the UK’s continued control of the archipelago, where there is a US military base at Diego Garcia.

The vote was in support of a motion setting a six-month deadline for Britain to withdraw from the Chagos island chain and for the islands to be reunified with neighbouring Mauritius. It endorsed an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in February, calling on the UK to relinquish its hold on the territory in order to complete the process of decolonisation.

The US, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives backed the UK in the vote and 56 countries abstained, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland and Romania. Other European allies including Austria, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland voted for the UK to relinquish sovereignty.


The UK was desperate to avoid having single-figure support, but in the end all it could muster was a collection of militarists, racists, and outright fascists. Which is what happens if you behave like a rogue state.

As for New Zealand, sadly we abstained rather than vote to uphold international law. So much for our commitment to decolonisation and a law-governed international environment.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019



Let Fonterra die

Fonterra is complaining that the offshore oil exploration ban could impede its plans to switch from coal to gas. Basicly, they're worried about future gas supplies and whether they can switch to a fuel which may no longer be available. So, they claim they'll just have to stick to dirty old coal, just like they do at present. Of course, this ignore the likelihood that it will get more expensive as carbon prices rise, or the possibility that it too may one day be banned, let alone the possibility of simply cutting production to reduce emissions (which, if you believe farmer wailing about forestry conversions and methane targets, is likely anyway). And meanwhile, their competitor Synlait is going clean, using heat pumps and biomass rather than coal.

So why doesn't Fonterra follow suit? I don't know - maybe their farmer-shareholders should ask them, given that the future survival of the company depends on it. Meanwhile, the public is justified in concluding that they're just dirty environmental vandals who hate change.

If companies want to survive in a climate change world, they need to go clean. It's that simple. If Fonterra won't, and persists in clinging to dirty technology, then the best thing that can happen is for it to die and for its place to be taken by a cleaner competitor.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day. While it was originally expected to be the second reading of David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill, National's bigots have successfully filibustered the past few Member's Days, so that now looks like it won't happen until June. Instead, we have the third reading of the Gore District Council (Otama Rural Water Supply) Bill, followed by the third reading of Simeon Brown's Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill and the committee stage of Kieran McAnulty's Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill. Depending on how the filibuster goes, the House might also make a start on the second reading of Hamish Walker's KiwiSaver (Foster Parents Opting in for Children in their Care) Amendment Bill, but is unlikely to get further. There will be no ballot tomorrow.

Climate Change: We are not prepared for this

A couple of years ago the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment warned us of a "slow-moving red zone" due to sea-level rise. According to their estimates, tens of thousands of homes and billions of dollars of infrastructure were at risk. The PCE's warning was based on sea-level rise of up to a metre by 2100 (with storm surges above that line). But there's bad news: we may now be looking at twice that:

Previous predictions for rising sea levels might be incorrect, according to a new study.

The study - published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - found sea levels may rise by 2 metres by 2100.

These findings contradict the original prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report in 2013, which suggested there will be a rise of just under a metre by the year 2100.

"For 2100, the ice sheet contribution is very likely in the range of 7-178cm but once you add in the glaciers and ice caps outside the ice sheets and thermal expansion of the seas, you tip well over two metres," lead author Professor Jonathan Bamber told the BBC.


Globally, this means whole countries disappear, and more than 180 million people displaced. In New Zealand? Well, we just don't know, because the PCE's maps, designed to highlight problem areas, only go to 1.5m. But even from them, we can get an idea of the scale of the problem: whole communities will be going under. Central Lower Hutt will be on the beach. The cost of this will be enormous. Local Government New Zealand estimates a cost of between $8 and $14 billion for pipes and roads alone, and that's not even considering people's homes or the disruption and stress.

Avoiding those costs is a question of planning. But MfE's Coastal Hazards and Climate Change guidance for local government suggests councils use a worst-case scenario of 1.05 metres by 2100. Clearly we need some better estimates, otherwise a lot of people are going to end up carrying the can for poor council decision-making, while greedy developers laugh all the way to the bank.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019



This is not acceptable in a democracy

Last week, ACT leader David Seymour called Green MP Golriz Ghahraman "a real menace to freedom in this country" over her views on hate speech. He said this in an environment where Ghahraman regularly receives death threats. And now, thanks to him, she needs a police escort:

Green GP Golriz Ghahraman is now accompanied by a police escort at all times following a series of death threats.

The MP has seen a significant escalation in threats of violence following comments by ACT MP David Seymour, a source told Stuff.

Seymour told radio host Sean Plunket that: "Golriz Ghahraman is a real menace to freedom in this country" in a Magic Talk segment on hate speech.

A Green party source said there had been a jump in disturbing threats to the Auckland-based MP since the comments last weekend.


Seymour is basicly trying to get one of his political opponents murdered. But I guess that's what ACT, the "party of freedom" stands for now: the "freedom" of racists to threaten and even murder anyone they want.

Needless to say, this ought to be completely unacceptable in a democracy. And if you live in Epsom, and you voted for this racist thug, I hope you're really proud of yourself.

A toxic workplace

The report of the Independent External Review into Bullying and Harassment in the New Zealand Parliamentary Workplace was released today, and it paints a picture of a toxic workplace where bullying is rife. MP's bully staff, MP's bully each other, Parliamentary Services' HR department is useless and compromised, and its basicly a perpetual torrent of stress and shit. And no-one does anything about it because of the power imbalances and political sensitivities which mean no-one can complain, let alone get justice. And this is all widely known within the building, which makes it surprising that anybody is willing to work there at all.

What to do about it? The independent reviewer recommends a bunch of changes to staff contracts and conditions, which is all good. More importantly, they have recommended that Parliament establish an Independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Conduct to investigate abuses by MPs. Which would be great if it happens, but given those sensitivities, I just can't imagine MPs ever voting for that.

Speaking of MP's, this bit is particularly quoteworthy:

“There’s a majority of absolutely lovely MPs and Ministers who are real people people and who would be excellent leaders anywhere. They are just awesome. Then there’s the few who are various shades of shits...and everyone knows who they are, and no one ever challenges them...at least not obviously or effectively.”

It was very common for respondents to mention the names of a small number of Members they saw as ‘repeat offenders’. As one put it: “Everyone will give you the same list. It’s well known but there’s a conspiracy of silence about these few.”

The report of course refuses to name those MPs, meaning that the independent reviewer is effectively part of this conspiracy of silence as well. Which is not acceptable. Naming names is the first step towards accountability, and that needs to happen if anything is to change.

There's also some interesting stuff about demographics. Pointing out that many member-support staff are "twenty-something year-old staff members in what may be their first job out of university", the report goes on to say:
This has several consequential effects. One of the more concerning is the fact that some young staff members appeared to me to believe that some of the negative aspects of the parliamentary workplace were normal. Some described emerging from their employment experience at Parliament cynical and with a high tolerance for poor behaviour. When young professionals in their first jobs see or experience bad behaviour by leaders it risks them replicating those behaviours.

And at this point that its worth noting that both of the publicly-identified parliamentary bullies (Jami-Lee Ross and Meka Whaitiri) previously served as member-support staff, meaning their bullying behaviour may have been institutionalised into them. Its rather like intergenerational child-abuse: today's abusive MP's were normalised to abusive habits by their past exposure to a toxic, abusive institution.

So what can we do about it? Apart from demanding an independent commissioner, this bit has a hint:
I did form an impression of demographic differences among Members in their attitudes to peer to peer bullying and harassment, regardless of Party. Newer or younger Members tended to express low tolerance for poor conduct from colleagues, while longer tenured Members tended to say something like, in the words of one: “I’ve just got used to it as being part of what this place is all about. It’s not a place for the faint hearted.”

So one obvious way of improving parliament's culture would be for us to vote out the time-servers who are institutionalised to and help normalise it. While its not sufficient, it might at least allow some change to take place.

Climate Change: More emergencies

Last week, ECan declared a climate change emergency, becoming the first local authority in New Zealand to do so. They were swiftly followed by Nelson, and Christchurch looks like it will follow suit this week. And from a report on Friday, Parliament might do it as well:

Canterbury and Nelson have moved into a state of "climate emergency" - and Parliament could soon vote to make the declaration.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw agrees global warming has created an emergency, and applauded Environment Canterbury (ECan) and Nelson City councillors for taking the step.

And he revealed some MPs are in discussions about taking a similar stance on a national level.

That would require MPs to approve a motion in Parliament, as they have done in Britain and Ireland in the last few months.


All of which is great, but we need this to be more than empty symbolism. Instead, these declarations need to include language stating that climate change will be considered in all future policymaking - or, in the case of the government, legislative teeth to make that happen. And with the Zero Carbon Bill having its first reading this afternoon, there's an obvious way to do that: remove the existing s5ZK (which allows but does not require agencies to take climate changes into account) and replace it with one that requires them to do so.

NZDF's secret rules of engagement

There's been another dump of documents from the Operation Burnham "inquiry", this time about rules of engagement. In the past, NZDF has refused to release these due to "national security", on the odd theory that if it were publicly known that their soldiers could only shoot at people who were actively participating in hostilities, their enemies might somehow game the system and avoid being shot by not doing that. Which would be a Bad Thing, somehow. But now they're public (give or take redactions around specific weapon approvals), and they say exactly what people thought they said. Which really invites the question of why they were secret in the first place. But I guess NZDF's idea of secrecy is like US patent law: it can apply to things which are obvious, if not public domain.

If you read them closely, though, there's an unpleasant twist: the rules of engagement only allow use of force to defend themselves, "designated persons" or "designated property" against "hostile acts" (being use of force against NZDF, "designated persons" or "designated property"). Those "designated persons" definitions basicly boil down to the occupying forces and their Afghan government allies and their stuff. It does not in any way include Afghan civilians - the people our government told us the NZDF were in Afghanistan to protect. Protecting them may be covered in some circumstances under the "achieve the mission" clause, but at most, they're an afterthought. The important lives in NZDF's rules of engagement are those of Americans and their vassals, not the actual people whose country they're in and who they're supposedly there to help.

And then there's the mission, which is stated in another document as "to maintain stability, defeat the insurgency, assist the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) and enhance the reputation of the NZDF and GONZ" (emphasis added). Pretty obviously, one of these things is not like the others. In NZDF's own words, the SAS were sent to Afghanistan to make them and the National Party look good to America. Which is basicly the core critique of Hager's Other People's Wars. No wonder they wanted to keep it secret.

Monday, May 20, 2019



Australia votes for the same old shit

Australians went to the polls over the weekend, and have apparently re-elected the shit party to government. It was unexpected, but I guess that's what happens when you have a media landscape utterly dominated by a highly partisan monopoly. Meanwhile, thanks to the country's unfair electoral system, the government will enjoy an artificial (near?) majority, while a party which won 10% of the vote will have less than 1% of the seats.

But while its a devastating blow for anyone who valued human rights or wanted action on climate change, there's a slight silver lining. Firstly, the government is unlikely to be much stronger in the House of Representatives than it is now, while in the Senate (which is elected under STV, and so roughly proportional), it will need the support of either Labor or the Greens to pass anything. Which means that while all the current bad shit will continue, it might not be able to get up to much worse shit unless supported by those arseholes in the shit-lite party (which sadly happens with disturbing regularity on anything human-rights related). Of course, there's all sorts of ways a government can do shit without needing to legislate (like approving coal mines, or bombing places), and those will continue, but big policy change is probably off the table, just as it has been for the last six years. Which in turn means the government will probably stick to knifing one another simply to have something to do, until frustration causes them to call another election.

(Thanks to Juice Media's Honest Government Ad on preferential voting for their characterisation of the parties).

Genesis clings to coal

Back in 2015, SOE Genesis Energy committed to shutting down the last two coal-fired units at its Huntly power-plant by December 2018. Last year they pushed back that commitment to 2030. And now, they're weakening it still further:

The country's largest power company, Genesis Energy, is easing off its plan to stop using coal completely by 2030.

[...]

In February last year, Genesis announced an ambitious target to rid of the coal-fired units at Huntly, but chief executive Marc England is now wavering on that goal.

"Our intent is to remove coal by 2030 if we can."


Whether they can depends on the investment decisions they make now. The fact that they're weakening their target suggests that they have no intention of making the necessary decisions to meet it. Kindof like the New Zealand government's climate change targets for the past 20 years, really. But we can no longer afford to piss about; if Genesis won't commit to eliminating coal, the government must do it for them, by banning mining and imports. And if that is inconvenient for Genesis, well, they should have planned for a better future then.

Equality (finally) comes to Taiwan

Back in 2017, Taiwan's highest court ruled that violated “the people’s freedom of marriage” and “the people’s right to equality”, and gave the legislature to enact a marriage equality law. And over the weekend, just one week before the deadline expired, they finally did it:

Taiwan has legalised same-sex marriage, the first of any Asian state, with the passage of legislation giving gay couples the right to marry.

Lawmakers on Friday comfortably passed part of a bill that would allow gay couples to enter into “exclusive permanent unions” and apply for marriage registration with government agencies.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who campaigned on a platform of marriage equality, tweeted after the vote: “We took a big step towards true equality, and made Taiwan a better country.”


The government had a gun to its head, in that if they hadn't legislated, a court order would have come into effect allowing same-sex marriage. And while the current president supports equality, in the interim they have had a bigot referendum which sought to restrict marriage rights and permanently exclude gay couples. The law tries to dance a line between the court order and the referendum. Whether it manages that successfully will I guess be decided by the courts.

Ignoring the Ombudsman

Back in 2017, after then-Transport Minister Simon Bridges had been caught red-handed unlawfully interfering with an OIA request about Auckland rail upgrades, the Ombudsman recommended that government agencies develop formal protocols with Ministers to limit Ministerial interference. So how's that workign out? Sadly, its not:

Ministers and government agencies have ignored the Ombudsman's plea for signed agreements outlawing political meddling in Official Information Act (OIA) responses.

Two years after the Ombudsman urged agencies to agree terms to avoid "perceptions of impropriety", none of the 30 departments surveyed have done so. Two have agreements in the pipelines.

[...]

While Boshier found KiwiRail did not act "contrary to the law", its OIA process was "less than ideal". As a result, he drafted a model agreement, promising ministers "will not provide inappropriate input, such as raising irrelevant considerations (like political embarrassment)".

However, a Stuff survey of 32 agencies found none yet had a signed agreement with their minister. Internal Affairs is finalising an agreement and the Ministry for Primary Industries is working with the Ombudsman to improve its OIA process, including a signed protocol.

KiwiRail still has no agreement and sends all OIA requests to shareholding ministers and transport-related ones to the Transport Minister.


Which suggests that Ministers still want to unlawfully interfere in requests, and agencies are unwilling to stand up to them. As for what to do about it, we need a statutory requirement for such agreements, and criminal penalties for interference. But what Minister is going to vote for that?

Friday, May 17, 2019



Climate Change: Tweaking the ETS

Climate Change Minister James Shaw has announced the latest decisions in the government's programme to tweak the Emissions Trading Scheme to make it actually discourage pollution rather than subsidise it. There's a commitment to begin auctioning units from late next year, and to remove the price cap from then (or from 2022 at the latest). There are also plans to increase penalties for non-compliance, ensuring that polluters who refuse to engage with the scheme can be properly punished. But one of the biggest change sis around transparency, with a commitment to publish totals of emissions and removals for every ETS participant. This isn't actually as intrusive as it seems: because our ETS sets the "point of obligation" at a very high level, there are only about 300 mandatory participants (plus 2150 voluntary ones, mostly forestry companies), and we'll be seeing effectively how much oil, gas and coal is being imported and mined rather than how much individual companies are using. On the other hand, it will allow us to identify highly-polluting industrial users, as well as deforesters.

On the price cap, the government has committed to keeping it at $25 for this year. And while they plan to remove it next year if everything goes well, they haven't committed to a particular level in the interim. Which given that the price cap both harms the market and poses a financial risk to the government, suggests an obvious fix: legislate for a separate, higher cap to apply from next year until it is removed. Doubling it to $50, and increasing it by $25 a year until the 2022 deadline should give room for the market to find its level, while avoiding the current problem of prices being up against the cap. But that would mean they'd have to progress the legislation quickly to get it in place by next year, which seems unlikely, given that it hasn't even been introduced yet. Though a quick raise in the future carbon price caps seems like the sort of thing which could legitimately be done under urgency, given the time-sensitivity.

Neither socially not environmentally responsible

Dunedin will play host to the New Zealand Minerals Forum at the end of the month, where the companies who dig up New Zealand and destroy our natural environment for private profit will conspire on how to pillage more effectively while avoiding being held responsible for the damage they do. The forum will be held at the Dunedin Centre, which is operated by Dunedin City Council-owned Dunedin Venues. And this has raised a few eyebrows:

Protesters are already planning to make their voices heard at the event, and yesterday Wise Response environmental group chairman Sir Alan Mark questioned Dunedin Venues' actions.

In a letter to the Otago Daily Times, he asked whether Dunedin Venues had complied with its own policy, set out in its statement of intent, to "exhibit a sense of social and environmental responsibility".

The council also had a policy on achieving net zero carbon emissions in the city by 2050, and the company was supposed to bring any potential conflicts with policies to the council's attention, he said.

Councillors appeared to be unaware of the situation when the event was made public.


An obvious question here is whether Dunedin Venues would rent their venues to the tobacco industry. Because that's the level the mining industry is on in terms of social and environmental responsibility. Except that where the tobacco industry merely profits by literally selling cancer, and has caused a public health crisis which has killed millions, the mining industry profits by destroying the planet, and threatens to make the earth uninhabitable. No company with a real commitment to social and environmental responsibility should have anything to do with them. And no individual should either.

New Fisk

From the Middle East to Northern Ireland, western states are all too happy to avoid culpability for war crimes
In Iraq, the ghosts provide the glue of unity in a story of survival

Time to get out of Iraq

Cabinet will be considering whether to pull out of Iraq this month. Meanwhile, thanks to the US openly threatening war with Iran, other countries with military forces there are withdrawing them:

Germany and the Netherlands have suspended their military training programmes in Iraq because of a perceived security threat in the wake of rising US-Iranian tensions in the region.

The announcements came after the US embassy in Baghdad ordered all but emergency staff to leave Iraq. No details of the supposed security threat were provided.

A German defence ministry spokesman, Jens Flosdorff, said that by pausing its small-scale training missions north of Baghdad and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Germany was “orienting itself toward our partner countries, which have taken this step”.

However, Flosdorff said the move was not a response to a “concrete threat” but rather to a general security situation being viewed as more tense.


New Zealand should follow their lead. Besides exposing kiwi troops to danger, staying in Iraq alongside the US while it threatens Iran is effectively expressing support for US warmongering. And that's not something our country should do.

A handmaid party?

Earlier in the year, National helped failed Green leadership candidate Vernon Tava set up a "teal" astroturf party, sustainablenz. It seems to have sunk without a trace, without even registering a logo with the Electoral Commission, let alone applying for party registration (which are things it would have done if there had been a rush of people discovering a party which finally represented their views). So, they're turning to a new plan: trying to tap the bigot vote:

The coalition lifeline that National will need if it's to have a chance at the next election looks set to come in the form of a Christian party led by one of its own, former Cabinet Minister Alfred Ngaro.

Talk within the party's been rife for weeks now with Ngaro's plan being well received and with the possibility of National standing aside, possibly in the Botany seat, where it has the strongest party vote by far.

Jami-Lee Ross's departure would let National gift an electorate to its new vassal without having to throw a sitting MP under the bus. But religious politics has a toxic reputation in New Zealand for all sorts of reasons: misogyny and homophobia, historic religious parties being dominated by fringe loonies (which in one case the public only discovered after they'd been elected), and Graham Capill, combined with a strong social consensus that religion is a private matter and a desire not to be like the US. So while its a natural fit for National - just look at the way they vote on gay rights, women's rights, and death with dignity - a "handmaid party" is also risky. Because voters are influenced by who a party's friends are (National's 2014 and 2017 election advertising infamously relied on this), and if a party's path to power is to crawl into bed with the religious right, then a fair number of people will be turned off by this, and vote accordingly.

And on the griping hand: National has no friends, and has effectively destroyed its previous coalition partners, so all it can do is gamble and hope.

Correction (17/5/19): Thanks to a 2014 amendment to the Electoral act, unregistered parties can no longer register logos with the Electoral Commission. I hadn't noticed.

Thursday, May 16, 2019



UK spies are not above the law

In a major decision, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that that country's spies are not above the law:

Government security decisions will in future be open to challenge in the courts after judges ruled that a secretive intelligence tribunal could not be exempt from legal action.

By a 4-3 majority, supreme court justices declared that the extent of GCHQ’s powers to hack into internet services should be subject to judicial review.

The judgment, in effect integrating the investigatory powers tribunal (IPT) into the existing hierarchy of court appeals, was welcomed by human rights groups as a victory for the rule of law.


The UK parliament had put a purported ouster clause in the law forbidding judicial review, but the court found that “[i]t is ultimately for the courts, not the legislature, to determine the limits set by the rule of law to the power to exclude review.” Given the powers in question and the implications for human rights, they read down the purported ouster clause and effectively voided it.

Of course, that still leaves the main problem that in order to review a decision, you need to know about it in the first place. Which highlights the importance of leaks in ensuring intelligence agencies behave lawfully. But now at least the decisions of the IPT will not be final, preventing it from colluding with or being captured by the spy agencies it is supposed to oversee.

(Meanwhile, in New Zealand, decisions by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and security cannot be challenged in court. But its is effectively a parallel jurisdiction, with a clause stating explicitly that IGIS looking at a case does not affect the jurisdiction of the courts or the police. Meaning that if you don't get justice from IGIS, you can always seek judicial review of a spy agency's decision directly).

Climate Change: A climate emergency in Canterbury

ECan has just declared a climate emergency, becoming the first local authority in New Zealand to do so. But what does it mean? Their declaration included this:

Environment Canterbury declares a climate emergency and commits to continue to:
  • robustly and visibly incorporate climate change considerations into Council work programmes and decisions
  • provide strong local government leadership in the face of climate change, including working with regional partners to ensure a collaborative response
  • advocate strongly for greater Central Government leadership and action on climate change
  • increase the visibility of our climate change work
  • lead by example in monitoring and reducing Council’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The first is the most important part: if they're serious about this, then it means considering climate change in every decision they make. Public transport? Its about climate change. Irrigation and dairy intensification? Climate change. They need to alter their regional plans and policies to ensure that activities which reduce emissions are encouraged, while those which increase them - such as dairy farming - are limited and discouraged. And I look forward to them doing that.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Extinction Rebellion Aotearoa for achieving this. Hopefully, it will be the first council of many.

Beneficiaries are treated worse than criminals

An investigation by the Privacy Commissioner has found that WINZ systematically misused its powers, conducting intrusive and illegal searches into beneficiaries' lives in violation of both the Social Security Act and Privacy Act. Searches like this:

“In one instance, a beneficiary described to us how MSD obtained, from a telecommunications company, an intimate picture shared by that individual with a sexual partner. The photograph was then produced at an interview by MSD investigators seeking an explanation for it.”

How do they get this information? Because WINZ has warrantless search powers, originally under s11 Social Security Act 1964, and now under Schedule 6 Social Security Act 2018. Originally these allowed WINZ to demand anyone to provide them with information, documents, and records. In 2018, the current government re-enacted this as part of the rewrite of social security legislation, and added a "duty to answer questions asked by MSD", requiring anyone to answer anything WINZ asked them about beneficiaries or their circumstances. Those familiar with law enforcement search powers may recognise these as akin to a production order and examination order respectively - powers for which the police require judicial approval and (in the latter case) high-level internal signoff. WINZ has no such safeguards on its powers. But despite this, the re-enactment and expansion of the law was found to be consistent with the right against unreasonable search and seizure by the Attorney-General at the time, Chris Finlayson. Sadly, he did not provide his reasoning on that. The select committee which reviewed the bill in 2016 didn't comment on it either, though it's unclear whether that was because they had bigger issues to comment on, or because intrusive search powers hidden away in a schedule didn't attract attention. But either way, Parliament voted for this, contrary to established principles that intrusive search powers require a warrant issued by a judge.

Are the powers intrusive? They are when exercised by police against drug dealers and murderers. And when someone gets to perve through your bank records or your text messages or your emails, or force you to answer questions on pain of punishment, then yes, its intrusive. These powers urgently need judicial surveillance - and if that's inconvenient to WINZ, then tough. It's inconvenient to the police too, to have to convince a judge they have reasonable grounds to suspect an offence has been committed - but we make them jump through that hoop because these powers are ripe for abuse, and we don't trust the gang in blue not abuse them. We should apply the same standard to WINZ as well. Unless, like Chris Finlayson, we're happy for beneficiaries to be treated worse than criminals.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019



Above the law

A big myth in this country is that we are all equal under the law. If someone commits a crime, they get prosecuted, regardless of who they are. We already know that that's a myth when it comes to race and to class - if you are poor and brown you are far more likely to be prosecuted than if you are rich and white, even when the underlying offence is exactly the same. But there's another group who also get special treatment: police officers:

An officer who sped through an 80km/h zone after a fleeing driver should have been charged, the police watchdog says.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) investigated the manner of driving by an officer after the pursuit was abandoned in Auckland in August 2017.

Its decision said the officer drove at more than 160km/h, despite the police helicopter being able to monitor the pursuit.

An employment investigation disciplined the officer for continuing the pursuit when the risk was too high.

The authority disagreed with a police decision and said a criminal investigation was warranted in the circumstances.


This is the second time this month this has happened, and it paints a picture of the police thinking they are above the law. But apart from being inherently wrong and outright corrupt, this refusal of the police to prosecute their own also incentivises illegal behaviour by police officers. And that is something we simply should not tolerate.

As for what to do about it, letting the IPCA bring prosecutions against police would be a good start. That way there's at least some chance of the public getting justice when the gang in blue violates the trust we place in them.

Britain wants its troops to commit war crimes

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from its "vow" to introduce an amnesty for crimes committed by soldiers and to derogate from the ECHR:

The new defence secretary has promised to introduce an amnesty on historical prosecutions for military veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else around the world – with the exception of Northern Ireland.

Penny Mordaunt will consult on proposals for a presumption against prosecution for offences committed more than 10 years ago and will say she supports plans to opt out of the European convention on human rights (ECHR) in future armed conflicts.

But the minister risks courting conflict with some on the right of her party, who want Northern Ireland to be included within any amnesty, following the prosecution of a former paratrooper for the murder of two people on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

Both actions would send a clear signal to soldiers that they can commit all the war crimes they want, murder and torture with abandon, and the government will protect them. And it will enable them to avoid domestic punishment by allowing the military to drag out investigations (as they already do) to run out the clock on prosecution.

Derogating from the ECHR might not be as effective as they suppose though. Firstly, because the Convention does not permit any derogation from the right to life or the prohibitions on torture and slavery - which is where the UK's war crime problems are. And secondly, because such derogations most not be "inconsistent with its other obligations under international law" - such as the Geneva Conventions or Rome Statute of the Criminal Court. And indeed, as long as the UK remains a party to the latter, all an "amnesty" does is ensure that its war criminals are tried in The Hague rather than London, and that politicians get to join them in the dock as accessories who tried to protect them from international justice.

Climate Change: The Zero Carbon Bill and the ETS

One of the criticisms of the government's Zero Carbon Bill is that it is toothless: the independent Climate Change Commission can set budgets and advise on plans, but has no power to implement anything. Greenpeace for example wanted the Commission to have reserve bank-style powers over the ETS, allowing it to effectively set carbon prices and drive emissions reductions independently of the government-of-the-day. The Bill does not include such powers. But I've been reading the Bill's Regulatory Impact Statement, and interestingly, as late as January it did:

Every five years, the Commission will recommend emissions budgets (with a mandated government response) and advise on macro-level policy to meet the budgets set by the government, including an outlook for the NZ ETS unit supply settings.

Decision-making on the NZ ETS settings will remain with the elected government. However, the Commission would have an ‘Advisory-plus’ role, in which it will be required to recommend the technical NZ ETS settings annually (within the constraints of the set 2050 target and emissions budgets) and on the presumption that its recommendations will be given effect unless government provides otherwise and gives reasons for that decision.


The "advisory-plus" procedure is used elsewhere in the Bill in the setting of emissions budgets, and in our constitutional framework, it basicly means the advice will be followed, so its a fairly strong role. So what happened?

One obvious answer is "Winston". But this may in fact be a technical problem. The government is currently in the middle of tweaking the ETS - it has made some decisions around auctioning and removing the price cap, but not yet introduced legislation, while it is yet to make decisions on the removal of pollution subsidies. The RIS also points out "sequencing issues" with the establishment of the Commission and the setting of its first budget, which could require Parliament to set 2019 and 2020 ETS supplies in legislation. Given this, they may have decided to delay that bit, until they've worked out what they actually want to do. The problem is that with the planet burning, delay isn't something we have a lot of time for any more.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019



Netanyahu does a Berlusconi

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being prosecuted for corruption. So how is he planning to avoid it? A law granting him immunity would not survive judicial scrutiny. So, he plans to remove that scrutiny entirely:

The new far-reaching bill would allow the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and government ministers to essentially ignore any High Court of Justice ruling, Haaretz revealed, including the potential revocation of Mr Netanyahu’s immunity.

According to the left-leaning daily, the move is written into a “legal appendix” of the coalition agreement and government guidelines Mr Netanyahu is currently drawing up as he builds a new coalition government after winning the April general election.

[...]

Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist, author and expert on Mr Netanyahu, sounded the alarm.

“The implication of this law, if it passes, will be that the High Court will lose its powers of judicial review over government actions, in any field, the military occupation, state and religion, etc. All this to save Netanyahu from being put on trial,” he wrote on Twitter.


This overturns a key plank of Israel's constitution, and all to protect a corrupt politician. Its reminiscent of the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, who for years manipulated Italy's laws and undermined its constitution to keep himself out of jail. Its not the sort of thing that decent democracies do. But then, neither is apartheid.

Chipping away at the OIA

Last week I highlighted an odious secrecy clause in the government's Zero Carbon Bill, which unnecessarily exempted information from the Official Information Act, undermining transparency and accountability. The government's Equal Pay Amendment Bill is back from select committee today, and there's more of the same. The committee decided that it would be beneficial to require employers to lodge copies of equal pay settlements with MBIE "for statistical or analytical purposes". But in the process, they include a specific clause stating:

Nothing in the Official Information Act 1982 applies to copies of pay equity claim settlements delivered to the chief executive under subsection (1).

The purpose of this is to protect confidentiality - its someone's employment agreement after all, and private to the parties involved. Which is a reasonable goal - however, it is one which is already protected by the OIA, specifically s9(2)(ba)(i), which allows information to be withheld to
protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence or which any person has been or could be compelled to provide under the authority of any enactment, where the making available of the information would be likely to prejudice the supply of similar information, or information from the same source, and it is in the public interest that such information should continue to be supplied

That clause is subject to a public interest test, but we've seen from the application of s9(2)(h) on legal advice that the OIA recognises different thresholds for public interest depending on the type of information. And if you look at the Ombudsman's guidelines on public interest, most of the usual reasons - transparency and accountability of government, participation, accountability for public expenditure - don't really apply (they would apply if the contract was one for a government agency, but then it could be requested from that agency directly). Meanwhile, the clause would forbid the government from providing information even if it had already been made publicly available elsewhere (meaning there was no harm in release), or for purposes which would advance the purpose of collection (e.g. independent academics analysing equal pay claims to see if government policy was successful).

This is overkill. It has been sprung by the select committee by surprise, with no opportunity for the public to comment on it (which ought to be a no-no when messing with a constitutional Act like the OIA). But it also seems to be part of a pattern. A disturbing picture is emerging of a government chipping away at the OIA, exempting information here, exempting information there, while undermining its principles. And that is not something we should accept. This clause must be removed from the Bill.

Monday, May 13, 2019



Climate Change: Shifting the ground

The UK's Climate Change Committee has recommended toughening their target to net zero emissions by 2050. And the change has the overwhelming support of the UK public:

A majority of voters would support radical action to slash greenhouse gases to nearly zero by 2050 at a cost of tens of billions of pounds, a new poll has found.

The public has thrown its weight overwhelmingly behind calls by the government’s independent climate change advisers to make a legally binding commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

The exclusive survey by BMG Research found 59 per cent of voters would support such action, with only 8 per cent opposing it and 34 per cent who had no view.


Why such overwhelming support? Firstly, its obvious to anyone who watches the news and the daily litany of things flooding, burning, melting, or otherwise being affected by rising temepratures and resulting changes in the weather that the climate crisis is here and we need to do something about it. And secondly, groups like Extinction Rebellion and the school strike movement have done an excellent job of activating people and telling them what they need to demand from their politicians. And as a result, the ground has shifted completely.

Will the same thing happen in New Zealand? Farmers and the political parties who pander to them may be about to find out...

New Fisk

‘Pity America, because of this crazy Trump!’ Here’s what Iran’s man in Iraq would say to Mike Pompeo

Captured

Why is MBIE so supportive of the oil industry, why do they come up with outrageous estimates of the value of the oil industry to New Zealand, and why do they see environmentalists as a threat to be suppressed by the likes of Thompson and Clark? Because they're staffed by former oil industry employees:

More than half the employees working in the government division tasked with regulating the petroleum industry have registered conflicts of interest.

Information released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act raises concerns about a “revolving door” between the oil and gas sector and the part of the Government tasked to regulate it.

[...]

Of the nine staff in the petroleum division at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), five registered real or perceived conflicts of interest. The information does not record which companies or relationships caused those conflicts of interest, but conceded that it did employ people who had worked in the sector.


As the article points out, industry experience is sometimes useful for MBIE in assessing compliance. But it comes with a mindset, and insofar as staff have "moved between industry and regulator depending on market forces", creates a real conflict of interest, in that staff may be unwilling to regulate either a past employer with whom they have good relations, or a future one from whom they hope to one day gain a job (see also: US banking and finance regulation). And both are toxic to our public service and our democracy.

As for what to do about it, end the revolving door: stop hiring from the oil industry, and ban public servants from working in the industry they have been regulating for a year or two post-employment. These are common policies used to prevent this sort of corruption and capture, and I am surprised we do not defend ourselves with them.

Teachers have had enough

So, its on. On May 29, the day before Labour's "wellbeing budget", the centrepiece of its political year when it tries to send a good news message about what its doing, the teachers are going on strike. They've been overworked and underpaid for years, watching their salaries decline relative to everyone else, while successive governments have cynically relied on their goodwill to keep them working. That goodwill now seems to have run out. And so they're not just promising a one-day strike later in the month, but five weeks of rolling stoppages after that. Which is going to cause huge disruption - and that's the point. If people don't want their lives to be disrupted by this, then the government needs to pay up.

What they want is better pay, commensurate with their qualifications, and more time for admin and professional development, which will in turn leave them free to teach. But beyond that, they want a career path which actually appeals to people, rather than one which starts off by paying below the median wage for too much work, and just gets worse.

The government says they have no more money, and that they have other spending priorities. Well, they need to change those priorities then. They also say the teachers' pay demands are unjustified. I think that's for teachers to decide. They know what their profession needs and what it is worth far better than some arsehole in the Beehive on a $280,000 salary. Meanwhile, we're treated to the sight of a Labour government and its hacks hating on striking workers, sounding and acting just like any other boss. Which is a perfect example of how Labour's tribalism trumps their supposed values any day of the week.

Teachers do not strike on a whim. Unlike politicians, they are professionals who take their jobs seriously. They've been driven to this by years of mistreatment, and they are angry. That anger is not going to go away just because Chris Hipkins stamps his foot and demands they fall in line like good serfs. What will make it go away is a credible offer which meets their demands in the long-term. If the government doesn't want its entire political year fucked up, they need to make that offer. Its that simple.

Friday, May 10, 2019



British government wants impunity for its crimes

Imagine if a government argued that murderers and rapists should not be "pursued unfairly for events that took place decades ago". That's exactly what the British Minister of Defence is arguing for soldiers:

The new defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt, declared that army veterans should not be “pursued unfairly for events that took place decades ago” hinting that she favoured an amnesty for British soldiers from historical prosecutions.

The minister was hoping to defuse a protest from Conservative backbencher Johnny Mercer who had said on Wednesday night that he would refuse to support the government in the Commons until fresh legislation is brought forward.

[...]

Her predecessor, Gavin Williamson, was planning to bring forward legislation with a 10-year limit for cases to be brought to trial in response to concerns raised after news that a former paratrooper would be prosecuted for the murder of two people killed on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

It was not immediately clear if Mordaunt intended to follow Williamson’s lead by introducing a bill in a future Queen’s speech. The previous proposal was to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution if the alleged offence took place over 10 years ago.


To point out the obvious: the reason British soldiers like "Soldier F" are pursued for decades is because they have committed serious crimes - in his case, murder. The effect of an amnesty is to grant them impunity for such crimes. That's not morally acceptable. But as the UK is also a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it would simply mean that they would have to be tried in The Hague rather than UK courts - and that the Ministers who purportedly granted them amnesty would be in the dock next to them as accessories after the fact for attempting to protect them from justice.

"Pure sophistic bollocks"

That's how normally mild-mannered ex-MP Peter Dunne describes the government's excuses on its "binding" cannabis referendum:

The Minister tries to justify his position by saying that no Parliament can bind its successor Parliaments.

This is, to put it politely, pure sophistic bollocks.

Every piece of legislation passed and regulation promulgated by every New Zealand Parliament since our first Parliament met in May 1854 has to some extent or another bound successor Parliaments. Indeed, if those successor Parliaments have not liked laws passed by their predecessors, they have either repealed or amended them.

That is the stuff of politics and political discourse is all about, and governments have always reserved the right to upend the legislation of an earlier government if they have not liked it, and to replace it with something more akin to their own way of thinking. The notion that responsible governments have demurred from doing things on the grounds they might bind their successors is as nonsensical as it is fanciful. Indeed, only a few months ago, before it was snookered by New Zealand First, the present Government was proposing to legislate during this Parliament for a capital gains tax, to be implemented in the next Parliament should the Government be re-elected. There were no scruples about binding future Parliaments then!


As Dunne points out, this will be the first government-initiated referendum in New Zealand history not to have an immediate, binding result. Which turns it into a fluffy PR exercise, a fraud on the New Zealand people. And we should not tolerate it.

Why do MPs hate capital gains taxes?

Just look at all the houses they own.

Parliament's Register of Pecuniary Interests was released yesterday, showing all the pies our MPs said they have their fingers in. And their favourite pie is houses. NewsHub has a list here, and I've turned it into a spreadsheet classifying properties by type. All up, our MPs own 220 houses - almost two each - and only 8 of them do not own a house. By party, National has 125 houses (2.23 per MP), Labour 71 (1.54 / MP), NZ First 17 (1.89 / MP), Jamie Lee-Ross 1, and the Greens 6 (0.75 / MP). Interestingly, ACT leader and MP David Seymour doesn't own a house.

Collectively, our MPs are house-hoarders, part of the problem. Shane Jones owns five houses. And he's not alone on that level. Some of our MPs are slumlords. And that's not considering land, farms, or other commercial property, which adds to the tally.

And this is why MP's hate the idea of a capital gains tax: because they'd be the ones paying it.

Ireland declares a climate emergency

Last week, the UK Parliament became the first in the world to recognise the seriousness and urgency of the environmental situation by declaring a climate emergency. And last night, Ireland followed suit:

Ireland has become only the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency.

The development came after a Fianna Fáil amendment to the Oireachtas report on Climate Action was accepted by both the Government and Opposition parties without a vote.

Chair of the Climate Action Committee, Fine Gael's Hildegarde Naughton, welcomed the outcome as "an important statement" but added "now we need action."

She said Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton would speedily return to the Dáil with new proposals, and she looked forward to working "with all parties and none" to scrutinise them.


This isn't meaningless. It is a signal of intent, and as the article notes, will lead to new policies being put forward to reduce emissions. Its about focusing the mind of politicians on the problem that really matters, rather than the ones that don't - on the iceberg, rather than the deckchairs.

So, to ask the obvious question: when is New Zealand following suit? When will an MP even seek leave to put the motion to the House?

Thursday, May 09, 2019



Climate Change: Missing the obvious

Writing in The Spinoff, former National Minister Wayne Mapp argues that a good first step to meeting the targets of the Zero Carbon Act would be to end fossil fuelled cars. He's right (and I've talked at length about how to do this here), but falls into a hole when he starts talking about how expensive it will all be:

The big issue is low income families. Maybe half of all car buyers are purchasing second hand Japanese cars for less than $10,000. There is no way they can afford a new electric car. A new electric Hyundai Kona SUV costs $73,000 right now; the price could be around $50,000 for a new model in a few years.

So how do we help lower income families make the shift? It will require a decent subsidy, maybe $5,000 per year for five years of car ownership or annual lease. Not only will this help emissions, it will mean much safer cars for low income families. Many of the terrible recent accidents have many more deaths and injuries in older, less safe vehicles.

Probably 100,000 of the new annual registrations would attract such a subsidy, targeted at lower income families. The initial annual cost would be $500 million, assuming full take up, rising to $2.5 billion per year in five years. It is a large sum of money, but it is doable. Governments have previously had tax packages or family support packages of this size.


...which is an enormously costly policy, but entirely unnecessary. Because, to ask the obvious, why do we need to buy new cars? As Mapp points out, we don't at present. Instead, unless there's a massive cultural shift, we're going to keep buying second-hand vehicles from high-turnover-rate countries, which will be 50% - 75% cheaper than buying new. And the cars most kiwis buy are not high-end SUVs, but compact vehicles designed for driving in suburbia, which are much cheaper. The price of vehicles will almost certainly rise, but we're probably not going to need billions of dollars of annual subsidies to new car dealers to drive it (that said: we can and should follow Norway in taxing dirty vehicles to fund clean ones to drive the transition. Let the dirty drivers of double-cab utes pay to save the world!)

What we are going to need is new electricity generation to power all those cars. But that's another post, I think.

New Fisk

On the banks of the Tigris, the lost grave of Scottish shepherd David Bell takes us deep into Iraq’s bloody past

Climate Change: The fudge is not going to survive reality

Yesterday the government announced its Zero Carbon Bill, which would establish a framework for long-term emissions reductions. The most controversial aspect of the Bill is its agricultural targets: for the first time, farmers will face an explicit responsibility to clean up their act and reduce methane (and that, sadly, is too much for traditional farming groups, who think that New Zealand should continue to carry them and subsidise their emissions and pay to clean up the mess they cause because they're "the backbone of the country mate" or some such bullshit. More like the infected gut wound which will kill us slowly and painfully...)

But while the interim target of a 10% reduction in methane by 2030 is solid, the longer-term target is a fudge, designed to be set by a review in 2024. And its clear that some in Labour aren't committed to the deep reductions we will need to beat this. Here's what their Agriculture Minister had to say on Radio New Zealand this morning [Audio; quote starts at 3m]:

[Agriculture Minister] Damien O'Connor says there's a good chance that the final methane targets will be lower in the end than those announced by the government yesterday. Now he's referring to those plans to cut emissions provisionally from 24% to 47% by 2050. Damien O'Connor says final policy might ultimately fall well short of the government's top of the range figure. And that will be after analysis by the Climate Change Commission.

"The initial target of a 10% reduction by 2030 is just a continuation of the status quo, that is the efficiencies that have been gained across the agricultural sector and I believe is quite achievable. The issue of the target that has been announced is at either end of the scale. And 47% is clearly a figure that many might be concerned about. In my view the Commission will look at what is necessary to reach the goals. And I don't think that that figure will be at the high end at all, and I think that the farming sector as its shown in the past is innovative enough to make the changes required to meet our international obligations. Clearly there's a lot of work going on into science and technical solutions. If we apply those I'm sure that we can very easily meet the targets, particularly in the lower end of that target range".


O'Connor's probably right about the interim target (Synlait plans to not just meet it, but make a 30% cut by 2028). But if he thinks that in five years time the science is going to show that we need to cut emissions less rather than more, he is dreaming. Its a classic case of self-delusion to avoid the inconvenient truth that his industry has no future unless it changes radically. The good news is that he is one of Labour's dinosaurs; he is over 60 and has been in Parliament for 25 years. He is unlikely to still be around in 2024 when the target is chosen. The bad news is that the National Party is full of people like him - deluded old farmers desperate to deny reality - and they may well be in government then. Unless Labour gets a third term with the Greens, we may end up with a weak methane target.

...in which case a future government will just need to strengthen it. Because while this law is meant to provide a lasting framework, the crisis is moving so fast that it has probably already been overtaken. The IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report is due in 2022, and it will tell us in as strong language as scientists at their most careful can muster that we are absolutely fucked if we don't change. I'm confident that the targets and pathway in the Bill will be amended - but to strengthen them, not weaken them. And we need to be ready to push for that amendment when the time comes.

The challenge now is to stop the government backing down on this. Because while they've supposedly reached agreement within their coalition, we've seen how "agreement" with NZ First isn't all its cracked up to be. There's a real danger that farmers will lobby Shane Jones, maybe make a few donations to Winston (undeclared, of course - its amazing how NZ First never declares anything), and the party will suddenly change its mind and refuse to support the bill unless the targets are weakened. And I hope that the Greens have made it crystal clear that if that happens, they will withdraw confidence and supply and force an election. Because this is their raison d'etre as a party, and if they can't get this policy through, there's no point propping up Winston anymore.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019



"The most transparent government ever" - still bullshit

Shortly after being elected, Labour promised to be "the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had". I've commented repeatedly on how Labour is failing to meet that promise in its behaviour over parliamentary written questions. And sadly, despite the Speaker repeatedly calling them out on it, their bullshit continues:

I have received a letter from the Hon Michael Woodhouse raising with me the responses to written questions he has received from the Minister of Health. I note the Minister and his office have been under considerable pressure as a result of having up to 1,500 questions lodged on a single day... However, Dr Clark's response to some of the questions is not acceptable.

The replies refer the member to another reply, and that reply refers him on to another reply. In one instance, the member would have had to make his way through 22 separate replies which do not answer the question before finally reaching the answer. That approach falls far short of the standard of accountability required to the House of Ministers.

The matter was compounded by the answer that was ultimately provided, which stated that the matter was an operational one and that the member could use the Official Information Act 1982 to request the information sought. There is no convention that Ministers are not answerable for operational matters in the agencies falling within their portfolio areas...


So why did the Minister get 1,500 questions in a single day? From the look of it, because he made work for himself. Ministers have sought to avoid accountability by demanding increasing specificity in questions, meaning that a request for operation numbers over a specific period by type and DHB - basic accountability information - had to be chopped up by each of those categories. Meaning dozens of questions per DHB, for each of the 20 DHBs (I haven't dug further to see if it had to be chopped up by time as well). And from the Speaker's ruling, in the end the Minister provided bulk information anyway. Which invites the question of why they didn't do it in the first place, and the conclusion that he has no-one to blame but himself.

The Speaker has been good about calling Ministers out over their bullshit games, but it clearly isn't working. Its time that Ministers who undermine our democracy by refusing accountability to parliament are dragged before the Privileges Committee and punished for their contempt. The Committee can impose fines of up to $1,000. Applying that per question they fail to answer properly ought to provide an incentive for better Ministerial behaviour.

Odious secrecy

Something odious about the Zero Carbon Bill: it expands the Climate Change Response Act's existing secrecy clause to cover "the Climate Change Commission, in respect of the performance of its functions or exercise of its powers under Parts 1A to 1C".

The secrecy clause currently requires the EPA to keep confidential any information which comes into their possession in the performance of their climate change functions and not disclose it except under specified conditions (which basicly boil down to "with permission, if its already out there, or to another part of the government"). The Ombudsman has found that despite s99(2)(b)(iv), the clause trumps the OIA. The justification for this was that the EPA received business information from polluters about their emissions, which should be kept confidential. But the amendment would apply it to the Climate Change Commission in the performance of any of its functions, including target setting, providing advice to the Minister, setting and reporting on emissions budgets, and the preparation of risk assessments, and it would cover all communications, submissions, and advice received during those processes. In other words, they would be cloaked in a veil of secrecy - transparency would cease to exist. We would have no right to see e.g. who has been lobbying the Climate Change Commission, or whether the Minister has been leaning on them during the target-setting process. Which is perhaps the point.

There is no conceivable justification for this. Insofar as submissions or advice contain sensitive business information, they can be adequately protected by existing withholding clauses (e.g. s9(2)(b)(ii)). Insofar as they don't, then there is no justification for secrecy. Transparency may be inconvenient to politicians and officials, but it is fundamental to public trust and accountability. A Climate Change Commission which is not subject to it will lack any credibility.

Climate Change: The Zero Carbon Bill

The government has finally released its proposed Zero Carbon Bill. Following the framework set by the UK Climate Change Act (and advocated by Generation Zero), the bill establishes a framework for continuous emissions reductions, with long-term targets, five-yearly carbon budgets to establish a pathway to those targets, and independent reporting so we can hold governments accountable for meeting them. But the big question about this wasn't that process - which pretty much everyone agreed on - but the targets themselves. And here there's some good news. While I was expecting a sell-out, the targets are much better than expected: a 10% reduction in methane by 2030, with a 24% - 47% reduction by 2050, and net zero for all other gases. The variable methane target will be determined by a review in 2024, but the minimum level stabilises the level of warming from methane, while the upper limit would reduce it significantly. And even the interim 2030 target is going to mean reducing the number of cows, with flow-on benefits for water quality.

(As for that review in 2024, I would argue that we need to go harder on methane rather than softer. Because the goal isn't to "stabilise" warming, but to reduce it. Reducing methane is the fastest and most effective way of doing this in the short term, and cutting it hard will help buy us time for reducing longer-lived gases. We're in real danger of "positive feedback", existing warming making it worse, so anything we can do to reduce heat as quickly as possible is good. This is a crisis and we need to act like it).

But while I'm pleased with these targets, as both being more than I expected, and meeting their promises of real action, is it enough? While the government has been dithering, the science has progressed, and the situation now looks much more dire. 2050 looked great as a target year a decade ago, but it may now be too late. I suspect that we're going to have to increase our ambition and bring forward the target year for net-zero in the medium term.

The big problem with the bill is that enforcement is entirely political: it relies on governments having a sense of shame about not meeting targets. And there's a specific clause saying that while government agencies can take the 2050 target into account in decisionmaking, they don't have to, and that failure to do so does not invalidate any decision. If this law is to mean anything, that last bit has to go. We're in this hole in part because different bits of the government are working at cross-purposes - most notably, MfE trying to stop climate change, while MBIE encourages oil drilling and local government approves gas-fired powerplants and dairy conversions. We need all government agencies to be thinking about climate change, from the top to the bottom. And the way to do that is to allow their decisions to be overturned on normal public law grounds such as irrationality if they don't. Because it is irrational not to consider climate change or the government's emissions targets in policymaking, and that needs to be enforceable.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019



The fix

So why did the government choose to have a non-binding referendum on cannabis? Watching Question Time today, the reason is clear: the Prime Minister is going hard on the fact that all three government parties have committed to pass the law if the people vote for it - and even had the gall to claim that that promise is more binding than a self-executing law (because, in theory, a future parliament could repeal it. What stops said future parliament from repealing whatever law politicians promise to pass is unclear). In other words: if you want cannabis legalised, you have to re-elect the government.

And so a binding referendum has been transformed into a naked scam for votes, so Labour Ministers can keep their jobs and their one-percenter salaries. They are treating the public with utter contempt here. And we should punish them for it.

No MMP referendum

Last year, Justice Minister Andrew Little teased us with the prospect of a referendum at the next election on the unfair MMP threshold. But buried in the announcement on their (not) "binding" cannabis legalisation referendum is some bad news: that won't be happening either:

The Justice Minister also confirmed there will be no other government initiated referendums at the next election.
So, I guess we're not going to see MMP made more democratic then. Not that Labour ever really cared about that - they're happy with a high threshold, because it limits political competition. But its another example of how they're wasting the opportunity of government, even when change would be pushing on an open door.

(I'm not sure if this means Little is also ruling out the proposed referendum on the End of Life Choices Bill happening at the next election, or whether that's not a "government-initiated" referendum).

Not binding

The government has revealed its plans for its "binding" cannabis legalisation referendum. As demanded, people will be voting on detailed legislation, laying out the purchase age, home-growing options, and regulatory regime, including an advertising ban. But will it actually be binding? Here's what the government says on that:

“The voters’ choice will be binding because all of the parties that make up the current Government have committed to abide by the outcome.

“We hope and expect the National Party will also commit to respecting the voters’ decision.


This isn't "binding" in any sense of the word. Its just a politician's promise. And as we've all learned over the last decades (and indeed from this very process), politicians are lying fuckers who will ignore their promises the moment it is politically or personally advantageous to do so - and then lie to you to your face and claim they haven't. Their "promises" mean nothing. Pretending that they do - let alone that they mean something over other parties - is simply an insult to the public.

As for why they've chosen to do this, NZ First hates drugs and doesn't want legalisation, let alone to actually vote for it. As for Labour, while most of them probably want legal cannabis, as with pretty much everything else their inherent chickenshittedness means they don't want to pay the political cost of actually making it happen, preferring for change to happen by magic instead. And so instead of a binding referendum with certainty not just about the proposal, but that it will actually happen, they're giving us a glorified public opinion poll with no certainty at all. And under those circumstances, I'm not sure why anyone should bother participating in the farce.

Monday, May 06, 2019



415

Last week, the atmospheric observatory at Mauna Loa recorded a carbon dioxide concentration of 415 parts per million for the first time in history. This isn't just notable as a record high; as the RNZ story points out, we cracked 400ppm in 2013. So we've increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by 15ppm in just six years.

Back in the days before everything started catching fire and blowing down and flooding, scientists thought 450ppm was a safe long-term target. At current rates, we will reach that concentration in just 14 years. 450ppm would give us a mere 50% chance of staying within the old 2 degree target - a target we now know is catastrophic. So we have less than 14 years to reduce emissions dramatically, or your children burn and your grandchildren starve.

Faced with this urgency, you'd expect the government to be pulling out all the stops to reduce emissions. Sadly, they're not. The Zero Carbon Act has been delayed, there's been no action to bring farmers into the ETS, and they're dithering about with a "just transition" summit for polluters. Unfortunately, thanks to their past decades of inaction, there is no longer time for a just transition. Instead, we need to just transition: decarbonise now, as quickly as possible. End oil, end coal, push transport to public transport and electric, with a government investment in renewable generation to power it all, and force farming back within its environmental limits. And if polluters get run over in that process, fuck 'em. They caused this problem, so its only fair they pay the price for it.

Climate Change: No future for farming II

If New Zealand is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and avoid making the earth uninhabitable, we need to massively scale down farming in this country. The good news is that it is already happening, and farmers don't like it:

More and more of Wairarapa's rolling green pastures are being blanket-planted with pine trees, which rural communities warn are killing their way of life.

[...]

Pongaroa School, nestled in the heartland of rural Wairarapa, is a little country school that is getting even smaller.

The chairman of the board of trustees, Scott Somerville, blamed it on the number of pine plantations which have replaced farmland.

"Those farms might have supported two or three families, those families then move off to other areas.

"How that manifests at a school level is our roll is dropping dramatically, that's not something we are seeing in the future, that's something we are seeing right now," Mr Somerville said.


Why is this happening? It's the market. Now that carbon prices are no longer kept artificially low by a flood of fraudulent foreign "credits", growing trees is twice as profitable as growing sheep. And with the $25/ton price cap set to be removed, carbon prices should roughly double (EU prices are already 25 Euro and increasing now they've fixed their market). With farmers able to earn $1,500 / hectare by growing trees, plus potentially $5,000 / hectare on harvesting (which the averaging approach means they won't need to repay if they replant), and without the huge variability of dairy, the financial incentives are to phase out polluting farming and instead grow carbon sinks. And the quicker farmers follow their wallets, ditch their cows, and start planting trees, the better.

Binding means binding

Over the weekend National leaked a Cabinet paper showing that the government was considering making the 2020 cannabis legalisation referendum non-binding. The government's response? Rather than saying that they stand by their earlier promise of a binding referendum, Justice Minister Andrew Little instead decided to muddy the waters over what "binding" means:

Justice Minister Andrew Little has guaranteed that next year's cannabis referendum will be binding, but says he will explain "what binding actually means" when the next details are announced.

[...]

Mr Little told RNZ the government stood by its commitment to hold a binding referendum alongside the 2020 election, but he suggested the word "binding" could have several interpretations.

"We made the decision at the end of last year for a binding referendum. That decision remains," he said.

"[But] once Cabinet has made its decisions, and we're in a position to announce the next phase ... we'll be able to explain what 'binding' actually means."

FFS. Binding means binding. We've held binding referenda in the past - most notably over MMP - and we know how to do it: pass a law and have commencement depend on the referendum result. If it passes, the law comes into force; if it doesn't, it doesn't. Labour has made a commitment to both the Green Party and the New Zealand public to do this. For them to be getting cold feet now and demanding that we be satisfied with a politicians' promise does not engender trust, or encourage participation. Because we all know what a non-binding referendum means: that the government has no intention of respecting the result.

Friday, May 03, 2019



Removing WINZ's boot from people's necks

If you've ever had to interact with New Zealand's welfare system, then you'll know that its a punitive nightmare. Beneficiaries are kept on benefits deliberately set at below starvation levels, with punitive clawbacks preventing them from supplementing their income or moving into the workforce via part-time work. Meanwhile, a Victorian definition of relationships that is inconsistent with all other law on the topic (and internally inconsistent in whatever way benefits WINZ) turns WINZ into a Saudi-style morality police snooping on the sex lives of its victims. All to satisfy the cruelty and viciousness of the rich, or those who have a little and lack the imagination to consider that they or their families might ever suffer misfortune (or simply be a student).

The Greens demand an inquiry into this punitive system as the price of support for a Labour government, and they got it. Now it has reported back, and there will be change:

The Government will remove a benefit sanction which saw solo mothers who did not name their child's father penalised up to $28 per week and increase the amount that beneficiaries can earn through employment before their benefit is cut.

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni announced the changes on Friday in response to a report from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group.

The report warned urgent and fundamental change was needed to redress a level of financial support so low in New Zealand that too many were living in desperate situations. It stated the current system no longer met the needs of the more than 600,000 Kiwis it was supposed to support.

However, Sepuloni said the Government had decided against a recommended move to increase benefit levels by up to 47 per cent immediately so Kiwis could "live in dignity", and was instead "looking at a staged implementation" of change.


This is going to make a difference, and a big one. And while the timing of the report's delivery relative to the budget cycle basicly rules out an immediate increase (the budget having been nailed down months ago), I hope they'll be moving on that soon. Because while removing WINZ's boot from people's necks is good, fundamentally what beneficiaries need is more money, so they can meaningfully participate in society. And in Labour wants to plead poverty on that, maybe they should have implemented a capital gains tax (or one of its alternatives e.g. a land tax, or an outright wealth tax) so we can afford the sort of society we want, rather than being constrained by self-imposed austerity.