Friday, January 24, 2020

100 seconds to midnight

The Doomsday Clock is a tracker created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for how close we are to global destruction. Created in 1947, it got worse as the Cold War started, then improved as it cooled down, then got worse again as Ronald Reagan tried to confront the "evil empire" and blow up the world. And then, when the Cold War ended, we were pretty safe for a while: the world was still shitty, but we weren't really trying to kill ourselves. But for the past decade, thanks to US aggression and climate change, it has been counting down again. And now, it is at 100 seconds to midnight:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced its symbolic “doomsday clock” has moved forward to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to catastrophe that the scientists have judged the world to be at any point since its creation in 1947, at the outset of the cold war.

“The world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats,” said Mary Robinson, chair of an independent group of global leaders called The Elders, and the former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner of human rights.

Even at the height of the Cold War, when the US and Russia had developed the hydrogen bomb and were ready to nuke each other on a moment's notice, it never got closer than 2 minutes (hell, for all his shit Reagan didn't manage to push it past 3). But now, we are closer to doom than ever before. And what are our leaders doing about it? Still making excuses. Still trying to protect the status quo. Still trying to compromise with physics.

When we say we need to save the world, they say we can't afford it. The truth is that we can no longer afford them. Our current global leadership isn't just morally and intellectually bankrupt - they are actively working for our destruction. And if we want to survive - not just as a species, but as individuals - we need to vote them out on their arses and get better ones.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A casual attitude towards transparency

Back in December, when the government was introducing new secrecy legislation on an almost daily basis, I posted about the Infrastructure Funding and Financing Bill. The Bill establishes a new class of public entity, "special purpose vehicles", which collect and spend public money and enjoy statutory powers. Despite this, they will not be subject to the Official Information Act or LGOIMA.

With that sort of divergance from normal NZ constitutional practice, you'd expect there to be some advice for it, making a case for secrecy. So I asked for it. But according to the Department of Internal Affairs' response, the only advice on the transparency regime is in the Bill's Regulatory Impact Assessment, which says:

No Official Information Act requirements (unless they already exist (i.e. if SPV is Crown/local authority)) as the Monitor will most likely be subject to the OIA.
Which is an awfully casual attitude to what the government is proclaiming in its new Public Service Legislation Bill to be a core public service value. Again, these entities will collect and spend public money and enjoy statutory powers. The DIA admit in their RIS concern about "abuse of the delegated charging right and misappropriation of funds". Arms-length transparency through a statutory Monitor is simply not good enough.

Against a carbon bailout

If we are to avoid making the planet uninhabitable, we need to cut carbon emisisons fast. Which basicly means putting the fossil fuel industry - coal, gas, and oil - out of business. But this means that the banks and other lenders who have bankrolled the industry's environmental destruction will lose their money. So naturally, they're using their international mouthpieces, the IMF and Bank of International Settlements, to demand a government bailout:

The [Australian] Reserve Bank has been warned it may have to buy up coal mines and fossil-fuel power stations as part of extraordinary actions to save the economy from climate change-induced financial disaster.

As Australian business leaders grow increasingly worried climate change will hit their bottom lines and the International Monetary Fund warns global warming is now a major financial risk, a new warning issued by the world's top central bank says the RBA could be forced into rescuing the economy and the environment.

But pretty obviously, buying toxic fossil fuel assets does neither. Instead, all it does is socialise the losses - while leaving the people who have profited from this environmental devastation laughing all the way to the bank.

The risk of a fossil-fuel-triggered economic collapse is real, because bankers have kept on throwing money at this industry, despite decades of reports saying it has no future. And they're still doing it. If we want to mitigate the risk, the most obvious step would be to require banks to reduce their exposure to this toxic industry, so that its inevitable demise won't harm the rest of us. The fact that central bankers and international financial institutions are recommending a bailout rather than that tells us that they are not interested in solving the problem, but as usual seeking ways for the rich to profit off it.

Still a criminal industry

More evidence that the fishing industry suffers from pervasive criminality, with Forest & Bird highlighting some odd numbers in the annual statistics:

The Annual Review Report For Highly Migratory Species Fisheries 2018/19 (Pg 4, Table 4) showed only 4% of commercial long lining trips for tuna and swordfish reported non-fish bycatch such as seabirds when there was no observer, but this jumped to 37% when there were Government observers on board.

“It’s simply unbelievable that a commercial fishing trip is nine times more likely to catch seabirds when there’s an observer on board,”says Mr Keey.

“The only reasonable conclusion is that on trips without observers fishers are breaching their legal obligation to honestly and accurately report bycatch,” says Mr Keey. It is not an offence to kill seabirds while fishing but it is an offence to fail to report catching them.

And this isn't a trivial offence. Submitting a false report is punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a $250,000 fine. As for what to do about it, the solution is obvious: a government observer on every boat, and make this criminal industry pay for it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Farmers are ruining Canterbury's rivers

Its summer, so people naturally want to go for a swim. But in South Canterbury, you can't, because the rivers are full of toxic goo:

As of Monday, the Waihi River at Wilson Street footbridge, Geraldine, the Waihao River at Bradshaws Bridge, and three spots on the Opihi River - at State Highway 1, Waipopo Huts and Salesyard Bridge, all had warnings for toxic algae.

Some of these warnings, such as the Opihi River at State Highway 1, have been in place since the end of November, while the most recent - at Waihi River - was put in place on January 15.

The warnings, issued by Community and Public Health, say humans and animals, particularly dogs, should avoid these areas until the health warning has been lifted.

[Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair] Humphrey said exposure to the algal mats may cause skin rashes, nausea, stomach cramps, tingling and numbness around the mouth and fingertips.

This problem has been getting worse over the years, and is expected to deteriorate further. As for the causes, they boil down to climate change - higher temperatures mean warmer rivers means more algae; nutrient loading - more shit means more food for algae; and increased water extraction - meaning no high flows to flush the toxic crap away. These three things have a common cause: farmers. They suck the rivers dry, while their cows fill them with shit and burp out climate-destroying methane. And together, these things are destroying our rivers - and the planet.

As for how to fix it, we need to regulate the destructive impacts of farming down - which in turn means cutting off their irrigation water so the rivers can flow again, imposing stocking limits and strict controls to prevent them from shitting everywhere, and making them pay the full cost of their greenhouse gas emissions to provide an incentive for reductions. Farmers will kick and scream over that. But their desire to make money should not outweigh the rest of the country's need for safe water and a safe climate.

Sack Shane Jones

Late last year, NZ First was caught trying to enrich itself from public office, with a dodgy forestry company linked to a number of NZ First figures sticking its hand out repeatedly for government money. Regional Economic Development Minister shane Jones' "explanations" were patently unconvincing, and his recusal from deciding on the issue came only after people had started asking questions about it. All throughout this, Jones maintained he didn't know anything about the company and had never met them. But now the company says he was lying:

A forestry company with close links to New Zealand First says it gave a presentation to Shane Jones about a project it was seeking a $15 million government loan for - months before Jones says he first heard of it.

When NZ Future Forest Products (NZFFP) applied for Provincial Growth Fund money on 8 April, 2019, the company was asked whether the project had been "previously discussed" with the government.

The application form shows NZFFP ticked the 'yes' box and said it had made a "presentation to the Minister" about its forestry and wood processing plans "including descriptions of the applicant".


[I]n an interview with RNZ, David Henry, who is [NZ First lawyer] Brian Henry's son and the NZFFP director who signed the application form, said the presentation was a 15-minute meeting he and Jones had in Wellington.

"We had a discussion with Shane. I think it was about a 15-minute chat. Whether you want to call it a briefing or a presentation - it was a short discussion generally about the New Zealand wood supply chain and what we personally believed."

Jones has denied that there was any meeting, but who has the incentive to lie here? Hint: its not NZ Future Forest Products' arse which is on the line.

But it gets worse. Because the documentary record obtained by RNZ clearly shows that Jones was briefed fully about the application and its NZ First connections in mid-June, and repeatedly received documents about it between then and October 14 - the date on which he told parliament he was informed about it and recused himself. In other words, he lied to Parliament, and repeatedly failed to recuse himself from an issue where any reasonable person would conclude he had a conflict of interest.

This is unacceptable. It is dishonest. And it looks corrupt. The Prime Minister needs to sack Shane Jones now, to prevent this disease from spreading.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Ending the government's charade over water

For the past decade, the government has been responding to the obvious Treaty issues raised by water allocation with the mantra that "no-one owns water". But last year, the Waitangi Tribunal ruled that actually, Māori owned it, and that those rights had never been extinguished. They recommended that iwi bring a test case to claim their rights. And now, that is finally happening:

Mataatua District Māori Council leader Maanu Paul is preparing a case for the High Court to determine whether native title in freshwater exists under New Zealand common law.

A landmark Waitangi Tribunal report in August found Māori have rights over fresh water in New Zealand, and Paul said the Tribunal had recommended the case be taken to the High Court.

"In order to progress the process which the Tribunal recommended - that the Crown and Māori sit down and work together - we have to get the government to accept that the decision of the tribunal is the one that they will ride with, and we have to get them to accept that the highest court in the land - the Supreme Court ruling - stands."

"When we're successful in the High Court it takes the status of the recommendation from the tribunal - from one of recommendatory only - to one of a mandatory position, and that's the difference we want to see."

The next step is obviously to use a favourable ruling to force a settlement. And I wish them luck with that. Because the case for Māori ownership seems pretty overwhelming. At the same time, they shouldn't have to do this at all. The Waitangi Tribunal has ruled, and a fair-minded government with a commitment to its Treaty obligations would have recognised this and sought a settlement. Instead, they're going to make Māori fight tooth and nail to claim what was theirs all along. Its unjust, and its also a huge waste of public money on lawyers.

But in addition to Māori finally getting justice, a definitive ruling should unblock the policy process over water, and allow us to move to a better regulatory structure. And we will have Māori to thank for it.

Northern Ireland joins the civilised world

Same-sex marriage has finally become legal in Northern Ireland. But not through any decision of the Northern Irish Executive or Assembly, which has only just reformed after a three year walkout by the DUP; instead, Westminster made that decision for them. I've talked before about the constitutional impropriety of this, but now that Northern Ireland has a government again, it also has to face the reality that there was always a majority in the Assembly for this, and the only thing stopping it was the DUP's veto. And if they try and repeal it, they are going to lose.

Meanwhile, gay couples in Northern Ireland will be freer to live their lives, and legal bigotry eroded, and that's something worth celebrating. And in a month, there'll be the usual photos of happy couples. We should all be happy with them.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Climate Change: The action that counts

Over on Newsroom, Professor Jacqueline Beggs writes about the action she is taking on climate change. Its the usual list: reduce meat, don't fly, consume less. I'm doing some of this myself, and none of it hurts - but the way our economic system is constructed means the impact of such actions is limited. Shifting to a plant-based diet is not going to stop the dairy industry, our biggest emitter, from poisoning our atmosphere, soils and rivers, because 95% of what it produces is exported to rich pricks overseas. Using public transport is not going to shut down the trucking industry, our next biggest polluter. Buying less crap is not going to stop Tiwai Point from using 10% of the country's entire electricity supply or help shut down Huntly and other fossil fuel power stations. And driving an electric car is not going to close off those gas wells in Taranaki or stop OMV from drilling for more in the Great South Basin. Sure, all of these tiny individual actions all add up, in the way that raindrops wear mountains down to dust - but its not the most effective method of reducing emissions.

What is the most effective method? Politics. All of those industries depend on regulation. And all of them can be regulated out of existence, or to pollute less and less until they cease to be a problem. And that means electing governments who will do that, and putting the pressure on parties to adopt climate friendly policies. Not bullshit half measures like giving agriculture a 90% pollution subsidy, or banning new fossil fuel exploration but extending existing permits forever and letting them dig up and burn whatever they find - but reducing those industries to a level consistent with human survival, and doing it as quickly as possible.

Currently our political choices are climate arsonists who don't care if we all burn to death (National); do-nothings who pretend concern but fundamentally refuse to upset the destructive status quo (Labour); or well-intentioned sellouts (the Greens, at least under their current leadership). These are not good choices. But putting pressure on parties will force them to change their positions and force stronger policies. And we do that by marching, by occupying, by speaking up and by voting. This is an election year, the year where our voices count, where politicians have to at least pretend to listen (and suffer the electoral consequences if they don't). So if you want real action on climate change, get involved and speak up. It's the only action that counts.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Labour opposes leisure

Correction: Finland's government has not in fact proposed a 4-day week, and its not even on their policy radar. OTOH, the point about Labour's response to the idea still stands.

Finland's new Prime Minister has made headlines by pushing for a 4-day week. So what does new Zealand's "centre-left" government think? Nope. They'd rather people kept working themselves into misery and death:

The Government does not plan to follow Finland's lead to encourage businesses to offer staff a four-day week.


Employment Minister Willie Jackson said it was not part of the Government's work programme.

"Instead we are focussed on ensuring we build a strong economy that all New Zealanders can participate in, through lifting the minimum wage to working with employers on projects such as our infrastructure investments and ensuring we are supporting the upskilling of our workforce through initiatives like Mana in Mahi."

You can talk about the productivity benefits, but fundamentally shorter working weeks are about distributing the benefits of growth to all as time: the one thing no-one is getting any more of. That's what the 40-hour week was about, and what subsequent struggles have been about. But instead of that, our government would rather those benefits took the form of greater profits to business owners. Which tells you whose side they're really on.

More Spanish repression

Back in December, the European Court of Justice ruled that jailed Catalan politician Oriol Junqueras was a Member of the European Parliament and therefore had immunity from prosecution. In a democratic state under the rule of law, he would have been immediately released from prison (and compensated for his illegal detention), as his "conviction" occurred after his election. Instead, Spain continued to detain him. And now, Spain's Central Electoral Commission has declared that he is no longer an MEP, on the basis of that purported conviction.

But it doesn't stop there. The Central Electoral Commission has also purported to unseat Catalan President Quim Torra, using anti-terrorist law, and in explicit violation of Catalonia's statute of autonomy (which places that power solely in the hands of the Catalan Parliament). The Catalan Parliament isn't going to accept this, and is going to assert its rights, which will set it up for another direct collision with the Spanish judiciary.

In both cases, the message is clear: elected Catalans will not be allowed to advocate for independence, no matter what the law says. Hopefully, higher levels of the Spanish judiciary will correct these decisions. If not, the European courts will. But its just another example of Spanish repression, and another reminder that if Catalans want to be free of it, they need to be free of Spain.

(And meanwhile, Spain's parliament is debating a new government, on which the abstention of the Catalan Republican Left is vital. They've extracted promises of direct government-to-government negotiations on independence, with a public vote in Catalonia on the outcome, and they've made it clear that they will pull the plug and topple the government if those promises aren't kept. But with repression continuing, and political prisoners still in jail, its an awful risk for the ERC, and they may be punished by their voters for it).

Monday, January 06, 2020

New Fisk

Trump is starting a war with Iran – whether it is by accident or design

Climate Change: Complementary measures

For the past twenty-five years, climate change policy in New Zealand has been all about emissions pricing. Policy makers thought that all you needed to do was make people pay for their pollution via a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme, and the problem would be solved. This mechanism was supposedly so perfect that no other policies were necessary, and in fact would be worse. Other than giving the public a bit of information on energy efficiency to steer them towards better choices, our emissions path would be left in the hands of the market.

We can blame Roger Douglas for this. His revolution was 35 years ago now, but it shaped a generation of policy makers and set the default ideology of the NZ policy community. Markets were efficient. Regulation wasn't. So, no regulation, except that done by the market.

As in other areas (e.g. leaky homes), the result of that policy has been dismal failure. First, from procrastination. Then, when we finally got an ETS, because it just didn't work. Part of that was because politicians strapped the chicken to keep carbon prices low, actively undermining their policy (something they are still doing, BTW). But partly, it turns out that markets are just a bit thick, a bit slow on the uptake, and (contrary to market dogma) perfectly willing to leave money on the table rather than change what they're doing (because change means risk, and nobody ever got fired for following the status quo).

Other governments understand that. And so they're perfectly willing to pursue a variety of policy measures to reduce emissions. And now, it looks like enough Rogernomes have died or retired to allow New Zealand to do the same. Right before the holidays, the government released a discussion paper on Accelerating renewable energy and energy efficiency. And it contains top-down regulatory proposals to sit alongside the ETS, to make sure the market gets the message. The most significant one is to outright ban the use of coal for process heat in factories except for high-temperature applications. Which is a no-brainer; there are cleaner alternatives (the Climate Change Commission has a whole report on this), and the sooner we push polluters towards them, the sooner emissions will drop. To allow time for existing users to change, the ban won't be immediate; it will initially ban any new builds, while existing users will have to upgrade by 2030. Which does not seem unreasonable. My biggest question is why they're not also including a (later) ban on gas, and why they're not also applying it to electricity generation. Because pretty obviously, there's no gain from electrifying dairy factories if the electricity which powers them comes from burning fossil fuels.

The other question of course is if we're doing it for coal in factories, why aren't we doing it for fossil fuel cars? Its the same argument: there are cleaner alternatives, and the certainty of a ban will force the market to adopt them quickly. And as with coal, we can stagger implementation to allow time to change: ban imports from 2030 (as many other countries are doing), and re-registrations from 2040 (to make sure the damn things get off the road and into museums where they belong). Twenty years to turn over the vehicle fleet doesn't seem too onerous, and with road transport our biggest source of emissions after agriculture, its something we need to tackle.

We are no longer welcome in Iraq

Last Friday, the US murdered a high-ranking Iranian general, ostensibly as retaliation for Iraqi militias attacking US troops in Iraq. It was a stupid move, a mistake as well as a crime (to misquote Talleyrand), and it is already having the expected effects: the Iranian nuclear deal is now completely dead (because the clear message of this murder is that Iran needs nukes if it wants the US to respect international norms), and the Iraqi Parliament has just voted to throw out all foreign troops, effectively refusing to be a venue anymore for the US's war on Syria. New Zealand currently has troops in Iraq (the numbers there are out-of-date; there should now be about 45 if cabinet's withdrawal timetable is being kept to), and the upshot is that they are no longer welcome. Instead of being there by invitation to "assist" Iraq, they are now invaders and occupiers.

This isn't what our government told us they are there for. The democraticly expressed wishes of the Iraqi government should be respected, and New Zealand troops should be withdrawn immediately. Bring them home, and keep us out of another stupid American mess.