Friday, February 28, 2020



Climate Change; An important precedent

For over a decade, Heathrow airport has been wanting to add a third runway, to increase air traffic. Its been vigorously opposed by people concerned about the environmental impact. And now, its been ruled illegal on climate change grounds:

Plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport have been ruled illegal by the court of appeal because ministers did not adequately take into account the government’s commitments to tackle the climate crisis.

The ruling is a major blow to the project at a time when public concern about the climate emergency is rising fast and the government has set a target in law of net zero emissions by 2050. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, could use the ruling to abandon the project, or the government could draw up a new policy document to approve the runway.

[...]

The court’s ruling is the first major ruling in the world to be based on the Paris climate agreement and may have an impact both in the UK and around the globe by inspiring challenges against other high-carbon projects.

Lord Justice Lindblom said: “The Paris agreement ought to have been taken into account by the secretary of state. The national planning statement was not produced as the law requires.”


This doesn't necessarily kill the project - as noted, the government could redo the decision, taking climate change targets into account (though its hard to see how airport expansion is compatible with them). But it raises the bar on both this and future projects - and not just in the UK. New Zealand courts are not afraid to look at foreign precedents in analogous cases, and the Zero Carbon Act has included a clause stating that decision makers may take climate change targets into account. Importantly, Parliament removed a clause preventing any challenge for a failure to do that, on the grounds that they wanted to let the law develop - meaning that they wanted the courts to decide when that "may" effectively becomes a "must". The net result is that the sort of projects where it would be unreasonable not to consider climate change impacts - say, fossil-fuelled power stations, or airport expansions - are open to legal challenge on climate change grounds. And they may find their plans overturned if they are not compatible with the government's climate change targets.

Another SFO referral

Christchurch Mayor and former Labour MP Lianne Dalziel has been referred to the Serious Fraud Office over her attempt to launder local election donations. So, three of the biggest scams used by parties to launder donations and hide who is influencing them - donation splitting, trusts, and auctions - are now actively under investigation. Which ought to send a message that continuing to use those scams is risky and potentially invites prosecution. The question is whether our institutionally corrupt political parties can stop themselves, or whether politicians will have to go to jail before they clean up their act. And given their reluctance to engage with the issue of reforming the system, I think its probably the latter.

Thursday, February 27, 2020



NZ First's contradiction

NZ First portrays itself as an anti-establishment party, standing up for "the little guy" (always a guy) against Big Auckland Money and its tool-parties. But it turns out that its secret slush fund is funded by the very people it claims to oppose:

Stuff can reveal a longer list of donors to the NZ First Foundation up to April 2019 – which appears to operate as a political slush fund – based on Foundation documents seen by Stuff. It includes New Zealand's richest man, Graeme Hart, and the billion-dollar Spencer family.

Business magnates, property developers, a chicken farmer, and thoroughbred horse breeders are among the wealthy known to have contributed heavily to the foundation, which tallied more than $500,000 in donations.


How can they be anti-establishment when they're literally funded by billionaires? Only Winston knows. Meanwhile, there's a lot in here potentially of interest to the SFO: donations by multiple members of the same family on the same day, or by an individual and multiple companies they control, suggesting efforts to evade disclosure thresholds (not that the money laundry was paying attention to those anyway). Given the current National Party trial, those donors should be nervous.

Meanwhile, Shane Jones is worried that this may discourage people from donating to NZ First. But if you're the sort of donor who will only given tens of thousands of dollars if you can do so secretly and illegally, and while exercising a secret and undeclared influence over policy for a corrupt purpose, then I hope that that is exactly what happens. Our democracy does not need or want this sort of money. And if politicians disagree, then we do not need or want them either.

Climate Change: The same old cycle

Newsroom reports that the government is going to miss its electric vehicle target to have 64,000 EVs on the road by the end of 2021. But this isn't because NZ First shitcanned the feebate scheme, their only real policy to boost uptake - it wouldn't have come into effect until after the deadline. Instead, its because, they simply had no policy to achieve it. National, the government which set the target, hadn't bothered with the actual details of how to do it, and Labour had pissed about and dragged its feet for two years before announcing something that would happen too late. So once again we're left with the basic climate change policy cycle:
nzclimatechangepolicy

Though with the arrival of the Zero Carbon Act and Climate Change Commission, hopefully this will be the last time it happens.

Meanwhile, there's a dirty little secret in the article about how the target was set, which explains how we got into this mess:

The target was set according to "base case" projections, meaning it was thought in 2016 that New Zealand would reach 64,000 EVs by the end of 2021 without any policy intervention.

In other words, this was a business-as-usual "target", something which National thought was going to happen anyway (and that they could claim the credit for without doing any actual work). But the prediction was very sensitive to the growth rate chosen, and they got the maths wrong, so they failed. Or rather, Labour did, because the other half of this is choosing a target sufficiently distant that someone else can be blamed for failing to meet it (see also: every emissions reduction target ever). Again, the Zero Carbon Act will hopefully change this, by allowing governments to be continuously held to account for both the ambition and delivery of the targets they set. But still, at its core: the government had a soft target, they did nothing to achieve it (National because they didn't want to, Labour because they were apparently incapable). And that's something we should hold them to account for.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020



Spies, whistleblowers, and oversight

This morning the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) pointed people at an article on "Playing Hide and Speak: Analyzing the Protected Disclosures Framework of the New Zealand Intelligence Community" by Caitlin Macdonald, Rhys Ball & William James Hoverd. The authors were trying to look at how the whistleblowing framework (set by the Protected Disclosures Act) works for spy agencies, backed by an OIA request for policies and interviews with the two spy agency directors and the IGIS. Its an interesting read, but there's several disturbing points. First, the spy agencies' internal protected disclosure policies mislead employees about their rights, placing an emphasis on internal disclosure to management and downplaying the ability to take issues directly to the Inspector-General. Which is problematic, because the Inspector-General is quoted as saying that internal disclosers can face retaliation:

if you go internally then they think you’re about to leak externally and they do certain things.

It is unclear whether this has actually happened, or whether the IGIS is simply reporting on an institutional mindset, but it doesn't encourage disclosure or reporting of problems (which is perhaps the point). Related to this is that there is no institutional reporting to the Inspector-General of such internal disclosures, and so no monitoring of whether they are properly investigated or whether staff suffer retaliation. Which seems like an excellent subject for an own-motion IGIS inquiry...

But most disturbing is the GCSB Director's claim that "IGIS’s recently established reference group of uncleared and harsh critics of the intelligence community may harm the legitimacy of the IGIS among agency staff". If there is such a perception, then it is something that could be countered by strong leadership from the Director about the role of the reference group, and the importance of oversight and how it builds public legitimacy for the agency. The fact that he is instead spewing this suggests that this is, if not his view, then at the very least tacitly supported by him, and that he is attempting to actively or tacitly delegitimise his primary oversight agency and encourage staff to view it as the enemy. And that is simply not an acceptable approach from a public servant responsible for an agency with hugely intrusive powers.

Mass surveillance was a waste of money

From 2015 to 2019 the NSA ran a program of mass surveillance of Americans' domestic communications. It was intrusive, totalitarian, and a collosal waste of money:

A National Security Agency system that analyzed logs of Americans’ domestic phone calls and text messages cost $100 million from 2015 to 2019, but yielded only a single significant investigation, according to a newly declassified study.

Moreover, only twice during that four-year period did the program generate unique information that the F.B.I. did not already possess, said the study, which was produced by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and briefed to Congress on Tuesday.

[...]

The information surfaced as Congress was weighing whether to allow the law that authorizes the agency to operate the system — the USA Freedom Act of 2015 — to expire on March 15, or whether to accede to the Trump administration’s request that lawmakers extend the statute, so the agency could choose to turn the system back on in the future.


The entire system produced only 15 intelligence reports over the four years it ran - 14 of which were redundant. And it did that at the cost of spying on every single American. America's political elite is unlikely to care about the latter - they're fully committed to shitting on fundamental human rights in the name of an endless war against an abstraction. But they do care about money. And on that measure alone, this programme was pure waste. But I guess the real question is who that waste went to, and who they donate to, rather than any assessment of actual merit.

Repealing the prisoner voting ban

Last year, the government bowed to the supreme Court, and promised that it would restore (some) prisoner voting rights. Yesterday, it finally introduced the bill to do so: the Electoral (Registration of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill. As promised, the bill restores the status quo before National's execrable (and unconstitutional) member's bill, allowing prisoners serving sentences of less than three years to vote. However, it goes a little further, imposing positive legal duties on prison managers to assist with re-enrolment. It also makes a slight change to the unpublished roll rules to allow any former prisoner on to it in order to reduce barriers to re-enrolment.

These are all good changes, but because the government has dragged its feet on this, it is going to have to rush the process if it wants to get it passed before the election as promised. And of course there's always the risk of NZ First throwing a spanner in the works. And if that happens, it will be a further example of Parliament's failure to protect our human rights, and why we need to grant the courts explicit power to do so, by overturning BORA-inconsistent legislation.

A secret trial

The media is reporting that an Auckland man has been charged with terrorism. Unfortunately, that's all we know, because all details have been suppressed. Who are they? What are they alleged to have done? Its all secret.

There may be good reason for some of this (e.g. protection of the right to a fair trial, as occurred in the Police rape cases). But we can't judge, because that's secret too. So, we're left with the fact that an unnamed man has been charged with unspecified offences over unpublishable allegations, with no reason for any of it. And that seems a long, long way from the open justice we have a right to in New Zealand. Such secrecy is corrosive of the justice system, and corrosive of public trust. And given the nature of the charges, that is not something we can afford.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020



More NZ First corruption

Oh look! NZ First's secret slush fund was laundering donations from Talley's:

One of the country's biggest fishing companies, Talley's, and its managing director donated nearly $27,000 to the New Zealand First Foundation, which has been bankrolling the New Zealand First Party.

The foundation received $26,950 from seafood giant Talley's and from managing director Sir Peter Talley between 2017 and 2019, according to records viewed by RNZ.

It received the money from Talley's in four amounts - all of which were below the threshold for public disclosure and so have not been publicly revealed until now.


Meanwhile, NZ First has been blocking a fisheries review, as well as monitoring cameras on boats and other tighter regulation. Which obviously is a complete coincidence, right?

As with their secret donations from the racing industry, this creates a stench of corruption around all government fisheries policy decisions. Its a perfect example of why we need total transparency in party funding, and why we need to keep money out of politics.

Greedy universities want to kill us

Coronavirus is now a pandemic in all but name. If it spreads, it could infect two thirds of the world's population. The fatality rate is somewhere between one and three percent. And in the face of this, New Zealand universities are pleading for border controls to be lifted to allow foreign students into the country from infected areas:

Universities are scrambling to convince officials they can safely manage an influx of students from China if the Covid-19 travel ban is relaxed - and they insist a full-scale quarantine is not required. New Zealand's borders are currently closed to all foreign travellers coming from mainland China, but universities want an exemption for tertiary students.

[...]

Speaking to RNZ, Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford said he had "no doubt" the universities could manage the risk.

"We are very confident we've got this one. We've got the protocols in place and can manage it all."

Guilford - who spearheads the Universities NZ committee on international policy - said the sector was proposing that foreign students be treated in the same way as returning New Zealand citizens and be required to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.


These are the same universities who let Mason Pendrous rot in his room for a month, and they say they can get thousands of people to observe a strict quarantine. Yeah, right. What they're really proposing is that we should potentially let this disease into New Zealand and allow it to spread. As for why, they're refreshingly honest: "hundreds of millions of dollars [are] on the line for the country" (and particularly for universities, who rely on foreign students as a cash-cow). But what's also on the line is tens of thousands of lives: between 30K and 90K dead in New Zealand, depending on where that fatality rate falls. To pick a random example, VUW has ~2300 staff and ~21,000 students. And Guilford is willing to risk the lives of 15 - 45 of his staff, and 140 - 420 students so his institution doesn't suffer financial stress.

That's sociopathic. And I am struggling to see how it can possibly be consistent with his personal duty of care for his staff, students and the public under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. But it is perhaps a very good illustration of the ethics of our management class: that they're willing to risk this sort of devastation - a March 15 for the staff, and eight more for the students, just to avoid the balance sheet looking bad.

Monday, February 24, 2020



More solar

Genesis Energy is planning to build the country's biggest PV solar farm:

Power generator and retailer Genesis Energy says it is in advanced discussions to build New Zealand's biggest solar farm in northern Waikato.

The company, which earlier reported a 15 per cent decline in operating earnings to $167.2 million, said its "future-gen" programme was aimed at transitioning it away from baseload thermal generation and delivering on its commitment to ditch coal by 2025.

The 300 megawatt solar farm will dwarf Refining NZ's 27 megawatt solar development, which is aimed satisfying 10 per cent of the Marsden Point refinery's requirement.


For context, this is about the equivalent of one of its dirty coal-fired units at Huntly. And hopefully by providing cheap energy during the day, it will reduce the need for fossil fuel generation and accelerate its shutdown. At the moment we have the ridiculous situation that we burn fossil fuels while the sun is shining; the sooner we engineer our way out of that dirty waste, the better.

Climate Change: Counterproductive

Transport is our second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Any credible effort to reduce emissions to net-zero has to target it. So what is the government doing? Subsidising some of the dirtiest, most inefficient vehicles on the roads:

New Zealand's favourite cars - double cab utes - are largely exempt from a tax on employer-provided benefits like company cars. Even when they would be subject to the Fringe Benefit Tax, the fee is rarely paid, tax policy experts say.

This means New Zealand is effectively subsidising the purchase of high-emitting passenger vehicles by companies, even after the Government scrapped a plan to exempt electric vehicles from the same tax. Now, environmental advocates are calling for the Government to reconsider an FBT exemption for the purchase of electric vehicles and the provision of public transport services.


This is counterproductive, to say the least. Policy should be pushing people towards EVs or more fuel efficient options. Instead, we've done the opposite, and as a result made these gas-guzzling tanks the most popular vehicles on our roads. And meanwhile, NZ First has just shitcanned the EV feebate which would have helped change that. So much for "my generation's nuclear-free moment"...

Friday, February 21, 2020



Another environmental crime

The recent floods in Southland have highlighted the issue of Rio Tinto's illegal toxic waste dump in Mataura. But according to Newsroom, there's an even worse mess in Ruakaka near Whangarei:

A Northland property stockpiled one million litres of flammable and toxic chemicals. Almost two years since the situation came to the attention of authorities, the poorly stored solvents remain a fire and environmental risk.

While Government agencies struggled to get a polluter to clean up his mess, up to one million litres of flammable and toxic solvents in corroding drums has sat next door to key infrastructure.

The solvents were illegally accumulated by a Ruakaka solvent recycling plant in breach of its consent to store 50,000 litres of solvent. Poorly stored, they were thought to pose a fire danger to the Marsden Point oil refinery pipeline and its electricity supply.

Last week two grass fires occurred nearby. One was approximately 700 metres away from the property.

Locals are largely unaware of the scale of the issue on their doorstep.

As well as liquid solvents stored outdoors in rusting drums and plastic containers, it's thought 150 to 200 tonnes of contaminated material was buried illegally. Tests on groundwater showed levels of contamination 1200 times higher than drinking water standards allow.


Reading the whole thing, I'm appalled, and left with the overwhelming question: why is this person not in jail? Because I'm seeing serious breaches of the RMA (including violation of enforcement orders), which is punishable by two years imprisonment, and probably breaches of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act as well in relation to storage of hazardous substances (which is probably worth 3 months in jail, a $500,000 fine, plus $50,000 a day if non-compliance continues). This is a serious, ongoing environmental crime, which endangers key infrastructure as well as people's health. and it needs to be treated as such.

A dry hole

OMV's exploratory drilling in the Great South Basin has failed to find oil. Good. Firstly, because we can't afford to burn the oil and gas we've already found, so there's just no point looking for more. And secondly, because offshore, deep-water drilling poses a risk of an environmental catastrophe, which we're better off avoiding. But since they've failed to find anything, those risks will not eventuate.

Now if only they'd surrender their permits and fuck off back to Austria, rather than coming here to destroy our environment...

Strengthening whistleblower protection

The government has announced it will strengthen whistleblower protections. The major change is "allowing people to report serious wrongdoing direct to an external authority if they wish", which fixes one of the big flaws in the Act. At present, whistleblowers must generally make their disclosure direct to the body they are blowing the whistle on - a requirement which disincentives disclosures (because of obvious and justified mistrust) while enabling institutional coverups. If "external authority" means MPs and the media, then that removes that barrier, while setting a strong incentive for organisations to have effective and trustworthy internal processes (because otherwise people will just go to the media instead).

Unfortunately, the rest of the changes are mostly technical. On the other big problem with the Act - the lack of real protection for retaliation - the government proposes "strengthening" protections by making requirements clear. Which simply isn't enough, because it still relies on private enforcement for a breach, and will only impose civil penalties (which will usually be borne by someone else). Australia meanwhile has made retaliation against whistleblowers a criminal offence, which means there is a real incentive not to do it. And as for the decriminalisation of intelligence whistleblowing - shamefully made a criminal offence by National, despite clear evidence of its public value and of unlawful behaviour by spy agencies - that doesn't even get a look in. So, while these are welcome changes, they simply don't go far enough.

(Meanwhile, I guess this will be proudly announced as an Open Government Partnership commitment in our next action plan, despite being a business-as-usual policy which has been in the works for years. It is neither ambitious nor additional. But that's the typical scale of New Zealand's OGP "commitments")

An unjustified policy

On Monday, we learned that the Marlborough District Council wanted to charge more for LGOIMA requests. The proposed polcy violates OIA charging guidelines, so I asked them for the advice justifying it. MDC provided a rapid response pointing me at the relevant committee agenda item [p38 - 39]. According to that,

Requests for information received are increasing on a daily basis. Often, for example, requesters will go on a ‘fishing expedition’ against an expectation that the ratepayers should fund the costs involved in retrieval of information thought to be of interest by the media or others.

Sadly, they did not provide any statistics to back up those claims, so I asked them for those. I received the response by email yesterday:
The formal requests received through January to November 2019 are as follows:
  • January – 7
  • February – 7
  • March – 2
  • April – 13
  • May – 20
  • June – 8
  • July – 39
  • August – 48
  • September – 32
  • October – 28
  • November 20
We note that a separate history of media requests only started from July 2019 and this accounts for the difference between January/June and July/November.
Older statistics "would require compilation which would take considerable time and could trigger the application of our Costs Policy." So looking at this, it appears that the claim that "Requests for information received are increasing on a daily basis" - the justification for increased charges - is because they started counting requests which they had been handling all along. But its not actually clear that anything has really changed, or that higher charges are needed. As for the claim about "fishing expeditions", MDC sadly does not publish a disclosure log, so we can't easily tell how many of their requests would fall into this somewhat nebulous category. So, I'll just have to request some (and along the way make a judgement about how often is "often"). Because otherwise the natural conclusion is that they're objecting to this:
In the last six months, media requests in Marlborough have uncovered council representatives went a decade without a pay rise, 7000 plastic cups were purchased by the council last financial year, and $2.1 million was spent on councillor wages over the last three years.

None of these questions are very exciting, but its the ordinary business of media oversight. And it is exactly what the LGOIMA is supposed to enable. Marlborough District Council's charging regime should not be altered to discourage it.

Thursday, February 20, 2020



The blue wall of silence

Another day, another IPCA report on criminal conduct by policy. This time they kicked a child in the head when he was handcuffed:

Police chased him and yelled out for him to stop. When he turned to face the police, he threatened them with a hammer.

That's when the officers tasered and restrained the boy but once they had him on the ground, he said they kicked him in the head.

A nearby witness also saw the boy being kicked and reported it because he was "disturbed" by what he saw.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority found that the use of a taser was appropriate, as the boy confronted the officers with a hammer.

But Judge Colin Doherty said that threat diminished once the boy was restrained and there was no reason to kick him.

"This was an excessive use of force," he said.


There's more in the report: they also attempted to intimidate a witness filming the arrest on a phone, suggesting they knew their behaviour was criminal. But the IPCA was unable to determine which police officer delivered the kick. In other words, two of these three police officers covered for their criminal colleague and perverted the course of justice. And that is simply not acceptable. The police must be accountable under the law, and prosecuted when they break it. When they cover for each other, they are acting like a gang with fancy uniforms, not a police force under the rule of law.

Time for public funding of our political parties

The investigation of two of the five parties in Parliament for fraud around their election donations has pushed the issue of party funding back into the spotlight. And while there are obvious things we can do to tighten up the donations regime - a much lower declaration threshold, realtime disclosure of all donations, statutory intrusive audits to make sure the rules are complied with - none of these address the obvious problem: that there is money in our political system. And where there is money, there is influence and corruption. Regulation might help things a little, but fundamentally if we want clean politics, we need to take the money out. Which means publicly-funding our parties rather than forcing them to rely on bribes from millionaires and shady foreign-linked businessmen.

Cat MacLennan, pointing out that public funding is common overseas. 58% of countries, including Canada, Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands, provide direct funding to political parties. These are countries which we think of as democratic leading lights, and which don't have a problem with corruption. So that seems worth emulating. Clint Smith also address the issue in Stuff, and makes the simple point:

If we don't want anonymous wealthy people trying to buy our democracy, maybe we should pay for it ourselves.

And that's really what it comes down to, isn't it? Should politicians work for voters, or donors? I think almost all of us prefer the former, and that means gritting our teeth, putting aside our justified dislike of politicians, and giving them public money to work on the public's behalf. Because our democracy is worth it.

But there's also the corollary: if politicians defend the current system, or drag their feet on making these changes, then its clear that they think they should be working for donors, not us. And we should vote them out.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020



How unsurprising

Former National Party chief whip Jami-Lee Ross is one of the four people charged over National's multiple fraudulent donations. How unsurprising. Meanwhile, just days ago National leader Simon Bridges was trying to pretend the charges were nothing to do with his party. Yeah, right. When your chief whip effectively publicly confesses to money laundering for the party, and tells you about it, its hard to look clean. Sure, Bridges hasn't been charged, because he has no legal responsibility for donations. But its clear that his party was a knowing party to these dealings, and voters should hold them responsible for that.

An unlawful policy

If you've been watching FYI for a while, you'll have noticed that the police have a bad habit of demanding ID from requesters. They have apparently been repeatedly told to stop doing this by the Ombudsman, but we all know what law enforcement thinks of the law, so thye keep doing it. Now someone has actually asked them for their policies about this, and its pretty eye-opening. For OIA requests, police guidance is that:

It is not necessary to verify the identity of an OIA () requester (unless they are a NZ body corporate requesting personal information about the requester (s25)) and they do not have to provide personal details. However, if you have concerns about the nature of the information sought and whether they meet the section 12 requirements of a person entitled to make a request (i.e. NZ citizen/permanent resident/in NZ), you may ask for a reasonable level of evidence, e.g. a NZ address or phone number, but you cannot demand proof of identity.

[Emphasis added]

The Ombudsman has said it is fine for agencies to ask for proof of eligibility where they have real concerns about it, and the police guidance on that seems OK (what's not OK is that they repeatedly ignore it, demanding photo ID rather than just an address or phone number). But the first bit, which purports to permit an ID check based on what is requested, is flat-out unlawful. That is simply not something permitted under the Act, and it makes it clear that the true purpose of such demands is almost always to discourage requests the police don't like.

The Ombudsman should stomp on this, and a law-abiding agency would obey them and change their behaviour. But we've seen repeatedly that the police care as little for the Ombudsman's legally binding "recommendations" as they do for the IPCA's. Which highlights firstly, a need for criminal penalties for non-compliance with the Act, and more importantly, a need to get rid of the eligibility requirement entirely (as recommended by the Law Commission) to prevent this sort of abuse. And if any MP wants to take some steps on the latter, there's a bill you can put in the ballot here.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020



This is unjust

The Herald reported over the weekend that an Auckland business owner is being targeted with asset forfeiture laws over a workplace death:

A workplace fatality has seen police use a law usually associated with drugs and organised crime to seize millions of dollars in assets from a business owner because of health and safety breaches.

The case is set for the High Court in Auckland next Wednesday and Ron Salter - who served home detention after the 2015 death - says he and wife Natalie stand to lose everything they have worked for over 38 years.

It is a first for legislation usually associated with gangs and the drugs trade. High Court documents show police have used the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act to legally restrain their family home in Auckland, along with family trusts, the family bach and waste fuel collection business Salters Cartage Ltd.

At risk are properties worth $8,125,000, according to government valuation, and the Salters' waste fuel recovery and recycling business that could triple the value of the restrained assets.

It follows the 2015 death of Jamey Lee Bowring, 24, at the Salters Cartage Ltd yard in Wiri, South Auckland. Bowring was welding on a 100,000-litre fuel tank when it exploded, throwing him about 100m.


This is unjust. Not because its being used against a white-collar criminal - crime is crime, and criminal profits are criminal profits whether they derive from drug dealing or systematically unsafe business practices (or fraud, or tax evasion, or wage-theft, or pollution, or any other form of rich-person crime; I'd like to see the law used more often against such criminals, subject to the constraints below). But the problem here is that Salter has been convicted and served his sentence. Coming after him three years after that seems to be a classic case of double jeopardy, and a violation of s26(2) BORA. Its a perfect example of why asset forfeiture should only happen on conviction, and as part of sentencing (as was typical pre-2009): because otherwise punishment never ends.

National wants lower wages

Just days after talking about how people feel "squeezed" and promising tax and service cuts as a "solution", National is talking about cancelling a rise in the minimum wage if elected:

National is considering scrapping the Government's planned minimum wage increase if it wins this year's election, the party's finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith says.

The Government has progressively been increasing the minimum wage and promised it would reach $20 an hour by April 2021.

But, speaking to RNZ this morning, Goldsmith said National was considering putting a stop to this.


If they were really worried about people feeling poor, they'd be supporting a higher minimum wage, because increasing the minimum ratchets up wages for everyone else. But it seems that that is precisely what they want to avoid - because higher wages for ordinary kiwis means lower profits for National's big-business backers. So instead, they're promising to keep people in poverty, and cut the services they need to get by, so they can channel more money to their rich donors and cronies.

History repeats?

A Labour government desperate for the numbers crawls into bed with Winston Peters. Winston ignores the law and secretly takes money under the table from someone. When it is exposed just months out from an election, he is investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

That's what happened back in 2008. And its happening again. Back then, Peters was immediately suspended as a Minister when the investigation was announced. But politics (and Winston) is more shameless now, and politicians care less about what the public thinks of them, so who knows if that's going to happen? But if it doesn't, then we're going to be in a situation where a Minister under investigation for taking secret donations is still exercising power, still potentially selling influence. And that will make the entire government look even more corrupt and dirty.

(The third act of this story is "Labour loses the election". Maybe they've got more of a chance this time because National also has its own dirty donations story, which has resulted in prosecution. But if it goes that way, Labour will have no-one to blame but themselves. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas...)

Meanwhile, with two of the five parties in Parliament under investigation or in court for laundering donations, we need to fix the system which enables this corruption. Public funding, freeing parties from the need to beg for money and so effectively prostitute their policies, is an obvious solution. Get the money out of politics, so the public's voice can be heard again. But if people don't want to go that far, then at the least, we need massively lowered disclosure thresholds, real-time disclosure of every donation, and annual audits by the SFO to ensure that the rules are properly complied with and that politicians don't try any dirty tricks to get around them. Plus an audit of the past five or ten years' donations to every party, so we can tell who is clean and who is not. But of course, the politicians will never vote to put their own in jail. So the first step is to vote them out and replace them with people who will.

Double the fraud with National!

When people were charged over laundering a $100,000 donation to the National Party, people were horrified. But now it turns out that its not one $100,000 donation, but two:

The Serious Fraud Office prosecution of four people over donations to the National Party involves not one but two $100,000 donations - in June 2017 and June 2018.

Court charging documents released to the media by order of Auckland District Court Judge Edwin Paul today show that three of the four defendants - whose names are suppressed ahead of a hearing next week - each face two joint charges of deception over a sum of $100,000 donated to National in 2017 and $100,050 donated to the party in 2018. The maximum penalty if convicted on the charge is seven years' imprisonment.

The fourth person is charged jointly with the others only over the second $100,050 donation - but also faces one charge of providing misleading information to the SFO.


(In 2018 National received $742,000 in donations. So this single donation is 13% of their funding that year).

Multiple donations suggests that this isn't a one-off aberration, but a systematic pattern of behaviour. And it raises the question of how many other times they (or other parties) have done it and gotten away with it. Not to mention who is making these huge secret donations and exercising influence behind the scenes.

We don't have an answer to that because for the moment everyone has interim name suppression. Hopefully that will be overturned when they appear in court next week. Because it is hard to think of a more compelling public interest in transparency than in election fraud.

Monday, February 17, 2020



A political vacuum?

Writing on The Spinoff, Danyl Mclauchlan argues that we have a vacuum in our political system, in that there is no longer an anti-establishment party anymore:

I think there’s a vacuum in our political system. There are obvious problems with the status quo but no real critics offering reform. It’s a situation that Simon Bridges is temporarily taking advantage of, but to which offers no actual, meaningful change. He’ll follow the current laws but since the current laws are designed to be crooked, that doesn’t mean very much.

Lenin used to say that he found power lying on the streets, and simply picked it up. I suspect there’s power lying on the streets in New Zealand politics, waiting for someone to say that our parties shouldn’t be secretly funded by the richest people in the country; that lobbyists shouldn’t be in powerful Beehive jobs, that the country should be governed in our interest, not theirs. And that power is just waiting for someone to pick it up.

It used to be the job of the Greens to say those things (and more besides). But now they're in Cabinet, they are the establishment. Collective responsibility and the desire to get along with their government partners has effectively gagged them and prevents them from offering any effective critique. Yes, they make some ineffective noises every so often, but you can't fight the power when you are the power (as we've seen on War On Terror bullshit).

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that someone picks up that power before the racists to National's right do.

Climate Change: Oversubsidising polluters

Stuff today has a piece about the government discovering it has been oversubsidising polluters for a decade under the Emissions Trading scheme:

The Government is pledging to urgently fix an issue within the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), after it emerged some polluters are likely being over-compensated with taxpayer-funded carbon credits.

[...]

The quantity of free credits each company gets is based on a formula with various factors. Among them is the Electricity Allocation Factor (EAF), a rate calculated in 2011 that estimated future electricity price increases caused by the ETS.

It has since emerged the EAF is inaccurate. Numerous assumptions made in setting the rate did not come to fruition, including lower than expected electricity demand and lower gas prices.

It means polluters are being compensated for price increases that never happened.


The good news is that the amount of this subsidy is set by regulation, so it is easy to fix. But at the same time, it is ignoring the elephant in the room. Because as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment pointed out last week, the entire subsidy system is rotten to the core, encouraging emissions while delivering public money to companies that neither need nor deserve it, on entirely spurious grounds. The issue isn't that we're giving them too much for electricity - its that we're giving them anything, full stop. And hopefully, the select committee currently examining the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Reform) Amendment Bill will do something about that. If not, then we will need to get a government, and a Parliament, which will.

An unreasonable charging regime

The Marlborough District Council, tired of public scrutiny, wants to increase the amount it charges for LGOIMA requests:

The cost of requesting official information from Marlborough's government agency could almost double after a jump in "fishing expeditions".

Charges could be raised from $60 to $100 an hour for information supplied by the Marlborough District Council, and from $60 to $100 for "assurance" deposits on bigger jobs, to "avoid [a] waste of resources".

The issue was raised at a planning, finance and community meeting last week.


The problem: these proposed charges are higher than the official OIA charging guidelines. While these strictly do not apply to local government, the Ombudsman has repeatedly found that they are reasonable charges for local government to use, and that
the application of an internal charging policy that is inconsistent with the Charging Guidelines, for example, by charging higher rates for staff time or photocopying, risks an Ombudsman’s finding on review that the charge in question was unreasonable.

So, if Marlborough District Council, or any other body, attempts to charge you for a request and the charges are not according to the guidelines, complain immediately to the Ombudsman. This will cost them a lot more time, and they will soon learn that it is cheaper to not try charging.

Finally

When Winston Peters was caught money laundering donations and stalking journalists, the Greens were conspicuous by their silence. It was another example of how getting along with their government partners was eroding their values and their own reputation. It was obviously unsustainable, and so now James Shaw has finally spoken up about it:

The Greens have broken their silence and expressed alarm at the published photos of Gray with the journalists who have been reporting on donations to the party.

But party co-leader James Shaw, who has until now been reluctant to weigh in on the saga surrounding the NZ First Foundation, stopped short of asking questions of governing partner New Zealand First.

[...]

Shaw also took a step further in relation to questions about the NZF Foundation and whether it has properly declared donations to the NZF party.

"The allegations are concerning and due process must be followed while they are investigated," Shaw said.

"We know New Zealanders will be looking at this issue and worrying about what it means for their democracy, which is why we are focused on making the system more transparent and fair."

And on the latter front, he has a proposal for a citizen's assembly to set electoral donation rules. Its a good idea: its our democracy, and the politicians who we have trusted to set the rules so far are obviously compromised by their own self-interest and incapable of doing a good job of it. The problem of course is that those same compromised politicians would have to enact whatever reforms the assembly came up with. And judging by their past behaviour over electoral reform, they would simply refuse to do so, then when dragged kicking and screaming to it, do their best to undermine it to protect the corrupt status quo. As with so many of our problems (climate change, housing, poverty), fixing it requires the destruction or significant weakening of the current political establishment.

(And meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern is still trying to say that its nothing to do with her. Bullshit. She's the Prime Minister, and wholly responsible for the ethical standards of her Cabinet. Pretending otherwise is simply a coward's way of saying that she's perfectly fine with corruption and dirty politics when its done by her allies, or at least willing to look the other way. But while this denial of responsibility gives her formal deniability, the problem is that this stench is not going to go away, and some of it is going to stick to her. And if it costs her a second term, she will have only herself to blame).

Friday, February 14, 2020



Time to crack down on house-hoarding

The Helen Clark Foundation has released its report on the housing crisis, and found that house-hoarders are to blame for it:

Property investors are to blame for New Zealand's high house prices, a new research paper published by the Helen Clark Foundation says.

[...]

McArthur said previous attempts to address housing problems had not worked because they saw it simply as an issue of supply and demand.

But she said the windfalls for those in the property market had come at the expense of families and people's basic need for shelter.

Speculation in the market was the primary driver of house price growth, she said, and houses were being treated as an investment, fuelled by the availability of cheap credit.

To address that, she recommended debt-to-income limits on borrowing for high-income households and a capital gains tax.


Its the obvious solution. But it requires the consent of MPs, who are among the biggest house-hoarders in the country. Their self-interest and greed is a big part of why we have this problem. And we should judge them harshly for it.

Reported back

The Abortion Legislation Committee has reported back on the Abortion Legislation Bill and recommended that it be passed with some amendments. Unfortunately, the latter include even more hoops to jump through for those seeking abortions after 20 weeks, including a time-wasting requirement to consult a second doctor. No-one casually seeks an abortion that late, but those whose circumstances change or who discover an unforeseen medical problem will still have to endure the wagging finger of society over what is a basic medical decision. The committee has also strengthened the ability of "conscientious objectors" to obstruct the process and waste people's time, and explicitly allowed them to do so to victims of sexual violence. And that's just a bit shit IMHO.

I expect there will be a lot of amendments offered on this bill at the committee stage. Hopefully we'll see some MPs put up amendments to create the liberal regime the Law Commission recommended, rather than the worst option that the government chose (which has then been made worse by the select committee process). This bill was passed by a huge majority, and hopefully there's a majority within that for a far better law than the bullshit compromise the government is offering. And otherwise, well, this is still a massive improvement on the status quo, but it still stinks that reform has been watered down like this.

A positive consequence of Brexit

Brexit is likely to be a disaster for the UK (how sad, never mind). But now that they're out of the EU, the latter has finaly taken the opportunity to blacklist one of their key tax havens:

The Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory, is to be put on an EU blacklist of tax havens, less than two weeks after the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc.

In a clear indication of the country’s loss of influence on the EU’s decision-making, the bloc’s 27 finance ministers are expected to sign off on the decision next week.

[...]

On Wednesday, EU ambassadors judged that the islands in the western Caribbean Sea are not effectively cooperating with Brussels on financial transparency, the Financial Times reported.

The Cayman Islands will join Fiji, Oman, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, Vanuatu and the three US territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, on the “non-cooperative” list.


Previously they'd been kept off the blacklist - and their money laundering enabled - by UK lobbying. But now they can finally be financially isolated and forced to adopt a proper regulatory regime which doesn't enable theft by billionaires and other criminals. And hopefully the EU will adopt the same tactics towards the rest of the UK's network of money laundries.

We need to fix defamation law

Bob Jones has dropped his defamation case against Renae Maihi. Good. But at the same time, it perfectly exposes what the case was all about: not protecting Jones' reputation, but punishing someone who had dared to criticise him, and deterring others from doing the same. This rich pompous asshat dragged a young women into court and heaped costs on her just because he could. And he walked away when he got bored (and when she was about to be able to have her say) because he could afford to do so. Its a disgusting abuse of power, and it shows exactly what is wrong with defamation law.

As for what to do about it: the US, Canada, and the ACT all have laws against "SLAPPs", and adopting one would be a good start. But the problem is that fines and damages mean nothing to the rich. Jones was willing to wear the cost of a pointless defamation suit just to discourage and intimidate, and doubling or trebling those costs is not going to make someone like him stop. Fundamentally, we need to change the law, and do away with defamation law as we know it. Graeme Edgeler has some good suggestions on this, such as limiting cases to malicious falsehoods which cause financial loss (rather than simple name-calling and expressions of opinion). Moving cases out of the courts and into a more accessible tribunal would also help a lot, and remove their use as a legal weapon of the rich against the poor. But fundamentally, in a free and democratic society, it should not cost you a year of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars if, you express a reasonably held opinion that someone is of poor character. Being judged by others for your actions is part of life, and rich pricks like Jones need to accept that.

Thursday, February 13, 2020



Winston does dirty politics

Winston Peters and NZ First have come under pressure in the past few months, after leaks about their secret money laundering foundation led to them being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. And so they've retaliated, by stalking the journalists reporting on the case, and smearing them on a sewerblog:

NZ First Leader Winston Peters says he was involved in having photographs taken of RNZ journalist Guyon Espiner, Stuff reporter Matt Shand and former NZ First president Lester Gray.

The photographs were posted on The BFD, a Whale Oil-linked website which has been running stories defending New Zealand First and trying to belittle reporting about the NZ First Foundation donations.

The photos ran with an article criticising the reporting, which Espiner and Shand have both been involved in.

This is simply dirty politics, and its unacceptable. Its also clearly unethical, and a violation of the Cabinet Manual requirement for Ministers to "behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards". And for that, Winston should be sacked.

Another broken promise

Back in 2017, right after being elected, Jacinda Ardern promised that there would be no new mines on conservation land. Since then, her government has done nothing to make that happen, and now the policy has been officially "parked" for the election:

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor says the "no new mines" policy for conservation land has been parked before the general election in September.

[...]

On Monday, O'Connor said it was a complex issue and there was "not time".

"There's a hell of a lot of work to do."

He referred to the West Coast's "unique perspective" and the large number of existing mines on conservation land.


Its Labour in a nutshell: promise big, do nothing, don't deliver (see also: "my generation's nuclear-free moment"). Its dishonest, but its also stupid: it discounts the value of every future promise they make, and people don't turn out to vote for a party they don't trust. It's also a breach of trust with the Greens, who worked hard for this policy, and have now seen it stalled due to Labour chickenshittery. And that's not going to make confidence talks with them any easier in future.

On the positive side, the policy being "parked" means it is no longer under "active consideration", which reduces the scope for the government to keep information on it secret. So I guess its time to hit the OIA and fine out exactly how much or how little they did, and how this breach of faith happened.

Labour's festering Neoliberalism

The government today announced a major support package aimed at reducing homelessness. A thousand new transitional housing places, more support for people to find homes (or not lose them in the first place), all good stuff. The one problem with it is that they're going to start charging people in emergency accommodation in motels. This is not a return to National's odious system of saddling people with odious debt for their failure to provide proper support in the first place - the "contribution" will be 25% of a "client's" income, exactly what they'd be paying if they were in a state house with individual bedrooms and a proper kitchen and a backyard rather than a shitty motel. What stinks is the reason for it: if you read the Cabinet Paper (paragraphs 63-68), its intended to "support a reduction in the reliance on motels" and produce "behavioural changes" which will supposedly reduce the cost of the programme. In other words, it will cause people to either leave those shitty motels earlier than they otherwise would have, or not ask for assistance in the first place.

WINZ obviously sees this as a Good Thing - after all, renting all those motel rooms for the homeless costs money, and they pay a premium to motel owners for it. To a government, savings are good. But what it actually means is people staying homeless, which undermines the purpose of the policy. And it suggests that Labour's hallmark "kindness", supposed to be at the core of everything they do, is turning back into the usual Neoliberal bullshit policy elites have been infected with since the 80's - bullshit which imposes deliberate hardship on the poor and vulnerable to "incentivise" them not to use government services which could help, all in the name of keeping costs - and taxes on the rich - down. And I don't think that's what people voted for in 2017.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020



Truck it back and send them the bill

Last week, toxic waste from the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter almost caused an environmental disaster in Mataura during a flood. In the wake of the flood, a deal was apparently struck to remove it. But now Rio Tinto, the foreign multinational which owns the smelter and which is ultimately responsible for the waste, has backed out at the last minute and is refusing to pay:

Environment Minister David Parker says it is "disgraceful" that aluminium manufacturer Rio Tinto has backed out of a deal to remove a hazardous substance from a building in Mataura.

Gore district council chief executive Stephen Parry announced on Wednesday morning that the deal he had struck with New Zealand Aluminium Smelters CEO Stewart Hamilton has been scuppered by Rio Tinto.

"To say I am devastated is an understatement.

"We had a deal, sealed with a good old-fashioned Southland handshake, but Rio Tinto's bosses have reneged."


Parker is right: this is disgraceful. As for what to do about it, this is Rio Tinto's waste, and cleanup should be their problem. Truck it back to Bluff, dump it on their doorstep, and bill them for the transport.

(Meanwhile, this does not bode well for Rio Tinto accepting its cleanup responsibilities if they decide to close the smelter, and it suggests that we need to impose significant environmental bonds for cleanup costs before allowing such developments in future).

Drawn

A ballot for a single Member's Bill was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Arms (Firearms Prohibition Orders) Amendment Bill (No 2) (Brett Hudson)
Its basicly more "tough on crime" nonsense (its already illegal for unlicensed people to own guns) designed to wedge NZ First against its arsehole base. But its relatively harmless compared to some of the other bills National is pushing.

There's a lot of first readings up now, and hopefully there'll be a Member's Day soon so the House can churn through them.

This is why we require donations to be declared

When NZ First entered coalition with Labour, it demanded control of the racing portfolio. Which didn't seem unusual: its a dying industry solely liked by zombies, which is basicly a metaphor for Winston Peters and NZ First. But it turns out that NZ First has been taking huge secret donations from the racing industry laundered through its secret trust:

The New Zealand First Foundation has been receiving tens of thousands of dollars from donors in the horse racing industry in payments which fall just below the $15,000.01 at which party donations are usually made public.

[...]

Records viewed by RNZ show one of the big donors was the Lindsay family. Brendan Lindsay sold the plastic storage container business Sistema for $660 million in late 2016 and a year later bought Sir Patrick Hogan's Cambridge Stud.

Three lots of $15,000 were deposited into the bank account of the New Zealand First Foundation on 11 October, 2018, according to records viewed by RNZ.


And there's more - a lot more. The article details $125,000 of secret donations from racing industry figures, all split into non-declarable sums, all laundered through the trust. Comments from those figures make it clear they thought they were donating to NZ First.

And they're getting what they paid for. As the article makes clear, Winston "has delivered significant benefits to the industry, including millions of dollars of government money spent on tax breaks and scrapping betting levies." His bill to "reform" the racing industry and deliver even more regulatory pork (while removing its compliance, integrity and regulation of animal welfare from public oversight) is currently before select committee.

Shit like this is literally why we have a transparency regime: so people can see who is buying our politicians and ensure that they do not gain any advantage by doing so. But its very obviously not working. We could make it work, by lowering the declaration threshold to $500 or $250, requiring realtime disclosure of all donations, and ending the ability to launder through front companies. But the establishment parties show no interest in doing so: Simon Bridges doesn't even want to talk about it, while Jacinda Ardern has punted it until after NZ First's case is resolved. The natural conclusion is that they are perfectly happy with the current arrangements, and with the corruption that it enables. And that is not acceptable.

As for Winston's racing bill, it is the fruit of corruption. All non-corrupt parties in Parliament should vote against it. It is that simple.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020



Climate Change: Not leading

In 2015 the world agreed to the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. Each country would offer a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) "that it intends to achieve", and "pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving [it]". And every five years, they'd improve on it, ratcheting up ambition until the task was done.

Well, the first five years have passed. And guess how many countries have offered new, improved NDCs by the deadline? Only three. And shamefully, New Zealand wasn't one of them. We said we would at the climate summit last year, but we haven't actually done it. So much for "high ambition". So much for "leadership". And so much for "my generation's nuclear free moment". In reality, this government is just like all its predecessors: all foot-dragging and hot air.

Climate Change: Calling bullshit on free allocation

In theory, the emissions trading scheme should reduce emissions. Making polluters pay for permits to pollute lets them save money by reducing pollution, giving them a financial incentive to do the right thing. But right from the start the ETS was broken with a system of free allocation, so polluters didn't need to pay as much (and then National made this worse by making those subsidies proportional to current production, so polluters in fact had an incentive to pollute more). Its a scam, and now the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has called bullshit on it, in a submission on the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Reform) Amendment Bill:

Upton said the free allocation was an overused subsidy with a “particularly lax” regime, which provides subsidies to activities that have no demonstrable risk of emissions leakage.

It both failed to incentivise the adoption of less emissions intensive production methods and potentially awards windfall gains to those who did reduce emissions.

“Unfortunately, the proposals in this Bill do not adequately address these defects and would not ensure that EITE activities undertake their fair share of the burden of meeting the 2050 target and NZ’s obligations under the Paris Agreement,” the submission said.

[...]

He said there was no analysis to establish there is a risk of emissions leakage, let alone that the leakage could result in an increase in global emissions.

“A cynic might well conclude that the regime is partly driven by unacknowledged considerations, such as the employment opportunities EITE activities create.


...or the support establishment political parties get from polluters (and the implied threat that they'll run an anti-government advertising campaign in an election year if made to pay their way).

The full submission is here, and its worth reading. Will it make a difference? I don't know. Tightening free allocation (let alone ending it) would be a pretty major policy change, and NZ First (which despite all their anti-establishment rhetoric, supports the economic status quo) is unlikely to support it. And since any changes to the bill will have to be approved by the coalition partners, that suggests we're going to be stuck with the same old ineffective bullshit, the same old pretence of action while really doing nothing useful. Just as we have for the past 30 years.

The end of the establishment in Ireland?

Irish voters went to the polls on Saturday in parliamentary elections, and perhaps delivered a political revolution. Since independence, Irish politics has been dominated by two parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Basicly patronage networks with indistinguishable policies, their cleavage isn't ideology, but who killed whose father or grandfather in the civil war. But this time around, a quarter of voters opted for Sinn Féin, which also has roots in the Irish independence struggle, but which has reinvented itself as a progressive, left-wing party since ending its policy of abstentionism in the south. Which clearly looked appealing given the two establishment parties shared pro-business policies, and so now Ireland has a three way split (plus an assortment of minor parties).

Sinn Féin has announced they will try to form a government, but obviously that will require the support of one of the two establishment parties. Alternatively, the establishment can work together (as they did after the 2016 election) to keep one of their own in power. Whichever happens, its a huge shake-up for Irish politics, which hopefully marks the end (or the beginning of the end) for their establishment.

Monday, February 10, 2020



A hopeful sign

Last year, National became the first political party in New Zealand to be investigated by the serious Fraud Office over its political donations. And now, NZ First has become the second:

The police has referred the New Zealand First Foundation to the Serious Fraud Office over donations the Electoral Commission says should have been treated as party donations.

The police referred the matter on to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) almost immediately after having the matter referred to them by the Electoral Commission on Monday.

In a statement, the Commission said in its view "the donations were not properly transmitted to the Party and not disclosed as required by the Electoral Act 1993".


This - and the fact that charges have been laid over National's donations - is a hopeful sign that law enforcement is finally taking our electoral laws seriously. And hopefully that will get politicians to take them seriously too, rather than their usual game of trying to circumvent them.

Meanwhile, Winston is blustering about going to the police about the leak which has led to this investigation. Because obviously, the real crime here is that someone told everyone about his dodgy dealings. But I guess that's just how the world looks from Winston's privileged, establishment perspective: when you're finally subject to the law like everyone else, it looks like victimisation rather than justice.

One million more tons of CO2 under Labour

When Labour was running for election, Jacinda Ardern famously said that climate change was "my generation's nuclear free moment". The implication was that her government would take the problem seriously, and act swiftly to reduce emissions. The reality:

New Zealand will emit a million more tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020 than previously forecast, new figures from the Ministry for the Environment show.

The 2019 edition of the biennial climate change report, mandated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, contains new projections with a gloomier outlook for the country's greenhouse emissions. While the 2017 report had forecast 79.96 million tonnes of gross CO2 equivalent emissions in 2020, the new numbers predict 80.93 million tonnes for this year.


The government will no doubt blame this on policy settings it inherited from the previous government. Sure, and that would be a strong excuse if they'd moved swiftly to change those settings and reduce emissions. Instead, they dragged their feet - their landmark Zero Carbon Act only became law late last year, while they are only now changing the ETS settings they inherited from National. And even then, the reality is they're still not changing much: they still have a free ride for our biggest polluters, huge subsidies forever for industrial emitters, and market parameters which effectively fix carbon prices at a low level, meaning no incentive for anyone to reduce anything. As for transport, our second-biggest emitter, they're refusing to call time on fossil fuelled vehicles, delaying the switch to electric, while they're also trying to keep the offshore drilling industry in business and undermine their own exploration ban. Basicly, their half-hearted, half-arsed policy has continued National's inaction for three years, so they own this.

Australia is burning down (and then flooding). The ice caps are melting. New Zealand desperately needs a government which will take this problem seriously. Instead we have a government which is incapable, and an opposition which is unwilling (worse, which actively wants to drive us to armageddon so their 23,000 farming families can keep making a profit). What is it going to take to get real change?

Friday, February 07, 2020



Breaking the cordon sanitaire in Germany

Part of the story of the Nazis' rise to power in Germany was the willingness of mainstream right-wing parties to work with them to keep out the left. Because of this, one of the fundamental rules of postwar German politics has been "do not work with Nazis". As a result, successive far-right parties have found themselves isolated, unable to get anywhere. Until yesterday, when the "mainstream" Christian Democrats and Free Democrats colluded with (neo-Nazi) Alternative für Deutschland to roll the left-wing Thuringian state premier. But it hasn't worked out like they expected:

A German state premier elected with help from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland has announced he will step down, succumbing to widespread outrage across the country and condemnation from Angela Merkel.

A postwar consensus among established parties of shunning the far right was broken on Wednesday when Thomas Kemmerich won the election in the eastern state of Thuringia on the back of votes from the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union and the aggressively nationalistic AfD.

The little-known Free Democrat (FDP) politician told German media on Thursday morning that he was right to have accepted the mandate, arguing that fresh elections would merely play into the hands of the far right and the far left.

By lunchtime, however, after a meeting with his party leader, Christian Lindner, Kemmerich had changed his mind. “Resignation is unavoidable,” he said. “Democrats need democratic majorities.”


To their credit, national party leaders acted quickly to stomp this, recognising the huge damage it would do to their reputations, and the Free Democrats leader will be facing an internal confidence vote as a result. But some of that damage has already been done, and its a reminder that to the right, racism and death camps is better than higher taxes and labour rights.

As for Thuringia, its unclear whether they will call a new confidence vote, or new elections. If the latter, then hopefully the right-wing parties will be punished for their collaboration.

Climate Change: Sound public policy reasons for transparency

One of the good things about the government's ETS bill is an increase in the transparency of the ETS. While the auction monitor will be bound by an odious secrecy clause, the EPA will be required by statute to publish the emissions returns of major emitters. Of course, some polluters aren't happy with this:

While some large companies like Z Energy, Countdown, and Air New Zealand support the data being released, many companies and their industry associations do not, fearing the reason for publication is "naming and shaming".

"We do not consider there are sound public policy reasons for publishing individual emissions data reported by NZ ETS participants," the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand said.

The Government was already getting the data it needed to ensure the ETS functioned efficiently, it said.

"The desire to publicise details about individual entities therefore seems gratuitous and appears to be driven by a desire to 'name and shame' emitters," it said.


But is it? Publishing this data will establish public pressure on polluters to reduce their emissions, and give them incentives to do so in the form of avoiding negative PR. Plus it will make it crystal clear to the public who the major climate criminals are, and in what areas policy is effective or ineffective. And that seems like a sound public policy reason to me.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020



An environmental crime

A few years ago, a company lowballed a contract to dispose of toxic waste from the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter. So, they dumped it in a disused paper mill in Mataura, then went into liquidation - effectively dumping the problem on local councils. The waste is dangerous - it releases ammonia when exposed to water. So naturally, they left it right next to a river, which is now flooding, and the entire town has had to be evacuated as a result.

Shit like this is why we should not allow corporate limited liability. Here it has been used very explicitly to take the money and run, while leaving a giant mess for others to clean up. And at the moment, its actually threatening people's lives. If the law doesn't allow the former directors and managers of this company to be held accountable for this environmental crime, then it needs to be reformed so it can.

Time for a wealth tax

Over on The Good Society, Max Rashbrooke suggests that its time to start directly taxing wealth:

A wealth tax would be levied on net wealth – that is, the value of people’s assets once their debts have been subtracted.

Such a tax would be highly redistributive. Levied at 1% on wealth over $1 million, it would affect only the wealthiest fifth of the country. And it would generate around $6 billion a year. Even a more modest version, starting for instance at $2 million, would generate billions of dollars a year to fund public services, help those who are struggling get back on their feet, and protect the environment.


(Rashbrooke's full paper on the topic is here).

Its a good idea. Asset-rich people often pay very low rates of income tax, so this ensures they pay their fair share. It also provides an incentive for them to put that wealth to work, so it provides a return, rather than just letting it pile up like a pyramid of skulls. And, most obviously, it will help reduce inequality.

But would Labour ever do it? Sadly, given their chickenshitting over the capital gains tax, I doubt it. Instead they'll just continue mouthing platitudes about inequality and how its bad, while doing absolutely nothing to fix it.

15,000 employed under Labour

The quarterly labour market statistics have been released, and unemployment has dropped to 4%. There are now 111,000 unemployed - 15,000 fewer than when Labour took office. Its not the performance we had under Clark (when unemployment was ~3.3%), but its still a reasonable improvement over prevailing conditions under National.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020



A victory for democracy in Malawi

Something you don't see: Malawi's constitutional court has annulled fraudulent elections and ordered new ones:

Judges in Malawi have annulled last year’s elections and called for a new ballot within 150 days.

In a landmark judgment that experts hailed as a step forward for democracy, the country’s constitutional court found that evidence of fraud and malpractice meant the results of the poll could not be allowed to stand.

The judges had taken more than 10 hours to read their 500-page decision, amid heavy security and calls for calm from diplomats. Their judgment described “widespread, systematic and grave” irregularities including significant use of correction fluid to alter the outcome.

A new vote would be held within 150 days, the court said, saying it hoped the ruling would not “destroy the nation”.


There was a similar ruling in Kenya a few years ago, and it shows a good trend of courts standing up to authoritarian leaders and demanding that democratic norms are respected. And hopefully that trend will continue (or better yet, be unnecessary).

If this is within the rules, the rules are not good enough

Last year, RNZ obtained a stash of documents about the secret "New Zealand First Foundation", which funds the NZ First party and apparently launders donations for them. Some of the donors have already been exposed, and their identities raise serious questions about secret influence and cash for policy. RNZ has now named some more of them - and it turns out that the "anti-establishment" party is funded by New Zealand's richest man. But there's also a pattern of behaviour which suggests a deliberate attempt to avoid disclosure:

Last year companies owned by New Zealand's richest man donated nearly $30,000 to the Foundation in two amounts that each fell $5.01 short of the $15,000.01 level at which political donations are publicly disclosed.

Church Bay Farm, which is 100 percent owned by Graeme Hart, donated $14,995 to the New Zealand First Foundation on 29 March, 2019, according to documents seen by RNZ.

On the same day Walter & Wild, which owns the Hubbards, Hansells and Gregg's food brands, also donated $14,995 to the Foundation. Walter and Wild is two-thirds owned by Graeme Hart with the remaining third owned by his son Harry Hart.


And he's not the only one. There are other series of donations from the Van Den Brink family, and Conrad Properties. They're all perfectly legal - or, as politicians love to say, "within the rules". Its obviously legal to donate just less than the disclosure threshold, and if you look at past party donation returns, its clear that donations from multiple entities controlled by the same person are treated separately. And yet, its blatantly obvious to anyone looking at them that despite being laundered through separate legal persons, these donations all ultimately have the same sources. Which suggests that our rules really aren't good enough, in that they allow substantial amounts to be donated in secret while the ultimate identity of the donor can be legally hidden.

At this stage, it is worth pointing out that the government has a bill before the House at the moment which could fix this. The Electoral Amendment Bill is just out of select committee, but could be amended in the committee stage to radicly lower the disclosure threshold (to, say, $500), and to treat donations by related companies as being from the same source (or even to restrict donations to eligible voters). But back in November, the government rules out any such changes. Which tells us that they are OK with the status quo, and therefore OK with corruption. Which means that no-one who cares about democracy should be OK with them.

Monday, February 03, 2020



Sedition in India

India is the world's largest democracy. But under prime minister Narendra Modi it has become increasingly undemocratic, with police increasingly stifling dissent. And now that has reached its nadir with a group of school children questioned and their teachers arrested for sedition for staging a play which criticised government policy:

Days after a sedition case was slapped against a school in Karnataka, its headmistress and a student's mother have been arrested for the alleged involvement in staging of a drama portraying Prime Minister Narendra Modi in poor light over the CAA and NRC, police said on Friday.

The police action came after they questioned the two women, a few staff members of the Shaheen School in the district headquarters town of Bidar and students on Thursday.

They were produced before a court which remanded them to judicial custody, police said adding further investigation was on.

The drama was staged by students of fourth, fifth and sixth standard on January 21.

A sedition case was booked by police on January 26 against the school, along with some other sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on January 26, based on a complaint from social worker Neelesh Rakshyal.


This is like something from the era of absolute monarchy, and it is appalling that it is happening in a supposedly democratic state like India. But that's what happens if you leave colonial laws like this lying around: governments use them.

Shut down the child stealers

Last year, Newsroom exposed Oranga Tamariki's kidnapping of Māori children, with graphic video of the organisations efforts to "uplift" a newborn baby from its mother. The public reacted with revulsion, and multiple inquiries were launched. Now one of them - by the Whānau Ora Commissioning agency - has recommended that the agency be completely overhauled:

A report on Oranga Tamariki has revealed harrowing stories of the removal of Māori babies and is calling for a complete overhaul of the ministry.

[...]

Dame Naida Glavish, who chaired the governance group overseeing the review, said the report confirmed systemic failure and discrimination.

"The Crown is not honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi. There's been unprecedented breaches of human rights and the treatment of Māori women has been inhumane."

"We can clearly see from the volume of evidence and the heavy handed approach inflicted on this whānau that something is so systemically wrong. This entrenched behaviour is plain unjust," Dame Naida said.


Not to mention horribly, horribly racist, with Māori babies five times more likely than non-Māori ones to be ordered into state care. Oranga Tamariki has also used armed police to conduct these kidnappings - a militarisation of the child welfare system.

The report recommends an an end to child-stealing and a complete overhaul of Oranga Tamariki and of the law which enables it. The first is welcome. As for the rest, this organisation is deeply racist and rotten to the core. If we want to end that deeply entrenched organisational culture, the only way to do it is shut down the organisation and start again from scratch. Gambling on it being reformable is simply a recipe for further abuses.