Tuesday, March 31, 2020



Saving lives

The purpose of the lockdown is to save lives, by reducing the spread of covid-19. We won't know if its really working for another week, but given the devastation that will result if it doesn't - 14,000 dead is the optimistic scenario - its definitely worth trying. But pausing the pandemic isn't the only way its saving lives. The lockdown is also doing it in another way: by reducing air pollution:

Initial results of air quality monitoring from NIWA show a big drop in traffic pollution in our biggest city.

NIWA Principal Air Quality Scientist Dr Ian Longley tested air quality in Auckland last Thursday, our first day of lockdown, and found huge reductions in pollution compared to levels over the last five years.

“Lincoln road in Henderson on Thursday and Friday afternoon was effectively reading zero for air pollution from road traffic,” Dr Longley said.

[...]

Data for Wellington and Christchurch is still being worked on, but with tens of thousands of cars currently off the road, NIWA is expecting similar results.


This matters. Air pollution kills over 1,200 kiwis a year - a hundred every month. A reduction of this scale is likely to significantly reduce that toll (as well as hospitalisations and restricted activity days) for as long as the lockdown lasts.

But it also shows us what New Zealand could be like. A key part of fighting climate change is going to be getting fossil-fuelled cars off the road, replacing them with EVs and public transport. Doing that will have a similar effect on air pollution to what we're seeing today, with similar co-benefits to public health. We should choose that future, rather than continuing down the dirty path we're on.

Monday, March 30, 2020



Time for a living wage for supermarket workers

Since the lockdown began, we've all suddenly been reminded who the actually essential workers in our society are: not the people at the top who pay themselves the big bucks and rort the perks, but the people at the bottom they screw over and squeeze: cleaners, warehouse staff, truck drivers and supermarket workers. Typically, these groups are paid minimum wage, on the basis that what they do isn't essential. But faced with growing public anger over this, both major supermarket chains have suddenly agreed to bonus pay during the lockdown:

Countdown will give staff a 10 percent wage increase to its supermarket and distribution workers during the four-week lockdown.

It follows a similar announcement from Foodstuffs over the weekend.

Countdown managing director Natalie Davis said paying team members more reflects the essential service they are providing the country.

"As well as paying our supermarket and distribution centre teams more, we are also supporting any of our team members whom the government has deemed high risk so they can be encouraged to stay home and not worry about work," she said.

Countdown said it has been paying any of its team who is required to self-isolate due to travel since February and was also paying any team members the government has deemed to be high risk.


Which is great. And at the same time, not enough. These people are doing essential work, keeping us all fed and alive during a crisis. At the least, they deserve a living wage. Countdown staff will be getting that from September, but it should be brought forward. As for Foodstuffs, they should pay their workers what they're worth. Or else the public is going to judge them for it.

The police and public trust

When the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency last week, she handed the police powers to enforce it. And almost immediately, we started hearing about heavy-handed, arbitrary "enforcement" by police who (at best) cared more about order than law, or (more likely) had no idea what the rules were and were making it up to suit themselves as they went along. As a result, there's a public call on RNZ for police to get their shit together, obey the law, and publish the rules they will be enforcing so everyone knows what they can do.

Why does this matter? Because the lockdown depends fundamentally on trust. And the police making up the rules as they go along, harassing people who are obeying the lockdown, and harassing the essential workers we need to keep doing their jobs so we don't all starve to death is an abuse and erosion of that trust. And if they erode it too much, the entire thing falls apart.

But its not just the lockdown. Policing depends on trust as well - trust that the police will investigate properly and enforce the law fairly, trust that they will only use their powers lawfully and reasonably and appropriately, trust they won't abuse their position to frame people, commit crimes, or cover up for their mates. With that trust, people will report crimes, give evidence, cooperate when arrested. Without it, people won't, and a police officer is just a dick with a blue shirt, their ability to enforce the law limited to the reach of their stick or gun. And since law is kindof useful to a civilised society, that's bad for all of us.

New Zealanders have responded to the lockdown in a generally pro-social manner. The police need to as well. But beyond that, they need to recognise that the trust we place in them isn't a blank cheque, but a responsibility, and that they need to earn it, every single day. Because if they don't, they're not doing their jobs properly, and need to be sacked.

Friday, March 27, 2020



We are not America

When the government banned semi-automatic weapons in response to a terrorist atrocity, gun-nuts were outraged. Mired in toxic American gun culture, they thought owning weapons whose sole purpose was killing people was some sort of "constitutional right", a necessity for "defending themselves" against the government. Now, the Court of Appeal has told them in no uncertain terms that they are wrong:

A legal challenge by firearms owners to the Government's military-style semi-automatic weapons ban claiming New Zealanders have the right to bear arms under the Treaty of Waitangi was "doomed to fail", the Court of Appeal has ruled.

[...]

In the Court of Appeal's decision, released this week, Justice David Collins said: "We accept for present purposes that it was customary in ancient times for citizens of England to bear arms ... We do not need, however, to determine if the custom of bearing arms evolved into a common law right.

"An examination of the constitutional instruments relied upon by Mr Minchin quickly exposes the fallacy of his argument that New Zealanders have a constitutional right to bear arms."

[...]

"In this country, as in almost all countries, a citizen's ability to possess, own and use firearms is regulated by legislation ... There is no constitutional right to bear arms in New Zealand let alone the arms that are prohibited by the Amendment Act."


So that's that. Meanwhile, I am wondering how people who publicly argue that firearms are for use against the government and their fellow citizens meet the "fit and proper person" test for gun ownership. That is explicitly not what firearms are for in our society, and anyone who thinks that it is is a wannabe terrorist. They should have their licences revoked and their weapons seized.

Thursday, March 26, 2020



Using privacy law to prevent the death penalty

In 2018, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey - two British citizens who had purportedly been stripped of their citizenship by the British government - were captured while fighting for Isis in Syria. The British government then conspired to hand them over to the US, and agreed to provide evidence against them despite the fact that they may face the death penalty. The UK Supreme Court has now ruled that that conspiracy was unlawful:

The government’s decision to cooperate with US authorities over the prosecution of two alleged Islamic State executioners without assurances that they would not face the death penalty was unlawful, the supreme court has ruled.

In a unanimous judgment that will have repercussions for US-UK relations, the court’s seven justices said the home secretary’s agreement to provide evidence about El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey breached data protection rules.

Delivering the judgment, Lord Kerr said that under the Data Protection Act transferring information in this context was contrary to law. He said: “Much of the information provided, or to be provided, to the US authorities consisted of personal data. It was common ground between the parties that provision of mutual legal assistance involved the ‘processing’ of such personal data falling within part 3 [of the] Data Protection Act.

“Such processing is only lawful where it complies with the data protection principles in section 34 DPA. I concluded that since the transfer of material to the US authorities without obtaining death penalty assurances was contrary to law, it followed that the first and second principles – requiring processing that is lawful and fair – were not met.”


Its a fairly weird way to approach what should be a straight-out human rights question. Opposition to the death penalty is meant to be a fundamental principle of UK foreign policy and UK law. But it turns out that there was nothing actually stopping a minister from handing over information which could see people executed. Now, there is. Unfortunately, though, it may be too late for these two men, who are still being held in US custody in Iraq.

So would this sort of collateral attack work if the New Zealand government engaged in such behaviour? Probably not. While the Privacy Act requires all collection of information to be for a lawful purpose, there's no explicit equivalent restriction on its disclosure. Instead, you'd have to rely directly on the BORA, which covers all actions taken by any part of the government, and includes explicit protection for the right to life. The courts don't really recognise "justified limitations" on that, so it is likely that they would rule disclosure of information which may lead to the death penalty as unlawful. Which seems much simpler than having to rely on privacy law.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020



An equitable way to support business

The Herald reports that the government is planning to lend billions of dollars to large businesses to keep them operating during the pandemic. As with mortgage relief, this is necessary: we need companies to stay in business, to reduce the economic damage and help things get restarted again when this crisis ends (and it will, eventually). But like mortgage relief, its also inequitable - a socialisation of losses when profits have been privatised. And that really doesn't taste good.

So what's the solution? The same as has been used for Air New Zealand: loans, convertible to equity. If a company pays it back, no problem. If it looks like they might not, the government takes an ownership stake, and shares in the profits when it is rebuilt (either in dividends, or as a higher price if it sells out). That way, businesses still get to keep working, shareholders still carry the can, and the public doesn't get rorted.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020



What about renters?

The government today announced the latest part of its pandemic relief package: a six-month mortgage holiday for people whose incomes have been affected by the pandemic. Which is great, because these people are going to need help, and that's what the government should be doing. At the same time, it raises an obvious question: what about the renters? A third of kiwis rent. Their rent goes to pay the mortgages of their landleeches. And when those landleeches have a government-backed mortgage holiday, its basicly free money for them, a wealth transfer from the poorest New Zealanders to the richest.

The poor should not have to pay for the pandemic. Instead, we should have a rent amnesty to match the mortgage amnesty, and a ban on evictions. If you agree, there's a petition on ActionStation here.

Transparency and the pandemic

Parliament will be leading by example and adjourning tomorrow after a special sitting to consider an epidemic notice and state of emergency. Day-to-day oversight of the government will be delegated to a select committee. But that's not the only overight mechanism. The OIA will still be law, and (so far) hasn't been changed under the epidemic notice, so you can still make requests - and they may be extremely valuable in providing transparency around the emergency decisions.

The Ombudsman has issued guidance to agencies about this, and will be triaging complaints to focus on those related to the emergency in order to provide that transparency. For requesters, the advice is to be reasonable. Agencies may have other things on their minds ATM, but also, people may be sick and simply unable to answer. Provided they call and ask for extra time (rather than simply being late), its usually not going to hurt to agree.

One way to solve the housing crisis

How much homelessness is caused by house hoarding? We're about to find out. The pandemic has destroyed tourism, which means that house hoarders who put their hoarded properties up as short-term tourist rentals are now offering them on the ordinary rental market:

Property investors are pulling properties from Airbnb to offer as long-term rentals instead.

New Zealand's tourism industry has come to a standstill as the country responds to the spread of coronavirus.

A spokeswoman for Trade Me said usually 6 per cent of Trade Me rental listings were offered furnished. But since March 14, when the self-isolation rules were first announced, that number had increased to 11 per cent.

"This puts the total number of fully furnished rental listings at double what they were at the time last year," she said.

"They are being advertised extensively across Facebook community groups at significantly discounted rents. Most come furnished and are often on six-month leases so that landlords have the option of putting the unit back on Airbnb if conditions have normalised again ahead of next summer," he said.


And of course, there's a huge concentration of them in Queenstown - one of the worst locations for the housing crisis. Now we're going to find out just how much of that scarcity is artificial, just how much misery is being inflicted for the profit of a tiny class of hoarders. And stopping that is something we might want to fix when this is all over.

Monday, March 23, 2020



We are all socialists now

Last week, the government announced a $12 billion initial package to support people during the pandemic. Today, the Reserve Bank is buying government bonds - effectively printing money - to keep up the money supply during the crisis. Normally such moves would have the right apoplectic. Instead, the National Party is calling for more, as are the business lobby groups.

The change in mindset is astounding. I guess we really are all socialists now. And hopefully we'll remember this when the crisis is over, and not just go back to business as usual.

Friday, March 20, 2020



Politics, the possible, and the pandemic

Whenever people demand real change from their politicians, we're told that "politics is the art of the possible". The implication is that change isn't possible, so we'd better just get used to the sucky status quo.

But now that there's a pandemic, a lot of things we were previously told weren't possible suddenly are. Raising benefits. Massively increased government spending. Renationalisations. Overseas, we're seeing mortgage and rent freezes, and UBI-style fixed payments to keep people's heads above water.

The implication is that these things, and others, were always possible, with political will. And that what was stopping them was the reluctance of politicians to do the work and upset the cosy status quo they benefitted from. When this crisis is over, we should remember that.

Thursday, March 19, 2020



Parliament and the pandemic II

As expected, the government has introduced a sessional order to allow Parliament to operate during the pandemic. You can read it on the Order Paper here, but the short version is that questions and motions can be filed electronicly, select committees can work remotely, and the the Business Committee can adjust proxy requirements (allowing more proxies than usual). The Business Committee includes representatives form all parties and operates by consensus, so this is a good, inclusive way of managing the House.

According to Stuff, the changes are expected to pass unanimously.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020



68-51

The Abortion Legislation Bill has just passed its third reading, 68-51. NZ First MPs bailed because their referendum amendment didn't pass, but there were plenty of MPs to provide a majority without them. The bill is a long way from perfect - most significantly, it subjects pregnant people who need a late stage abortion to the wagging finger of society, just like the old law did - but it is a massive improvement. And it'll be in force within a couple of days.

There's still work to be done - both in making it truly a medical decision, and in establishing safe zones to protect pregnant people from harassment by bigots. But Parliament has done a good job today. Except for those who voted against: they're bigots, arseholes, or both, and we should de-elect them all.

The Air New Zealand bailout

Stuff reports that the government is going to have to throw $2 - 3 billion at Air new Zealand to get it through the pandemic. Good. While international routes are basicly closed, Air New Zealand is a strategic asset which is vital to our tourism industry, not to mentioning airfreight. We need it keep functioning to ship in medical supplies, and we need it to still be there when this is all over, so it is entirely appropriate that the government steps in. And the fact that we'll end up owning more of it in the process is even better.

At the same time though, its worth pointing out: despite successive efforts at privatisation, we end up having to do this every 20 years or so. We sold it in the 80's, reacquired it as part of a $885 million bailout in 2001, sold it down again under Key in the 2010s, and now we're reacquiring it again. While that reacquisition protects the strategic asset - that's why we do it - it also protects the wealth of the parasites who have bought into this company, which doesn't sit so well. Given that we just keep having to do this, isn't it time we cut them out entirely and simply renationalised it completely?

The tiniest of teeth

Back in early 2018, as a shoddy legal tactic to try and avoid the prisoner voting ban being formally declared inconsistent with the BORA by the Supreme Court, Justice Minister Andrew Little floated the idea of greater legal protection for human rights. When the Supreme Court case didn't go the government's way, the idea stalled. But after blowing through yet another deadline, the government has finally introduced legislation to the House, in the form of the New Zealand Bill of Rights (Declarations of Inconsistency) Amendment Bill. The Bill implicitly recognises the power of the courts to issue such declarations, and adds a new section to the BORA requiring the Attorney-General to report to Parliament on any declaration of inconsistency. What happens after that is up to Parliament, but the explanatory note suggests they will be seeking changes to Standing orders to require a referral to select committee, a formal report back with recommendations, followed by a debate and vote on whether to accept those recommendations. As for what happens next:

Once the House has been informed about, has considered, and, if it thinks fit, has responded to, a declaration of inconsistency, the Executive can then consider its approach to initiating legislative change to remedy the inconsistency.
Constitutionally, this is the tiniest of tiny teeth. Hopefully, it will see MPs listen to the courts, and recommend corrective legislation to remove any inconsistency. And if not, at the least, it will require them to breach the BORA knowingly, willfully, and in public, so the electorate (or international courts if required) can take any required corrective action.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020



A good first step

Today the government announced a financial package to deal with the effects of the pandemic. So far, it looks good: an initial $500 million for health to deal with immediate priorities, wage subsidies for affected businesses, $585 a week from WINZ for people self-isolating who can't work from home, and a $25 / week increase in benefits. It looks good: it will hopefully help the tourism and hospitality industry to keep people employed rather than laying them off, while the benefit increase will see more money flowing into the economy. Most of it is short-term, meaning there will be more coming if the situation continues (as is likely), but the benefit increase is long-term, a permanent and welcome step up (though still nowhere near what is needed to restore benefits to pre-1990 levels). It is in short a good first step. Because the pandemics are not short-term events, more is likely to be needed. But the government has said clearly that its there and its going to help us get through this - that it is going to do its job for once, rather than abandoning us while bailing out the rich.

Australian SAS are war criminals

Australia's SAS deployment to Afghanistan has already produced allegations of war crimes. But now the ABC has been leaked video of one:

Four Corners has obtained video which shows a Special Air Service (SAS) operator shooting an unarmed Afghan man three times in the head and chest while he cowers on the ground.

His death took place within three minutes of the soldiers arriving in the village.

An Australian Defence Force (ADF) investigation later ruled the killing was justified because it was in self-defence.

The killing was one of a series of cases uncovered by Four Corners that may constitute war crimes.

A former member of the same SAS squadron, who was on the 2012 deployment to Afghanistan and has been shown the vision, described the killing to Four Corners as a "straight-up execution".


And there's more context from an SAS whistleblower here.

I have not watched the video, because I am not into snuff. But if the description is accurate, then this soldier needs to be prosecuted for murder. And the superiors who helped sweep it under the carpet need to be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice. Of course, that will never happen - the ADF will cover it up, as usual. And given the way Australia has been going, we'll probably see the ABC raided by federal police again, and prosecuted for exposing government secrets or some such bullshit.

And of course, there's an obvious question: the NZ SAS cooperates closely with its Australian counterpart. Have they been infected by this murderous culture? Have they committed similar crimes? And if they had, would any of them be brave enough to do the right thing and leak it?

Monday, March 16, 2020



Open Government: Another farce

The government is currently "consulting" on developing its fourth national Action Plan under the Open Government Partnership. But according to Andrew Ecclestone, they're making the same mistakes they've made in previous years:

First, unlike most government consultation exercises, there has been no ministerial press release inviting people to take part. Nor did the Minister attend the workshop, unlike his predecessor. This absence speaks volumes about the priority given by the Minister, and a lack of understanding about the opportunity these plans provide, to build trust as well as delivering on their agenda.

Neither did the State Services Commissioner issue a release, or ensure the current work to develop the action plan appears on the all-of-government Consultations Listing page.

As of 10 March the government’s OGP twitter account has only published a single tweet about these workshops – on 10 February.

This might explain why less than twenty members of the public and civil society representatives were present at this first workshop in Wellington (excluding members of SSC’s advisory panel).


They're also signalled that any changes to the OIA are off the table, because the Minister is still trying to decide whether to conduct a review. So they're trying to have a conversation about transparency, while specifically excluding our primary transparency tool.

Shit like this is why I refuse to waste my time on this process. People's time is valuable, and there is an opportunity cost to participating in consultations (if only that it precludes participating in a different one). it makes sense to put your efforts towards things where you will be listened to and your views considered, rather than things where you're just a prop so some official can tick a box. Sadly, Labour's entire "open government" platform seems to fall into the latter category. As for how they could change this, the Minister actually showing some leadership and stumping up some money so agencies can offer commitments beyond business-as-usual things they were going to do anyway would be a start.

Government matters

Like everyone else, I've been watching the not-so-slow-motion-anymore disaster of the pandemic, with varying levels of shock and horror. And watching the responses around the world, I'm once again glad to live in a country with a functioning (if underfunded) public health system and a competent government. We've been told for the past 35 years that government doesn't matter, that its an obstacle, that the best thing it can do is get out of the way and surrender its functions to the private sector. It was always a lie, and now we're being reminded of that in spades. The uS's privatisation of everything has turned it into a failed state where people are going to die en-masse. Here at least we stand a chance. But we're also going to see government resources deployed on a massive scale to support people's incomes and get us all through this. And hopefully, at the end of it people will recognise how important that ability is, and be willing to ensure it is all properly funded in future.

But its also about leadership. In the UK, the government's position is basicly to let the peasants die, to avoid economic damage (while the elite no doubt flees to their rural estates or to their money in some offshore tax-haven). In the US, Trump seems to alternate between denial and seeing it as an opportunity for grift, with a side order of pure fucking evil. Whereas our Prime Minister has made it clear that we are all in this together, that everyone's health depends on everyone else's, and that protecting us is the government's first priority. You see who politicians really are in a crisis, and as with Christchurch, Ardern has risen to the occasion. And we're lucky to have someone like her in charge at the moment.

"The most transparent government ever" again

When they were first elected, Labour promised that "this will be the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had". But with another election coming up, its the same old bullshit:

A warning has come from the Chief Ombudsman to government departments over "dragging the chain" when releasing information during the 2020 election year.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he was putting agencies on notice - through his interview with the Herald - that he would start publicly calling them out if they didn't improve.

"This is an election year and I'm beginning to see ominous signs of agencies slowing down and dragging the chain in answers to me about complaints," he said.


Its unclear whether this is in response to Ministerial pressure, or just public servants instinctively defending their bosses. But either way the solution as the same: leadership from the top. To riff on former Ombudsman Beverley Wakem, the Prime Minister, Ministers, and Chief Executives need to send clear and public messages in support of OIA compliance, openness, and accountability. And if they don't, we can only conclude that they do not support those values - or the law. And we should hold them accountable for that.

Thursday, March 12, 2020



Drawn

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

Its more pedophobic law and order bullshit from NZ First, targeted squarely at their frightened elderly voter base. And hopefully Labour will refuse to have a bar of it. Though given their chickenshittedness on everything else, I guess we can expect them to vote it to committee.

Ghost homes should be used to house the homeless

We have a homelessness problem in New Zealand. We also have 40,000 ghost homes in Auckland alone - properties deliberately left empty by hoarders, who just want to accumulate the tax-free capital gains. Writing in Newsroom, Cat MacLennan suggests looks at how we could use them to solve the homelessness crisis:

In New Zealand, the Government and Auckland Council are examining how vacant houses in the city could be used for the homeless or low-income workers. Mayor Phil Goff has spoken to ministers and says several thousand vacant homes could be pressed into service, perhaps for the Housing First programme, which finds shelter for homeless people, or for workers such as teachers, nurses and police officers who find it hard to obtain affordable accommodation.

We should look overseas to see what is being done there. Reoccupying existing homes is much speedier and cheaper financially than constructing new dwellings – in Scotland, for example, the average cost of renovating an empty property is between £6000 and £25,000, compared with the average new build outlay of £120,000.

In addition, it is less harmful environmentally to renovate than to construct from scratch.

A number of countries now tax homes left vacant for long periods. This raises revenue that councils can use for empty homes work but, more importantly, it is designed to nudge property owners into turning their houses back into homes.


Having houses lying empty in order to accumulate "wealth" while we have homelessness is simply vile. Taxing them is the least we can do. But if it continues, maybe we should look at simply seizing them under the Public Works Act for public use as state or emergency housing (and maybe homeless people should just start doing that themselves, UK-style). Houses should be homes, not investments.

The police's depraved indifference

Today's report from the Independent Police Conduct authority: Hamilton police chased a man into the Waikato River, then sat there in a boat and literally watched him drown:

Three police officers didn't do all they should have to rescue a man who subsequently drowned in the Waikato River, the Independent Police Conduct Authority says.

[...]

The Acting Inspector managing the search told the boat crew not to bring the man on board without first making a plan for doing so.

The officers on the boat took this to mean their role was limited to assisting with the search for him and did not plan for rescuing him from the water if needed.


And as a result, when they found him, in some difficulty, they just watched him drown. The IPCA found a moral obligation to help, but no legal one. I suspect the police would find very differently if the killers weren't wearing a uniform. If you or I did this, we'd be prosecuted for manslaughter or criminal nuisance. Isn't it time these officers were held to the same standard?

There are obvious parallels with police chases here as well. In both cases, the police set up a dangerous situation, which results in death or injury. And in both cases, they then blame the victim, and walk away. There is a fundamental mindset problem here, of deprioritising the lives of offenders and the general public. And that is simply not acceptable in a police force which is meant to protect everyone.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020



New Fisk

Don't expect a Democrat president to simply roll back Trump’s disastrous Middle East policies – particularly if it's Biden

Making the banks pay for the pandemic

Italy is now under full lockdown due to the pandemic. And the Italian government has announced an interesting economic stimulus policy to help people when they're unable to work: suspending mortgage payments:

Payments on mortgages are to be suspended in Italy due to the coronavirus outbreak, the country’s government has announced.

[...]

When asked about the possibility of halting mortgage payments on Radio Anch’io, Laura Castelli, the deputy economy minister, said: ”Yes, that will be the case, for individuals and households.”


I'm not sure about home ownership rates in Italy, or whether they have a similar plan to suspend rents, but the intention is clear: make the banks, rather than people, pay for the pandemic. Of course, they'll get their money eventually - the important term is "suspended", not cancelled, and it effectively just extends the mortgage term - but it means they'll effectively be providing a giant loan to the public for the duration of the crisis. Its not a complete solution - obviously, it does nothing for renters - but its an partial one, and one which puts costs where they can be best handled. Sadly, the New Zealand government is unlikely to do anything of the sort.

Member's Day

Today is the first Member's Day of the new year. And its an unusual one. First, the government is eating half the time for its Budget policy statement, a regular setpiece "debate" on financial policy. Perhaps because of this, they've reshuffled the order paper, pushing the third reading of Chlöe Swarbrick's Election Access Fund Bill ahead of other business. Once that's done, the rest of the day will be spent on the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Amendment Bill. As there are unlikely to be any first readings, there is unlikely to be a ballot tomorrow.

Looking ahead, that local bill is likely to eat the first part of the next couple of Member's Days, but we might see some first readings and therefore some bills drawn before the House rises for the election.

Labour are chickenshits on abortion

Last night, inattentive MPs caused a major fuckup on the Abortion Legislation Bill, with David Seymour's amendment to remove safe zones being passed on a voice vote without anyone noticing. It was a procedural error, and the government has multiple options to fix it. But do they want to? Of course not:

Justice Minister Andrew Little will not try to re-introduce "safe zones" into his abortion legalisation bill after a procedural snafu saw them removed on Wednesday night.

[...]

Little said in a statement he would not be attempting to re-insert the safe zones into the bill.

"The safe zone provision was always the most marginally supported," Little said.

He said it wasn't clear if Seymour's amendment actually had the numbers but he would not be pursuing further change as the "substance of the bill" remained.

Another example of the complete chickenshittedness of this government. Its too much effort to find out where Parliament actually stands (rather than sleeps) on this, so they won't bother. But hopefully, some other MP will step up to lead where Little is refusing to. And if not, its an obviously subject for a member's bill once the main bill is passed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020



A heckuva job on abortion reform

I'm currently watching the voting on the Abortion Legislation Bill, and it looks like inattentive MPs have made a major fuckup. One of the major reforms is provisions establishing safe areas around abortion providers, so people seeking an abortion do not have to face intimidation or run a gauntlet of hate to get a medical procedure. ACT's David Seymour (naturally) opposes this on free speech grounds, and has put up an SOP to remove it. Earlier this evening, the first part of that SOP, to remove the definition of "safe area" from the interpretation clause, was voted down. But then, later on, the second part, which would remove the actual clauses relating to safe areas, came up. And it passed on the voices, with no personal vote being called. MPs didn't realise what had happened until Marama Davidson's amendments to strengthen safe areas were ruled out of order as the issue had already been voted on. Someone did seek to roll things back by leave, but of course that was denied. And so, inattentive MPs have just cost women a world of hate.

Heckuva job, folks. Maybe you should drink more coffee next time?

Any excuse for class warfare

The government's reaction so far to the pandemic has been what you'd expect: trying to contain it, and trying to ease the economic effects. The National Party's response? class warfare:

National is urging the Government to defer the minimum wage increase on 1 April in light of growing economic uncertainty due to coronavirus, Opposition Leader Simon Bridges says.

“Businesses are facing substantial cost increases when the minimum wage goes up on 1 April. With many industries already feeling the pain of the coronavirus outbreak, this additional cost will hit them hard.

“We are urging the Government to defer the increase for six months while we reassess its affordability during this fast-developing economic situation.


Of course, they were demanding this before the pandemic became a real threat as well, which shows you that it is just an excuse. For National, the policy is keeping the poor poor and the rich rich, no matter what the circumstances.

Unsurprising

Newsroom reports an astounding fact about the Environmental Protection Authority: it has never brought a prosecution in its nine-year history:

The Environmental Protection Authority has never undertaken a prosecution.

[...]

It's to-date unused prosecution policy explains the EPA has enforcement responsibilities under the Climate Change Response Act, the Imports and Exports Act, the Ozone Layer Protection Act, the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.

Through an Official Information Act request lodged in December and extended twice by the authority, Newsroom learnt it has never undertaken a single prosecution.


It has also issued only two abatement notices. Information on past investigations is reportedly unavailable due to poor record-keeping, but we can expect that to be low as well. Which in a sense, is unsurprising: despite its name, the EPA's functions do not actually include protecting the environment. Instead, it was established to remove such protections and rubberstamp development.

And obviously, this isn't good enough. Kiwis expect our environment to be protected, and the EPA is the body we expect to do it. It needs to start doing that job, and holding polluters to account.

Monday, March 09, 2020



Secrecy and the police

Yesterday we learned that NZ nazis had obtained a copy of a confidential document from the police's Financial Intelligence Unit, which warned banks on how to recognise their transactions. Today a woman appeared in court charged with "unlawful possession of Police property" over this. Meanwhile, I'm wondering "how is this even a crime"? And the answer is an old, Official Secrets Act-era law which has weirdly been re-enacted, even in the supposedly much more open, post-OIA era.

Section 50 of the Policing Act 2008 criminalises unlawful possession of Police property. In case there were any Dixon v. R doubts about whether information can be property, police property "includes a confidential Police document or copy of that document". Which seems pretty open and shut. But while its being applied to a nazi, it also criminalises leaks of such documents to the media, or to NGOs or defence lawyers in order to expose police malfeasance. Which is obviously pretty useful for them in preventing oversight.

So why do we have this law? The explanatory note to the Policing Bill says that the clause "carries forward section 52 of the Police Act 1958 and aspects of section 61A of that Act". Section 52 is aimed at physical property, and criminalises possessing "anything whatsoever supplied or to be supplied to a member of the Police" without reasonable excuse. Section 61A is a more explicit secrecy clause, declaring the Police Gazette, Police Notices, Police Circulars, and "other document of a like nature" intended for internal police circulation to be "confidential Police documents" which can not be published and whose possession is a criminal offence. While it was amended to include explicit reference to the OIA in 1989, it was passed in 1978, an era when attitudes to secrecy were rather different. And that clause is itself an expansion of earlier laws (which applied only to the Police Gazette) passed at least as far back as 1947.

Back then, all government information was considered secret-by-default under the Official Secrets Act. That era was supposed to end with the passage of the Official Information Act, but at least in respect of the police, it didn't. And at this stage its worth pointing out that this protection is exceptional: there is no similar clause protecting information intended for internal use by spy agencies such as the SIS, for example, no law which allows people to be prosecuted simply for possessing a classified document regardless of its content or what you do with it (espionage requires intent to prejudice the security and defence of New Zealand, as does wrongful retention or copying of official information. Only John Key's recent anti-whistleblower law comes close - and even that only applies to people who have or have held a government security clearance, not to journalists or random members of the public). And that's because the new presumption in our secrecy laws - such as they are - is that its the government's job to keep its secrets, not ours, and that any criminal penalty for dealing with government documents requires exceptional harm, which significantly outweighs the harm done to freedom of the press and democratic values by statutory secrecy.

In short, the inclusion of documents in this clause is an archaic relic of an authoritarian era. It has no place in our modern democracy. It needs to be repealed.

(And for the avoidance of doubt, because someone will be a dick: I hate nazis, but this issue is bigger than them).

Select committees, listening, and the policy process

RNZ has an interesting piece on the select committee process, and on whether select committees really listen to submitters. In a trivial sense, its obvious that they do: the MPs read the submissions, and sit in a room and actually hear what submitters are saying. That trivial sense is important: it makes submitters feel heard. But there's a non-trivial sense of "listening" as well: is what submitters are saying seriously considered on its merits? Does it affect the outcome? And on that, its a different story.

I've submitted on a number of bills, usually by sending something in (Parliament makes this really easy, and I encourage everyone to do it where its a useful expenditure of their time), and less frequently by appearing in person (less frequently because it scares the living shit out of me no matter how many times I've done it). My experience is that if you are seeking a technical amendment or pointing out a flaw in a bill that needs to be fixed, then your arguments will be considered and it is possible to affect the legislation. But most of us, when we submit on a bill, aren't doing that. Instead, we're seeking policy change: for the bill to be substantially different, or to be dumped entirely. And on that front, submitting is mostly a waste of our time. The mere fact that there is a bill and it has been voted to select committee means that you have missed the boat. The government has already made up its mind on those things, and all it is interested in is the implementation details. If you wanted to affect the shape of the policy, you needed to be a lobbyist or a stakeholder a year before the bill even hit the House. Us dirty peasants need not apply.

(And on anything involving national security, it is even more of a waste of time, because the MPs on the committee have their marching orders from the Ninth Floor, or from Pipitea St, and usually are not even given enough time to read the submissions anyway. Such processes are a democratic fraud, and people should boycott them rather than legitimise them by participating)

Its a different story for Member's Bills, of course: the government hasn't made up its mind on them, and so there's a real chance for policy change or a recommendation that a bill not pass. But I'm not aware of any government bill which has seen a recommendation to not pass after public opposition at select committee, and there are very few which have seen substantial policy change (as opposed to minor tweaks here and there).

The problem here is that legislation is the end of the policy process, and there's a year or two of decision-making that has gone into them before they hit the House. "Stakeholders" are usually a part of that process, but that term almost always excludes the general public, and often us dirty peasants are deliberately kept in the dark about what is going on by government secrecy (protected by the "confidential advice" clause in the OIA, which is explicitly there to enable Ministers to make decisions without having to listen to us annoying plebs). Which means that if we want to change policy outcomes, the best way we can do it is by changing governments - a very unsubtle lever.

So what are select committees for? Scrutiny and minor improvements, sure, and this undoubtedly gives us better legislation. But also, there's that trivial listening, letting people know they've been heard. Living in a democracy means not always getting your own way, and a sense of having been heard can help with that. But that's a long way from the democratic input people think they're getting, and that gap is increasingly undermining the legitimacy of Parliament and the committee process.

But that isn't actually Parliament's fault: the problem lies with the executive and its secretive process, not with the MPs who have to formally decide whether the tick the final boxes. And the way to solve it is for the executive to open that process to greater public scrutiny and participation. Perhaps Parliament would like to protect its legitimacy by looking at that sometime?

Climate Change: Polluters on trial

Last year, Mike Smith announced he was taking our biggest polluters to court over climate change. Now, it looks like the case is actually going to go to trial:

An environmental activist and iwi leader has been granted permission to continue court proceedings against New Zealand's top carbon emitters over claims they've failed to protect the country from climate change.

[...]

Smith filed proceedings at the High Court at Auckland against Fonterra, Genesis Energy, Dairy Holdings Ltd, New Zealand Steel Ltd, Z Energy, The New Zealand Refining Company Ltd and BT Mining Ltd.

The companies sought to have the claims thrown out. But a recently-released judgement shows that while a judge has dismissed Smith's claims the companies have been negligent and caused public nuisance, he allowed the third claim, that they had breached other legal duties, to proceed to trial.


If he succeeds, it will effectively create a new duty on companies to minimise emissions and cease damaging the climate system, and a new tort if it is breached. I think the odds are difficult, not least because these companies are rich and can simply afford to throw more lawyers at the problem than Smith can. But as I noted when this case was first announced, the polluters are in the same situation as the tobacco companies: they need to win every case, while we only need to win once. And even the risk of that happening should help force behaviour change from these environmental criminals.

Friday, March 06, 2020



Parliament and the pandemic

Stuff reports that Parliament is prepared for the pandemic, with face-masks, hand-sanitiser, and plans for fewer sittings and/or fewer MPs physically present in the chamber to reduce contagion risk. All of which is sensible, but then there's this bit:

Mallard believed the House should sit because if serious issues arose, Parliament would need the ability to legislate.

"I think there's an accountability thing. Even if it's only five ministers or five opposition, you have the questions asked and answered. I think this is something which is quite important ... the public would expect an accountability mechanism still to be in place."


He's right, but there's an implication here that parliament might not sit. Which would be illegal. If a pandemic is declared, Parliament must sit as soon as possible. This is both for the accountability reasons the Speaker mentions, and because in such circumstances the government gets to temporarily change (non-constitutional) laws by fiat, subject to disallowance by the House (this is basicly what they did for Christchurch following the earthquake, only with better oversight). Which makes that scrutiny even more important - and it is reassuring to see that Parliament is planning to provide it if the worst happens.

For obvious reasons, they can't change the Electoral Act in this way. We have an election currently scheduled for September, so what happens if the pandemic threatens to stretch out that long? Parliament will have to legislate, assuming there are changes that can be made to make voting during plague easier and safer. Alternatively, the Prime Minister can delay the election until 21 November if required, just by changing her mind about the date - the announced date is just a promise, an intention, with no more force than that; 21 November is the last possible date we can legally have an election. But hopefully it won't come to that.

Justice for Afghanistan?

The International Criminal Court has launched a war crimes inquiry into America's war in Afghanistan:

Senior judges at the international criminal court have authorised an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, overturning an earlier rejection of the inquiry.

The ICC investigation will look at actions by US, Afghan and Taliban troops. It is possible, however, that allegations relating to UK troops could emerge in that process.

[...]

The ICC judges also approved that the scope of the investigation should include CIA black sites operated in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, where detainees were taken.


The latter is significant, since it squarely puts criminals like Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and Yoo in the dock, alongside the murderers, rapists and torturers in the US military.

The US, of course, is losing its shit: while purporting to support international justice, they in practice oppose any suggestion of it being applied to them or their allies. The ICC is only supposed to investigate countries they bomb, not whether bombing is justified. But if it is to mean anything, then the ICC must conduct a robust and thorough inquiry into these allegations, no matter how the US retaliates. Otherwise, it will simply be a vehicle for victor's justice, and lose all credibility.

Bugger

Former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has died. Jeanette was a tireless and patient advocate for a better world, and she showed us that you didn't need to sell out to achieve change - that by advocating, you could change the public's mind, and then the minds of the other parties. She also showed us that politics could be different: that Parliament didn't have to be a cesspit of bullying and petty bullshit. That that was a choice made by other parties, and we could choose to do things differently. Everyone dies, everyone gets recycled - but unlike many former politicians, she'll be missed.

Thursday, March 05, 2020



Why does National want Nazis to be able to own guns?

The Arms Legislation Bill is currently stalled before the House, thanks to NZ First's roadblock to progress. Meanwhile, the National Party, which had previously supported the bill, has decided to put up an amendment to allow Nazis and other extremists to continue to own guns:

The National Party wants to water down a proposal to restrict extremists from obtaining a firearms license.

In a Supplementary Order Paper submitted on the Government's Arms Legislation Bill, National's Police spokesperson Brett Hudson proposes that a test for violent and extremist tendencies should only be applied to people who have been "convicted of an offence under the Human Rights Act 1993 or the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 relating to violent, hateful, or extremist speech or behaviour".


This is one of the core provisions of the bill. Many members of the public were rightly appalled that someone with violent, extremist views like the Christchurch shooter was considered a "fit and proper person" to hold a firearms licence, and wanted an automatic exclusion. National's amendment would ensure that people like him still could, so they could arm themselves for the next massacre. So, they're definitely choosing a side here, and its the side of racist murderers who massacre innocent people on the basis of their race or religion. It is absolutely disgusting. But that's what happens when your key opposition tactic is to whip up fear and hate and pander to the most regressive elements of our society.

The National Party should be deeply, deeply ashamed of this position. National voters should be ashamed of it. And the message is clear: a vote for National is a vote for more massacres.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020



81-39

The Abortion Legislation Bill passed its second reading last night, 81-39. Its a comfortable margin, and it bodes well for the bill passing. But which version of the bill? As presented to parliament it was a compromise, watered down from the Law Commission recommendations. It was further watered down by the select committee. Given the numbers, I think its unlikely that it will get any worse (though National's bigot MPs will no doubt put up amendments for the usual bullshit, as well as bad-faith measures intended purely to delay matters). But can it get better?

Fortunately, Jan Logie is on the case. She's put up SOPs to make abortion a purely medical decision and remove the bullshit hoops put in by politicians who want to shame women, to ensure remaining criminal clauses protect pregnant people rather than attempting to criminalise them, and to ensure that the law would apply to all pregnant people rather than just women. I'm hoping that there will be a majority for these amendments. Fortunately, the bigots with dead baby photos on parliament's lawn seem to be doing their best to ensure one.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020



New Fisk

Iran’s coronavirus outbreak is bizarrely reminiscent of the Black Death

Stupidity

Stuff reports the government is divided and dysfunctional over Auckland light rail. But the really stupid thing is Labour's preferred option:

Labour Ministers are said to be increasingly keen on the NZ Super Fund option. Stuff has been told that this is based on a PPP with NZ Infra to build and run the rail network for 50 years.

Though currently equally owned equally by the Canadian and New Zealand Funds, this does not guarantee funding or returns would be equal. Stuff has been told these could be split 70-30 split in favour of the Canadian wing.

The Companies Office says NZ Infra is owned equally by the Canadian and New Zealand funds, but Stuff has been told this does not guarantee equal investment and therefore equal returns.

[...]

Some in the Government have been spooked by spiralling cost estimates and the amount of money likely to be sent sent offshore. Cost estimates shared with Stuff by sources familiar with the matter are now as high as $20 billion.


The evidence from both New Zealand and overseas is that PPP's don't work. All a private provider adds is a profit margin, meaning the government pays more for less. They're a bad deal at the best of times, but when interest rates are rock-bottom and it is effectively free for the government to borrow, they are pure stupidity.

So why is Labour keen on this? It lets them hide debt, so they can pretend to meet their (purely artificial) debt target while providing big infrastructure. But they - or rather, we - would pay premium for that dishonest "service", in the form of inflated profits flowing overseas. As for building and funding it ourselves, apparently Labour - once the party of railways and state housing, the party that built New Zealand - doesn't believe in that anymore. Which perhaps explains their complete failure over state houses and kiwibuild.

Fortunately, it looks like the Greens will stop them giving a billion dollars a year to Canada. And we should thank them for it.

Monday, March 02, 2020



Why international treaties should be published

There's a great example from the UK of why international treaties and agreements need to be published: because sometimes, they effectively constitute secret law. And int he case of Anne Sacoolas, its a secret law which effectively lets some Americans murder freely:

Harry Dunn, 19, died last summer after his motorbike collided with a car near RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire. Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US agent who worked at the base, has been charged with causing death by dangerous driving and has apologised to Dunn’s family, but is refusing to return to Britain.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has rejected the UK’s request for her extradition, claiming that at the time of the collision she had immunity from criminal prosecution, even though her husband did not.

The Foreign Office has confirmed the existence of a secret agreement between the UK and the US, signed in 1995, granting US staff working at the base diplomatic immunity, though they are still subject to criminal prosecution under UK law.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has told parliament that in his view an anomaly in the agreement meant that, while the US staff had waived their rights to be protected against criminal prosecution in the UK, this did not extend to their families. He has pledged to redraft the agreement after learning about the loophole.


Lawyers for Dunn's family are trying to get the agreement published to see if it actually says that, or whether this is a convenient lie by the Foreign Secretary to cover up for a close ally whisking its people out of the country to avoid a murder charge. Of course, if the agreement had been published when it was made, there would be no question about the situation, and any error like that would likely have been fixed long ago. Which would seen to be in everyone's best interests. Except, I suppose, that of American murderers.

No investments for criminal industries

Over the weekend, the government banned default Kiwisaver funds from investing in fossil fuels and weapons banned under domestic and international law. And predictably, both the fossil fuel industry and the climate change deniers in the National Party are losing their shit over it.

Apparently, the government shouldn't be telling people what they can and can't invest in. Except it does, all the time: you can't invest in child pornography, for example, or in heroin production, because those things are crimes (as is investing in cluster bombs, BTW). And in this particular case, these are government-established schemes, which are already subject to all sorts of regulation about risk and reporting and so forth. The government already forbids providers to gamble with default customers' savings; its no great extension to say that they also shouldn't expose them to the risks of the carbon bubble or of having their funds seized for investing in illegal weapons. And on the flip side, I hardly think its onerous that if you want to invest in the destruction of the planet and killing your fellow human beings, you actively choose to do so, so people know you're an arsehole.

The fossil fuel industry should be grateful that the government is allowing continued investment in their toxic, destructive industry at all, rather than sticking them all in jail for ecocide. Simply being told that the government won't provide suckers to hold the bag when everyone recognises that it has no future and is valueless seems fairly moderate compared to what this criminal industry deserves.

Labour's bad faith on mining

In her 2017 speech from the throne, newly-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised that "There will be no new mines on conservation land". She lied:

Twenty-one mining applications have been approved on conservation land since Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's speech promising there would be no more.

The delay in legislation to back up the commitment has meant that for the past two years it’s been business as usual, and mining applications have continued to be processed. As one conservationist puts it: "Rome continues to burn" while the promise has floundered.

Between November 2017 and the end of January, 21 mining applications have been approved.

Fourteen of those are mining approvals on land that hasn't been mined before. The remaining seven applications approved were issued for land that had previously been mined or were re-issues of previously approved mining access permissions that had lapsed.

In the two years prior to the announcement, 19 mining applications were approved.


So its not just that Ardern has failed to deliver - she has allowed more mining than National did. And this hasn't happened due to an accident or failure of circumstances - the government simply promised something, then refused to deliver it, refused to expend the political capital to convince its coalition partner so it could keep faith with the public, refused to even admit there was a problem. The message is clear: if you want to protect our wild spaces, don't vote Labour.