Friday, May 27, 2022



Is OIA handling under-resourced?

One of the most common excuses for OIA failures is under-resourcing. Government agencies sometimes claim that don't have the staff or the time to properly obey the law. Which might have worked as an excuse briefly when the OIA was new, but its been the law now for 40 years, and you'd expect them to have sorted their shit out long ago. More importantly, ministers and chief executives have a legal duty of stewardship, and are required to ensure that their agencies can properly perform their statutory functions. If they do not have the resources to perform those functions, then it is the responsibility of its chief executive to ask for them, and of the minister to ensure they get what they need.

But do they actually do this? I asked 34 government agencies - the 32 public service agencies scheduled in the Public Service Act, plus NZDF and the police - whether they had proposed budget initiatives seeking additional resources for OIA handling, information and records management, or ministerials for any of budgets 2018 - 2021 (OIA handling being what I was after, ministerials because OIAs are often done by an agency's ministerial team, and information and records management because these are important supporting technologies which enable requests to be processed). I did not ask internal transfers because I did not think of it at the time, but some agencies were either helpful or realised it would make them look good and provided that information anyway. I did not ask about budget 2022 because that part of the request would have been refused.

I received the final response yesterday, 41 working days after the requests were lodged. A summary of the responses can be viewed here. Of the 34 agencies:

  • 29 had not made any such budget bids and did not volunteer any other information (these are classed as "informative refusals" on the spreadsheet, and their specific comments are included as a note. The responses were largely template, and MBIE's is typical).
  • Four agencies - the Department of Conservation, Ministry of Pacific Peoples, Ministry of Health, and the Police - had allocated additional resources from baseline funding or by a formal internal transfer, but had not asked for additional resources via the budget process. In DoC's case, they'd actually done it twice within the relevant time period, and provided a full business case for each as well as an interesting look at how various other agencies resource OIA handling. It is possible some other agencies also provided resources this way; if they didn't take the opportunity to tell me about it, that's on them.
  • Only one agency raised a formal budget bid: Oranga Tamariki. And it was really about privacy requests, rather than the OIA.

So there you have it: fewer than one in eight agencies allocated additional resources to OIA handling, and only one raised a formal budget bid remotely connected to it (and that was really about privacy requests). The conclusion is that agency chief executives feel they are properly resourcing OIA handling - or perhaps that requests to ministers for additional resources would not be welcome. But regardless of the reason, the fact that they have not asked for more undercuts any claim to be "under-resourced". This myth is busted.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022



Climate Change: Cut methane now

When the government passed the Zero Carbon Act in 2019, it established a "split gas" target, with separate budgets for carbon dioxide and methane. The logic here was that farmers were a powerful lobby group the government didn't want to annoy methane was a short-lived gas, so we should focus our efforts on the long-term problem of carbon dioxide. But now we're out of time, and scientists are pointing out the obvious: we need to limit heating urgently, so we need to cut methane now:

Cutting methane sharply now is crucial, as focusing on carbon dioxide alone will not be enough to keep rising temperatures within livable limits, scientists have warned.

[...]

Cutting CO2 is still essential for the long term, but must be accompanied by strategies to reduce the levels of SLCPs. If not, then temperatures are likely to exceed 2C above pre-industrial levels, the upper limit set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, even if there are stiff cuts to CO2 emissions.

Dreyfus said sharp cuts to methane and other SLCPs [short-lived climate pollutants] could result in temperatures lower by 0.26C by 2050, which is almost four times greater than the benefit of pursuing CO2 cuts alone, which the scientists estimated would result in temperature cuts of 0.07C by 2050.

She said: “These non-CO2 targeted measures when combined with decarbonisation can provide net cooling by 2030, reduce the rate of warming from 2030 to 2050 by about 50%, roughly half of which comes from methane, significantly larger than decarbonisation alone over this timeframe.”

New Zealand is the 6th worst methane polluter per capita (or maybe the 5th, as Grenada's emissions in that table don't seem remotely close to its past inventory). The rest are all natural gas producers. We're punching well above our weight on destroying the global climate. Which means we have a greater obligation to fix it.

How can we fix it? Take a look at the emissions tracker: we emitted 34.272 million tons CO2-e worth of methane in 2019, and 20 million tons of that was from cows. Capping cow numbers and halving the herd would cut our methane by a third, our gross emissions by a seventh, and our net emissions by a quarter. And we can do it within the normal farm business cycle, in 3-5 years, just by not replacing animals when they go to the works.

Farmers are still clinging to business as usual, trying to pretend they can avoid the emissions cuts the rest of us have to make, still pushing research so they can keep on polluting. But that's just delay and denial. We are out of time, and they need to do their bit. Deep cuts to agricultural emissions are required. No climate policy without them can be considered credible. And any government which refuses to make them should be de-elected and replaced with one which will.

Monday, May 23, 2022



The Australian election

Australia went to the polls on Saturday, and while the preferences are still being counted, clearly voted for a change of government. Unfortunately, this being Australia, this meant swapping one coal-loving, refugee-hating racist for another. Which is perhaps why Labor's primary vote share decreased this election, with voters instead turning to the Greens and "teal" independents promising action on climate change and corruption. And hopefully this will mean some big changes in climate change policy. But it all depends on how those last preferences go, and whether Labor gets a secure majority, or whether it is forced into minority government.

(Australia's unfair electoral system is a big problem here. The ALP got ~33% of the primary vote and is flirting with 50% of the seats. Meanwhile, the Greens got ~12%, and around 2% of the seats. This is what Australians call "fair").

Are there lessons for Aotearoa? Unlike Australia, both our government and our opposition have at least pretended to care about climate change, and there isn't the level of high profile abandonment - going on holiday during the bushfires, ignoring the floods - that has driven public anger about Scott Morrison. Unlike Australia, our politicians take their jobs seriously and understand basic public expectations. We also have a very different political system, which makes independent challenges to MPs unlikely (we haven't had an independent elected since 1943, and the highest-profile recent example - Raf Maji - managed a distant second). But with MMP, if Labour is seen as not performing or being an impediment on climate change, people can and will just switch their vote to the Greens to shift the policy balance, and that seems like something that could happen next year. Underperformance by a future National government doesn't have such an easy outlet, however - which is probably something they rely on.

Friday, May 20, 2022



A WTF moment in Samoa

In a democracy, laws are made by elected politicians. But apparently not in Samoa, where a highly controversial law was changed unilaterally by an HRPP cabal after it had been passed and signed:

A parliamentary inquiry into anomalies discovered in constitutional amendments linked to the operations of the Land and Titles Court has recommended charges against those responsible.

A Special Inquiry Committee report highlighted those it claimed were behind the amendments, which resulted in changes being made to the Act of Parliament without due processes, who “appeared to have breached” Standing Orders and Revision and Publication Act 2008.

In one of the four main recommendations by the Committee, the report stated that the matter should be referred to the Office of the Attorney General, and the Ministry of Police to press relevant charges against those involved.

The report points the finger at the President of the Land and Titles Court and the former Attorney General, who each demanded changes after the law had been passed and signed, and the former Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, who had it recalled for changes. The changes - which had not been approved by parliament, and were well beyond mere typos - were made to a constitutional amendment, effectively bypassing the amendment process and supermajority requirement. And one of the results has been to completely bork the law, effectively disabling the Land and Titles Court (existing judges can only hear old cases, and new judges cannot be appointed).

(As for criminal charges, the obvious one is forgery: "mak[ing] a false document [in this case, one altered without authorisation - I/S], knowing it to be false, with the intent that it in any way be used or acted upon... as genuine". But proving that those responsible knew they were not authorised to make the changes, rather than being merely utterly arrogant or incompetent, might be tricky).

This is appalling, and it raises serious questions about the quality of governance and democracy in Samoa under the HRPP. But it also raises a more pressing question: how many other times has this happened? They're going to have to re-check everything now, just to make sure nothing else has been slipped through without legislative consent.

Not very proactive II

A couple of weeks ago, Newsroom reported that the government was failing to meet its proactive release obligations, with Ministers releasing less than a quarter of cabinet papers and in many cases failing to keep records. But Chris Hipkins was already on the case, and in a recent cabinet paper on The next steps in the public release of official information (the same one referred to here), he secured Cabinet agreement to finally establish a monitoring mechanism:

Cabinet also agreed that a reporting regime for the policy be put in place, as it is important that we have a view of the levels of compliance with the policy across agencies and portfolios. The agencies consulted during the 2019 review preferred central collection of this data by the Commission rather than individual reporting. To give effect to Cabinet’s previous agreement to a reporting regime, I propose that the Commission gather information on the number of Cabinet papers departments have published on behalf of their ministers (i.e. by portfolio) at six-monthly intervals, alongside the existing OIA statistics collection. The information collected by the Commission will cover, by portfolio:

14.1 The number of Cabinet papers which have been approved for release by the relevant portfolio Minister; and

14.2 The number of Cabinet papers released

The problem? It doesn't collect the number of papers taken to Cabinet. And without that, we can have no idea whether the government is meeting its commitment or not.

These statistics seem purposefully designed to obscure, rather than illuminate. The aim is to allow the government to say "we released X cabinet papers! look how transparent we are", while hiding the number of papers not released. And if the Minister had consulted anyone outside TKM/PSC about the issue, maybe he would have realised that.

Thursday, May 19, 2022



A wasted opportunity

The government announced its budget today, with Finance Minister Grant Robertson giving the usual long speech about how much money they're spending. The big stuff was climate change and health, with the former being pre-announced, and most of the latter being writing off DHB's entirely fictional "debt" to the the government (or, to put it another way, paying the bill for past government underfunding). The mandatory surprise was a one-off $350 cost-of-living payment for the middle class, to counteract the effects of inflation. Which is better than the knee-jerk tax cuts the parties of the rich have been calling for, but also less useful than actual structural change, like moving some of the tax burden from income to wealth. But Labour has made it clear they're unwilling to consider that, so we get band-aids instead. There's some nice little things buried in there - the government won't be stealing child support payments from solo parents anymore, which will be the first Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommendation they've actually implemented - but there's no capital gains tax, no big investment in public housing, and no real effort to reduce inequality. Because all of those things would cost money, and as Bernard Hickey points out in The Kākā, that's something NeoLiberal Labour is fundamentally allergic to. Looking "credible" to bankers by keeping the state small is more important to them than helping the people who put them in power. And on salaries of $169k and upwards, its not like they feel any pain, or any urgency for change. The problems besetting Aotearoa are just an abstraction to them, while they work out how to scam their parliamentary housing allowance, superannuation scheme, or electorate support funding to pay for their next investment property.

Maybe they're saving real change for next year, or for the election campaign. But if so, they're fools, because on current polling they won't be in power. This was their last chance to make real change and see it implemented before the election, and they blew it. But then, that's the tale of this entire term in government: a wasted opportunity.

Cook Islands PM approves of corruption

Last year, Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tapaitau stood down as a minister after being charged with conspiracy to defraud after an investigation into corruption in Infrastructure Cook Islands and the National Environment Service. He hasn't been tried yet, but this week he has been reinstated:

The seven-month suspension of Cook Islands deputy prime minister, Robert Tapaitau, has been lifted ahead of the general election later in the year.

Tapaitau is facing fraud related and theft charges.

Radio Cook Islands reports Prime Minister Mark Brown saying Tapaitau's court hearing was not expected until next year and someone could not be suspended indefinitely.

The prime minister said there is a presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Which sounds superficially reasonable, but if taken seriously, raises the question of why he stepped down in the first place. And the answer to that of course is that a minister continuing to exercise power while on trial for corruption is simply untenable, and creates a perception that the the Prime Minister thinks corruption in office is acceptable. By reinstating Tapaitau, Brown has invited people to draw exactly that conclusion.

(The real reason is that there's an election coming up, and Brown will likely need Tapaitau's vote to stay in office, so basic political probity goes out the window so he can keep his salary and perks...)

Drawn

A ballot for three member's bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Repeal of Good Friday and Easter Sunday as Restricted Trading Days (Shop Trading and Sale of Alcohol) Amendment Bill (Chris Baillie)
  • Electoral (Strengthening Democracy) Amendment Bill (Golriz Ghahraman)
  • Increased Penalties for Breach of Biosecurity Bill (Jacqui Dean)
Ghahraman's bill is an important one, which implements numerous changes, including lowering the voting age and the MMP threshold and ending the role of big money in elections. The government has currently kicked many of these issues to a "review", so this will force them to actually take a position on them. Sadly, with labour, we can probably expect that position to be a self-serving support of the status quo, combined with a self-serving attempt to nobble the opposition.

There were 65 bills in the ballot today - not a record, but a very healthy turnout. And hopefully now Parliament is doing first readings again, we'll see some more ballots soon.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022



Member's Day: Finally, some first readings

Today is a Member's Day, and finally we are getting some first readings. First, though, the House has to complete the third reading of Tangi Utikere's Local Government (Pecuniary Interests Register) Amendment Bill. After that, it will finish the first reading debate on Tāmati Coffey's Improving Arrangements for Surrogacy Bill. After that, its some new stuff, with Nicole McKee's Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) (Definition of Significant Criminal Activity) Amendment Bill, James McDowall's Education and Training (Freedom of Expression) Amendment Bill, and Deborah Russell's Employment Relations (Extended Time for Personal Grievance for Sexual Harassment) Amendment Bill all lined up for first reading. If the House moves quickly, it might also make a start on Ian McKelvie's Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Exemption for Race Meetings) Amendment Bill.

First readings means there will finally be a ballot tomorrow, likely for three bills. Interestingly, National's Simon O'Connor has put in a Modern Slavery Reporting Bill, in an effort to sabotage the government's current consultation and put in weak standards rather than strong ones. While any progress is better than none, I'd expect it to be significantly strengthened in committee if drawn.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022



Climate Change: "Corporate welfare"

One of the key planks of yesterday's Emissions Reduction Plan is a $650 million fund to help decarbonise industry by subsidising replacement of dirty technologies with clean ones. But National leader Chris Luxon derides this as "corporate welfare". Which probably sounds great to the business ideologues in the Koru club. But there are two big problems.

Firstly, the biggest: its a staggeringly good deal for the government:

The $650m for corporates is going into the Government’s GIDI fund, which invests alongside businesses.

Thus far the fund has invested $68.7m while corporates have put in $117m, for a total abatement of 7.45 megatonnes of emissions.

That works out to an implied carbon price of $9.22/ton. The government internally values carbon at $150/ton, so that seems like a pretty good deal (certainly better than an Auckland motorway). If business had funded it all internally, it would have cost them $24.92. That's under a third of the current market carbon price, and has had a 2:1 return since at least Septmber 2021 (and breakeven since mid-2020), so it would have been perfectly profitable for them to do themselves. Which brings us to the second problem: that the business community are stupid, short-sighted penny-pinchers, who don't make profitable investments in decarbonisation and energy efficiency unless the government holds their hand and drags them to it. And subsidies - "corporate welfare" - are easier and cheaper than trying to change NZ's entire business culture.

This isn't news. In 2001 we established a whole agency - EECA - to help solve it. In their second New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, published in 2007, they politely laid out the problem like this:

In common with other sectors, the business sector faces barriers to the uptake of energy efficiency and conservation measures including access to capital, lack of information, weak price signals and split incentives.

These barriers tend to be higher for small and medium-sized enterprises. Other barriers include:

  • managers being subject to short payback criteria from investments
  • smaller businesses are typically not exposed to cost-reflective electricity pricing
  • the purchase and control of energy is often separated within businesses.
Their solution was a grants scheme, to help fund the profitable upgrades our business "leaders" were too stupid and short-sighted to fund themselves. We've been funding such upgrades for over 15 years, without any real controversy. The new package is a significant expansion on that approach, but its really nothing new. And now the government is properly valuing carbon on its books, we can see the value in it. Obviously it would be better if NZ businesses were smart enough to do this themselves (it being more than profitable enough), but they're not. And in the face of this market failure, government action seems justified.

Monday, May 16, 2022



Climate Change: Craven, status quo policy

The government released its Emissions Reduction Plan today. The plan is required under the Zero Carbon Act and must specify how exactly the government plans to meet its carbon budget (which was announced last week). Which means they need to find another 11.5 million tons of reductions by 2025 - which is a big ask. The plan they've presented might get us there, if things go well, but its going to be dicey. Which suggests that its not strong enough, and they need to do more. The good news, however, is that it looks like some sectors are well on track to exceed their targets for later periods. So if you use the usual metaphor of "turning a supertanker around", the plan seems to turn it for transport and energy.

The big exception here is forestry. Unlike the other sectors, it doesn't have a graph showing "emissions with policy" comfortably below the sector sub-target. And that's because they're not. Forestry under the government's proposals fails to meet its targets in every budget. Which is weird, because we're constantly being told that we're planting too many trees and in danger of soaking up too much carbon. But when the government puts down some hard numbers, it turns out we're not, and that the sector we were relying on to save us, won't. Whoops. Note the "under the government's proposals" there, because one of the government's key proposals is to ban permanent exotic forests from the ETS. The government has helpfully shown us the impact of this policy on a table, and its a doozy:

ERP1-forestry

Yes, that's a 41.4 million ton impact in BP3, or about 17% of the total budget. That's carbon we would be soaking up, but the government has chosen to change the rules to stop it from happening, as a sop to farmers who fear being outcompeted by a more profitable industry. And that carbon has a price: $6 billion using the government's internal carbon price of $150 / ton (which, being based on the Climate Commissions' price estimate for 2030, will be underestimating by a billion or two). This is, in short, a very expensive policy decision, made for very poor reasons, which needs to be reversed. If the government is really worried about too many trees and not enough gross emissions reductions, it can always screw the budgets down tighter to eat the surplus, or even just buy the excess itself and use it to offset its past oversupply of ETS units via the cost-containment reserve and fixed-price option (thus removing the units from the system and preventing them from enabling more emissions).

The other big problem with the plan is agriculture. While there is more to be done, the transport and energy sectors - urban Aotearoa - are pulling their weight. And we're paying for it via the ETS. And the government's proposal is basicly to take a huge chunk of that ETS money and use it to subsidise more predatory delay, in the form of yet another agricultural research center to look for a "magic bullet" to reduce emissions (don't we already have one of these?). But we don't need a magic bullet - real ones (or rather, lower rates of replacement) will do the trick. But the necessary policy of capping and cutting cow numbers is apparently anathema to this government, and so this part of the plan relies on magic technology which does not exist yet to achieve reductions. Which sounds more like crossed fingers and hope than an actual plan. (And it sucks more because, as the plan reminds us, agriculture contributes only 10% to GDP, while being responsible for 50% of emissions. So its the dirty, polluting, unproductive bit which we need to get rid of then).

Finally, there is a lot of cruft and padding. Besides the obvious strategy-speak (which is helping set a framework for future reductions), there's a lot of policies which seem not to have much to do with reducing emissions at all, like paying bus drivers more, or installing rural broadband so farmers can watch porn. Because it turns out that if you run under austerity, but tell agencies that there's a special pot of money they can get things funded with if they can pretend that it reduces emissions, then suddenly those policies become "emissions reduction" policies, purely to meet budget rules.

There's a lot more to pick apart here (the missed opportunities in energy, for a start). But the forestry and agriculture subsections show that the government isn't really serious about those sectors, and therefore not serious about meeting our targets. Which is hardly the "nuclear-free moment" we were promised. But I guess that's what you get from a craven, status quo party: craven, status quo policy.

Friday, May 13, 2022



Our unrepresentative parliament

Under MMP, Parliament was meant to look like New Zealand. And, in a lot of ways, it does now, with better representation for Māori, tangata moana, women, and the rainbow community replacing the old dictatorship of dead white males. But there's one area where "our" parliament remains completely unrepresentative: housing:

More than a third of Kiwis now rent, but only five of the country’s members of parliament are registered as not having an interest in any real estate, according to the 2022 register of pecuniary interests.

[...]

Only three Labour MPs, one Green MP and one ACT MP declared no interest in any real estate – even lower than in 2021, when nine MPs declared no interests.

In total, 56 also owned at least one secondary property.

All National MPs owned homes, according to the register.

As the article points out, this matters. Sure, MPs may remember their days of renting, but the fact that they now own a house (or in the case of half of them, more than one) gives them a huge conflict of interest over housing policy. After all, effective housing policy - capital gains or land taxes, rent controls or a massive house building programme to flood the market and crash house prices - would cost them money and devalue their biggest assets - in some cases by hundreds of thousands of dollars. And as conflicts of interest go, that is a huge one. Very few decisions an MP makes would have that much of an economic impact on them.

(The core problem here is that MPs are well-paid, with a base salary of over $160,000 a year, plus slush fund and allowances. Some of which are specifically tagged to buying houses for themselves. Its a necessary evil to enable them to do their jobs properly and prevent some forms of corruption, but it opens the door to others, creates conflicts of interest, and immediately means they no longer represent us economically. And we can't get round it by not voting for candidates who own houses, because they can and will just buy one the moment they start getting that big salary).

We need to recognise the strength of this conflict of interest and take appropriate preventative measures. If an MP held an equivalent-sized interest with equivalent-sized impacts in a company, we would unquestionably stop them from speaking or voting where doing so might affect its value (and their net-worth). We should do the same for housing. And if MPs fail to do this, they have no-one but themselves to blame if they are seen as a landlords' parliament, looking out for themselves.

Stats NZ's contempt for privacy, transparency, democracy, and parliament

The Governance and Administration Committee reported back on the Data and Statistics Bill on Monday. The bill ought to have been boring, but Stats NZ's move to a "collect it all" posture indistinguishable from that of the NSA, combined with enhanced secrecy, caused significant concerns from the Privacy Commissioner, Ombudsman, a former chief statistician, and the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties. The latter were shocked that a bill making such major changes to the way statistics would be collected had not received any privacy impacy analysis, so they sought to use the Official Information Act to understand the reasons why, so as to inform their submission to the select committee. But rather than comply with the Act, Stats NZ extended the request until after the committee's report-back date. When this - and the impact on the NZCCL's ability to "effective[ly] participation in the making and administration of laws and policies" - was pointed out to them, they basicly said "fuck you". When they eventually released the information - after the committee had reported, so it could not impact the report - it turned out that their thinking on the issue was rather shallow:

Stats NZ did not consider a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) to be necessary, as while the Bill modernises the Statistics Act 1975 to reflect current practice, it does so while essentially maintaining the confidentiality and privacy requirements of the 1975 Act.

[...]

Because Stats NZ did not intend to produce a PIA during the development stages of the Bill, no such correspondence, briefings, advice, aide-memoires, notes, minutes or any other record exists about the production of a PIA, including advice, decisions, or reasons why a PIA was not produced

Yes, really: they proposed a bill which basicly breaks every privacy promise the government has ever made to us (by allowing unlimited transfers of personal information to Stats NZ, over-riding every use-clause and Privacy Act disclaimer attached to that information), and which turns one of our most trusted agencies into a dirty data laundry, and they thought it was so uncontroversial they didn't even consider doing a privacy assessment. Which is an appalling example of siloed thinking, and exactly why Stats needs external oversight in this area (and on that front, note that their vaunted "data ethics advisory panel", which is supposed to oversee this sort of thing, hasn't met for a year). No wonder they wanted to hide that from the committee.

As for the decision to hide it, yes, its another fine example of Labour's "most open and transparent government ever", but its worse, because it was done deliberately to interfere with the select committee process. And the latter seems to come very close to "preventing, or hindering a witness from giving evidence, or giving evidence in full, to the House or a committee" - which is contempt of Parliament. The question now is whether the committee is happy effectively being mushroomed by the public service, or whether they intend to do anything about it.

Thursday, May 12, 2022



Climate Change: Betting on disaster

Last year, the International Energy Agency warned us that the world needed to cease all new fossil fuel development immediately if we wanted to reach net-zero by 2050. It was a call repeated this year by the UN Secretary General, who called new fossil fuel investment "moral and economic madness". But despite this, oil companies are continuing to invest in large projects which are inconsistent with our climate goals:

The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.

The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital.

Effectively, these criminal organisations are betting on disaster. They're financially supporting war, famine, plague, fire, flood, and death. Effectively, they're planning to murder not just us, but our entire civilisation. They are able to do this because it is legal. The obvious solution is to make it illegal - not just with local bans on fossil fuel development, but by banning the financing of such development overseas. New Zealand law already prohibits people and companies in New Zealand from financing things like chemical weapons or terrorist entities; we - and the rest of the world - need to recognise that fossil fuels fall into the same category. Otherwise, we are going to burn, and these companies are going to profit from it (until they burn too). And that's simply not something we should permit.

No freedom of speech in Vanuatu

Last year, Vanuatu passed a "cyber-libel" law. And predictably, its first targets are those trying to hold the government to account:

A police crackdown in Vanuatu that has seen people arrested for allegedly posting comments on social media speculating politicians were responsible for the country’s current Covid outbreak has raised serious concerns about freedom of speech in the Pacific country.

At least four people on two separate islands have been arrested as part of a major investigation by Vanuatu’s Serious Crime Unit in the last few weeks, including a factory worker, a printer, a business owner, and a Facebook page moderator. They face charges of cyber stalking, cyber slander, and cyber libel and face up to three years in prison and fines of up to three million Vatu (US$25,838).

The charges relate to alleged comments on Facebook claiming that two politicians in the country had breached Covid quarantine protocols, one of which had played a role in the community transmission of the virus.

MPs violating quarantine and so spreading covid among the community is obviously a matter of huge public interest. But the law - or rather, the government - apparently doesn't recognise that, and instead views criticism and calls for accountability as a crime. Which is the sort of shit you'd expect in Putin's Russia, not a Pacific democracy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022



Only fools make deals with liars

Northern Ireland went to the polls last week, resulting in Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, the first time an Irish party has done so. Naturally, the unionists are not taking this well, and are threatening to use their minority-veto to prevent any government being formed. They're also demanding the immediate revocation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the UK's Brexit deal covering the UK's land border with the EU in Ireland. And of course the Tories in Westminster are going to do it:

Liz Truss is reportedly preparing draft legislation that would unilaterally scrap key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, removing the need for checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

No bill was announced in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday but the foreign secretary is reported to have asked officials to prepare the draft, which would put the UK in breach of its treaty obligations.

As well as scrapping checks, the draft legislation would also take away powers of the European court of justice and remove all requirement for Northern Irish businesses to follow EU regulations.

Effectively, this is the UK tearing up its Brexit deal and saying "fuck you" to the EU - a deal made less only three years ago. This is obviously going to create problems with the EU, but it goes wider than that. To point out the obvious, Aotearoa recently concluded a free trade agreement with the UK - one with some controversial provisions. And the UK has just told us, and the world, that we have no reason to believe that they will keep up their end of it.

This is not acceptable. Only fools make deals with liars, and if we want treaties to be kept, we need to engage in collective action to incentivise keeping them. If the UK cheats on its commitments to the EU, we should suspend implementation of the FTA until they reverse that position and meet all their commitments. Otherwise, we have only ourselves to blame when they break their word to us as well.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022



Nothing to celebrate

The Protected Disclosures (Protection of Whistleblowers) Bill passed its third reading this afternoon. The government and the Ombudsman are both celebrating this "significant improvement" in whistleblower protection, but as I pointed out when the bill was introduced, it is nothing of the sort. The law still sets the bar for protection unconscionably high, restricts who whistleblowers may disclose to to receive protection, and allows organisations to simply do nothing in response to a disclosure. There is no right to go to politicians or the media if that happens, and retaliation remains an expensive to enforce civil liability, rather than a criminal offence. All of this is done differently and better overseas, and Aotearoa could have adopted those models if we wanted a proper, functioning law. Instead, we got a status quo "reform" seemingly aimed at discouraging and limiting whistleblowing rather than encouraging and protecting it, written by people who see whistleblowers as a problem rather than a solution.

So there's nothing to celebrate here. Instead, its a massive missed opportunity, which will do nothing to improve accountability.

Not very proactive

A couple of weeks ago, Stuff broke the news that the government was planning a significant boost to proactive release of official information, with almost all advice to Ministers expected to be proactively released. Which sounds great, but as I pointed out, there's real reason for concern in the way that this would interact with the OIA, and it could effectively gut the act and return us to the days of information only being given out by the government when it decides to. But there's another reason for concern as well, and that is that the government is failing to meet its existing proactive release obligations:

Less than a quarter of all Cabinet papers are being proactively released within the Government’s own timeframes, with additional concerns about a lack of record-keeping within ministers’ offices.

[...]

[I]nformation provided to the National Party through written parliamentary questions, and assessed by Newsroom, shows both low rates of compliance and poor record-keeping on whether ministers’ offices are adhering to the rules.

Of 1240 papers taken to Cabinet between November 2020 and March 2022, just 538 (or 43 percent) had been recorded as having been proactively released.

Of the papers that had been released, just 247 were reported as being made public within the 30-day timeframe set by the Government (46 percent of those papers which were released, and 20 percent of the overall tally).

Which naturally invites the question: if the government is already failing to do what it said, why should we trust them to do more, or view the "expansion" as anything other than a scam to undermine the OIA and frustrate requests?

The core problem here is that implementation is left in the hands of individual Ministers, who have varying levels of interest and commitment. The obvious solution is to take it off them, and replace individual ministerial releases with a central repository run by DPMC or DIA. This would ensure accountability, as well as allow statistics to be collected so it could be properly managed. There also needs to be a way of learning what we're not seeing, and the obvious solution here is publication of Cabinet and cabinet committee agendas. DPMC has reacted to this idea with utter horror when they have been requested in the past, but there seems to be no good reason to keep them secret, other than undemocratic traditions of secrecy - and every reason to disclose them (with redactions if required) if we want to have a transparent, democratic government.

Monday, May 09, 2022



Climate Change: The new emissions budget

The government today released its first three emissions budgets, covering the periods 2022-25, 2026-30, and 2031-35. The good news? They've reversed their ridiculous proposal to increase the first period budget because we were planting too many trees and soaking up too much carbon (no, it doesn't make sense, and MPI lied to them to justify it). And they've ground down later budgets by a few more megatonnes, setting a more ambitious long-term pathway. The bad news? They've baked in the Climate Commission's baseline scamming, effectively rewarding past failure by allowing more pollution. And as a result, it's going to take until the second period to get back below 1990 emissions levels (which we committed to do by 2012 at Kyoto).

It gets worse when we look at how the budgets interact with current policy. The government's commitment to shielding farmers from any responsibility for their pollution means that by the third period, they're going to be eating ~80% of the budget, meaning we will need to eliminate or offset ~75% of carbon dioxide emissions so farmers can enjoy subsidised pollution. We might actually be able to do this, but it isn't remotely like a proper sharing of the burden between urban and rural Aotearoa. Worse, the government's existing free allocation commitments are going to eat most of the amount left available for carbon dioxide, and by the fourth period, free allocations for agriculture and industry will likely exceed the total available budget. So the government is going to need to significantly reduce those on a quicker pathway if it doesn't want to create a long-term problem for itself. The good news is that they are currently reviewing industrial allocation, so hopefully we'll see some progress there.

Still, this at least gets the budgets in place. And once that's done, the challenge shifts firmly to meeting it. Except it doesn't. Because Shaw has framed the latter two budgets as "in principle", and says explicitly in his speech that they will be revised the year before coming into force seems contrary to the law and to undermine the certainty the Zero Carbon Act was meant to provide. The law requires that the government always be looking three budgets ahead, and while budgets can be revised, this is for exceptional circumstances, not a routine process. It does this so people can see the reduction pathway long in advance, and plan accordingly. And it does it precisely to avoid the uncertainty of every decision being made for political convenience at the last minute. Shaw is undermining his own core policy here, in a way which calls the entire Zero Carbon Act framework into question, and it will be fascinating to see whether this language is in the original briefing papers, or whether it was forced on him by Labour.

Friday, May 06, 2022



Decarbonising the schools

The government has announced it will be replacing all coal boilers in schools by 2025:

All remaining coal boilers in New Zealand schools will be replaced with cleaner wood burners or electric heating by 2025, at a cost of $10 million, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

The coal boiler removal is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 35,400 tonnes over 10 years, the equivalent of removing about 1400 cars from the roads.

It is part of the latest spend from the $220m State Sector Decarbonisation Fund, with a further $12.92m going to other projects.

Good. Its appalling that we're still burning coal for heat in the 21st century, and removing it will help both lower domestic demand for this dirty fuel, and build experience on the best ways to replace old boilers with new, efficient heat sources. And the latter should help with wider decarbonisation and the eventual removal of industrial burners.

And now obviously they need to move into removing gas, and replacing those boilers with heat pumps and solar panels.