Wednesday, September 19, 2018



An open and shut case

When Massey University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas vetoed a speech by Don Brash on the Massey campus, she claimed it was due to "security". Now, an OIA request from David Farrar has revealed that she lied:

Thomas started discussing Brash's speech with colleagues on July 9 where she asked about options to not allow Brash to speak on campus and mentioned the "racist behaviour of Brash. She ended the email with, "would be good if we can cut off at the pass some how".

On July 10, Thomas sent another email saying the subject was on her mind.

"I would like to know what are our options re [regarding] not allowing politics clubs to hold event on campus - free to hold any event but not with any inference of support by university.

"Will hit the fan in the media if we go this way. However, racist behaviour of Brash - given te reo is a official language of NZ and we are a tiriti led university - can't be ignored."

On July 11, a Massey University staff member said there weren't grounds to say no to Brash speaking on campus and noted to Thomas that declining him "would present a very real risk of us being accused restricting free speech etc."

The vice-chancellor then replied, saying she was still "deeply concerned" about the matter asking if there was any mechanism the university could use to stop the event.


Which looks like an open and shut case that the cancellation wasn't really about security, but about Thomas simply not liking Brash's views. Those views are disgusting - Brash is a dirty old racist crank, a relic of the nineteenth century - but as a government institution, Massey is bound by the Bill of Rights Act and its affirmation of freedom of speech. It simply can not behave like this. As for what to do about it, Massey academic staff may wish to consider whether someone with such views is really appropriate to head an institution supposedly dedicated to free academic debate. And the politics club should be using this evidence to seek damages for the infringement of their right to receive information. And on the basis that bureaucrats don't learn unless you beat them, they should be seeking those damages from Thomas personally.

Grudging progress

After months of back-pedalling, the government has finally agreed to keep its promise and raise the refugee quota to 1500. But not until 2020:

New Zealand will lift the refugee quota from 1000 to 1500 within this political term, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today.

“I’m proud that the Coalition Government has today agreed to make such a significant and historic increase to the annual quota of refugees,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“This is the right thing to do. It fulfils New Zealand’s obligation to do our bit and provide a small number of people, displaced by war and disaster each year, a place to call home.

“The quota increase will take place from July 2020. In the meantime, we will work to increase the number and spread of refugee resettlement and support services. We need to make sure we’re prepared for this change in policy.”


So, grudgingly and leaving it as late as they possibly can. While I'm pleased, this is something the government had to be dragged into doing. Which the opposite of the impression they gave during the election campaign.

So, what's the next step to push for? 3000? Which would still be less than half of Australia's per-capita contribution, and less than 5% of Sweden's. In other words: we can do much better, and we should.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's day. First up there is a local bill: the Muldoonist Tasman District Council (Waimea Water Augmentation Scheme) Bill to enable the Waimea dam. This has the support of everyone by the Greens, so unless it is found to violate Standing Orders, it will progress to select committee.

Following that there's a couple of second readings: Jan Tinetti's Education (National Education and Learning Priorities) Amendment Bill and Gareth Hughes' Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill (which despite the name, has been gutted in select committee so it won't actually do what's on the label). The House will almost certainly wrap up Alastair Scott's Land Transport (Random Oral Fluid Testing) Amendment Bill, and will probably make a start on Darroch Ball's Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers Bill. If that happens, there will be a ballot for one bill tomorrow.

Another OIA review

Yesterday's announcement that the government would be proactively releasing Cabinet papers had a buried lead: the government may be planning another review of the Official Information Act:

The documents revealed the existence of a Cabinet business committee paper produced last month which noted Little “intends to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review of the OIA”.

Speaking to Newsroom, Little confirmed he was considering whether a full review of the OIA legislation was needed, or whether improvements could be made through non-legislative changes to departmental guidelines and policies.

“It wasn’t top of the priority list at the beginning of the year, but as we get to now embarking on a programme of proactive release then these things have come into sharper relief.”


But do they really need to? The OIA has been reviewed twice in recent years: by the Law Commission in 2012, by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2015, and by the NZ Council for Civil Liberties earlier this year. While none of them is perfect, these reviews contained useful proposals for reform, particularly around eligibility, oversight, coverage, and penalties. But despite public support by users of the Act, these recommendations have been ignored by successive governments. And now, instead of implementing them, Little is proposing another review.

Little's proposed review is a waste of our time. We already know what is wrong with the OIA regime and how to fix it. Rather than dragging his feet with yet another review, Little should actually do something to fix the Act. Otherwise, people might get the impression that he was trying to thwart change rather than enable it...

125 years

125 years ago today, the Electoral Act 1893 became law. The law allowed women to vote for the first time - back then a world first. Here's how it was reported in the Auckland Star:
SuffrageStar

[Auckland Star, 19 September 1893, via Papers Past].

It wasn't a full victory - women got to vote, but not to stand for Parliament - but it was a start, a start which made other change possible. There's still obviously a hell of a lot more to do around equality, the gender pay gap, and ending sexual harassment and violence, but all of that work would be much harder without basic electoral rights and the power that comes with them.

The anniversary is being celebrated around New Zealand today, as it is every year. Its something which has defined us as a nation and which kiwis are justifiably proud of. But on the 125th anniversary, its time to do more than that: we should make Suffrage Day a public holiday.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018



Netsafe defends freedom of the press

Last week, rich prick Ray Avery tried to use the Harmful Digital Communicatins Act to suppress media coverage about him. But approved agency Netsafe has rejected his complaint:

Internet regulator Netsafe has declined to pursue a complaint by entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery that Newsroom stories about him amounted to digital harm and harassment.

The publicly-funded agency, which is charged with mediating complaints of online bullying and harassment under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, told Newsroom today: "This complaint has now been closed at Netsafe."

It said the law was "not clear about how to treat HDC complaints as they apply to media, and there is limited case law from which to form our advice.

"Therefore we are not recommending you take any further action. We have recommended to Sir Ray Avery that if he wishes to pursue this complaint he has the option of applying to the District Court."

But this isn't over yet, because Avery has indicated from the start that that using the courts to suppress public-interest journalism is exactly what he intends to do. And while we can hope that the court will look at s14 of the Bill of Rights Act and interpret the law so as to be consistent with the right to free speech and freedom of the press and exclude public interest journalism, I would feel far safer if there was explicit protection. That would at least prevent rich pricks like Avery from trying it on, and forcing media organisations to rack up enormous legal bills defending themselves.

There is obvious scope for a member's bill here. I wonder if any of the "free speech loving" MPs in the opposition will take it - or whether the only speech they want to protect is that of racists and Nazis.

Belgium stands up for freedom of speech in Spain

Back in February, Spain sentenced rapper Valtonyc to three and a half years in prison for insulting the monarch. He promptly fled the country. Now, a Belgian court has refused to extradite him:

A Belgian court on Monday ruled that Spanish rapper Valtonyc should not be sent back to Spain, where he was sentenced to prison accused of writing lyrics that praise terror groups and insult the royal family.

The rapper, whose real name is Jose Miguel Arenas Beltran, was supposed to turn himself in voluntarily in May to authorities in Spain, where he faces prison sentences totaling three and a half years, but instead fled to Belgium.

"The judge has decided there will be no extradition and discarded all three charges," his lawyer, Simon Bekaert, told reporters near the court in the city of Ghent.

Bekaert said the judge ruled "there is no terrorism involved, there is no incitement of terrorism, so there is no question of a crime according to Belgian law." He said the judge also found that there is no crime to answer to over insulting the Spanish king and that no threat was made that could warrant extradition.


The Spanish government can still appeal, but success looks unlikely. Unfortunately, rather than accept that their laws are increasingly out of step with fundamental human rights, and will no longer be upheld or respected by other European courts (including the ECHR), Spain will probably double down on them and try and make them even more oppressive.

Proactive release

In a major victory for transparency, the government will start proactively releasing Cabinet papers:

Cabinet papers will be proactively released, Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins announced today.

The move is part of the Government’s wider plan to improve openness and reflects its commitment to the international Open Government Partnership.

The Cabinet papers will be released no later than 30 business days after a Cabinet decision. This process will be in place for Cabinet papers lodged from 1 January 2019, Chris Hipkins – who is also responsible for Open Government – said.

“This change is about being an open and accountable government.


On the one hand, this isn't that big a change - we already routinely have such releases when policy is announced. On the other hand, it is a huge step forward. In other parts of the world Cabinet material is tightly guarded (and this is then abused to hide other material), so we're displaying clear global leadership here. It would obviously be better if the timeline for release was aligned to the OIA's statutory 20 days, and I'll be interested in seeing the advice on why that wasn't done.

Of course, the problem with proactive release is that its grace and favour and cannot be contested except by filing another OIA making it clear that you want an unredacted copy (which may then be refused as the material "is already publicly available", even though the bits that you want are not). And this is clearly abused to hide material and steer the public conversation through selective release. One of the changes that needs to happen to the official information regime is bringing proactive disclosures under the Act and under the oversight of the Ombudsman, to prevent such abuses.

Monday, September 17, 2018



Bring them home

In 2016, Labour promised that they would withdraw kiwi troops from Iraq if elected. They lied:

New Zealand will extend its military presence in Iraq until June 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced.

Cabinet signed off on five military deployments on Monday.

The deployment in Afghanistan has also been extended to September 2019 alongside three smaller peacekeeping missions.


Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are neither moral nor necessary. In Iraq, kiwi troops have been directly assisting the Iraqi army in a murderous war. The Iraqi government has declared its enemies defeated. So why are we still there? And in Afghanistan, Kiwi troops have been directly implicated in war crimes, which are now the subject of an inquiry here in New Zealand. In both cases, all our presence does is directly support the corrupt, murderous regimes in Baghdad, Kabul, and Washington. Instead of doing that, we should bring them home - now.

Predator-free Waiheke?

Over the weekend the government announced an ambitious plan to make Waiheke Island predator-free:

Waiheke Island is set to become the world's largest predator-free urban island under a bold new $11 million plan to rid the Hauraki Gulf Island of rats and stoats.

Millions of passengers visit the Auckland tourist destination each year and the head of Fullers ferry company says it will be extremely difficult to introduce biosecurity measures similar to those imposed on other pest-free islands which involve checking visitors' gear, ensuring food is in sealed bags and cleaning footwear.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage will today announce plans to make the island, which is already free of possums, free of other pests by 2025.

This would enable North Island kākā, kākāriki, kererū, tūī, korimako or bellbird, piwakawaka or fantail, tūturiwhatu or New Zealand dotterel, ōi or grey-faced petrel and kororā or little blue penguins to breed safely and increase in number on Waiheke, she said.


While there's not a lot of money involved, this is a big, ambitious policy. It will also be a field-test for the wider goal of a predator-free New Zealand, and how to prevent rats spreading from urban areas into protected ones. But even if its not ultimately successful, and they end up merely vastly reducing predator numbers on Waiheke or restricting them to urban spaces, it will still have huge conservation benefits. And they can then take the lessons they learn and apply them to Stewart Island or the Coromandel.

No more charter schools

National's charter schools are now officially dead:

All 12 of New Zealand's charter schools have been approved for transition to state integrated schools.

It marks the end to a rather short era.

[...]

"We have worked with the charter schools to find a way forward for them within the state system and no existing charter schools are closing their doors," Education Minister Chris Hipkins said.

The last two schools to be approved for transition were Tūranga Tangata Rite in Gisborne and Waatea School in Auckland.

Te Kura Māori o Waatea will open as a year 1-8 state integrated school in 2019, and Tūranga Tangata Rite, which was not yet up and running, will open as a state-integrated school in 2020.


And that's that. No more second-rate, for-profit schools to exploit the poor with unqualified teachers and quack curriculums. Instead, they'll be required to have qualified staff, teach a proper curriculum, and be subject to the normal oversight of the Official Information and Ombudsman's Acts, just like any other school.

The police owe us some answers on Thompson & Clark

Back in March, the State Services Commission began an inquiry into government departments' use of Stasi-as-a-service firm Thompson & Clark. But there's one significant group which appears to have a deep and disturbing collaboration with TCIL which isn't covered by the inquiry: the Police:

There are calls for the inquiry into government agency links with controversial private investigation firm Thompson & Clark to be expanded to also take in the police, after a Stuff Circuit investigation exposed a long history of contact between police and the company.

"It's completely extraordinary that the police are not covered by the inquiry into Thompson & Clark," said Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman.

[...]

When police undertake surveillance there is oversight, from the judicial warrant system, for instance.

"Thompson & Clark don't go through any of those processes," says Norman. "They pay people who then turn up at groups and pretend to care about whatever the issue is and then if they're passing that information on to the New Zealand police without ever getting any proper judicial oversight of what the police are up to, that is very problematic."


The Stuff Circuit investigation makes a strong case that the police used Thompson & Clark to spy on animal rights activists, and has an admission from a police source that they shared a paid informant with them. And from reading the article, the police may also have lied on a search warrant application - a sworn statement to a judge - to hide the source of their intelligence. All of which is completely unacceptable. An investigation is necessary to uncover any police wrongdoing, as well as restore public confidence in the police. As for who should be tasked with getting to the bottom of it, it seems to fall within the ambit of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and if it doesn't, then its covered by the Ombudsmen (the police being a specified organisation). But the IPCA would require someone to make a complaint, and may be reluctant to look at general matters of police policy - something the Ombudsman is generally far more willing to do. And I think people would be far more willing to trust the Ombudsman than the police's patsy "investigators".

Amnesty International has a petition demanding an inquiry. You can sign it here.

Friday, September 14, 2018



New Fisk

A murder in Aleppo shows the Syrian war is not over yet

The "hostile environment" claims a life

One of the fundamental rules of refugee law is that you do not deport people to be murdered. Guess what the UK is doing?

An Afghan man who sought refuge from the Taliban in the UK has been shot dead in his home town after being deported by the British government.

Zainadin Fazlie had lived in London with his wife, who had refugee status, and their four British-born children. But after committing a number of minor offences, the 47-year-old was sent back to Afghanistan after 16 years in Britain, despite threats to his life.

Last Friday, his wife Samira Fazlie found out he had been shot by Taliban forces after seeing an image of his dead body on Facebook.


Fazlie was deported under the tories' "hostile environment" policy, under which Britain uses whatever pretext it can to throw out anyone non-white. Supposedly, that policy is subject to humanitarian safeguards. Clearly, it is not. Instead, it involves deporting people to be murdered, in clear contravention of the refugee convention and the ECHR.

By deporting him in the face of known threats to his life, the British government effectively killed this man. And the people who signed the papers should be prosecuted as accessories.

Thursday, September 13, 2018



More Australian refoulement

Australia is sending refugees back to persecution again:

At least a dozen Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been forcibly deported back to Sri Lanka, having been put on a specially chartered jet that left Perth at 2am on Tuesday.

Some of the men deported had been in detention for more than six years in Australia, while others still had challenges before Australian courts pending. The majority were Tamil, but at least one was Sinhalese.

Guardian Australia has been provided with details of some of those returned but has chosen not to name them out of concern for their safety. Several had reported to Australian authorities they had previously been abducted and tortured by security forces in Sri Lanka.

The asylum seekers were transported from detention centres across Australia and taken to Perth, from where they were flown out on a charter flight run by Skytraders. The flight left at 1.57am.

The group landed in Colombo on Tuesday but has not made contact with family or legal representatives. Returned asylum seekers are, without previous exception, interviewed, arrested and charged by Sri Lanka police on arrival.


Deporting people when they still have challenges before the courts seems to violate the rule of law. But more importantly, deporting people to persecution is illegal under international law. As noted above, Sri Lanka persecutes people who have fled, and tortures its opponents. But I guess Australia doesn't care about that anymore. All they care about is preserving a white Australia by throwing out brown people.

Why does Parliamentary Services need spies?

Parliamentary Services is currently advertising for a pair of "security intelligence officers":

Reporting to the Security Enablement Manager, this role will collect information of intelligence value, conduct analysis of the information collected and prepare standardised intelligence product, in order to inform and influence the security and risk posture of Parliamentary Service.
Why the hell does Parliamentary Services need this? Who will they be collecting intelligence on? Because ATM it looks like it will be spying on protesters and petitioners to Parliament, which doesn't fit well with the House's role as a place which is meant to be accessible to all. Throw in the complete lack of oversight - Parliamentary services is not covered by the Official Information Act or the Privacy Act - and it seems to be a recipe for abuse.

But I guess they decided that hiring Thompson & Clark would just look too bad.

No freedom of speech in Spain

How backwards is Spain? They don't just have a sedition law, but also a law against blasphemous libel:

A Spanish actor accused of ridiculing God and the Virgin Mary has been detained for questioning by a judge, police have said, in the latest high-profile case to raise freedom of speech fears in the country.

Willy Toledo, a cinema and television actor who is facing a complaint over a social media post last year criticising the blasphemy prosecution of three women, has twice failed to show up for questioning.

He will be questioned by a judge on Thursday, a police spokeswoman told AFP, adding that the police acted on the orders of a Madrid court.


This is simply medieval, and not the sort of thing which should happen in a supposedly modern democracy. And the natural conclusion to be drawn from Spain's continued use of these laws is that it is neither modern or democratic.

The EU acts on Hungary

Over the past few years, Hungary has been transforming itself into an authoritarian state. The government of Viktor Orbán has undermined human rights and the rule of law, attacked judicial independence, and shut down independent media. Not to mention being virulently Islamophobic. This is all a violation of European democratic norms, and its finally grown too much for the EU, which has voted to pursue disciplinary action against them:

The European parliament has voted to trigger the EU’s most serious disciplinary procedure against Hungary, saying the country’s government poses a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law.

The vote was carried with the support of 448 MEPs, narrowly clearing the required two-thirds majority, after Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was abandoned by many of his allies in the centre-right European People’s party (EPP).

[...]

It is the first time the legislature has triggered an article 7 procedure against an EU member state. The most severe punishment under article 7 is stripping a country of its voting rights in the EU.


Naturally the UK tories voted in support of Orbán, on the basis that the EU standing up for democratic norms would be a "dangerous precedent".

This is good news, and hopefully it will see the EU use these sanctions more widely against those members who are heading in an undemocratic direction. As for Hungary, ultimately Hungarians have to stand up for their own democracy. If they prefer to live in a dictatorship, there's not a lot the EU can really do, other than throw them out of the club until they've decided to be civilised again.

Priorities

Last month, Newsroom revealed that the bright-line test for taxing property speculators had a compliance rate of just two-thirds. But despite widespread tax cheating by wealthy property speculators, IRD isn't actually doing anything about the problem:

In spite of the bright-line test having an incredibly low compliance rate, Inland Revenue has no full-time staff chasing property investors who fail to pay what they owe.

[...]

Nearly one in three eligible property investors fails to comply with the test and documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the compliance rate is worsening. A report given to Revenue Minister Stuart Nash in May estimated bright-line test compliance could be lower than 50 percent.

Despite this, the IRD has not, in the three years since the bright-line test was implemented, established a team for chasing non-compliance and recovery.

Information released under the OIA to Newsroom said the IRD did not have dedicated teams for bright-line recovery nor did it have a separate budget for bright-line recovery activity. Instead existing staff were used to track down people who had not filed a return for possible tax due under the bright-line test.


Instead, they're targeting overseas student loan borrowers. Which tells us everything we need to know about IRD and the government's priorities.

But its worth noting that student loan debt is just that: debt. Whereas failing to comply with the bright-line test is a serious crime. IRD's refusal to enforce the bright-line test undermines both government policy and the rule of law, while setting clear incentives encouraging further tax-cheating by property speculators. And that is not something we should tolerate.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018



A revenge eviction

Last month, Checkpoint carried the story of an Auckland renter living in a house so poorly maintained that there was a literal swamp underneath it. Following the stories, the landleech was ordered to fix the house or face a $200,000 fine. The good news is that they've done that. The bad news is that they've evicted their tenant:

The tenants of an Auckland 'swamp house', which the Housing Minister labelled "third world", are being evicted after forcing their landlord to fix their home's issues.

After seeing the property on Checkpoint, Auckland Council deemed it insanitary and therefore unliveable on 31 August, meaning the landlord, Aven Raj, had 10 days to resolve the property's issues or face a $200,000 fine and an extra $20,000 every day the issues continued.

Those included uncompliant stormwater pipes, poor drainage, and mould.

Two business days later, on 4 September, the tenants were issued with a 90 day eviction notice. They weren't given a reason for the eviction.


As the article notes, retaliatory eviction notices are illegal. The Tenancy Tribunal can declare that they are of no effect, order that they not be repeated, and impose up to $4,000 in exemplary damages. The problem is that getting those orders, and the basic justice they represent, will likely see the tenant blacklisted by other landleeches and rental agencies.

And this is why our tenancy laws need to change. We need to make no-cause evictions illegal, protect the privacy of tenants at the Tribunal so they can't be blacklisted or punished for standing up for their rights, and make such discrimination illegal. We also need to make retaliatory evictions like this an actual criminal offence, since it shows an utter contempt for the law.

Labour is at least doing some of this. But they need to do more. Unfortunately half of them are landleeches too, so like tax rates, its another case where they have a huge conflict of interest over the law.