Tuesday, January 31, 2006

One language for all?

National's race-relations policy seems to have moved from "one law for all" to "one language for all" (or maybe "speak English or die") with Wayne Mapp criticisng Statistics New Zealand's decision to offer a joint English / Maori census form in some areas as politically correct bilingualism. According to Mapp,

Statistics New Zealand has decided our country should not only have two official languages, but that we should also become bilingual... When did we have the debate on whether New Zealand should become bilingual?

While the Hansard isn't online, I'd hazard a guess at around the time Parliament passed the Maori Language Act 1987. This made Maori an official language of New Zealand, and explicitly allowed it to be used in legal proceedings. Since then, we've also seen wider use in Parliament and by government departments, and a growing (but still far from complete) tendency towards making government services more accessible to Maori speakers through greater use of the Maori language. Why? Because that's what being an "official language" means.

Statistics New Zealand's use of bilingual census forms is nothing unusual - and nothing new. As the article points out, they first started using them in 1996 - when National was in government. What has changed is that they're using them more widely - as the default in areas where Maori is widely spoken rather than being available only on request. And I don't see any problem with this. Unlike Mapp, the sight of written Maori does not fill me with fear and loathing and a sense of cultural insecurity; instead, it's an affirmation of New Zealand identity, as well as a useful practical step to ensure that everyone in New Zealand can participate in the census.

But then, I get the impression that Maori's ability to participate in the census (and by extension, government and society) is not exactly foremost in Wayne Mapp's mind. Instead, his "anti-PC" crusade is all about returning to the "good old days", when New Zealand was run by dead white males, for dead white males, and anyone who wasn't a dead white male (women, Maori, immigrants) could bugger off. Fortunately, our society has come a long way since then. Unfortunately, Wayne Mapp (and from the sound of it, his leader) doesn't seem to have realised it yet.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Like heroin for information junkies

Bloggage will be light for a day or two, as I'm in Wellington to visit the National Archives. I recently discovered their Archway service - an online catalogue of (some of) what they have available - and it's like heroin for information addicts. I can browse, and browse, and browse, and find out that all sorts of interesting information exists. Like briefing papers on the 1989 Crimes Bill (and the 1990's asset forfeiture bill, for that matter). Like magistrate's court minute books from the 1920's. Like a Crown Law Office opinion on whether the 1st November, 1917 edition of the New Zealand Tablet (which I know from elsewhere called Queen Victoria "a certain fat old German woman") was seditious.

This is dangerous. It'd be easy to get lost. With kilometers of files, I could browse forever...

So, I've given myself a day. One day. I'll read as much as I can of the material on my list, copy it if allowed (this involves bureaucracy), and go away and think about it. Maybe I'll even blog about some of it. And hopefully, I'll manage to avoid being consumed by addiction...

Tipping points and climate change

A couple of years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. For those who haven't read it, a "tipping point" is the point where a trend goes from rarity to ubiquity, where everything changes. Gladwell focused on sociology and marketing, and used murder and suicide rates and fashion trends as his examples. However, there's also a similar concept in chaos theory, of bifurcation, where an insignificant change in a value leads to phase or state change in a system (as illustrated in this diagram of the long-term behaviour of the logistic equation, or by the Lorenz attractor).

The relevance of this is that the global climate is a chaotic system - and scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about tipping points which could lead to irreversible climate change.

We've known that there are such tipping points for some time. A study of our planet's past climate shows that there have been sudden phase changes in the climate - and not just on a geological timescale, but a human one. According to The Weather Makers, ice cores from Greenland have shown that "spectacular shifts in the North Atlantic climate [have] occurred over just five annual ice-layers". They also show repeated shutdowns in the Gulf Stream (caused by large flows of fresh water into the North Atlantic due to melting ice) as the Earth came out of the last glacial period, leading to sudden coolings of up to 5 degrees for as little as two hundred years. In short, the changes can be sudden, jagged, and against the overall climate trend.

The Washington Post article linked above focuses on three possible tipping points:

widespread coral bleaching that could damage the world's fisheries within three decades; dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century that would take tens of thousands of years to reverse; and, within 200 years, a shutdown of the ocean current that moderates temperatures in northern Europe.

Flannery focuses on the Gulf Stream and two others: the desertification of the Amazon rainforest (due to higher CO2 reducing transpiration, and hence rainfall), and the release of methane from deep-sea clathrate beds (due to an increase in deep-sea temperatures). The latter two would produce massive positive feedback, accelerating existing warming trends and making them far, far worse. The former would paradoxically freeze Northern Europe and North America precisely at a time the world was warming overall. However, it would also lead to massive climate shifts in tropical regions due to heat being trapped at the equator.

The problem is that while we know of these tipping points and positive feedback loops in the global climate, we don't know exactly when they will occur - and therefore what level of CO2 emissions is safe (or at least manageable). Worse, we may already be past the tipping point, and not know it. The inertia in the global climate means that the full effects of today's emissions will not be felt until around 2050. We are already physically committed to at least a degree of climate change - and we have no idea yet whether that will be too much.

That alone should encourage us to adopt a precautionary approach, rather than simply leaving it for future generations to solve.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

New Fisk

The problem with democracy

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Good to hear

Yesterday, I pointed to an article in the Guardian suggesting that the UK thought that New Zealand might be sending further troops to Afghanistan, and asked whether there was something the government wasn't telling us. The National Party also noticed the story and asked the same question, and so today we have an official denial from the government:

A spokesman for Defence Minister Phil Goff said yesterday: "We are not considering any major contribution beyond our current commitments."

This is good to hear, and it matches the government's consistent position on the matter. But you still have to wonder how the British got the impression that that position was going to change. Has someone been making promises they can't keep...?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Copeland advocates censorship

Gordon Copeland wants the Minister of Immigration to bar Australian euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke from entering New Zealand. He also wants the IT Minister to see of there is any way to "prohibit the establishment" of his website, Exit International.

I suggest Mr Copeland goes off and reads S 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which affirms freedom of expression and states

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

(Emphasis added).

While this is subject to "reasonable limits... as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society", but I can't for the life of me see how a ban on people saying that people ought to be allowed to take their own lives, or even telling them how to do it could be considered anything of the sort. In a free society, people are free to advocate positions that others disagree with or find offensive or wrong. That's what "freedom of expression" means.

Bluntly, if Copeland doesn't like what Dr Nitschke is saying, then he has an obvious course of action available: argue against it. Show why it is wrong. Convince people. That's what you do in a free society - but rather than doing that, Copeland would rather use the law in an effort to silence his opponents. I guess he's just too frightened that they might actually win the argument...

Something to go to in Wellington

Te Papa is hosting a new Treaty debate series, with lectures by Waitangi Tribunal Chief Judge Joe Williams, Law Commission head Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Api Mahuika, and Pat Snedden (author of Pakeha and The Treaty: Why it's our Treaty too). The theme is "where to from here", and the first debate is on February 2nd in the Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, from 18:30. For those outside Wellington, it will be broadcast on National Radio on February 5th at around 16:00.

(Hat Tip: I See Red)

The joys of minority government

With Parliament resuming after Waitangi Day, we may be about to see what real minority government looks like. While the past five governments have all been minority ones (the 1993 government due to pre-MMP party splits; the 1996 one following the breakup of NZ First, and the others intentionally), all have been fairly strong minorities. The 1999 Labour-Alliance minority coalition was able to dominate the select committees and rely on the Greens for legislative support; the 2002 Labour-Progressive minority government could usually find friends on the committees and could pick from three possible partners when trying to pass legislation. The present government isn't so lucky. The resurgence of the opposition, relatively small size of the minor parties, and looseness of support arrangements means that the government does not have a majority on any of the select committees, and this is already causing them problems. So far those problems have been limited to beginning embarrassing inquiries into TVNZ and the Department of Corrections, but it could extend to disrupting the government's legislative program. While a select committee recommendation to drop a bill could be overturned, given that such a recommendation would require the backing of at least one of the minor parties, there may not be a majority for the government to do so. The government will have to work very carefully indeed to build coalitions for every piece of legislation, and almost certainly make major concessions to the minor parties to get anything passed.

But that's not the half of it. While the government will still be able to dominate the Parliamentary agenda, the other parties have an avenue for pursuing agendas of their own, in the form of private member's bills. And given that the government does not have a legislative majority, it is entirely possible that bills introduced by National, ACT or NZFirst could end up passing. While the government is able to exercise a financial veto on anything which would have more than a "minor impact" on the crown's overall fiscal position or on the composition of a vote (ruling out tax-cuts and gutting or disestablishing ministries - at least if they're willing to lump the political cost), this still leaves the opposition and minor parties vast room to enact legislation. Criminal, employment and constitutional law are all entirely up for grabs, as are "moral issues", drug laws, and commercial law.

This makes the private member's bill ballot far more important then it was previously. Unfortunately, it's one of the few areas of Parliamentary business about which there is relatively little information. A list of bills in the ballot is published in the Parliamentary Bulletin - but only in hardcopy, and only after the draw has been held. Meaning that the public has no way of knowing in advance what might be in there, and no way of holding our representatives to account for it. This has to change, and I've written to the Clerk to try and get more information put online. In the meantime, I'll try and get information out of MPs on their bills (those of them I know about) and try and inform people of what they're trying to do.

I should also note that, statistically, National has good odds of getting a bill drawn. The last ballot had 28 bills in it, and 11 of them were from National (perversely, two of the three bills drawn were from ACT). If they used their full allocation of 48 bills (one per MP), then the odds would be massively in their favour. This suggests that Labour backbenchers should be submitting private member's bills, if only to reduce the odds of an opposition bill being drawn. Though ideally, I'd prefer it if they used such bills to try and advance progressive causes as well. Currently only Darien Fenton and Maryan Street are doing this at the moment, with bills to adjust the minimum wage and alter residential tenancy laws, but I'd certainly like to see more of them make a go of it. And if anyone is in need of a bill to submit, how about repealing the archaic crime of sedition?

Electing the Governor-General?

In a Herald column last week, Colin James explored the possibility of electing the Governor-General. Like The Holden Republic, I am of two minds about this. My natural preference is for election, but generally you have elections when you want the holder of a position to be accountable to the public for their performance. Which implies that there is something they can be held accountable for. Given that the Governor-General is an almost entirely ceremonial position whose actions are almost completely dictated to it by our elected government, election seems constitutionally pointless, and may even result in a Governor-General trying to do things (such as, say, vetoing legislation - or worse, governments - which isn't really their job) on the grounds that they have an electoral mandate.

And OTOH, as Lewis points out, it works perfectly well for the Irish. They have an elected President who is essentially a "twink" Governor-General. So it essentially all comes down to political culture, and whether we would be able to establish one of Governors-General (or Presidents) who were neutral and impartial, as in Ireland.

Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill [PDF] includes an option for direct election of the Governor-General. I guess we just have to hope that it gets drawn from the ballot.

No freedom of speech in Kurdistan

The American invasion of Iraq was supposed to bring freedom. The reality has turned out rather differently. There's the torture, of course, which one Iraqi politician has called worse than under Saddam. But the freedom of Iraqis is limited in other ways as well. For example, there's the case of Kamal Sayid Qadir, a Kurdish writer and human rights activist recently sentenced to 30 years imprisonment after a trial "that fell far short of international standards". The reason?

From Austria he had written articles accusing Mr. Barzani's all-powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party of corruption while calling members of its intelligence service, the Parastin, criminals and its chief — Mr. Barzani's son — a "pimp."

And this isn't an isolated case:

Two journalists from Wasit Province in east central Iraq face 10 years in prison for suggesting that Iraqi judges kowtow to the American authorities just as Saddam Hussein's courts rubber-stamped edicts of the Baath Party. The journalists, Ayad Mahmoud al-Tamimi and Ahmed Mutair Abbas, had also accused the then-governor of Wasit of corruption and labeled him a bastard, a grave insult here.


In Kurdistan, [a former newspaper editor] says, it is not unusual for the secret police to threaten or arrest journalists who fail to toe the line of the K.D.P. More than a dozen journalists have been arrested in recent years, he says, but the cases are never reported on in Kurdistan because other journalists fear saying anything critical of the party.

"Generally, any journalists or writers not connected to the party are under threats," Mr. Ismael said. "If you write anything not in their interest, they will arrest you or call your cellphone and threaten you."

The recently ratified Iraqi constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press (Article 36), but it seems the implementation leaves something to be desired. Instead, it seems that those in power are using criminal law to protect themselves from criticism and allegations of corruption, to the detriment of democracy.

(Hat tip: Talk Left)

Is there something they're not telling us?

The UK will be sending 4000 extra troops to Afghanistan, allowing the US to redeploy troops to Iraq. No surprises so far, but there's a little note at the bottome of the story (absent from the Herald's version) that should concern us:

[UK Defence Minister John] Reid said Australia and New Zealand could also make new commitments of troops to Afghanistan.

In November, Helen Clark all but ruled out sending additional troops. So, is Reid engaging in wishful thinking - or is there something the government is not telling us?

An upset in Palestine

It seems the Palestinian elections haven't turned out the way the US wanted them to. Hamas has won an outright majority, capturing at least 70 seats in the 132 seat Parliament. The Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, has already resigned, leaving the way clear for them to form a government. And constitutionally, the President has no choice but to appoint them.

It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Israel reacts. They pride themselves on being "the most democratic nation in the Middle East". It remains to be seen whether they will respect the voice of the Palestinian people, or veto it with tanks and bombs.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Protesting the imperial presidency

US Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech to the law school at Georgetown University yesterday in which he attempted to defend the Bush Administration's illegal domestic wiretapping program. The audience didn't buy it. Partway through the speech, the front five rows of students rose and turned their backs on him in silent protest, while others hoisted a banner bearing Benjamin Franklin's famous (mis)quote,

Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.

It's good to see that America's future lawyers understand what the Bush Administration doesn't: that the US is not an absolute monarchy, and lawmaking power is in the hands of the legislature, not the President.

Photos here and here.

Where are they now?

Scoop has a feature on what has happened to our ex-MPs since their sudden de-election last September. Some have gone back to work, a few of the older ones are enjoying a holiday or retirement, and many are still involved in politics, holding internal party positions.

I was particularly interested in learning what had happened to Matt Robson, and I'm pleased to hear that he's gone back to the law, and will be involving himself in the Ahmed Zaoui case. Good to see that some people are still fighting the good fight, even if from outside Parliament...

Palestine votes

Palestinians have been voting today to elect a new Parliament for the first time in ten years. Turnout has been high - about 73% - and the poll has passed peacefully. Observers have called it "an example to the Arab world".

The last Palestinian legislative elections used multimember constituencies in the same way that many New Zealand local bodies do. This time round, they've combined that with a proportional system, resulting in what we would call "supplementary member": half the seats are assigned proportionately from a party vote, and half are elected in multi-member electorates as before. But there's no overall proportionality, and the non-preferential multi-member electorates allows those with a simple plurality to gain disproportionate power (even more so than they would under single-member electorates).

Full results won't be known for two weeks.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Some facts on government spending

After six years of good economic weather, things are finally starting to go sour. National of course places the blame squarely on the government, with finance spokesperson John Key saying that the government has

fuelled inflation by massively expanding government spending since 1999, which in turn has fuelled interest rates that are now the highest in the Western world.

(Emphasis added).

Unfortunately for Key, the actual numbers tell a different story. Here's some figures from the "fiscal outlook" sections of the 1999 Budget Economic Fiscal Update (National's last budget) and the December 2005 Half Year Economic & Fiscal Update (where we are under Labour):

1999 BEFU2005 HYEFU
Core crown revenue34.5%34.5%
Taxation revenue32.4%31.2%
Core crown expenses35.1%30.6%

(Source: Table 2.1, 1999 BEFU, and Tables 2.3 and 2.4, 2005 HYEFU. To avoid any doubt, I am using the "1999/2000 Projection / Budget" and "2005 Actual" columns. All figures are as a percentage of GDP).

Massive expansion of government spending? I wish. In reality, the government has been extremely tight-fisted, funnelling surplus revenue into the Cullen fund, paying off debt, and rebuilding infrastructure after a decade of underinvestment under National. While there has of course been an increase in nominal terms, Labour are actually spending less as a percentage of GDP than National was in their last year in office - and taxing us less to boot. But clearly John Key doesn't see why these facts should be allowed to get in the way of a good smear.

Free and fair?

This morning's Herald editorial, "voters can elect who they wish" (offline), is about the current Palestinian Authority elections and how (following the trend in the Middle East) they are unlikely to result in a government acceptable to the west. However, along the way, they include the following:

Iran has fairly freely elected an Islamist government.

There are two ways of reading this. Iran's elections were indeed "fairly free" - compared to those run by Saddam Hussein - but the winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, was not elected freely and fairly. It's not that voting was interfered with or that the count was fraudulent or that the process itself was interfered with (unlike Florida, Iran counts its votes). Instead, the people's choice was limited by limiting who was allowed to run. Iran's unelected Guardian Council disqualified over a thousand candidates, leaving only six, all of whom were part of the religious oligarchy. Intervention by the Ayatollah Khamenei resulted in two more "reformist" candidates being accepted, but the field was still effectively limited to those deemed by the Guardian Council to be no real threat to religious rule. Women, non-Muslims, Sunnis, and those who did not adhere to "the progressive principle of the absolute rule of the Jurisconsult" were simply not allowed to run. The same process (as well as the silencing of reformist media) was used to stack the deck in the 2004 Majlis election, guaranteeing an enormous conservative victory. While I think that the result in the Presidential election at least was broadly representative of the will of the people, Iranian elections consistently fail to meet international standards and should not be called "free and fair".

That aside, the Herald has a point when it points out that religious parties are popular in Muslim societies and that we need to recognise that. If we believe in democracy, then it means accepting people's choice of government as legitimate whether we like them or not. This does not mean looking the other way on human rights abuses, it does not mean accepting oppression, and it does not mean ceasing to advocate for progress where progress is needed. We can continue to advocate, persuade, and apply diplomatic pressure. What it means is discarding any pretence of a "right" to usurp people's choices and choose their government for them. Kissinger's famous quote on Chile - that

"I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."

is anathema to any real democrat.

In the case of countries like Iran, we should press for free and fair elections and an end to oppression - and if we really believe that "all men desire freedom" then the rest will deal with itself. It may be slow, but it is better to let people choose their government for themselves, make their own mistakes and learn from them than usurp their choices and attempt to impose a "benign" government to rule in "their" interests. As the Herald says,

Democracy never guarantees a desired result [but] accepting the result is perversely the best way to change it.

Moving on transport emissions?

According to this morning's Dominion-Post, the government is investigating targetting gas-guzzlers and SUVs with higher registration costs to push the public towards more fuel efficient vehicles. Needless to say, I think this is a great idea. Transport contributes 17.8% of our overall greenhouse gas emissions (2003), and is a growth area. Halting that growth and reversing it will be a major achievement towards meeting our Kyoto obligations. Doing it by targeting vehicle efficiency means it is less likely to damage the economy, and will result in a sustained reduction rather than simply a temporary behaviour change reversed with the next change of government. It will also have long-term payoffs for our persistent balance-of-payments problem. Looking at some rough efficiency audit results, comprehensive improvements in the New Zealand vehicle fleet could eventually result in reductions of 20 - 30% in petrol usage (and hence transport emissions) over "business as usual". Oil is one of our major imports, and so this will contribute significantly towards balancing our national books.

(BTW, does anyone have any data on our average vehicle fleet efficiency? It would be useful to know - and to see what can realistically be done in this area)

While everyone agrees with the desirability of increasing efficiency, there's still some disagreement over the exact nature of any policy and incentives. The Motor Industry Association (representing vehicle importers) opposes any move which might target imports, and instead prefers incentives based on vehicle age (thus encouraging people to buy newer vehicles). This of course misses the real target - efficiency - and penalises those with older, but efficient vehicles. The Business Council for Sustainable Development wants cash-in-hand incentives, while the government wants penalties and differential taxes. Taxes vs incentives makes no real difference to the effectiveness of the policy; instead its a question of who pays and how the burden is distributed. I think the government has the right approach here; we shouldn't be rewarding polluters for stopping, but rather ensuring that they pay the full social cost of their activities. And that way we can also use the resulting revenue to fund other programs or reduce taxes in other areas - the "double dividend".

There's no details on when any policy will be implemented, but I hope it's soon. A solid policy here will result in substantial reductions in our transport emissions, and help to set us on a far more sustainable path. Combined with the biofuels initiative, it will make a real difference towards meeting our Kyoto target. And the sooner we start, the better.

Poison fruit of a poison tree

A common response to evidence that US soldiers have abused and even tortured to death prisoners of war in Iraq is to claim that it is all the work of a few "bad apples", and that the difference between the US and the terrorists is that, when such abuses are discovered, the US punishes those responsible.


FORT CARSON, Colo. (AP) - A military jury has recommended that an officer once facing up to life in prison for the interrogation death of an Iraqi general be given only a reprimand, a decision that drew applause from soldiers.

Initially charged with murder, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr. now faces no jail time, the forfeiture of $6,000 in salary and what amounts largely to a barracks restriction for 60 days.

(Emphasis added).

I've blogged about this case before: Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush, an insurgent leader, turned himself in after US forces took his family hostage. His US captors decided he was being insufficiently cooperative during interrogations, and he was beaten to within an inch of his life by CIA personnel and Iraqi paramilitaries working in a US facility. Over the next few days, he was subjected to further beatings, waterboarded, and eventually stuffed into a sleeping bag and sat on while he asphyxiated. Welshofer was the "bad apple" who killed him, but he has not been punished. Instead, his fellow soldiers seem to think that what he did to his prisoner was perfectly acceptable and that he should not even have been facing charges.

The message this sends is crystal clear: torture is acceptable. If a US soldier tortures a prisoner, even to death, they will face no real penalty. Instead, the US government will look the other way, while claiming publicly that these actions "[do] not reflect the nature of the American people". Unfortunately, by condoning those actions, they make it very clear that they do. They also make it clear that, rather than being "bad apples", America's torturers are the poison fruit of a poison tree, the natural consequence of an administration which endorses torture and a society which simply does not care what their government does in their name.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Victory in Cambodia?

Superficially, this seems to be a good day for freedom of speech: first Turkey dropped charges of "insulting Turkishness" against novelist Orhan Pamuk, and now Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has done likewise against four opposition activists. Kem Sokha, Mom Sonando, Rong Chhun and Pa Nguon Tieng had all been arrested on criminal defamation charges; now they have all been released. But while I'm glad that they are at least out of jail, I'm not sure that this is much of a "victory": the four were released only after they had written letters apologising to the Prime Minister for criticising him. So rather than being a rejection of the government's "right" to use the coercive power of the state to limit criticism, this instead seems to be a confirmation of it.

We should also remember that, as in Turkey, others are still facing charges, and in some cases have even fled the country to avoid arrest. And the Cambodian government shows no sign of dismissing charges against them. So again, it's not much of a victory; freedom of speech still has a long way to go in Cambodia.

Watching the elections

Now the polls have closed in Canada, you can get live election results here or here.

Something to be proud of

New Zealand ranks first in the world for environmental sustainability, according to the 2006 Environmental Performance Index. But while this is something to be proud of, and which confirms our self-image as being "clean and green", it doesn't mean we can stop worrying about the environment. As is clear from our country profile [PDF; we're on page 85], we have a long way to go. We rate poorly for overfishing, wilderness protection, and for renewable energy (though the latter is very high by world standards). While we rate very highly for water resources, this is measured by overconsumption and nitrogen runoff, both of which are getting worse. If we wish to maintain this ranking, we are going to have to work harder on improving these areas, otherwise we won't be "clean and green" so much as "dirty and brown".

Canada votes

Canadians are going to the polls today to vote in a snap-election called after the liberal-led government lost a confidence motion in Parliament. Unfortunately, this one seems unlikely to go our way; the (centrist) Liberal party is polling a full ten percent behind the (centre-right) Conservatives, and with the corruption they have displayed in office (directing government advertising contracts to friends in exchange for kickbacks), they deserve to lose.

Canada uses FPP, which magnifies this sort of swing - but it also has strong minor parties with local power-bases (in the form of the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic party). The latest prediction is for the Conservatives to pick up 20 seats and the NDP 10, meaning a Conservative plurality with the Bloc holding the balance of power. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about Canadian politics to know how coalition talks are likely to go.

Election results will be available from around 4pm NZ time here.

A battle, but not the war

The Turkish government has dropped charges against novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk had been charged with "insulting Turkishness" for mentioning the Armenian genocide in a magazine interview - but it seems that pressure from the EU has led to a change of heart from the government. But while this is an important victory for freedom of speech in Turkey, it is not the war. The charges have been dropped in one case, but the law is still on the books. As Pamuk's friend and translator Maureen Freely notes,

In two weeks time there are going to be eight new trials opening...

More than 60 writers and publishers (and one Euro MP) are facing similar charges - and this in a country which has promised to respect freedom of expression! Clearly, Turkey is failing to keep its promise - and the EU should make it clear that there will be no hope of membership until it does.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

There is no persecution in West Papua

That's the response of the Indonesian government to the asylum claim made by 43 West Papuan refugees who landed in Australia on Wednesday. The group reportedly includes several high profile Papuan independence activists, who claim to have a well-grounded fear of persecution for their views. The Indonesian government denies that there is any reason to fear, and a spokesperson has said that

The grounds for requesting asylum for these people are baseless

"Baseless"? Here's some of what the US State Department 2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Indonesia said about what is happening in West Papua:

Security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians and members of separatist movements, especially in Aceh and to a lesser extent in Papua...

Security forces continued to commit unlawful killing of rebels, suspected rebels, and civilians in areas of separatist activity [which includes West Papua - I/S], where most politically motivated extrajudicial killings also occurred. There was evidence that the TNI considered anyone its forces killed in conflict areas to have been an armed rebel...

The Government made limited progress in establishing accountability for numerous human rights violations committed in Papua in previous years, including those committed in Biak, Abepura, Wasior, and Wamena. During the year, a human rights court in Makassar began proceedings against police implicated in abuses and killings of Papuans in a 2000 incident in Abepura. The National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), created and funded by the Government but not a government agency, completed its report on the 2001 Wasior incident, in which police allegedly killed 12 civilians following an attack on a police post that left 5 policemen dead, and the Wamena incident, in which dozens of residents of the Central Highlands area of Kuyowage allegedly were tortured by unknown parties during a military operation that followed the April 2003 break-in at the Wamena armory. The Commission found that soldiers and police had committed gross human rights violations, including murder, evictions, and torture. Komnas HAM categorized these violations as crimes against humanity and, on September 2, submitted its report to the Attorney General's Office (AGO) for possible prosecution...

Or there's the report by the University of Sydney's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies on Genocide in West Papua [PDF], which accuses the Indonesian military of widespread human rights abuses in the province, including rape and torture. Here's a small excerpt:

...On 17 September, Kopassus [an Indonesian special forces group widely linked to human rights abuses] killed the Reverend Elisa Tabuni, a 40 year old male. He was found with his hands handcuffed together in a praying position. His son, Weties Tabuni, also a pastor, fled with his hands handcuffed after seeing his father shot by Kopassus. Weties was also shot and was wounded in the back of the head.

On 7 October, a militia group under the TNI/Kopassus, the Wonda Marunggen group, with Anton Tabuni, shot and killed a primary teacher named Kius Wenda. On 13 October an unknown group shot six civilians. It is still unclear whether the information about the dead bodies is correct or not, because no family has yet said they've had a relative killed. Subsequently six school buildings were burnt down by Kopassus. These were the schools at Wonaluk, Yarumungun, Dondo, Pagarugom, and Ambitmbit.

In addition, 371 homes of indigenous inhabitants have been burnt down by Kopassus. The number of refugees still taking refuge in the jungle as at end of 2004 was 6393. To compound the hardship of the Lani tribes who were made refugees by this operation, all the pigs owned by the community, valued as a form of currency when traded and an important food and source of protein, were loaded onto trucks and sold by Indonesian soldiers. The chickens were shot by soldiers, the fences and gardens were smashed and burnt.

Nope, no persecution there, nosiree...

Any claim for asylum must of course be assessed on its merits. But against this background of persecution and widespread abuses, claims from West Papuans can hardly be dismissed outright as "baseless".

Friday, January 20, 2006


Bloggage will be light until Monday, as I will be attending New Zealand's largest roleplaying convention.

Reparations are not enough

Green MP Keith Locke has responded to the UN Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report on crimes against humanity in East Timor with a call for the New Zealand government to offer reparations to the Timorese government. I agree that that is the least we can do for our cowardly policy of looking the other way and maintaining low-level military cooperation with the Indonesian regime - but it's not enough. To be true to New Zealand values, we should also be leading the call for justice, and demanding that those responsible be put on trial and punished. And if the Indonesians won't do it - and so far they've shown no intention of holding people to account - we should demand that the UN establish an international tribunal to do it for them, offer to help fund it, and lobby for economic sanctions against Indonesia if they won't cooperate.

This will no doubt annoy the Indonesians - but fear of annoying them is exactly what caused us to look the other way and ignore these atrocities in the first place. That sort of diplomatic cowardice has to stop; we cannot look the other way on torture and genocide. Instead, we must stand up for decency, humanity and international law, and demand that it be punished, regardless of who does it, or to whom. This won't make us any friends - but we will at least be able to look at ourselves in the mirror.

A crime against humanity

In 1976, Indonesia invaded East Timor, and over the next 23 years presided over a brutal occupation marked by systematic massacres, disappearances, and torture. When they left in 1999, Indonesian-backed militias went on a scorched-earth rampage, killing 1500 people and displacing up to 100,000. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, according to the 2500-page report of the UN Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The report, based on statements from 8000 witnesses as well as documents from the Indonesian military and foreign intelligence sources, was leaked to The Australian after it had been quietly suppressed by the Timorese government. And you can see why: it details the full extent of Indonesian crimes in Timor, and blames them for the deaths of up to 180,000 Timorese civilians.

According to the report, Indonesian soldiers were responsible for over 13,000 unlawful killings and disappearances, and 8500 documented cases of torture, which included

public beheadings, the mutilation of genitalia, the burying and burning alive of victims, use of cigarettes to burn victims, and ears and genitals being lopped off to display to families.

It documents widespread executions and arbitrary detentions, as well as the use of rape and sexual violence to terrorise the civilian population and "inflict a deep experience of terror, powerlessness and hopelessness upon pro-independence supporters". These human rights violations were

committed in execution of a systematic plan approved, conducted and controlled by Indonesian military commanders at the highest level.

That is bad enough, and demands more justice than the handful of low-level mooks the Indonesians have tried (and usually acquitted) for war crimes during the occupation. But there's more serious charges as well. The report notes that the Indonesian military "consciously decided to use starvation of East Timorese civilians as a weapon of war", resulting in the deaths of between 84,200 and 183,000 Timorese civilians. As the report notes,

The intentional imposition of conditions of life which could not sustain tens of thousands of East Timorese civilians amounted to extermination as a crime against humanity committed against the East Timorese population

Or, in other words, genocide.

What is to be done? The report calls for reparations to be paid by Indonesia, as well as those countries who armed it and supported its invasion (including the US, UK, and Australia). But that is not enough. What is needed here is justice, for those who planned and committed these crimes to be held fully accountable for them. An international tribunal should be formed, and the military and political leaders of Indonesia (including former President Suharto) should be put on trial, and if found guilty, jailed. It's what we did for the former Yugoslavia, and we can do no less for Timor.

Chirac drinks Bush's Kool-Aid

French President Jacque Chirac has threatened to use nuclear weapons if France is attacked by terrorists. The whole point of terrorism being to provoke exactly that sort of disproportionate response, you really have to wonder whether he's now on the Al Qaeda payroll, or been drinking the same Kool-Aid as George W Bush...

And now we wait

NASA's New Horizons probe has been launched. Its target is Pluto, and even with a slingshot around Jupiter, it will take nine years to get there. Which is a hell of a long time to wait before getting results.

I wonder whether I'll remember in 2015 that the thing is even on its way?

Thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!

One of my favourite H P Lovecraft stories is The Horror at Red Hook, a story about a cult running amok in one of the seedier neighbourhoods of New York City. For some reason, I'd assumed the setting, Red Hook, was fictional. I was wrong. It exists, and it's currently being gentrified...

Giving the Japanese what they want

In Germany, Greenpeace have staged the best anti-whaling protest yet: They gave the Japanese exactly what they wanted, by leaving a dead fin whale outside the Japanese embassy. In Berlin. Which is about 150km inland. The logistical effort to get it there must have been tremendous...

The whale was supposed to demonstrate that so-called "scientific" whaling is unnecessary for data collection, as whale cadavers are regularly available (as the repeated strandings in Golden Bay this summer demonstrate). Tissue samples, DNA, and age data can all be collected from dead whales without too much effort, and contribute just as much to science as those collected with a harpoon. But then, science and autopsies don't really seem to be the point of the Japanese "scientific" whaling program. Instead, its purpose seems to be primarily collecting "tissue samples" for sale in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Blair covers up for rendition

Tony Blair looks to be in even more trouble, this time over the American policy of extraordinary rendition. A Foreign Office briefing paper leaked to the New Statesman reveals that the government believed that rendition for the purposes of torture "is almost certainly illegal", and that cooperating with it (e.g. by allowing rendition flights to land and refuel in the UK) "would also be illegal if we knew of the circumstances". It also reveals that the Blair government had embarked on a deliberate effort to cover-up the extent of their cooperation and spin their way out of trouble:

"We should try to avoid getting drawn on detail", Mr Siddiq [a high level flunky for Foreign Secretary Jack Straw] writes, "and to try to move the debate on, in as front foot a way we can, underlining all the time the strong anti-terrorist rationale for close cooperation with the US, within our legal obligations."

Blair followed this advice to the letter, repeatedly denying any knowledge of the process of rendition or of any cooperation by the UK, and claiming that he had

absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here.

However, his own government was perfectly aware of both the process and the legal issues - in 1998 they had refused permission for the US to use British airspace to transfer a man suspected of involvement in the African embassy bombings to Egypt, precisely on the grounds that he might be tortured. But I guess they'd just forgotten...

Brash wants to run again

According to Colin Espiner in The Press, Don Brash wants to lead National in the next election. I think the only response to this is "bring it on!" By 2008, Brash will be looking old and tired; his reputation as an honest non-politician (already looking fairly damaged by his conduct ">before and during the election) will be tarred by another three years in Parliament; his appeal to social liberals will likewise be undermined by another three years of sucking up to social conservatives in an effort to get the bigot vote; and most importantly, there will have been another three years of demographic change in ways which will not favour his frankly backward positions on women and Maori.

And OTOH, Helen won't be looking that good either. But I think she could still beat Brash. It's people like John Key and a revived Bill English she should be afraid of, not Don.

Fiji: the military wins

Fiji's controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill - a political stich-up to grant amnesty to the plotters of the 2000 coup - has been delayed, and may not be passed before this year's election. While I loathe the bill, the way in which it has been delayed - repeated threats of a military coup from Fijian Military Forces commander Voreqe Bainimarama - is absolutely unconscionable in a democracy. A bedrock principle of democratic government is that those trusted with guns - the military and the police - are subserviant to the civil power, and do not interfere in politics. Commodore Bainimarama did not like the idea of letting those guilty of treason, assault, arson and murder walk free - but the proper thing to do in that case is to resign his commission and stand for election, not threaten to topple a democratically elected government by military force.

Unfortunately, the military seem to have won this round - and this may in turn encourage them towards further intervention in politics. The future of democracy in Fiji does not look good...

The Lords defend freedom of speech

A key part of Tony Blair's draconian anti-terrorism legislation was a clause barring the "encouragement" or "glorification" of terrorism. This being the UK, it was naturally written rather broadly, so that anyone who said that, in some circumstances, violent action against any government could be morally justified, or who praised or expressed approval of such action in the past (no matter how distant, and no matter how oppressive the government) would be liable to up to seven years imprisonment. The clause would have made it a crime to praise or support (among other things) the students of Tiananmen, the Prague Spring, the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, the massacred protestors of Andijan, the American Revolution, the UK's own "Glorious Revolution", and even the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (a kind of "premature anti-Ba'athism). In practice, the requirement for the Attorney-General to consent to prosecution meant that the law would be used only to target those whose expressed opinions or supported causes the government of the day did not like.

By criminalising such a broad range of expression, including mere abstract advocacy and historical argument, the clause would have been a gross attack on freedom of speech. Fortunately, it is no longer with us. The House of Lords - who once again seem to be the UK's last defenders of freedom - have voted overwhelmingly to dump it, setting up a showdown with the Commons. By constitutional convention, the Lords do not veto legislation from the government's election manifesto - and banning "glorification" was part of New Labour's 2005 election platform. But this is a case where the government is trying to abridge a fundamental freedom, and some of the peers seem to feel strongly enough about it to want to force the issue. That would most likely result in the Parliament Act being invoked, meaning that the bill would simply be delayed by one year and then become law - but that would require the government to restore the clause and then pass the bill in two separate sessions of Parliament over the course of a year, all of which requires a Parliamentary majority. Given that the "glorification" clause only passed the Commons by the skin of its teeth, that's not guaranteed, and a strong show of opposition from the Lords could sink it entirely.

Automated fixations

The sewer have always had a peculiar fixation with Russell Brown; now via DPF, I see that they've automated it, posting the summaries and links direct from Public Address's RSS feed to allow their readers to comment. Beats doing it by hand, I guess, but strangely they seem to think its some sort of coup. ZenTiger refers to it as a "landmark" and raves about "the novelty of the technology" - which is strange, given that LiveJournal has been doing this sort of thing for years. Others have referred to it as a "kidnapping", which is a rather peculiar spin on something the blogosphere has always done - linking to other people's posts. But the most hyperbolic is this comment from Adolf on the first such (re)posting:

This rather delicious imbroglio gives you [Russell] a bit of a problem. You are a bit like the brothel owner who suddenly finds the Madame across the road has put up a bigger and brighter red light. Within a few days two thirds of your girls will have gone over the road as well because that's where the traffic is now.

Obviously. Because what most Public Address readers really want to see isn't Public Address's well-written content, but the blogosphere equivalent of badly-trained monkeys throwing their own shit...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Worth hunting down

I've just finished reading Tom Bissell's Improvised, explosive, and divisive: Searching in vain for a strategy in Iraq in the latest issue of Harper's. Sadly, it's offline, but I'd recommend hunting it down for an in-depth look at the stupidity and pointlessness of the Iraq war. As the title suggests, he's looking for some idea of what the US is actually doing in Iraq which might help them "win". Unfortunately, from what he's written, the search seems to be in vain; nobody knows what the strategy (if there is one) is, and few even want to talk about it. And so instead, they waste their time in missions of almost comedic pointlessness: every day the Marines go out and clear the IEDs off the road, and every night the resistance puts them back. They risk life and limb to deliver truckloads of air conditioners and TV sets to other bases, and have to deal with Iraqi civillians without any knowledge of Arabic and no translators. And in the free, "improving" Iraq, they have to go out loaded for bear, in full body armour (and having sat through a lengthy security briefing) for a breakneck-speed trip down the road to the adjacent Iraqi military base which takes all of 90 seconds.

There's a lot in it worth quoting, but the bit that stuck with me was right at the end:

It is one of my last nights on Taqaddum, and I share a non-alcoholic St. Pauli Girl beer with a Navy commander who works in TQ's surgical ward. We speak not of the war but of home: what he misses (golf), what he will do when he gets back (golf). It is near dusk, and we both agree that, sometimes, Iraq can seem almost pleasant and its violence very distant. The moment comes for the commander to do what we are waiting for, which is to take down the U.S. and Iraqi flags that fly in tandem at every official site on the base. "Take hold of the grommets," he tells me when he unhooks the U.S. flag from its ropes. As I hold the grommets the commander carefully folds the flag, leaving the star side up, and by the end he has managed a tight triangle of bright, perfectly bundled cloth. The Iraqi flag is next. I stand there, waiting to be handed my end, but after he unclasps the Iraqi flag he bunches it up and throws it onto a nearby chair. I look at this sad, rumpled bit of cloth and then at him. He catches himself and does not quite smile as he looks down at his boots. "We don't usually fold that one."

And that's America's attitude to Iraq, Iraqis, and arguably the rest of the world, right there in a nutshell. And then they wonder why the people they're occupying hate them...

An unexpected victory

The US Supreme Court has upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law in a 6-3 decision. The law allowed Oregon doctors to (with various checks and balances to ensure informed consent) prescribe a lethal dose of barbiturates to terminally ill patients who expressed a strong and continuing wish to die. The Bush Administration (and notably former Attorney-General John Ashcroft) had objected to this, and attempted to have doctors deregistered under federal drug laws. The Supreme Court ruled [PDF] that assisting suicide is a "legitimate medical purpose" (or at least, is not "drug abuse") and that in the absence of federal law regulating suicide, it is up to the States to decide how they want to handle it. Ironically, the latter hoists the American Right with their own petard and again exposes their hypocrisy. Justices Scalia and Thomas, the darlings of the Right, have been solid advocates of "state's rights", using the doctrine to undermine Federal anti-discrimination and environmental laws. But when it comes to people being allowed to end their lives in the manner of their choosing (or electing their preferred candidate to the Presidency, for that matter), that position goes right out of the window...

As one of the commenters on Talk Left notes, this is likely to be a short-lived victory. The ruling is essentially about the interpretation of regulations, the power granted to the Attorney-General under a particular statute, and the authority of the states in the absence of explicit federal law. The response is likely to be the passage of such a law. But then, that is what the court wants: for the decision to be made by elected representatives rather than an unelected Attorney-General.

Viagra may cause blindness

Link here.

I'm sure that that's not how its meant to work...

Biofuels from algae

Last year, Frogblog blogged about GreenFuel, an American company working on using algae farms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Exhaust gases from burning coal, natural gas or whatever are piped through an array of tubes containing a fast-growing green algae, which strip out up to 40% of CO2 and 86% of NO2. The algae can then be processed into biodiesel and bioethanol, sold at a profit, and used as transport fuel. While this is simply delaying the original emissions from the power-plant, if these biofuels displace fossil fuels, then the result is a real reduction in emissions.

WorldChanging has a piece on the technology today, linking to this article, which makes the claim that

Berzin [Greenfuels' founder] calculates that just one 1,000 megawatt power plant using his system could produce more than 40 million gallons of biodiesel and 50 million gallons of ethanol a year. That would require a 2,000-acre "farm" of algae-filled tubes near the power plant.

The US has about a thousand power plants of this size. New Zealand has only one, at Huntly. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, and working around the archaic American units, installing such a system there would produce enough biofuels to meet about 5% of our demand for petrol and diesel in one go. Similar systems at our major gas-fired power plants (at Southdown, Otahuhu B and New Plymouth) could produce roughly another 3%. That's not enough to solve our greenhouse gas problem, of course - but it would be a big hole in it, and help set us on a path to greater sustainability.

As useful as it sounds, the real prize with this technology isn't scrubbing emissions from power plants with biofuels as a byproduct, but primary biofuels production. This snippet gives an idea of the possibilities:

One key is selecting an algae with a high oil density - about 50 percent of its weight. Because this kind of algae also grows so fast, it can produce 15,000 gallons [around 55,000 L] of biodiesel per acre. Just 60 gallons are produced from soybeans, which along with corn are the major biodiesel crops today.

At that rate, it would take less than 200 square kilometers of algae farms to substitute for our entire annual diesel consumption - or about 1% of our current land used for permanant crops.

The technology is still in its experimental stages - the first full test on a 1000 MW power station is scheduled for next year - but in the long-term this looks like an excellent way of reducing our overall emissions and moving to a sustainable economy. All we have to do is adopt it...

Gore calls out Bush

Former Vice-President Al Gore used a Martin Luther King Day speech to call out the Bush Administration over its illegal domestic wiretapping program, accusing the administration of breaking the law "repeatedly and persistently", and calling for a special prosecutor to investigate:

A special counsel should immediately be appointed by the Attorney General to remedy the obvious conflict of interest that prevents him from investigating what many believe are serious violations of law by the President. We have had a fresh demonstration of how an independent investigation by a special counsel with integrity can rebuild confidence in our system of justice. Patrick Fitzgerald has, by all accounts, shown neither fear nor favor in pursuing allegations that the Executive Branch has violated other laws.

Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should support the bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the appointment of a special counsel to pursue the criminal issues raised by warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the President.

It's worth reading the speech in full; Gore devotes a lot of space to pointing out exactly how much at odds the present Imperial Presidency is with the constitutional intentions of America's founders (a traditionally conservative position), the current weakness of the legislature, and the reasons for it (chiefly, the need to finance increasingly expensive campaigns). And he points out how pathetic the administration's attempts to justify their increasing erosion of liberty on the grounds of "national security" are in the face of history:

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

Terrorism is clearly a threat to western lives. But unlike those earlier struggles, it is not an existential threat to entire countries or to western civilisation. As I've said before, the real threat comes from the response the terrorists hope to provoke - and from the "war of civilisations" crowd who would sacrifice everything worthwhile about western civilisation in order to "save" it from a few loonies hiding out in caves. It's entirely up to us whether we give the terrorists that victory. Unfortunately, in the US at least, the Bush Administration has decided that they will.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A giant waste of time

The Bush Administration has sought to defend its illegal domestic wiretapping program on the basis that it turned up "valuable intelligence" on terrorists within the United States. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed that listening to American's phone-calls "saved thousands of lives". But according to a story in today's New York Times, that turns out not to have been the case. Instead, the Bush Administration's paranoid eavesdropping was ineffective and a giant waste of the FBI's time.

A veritable flood of phone numbers and email addresses sourced from trawling internet traffic, grepping phone conversations for keywords, and tracing international and domestic calls were passed to the FBI for followup. And in virtually every case, they led to dead ends:

"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."


The law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said the program had uncovered no active Qaeda networks inside the United States planning attacks. "There were no imminent plots - not inside the United States," the former F.B.I. official said.

The "intelligence" was so low-quality and the followups so pointless that agents jokingly began calling it "calls to Pizza Hut". And it wasted time they could have spent doing real work - such as investigating actual terrorists, rather than figments of the Administration's imagination.

Another ACLU Ad

Another ad from the ACLU on Bush's illegal domestic wiretapping program. This one's kindof topical:

(Click on the image for a larger version)

Though I have to say that the FBI wasn't bugging King "in the name of national security"- they were bugging King specifically in an effort to collect dirt and discredit him, and through him all those uppity blacks who dared to step forward and demand that the US live up to its ideals. It was outright political surveillance, complete with blackmail attempts to get King to shut up, and its a prime example of why wiretapping and surveillance operations must be subjected to the strictest oversight.

"Clean coal" is literal

Did you know that the much-vaunted "clean coal" means washing the coal before you burn it?

I'm not taking the piss; it's one method of removing impurities and thereby reducing atmospheric pollution while improving thermal efficiency. But it also captures perfectly the fact that "clean coal" is primarily a cosmetic solution, a PR job on a dirty technology to make it seem environmentally friendly, while leaving the real problem unsolved. Of the four technologies on the BBC's list, two (gasification and washing) are primarily about improving thermal efficiency, while one is about reducing air pollution (and its not so much new technology as old technology the coal industry has refused to install unless forced to by law). Only one - carbon capture - is about actually reducing the amount of carbon emitted to the atmosphere, and even if it works and the storage is sufficiently secure to be called "permanent" (at least on an atmospheric timescale), there's no willingness among its advocates to adopt the legislative mechanisms to force the coal industry to use it. And that ultimately is where the problem lies - not with technology (we already have the technology to massively reduce our carbon emissions), but with bringing it into use in the face of vested interests and entrenched industry lobbies. And until that problem is solved, "clean coal" will remain exactly what it sounds like: a whitewash.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Today, January 16th, is Martin Luther King day. In the US, it's a public holiday aimed at celebrating the life and achievements of the great civil rights leader. In honour of this, here's a piece of his Letter From Birmingham Jail, in which he discusses why he prefers nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of injustice rather than waiting patiently "until the time is right":

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

(I also recommend his "I Have A Dream" speech; there's also audio there, and it is even more powerful listening to it than reading it).

King was an American, but his words speak to the oppressed around the world - and we should remember them forever.

Coal is the problem

Last week, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate - a group of the world's largest coal producers and consumers collectively responsible for 48 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions - met in Sydney. Their action statement was more or less what you'd expect from a collection of coal-burning countries who want to muddy the waters on climate change: a commitment to the development of "clean coal" technology. This commitment was purely rhetorical, not being backed by any measures to spur the adoption of such technology, or even real funding to help develop it - and according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, it would not meaningfully reduce emissions. And the reason for that is obvious: they're wedded to coal as an energy source. But as Tim Flannery points out in The Weather Makers: the History and Future Impact of Climate Change, coal is a problem in and of itself:

The efficiency with which power is generated by burning a fuel is also an important factor in determining how much CO2 is produced. Even using the most advanced methods (and most coal-fired power plants come nowhere near this), burning anthracite to generate electricity results in 67 per cent more CO2 emissions than does methane, while brown coal (which is younger, and has more moisture and impurities) produces 130 per cent more. From a climate change perspective, then, there's a world of difference between using gas or coal to power an economy.

The reason for this is simple energy density - a kilo of anthracite coal yields between 26 and 33 MegaJoules when burned. A kilo of natural gas yields more than 50. This means that coal is a far worse fuel greenhouse-wise than natural gas - and will be even if the "clean coal" dream comes true and we adopt combustion methods like gasification, which approach the efficiency of modern gas power plants. While more efficient coal plants are good, particularly in light of the pathetic 30 - 35 percent efficiencies they get at the moment (compared with 45 - 55 percent for gas), coal is the problem, and we would be better off moving away from it in favour of other fuels, rather than continuing to slowly bake ourselves by using it.

The left wins in Chile

Michelle Bachelet has won today's presidential runoff election, becoming Chile's first woman president. Official results are here.

Last night after digging up candidate bios for my previous post, I read a little about the 1973 coup and the death of President Salvador Allende. And I'm reminded of a line from Allende's last speech, made as tanks were beginning to surround the presidential palace:

I say to you that I am certain that the seed we have surrendered into the worthy conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans, will not be able to be reaped at one stroke. They have the power, they can make us their vassals, but not stop the social processes, neither by crime nor by force. History is ours and is made by the people.

With the Chilean left having won every election since the return to democracy in 1990, I'd say that Allende was right.

Blair wants to bug MPs

For the past 40 years, the ability of Britain’s security services to spy on its Parliament has been governed by the so-called "Wilson Doctrine" that there should be no tapping whatsoever, whatever the circumstances, of MP's phones - and that any change would require the permission of the Commons. Since its introduction in 1966, the doctrine has been reconfirmed by every successive British government - until now. Under the guise of the "war on terror", Tony Blair wants to overturn the ban, and allow the security services to snoop on MPs.

This is a threat to democracy of the highest order; as a context article from The Independent notes, it is all too easy for such power to be abused. There are no institutional checks and balances on the use of wiretaps in the UK - authorisation is granted by a Cabinet Minister (typically the Home Secretary) rather than independently reviewed by a judge - meaning that there is nothing to stop a government from confusing the "national interest" with its own political interests, or the security services from collecting dirt "as a safeguard" should an MP challenge their interests. With Blair, the risk is likely to be spying on his own rebellious backbenchers and using MI5 and blackmail as a backup to the party whip, rather than targeting the opposition - but given that many of those backbench rebellions are driven by serious concerns over civil liberties, that ought to concern us all.

Fortunately, Blair's "modest proposal" is already meeting with strong opposition, from within Cabinet as well as Parliament. When the Ministry of Defence is against further wiretapping, you know that this is nothing but a paranoid fetish for snooping on the part of the Prime Minister. Hopefully, Blair will be smart enough not to risk putting it to the Commons - otherwise he may himself dealt yet another humiliating defeat by his own backbenchers...

Chile votes

Chileans go to the polls today to elect a new president. As its a run-off election, it's a straight-up choice between Michelle Bachelet (socialist, female, and agnostic - all "cardinal sins" in Pinochet's Chile - bother her father and boyfriend were murdered by the Pinocher regime, and she and her mother were tortured and exiled) and Sebastien Pinera (a billionaire businessman; need we say more?). Bachelet has been leading in the polls, but nothing is certain until the votes are counted. However, if she wins, she will be Chile's first female head of state, as well as the fourth successive socialist President. My fingers are crossed...

A piece of a comet

NASA's stardust probe has returned to earth, bringing back dust collected from the tail of a comet, as well as from deep space. These are the first physical samples returned from elsewhere in the solar system since 1976, and while the amount of dust collected is tiny, it will add significantly to our knowledge of comets and the solar system.

Unfortunately, I watched Shaun of the Dead recently, so I'm now half-expecting the inhabitants of Utah to turn into bloodthirsty zombies...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Bombing their allies

Great - in their fight against Al Qaeda, the US is now bombing their allies.

Another stunning victory in the battle for Muslim "hearts and minds"...

Coddington on the blogosphere

Deborah Coddington's Herald column today, takes on the blogosphere, calling it a "free rein for illiterate ranters" where "anyone who writes or says something with which bloggers disagree is singled out for vicious personal abuse". And she didn't even visit the sewer!

While this will almost certainly raise hackles in the same way that Finlay McDonald's comment about running to partisan corners and "throwing rotten fruit and vegetables" has done, the thing is, Coddington is right. While many of the bloggers themselves avoid it in their posts, there's an appalling amount of personal abuse and nastyness in the comments of most blogs - and despite the spin from the sewer, it spans both left and right (and sometimes seems to be a deliberate effort to force people out of the conversation, to boot).

This is one of the chief reasons (as well as simple low quality and unoriginality) that the blogosphere is not taken seriously, and the lesson to those who want it to be is simple: buck your ideas up!

(I should also note that this is an excellent opportunity for any of the self-proclaimed advocates for the blogosphere to publish a rebuttal. Anyone interested should start by filling out the form here)

Bush's illegal wiretapping predated 9/11

Last month, we learned that the Bush Administration was engaging in widespread domestic wiretapping in clear violation of US law. The response from the Administration's cheerleaders - and its lawyers - was obvious: the wiretapping was a matter of national security, an unfortunate but necessary response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Furthermore, it was (incorrectly) claimed that it had been implicitly approved by Congress in their September 14th 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Unfortunately, there's a slight problem with this. According to a major story based on declassified NSA documents and NSA staff, President Bush started spying on American citizens before 9/11:

What had long been understood to be protocol in the event that the NSA spied on average Americans was that the agency would black out the identities of those individuals or immediately destroy the information.

But according to people who worked at the NSA as encryption specialists during this time, that's not what happened. On orders from Defense Department officials and President Bush, the agency kept a running list of the names of Americans in its system and made it readily available to a number of senior officials in the Bush administration, these sources said, which in essence meant the NSA was conducting a covert domestic surveillance operation in violation of the law.

James Risen, author of the book State of War and credited with first breaking the story about the NSA's domestic surveillance operations, said President Bush personally authorized a change in the agency's long-standing policies shortly after he was sworn in in 2001.

"The president personally and directly authorized new operations, like the NSA's domestic surveillance program, that almost certainly would never have been approved under normal circumstances and that raised serious legal or political questions," Risen wrote in the book. "Because of the fevered climate created throughout the government by the president and his senior advisers, Bush sent signals of what he wanted done, without explicit presidential orders" and "the most ambitious got the message."

If true, this pretty much blows the Administration's excuses out of the water. Instead, we're left with wacky constitutional theories and the uncomfortable feeling that they listened to American's private phone conversations for the same reason that a dog licks its balls: because they could.


Dick Marty, the Swiss Senator appointed by the Council of Europe to investigate allegations that the US ran a secret European gulag, has concluded that they did. More importantly, he has concluded that European governments were complicit:

"It's not possible to transport people from one place to another in such a manner without the secret services knowing about it," he said.

"What was shocking was the passivity with which we all, in Europe, have welcomed these things.

"Europeans should be less hypocritical and not turn a blind eye. There are those who do the dirty work abroad but there are also those who know when they should close their eyes when that dirty work is being done."


Governments across Europe had been "willingly silent", he said, and it was now time for Europeans to decide whether they would continue to tolerate the illegal actions of the CIA.

I think the answer from European voters will be an overwhelming "no". The question is whether their governments will listen to it, or whether they will continue to betray their own people's values in favour of those of American torturers.

The Dutch won't get fooled again

In a few weeks time, the Dutch Parliament will vote on whether to send troops to Afghanistan. The move is part of a NATO deployment to cover the partial withdrawal of US forces. But there's a sticking point: the Dutch Parliament isn't as keen to put their troops in harm's way, and the coalition tensions could cause the fall of the Dutch government.

Both the opposition Green and Socialist parties are firmly against deployment. but more significantly, so is the liberal D66 party, which is currently part of the ruling coalition. The chief concern is that while the troops would officially be engaged in reconstruction work, they would be doing so in Uruzgan province - one of Afghanistan's most dangerous areas, and effectively a war zone. There are also concerns about "mission creep" - being dragged from reconstruction work into destroying opium crops, or worse, outright combat operations against Taleban forces as part of America's "Operation Enduring Freedom". While the Dutch may want to help Afghanistan (and they're already doing exactly that as a significant contributor to the ISAF mission), there's simply no appetite to become embroiled in what one politician has called "an American war under a Nato flag".

It's difficult to escape the conclusion that America's mishandling of Iraq is playing a role here. The Dutch were among the first to volunteer for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, sending 1200 troops; they lost two soldiers and a civilian engineer when "peacekeeping" turned to combat. Having been burned once by the Americans, they don't seem to want to get burned again. And who can really blame them?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The ghost of Franco

While we in New Zealand have been focusing on the Fijian Army's threats against its government, there's been a similar situation happening on the other side of the world. Last week, the commander of Spain's land forces, Lt General José Mena Aguado, threatened to step in to "guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain" if the Spanish Parliament granted greater autonomy to Catalonia (quote from Spanish coverage, translated here). He was immediately placed under house arrest, and his threat was denounced across the political spectrum (with the notable exception of the right-wing People's Party. Now, on the recommendation of his superiors, General Aguado has been sacked.

Like Fiji, Spain has a history of military intervention in politics, going all the way back to the Spanish Civil War. There were also coup attempts in 1978 and 1981 - in both cases led by military officers who refused to accept democracy. In this case, things have been quickly squashed - but General Aguado's comments are a sign that at least parts of the Spanish military still adhere to dangerous notions of "saving" Spain from the perceived mistakes of democratic government. General Franco may be dead, but his ghost is still haunting Spain...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Freedom vs duty

In a post on the British Labour Minister Aneurin Bevan, the "father of the NHS", Just Left argues:

the dominant discourse in New Zealand, as in most of the rest of the "West", goes something like this:

"The purpose of your life is for you to live it, as you see fit. What you want is what you should have. Government and community should get out of the way, they exist to help you exercise the choices you make."

Whereas Bevan's argument seems to be something like, "with social cooperation to introduce a level of economic equality, there is now surplus and a need to decide in a moral sense what we do with it as a community. Some choices are good and some are not; these are the good ones."

It's a pretty profound difference, and I suspect the Bevanite argument is likely to become more important over time. "Free to Choose" is fine when resources are endless and 'collective' problems are small in scope. In a world that is characterised by energy crisis, global incidents of terrorism, global warming, population pressures - the choices we make inevitably have effects on other people.

As a liberal, I naturally adhere to the first statement. People have disparate visions of the good, and ought to be as free as possible to pursue them. Where I differ from classical liberals and those in the ACT party is a belief that freedom is for everyone, not just the rich. Poverty, ignorance, and ill-health can restrict people's freedom to pursue their vision of the good, every bit as much as physical or economic violence. Thus the need for social welfare, public education, public health, and anti-discrimination legislation. The entire arsenal of the traditional social democratic state is simply a means to an end, the end being allowing people to live the sorts of lives they want to lead.

Where I disagree violently with the second view is with the idea of guiding choices. The purpose of state education is not to teach people which choices are good and which are not, but to enable people to decide for themselves. But then, I don't really see this as incompatible with Bevan's concerns about the spending of social surpluses and the pursuit of community projects - mainly because I don't see either as necessarily impacting on people's ability to lead their lives as they see fit. Instead, it's about competing priorities and whose additional wants (for whatever) will be met first.

(I'd also point out that the liberal conception of educating people to make their own decisions also includes educating them about judging the consequences of those decisions, both individually and collectively (as in "what would happen if everybody did this?") - which is I think as much as is needed to address Bevan's concerns about rejection as well as selection...)

Another area where I differ from classical liberals and the ACT party is a recognition that unfettered self-interest doesn't lead to the best of all worlds. Hobbes is the trivial proof of that, but more generally, it leads to problems such as the tragedy of the commons. It's also government's job to prevent these problems with regulation and legislation as appropriate. While Libertarians like to pretend that these problems simply disappear if you assign property rights to everything, this ignores the fact that some things simply cannot be owned, while others (like, say, people) should not be.

The relevance of this is that many of the problems Jordan sees as encouraging a Bevanite view (and particularly the environmental ones) fall into this class of collective action problems, and are perfectly comprehensible within the liberal paradigm. The problem, as Jordan also points out, is that

politicians these days are very unwilling to tell voters they are wrong, or that what they want is destructive.

Faced with some of the biggest problems we have ever met, we are suffering from a crisis of political leadership. They're not even willing to stand up and make the argument that we are collectively engaged in self-destructive behaviour. But until they do, they've certainly got no right to criticise the rest of us for "refusing to listen"...