Monday, July 31, 2006

"Blue Liberals" aren't

Since I seem to be on the topic of dissing National's "liberalism" over the past few days, I couldn't help but be amused by Steve Gray's report on the BlueLib launch last week [audio]. He was invited along as a young, hip, urban, gay liberal with fiscally conservative views - and was surprised that they didn't say the "gay" word all evening. Instead, they seemed to want to keep the whole issue in the closet.

Of course, gay rights are not the be-all and end-all of liberalism - but they are a serious, live issue in New Zealand at the moment, and for a self-proclaimed "liberal" group to fail to mention them is more than a little odd. What is the BlueLibs' position on the Adoption (Equity) Amendment Bill, eliminating the defence of "homosexual panic", or eventually gender-blinding the Marriage Act? I guess having to share a party with people like Wayne Mapp and Murray McCully and Brian Connell means we'll never know...

"Treason" and hypocrisy

There's an old saying that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. If so, Don Brash has been pretty dubious recently. In his immigrant-bashing speech on Friday, he said that

You can’t be a New Zealander and write to foreign newspapers urging a boycott of New Zealand exports, as one would-be citizen did recently in reaction to the publication by two newspapers of some cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

Later that same day, he went even further, and on National Radio's Checkpoint, called such behaviour treason [audio]:

It's quite different, criticising your country, from sending a letter to a foreign newspaper saying "don't buy anything from New Zealand". That's treasonous...

[w]riting to a foreign newspaper saying "do not buy goods from New Zealand" - that it seems to me is verging on treason.

(Original emphasis)

Firstly, Brash is simply wrong. The crime of treason is defined in s73 of the Crimes Act 1961. It includes things like killing or wounding the monarch (a lovely holdover from feudalism there), as well as levying war against New Zealand or using force to overthrow the government (presumably burning the Beehive might be covered as well). It does not include "damaging the New Zealand economy" or "saying things that Don Brash doesn't like". Though possibly Brash will want to change that if ever allowed near power.

But suppose for the sake of argument that we grant Brash his premise, and agree for the sake of argument that telling people not to buy our stuff or otherwise speaking in a way which would potentially damage the New Zealand economy is treason. What then does that say about people who essentially tell tourists not to come here because we're rife with petty crime, or point out that we have no climate change policy and our greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, thus encouraging Europeans not to buy our stuff because we're environmentally dirty. Or indeed, someone who consistently gives speeches - overseas, even - saying that the New Zealand economy is a basket case, sending the clear message to foreigners that they shouldn't invest here?

Don Brash would surely deny that his long history of bagging New Zealand is treasonous in any way, regardless of the possible economic consequences. But then he must extend the same right to everybody else, and accept that their criticisms are also part of the ordinary workings of a democratic society. To adopt any other position would be the height of hypocrisy - and an invitation to be judged by his own standards.

Reliably authoritarian

Despite its recent efforts to brand itself as "liberal", one thing you can still rely on the National Party to be is consistently authoritarian. And so we have their Corrections spokesperson, Simon Power, calling for Tim Selwyn's prison blog - written by snailmail sent to his friend Bomber on the outside - to be banned.

The immediate question - which occurs slightly before the one about how Simon Power thinks he's going to shut down a site hosted in America - is "under what law"? As Corrections point out, prisoners are allowed to write letters, and whether or not they're published elsewhere is nothing to do with them. But instead of considering such questions, Power's reaction is knee-jerk and reflexive: he sees something he doesn't like, and he wants it banned. And given what his leader was saying on Friday, it seems that this is just par for the course for National...


To the dickheads who vandalised the Lower Hutt Islamic Centre overnight: thankyou for making me ashamed to be a New Zealander. Religious hatred is not what this country is supposed to be about...

New Fisk

Under fire in Beirut

Limiting criticism

Anyone who has read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy knows how those in power limit public criticism over controversial plans: they make them "available for public consultation" - in a dark basement, inside the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "beware of the leopard". This appears to be what the government is doing over its Maori Purposes Bill

The bill would controversially amend the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 to set a final deadline for filing historical Treaty claims. It passed its first reading last month, and has since been before the Maori Affairs select committee. That committee hasn't advertised for submissions yet (a current list of bills which have advertised is here), but according to the Office of the Clerk's list of bills before select committees, it has set a closing date for submissions of August 18th. Which leaves submitters just over two weeks to put something together and get it in the post, rather than the usual month or two. For a bill as controversial as this one, it smacks just a little of attempting to limit submissions and public criticism...

If you're interested in this bill (and I certainly am), I'd suggest starting to put something together now. I'll post the full details of how many copies are needed and where to send them as they come to hand.

Punishment without trial in Rotorua

What is it with local government and authoritarianism? First, we had Manukau City Council trying to get permission for draconian bylaws against graffiti and street prostitution. Then we had Wanganui City Council trying to get a bylaw allowing them to ban gang patches - a clear breach of the freedoms of expression, association, and movement. And now we have Rotorua District Council wanting to issue trespass notices against "serial offenders" barring them from the city's CBD. Under the Trespass Act 1980, anyone violating such an order would be liable to up to three months imprisonment. The move has the full support of local police, but then, it would - it allows them to dispense with the whole messy business of collecting evidence and proving cases, and allows them to punish on prejudice rather than proof.

The proposal violates various sections of the Bill of Rights Act, including the freedom of movement and ban on retroactive penalties, but at its heart it is something more sinister: punishment without trial. And this is not something we should be allowing in New Zealand. If the Rotorua police want to "keep criminals off the streets", they should do their fucking job and prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury of their peers - not try and do an end run around the entire legal process.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

New Fisk

The truth of Blair's 'urgent diplomacy'

Saturday, July 29, 2006

New Fisk

On a Red Cross mission of mercy when Israeli air force came calling

Friday, July 28, 2006

Chinese origins?

Great. Winston goes overseas, and demonstrates his clear misunderstanding of history by telling people that Maori are from China:

My point is very simple, that the indigenous people of New Zealand came from China. The first New Zealanders came from China. I don't think you can take it further than that.

This is true, but only in the same sense that your average Pakeha "comes from" Denmark or the Eurasian steppe or Africa - that is, that at some time in the past, their distant ancestors lived there. And it ignores the fact that those ancestors lived in quite a lot of places on the way to New Zealand - including (roughly) the Bismarck Archipelago, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Samoa. I'm not sure why the Chinese (or rather, Taiwanese) aspect is stressed more than the other parts of the story, or indeed more than the ultimate African origin of all humanity. But maybe I'm just wierd...

Immigration, "bedrock values", and tolerance

Don Brash is bashing immigrants again, this time by demanding that all immigrants should accept New Zealand's "bedrock values", which he describes as: acceptance of democracy and the rule of law, religious and personal freedom, and legal equality of the sexes. If you don’t accept these fundamentals, then New Zealand isn’t the place for you.

Put another way, we should not welcome those who want to live in New Zealand but reject core aspects of New Zealand culture.

Interestingly, Brash's backers in the Exclusive Brethren "reject core aspects of New Zealand culture", and refuse to accept religious and personal freedom and equality of the sexes. Does that mean we should kick them out, or not let their friends come here?

The Brethren are an easy example, but there's a general point here: toleration also applies to the intolerant. Social liberalism and the acceptance of personal and religious freedom and non-discrimination necessarily entails accepting those who disagree with those freedoms. And there's no question that we accept this principle; if you point out to someone that there are fundamentalist Christians out there who believe that everyone should be forced to believe as they do and abide by "God's Law", or that there are good old fashioned misogynists who think that women are inferior, or outright racists who think the same of Maori or non-whites in general, you'll almost certainly be told that, while their views may be highly disagreeable, its their right to think that (people might even quote Voltaire at you). Nobody seriously suggests rounding up authoritarians, sexists, bigots, racists, and NZ First voters for deportation or extermination to preserve our tolerant, liberal society. Instead, we accept that accepting them is part and parcel of toleration, and that their views can be dealt with though the democratic process and social debate.

So why the hell do people think any differently of new immigrants?

I think the answer is that, while masked by praise of liberalism and tolerance, this is in fact a rejection of those values. Brash is even explicit about it:

In most respects, it’s a question of quantity and of balance. Diversity is a bit like red wine: a certain amount is good for one’s health; too much too quickly alters your personality and can be thoroughly bad.

Except that diversity isn't a foreign substance introduced into the body politic by immigration - its something that comes from every single one of us. While recent immigrants are one example of diversity, the vast majority of it is entirely internal, stemming from the different ways we lead our lives. Saying that we should only have "a certain amount of diversity" is saying that the life choices of New Zealanders - be they personal, religious, political, sexual or social - should be constrained to conform to some mythical "mainstream", so that old farts like Don Brash aren't confronted with the fact that people don't really think or worship or eat or fuck like them any more. This isn't "liberal", and it sure as hell isn't "tolerant".

Leaky homes and defective goods

The government is planning to require that buildings which have been the subject of a claim to the Weathertight Homes Resolution Service have the fact noted on the title - and owners are outraged. But while I can understand their outrage - who wants to see their home devalued? - I don't have any sympathy for their desire to hide behind secrecy. Noting the problem on the title means that potential buyers will know exactly what they are getting, and adjust their price accordingly. By contrast, the only beneficiaries of secrecy are the unscrupulous who want to dump their damaged homes on some sucker and then laugh all the way to the bank. We don't allow anyone else to knowingly sell defective goods - so why should we treat leaky homes any differently?

In the ballot XIV

Another batch of Member's Bills currently in the ballot. Previous batches are indexed here:

Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill (Darien Fenton): Not technically in the ballot anymore, as it has been drawn - but its not on Knowledge Basket yet either, and there's been little fanfare about it being drawn. The bill would amend (and rename) the Minimum Wage Act 1983 to create a minimum rate of remuneration for contracts for services, such as those being increasingly used to evade employment law at the bottom end of the labour market, or governing the work of people like circular deliverers, or tradesmen such as tilers or painters. it would also extend the jurisdiction of the Employment Relations Authority to allow the minimum to be enforced.

It is unclear how Taito Phillip Field feels about this bill.

Regulatory Responsibility Bill (Rodney Hide): This bill would require all laws and regulations to comply with a set of principles of "responsible regulatory management". The principles themselves are heavily based in Libertarian ideology, and require that (for example) Acts and regulations preserve "freedom of contract and the right to property" and "preserve and respect causes of action at common law that have provided long-standing protection against harm caused by strangers". They would also bar any changes to existing structures of legal rights unless it would serve an "essential public interest" (defined in narrow economic terms), and require full compensation (including a share of any future benefits) for any "impairment" of rights. It is, in other words, Gordon Copeland's New Zealand Bill of Rights (Private Property Rights) Amendment Bill on steroids, and while it is not legally enforceable (unlike Copeland's bill), the practical effect would be to make it very difficult for the government to regulate or legislate to, for example, limit pollution or redress existing inequalities unless it could be shown to be financially profitable to do so.

Airport Authorities (Sale to the Crown) Amendment Bill (Darren Hughes): Darren Hughes represents Otaki, and one of the concerns in his electorate is Paraparaumu Airport. This was flogged off for a song by the National government in 1995, in violation of its duties under the Treaty of Waitangi and the Public Works Act, and much of it has now been onsold for windfall profits by a succession of buyers, to the anger of the local community (who are seeing their airport disappear) and former owners and local Maori. The bill would aim to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future, by amending the Airport Authorities Act 1966 to provide for the Crown to have first right of purchase on any airport land when it came up for sale, thus giving the government the option of purchase to keep an airport running. It would also require airport companies to consult with the Ministry of Transport over their duties under the Public Works Act, which should ensure that land taken under the Act is returned to its original owners rather than being onsold.

As usual, I'll have more bills as they trickle in.

New Fisk

Smoke signals from the battle of Bint Jbeil send a warning to Israel

(This seems to include his previous piece as well)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Things to go to in Wellington

The Wellington Palestine Group is holding a public meeting on Monday to discss Israel's bombing of Gaza and Lebanon:

When: Monday, 31st July, 19:30 - 20:30
Where: Crossways Community Centre , Mt Victoria

They are also holding a protest next Friday (August 4th), starting from the Cenotaph on Lambton Quay at 12:30. If you're in Wellington, and angry about what is going on in the Middle East, then this is a good opportunity to show it.


The usual ballot for Member's Bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill (Darien Fenton)
  • Building (Late Consent is a Free Consent) Amendment Bill (Nick Smith)

Unfortunately, I haven't covered either of them; I've been hassling Darien Fenton without response for months, while Smith's bill is a new one (though possibly related to Colin King's Resource Management (Overdue Consents) Amendment Bill). There were also two other news bills: the Country of Origin Food Labelling Bill, from Sue Kedgley, and the Health and Safety in Employment (ILO Convention 155) Amendment Bill from Sue Moroney. Both bills seem self-explanatory from their titles (ILO Convention 155 governes safety in the workplace, and can be found here), but as usual I'll try and get the full details for an In the ballot post.

Labour's bills seem to be slowly trickling out now (they've had a new one in each of the last few ballots), while National is still a long way from its goal of having one for every MP. And there's still nothing from the Maori Party...

New Fisk

Israeli missiles had clearly pierced the very centre of the red cross on the roof of each ambulance

Last time I went through Otaki or Waikanae, there was a large billboard for the Red Cross, saying that the symbol meant "don't shoot" in a hundred or so languages. I guess they now need to add a note down the bottom: "except Hebrew".

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Bloggage will be light for the next couple of days, as I'm fairly busy. I will however be covering Thursday's Members Bill ballot sometime tomorrow evening.

Responding to his electorate

So, US Democrats are outraged at Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's opposition to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, asking "which side is he on in the war on terror?" The answer is his peoples'; al-Maliki is accurately representing the views of his electorate, who like the Lebanese have firsthand experience of what it is like to be pulverised by American-made bombs and artillery shells and collectively punished by an occupying army for the actions of a few among them (see Fallujah). Those US Senators are responding to their electorates too, but the stakes are rather higher for al-Maliki. If Harry Reid or Dick Durbin annoy their voters, then given the benefits of incumbency in the US political system, the worst they'll have to do is raise some more cash to buy some more attack spots whenever they're next up for re-election. Wheras al-Maliki could literally find himself strung up as a collaborator.

Of course, the US didn't spend billions of dollars and 2,500 American lives to have an Iraqi leader who represents his electorate - and one of the Senators is even explicit about it:

"Part of the reason that America was sold on Iraq was to have a staunch ally in the region -- a democratic ally that would back our policies," Schumer said.

Well, it looks like the Iraqis don't want to be the US's clients and faithfully spout the party line whenever America wants them to. So what is the US going to do about it? Bomb them?

Twenty minutes into the future...

Max Headroom was one of the few TV shows to successfully take cyberpunk onto the small screen. Sure, it was low budget, the graphics were cheesy, and it now looks distinctly dated, but the plots they came up with in their setting "twenty minutes into the future" were classic cyberpunk tales of technological and social dystopia, which also commented on the soulless media world of 1987. One of them which I particularly remember involved television networks paying terrorists to blow things up so they'd have something to report on - the media creating the story.

(Yes, I know. The epsiode was about an Evil Rival TV Network who went beyond paying terrorists to blow things up to create news, to paying them to fake blowing things up to create news. Media ethics were somewhat twisted twenty minutes into the future...)

What's disturbing is that it seems to almost be happening. Three men were today acquitted by a British jury of a plot to buy "red mercury" (a mythical material which seems not to really exist) supposedly for the purpose of building a "dirty bomb". The twist? The entire deal was set up as a fake news sting by News of the World "reporter" Mazher Mahmood, the "fake sheikh", who then tipped the police to it. He got his headlines, complete with front page story about how "dangerous terrorists" had been busted by his "newspaper" - and his dupes got to spend two years in jail awaiting trial. Breakthru-TV would be proud...

Dissolution in the Cooks

The Cook Islands will be going to the polls sometime in the next three months after the government called a snap-election. But what's interesting is the dubious circumstances in which this happened, and what it suggests about constitutional structures. Last week, the Cook Islands government lost a by-election to the opposition Cook Islands Party - and with it, its majority. The Cook Islands Parliament was supposed to meet today for a vote of no confidence in the government, to be followed by a confidence vote for a new one. But rather than take its electoral medicine, the government had the Queen's Representative dissolve Parliament and call new elections. As a result, it was not just able to sidestep the confidence motion and cling to power for a further 90 days as a caretaker regime; it was also able to effectively nullify the results of the by-election it had just held by immediately ordering another one. Clearly, if the voters get it "wrong", they'll have to vote again until they get it "right"!

This is a ridiculous situation, which clearly illustrates the defects in the Cooks' constitutional structure - and also in ours. Like the Cook Islands, we have an appointed head of state with the power to dissolve Parliament and call elections, who is bound to exercise that power on the advice of the Prime Minister (in fact, according to the Cabinet Manual, it is the PMs sole prerogative to do so). The problem is that this power can clearly be abused, as it is being in the Cooks. Where a government loses confidence mid-term, the Opposition should at least have a chance to form a replacement - but instead the country is rushing to the polls.

The difference between the Cooks and New Zealand is that here, our Governor-General has signalled that, when confidence is lost, the power to call elections is covered by the "caretaker convention", and requires the support of the majority of the House. The problem is that this has only been signalled in a Viceregal speech - we have no hard and fast law on it, and a future Governor-General could easily change their mind.

The solution to this is codification - to pass a law stipulating exactly what happens when confidence is lost (or at least covering the obvious bases). Otherwise, we might one day find ourselves in the situation the Cooks is in now - heading to the polls in an unnecessary election because those in power have decided the voters got it wrong.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Not just about Treaty clauses

When Labour chose to rely on New Zealand First for confidence and supply, it knew it would have to swallow some dead rats. One of those rats is on the menu tomorrow, in the form of Doug Woolerton's Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill - and Labour's Maori MPs are already gagging. And who can blame them? The bill is an attack on Maori, which seeks to strip all references to the Treaty of Waitangi from legislation (including, ironically, several formal apologies in Treaty Settlement bills, the repeal of which could cast those settlements into doubt). But its worse than that, because the bill wouldn't just repeal the various "Treaty clauses". It would also repeal the jurisdiction of the Waitangi Tribunal to consider some claims, and to compensate some successful claimants.

The guts of the bill is section 4(1), which repeals a long list of enactments. Exactly what they do can be seen in the relevant bills digest. But right at the end, by which time everyone would have stopped paying attention, is this little bit:

(za) section 6(1)(d), section 8(1), and section 8HB of the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975.

What do those clauses do? Section 6 of the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 establishes the basic jurisdiction of the Waitangi Tribunal to hear claims. Section 6 (1) (d) includes in this jurisdiction

any act done or omitted at any time on or after the 6th day of February 1840, or proposed to be done or omitted, by or on behalf of the Crown

This may be bad drafting - the clause is encapsulated by conditions which include a reference to the "principles of the Treaty", and repealing it alone would not prevent the Tribunal from considering past ordinances and regulations, or proposed policies or practices - but "act[s] done or omitted" is somewhat broader than that, and in the context of the other changes, the repeal is somewhat suspicious. Repealing the encapsulating clause would effectively strip the Waitangi Tribunal of all jurisdiction.

Section 8 allows the Tribunal to consider legislation referred to it by resolution of the House, or by a government Minister, to determine whether it is "contrary to the principles of the Treaty". To my knowledge it has never been used (the government will not refer legislation itself), but is in principle the same as the requirement of the Attorney-General to advise on consistency with the BORA.

Section 8HB allows the Tribunal to recommend the return of crown forestry land subject to a well-founded Treaty claim. Repealing it would effectively mean that some claimants might not be able to be compensated by the return of their land, unless it is vested in an SOE.

These aren't "Treaty clauses" by any stretch of the imagination. While they contain the phrase "principles of the Treaty of Waitangi", they don't govern the broad interpretation of legislation. Instead, they actually do things - and things that actually matter. Either NZ First has been doing some very sloppy drafting, or they are attempting to put one over on Parliament. And given the absence of this clause from the version of the bill which was put to the House in June last year, I'd suspect the latter.

And worst of all, Labour is going to vote for this. They have no choice, but it still stinks to high heaven. Regardless of whether it passes or fails, the Maori Party will crucify them for it - and Labour will deserve every bit of vituperation they get over it.

The death of Doha?

Negotiations on the WTO's Doha round have collapsed in acrimony after the US refused to give ground on farm subsidies, and almost certainly will not be completed this year. Which, given that Bush's blanket authority to negotiate trade deals expires soon, may mean that it will not be completed until sometime in 2009, if at all; given the parochial interests of the US Senate, no WTO deal would survive ratification, and countries would be foolish to adjust policy based on toothless promises from a President who cannot back up his decisions. This means that the Doha round is now all but dead - or if not dead, "somewhere between intensive care and the crematorium" (to quote the Indian representative).

This is bad news for New Zealand, and not exactly good news for the world's poor, but I'm not entirely upset by it either. While a rules-based, multilateral trading regime which allows poorer nations free access to rich nations' markets is absolutely vital to lifting the poor out of poverty, such a regime must be fair - and what the US was proposing wasn't. Instead, they were demanding that every dollar less they spent on pork for their farmers was matched by a dollar's worth of new access to developing country markets (and the dollars they were proposing to "sacrifice" weren't the important ones either). In other words, it was the same old scam of demanding a one-sided deal in which the rich get access to poorer nations' economies, while effectively giving up nothing in return. And faced with that sort of bullshit, I think the poor should simply walk away, just as they have done in the past. This time, though, it was the US that walked, rather than give an inch to the consensus the poorer nations had built.

The tragedy here is that the US has scuttled a deal that, while it did not promise anything near what it should have, poorer nations were at least broadly happy with and willing to build on. On the plus side, at least things didn't get any worse, and now we have an opportunity to start from scratch to build a truly fair trade deal, one that works for the poor, rather than just the rich.

Titillation rather than substance

Lawyer Rob Moodie is back in the news, this time for alleging that the judiciary is dominated by a corrupt old boy network. But rather than focusing on his allegations, the good old Dominion Post instead went to town on the way he was protesting against it: by cross-dressing in court. It's a perfect case of titillation rather than substance - and somewhere, in the process, the actual story seems to have been lost.

Here's a hint to the Dom-Posts editors: guys sometimes cross-dress. It may not be common, it may be unintentionally funny, but in this day and age, I'd hardly think of it as "news"...

Update: Moodie's dress sense has now made the Washington Post - still with the same focus on titillation. I guess nothing gets the headlines like a guy in drag...

Something to go to in Wellington

The Council for International Development's pointseven campaign is hosting a debate on New Zealand's level of foreign aid and whether we need to commit to a timetable to achieve our promise of giving 0.7% of GDP in aid. Speakers include former NZAID Minister Marion Hobbs, National's John Hayes (a former MFAT official), former Progressive MP Matt Robson (who established NZAID as a seperate agency), and political commentator Matthew Hooten.

When: Thursday 24th August, 6pm.
Where: Rutherford House, Pipitea Campus, Victoria University (that's the building right over from the train station).
How much: Free.

Should be interesting.

Update: Added note about Matt Robson. I know he's been a strong advocate for more aid, but I couldn't remember exactly what he was a Minister of, other than Corrections.

New Fisk

A war crime?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fisk on National Radio

Robert Fisk was interviewed on Nine To Noon this morning. You can listen to the audio here.

Stick them in a ghetto where we won't have to see them

One of the consistent strands of the National Party over the last two decades (and arguably longer) is that they advocate for taking from those who need, in order to give to those who have. It was apparent in their programme of vicious cuts to public services in order to fund tax cuts in the 90's, as well as their extravagent promises of tax cuts at the last election. And its apparent in the latest piece of education policy announced by Bill English over the weekend:

Education spokesman Bill English says National would wind back the policy of mainstreaming children with severe disabilities and of inclusion of students with behavioural problems.

He told the party's annual conference in Christchurch over the weekend that disruptive behaviour in classes made it difficult for teachers and was the biggest obstacle to children's learning.

And their solution to this "problem" is to stick those students in an educational ghetto, where they won't disrupt the learning of National voters' precious middle-class darlings. The educational chances of those in greatest need will be sacrificed for the benefit of a those who need it least.

Its even more obscene when you consider that, according to the Principal's Federation - people in a position to know, unlike Bill English - mainstreaming is "working reasonably well". But why pay attention to facts, when you can appeal to prejudice to attack some of the most vulnerable people in society?

Authorised and routine

Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke last year, the US government has adopted a consistent line on the torture and abuse of prisoners in its care. Such treatment is an aberration, they say, the product of a few sadists and "bad apples" who will be punished for their crimes.

Unfortunately, it just isn't true. The rot goes deeper than that.

Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has interviewed soldiers who witnessed and in some cases participated in the torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq. And one thing is absolutely consistent from their stories: these activities were authorised and routine, carried out with the full knowledge and support of at least the local chain of command. According to the report's summary:

In all three locations, soldiers witnessed seriously abusive treatment and interrogation of detainees, including beatings, psychological torture of varying kinds, and other physical torture and mistreatment. At Camp Nama, for instance, detainees were regularly stripped naked, subjected to sleep deprivation and extreme cold, placed in painful stress positions, and beaten. At FOB Tiger, they were held without food or water for over 24 hours at a time, in temperatures sometimes exceeding 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and then taken into interrogations where they were beaten and subjected to threats. At Mosul, detainees were regularly subject to extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold, forced exercises, and were threatened with military guard dogs.

In all three locations, the abuses appear to have been part of a regularized process of detainee abuse—“standard operating procedure,” in the words of some of the soldiers.

As usual, its worse when you read the actual details. The creepiest bit is Camp Nama, where in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to prevent soldiers from identifying one another to a future prosecution, there were no ranks, uniforms, or surnames; everyone from the CO down was on a first-name basis. For the military, this is unusual, to say the least.

More evidence that the abuse was condoned is seen in the treatment of those who complained about what was going on. They were discouraged, ignored, and ultimately threatened if they pressed the issue.

HRW is recommending an independent commission to investigate detainee abuse, as well as independent prosecutors to ensure that those responsible are held accountable, all the way up the chain of command. But the chances of that happening under the reign of the President for torture are pretty remote.

New Fisk

A gripping diary of one week in the life and death of Beirut
Once again, truth is the first casualty of war

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Climate Change: Approaching the tipping point in the Amazon

Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers warned of a number of "tipping points" in the global climate system which could dramatically accelerate climate change. One of these was the Amazon rain forest. While we think of the Amazon as one of the wettest places on Earth, isotope studies have shown that it effectively creates its own rain. Moisture blown over from the Atlantic Ocean is constantly absorbed and effectively transported west by transpiration (and then ultimately flows east again in the rivers). Any disruption in this cycle - either in the amount of moisture input, or in the level of transpiration - could therefore have dramatic effects, and models have predicted that the Amazon could disappear and turn into a desert if we see the sorts of temperature rises and climate shifts we are expecting if CO2 emissions continue unchecked. And this in turn would release vast amounts of carbon from rotting trees and warmer soils.

The models Flannery talked about predicted that this could start happening around 2040, and be complete by 2100. But it might be happening sooner than we think - and the culprit is drought. A story in today's Independent (and syndicated to the Herald) reports that the Amazon is highly sensitive to drought, and could suddenly transform to a desert if severe drought persists for two successive years. Here's the interesting bit:

When Dr Dan Nepstead started the experiment in 2002 - by covering a chunk of rainforest the size of a football pitch with plastic panels to see how it would cope without rain - he surrounded it with sophisticated sensors, expecting to record only minor changes.

The trees managed the first year of drought without difficulty.

In the second year, they sunk their roots deeper to find moisture, but survived.

But in year three, they started dying.

Beginning with the tallest the trees started to come crashing down, exposing the forest floor to the drying sun.

By the end of the year the trees had released more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide they have stored during their lives, helping to act as a break on global warming.

Instead they began accelerating the climate change.

How much acceleration? According to the article, the Amazon is estimated to contain 90 billion tons of CO2 - and that if this was released, it would increase the rate of global warming by 50 per cent.

And now for the worse news: the Amazon looks set to be entering its second consecutive year of severe drought.

What's worrying is that, of the identified tipping points - Greenland melting, the Gulf Stream shutting down, the Amazon drying up, West Antarctica breaking lose, and Siberia emitting its vast amount of stored methane - we're getting strong warning signs from all of them. And any of them will speed up the process even further, making it far more likely that the others will happen.

But what's really worrying is that, while we know that these tipping points exist and that positive feedback is a real possibility, we don't know exactly where the thresholds are - and given the inertia in the climate system, we may already have passed them.

Donations in disguise

Most of the attention in the British "cash for peerages" scandal has focused on the effective purchase of seats in the House of Lords in exchange for large loans - something which is illegal under the UK's Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. But there's another aspect as well: the violation of electoral funding laws. The UK's Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires political parties to declare not only political donations, but also any loan not made on commercial terms. And it is now turning out that the "loans" made by those seeking titles seem to fall into this category. The Labour Party has not paid a cent of interest on these loans, despite a nominal interest bill of 436,000 pounds. Meanwhile, it has paid 505,000 pounds of interest on loans Labour officials describe as "commercial, pay-back stuff". The strong implication is that these loans are simply donations in disguise, to be written off at a later date or simply never called due, and that Blair's Labour Party conspired to evade the law - a crime with a penalty of up to a year in jail. So much for "whiter than white" and cleaning up government...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Speaks for itself

U.S. Speeds Up Bomb Delivery for the Israelis

The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said Friday.

And they wonder why their reputation is mud in the Middle East...

Making sense

It's been ten days since Israel began its collective punishment of Lebanon for the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah. Over those ten days, Lebanon's infrastructure - its roads, ports, airport, electricity generators, and a fair amount of Lebanon itself - have been destroyed. Over three hundred Lebanese civilians have been killed (around ten times the number of military casualties), and over half a million displaced. Faced with this devastation and mounting death toll, the international community has been clamouring for a ceasefire. But according to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, that would be a "false promise":

"An immediate ceasefire without political conditions does not make sense," she said.

Well, it would certainly make sense to the Lebanese civilians Israel is murdering to reestablish its "deterrent power". But since when has the US ever given a flying fuck about them?

What is going on in Lebanon is a war crime. And the sooner it is stopped, the better.

New Fisk

This is not Dunkirk. This is Munich
Elegy for Beirut

Friday, July 21, 2006

Something to go to in Auckland

Global Peace and Justice Auckland and the Palestine Human Rights Campaign are holding a protest tomorrow against Israel's bombing of Gaza and Lebanon.

When: Tomorrow (22nd July), 1 pm
Where: Aotea Square.

Update: Meanwhile, if you'd like to do something more concrete than merely expressing outrage, several charities have launched appeals to assist Israel's victims in Lebanon. You can donate through the TEAR Fund by calling 0900 90 777, or visiting their website, or to Caritas by calling 0800 22 10 22 or donating online.

Personal carbon trading?

The British government is considering a radical climate change policy: personal carbon trading:

Under the scheme, all UK citizens from the Queen down would be allocated an identical annual carbon allowance, stored as points on an electronic card similar to Air Miles or supermarket loyalty cards.

Points would be deducted at point of sale for every purchase of non-renewable energy. People who did not use their full allocation, such as families who do not own a car, would be able to sell their surplus carbon points into a central bank.

High energy users could then buy them - motorists who had used their allocation would still be able to buy petrol, with the carbon points drawn from the bank and the cost added to their fuel bills. To reduce total UK emissions, the overall number of points would shrink each year.

This is simply insane. While cap and trade schemes can be useful policy tools, there's no benefit here that you couldn't get with a simple carbon tax or a business-level emissions trading regime in which the costs are passed on to consumers. Either of those options would be easier, less intrusive, and cheaper, as there would be no requirement for an enormous investment in infrastructure for monitoring and policing.

So why is this insane scheme being advanced? To be cynical, it looks like they have a solution - universal smart cards and transaction monitoring - in search of a problem. How long until personal carbon trading is used to justify Blair's Orwellian ID card scheme...?

Climate change policy: the long-term picture

The Energy industry held its annual Energy Summit in Wellington this week. I wasn't there - the $3000 price tag seems to have been designed to keep riff-raff like me out - but Ben Thomas has drawn my attention to a piece he did in the NBR (offline) about a presentation by Solid Energy's Don Elder - and thoughtfully emailed me the powerpoints. Solid Energy has modelled the New Zealand economy and greenhouse emissions out to 2100. Here's the NBR's summary:

According to the study, price-based mechanisms such as a carbon tax are unlikely to deliver emissions reductions. A broad-based tax of $25 on each tonne of CO2-equivalent produced would reduce emissions, but would also lower GDP by over 16% - or $12,000 per person in 2100.

Exemptions on any carbon source in the economy, such as farm animals, would make meeting reduction targets impossible.

The greatest growth in emissions in this century will be transport related. This presents a more intractable problem for New Zealand than other countries, because a bigger proportion of transport is involved in our GDP, rather than private use.

However, if low-cost technology could be produced which mirrored the emissions reductions of known technologies, but across all sectors, emissions targets would be met with minimal effects on GDP.

A couple of comments on this. Firstly, the framing of "climate change policy would lower GDP" is (typically) misleading; what they are talking about is simply a marginally lower growth rate, which naturally leads to a large difference with the "business as usual" scenario if compounded over a long period of time. Even with a $25 carbon tax, the model still predicts that New Zealanders in 2100 will be almost twice as rich as they are today. They'll be less rich then if they'd done nothing - but on the plus side, will be less likely to suffer from severe drought and flooding, or interesting tropical diseases. This being simply a cost-analysis though, designed to select between different policies, those benefits of climate change policy are easily forgotten.

Secondly, to turn the weapon of the enemy against him: that $12,000 in 2100 is worth about $125 today (assuming a 5% discount rate; typically higher rates are used either to justify business investment, or to justify ignoring the long-term costs of climate change).

Thirdly, the conclusions drawn are somewhat influenced by the chosen endpoint of 2100. A "low-cost technology" path results in higher growth than a strong carbon tax, but doesn't result in lower emissions until around 2065 (it isn't even noticeably better than business as usual until after 2025 or so). But one of the absolutely solid conclusions of the IPCC is that the earlier we make emissions reductions, the more likely we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Avoiding real action in favour of waiting 20 years for a technological miracle seems then to be a foolish strategy.

Fourthly, to build on that point: it is absolutely clear from Solid Energy's model that a strong carbon tax will have a significant effect on emissions, while having a negligible effect on economic growth over the next 50 years. Given that that 50-year period is absolutely crucial, this suggests that we should be pursuing a carbon tax, combined with other measures to equalise carbon costs across the economy. The sorts of measures suggested in the Greens' Turn Down The Heat package, in other words.

Moving on to policy conclusions, Elder wants a technology-based policy, and is hot for us to join the AP6 coal-club - both unsurprising, as he is a coal executive. His primary reason is that price-based measures are unlikely to stimulate the necessary investment in R&D, and that

Emissions trading will help get technologies “off the shelf” - it can not get new technologies “onto the shelf”

But demanding that such technologies be developed locally seems to be setting the policy bar far too high. The size of our economy and our relative isolation has meant that New Zealand has always been a "technology taker" rather than a technology leader. Given this, encouraging the rapid and vigorous uptake of overseas developed carbon-reduction technologies - getting it "off the shelf" - would seem to be exactly what we need to do.

As for the AP6, I don't think even its members regard it as anything other than a PR-stunt designed to mask their inaction on climate change. And while the parties are committed to sharing and developing carbon-reduction technology, they also have an obligation to do so under the UNFCCC (to which all are parties). So its unclear exactly what if anything this would gain us, other than positioning us firmly in the camp of those who want to do nothing about climate change.

Despite this, Elder has a couple of good points. Firstly, the government needs to dramatically increase its investment in research on reducing agricultural emissions. These are an unusually large part of our emissions profile, and because we're unique among Annex I countries in having such a large proportion of methane, no-one else is seriously looking at it. Investing in this area directly benefits New Zealand, and any resulting technology will have a worldwide market. Despite this, the government's response always seems to be "next year". Secondly, the government needs to do more to encourage the uptake of clean technologies, by accelerated depreciation rates or tax credits. The Projects Mechanism provided some incentive (and helped kick-start wind-generation in New Zealand), but it was effort to apply for credits, and is currently on hold. We need a better and easier way to encourage this, otherwise we're going to end up paying for past dirty investment for a long time to come.

No credibility

In a press release, National's Nick Smith criticises the government's climate change policies, saying

"New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are growing at four times the rate of Australia and three times the rate of the United States, but still Labour has no policy.

"They have dropped the carbon tax, the fart tax, the incentives for clean energy and the negotiated greenhouse agreements.

"It is an embarrassment that the only initiative on climate change this year is a gumboot, gifted to mayors and councillors with the words 'Are you thinking about climate change?'."

All of this is true (well, most of it; according to the UNFCCC's Key GHG Data compilation, our gross emissions have actually grown slightly less than Australia's since 1990), but it immediately begs the question: what's National's alternative?

Oh, that's right: sticking their head in the sand.

While the government's position is as pathetic as their one on foreign aid, National's outright denialism and opposition to the very policies whose demise it is now supposedly lamenting leaves it with simply no credibility on this issue.

Just icky

A piece in yesterday's Dominion-Post (offline) quoted a US official as saying

The president likes Helen Clark

I just hope he doesn't "like" her in the same way he likes Angela Merkel...

More wind

The Environment Court has approved two wind farms in Hawke's Bay. The first, Hawke's Bay Wind Farms' Maungaharuru site, would have 75 turbines generating 225 MW. The second, at Titiokura, would initially be 48 MW, but has already been granted resource consents for a further 111 MW (though the expansion has also been appealed to the Environment Court). Each of these farms is larger than any in New Zealand at the moment (hell, Maungaharuru is larger than all of them put together), and together they would save around 571,000 tons of CO2.

The interesting part will be construction. With two large wind farms being built in Hawke's Bay, and hopefully Project Westwind near Wellington as well, it will be a race to see which one is up and generating first...

Also in the pipeline, Meridian has started consulting on its proposed Lammermoor wind farm in Central Otago. If this goes ahead, it will initially be around 150 MW, but will expand to over 600 MW, making it New Zealand's third largest power station overall. But it might not be plain sailing; this weeks' Listener has a piece (preview here) on local opposition to the project, and I can't really blame them. Central Otago's landscape could be considered pretty, and I can understand that some might not think turbines will be the best addition to the landscape. But that's what the RMA process is supposed to be about - local communities deciding for themselves what value they attach to things like landscapes and silence, and approving or refusing projects accordingly.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

New Fisk

The child lies like a rag doll - a symbol of the latest Lebanon war

Recognising the Treaty

Yesterday, parliament debated the Justices of the Peace Amendment Bill. It's a boring bill, designed to tweak the rules around JPs and ensure better training - but Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples livened it up with this political hand-grenade:

The political link between the Treaty and its guarantees of equity; including the possibility of equal status with other New Zealanders in article three; is as relevant to the training of Justices of the Peace as it is in any other sector of policy.

And it here that we believe the inclusion of an allegiance, albeit a voluntary one, to Te Tiriti o Waitangi will be very helpful in strengthening the capability of Justices of the Peace to be responsive to the unique constitutional context of Aotearoa.

The Maori Party is introducing a Supplementary Order Paper to be discussed with the Oaths Modernisation Bill when it next comes before this House. The amendments would be introduced to include Te Tiriti o Waitangi in all oaths and affirmations.

(Emphasis added)

I support this plan. While purely symbolic - oaths and affirmations of office are not AFAIK enforceable in the courts - the symbolism is powerful and positive. The Treaty is our founding document, the fundamental compact on which our government and society is based, and regardless of whether it is legally enforceable or not, that fact should be recognised.

Reality mirrors satire

That's the only way of seeing the Nat's plan to brand themselves as cool to appeal to the youth vote. Are they really so desperate that they're lifting their strategies from FaceLift now? Still, it could be worse - they could be trying to market themselves as "sexy" by getting a special nude Gerry Brownlee sealed section into the pages of Cleo...

Here's a suggestion for National: rather then trying this sort of desperate media campaign to brand themselves, they could try actually changing their policies so that they are more likely to appeal to young and woman voters. You know, by removing the cruelty, viciousness, bigotry, and concern only with rich old white men that currently seems to define them. Possibly they could also treat their female MPs with a little more respect as well, rather than regarding them as fit only for the backbenches, the kitchen, and (by extension) the pages of Women's Weekly. But I guess that avoiding having to make real changes, to the possible detriment of the interests of those rich old white men, is precisely the point...

Carnival of the Liberals

The seventeenth Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Brainshrub.


Looking at the Order Paper, I see that Metiria Turei's Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill has been delayed until November 15th. This means there will only be three bills ready for their first reading next Wednesday, which in turn means that there could be a ballot tomorrow to draw a fourth. I'll post details as I receive them.

Update: There will be no ballot, as any new bill would not be available for its first reading next wednesday.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Oppose workplace feudalism!

Wayne Mapp's Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill is slowly working its way through the select committee process, and meanwhile opposition is growing. The EPMU's 90-day notice period for action against the bill expires tomorrow, and the pan-union Work Rights, our right! campaign is marking the date by holding a rally outside Parliament, starting at 12:30. If you oppose the return of workplace feudalism and employers having absolute and arbitrary power over their workers, then show up and let the politicians know about it.

Christians for child abuse

Fundamentalist Christian group Family Integrity has produced a smacking how-to guide, which recommends that parents subject their children to prolonged (10 - 15 minute) beatings to drive out "sinful manifestations". This can only be described as child abuse, and if the current law allows it, then that would seem to be an excellent reason for repeal.

This says it all

Via Political Animal, US Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker on how the US is doing in Iraq:

The question was, do I think we're winning in Iraq?....

[Long silence, sound of papers shuffling.]

I, y’know....

[Another silence.]

I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.

Which, in the face of news like this, makes you wonder what they think "losing" would look like.

Rudman on sedition

The Herald's Brian Rudman responds to the sentencing of Tim Selwyn with a call for people to speak up and scrap the old sedition law:

The jailing of Tim Selwyn for sedition should send a shiver up the spine of anyone whose business is words and ideas. And in a free and open democracy, that's every one of us.

That the police, off their own bat, can prosecute a pamphleteer for sedition, persuading a jury that the Government was in danger of being overthrown unlawfully as a result of his scribblings, drags us into the same class as "guided" democracies such as Singapore.

Rudman points out that statements as seditious as Selwyn's were made on an almost daily basis during recent periods of civil protest (the 60's, the Maori sovereignty movement, the Springbok Tour, nuclear-ship visits, gay rights, women's rights) - and yet none resulted in prosecution, much less the unalwful overthrow of the government. Reviving the law then seems both totally unjustified, and a threat to the greatly enhanced freedom of speech we have won since the 60's. If they could manage without it during the height of the Springbok Tour ("the closest [modern] New Zealand has come to civil war"), then surely we can manage without it now.

Rudman concludes:

Compared with the sixties, we now live in a golden age of free speech and free expression. Who of us would want to go back? The conviction and jailing of someone for exercising this new openness are chilling reminders of those bad old days. The quicker the sedition law is repealed the better.

Obviously, I agree.

New Fisk

'Blow up my city and I'll blow up yours'

The government lies about aid

Keith Locke took the government to task about our pathetic levels of foreign aid in Question Time yesterday, which resulted in this patsy exchange:

Hon Phil Goff: Can the Minister confirm that the increase in development assistance in the Budget last year—21 percent—gave us, in fact, the highest-ever level of official development assistance in this country’s history?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: That is indeed true. We have moved from 0.22 percent to 0.27 percent—and, indeed, next year it is due to reach 0.28 percent—of GDP.

Unfortunately for Cullen, it is demonstrably not true (at least, not in the percentage-of-GDP/GNI terms he is discussing it in). Here's a graph of New Zealand's level of official development assistance expressed as a percentage of GNI.

(Source: here [PDF])

Neither is his previous claim that our aid levels are "almost exactly the weighted average for the OECD countries that give aid". According to the OECD [PDF], the "average country effort" for all OECD donors is 0.47 percent of GNI. Our aid levels are therefore not just significantly below the targets we have agreed to meet, but also below the OECD average. But to be fair, Cullen did say "weighted average"; unfortunately he didn't specify how the figures were weighted, and allow us to determine whether it was relevant, or just a way of making the figures look better.

Is it really too much to ask that the government doesn't respond to criticism with outright lies?

Something is rotten in Mangere

I spent some time last night this morning reading the Ingram Report [PDF] into the allegations against Taito Phillip Field. The government is naturally focussing on the news that the original allegation - that Field had had a desperate Thai man do construction work on his house in Samoa in exchange for immigration assistance - turns out not to be supported by the evidence. Instead, Field had arranged to help the man by getting him out of the country so he could reapply legally for a permit, and he had then been employed without Field's initial knowledge by his family in Samoa. So, it really was all due to an abundance of kindness on Field's part. But even here, Field hardly comes out covered in glory; there were significant lapses of judgement in not stopping the work the moment he learned of it, and in not informing Associate Immigration Minister Damien O'Connor (who Field had been lobbying on the man's behalf) of their new relationship. While not hanging offences, I think we should expect more responsible behaviour from Ministers, and this alone should mean that Field never again holds a Ministerial warrant.

More concerning are the other allegations, that Field had had large groups of Thai immigrants work on refurbishing his properties in return for immigration assistance. While the investigation was hampered by the refusal of many of those involved to speak with Ingram, he concludes that it may have occurred in the case of the house in Samoa, and definitely occurred in New Zealand. In at least two cases, a Thai man who had previously been assisted in gaining a work permit and permanent residency, appears to have painted houses for Field, and been significantly underpaid. The report speaks for itself here:

Despite the evidence to the contrary presented by Mr Field and others... I find a strong inference to be drawn that it was Mr Field who arranged, through the agency of Ms Thaivichit, for the painting exercise to be conducted by Mr Chaikhunpol. On the basis of [independent expert evidence], I find that Mr Chaikhunpol was significantly underpaid for the work. There is the further inference that it was out of a sense of gratitude or some sense of obligation in relation to the assistance which Mr Field had provided in Mr Chaikhunpol's immigration application that Mr Chaikhunpol undertook the painting of [address] in August 2005 at a price substantially below market rates.

(Emphasis added)

The above is pretty much duplicated word for word in relation to a second property, and Field seems to have benefited from the arrangement to the tune of several thousand dollars. While a legal case might not be able to be made for corruption - it depends on whether assisting someone in their dealings with a government department is considered to be an act done in the capacity of a Member of Parliament - there is no question that we expect far higher standards of propriety than this. Ministers and MPs must not simply avoid such quid pro quos, they must avoid even the appearance of them. Field has failed that test, and on that basis alone should resign from Parliament. In the meantime, I would hope that the police will undertake a proper investigation and get to the bottom of this matter. Unfortunately, I expect that they will treat questions of official corruption with the same seriousness they treat questions of electoral overspending - namely, none at all.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Clones and individuality

A study to be published in the journal Social Science and Medicine has concluded that human clones would have a sense of individuality. Which is so stunningly obvious that you wonder why they bothered to write a paper on it at all. Apart from the fact of being genetically identical to their donor, a human clone is an ordinary human being. And ordinary human beings tend to see themselves as individuals. Unless you're the sort of person who radically doubts other people's consciousness, and sees everyone around them as an unconscious zombie, there's really no reason to think that clones would be any different.

Unfortunately, far too many people's ideas about cloning seem to be set by bad 70's Science Fiction than the reality. There are reasons not to clone people at the moment - basically, we haven't figured out how to do it properly yet - but worries over individuality aren't one of them.

Selwyn sentenced

Tim Selwyn has been sentenced to two months in prison for sedition and for his role in an axe attack on the Prime Minister's electorate office. He was sentenced to a further 15 months on unrelated fraud charges.

I've already said that the sedition prosecution and verdict (as opposed to the willful damage one) was shameful and an outrage against freedom of speech, and I stand by it. Selwyn should have been - and was - prosecuted for sticking the axe through the window. But he should never have been prosecuted for the pamphlets. While they called for "like-minded New Zealanders to take similar action of their own", this falls far short of the "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theatre" standard which should prevail in a democratic society. They also fell far short of actual incitement, and it is telling that the police chose to resurrect the archiac crime of sedition, with its broad language criminalising not just incitement, but also encouragement of "violence, lawlessness, or disorder", rather than the crime they were indirectly accusing Selwyn of: inciting criminal damage.

The worry now is that the police will use this law to crack down on "non-mainstream" political speech, exactly as they have done in the past. The only way to prevent that is by repealing the law. Hopefully we'll see some progress on that front soon.

Updated: Somehow, I managed to leave the bottom off this when I posted it.

The usual whitewash

The Crown Prosecution Service's decision into the Stockwell shooting has been released, and as expected, its the usual whitewash. No police officer will be charged over Jean Charles de Menezes's death - not the officers who slowly and systematically shot him eight times in the head at close range, or their comrades who botched the surveillance and then tried to falsify evidence to hide the fact. Instead, police department will be prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work Act (the equivalent of OSH regulations) for "failing to provide for the health, safety and welfare" of Mr Menezes. Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission's report into the shooting - on which the CPS decision is based, and which reportedly is highly critical of the police - remains secret. Thus does the British establishment protect its own.

This is simply insulting. A dead man is crying out for justice, and instead the British government is covering its own arse. Fortunately, the de Mezenes family aren't taking this lying down. Their next step will be to push for an inquest, and the full publication of the IPCC report. After that, they may either seek a judicial review of the CPS's decision, or even bring a private prosecution against the officers involved. If the government and authorities won't hold people accountable, then they'll just have to do it themselves...

Monday, July 17, 2006

New Fisk

Divided by war, united by fear

Cutting the strings

The Prime Minister used her press conference today to announce some slight changes to the Letters Patent, the little-known constitutional documents which establish the office of Governor-General and affirm cabinet government in New Zealand. Most of the changes relate to the use of the title "honourable" - the Governor-General will now be entitled to use it as of right, and decisions on awarding it will now be made in Wellington rather than London - but there are also a couple of slightly more significant ones. Firstly, the order of succession for the Administrator of the Government (the person who steps in as Governor-General when the Governor-General is out of the country or dead) is generalised to be the most senior officer of the judiciary. Secondly, the Governor-General no longer has to ask someone in London for permission to leave their own country. It's a minor change, but perfectly in keeping with the slow and progressive cutting of the apron strings we've seen for the last two decades.

There was also some minor snark at the end about whether there would still be "Right Honourables"; the Clark government has steadfastly refused to request that anyone be appointed to Privy Council, either as a judge or senior politician. And quite rightly too - the Privy Council is a British institution, not a New Zealand one, and given the legal and factual independence of New Zealand, it is simply inappropriate for us to be asking to have people appointed to a governing body and highest court of somebody else's country.

Inflation at 4%

And its due in large part to the enormous security premium we are now paying on petrol due to instability in the Middle East.

I blame George Bush...

"Procedural issues"

That's the explanation for the withdrawal of the government's Criminal Proceeds and Instruments Bill, according to spokesperson for the Minister of Justice I talked with today. No elaboration, no hint of which party might be raising those issues, and no answer on when or if the bill might be reintroduced to the House. Meanwhile, it seems that these "procedural issues" have arisen rather suddenly. The government included $8.8 million over four years to implement the bill in May's Budget, while around the same time, Associate Justice Minister Clayton Cosgrove was trumpeting the bill as an "important tool to combat those who are corrupt" which will "permit confiscation orders without the need for a criminal conviction" (which is precisely the problem). So, what's changed this then? While I don't want to see the bill revived, I'd like to at least know who sunk it, so I know who to thank.

All the way to Number 10

The British "cash for peerages" scandal now looks set to reach all the way to Downing Street, with the news that Tony Blair secretly met with key witnesses in the middle of the police investigation, and that Blair's bagman Lord Levy had advised potential peers not to declare and to remove references to large loans made to the Labour party from their nomination forms. Meanwhile, The Observer reports that police have uncovered a paper trail that goes to the 'heart of Downing Street', and that discontent is rising in the Labour ranks. Hopefully, this will finally be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and sees Blair ousted - but Blair is pathologically incapable of admitting that he is ever wrong, and seems to be trying to brazen it out as usual. But I wonder whether those tactics will work on the police...?

Climate Change: the latest inventory

The Climate Change Office quietly released its latest inventory report on Friday. It's been in preparation since April, and is based on 2004 figures. The headline data can be seen in the graph below (stolen from p. 21 of the report):

Emissions dropped slightly last year, but are still well above the 1990 baseline. And the drop itself seems to be mainly due to seasonal fluctuations in electricity generation, rather than any long-term change. In other words, no worse - but no real progress either.

The next interesting data will be the projected balance of units, which is due out in the next month or so. From what David Parker was saying to the Local Government and Environment Committee last month [PDF], the balance is "volatile", and depends a lot on what assumptions are made about the forestry sector (assumptions the government has consistently been very bad at making; even in the 90's they were simply taking last years plantings and projecting it out to 2020, with no allowance made for the ups and downs of the international forestry market). But they also depend on oil prices, and there's just a slight hint there that the estimates they make there will begin to reflect reality far more strongly than they have in the past. This will probably make the figures look better, but serious policy will still be needed, and the government just isn't providing it at the moment.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

New Fisk

What I am watching in Lebanon each day is an outrage

The American dolchstosslegende

Last month's edition of Harper's had an interesting piece on the history of the "stab in the back" myth in America:

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

Read the whole thing - and then read the wikipedia article on the parallel phenomena in Weimer Germany (the original dolchstosslegende). There, the myth of the "stab in the back" was a significant propaganda tool in the rise of the Nazis and the demonisation of socialists, liberals, and Jews. Then look back at the US and the way right-wing voices there are openly preaching the elimination of liberals, while voices critical of the Bush administration find themselves receiving white powder in the mail. It's a worrying trend, and they haven't even officially lost the war yet.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New Fisk

From my home, I saw what the 'war on terror' meant

Asset forfeiture: Discharged

Last year, the government introduced the Criminal Proceeds and Instruments Bill. The bill would have created a new asset forfeiture regime, allowing the assets of "criminals" to be seized without the need for any offence to be proved (or indeed, for them even to be charged). But despite all this bold talk about how they were going to boost revenue by seizing the houses, cars and bank accounts of "crims" (and other random people the police decided to target), the bill hasn't made any further progress; it hung around on the Order Paper for over a year, waiting for its first reading.

Not anymore. There's no sign of it on the latest Order Paper, and it appears to have been discharged. I'm not sure whether this is because the government couldn't find the numbers to pass it, or because they just got sick of seeing it going nowhere, but either way, it's gone.

Needless to say, I am pleased. The bill was a recipe for injustice which inevitably would have seen innocent people lose their life savings solely on suspicion, while allowing kingpins to buy their way out of jail. It would have introduced Ahmed Zaoui standards of evidence into our criminal justice system - and that is something we can do without.

(More posts on asset forfeiture can be found here).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bob Geldof is right; we are pathetic

Bob Geldof has called the government's official development assistance "pathetic". And he's right; we are. A comparison of 2005 official development assistance spending [PDF; sortable version here] shows that we rank second lowest in the world in absolute terms, and 18th out of 22 OECD countries by percentage of GNI. While the former is understandable, most of the other countries being richer than us, the latter is not. As Bob Geldof said, this surely does not represent the spirit of the electorate.

As for Winston's response - claiming that Geldof has his facts wrong - that is even more pathetic. Geldof was entirely right: we spend a miniscule amount on aid, and far less than we have promised. Notoriously, the government won't even set a timetable to achieve that promise, and with the miniscule increase in the last budget, has effectively reneged on its own somewhat pathetic target of increasing aid to 0.35% of GDP by 2010. As for remittances and peacekeeping, these are not aid - and to argue otherwise corrupts the very idea (what next? The US counting the destruction of Iraq as "aid"? Or maybe the tanks and guns they give to Israel to murder Palestinian children?)

The one good point is that New Zealand's aid is, in fact, aid - rather than a disguised corporate welfare programme for New Zealand businesses, and that we have kept our promises to the world's poor on access to our markets. But that's not enough. We've promised 0.7% by 2015, and we should keep that promise.

As for what we can do about it, the Point Seven campaign's advice is good: write to your MP, and tell them you want to see New Zealand keep its promises. Stuff has also asked for feedback on Geldof's comments, so filling out the form here would also help. Previous comment from Labour party activists has been that the government needs to see a strong show of support from the public in order to commit to a substantial increase, and this is an opportunity to provide one.

Belarus: Kozulin jailed

Belarusian opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin has been jailed for five and a half years. His crime? Leading a demonstration demanding free and fair (rather than fixed) elections.

When a government can only maintain power by jailing its opposition, you know that its support is weak. OTOH, tyranny can hold on for a long time this way. I guess we just have to hope that the Belarusian people get sick of their dictator and run him out of town on a rail, as the rest of Eastern Europe did a decade ago...

New Fisk

Beirut waits as Syrian masters send Hezbollah allies into battle

Climate change: a U-turn on methane

I've been reading the Local Government and Environment Committee's report on the estimates for Vote Climate Change and Energy Efficiency [PDF], which includes a long transcript of the evidence given by Climate Change Minister David Parker. During this evidence, National MP Eric Roy asks

[W]hat is your response to those who would say that animal emissions are neutral, because they are consuming plant material that is taking in its carbon from the atmosphere anyway?

Roy's question is simply ignorant; "animal emissions" are methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times worse than the atmospheric carbon dioxide they are effectively eating, so there's nothing "neutral" about them. But Parker's answer is also revealing:

I think there are arguments to be made that, in future international negotiations, New Zealand should be trying to argue that different rules should apply to different sorts of emissions. It seems a logical negotiating position to take that if there are practical technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, you ought to expect greater reductions of carbon dioxide emissions than you would in respect of methane emissions, if there are no technological fixes. That is a position that New Zealand is adopting in international negotiations.

(Emphasis added)

Why is this interesting? Because it is a complete U-turn on our previous position. New Zealand emits a lot of methane (our per-capita methane emissions are nine times the global average), and as Parker notes, we don't see many ways of reducing it short of killing cows and throwing them in a ditch (though strangely, the Europeans have managed to make a 25% cut without such measures). So back in the 90's, when Kyoto was being negotiated, we argued very strongly that all greenhouse gases should be aggregated together, and reduction targets set accordingly, rather than each country having a target for CO2, a target for methane, a target for nitrous oxide etc. Parker is now suggesting a complete reversal of this position, and the setting of seperate targets for methane and CO2. Does he really think the countries we are negotiating with won't notice - or that they'll accept such transparent special pleading from a country which has repeatedly backed away from taking serious steps to meet its obligations?

Evading oversight

Parliament is in recess at the moment (which explains why its been relatively quiet around here), but some select committees have been meeting to review the Estimates of Appropriation in the recent budget. A pile of reports on these was released in the last couple of days (list here), and I've been tipped to some rather interesting criticism in the review of Vote Foreign Affairs and Trade and Vote Official Development Assistance [PDF]. Near the end of the report, there is a note on "supply of information to select committees". Here's what it says:

Some members noted that papers released to the committee in relation to questions filed as part of the estimates process were supplied stamped “Released under the Official Information Act”, carrying deletions citing various sections of the Act as grounds for withholding. This shows a serious misunderstanding of the constitutional obligations of departments of State to Parliament and its select committees. Material sought by select committees as part of the estimates examination is not sought under the Official Information Act. Such material is supplied as part of the department’s obligation to satisfy the committee on the appropriateness of the Estimates for the year. Any sensitive material which the department wishes to withhold should be identified to the committee and the reasons for the requested confidentiality provided. It is then up to the committee to determine whether to pursue the request, to modify the request, or to seek the information on terms that will meet the department’s concerns. We are concerned that such a substantial and senior agency of state such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not understand its obligations to Parliament.

(Emphasis added)

That's a rather mild way of pointing out a serious constitutional issue. Our system of government works on the basis that government departments are accountable to Parliament, which is in turn accountable to the public. Withholding information from a select committee breaks this chain of accountability, and makes it impossible for the public's elected representatives to exercise proper oversight over how the public's money is being spent. MFAT needs to be held to account for this attempt to evade oversight, by the Privileges Committee if necessary.

And while we're on the subject, the report notes that our Official Development Assistance is still only 0.27% of GNI (well short of the 0.7% UN target), and that MFAT expects it to increase to a mere 0.35% of GNI by 2010. We've promised to increase it to 0.7% as part of the UN Millenium Development Goals - but they're not showing much commitment. Instead, like many of the promises made to the poor recently, this one seems like it will simply be quietly forgotten...

Labour has failed the poor

I've spent some time today reading the Ministry of Social Development's New Zealand Living Standards 2004 report. The results of the survey were compared to a version done in 2000, and the comparison was unfavourable, to say the least. You've probably already read the highlights in the paper, but I think they bear repeating, just so their full impact can be felt. Firstly, here's how the overview report [PDF] characterised the economic changes between the two surveys:

Between 2000 and 2004, New Zealand showed a pattern of broad-based growth. Real Gross Domestic product grew at an average 3.7% per year. Unemployment fell from 6.1% in June 2000 to 4.0% in June 2004, the lowest rate in 17 years... Overall, the number of income-tested beneficiaries fell by 44,000 (12%). The number of Unemployment Beneficiaries halved...

Median incomes rose 6.6% over the period and income poverty [defined relative to 1998 median equivalent family income - I/S] fell from 22% to 19% of the population between June 2001 and June 2004...

Given all this good news, you would have expected New Zealanders' living standards to have improved, and for there to be fewer people living in poverty. However, the 2004 survey [PDF] found that the opposite had occurred. Over this period:

  • the average living standard of all New Zealanders fell slightly;
  • the proportion living in conditions categorised as "severe hardship" rose from 5% to 8%;
  • the proportion of children in "severe hardship" rose from 7.9% to 14.1%;
  • the proportion of Maori in "severe hardship" rose from 7.5% to 16.9%;
  • the proportion of Pacific Peoples in "severe hardship" rose from 15.2% to 27.3%;
  • the proportion of those on low incomes (in the bottom third of the income distribution) in "severe hardship" increased from 10.1% to 16.9%; and
  • the proportion of those on income-tested benefits in "severe hardship" increased from 16.7% to 26.1%.

And all of this happened under a Labour government.

To head off the usual complaints about poverty statistics from the right, this is not a relative poverty measure. The Economic Living Standard Index (ELSI) used here asks people basic questions about whether they can afford food, clothing, medicine, or "social participation" - things like whether they have warm bedding or can heat their houses, whether they've put off buying food or medicine because they can't afford it, or whether they can afford to give their kids birthday presents or have their family round for a meal every so often. It is regarded as an extremely robust tool for the measurement of absolute deprivation. While there is some self-rating involved, this does not seem to have distorted the results in any way; neither was there any discernable effect from "consumerism" or changing expectations about access to consumption (though given the goods involved, this was unlikely). In short, this is a real decline in living standards, manifested as a real increase in the number of people who are cold, sick, and hungry.

The government has attempted to spin this by arguing that the survey data predates the introduction of the Working For Families package, and that this will have resulted in a measurable improvement. And they're almost certainly right about this to some extent - greater access to childcare and the accommodation supplement will make a difference. But the vast bulk of Working For Families is focused on the working poor and the middle classes, not those on benefits. Labour's "solution" to the hardship faced by beneficiaries is for them to get a job - something which, to their credit, they've made a lot more worthwhile by improving the minimum wage and enabling unions to fight for pay increases. But while this works for those on the unemployment benefit (at least if you ignore the fact that we have a monetary policy which commits us to a certain level of unemployment), it does nothing to help those on the sickness and invalids benefits, who by definition cannot work. These people - and thanks to the stresses of modern society, there are an increasing number of them - are being effectively left behind, and suffering a decline in living standards as a result.

(The same could be said of beneficiaries more generally. While Labour has shared the fruits of growth far more broadly than National did in the 90's, those on benefits have been effectively excluded, and there has been a significant erosion in benefit levels relative to minimum-wage jobs. And the difference is even worse when you consider the enormous increase in housing costs.)

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Labour has failed the poor. While it has delivered a lot to a great many people, it has failed in its most basic duty to work to improve the lot of those at the bottom of our society. I have no doubt that National would have been worse (hell, National wouldn't even be collecting these statistics), but this is still an indictment of Labour's term in office, and one it will take a long time to live down.