Thursday, November 30, 2006

In memorium

In memorium of Don Brash's departure, here's a reminder of what he stood for, from KeepLeft.

No, I won't be missing him at all.

Gone after lunchtime

Radio New Zealand just reported that Don Brash is resigning from Parliament. I guess he realised he was pure political poison in the wake of the publication of Nicky Hager's book, and that the best thing he could do would be go back to the orchard and tend his kiwifruit.

Saying that I am "pleased" would be an understatement. Brash was a corrosive and cancerous influence on New Zealand politics who knowingly and willingly practicised the politics of division, scapegoating New Zealand's most vulnerable in an effort to gain political power. And he was not averse to pandering to the bigot vote (in spite of his supposed liberal principles), or simply making shit up to advance his ambition. His departure will hopefully end some of the viciousness around Parliament, and in the National Party.

As a list MP, Brash will be replaced by Katrina Shanks.

Coming home

New Zealand forces are withdrawing from Tonga. Good. I was deeply uneasy about their presence, particularly in light of the opposition of the Tongan democracy movement, and I'm very glad they didn't have to shoot anyone. The worry now is what happens next time - becuse unless the Tongan monarchy shows some significant progress towards reform, there will be a next time. Are we going to keep propping up a corrupt feudal regime against its own people? Or are we finally going to stop merely whispering about Tongan democracy and lay out the facts of life to the aristocracy: that the old way of lording it over the "dirt eaters" (as they so politiely call their fellow citizens) are no longer sustainable, and they have a choice of either yielding power voluntarily - or having it taken from them by the mob.

Meanwhile, IndyMedia has a pair of activists in Tonga filing reports and photos. You can read them here:

Part 1: Revolutionary not Evolutionary
Part 2: Soldiers and cops wherever you go
Part 3: If a boat ends up on a reef...

In the ballot XIX

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

Criminal Cases Review Tribunal Bill (Richard Worth): This would establish an independent Criminal Cases Review Tribunal to investigate miscarriages of justice and if necessary recommend them to the Court of Appeal or to the Governor-General so that a pardon may be granted. The Tribunal would also recommend compensation where a miscarriage of justice is found to have occurred. The arrangements are modelled on the British Criminal Cases Review Commission.

This is a good bill which will add a useful safeguard to our justice system; I look forward to it being drawn or adopted by the government.

Public Works (Offer Back of and Compensation for Acquired Land) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell): The Public Works Act 1981 empowers the government to acquire land where it is required for a public purpose (such as building a road). Currently, the law requires land taken by such a process to be offered back to the original owners when it is no longer required for public use. This bill would make four major changes. Firstly, it would tighten restrictions on government use, requiring land to be offered back the moment it is not required for the original purpose for which it was taken (so no more taking land for one purpose and then sitting on it), and removing the crown's excuses for not doing so. Secondly, where land was taken without compensation, it would be returned at no cost. Thirdly, it would extend the right of first refusal to the original owners' successors and descendents. Finally, it would provide for solatium payments to former owners as compensation for loss of opportunities where land taken is not used.

The primary target of this is of course crown acquisitions of Maori land under the Public Works Act, which frequently resulted in land taken for one purpose being used for another (or simply lying idle when the government changed its mind). But the underlying principles are fair, and it would require the government to be a lot more careful about compulsory acquisition.

However, there is some rather startling language at the end:

Any other consequential amendments to this or any other Act can be deemed to have been proposed should such be required to ensure that the purpose of this Act is upheld.

This is just cover for sloppy drafting. While lawmakers may miss crucial details (with unfortunate results, requiring retrospective legislation to paper over the mess), they should at least make the effort to do a proper job the first time, rather than just writing themselves a blank cheque.

Ethical Investment (Crown Financial Institutions) Bill (Maryan Street): This bill would require the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, the Government Superannuation Fund and ACC to pursue ethical investment strategies which take into account social responsibility, environmental sustainability, and international human rights norms. It would also require them to report on the extent to which these criteria are taken into account in making investment decisions. If passed, it would be a strong statement of New Zealand's principles, and likely rule out crown investments in tobacco companies, in countries which abuse human rights, or in companies with a reputation for treating their workers badly or unsustainable environmental practices. It might even result in these CFIs joining the Carbon Disclosure Project.

As for how likely it is to pass, it would not have made it to the ballot unless the Labour caucus backed it. Throw in the Greens and possibly the Maori Party, and I suspect it will pass if drawn.

As usual, I'll have more bills as I acquire them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Key on climate change

John Key again seems to be wasting no time in signalling a change in policy direction from National, with a speech today in which he signalled his support for action on climate change, albeit with many caveats and some of the same credibility problems suffered by his predecessor. At the same time, his attack on Helen Clark's proposal for carbon neutrality smacks of bad faith - it is clear that this is intended to be a long-term goal reaching out to around 2050 or so, not something the government is planning on doing tomorrow or next year as National is trying to cast it as. Then there's his attack on the Kyoto Protocol:

Mr Key said the Kyoto agreement was flawed and had done little to constrain New Zealand's emissions which were growing at a faster rate than Australia and the United States which had refused to sign.

But this isn't a problem with the Protocol so much as New Zealand's commitment to it. Successive governments have repeatedly lowered the bar on targets and then dragged their feet on implementing policy. And the National Party has been a key part of this story, backing off from implementing a carbon tax in 1997 (while at the same time signalling that climate change should not be handled through the RMA, leaving us with no solution); kneecapping their own minister Simon Upton's plans for emissions trading in 1999; and working tirelessly to undermine Labour's planned carbon tax as a "threat to economic growth" (and then to add insult to injury, complaining that those policies have not been implemented). We could already have reduced emissions by complying with the Protocol - but thanks to National, we haven't. So their criticising the sole serious international arrangement to combat emissions is just a little bit rich.

As for Key's sole policy proposal of a trans-Tasman carbon market, while its a good idea (the bigger the market, the better), its too late. CP1 begins in 13 months. We no longer have time to waste debating policy and endlessly circling around the questions of points of obligation and permit allocation with the deniers in Canberra. We've been debating it here for a decade, and we know what the solutions are (short answer: it doesn't really matter. What's important is that there is a price). Its time to implement them. If we can hook up with Australia later, that's good, and it makes sense to talk to them - but that must take a back seat to sending a domestic price signal and connecting that price to the international market. Otherwise, we're likely to find ourselves halfway through CP1, and still with no policy - and paying a heavy price for it.

No Brash, no cash

That was the threat made by National's rich and rabid ultra-right backers to cuckoo Don Brash into the party leadership in 2003. And according to this morning's Independent [offline], they now seem to be playing the same game again:

Expect National Party funding to evaporate overnight with the new-look Opposition headed by John Key and Bill English.

That's the word from National's multi-millionaire backers who say most of the millions of dollars pouring into the party's coffers in the past 18 months have been donated because of the "Brash factor" - the expectation former leader Don Brash will stay in charge and drive National Party policy.

On Monday afternoon, that all dried up.

Brash's wealthy commercial backers will not offer similar support to Key and English - at least in the short-term. They will spend the next year assessing the new team, and its policies and attitudes to business, and only then decide whether to open their cheque books.

And people say donors aren't trying to buy policy. These people clearly think they are, and aren't afraid to jerk the financial chain when it looks like they might not get what they want. OTOH, as the article points out, Key's personal wealth may have significantly reduced their leverage - and there's an extremely revealing quote about their view of the role of money in politics:

"He could buy himself the [Prime Minister's] job, without worrying about external funding," The Independent was told. "It's [National] never had such a wealthy aspirant [for the Prime Minister's job]. After all, what's $5 million to someone like John Key?"

(My emphasis; their ellipsis)

To these people, public office is for sale. It's not a question of what the public wants - its just a matter of throwing enough money at the problem. It's an anti-democratic attitude, and precisely why we must have spending limits and transparency laws - otherwise, we won't have a democracy, but rather a democratic screen for plutocracy.

"A tissue of lies"

That's how former National Party leader Don Brash (oh, how I enjoy saying that) describes Nicky Hager's book The Hollow Men. But it seems it better describes Brash's excuses - and specifically his claim that he did not read that email from the Brethren. Quite apart from the obvious unbelievability of this claim - Brash is famous for reading and responding to his emails - there's the inconvenient facts that a) it was forwarded to him by Bryan Sinclair; and b) he responded to Sinclair discussing its contents. But I guess he didn't know what he was talking about, right?

So much for "Honest Don". National, and the country, is well rid of him.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A petty despot

Do we need any more evidence that Fiji's Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama is a petty despot? First, he threatens a coup over the government's plans to grant amnesty to those involved in the 2002 coup. Then, he threatens a coup over proposed legislation to put Fiji's foreshore in the hands of its indigenous people. And now, he's threatening a coup over the prospect that he will be charged over his repeated threats, and threatening the life of the police commissioner. Democracy? The rule of law? All must bow to the demands of the big man with the big gun.

This is nothing more than terrorism, by an agency of the state rather than a non-state actor. Unfortunately, there seems to be little the Fijian government can do about it. The military has already refused lawful orders replacing Commodore Bainimarama, effectively declaring themselves independent of civilian political control. The long-term course of action is clear - disbanding the army as a clear threat to democracy - but the problem is surviving long enough to do so.

Making the right noises

John Key certainly isn't beating around the bush, is he? At his first press conference as leader, he stated loudly and clearly

"I believe in a tolerant and inclusive New Zealand, I believe in a society which is there for the benefit of all New Zealanders, and I think that the future of New Zealand must be a New Zealand that everyone feels they have a stake in."

It's a welcome signal that National will reject the divisive policies of race-baiting and Maori-bashing engaged in under Brash. And at the same time, I think we should wait and see whether its a real rejection, or whether they'll simply move to slightly more subtle dog-whistling. I guess it depends on whether Wayne Mapp's "portfolio" of "Political Correctness Eradication" is disestablished in the post-changeover reshuffle.

Meanwhile, Bill English - who back in 2002 was engaging in a bit of race-baiting and Maori bashing of his own with his "one standard of citizenship for all" campaign - is echoing the new party line [video]:

"Modern New Zealand is multicultural. There's a whole range of people with a whole range of beliefs and cultures. And we're quite comfortable with that."

I wonder if anyone has told Bob Clarkson yet?

Climate change: light in the darkness

Since the government scrapped the carbon tax in December last year, we've been drifting essentially without a policy. While there's a very extensive work programme in motion to devise a new one, there has been precious little from it so far. But according to the Prime Minister in her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday [audio], all this is about to change. Cabinet had discussed

major cabinet papers around climate change, energy, sustainability issues... We've approved for release and consultation in the coming weeks the draft New Zealand Energy Strategy and draft New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy which is being renewed after its first time period, and also a discussion paper on transitional measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and non-transport energy supply prior to longer-term measures kicking in, as well as a discussion paper looking ahead to the post-2012 period and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in that longer term framework. As well there's a major consultation document to go out on land management and climate change issues, dealing with options in forestry and in agriculture. All of those documents across energy, and forestry/agriculture will be released in the pre-christmas period beginning next week, and all of them deal with ways of making New Zealand more sustainable and making a contribution to dealing with the climate change challenge.

("Transitional measures" is policyspeak for a narrower replacement for the carbon tax, either an emissions trading scheme or limited carbon tax applying to electricity generators and major emitters)

These papers will form the core of our new climate change policy, focused on reducing energy emissions by shifting towards renewables, and (hopefully) encouraging forest planting (and maybe forcing farmers to clean their act up as well). But before anyone celebrates, this is the consultation stage - it will be at least another six months to a year before these policies are in place, possibly longer if they require legislation. Which means we might just get a new climate change policy in place in time for the start of CP1 in 2008 - at least five years after we needed it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Climate change: changing their minds

For the past few years, business leaders and major energy consumers waged a campaign against the government's efforts to put a price on carbon via the carbon tax. In December last year, they got what they asked for, and the carbon tax was dumped. Now, it seems, they've changed their minds: at the Energy Future Forum in Wellington last week, business leaders and the energy sector demanded that the government put a price on carbon, including on agricultural emissions. I guess they figured out that the uncertainty of not having a price on carbon was worse than the pain of internalising that externality. But while its great to see the sudden shift in consensus, it would have been nice if it had happened earlier; that way we might have an effective policy, rather than the weak one we seem to be heading towards.

New kiwi blog

Born on State Highway One.

Correa wins in Ecuador?

BBC reports that left-wing candidate Rafael Correa looks to have won Ecuador's Presidential run-off election, with exit polls showing he has an average 14 point lead over rival banana magnate Álvaro Noboa. If confirmed, this will mean that another South-American government has gone anti-Bush - and that the red tide has swept over every South American democracy south of Colombia (the BBC seems to have recoloured Peru blue; I'm not sure why as their new President is a social democrat).

The only country left in South America's year of elections is Venezuela, to be held next weekend. Hugo Chavez is widely expected to win another term, and the question is how his opponents (and the US) will react. They didn't accept democracy when he was re-elected in 2000; will they accept it this time?

(Actually, I completely missed Guyana, where the left-wing People's Progressive Party maintained its lead over the (also left-wing) People's National Congress. I'm not sure why BBC left this one off...)

National - proudly sponsored by the tobacco industry

In Chapter 14 of The Hollow Men, Nicky Hager notes that the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System argued strongly for full transparency of political donations, arguing (among other things) that this would "give valuable information to voters about the character of the parties". Indeed it would - and reading further, you can see why National is so keen to launder donations and keep the identity of their backers secret: because they accept money from some people that most voters would not want any political party to be talking to: the tobacco industry.

At the same June 2005 fundraising dinner attended by Pfizer and Diane Foreman (both of whom stood to gain substantially from National's policies), two tables were sponsored by Carrick Graham, son of former cabinet minister Doug Graham. Hagar notes:

This may have reflected Graham’s personal generosity, but another explanation could be that the event organisers decided for reasons of good taste not to write down the name of the company – British American Tobacco – for which Graham worked as corporate affairs director. He had arranged Brash’s visit to the BAT head office in Auckland a year earlier, when Brash and MP David Carter met all the top executives.

If this is correct, National had invited BAT to be part of the fundraiser and accepted tobacco industry money for the campaign...

You can judge a person by the company they keep, and you can judge a political party by who they accept money from. And on that basis, National keeps some very bad company indeed, with an industry whose business is selling cancer and death. No wonder they want to keep it all secret!

Right-wingers will say (and have been saying) "it's their money, and they can do what they like with it". Indeed they can - but it's our Parliament, and we have a right to know who is backing our parties so we can judge them accordingly. This is precisely the sort of donation the public has an interest in knowing about - and precisely why we must reform our election law to ensure total transparency and make it an offence to obscure the true source of political funding.

How it works in Britain

The British Labour Party has been enmeshed in a funding scandal for the last six months over claims they effectively sold peerages in exchange for donations in the form of low- or interest-free loans. This violates both the UK's Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, and its election funding laws, which require full disclosure of all loans on non-commercial terms. A party secretary who violates these laws face up to a year in jail. Mp's face a more severe penalty: they lose their seats. And as the Independent points out today, this could catch Tony Blair:

The law governing elections, brought in by Mr Blair, calls for full disclosure of loans and the "person or body making such a donation".

Any MP found guilty of withholding such information from the party treasurer would have to resign his seat. Mr Blair, the member for Sedgefield, did not tell Jack Dromey, the party's honorary treasurer, about the loans.


Under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act, an MP who "withholds from the treasurer of a registered party any material information" about donations will have to "vacate the seat or office".

This seems like an effective punishment to me. Isn't it time we introduced it here?

New Fisk

'I think there are enough weapons for the next war'

Was he black or something?

The NYPD have killed a man on his wedding day, gunning him down with over 50 bullets. His crime? Being involved in a traffic accident with an unmarked police van. If this was done by anyone other than the police, the suspects would be being questioned right now - but this being the NYPD, officers are given a day to collude and get their stories straight before being questioned, and most are never even talked to by prosecutors. The result is no effective check on the NYPD's use of lethal force - and more tragedies like this. You'd think that after Amadou Diallo they would have learned their lesson...

This is one reason why I do not want the New Zealand police to be regularly carrying firearms: they are supposed to be there to protect us, not to murder us. They would have to degenerate a long way to reach the levels of unaccountable violence seen in the NYPD, but it is better to keep them off that path entirely.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

No freedom of speech in Yemen

A Yemeni newspaper editor has been jailed for a year and banned from writing for six months after release for publishing the infamous Danish cartoons. Still, there is a plus side - at least he didn't get the death penalty.

As I said when the charges were first filed, this is utterly barbaric. Some of the cartoons may be offensive or in bad taste, some may verge on outright religious vilification (some are also bitingly pointed commentary; opinions as to which falls into which category may vary), but no matter how bad they are, no-one should be going to jail or facing any other punishment for publishing them. Ideas should stand or fall on their merits, not on who has the keys to the prison cells.

Thrown down the stairs

It looks like Gerry Brownlee (who has been quite an effective deputy, judging on his performance in Question Time) has been sacrificed to John Key's desire for an uncontested leadership. So it'll be Key-English after Monday.

I wonder what he's getting in exchange?

Why we need transparency

News from The Hollow Men continues to trickle out, with the Dominion-Post have a good series on some of the key allegations yesterday, and the Herald publishing a short summary today (Public Address also has a guest column, from Danyl Mclauchlan, who occasionally comments here, assessing the book). Meanwhile, I'd like to focus on one of the more interesting aspects: the role of money in politics.

Chapters 14 and 15 take a long hard look at the way National's 2005 election campaign was funded, uncovering the donors behind National's money laundering trusts, and demonstrating that both Don Brash and party president Judy Kirk lied to the public repeatedly with their claims that they "have no idea where the money comes from". Some parts of this, notably National's skirting of election funding laws and the offer of the Talley brothers to provide $1 million through an anonymous front company to support Brash's election - arrangements that "stink", according to electoral law expert Andrew Geddis - have already received solid coverage. But one aspect has been all but ignored by the media: the practice of people and companies "investing" in a political party so as to profit directly from its policies.

For example, Hager notes that pharmaceutical company Pfizer sponsored a table at a fundraising dinner held by National in June 2005 - in the process giving about $5000 to the party. While this is below the $10,000 declaration limit, and so did not need to be declared to the public, Pfizer was very visible and made damn sure that the senior National Party people at the dinner - including Don Brash, John Key, and Judy Kirk - knew exactly who they were and where the money was coming from. Coincidentally, National had promised a bottom-up review of Pharmac - from which Pfizer stood to profit significantly if it weakened or ended Pharmac's single-buyer power (used to squeeze better deals out of the pharmaceutical industry for the benefit of sick New Zealanders). Equally coincidentally, it has also subsequently opposed measures to limit direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. Another table was sponsored by Diane Foreman, on behalf of the Private Hospitals Association, an organisation with the goal of "grow[ing] the private [health] sector to relieve the public sector" - in other words, shuffling patients into private hospitals rather than public ones. Coincidentally again, this is National Party policy, and equally coincidentally, Foreman and her associates would make hundreds of millions of dollars from such a shift.

The most egregious example however is that of the Insurance Council, who reportedly promised National a million dollars because it would privatise ACC - resulting again in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to its members. They then colluded with the party to ensure that the "details" (such as the core idea) of the policy were kept from the public - a textbook example of Brash's "moral obligation to lie" in action. When the policy was leaked, they then worked hand-in-glove with National on the media response.

All of this was of course kept secret from the New Zealand public - and you can see why. It looks pretty suspicious, doesn't it? In fact, if it happened in a poor third-world country, we wouldn't hesitate to call it by its true name: corruption. One hand is clearly washing the other.

As Hager notes,

When National MPs oppose measures to control smoking or gambling, or to allow greater subsidies for or advertising of pharmaceuticals, the public has every right to know whether those interests have been giving the party money.

Unfortunately, thanks to National's laundering of its donations, the public doesn't know, and so cannot judge whether such arrangements are acceptable. Which is precisely the point - National knows that what it is doing is dodgy, and so they hide it.

This is why we need electoral transparency and an end to money laundering and anonymous donations: so the voters can decide for themselves, and hold parties to account at the ballot box. And that fear of accountability is precisely why National opposes such moves.

New Fisk

A French colonial legacy of despair

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Election-rigging in Italy

Oh dear. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, already on trial for fraud and corruption, is now facing another investigation over claims he tried to rig this years Italian election. A left-wing magazine is distributing a documentary DVD claiming that Berlusconi's party had software surreptitiously installed on electronic vote tabulators to flip spoiled ballots into support for Berlusconi. As a result, the number of blank ballots, which has been consistent at around 1.5 million in past elections - declined by two thirds, and Berlusconi almost got another term.

If confirmed, I'd hope that this will result in long jail terms for those involved. Unless of course Berlusconi included election fraud in his last minute law changes to avoid prosecution...

New Fisk

Dragons of Lebanon's past emerge for Gemayel funeral

Friday, November 24, 2006

A corrupt practice

Every time we talk about ending the practice of large anonymous donations to political parties, some right-wing shill pops up and says that its all OK because the politicians don't know who the donors are, and therefore they can't be influenced by them.

It's a lie.

According to The Press, The Hollow Men alleges that National failed to maintain a proper separation between donors and politicians, and allowed big donors to remain anonymous despite knowing their identities:

Hager names top New Zealand businessmen and women as the principal donors to National's 2005 election campaign, including Alan Gibbs, Barry Coleman, Craig Heatley, David Richwhite, Diane Foreman, Doug Myers, Michael Friedlander, Peter Shirtcliffe, Rod Deane, Colin Giltrap, and Michael Horton.

According to the book, donations were made anonymously through the Waitemata Trust, one of a series of secret trusts that gave substantial sums to National at the last election.

Hager's book alleges that Brash and his key advisors were in regular contact with the donors and regularly sought their advice on policy and strategy as well as soliciting funding from them.

There's a name for this: it's called a corrupt electoral practice. Section 214G of the Electoral Act 1993 requires party secretaries to file an annual return of donations, including the name and address of each person donating over $10,000 a year, or just the amount if the donation is anonymous. In order to be considered "anonymous" for the purposes of the Act, both candidates and party administrators must be unaware of the donor's identity (s3(1)). Knowingly making a false return is a corrupt electoral practice and carries a penalty of one year's imprisonment and a $20,000 fine. And from the above, it seems that people in National have been knowingly making false statements, falsely claiming their donors are anonymous while knowing full well who they are and what they want, and using the trusts essentially to launder donations to hide this fact from the public.

Unfortunately, it is now too late to prosecute. Declarations of donations were due by April 30th, and there is a six month time limit for prosecution. So, as in the case of their colluding to violate their spending cap, National gets to piss on the Electoral Act (and the voters) and escape legal punishment.

It's time we put a stop to this sort of political corruption - and the first step should be to outlaw large anonymous donations. Sunlight is the best disinfectant - and if the Gibbs', Shirtcliffes, Richwhites and Deanes of this world are unwilling to donate publicly, it strongly suggests that undue influence is what they were seeking all along.

Correction: As pointed out in the comments, National's donations are all attributed to specifc sources, so this is not a corrupt practice in terms of the Electoral Act. It does however make an absolute mockery of the right's constant claims that anonymous donations are OK because no-one knows who the donors are. National knows who its donors are, it just prefers not to name them. And the reason it does this is to prevent the public from seeing the obvious connections between donors and policy positions - i.e. as a mask for political corruption.

This needs to be fixed. In the UK, it is a crime to knowingly obfuscate the true source of a political donation. This effectively outlaws National-style money laundering, and it is something we should do here.

The shitstorm begins

Now that the injunction has been lifted, journalists are frantically speed-reading their hastily acquired copies of The Hollow Men to uncover the juicy bits. Scoop's "Sludge Report" has already noticed the smoking gun email, sent by the Brethren's campaign manager to both Brash and Key in May 2005 (several months before Brash said he had discussions with the Brethren) and requesting a further meeting to discuss their pamphlet campaign:

Good afternoon Don and John,

Doug Watt and myself enjoyed your presentation this morning at the Millennium Hotel. However as backers of the recent "Wake Up NZ" campaign ($350,000) and as responsible for a very extensive election campaign ($1,000,000) with the sole goal of "Getting Party Votes for National" a meeting following on from our one last week with Steven Joyce is important.

It goes on to talk about the aims of the campaign and concludes with a statement that the author is "essentially working on our/your election campaign full time" (scan [JPEG]).

The Herald expands on the subject here. It seems that national discussed the use of outside groups on defence and education at a campaign strategy meeting as early as February 2005 - and that the pamphlets were discussed with and shown to MPs in June. So much for pleading ignorance.

There's an obvious issue here that this is a far higher degree of collusion than admitted to, and one which means that the Brethren's expenditure should have been both authorised by and attributed to the National Party. Instead, National used a third-party essentially to circumvent its Electoral Act spending limit - something for which they should have been prosecuted for had this information come to light earlier. As with Labour's overspending, it is now too late to prosecute, but we can take steps to stop this from happening again. Allowing parties to circumvent spending limits in this way essentially allows the rich to buy elections - something we should not allow to happen in this country.

Assessing democracy

European Tribune pointed me at an interesting effort by the Economist Intelligence Unit to compile an index of democracy [PDF] to compete with the well-known Freedom House effort. Where Freedom House rates categories on a 1-7 scale, the EIU have a series of 60 binary or trinary questions, grouped into five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil rights. These are then averaged on a 1-10 scale to produce an overall score. The results are what you'd expect, though with a few surprises. Scandinavia and the Netherlands take the top spots, while western European countries dominate the list of full democracies (New Zealand comes in 11th equal). Interestingly, Italy falls into the "flawed" category due to governance and participation problems (meaning corruption, lack of transparency, and lack of confidence in the political system). The US is an odd-man out in the top bracket, having a poorer civil liberties score (thanks to torture and discrimination), and an electoral process rating that belongs well down in the "flawed" category (basically, they can't run clean elections - unlike, say, Chile and Botswana).

The "flawed" category actually seems to be two categories. There's a group of countries with very high ratings in electoral processes and civil liberties, which are held back by poor governance and political culture - basically free and democratic, but it needs time to bed in - and a group with far more mixed scores which seem to be still very much developing towards democratic government (hopefully). Israel is another outlier in this group - it has the electoral, political and cultural characteristics of a full democracy, but held back by an abominable civil liberties score (discrimination, murder, and torture, plus a lack of security).

Because its difficult to get an overall impression from the tables, I've done a map. Full democracies are in green, flawed in yellow, hybrid regimes in orange and authoritarian regimes in red. Microstates and countries for which there was no data (Somalia) are in grey:

(Click for larger version).

It doesn't look so good, but a lot of those yellow areas in South America are well on the way to going green; all they need is a little more time.

Finally, the methodology and questions are published in the back of the article; it would be interesting to compile scores for some of our neighbours (Samoa and Tonga particularly) to see how they rate.

Injunction lifted

Don Brash has bowed to the inevitable and lifted his injunction - allowing The Hollow Men to be published. It should be available in the next few days, and I'm looking forward to reading it to learn exactly how deceitful he's been (and to see who else among National's top echelon is implicated).

New Fisk

Gemayel's mourners know that in Lebanon nothing is what it seems

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dutch election

The Netherlands went to the polls last night in general elections, and in common with European elections of late seem to have produced no clear winner. The ruling Christian Democrats are the largest party, but ther eis no obvious coalition which can be formed on the right. Similarly, no obvious coalition can be formed on the left either. So the result is likely to be similar to that seen in Germany - a centrist coalition between Christian Democrats and Labour, possibly with the Socialists (who have had a runaway success this election) thrown in for good measure. And hopefully this will end the racism and immigrant-bashing seen in the Netherlands of late.

As usual, there is excellent commentary (including a pair of handy guides to the Dutch political landscape) on European Tribune.

And as an interesting point: the Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals) won two seats, becoming the first party ever elected on an animla rights platform. It will be interesting to see how they spend their four years.

Hager gets the scalp

Scoop is reporting that Don Brash has called a press conference to announce that he is stepping down as leader of the National Party. I guess Nicky Hager really did have the goods.

So, who will take his place? Will it be John Key, or will there be enough in The Hollow Men to sink him too?


The unexpected postponement of Meyt's Medicinal Cannabis bill meant that today's ballot was for two bills, not one. The following bills were drawn:

  • Education (National Standards of Literacy and Numeracy) Amendment Bill (Bill English)
  • Education (Establishment of Universities of Technology) Amendment Bill (Brian Donnelly)

Both have previously been covered by an "In the ballot" post.

There were a massive thirteen new bills in today's ballot. In addition to the Greens' "six pack" on climate change, there was also:

  • Parental Leave Entitlement (Lump Sum Payments) Bill (Paula Bennett)
  • Local Electoral (Fair Representation) Amendment Bill (John Carter)
  • Public Works (Offer Back of and Compensation for Acquired Land) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell)
  • Education (Kòhanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa Maori, and Early Childhood Standards) Amendment Bill (Pita Sharples)
  • Ethical Investment (Crown Financial Institutions) Bill (Maryan Street)
  • Summary Proceedings (Enforcement on Sundays) Amendment Bill (Kate Wilkinson)
  • Criminal Cases Review Tribunal Bill (Richard Worth)

Hopefully I'll be able to do an "In the ballot" on some of these next week, depending on whether MPs send me enough information.

"Common standards of illegality and immorality"

For five years now the US has been running a system of extraordinary rendition, flying suspected terrorists around the world so they can be tortured in shitty despotisms. But it seems that they are not the only country engaged in torture by proxy. Salahuddin Amin was arrested in 2004 in connection with an alleged plot to blow up a shopping centre and nightclubs. He was arrested at Heathrow airport, after being detained and questioned in Pakistan, where he was tortured:

Salahuddin Amin was repeatedly beaten, threatened, and witnessed the torture of other detainees while being questioned by the Pakistani security service, the ISI, over an alleged plot to bomb targets in the UK, said his counsel, Patrick O'Connor QC.

Mr Amin was also questioned by British officials, and agents of the security service and MI6 must have turned a blind eye because they would have had particular knowledge of the "notorious" way in which the ISI mistreats its prisoners. "The idea that they didn't know, in general terms, the practices of the ISI, and what was likely to be happening to Mr Amin, will be regarded by you as risible," Mr O'Connor said.

The British government wants to use the "confession" resulting from this process - a confession made at Heathrow airport immediately after his return from Pakistan, but after a long period of questioning in that country by British agents, interspersed with torture by the Pakistanis - as evidence in court. But both British law and the Convention Against Torture absolutely forbid the use of evidence extracted by torture. The British authorities are attempting to finesse their way around this ban by making it a question of timing: if we have someone tortured, and then they confess (after we've promised to take them home - in effect making the end of torture conditional upon confession), is that then admissible? I think that the only answer has to be "no" - otherwise we are effectively sanctioning an obscenity, not to mention introducing unreliable evidence into the justice system.

Amin's lawyer, Patrick O'Connor, asks whether "sharing of the language of war has led those on both sides to share common standards of illegality and immorality". Looking at this case, and the arguments the British government are making, I'd have to say "yes".

Is this the best they can come up with?

So, just when Don Brash is in trouble, Ian Wishart "coincidentally" dumps his "explosive" pile of steaming sewage. While its a vicious smear, at the same time I'm left wondering whether this is really the best they can come up with. Sure, it might be shocking to conservative Christians like Wishart and his Brethren chums, but really, this is the Century of the Anchovy, you know.

More generally, my attitude to this is the same as it was in the case of Don Brash: I don't want to know, and I don't really care. It might be amusing, it might be titillating, it might be unexpected, but fundamentally its none of my business who other people screw, or how, or how many at once, or where, or what they prefer to use as props. Provided everyone involved is a consenting adult, then it is none of my business. I don't want politicians thinking about my bedroom, and I sure as hell don't want to think about theirs.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether National decides to go with the smear, and stands up in Parliament to demand that a Minister account for his (alleged) private sexual behaviour - something for which he has no Ministerial responsibility, unless he was doing it on the office desk - or whether they will treat Wishart's panty sniffing with the scorn it deserves, and vigorously disassociate themselves from their proxy.

Carnival of the Liberals

The twenty-sixth Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Stump Lane.

New Fisk

Civil war in Lebanon

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Probationary employment bill fails

Wayne Mapp's Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill lost its second reading tonight, 67-53, with NZ First joining the Labour - Green - Progressive - Maori Party bloc in voting it down. Listening to some of the speeches, I was shocked by the hysterical claims made in support of the bill - that the economy would collapse if it did not pass, and that employers would simply stop hiring people if they were not allowed to deny them employment rights. Somehow, I don't think this is likely - and if any do, I think that they are the sorts of employers we are all better off without. It is revealing though of the mindset of some National Party MPs, that they think that anything less than treating workers like serfs is a recipe for economic disaster. I guess nineteenth century attitudes about the divine right of capital die hard...

The House also got through the Whangamata marina bill (voted down) and the Airport Authorities (Sale to the Crown) Amendment Bill (sent to committee), so there will be a ballot tomorrow for one bill. I'll post the results and information on any new bills at the usual time.

Evading the law

The National Party claims to have found a way around its impasse over their conveniently "forgotten" GST: purchasing advertising on behalf of charities. This apparently allows them to evade the legal repurcussions, while ensuring that broadcasters get (some of) their money (but only in exchange for giving away another slice of airtime).

So, will they be doing it again next election then?

Update: DPF calls this a "win-win", but there are two clear losers: firstly, TVNZ, the broadcasters, whose money has effectively been given to charity, and the New Zealand public, who get to see a party "mistakenly" violate its broadcasting advertising limits, then evade any punishment. Those limits exist for good reasons - to ensure a level playing field between (the two major) parties, and to ensure that the rich cannot buy their way to political power. But clearly, that is exactly what National thinks it should be able to do.

I'm also not clear on why they think this is avoiding the law. A payment is being made, it is clearly being made for their outstanding broadcasting expenses, and National says that is why it is being made. Surely that should invite prosecution? Are are they hoping to have intimidated the police into submission by claims that enforcing the law would somehow be "biased"?

Six words that spell death

Don't you think he looks tired?

(With apologies to Dr Who)

D-day for probationary employment

Today is a Member's Day, and Wayne Mapp's Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill is due for its second reading. The Maori Party have indicated that they will oppose it, which should see it finished off. But the numbers are tight, and a single defection would be enough to tip the balance. It will be interesting to see which way the votes fall in the end.

Meanwhile, looking at the Order Paper, there have been a number of strategic and not-so-strategic delays which should see at least one bill balloted tomorrow. It almost looks like MPs are trying to maximise the number of private bills they get out...

More National hypocrisy

As I keep pointing out, there's a massive inconsistency between Don Brash's labelling his leaked emails as "stolen", and the Opposition's everyday reliance on leaked material to do its basic job of holding the government to account. This inconsistency was perfectly displayed yesterday at the end of Question Time:

Nicky Wagner: I seek leave to table the leaked internal Ministry for the Environment report—[Interruption]

That "interruption" was the rest of the House guffawing with laughter at the hypocrisy on display.

So, what's the difference here? Is Dr Brash really saying that the difference between a "leak" and "theft" is whether he is on the receiving end? And if so, how does this fit with his slogan of "one law for all"?

Fuck Tonga

A member of the Tongan Royal Family has suggested executing those responsible for last week's riot:

"The people involved should be round up and shot really, we have the death penalty here in Tonga," says Kololiana 'Otuangu Naufahu, a first cousin to the Tongan king.

Indeed they do - but not for arson, or wilful damage, or property crime. According to the Tongan Criminal Offences Act, the only crimes carrying the death penalty are murder and treason. While six people died in the riots, they appear to have been rioters caught within burning buildings. It may therefore be difficult to prove the intent required for murder (assuming they weren't the people who set the fires in the first place). Treason OTOH consists of rebelling against, attempting to depose, or levying war against the monarch. In a sense, that's exactly what the rioters were doing - but at the same time it is a highly political crime, and charging people with treason and threatening to execute them is not going to solve the problem. Rather, it will be tantamount to a declaration of war against the pro-democracy movement - hardly a recipe for a peaceful solution.

Needless to say, I do not think that New Zealand Police should be cooperating with the Tongan regime on a death penalty case. We have a practical ban on extradition in such cases, and this should extend to police cooperation as well. The New Zealand police should not be helping foreign states to murder people, "lawfully" or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Three News tonight reported (sorry, no link) that two of the hundred or so people detained by the Tongan authorities in connection with the riots had died in custody. This stinks to high heaven, and raises the suspicion that the monarchy is now murdering its opponents. Is this really the sort of regime we want to support?

I don't think it is. As I said in the case of Iraq, a regime which institutionalises murder, or which murders its political opponents does not deserve our support. Tonga has been de facto abolitionist, and has not killed anyone for 25 years. If that is going to change, and if they are going to start legally or illegally killing people to keep the nobles in power, we should withdraw our support and leave them to their fate.

Update: (Hopefully) fixed link to Extradition Act.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Unable to function"

A key part of Don Brash's argument to get his rather fishy injunction was the claim that he would be unable to function as an MP or as National's leader if they were published. The implication was that this would be due to personal stress caused by the intrusion into his private life. But the revelation that Nicky Hagar has written a book dishing the the dirt on Don's dodgy dealings shows it in rather a different light. Rather than protecting his privacy, it seems that Brash was protecting his job against the natural consequences of his systematic dishonesty and deceit being revealed to the public. He is, as Hagar notes [JPEG], using claims of personal privacy to dodge political accountability.

Is this really something the courts should be supporting? And is false pretences a good reason to overturn such an injunction?

How they do it in Manukau

Manukau mayor set to meet with police:

Manukau's mayor will meet with police on Tuesday to see what can be done to stem the tide of violence in the region.

And judging by past performance, he will be suggesting a local Act of Parliament massively increasing the penalties for criminal offences committed in Manukau, creating a new local offence of "looking like a crim" punishable by a $25,000 fine and one years imprisonment, and removing the right to silence of anyone apprehended or questioned about a crime in his city...

Asset forfeiture: perverse incentives

According to the latest issues paper on the Police Act Review, the government is floating the idea of funnelling the fruits of asset forfeiture directly into the police budget:

A suggestion sometimes heard is for Police to receive a direct payback for work to break down organised crime networks and seize ill-gotten criminal gains. This model of a direct link between the success of anti-crime policing efforts and resources made available to enforcement agencies is most familiar from the United States of America, where inventive schemes exist which allow assets confiscated from convicted offenders to be made available to the agency responsible for bringing the offenders to justice. High profile cases involving anti-drug work, where motor vehicles, boats, etc., have been re-directed to law enforcement agencies, are occasionally cited as evidence of the value of such schemes.

While the symbolic value of such American initiatives can be acknowledged, legitimate concerns may be expressed about the ability for such schemes to create perverse incentives which could potentially skew some police actions.

That's one way of putting it. Here's another, from Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness:

In California, thirty-one state and federal agents raided Donald P. Scott's 200-acre ranch on the pretext that marijuana was growing there. Scott was inadvertently killed by a deputy sheriff. No evidence of marijuana cultivation was discovered, and a subsequent investigation by the Ventura County's District Attorney's Office found that the drug agents had been motivated partly by a desire to seize the $5 million ranch. They had obtained an appraisal of the property weeks before the raid.

This should be warning enough that allowing the police to benefit directly from asset forfeiture is a bad idea. It encourages stitch-ups and corrupts the justice system, turning it from a question of evidence and guilt or innocence to one of how much the police can take. Even tied funding runs the risk of encouraging such corruption, as it will undoubtedly lead to management setting targets for seizures, which will in turn create pressure on staff to meet them, exactly as high-level budget targets for traffic offences creates pressure to issue speeding tickets. And if we end up with performance bonuses depending in part on the level of asset seizures, then we will create a situation where police officers benefit personally from pursuing forfeitures - an invitation to outright abuse and corruption.

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

Brash's cover-up

In the Herald this morning, John Armstrong examines Don Brash's unique injunction against dissemination of his leaked emails and asks "why now"? The answer is on Stuff: Nicky Hagar was going to launch his book based on the emails today. And it sounds like it would be quite revealing:

The book - The Hollow Men: A Study in the Politics of Deception - was to have been launched today but has been caught by a court injunction obtained by Brash last week forbidding publication of the emails.

Hager called a press conference in Wellington this morning and distributed copies of his preface to the book and a foreword by former National MP Marilyn Waring.

The book is "an extraordinary case study of unprincipled and anti-democratic politics," Hager says in his preface.

Waring, now professor of public policy at Massey University, described the book as "an excellent systems analysis" and "so important".

"This is a story about democracy, and the public of New Zealand deserve to know what they have when they speak of such an ideal," she writes. "I would expect to see much of the evidence set out in the book reported to the Electoral Commission, Parliamentary Services, the police and the Auditor-General."

Unfortunately, thanks to Don's injunction, publication has been halted. So, we won't get to learn exactly how much he lied to the public during the election campaign, or how dirty his dealings were.

There's a rich vein of hypocrisy in this on Brash's part. The opposition - and our political system - relies on leaks every day to hold the government to account. They are a vital part of our democratic system. But what's good for the goose apparently isn't good for the gander, and leaks which would allow the opposition to face similar scrutiny - leaks which, despite their supporters efforts to smear the government, unquestionably came from within the National Party from people dissatisfied with Brash's political direction - are suddenly unethical and illegal, and to be suppressed. And no doubt they'd continue to claim this, while at the same time denouncing any effort by a government ministry to suppress leaked information by similar means. Consistency, it seems, is for other people.

Fortunately the media sees the threat posed by this injunction and is fighting it - and hopefully that means we'll finally be able to find out just how dirty Dr Brash was playing it last year.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Watered down

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill. According to their press release (a press release from a select committee! They should do this more often), they have recommended that the bill proceed,

but with some amendments to clarify that reasonable force can be used when a parent is protecting a child from harm.

However, looking at the actual report, the bill has been watered down so much that it is practically homeopathy. The key problem is that rather than repealing s59, they are replacing it with a clause setting out when parents (and those in the place of parents) may use force against children. The replacement clause would allow "reasonable force" for the purposes of

(a) preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person; or
(b) preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in conduct that amounts to a criminal offence; or
(c) preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in offensive or disruptive behaviour; or
(d) performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting.

The first of these is both clearly reasonable and redundant - s41 of the Crimes Act allows the use of "reasonably necessary" force in order to prevent conduct amounting to suicide, or "the commission of an offence which would be likely to cause immediate and serious injury to the person or property of any one" (which would include the child themselves). Section 48 allows the use of reasonable force in self-defence or the defence of another. The second is reasonable, but at the same time allows force to be used against children where it would not be allowed against adults; there is no blanket defence to assault of "preventing a crime", and defence of property is limited to reasonable force provided you do not strike or harm the person. As for the third, "offensive" or "disruptive" behaviour? How does allowing force in these circumstances differ from allowing it "by way of correction"? This undermines the entire purpose of the bill, and will allow parents to continue to beat their children for being rude ("offensive") or for crying in the supermarket ("disruptive") with impunity. And thanks to that handy "acting in the place of a parent" clause, so will schoolteachers. So much for the ban on corporal punishment in schools.

(The fourth is a catchall clause which pretty much allows anything. Again, how is this different from allowing force "by way of correction"? Is it simply a matter of timing?)

This is a crock, and I'm surprised Bradford agreed to it. It makes things actively worse than the status quo in some respects, while offering no real improvement. If sections 59 (c) and (d) were dropped, I could be persuaded to support it - but as the bill stands at the moment, it does not deserve to pass.

Update: it seems the Children's Commissioner shares my concerns:

"We need to repeal Section 59. Full stop. We don’t need to substitute it with another section that still allows the use of reasonable force under a list of still unclear circumstances that are open to interpretation. Even though a new subsection says that force cannot be used for the purposes of correction, I believe that the parental control definitions will lead to more confusion and argument about what is reasonable and what is not. This must be debated more fully at the second reading of the Bill."

And, ideally, corrected before the bill passes.

Foxes appointed to guard henhouse

A sharp-eyed correspondent has pointed me at a pair of motions on the Order Paper appointing former MPs David Caygill and Roger Sowry as government and opposition representatives respectively to the Representation Commission. For those who don't know, the Representation Commission is the body established under the Electoral Act 1993 to draw electoral boundaries. While there are other members - the Surveyor-General, Government Statistician, Chief Electoral Officer, Chairperson of the Local Government Commission, and an appointed chair - they are supplemented by two members appointed on the nomination of Parliament. And since time immemorial, the two main parties have had a cosy deal to appoint explicitly political representatives to give themselves a say in boundary setting.

This is putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse. In the US, political input into boundary-setting has resulted in systematic gerrymandering, and a ridiculous situation where representatives essentially pick their constituents, rather than the other way round. As a result, fewer than 20% of seats in the House of Representatives are considered contestable; the rest are safe, meaning that their incumbents are effectively unaccountable to the people they are supposed to serve.

In New Zealand, the Representation Commission has done a better job, and there isn't overt gerrymandering. But there's an important principle here that self-interested politicians (or their proxies) should not be helping to draw the boundaries which will help determine who wins and who loses elections. We should be choosing them, not the other way around. If political parties want to have a say, then there is a submission process which is open to the public. They should be using that, rather than abusing their power in this way.

So much for the Manukau Graffiti Bill

The Local Government and Environment Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Manukau City Council (Control of Graffiti) Bill and recommended that it not proceed. The bill would have restricted the sale of spraypaint to minors (those under 18), criminalised the carrying of "graffiti implements", and required those suspected of an offence to provide the police with their name and address, as well as the name and address and whereabouts of anyone connected with it. In addition to concerns about the creation of a patchwork of local jurisdictions with different laws in each, and the creation of new offences already well-covered by existing law, the committee recognised that this violated the Bill of Rights Act's bar on discrimination, as well as the right to silence. And hopefully, that will be the end of it - though in the current Parliament, anything is a possibility. Still, the Maori Party voted against at the First Reading, and their opposition should be enough to sink it.

Meanwhile, what is it with Manukau and draconian "moral panic" bills? Is it something in the water up there, or just a particularly authoritarian mayor?

Something to go to in Wellington

According to IndyMedia, Peace Action Wellington is holding a protest against the presence of New Zealand troops in Tonga:

When: Monday, 20th November, 12:30pm
Where: New Zealand Defence Force Headquarters, Stout St, Wellington.

We should not be helping prop up a feudal monarchy against democracy; rather, we should be helping it to make the transition as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Tonga: On the wrong side

It's offical: we are now on the wrong side in Tonga. The Tongan pro-democracy movement has condemned the intervention of New Zealand and Australian troops:

The movement says the intervention is further proof of the failure of Prime Minister Fred Sevele and his largely non-elected Government.

Pro-democracy movement MP Akilisi Pohiva says the Government failed to heed the warning signs of frustration among the people of Tonga, and its security apparatus failed to ensure law and order when trouble started on the streets of Nuku'alofa.

Mr Pohiva says the death and destruction caused during the riots is a regrettable part of the process of democratic change that is now sweeping the country.

He and his supporters have called on the King to dissolve Parliament and appoint an interim administration comprising the heads of government departments pending fresh fully democratic elections.

Meanwhile, Dr Sitiveni Halapua, one of Tonga's most prominent democrats and the head of the government committee which laid out Tonga's path to democracy, says that we are now "propping the government up against everybody else" and that

there was a belief among some some people in Nuku'alofa that the New Zealand and Australian forces were coming "to make people afraid and to support the government".

Instead, said Halapua, the government should step down so the foreign forces could work with a new leadership.

These are the voices of democratic legitimacy in Tonga, and they are telling us that they do not want us there to put a boot on the throat of Tongan democracy and keep the monarchy in power. And neither do I.

Update: Added link to Sunday Star-Times piece.

Questions for Clark

Some questions for Helen Clark in light of her invitation to George Bush to visit New Zealand:

  • What is the expected cost to the taxpayer of providing security for such a visit, and how many hip replacements would that purchase?
  • Will US bodyguards be permitted to carry firearms?
  • Will they be allowed to bring a minigun?
  • Will she give an assurance that US bodyguards will not be granted diplomatic immunity, and that they will face New Zealand justice if they shoot anyone?
  • Does she agree with the judgement of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that waging a war of aggression is "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole"?
  • Does she agree with the Convention Against Torture that "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture"?
  • Does she feel comfortable inviting a man who authorised torture into our country?
  • Would she invite Pinochet or P W Botha or General Suharto to make a similar visit?
  • Does she think that leaders should be held to account by the international community for crimes such as aggression and torture?
  • Does she think George Bush should be held to account for his crimes?
  • Will New Zealanders be forbidden to look out their windows or stand on their balconies to view the passing motorcade, as happened when President Bush visited Mainz in 2005?
  • Will New Zealanders be confined in "free speech zones", as routinely happens in the US to those protesting against the president?
  • Will she give an assurance that New Zealanders' right to protest will not be compromised during this visit?

Hopefully someone will grill Clark in Parliament over this; her answers should be interesting, to say the least.

Say "No" to George Bush

So, Helen Clark went to APEC to strut her stuff on the world stage - and while she was there, she got them to put climate change on the agenda, which is something of an achievement given the presence of both the US and Australia. Unfortunately, she then went and spoiled it all by inviting George Bush to visit New Zealand next year.

This is a mistake. Quite apart from not wanting to put up with his paranoid security - the hundreds of armed bodyguards, the rooftop snipers, the helicopters and minigun - and the resulting cost and disruption, his hostile attitude to public protest (which will no doubt infect our police in the leadup to any visit), or his vain demands for adulation at any speech, the man is a war criminal who authorised torture. The only reason we should be inviting him to our country is so he can be arrested and extradited to The Hague to stand trial.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New Fisk

A terrible legacy of hatred and death

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Dutch torture

In 2003, the Dutch government sent 1400 troops to Iraq as part of America's "coalition of the willing". Now, we learn that they abused prisoners in their care:

Prisoners were forced to wear darkened goggles, which were periodically removed to allow them to be exposed to bright light, the report said.

They were kept awake for long periods by being drenched with water and forced to listen to high-pitched sounds, it added.

There is no question (as far as the Dutch are concerned) that this is a violation of both international and Dutch law, and prosecutions will likely follow. According to European Tribune (which is an excellent resource for getting European news and commentary in translation), debate is centering on whether it qualifies as "torture" in terms of the Convention Against Torture, and therefore whether the soldiers involved will be charged with war crimes. Interestingly, the abuses were reported at the time, but there were no prosecutions; the government seems to have decided to sweep the whole affair under the carpet. To have this news break just days from an election is explosive, to say the least...

Why rioting for democracy is a bad idea

Six dead in Tonga Riots. Speaks for itself, really.

Meanwhile, Tonga has apparently asked New Zealand for military assistance to restore order. I am deeply uneasy about this. It's one thing to stop people from killing one another, but this smacks of propping up a corrupt feudal regime. And if that regime fails to deliver on its promises of democratic reform, and another riot happens, will we see New Zealand soldiers gunning down Tongans to keep a kleptocrat in power?

Any military assistance must be conditional on the Tongan government keeping its promises and making substantial progress towards democracy. And if they renege or delay too long, we should leave them to their fate.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Government snubs Carbon Disclosure Project

Back in September, I blogged about the release of the latest Carbon Disclosure Project - an attempt by major institutional investors to get major companies to disclose information about their greenhouse gas emissions, the risks they faced from climate change, and what steps they were taking to manage those risks and keep their shareholder's money safe. At the time, I noted that New Zealand companies didn't want to talk about climate change - very few had bothered to respond, and only one had made their response public. Also surprising was the fact that government-owned companies such as Air New Zealand had refused to participate, and that the New Zealand Superannuation Fund was not on the list of signatories, and was not using its weight in the New Zealand market to encourage greater disclosure (if only for its own purposes).

So, I wrote to Michael Cullen asking him to use his power as shareholding Minister in Air New Zealand to force that company to participate in future, and to direct the Cullen Fund to sign up for the CDP. Both of these would help send a message to the market that climate change mattered, and that it would affect investment decisions. Today, I received his response:

Thankyou for your letter of 20 September 2006 about the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). I appreciate you bringing this initiative to my attention. I agree that the responses of public companies, especially large emitters, to the challenges of addressing climate change will be of increasing importance to many investors. The CDP is anticipating this trend, and I welcome the initiative.

You suggest that I should issue a direction to Air New Zealand and the Guardians of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to take part in the CDP. I am reluctant to give such directions. The government has important roles in promulgating an increased awareness of climate change in New Zealand, and in developing clear and sustainable climate change policies. Companies and investors that operate in New Zealand should be able to make investment and production decisions that take account of such policies. You will be aware that the government is in the process of consulting the public on refinements and enhancements to New Zealand's climate change policy.

Some companies and investors will be attracted to the information that can be generated through the CDP. However, I would prefer to leave decisions about whether and when companies should participate in such a scheme to the companies themselves. They are best placed to assess the net benefits of such participation. If more transparent disclosure of carbon information proves to be important in attracting capital, no doubt that will be a factor in those decisions.

So, in short, he recognises that the CDP is a valuable exercise in helping investors make long-term decisions, but he is unwilling to use the government's power as an investor either to encourage this trend, or to help ensure our money is kept safe. Instead, he seems to think the market will just magically sort the whole problem out, without any need for the government to show any leadership.

Sometimes, I really do despair...

But will they prosecute?

Six months ago, Nepal's king responded to mass protests demanding democracy with bullets. He was eventually forced to submit, and constitutionally emasculated by the newly restored Parliament - but at the cost of 22 lives and more than 5000 wounded. Now, a panel set up to investigate the government's response to the protests has found that King Gyanendra was responsible for the killings. The question now is whether they will prosecute, or whether the aura of monarchy is somehow an excuse for cold-blooded murder.

Tonga: but is it enough?

Yesterday's riots seem to have shocked the Tongan Parliament into action, and produced a promise of democratic reforms. The proportion of democratically elected MPs will rise from slightly under half to two-thirds at the next election in 2008 (one third will still be "elected" by the nobles - giving them on average one MP for every three nobles. I guess some people just count for more than others in Tonga). It doesn't sound like much, but it is the crucial step which will allow the people to force further reforms at their own pace. The question is whether it will be enough, or whether the people will demand more rapid progress such as an end to noble over-representation, a fully democratic electoral system, and a Prime Minister and cabinet drawn solely from Parliament rather than appointed to it.

Support Thomas Yadegary

Thomas Yadegary has been detained without chage or trial for over two years under the Immigration Act. Today, he is challenging that detention in court. The case will be heard at 2:15pm, but GPJA have organised a protest outside for people who wish to show their support:

When: Friday, 17th November, 1pm
Where: Auckland District Court, Hobson St

Naturally, I'm hoping that he will be released. Two years is far too long...

A last big push

And so it comes to this: like a mad dictator in his bunker moving phantom divisions on a map, or an inbred aristocrat in a chateau securely behind the lines, Bush is planning "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq. He wants to throw another 20,000 men into the meat-grinder in Baghdad in the hope of securing the city while he convenes a conference of Iraq's neighbours (including Iran and Syria) to ensure regional stability and bangs some heads together to force Sh'ia and Sunni to put aside their differences. It's a fantasy, of course - as much of a fantasy as Hitler's final offensive to save Berlin, or Haig's "big push" to break through on the Western Front - but in Bush's faith-based reality, sheer willpower triumphs over roadside bombs and RPG-7s. Little facts like the US not having another 20,000 men, Iran and Syria being happy to watch the "Great Satan" drive itself to hell, and the Sh'ia and Sunni being more interested in advancing their own interests than in securing Bush's legacy just don't seem to register. And so men and women will be sent to their deaths for a delusion, because the President can't admit that he made a mistake and that the war is lost.

There is no point in throwing good lives after bad. There is no point in trying to stop a civil war that started twelve months ago. The best America can do now is to stop inflaming the situation, admit defeat, and go home.

Tonga: Rioting for democracy

For the past year, protestors have been camped out outside the Tongan Parliament in Nuku'alofa demanding democratic reform. Today, the Tongan Parliament rebuffed them, refusing to vote on the issue before the end of the Parliamentary term. So, they rioted, trashing government offices and shops, overturning cars, and setting fire to buildings. While royal-owned property (notably Shoreline Power, the electricity monopoly looted by the king) has been specifically targeted, so have a lot of other businesses, and there now seems to be general looting. So far, no-one seems to have been hurt - but an awful lot of people are going to be a lot poorer in the morning, and not all of them will be nobles. That's the problem with rioting for democracy: even if you think its morally acceptable to burn out the king and his fellow kleptocrats, a lot of innocent bystanders get hurt in the process. And then, if you win, you have to sit down across the table from them the day after and try and make things work again.

The obvious question is whether this is a one-off riot or the start of a more general attempt to oust the king by force. I guess we'll find out over the next few days. But either way, things haven't got off to a very good start. OTOH, it's also a strong signal to the monarchy: whether its done the hard way or the easy way, change is coming.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Something to go to in Palmerston North

Horizons Manawatu is holding a public forum to discuss water quality in the Manawatu:

When: Friday, 17th November, 1 to 3 pm
Where: Corporate lounge, Arena 2, Pascal St

The forum will be chaired by Steve Maharey.

This has been sparked by public concern over Horizons' decision to allow Fonterra to use the Manawatu River as a sewer,as well as their seemingly lax attitude to water quality in general. Unfortunately, the timing of the meeting (which does seem calculated to limit public involvement) has meant that many environmental groups are boycotting it.

On the plus side, Horizons does seem to be getting the message, announcing that it will be taking a tougher line on those who habitually violate resource consent conditions. This is good to see, but at the same time you have to ask whether they shouldn't have been doing this already.


Back in March, a gang of US soldiers in the town of Mahmudiya raped and murdered a 15 year old girl and killed her family. Today, on the eve of his court martial, one of them pled guilty and agreed to testify against the rest. Hopefully, this will help secure their conviction, and show that (in this one case at least) the US military does police its own.

Bush authorised torture

How high up the chain did approval of the US's illegal regime of torture and disappearance come from? All the way from the top, it seems. According to today's Washington post, the CIA has finally acknowledged the existence of a directive from Bush authorising torture:

After years of denials, the CIA has formally acknowledged the existence of two classified documents governing aggressive interrogation and detention policies for terrorism suspects, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

But CIA lawyers say the documents -- memos from President Bush and the Justice Department -- are still so sensitive that no portion can be released to the public.

Rumours about these documents have been floating around for some time - but this is the first time the CIA has confirmed they exist. And now that that's out of the way, the ACLU can go to court to acquire them. There is a compelling public interest in determining whether the President of the United States personally conspired to violate US and international law and commit war crimes, and one that far outweighs any concerns about keeping those interrogation techniques secret (particularly given the level of publicity around US torture and the similar directives from other US officials which have already been released). The security classification system does not exist to hide evidence of government wrongdoing – but that is exactly what it is being used for here.

Unfortunately, the passage of the Military Commissions Act means that Bush will not be able to be charged with war crimes or torture in a US court (that was the point - to cover the President's arse from any future administration with a shred of conscience and concern for law). But this information may result in him one day facing charges in other countries or before an international tribunal. And the sooner, the better.

Britain's petty authoritarianism

The British government is about to lay out its legislative programme for thenext year in the Queen's Speech, and it is expected to include another unhealthy does of authoritarian anti-terrorism legislation, including another stab at introducing 90 days detention without trial for terrorism suspects (because bothering to find people guilty, let alone charge them, before locking them up is so last century). Meanwhile, Home Secretary John Reid is also practicing authoritarianism on a pettier scale: he wants to evict "neighbours from hell" from their homes:

Mr Reid said he wanted to give police the immediate power to close down premises being used for drunken parties, raves, brothels or other persistent antisocial activity, and to "move away from the traditional view that justice has to involve going to court".

Or indeed any testing of the evidence or ability to put both sides of the story (a right fundamental in any justice system). Instead, this will be an instant punishment, akin to a parking fine - except that it involves throwing people out of their homes. It may be "swift", it may even be "effective" (at least at shuffling the underclass out of sight and out of mind) - but it sure as hell won't be "justice".

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

New Fisk

Conflict in the Middle East is Mission Implausible

An abuse of privilege

Former MP Matt Robson has been referred to the Privileges Committee over a comment he made in his "Robson on Politics" newsletter that

The liquor industry’s support for Peter Dunne, as with that of the tobacco, has always meant that he has faithfully delivered his vote for their interests.

The comment was made in the November 1st issue; the reason it is not there now is because Robson apparently had it deleted the same day he posted it. That however was not enough for Peter Dunne, who laid a complaint that it had breached Parliamentary Privilege, claiming that it had breached Standing Order 400(N) which gives as an example of contempt of Parliament

reflecting on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in a member's capacity as a member of the House

According to the Speaker, this exists "to protect members going about the business of the House from unfounded, scurrilous allegations of serious impropriety or corruption". She has therefore referred the matter to the Privileges Committee.

This is an abuse of Parliamentary Privilege which threatens our democracy. Robust criticism and oversight of our representatives is a vital part of democratic government, and not something we should allow to be undermined by self-interested politicians. If a politician feels that their character has been impugned by "unfounded, scurrilous allegations" from a political commentator, they already have a perfectly good remedy available: they can sue for defamation. What they should not be allowed to do is convene a private kangaroo court and hold a show trial for what is effectively lese majeste. Absolute monarchs did that, and its one of the reasons we emasculated them. If Parliament wants to stay in the same business, then maybe its time we emasculated them too.

Note that I am not questioning the right of Parliament to conduct its own affairs and regulate what is said in the House - I am questioning their right to regulate what members of the public say about them, and to do so privately rather than under the same laws the rest of us operate under. This power has been abused in the past, and it is being abused now. It is long past time we ended it.