Monday, December 31, 2007

The usual seasonal whine

It's summer, and so Central Otago orchadists are enging in the usual seasonal whine about not being able to get enough workers. Which naturally invites the usual seasonal response: this is not well-paid work (witness this orchard which, when its not trying to screw people with piecework rates, offers the princely sum of $12.50 / hour), and if you offer rates which are barely above minimum wage for work with no security and which is described as hard and hot, it is no surprise if people choose better alternatives. The solution in a market economy (and all these businesses are committed to a market economy, at least insofar as they demand to keep their profits) is to pay your workers more, not whine for a policy change to allow you to continue the same lazy and exploitative business practices as before. And if you can't afford or are unwilling to pay enough to attract workers, then the blunt fact is that your business is no longer profitable, and you should try doing something else with your time.

This stinks

One of the refreshing features of the Labour government over the last eight years has been its honours lists. Rather than rewarding businessmen for fattening their own wallets (something which most people view as its own reward, and unworthy of community recognition), they have instead awarded honours to musicians, artists, and academics; people who have enriched our culture and our comunity as opposed to looting and pillaging it. So its a bit unusual to see expatriate New Zealander Owen Glenn made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit this year for "services to business and the community". While he has made generous donations over the past few years (including $7.5 million to AUT for a new business school), and supported many charitable organisations, primarily his services have been to himself (he lives in a tax haven, for Cthulhu's sake!). More importantly, there's the little fact of his bankrolling Labour's election campaign to the tune of $500,000 a few years back. Which, whichever side of the political fence you sit on, ought to raise alarm bells.

Bluntly, this smells. It reeks. It stinks of payback, of rewarding your donors, of Blairite corruption and the UK's "cash for honours" scandal. And that applies regardless of what he has done. The mere fact of such a large political donation taints the honour. It is simply unseemly for Glenn to be honoured by the government he has helped in such a fashion. And that should be reason enough not to make an award.

Some will no doubt argue (as the supporters of corruption did in the UK) that it is unfair to "penalise" people by denying them honours if they have lent significant financial support to a political party. But the integrity of the process and our political system as a whole is more important than people's sense of entitlement. If someone is truly deserving, then that will be recognised by future governments (and if not, by the community). And even if it is not, it is IMHO better that people go unrecognised (at least officially) than see our honours system descend into political patronage and corruption.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Evolution in action

For decades, industrial melanism was held up as the textbook example of evolution in action. Practically every biology textbook (except possibly those published in Kansas) had the example of the peppered moth, whose dark form had become dominant in response to increased levels of industrial pollution (well, technically due to the light ones being more likely to be eaten as they were more easily seen when sitting on soot-darkened tree-trunks). But a few years ago, someone suggested that the original experiments on differential predation were flawed. Naturally, the Creationists lept at it - evolution had been disproven! But I doubt they'll be so vocal about the latest news on the issue. Cambridge professor Michael Majerus has redone the experiments, and the results support the original hypothesis:

"I conclude that differential bird predation here is a major factor responsible for the decline of carbonaria frequency in Cambridge between 2001 and 2007," Professor Majerus said.

"If the rise and fall of the peppered moth is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action, it should be taught. It provides after all the proof of evolution," he said.

And that proof is now that much stronger and more survivable for the additional testing. Unfortunately, I doubt the Creationists will recognise that either.

(Hat tip: Crooked Timber)

Kenyan elections

Kenya went to the polls yesterday in what is turning out to be a nail-bitingly close election which could herald significant change. Already, twenty Ministers in President Mwai Kibaki's government have lost their seats, while interim results show Kibaki trailing opposition leader Raila Odinga. Kibaki seems to have made up most of the gap stated in that report, but latest results show him still behind by about 230,000 votes. Unfortunately, without a turnout figure, it's difficult to know whether he'll be able to close the gap or not.

If Odinga wins, it will be the first time in Kenya's history that an incumbent President has been defeated at the ballot box. Which is something to celebrate, regardless of what you think of the actual candidates.

New Fisk

They don't blame al-Qa'ida. They blame Musharraf

Political predictions

It's the annual new year predictions season, when journalists combine their inside knowledge, speculation, wishful thinking and outright prejudice in the hope of making their word count in the absence of any actual political news. But while news-starved bloggers tend to lap these up and comment on them as a substitute for real news (witness DPF), few people seem to bother checking afterwards whether they came true - that is, whether our political journalists are any better than astrologers, or whether they can predict anything beyond the political equivalent of "there will be bad weather".

I was in particular wanting to do this for the Herald's Fran O'Sullivan, given her list seems to be well towards the "prejudice and wishful thinking" end of the scale. Unfortunately, I can't find her column for last year (if indeed she did one), and the usual suspects didn't blog about it. But I was able to find the Dominion-Post's predictions for 2007 (courtesy of DPF), and they make interesting reading. And at first glance, they seem to have done pretty well: of the 20 predictions made, nine turned out to be correct (numbers 2, 3, 7, 10, 16, 17, 18, and 19). But on closer inspection, their success is mostly illusory - several of their successful "predictions" were obvious to the point of banal ("A senior cabinet minister will surprise everyone by resigning", "Clark will reshuffle her cabinet" - "there will be a war and a major public figure will die"), while most of the substantive facts in the rest (Jones and Cunliffe's promotions, Mallard's non-promotion, Fitzsimons staying, greater minor party cooperation) were also obvious to those who bothered to follow the news. Which leaves them with the two substantive predictions about National's polling and lack of leadership speculation. Meanwhile, every other substantive prediction they made - on tax cuts, National announcing actual policy, Winston being rolled and the Progressives evaporating, and of course the National Party voting to evict money from politics - turned out to be wrong.

It will be interesting then to see how they do with their 2008 predictions. Still, with "predictions" like numbers 8 and 13 ( a retirement and a scandal? Who would have guessed?), they'll probably do at least as well as the astrologers.

Friday, December 28, 2007

In passing

The usual Christmas media slowdown has hit with a vengeance, meaning I have little to blog about. But here's a few things noticed in passing:

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's plans to extend the period for which suspected terrorists may be detained without charge to 42 days has been dealt a fatal blow, with a survey of MP's showing enough Labour backbenchers will revolt to ensure it fails, on top of the Director of Public prosecutions joining the chorus and saying that the extension is unnecessary. The UK already has the longest terror detention limit of any democracy (check out the graph here), for no real reason than a desire from successive New Labour PM's to whip up public fear and appear "tough on terror". Civilised counties treat terrorists under the same rules as ordinary criminals - which usually means they must be charged within a couple of days, or released.

Paul Krugman points out that even though opinion in the US has turned thoroughly against Bush and his war in Iraq, Serious Foreign Policy Professionals are still in denial, and regard those who opposed the war from the outset (as opposed to those who jumped on the bandwagon when the sheer stupidity of the idea moved from being obvious to irrefutable) with suspicion. No doubt they'll come up with a label for us, just as their forebears came up with "premature anti-fascist" to describe those who thought that Hitler was bad before 1939.

And over at Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty, Maia reminds us why we shouldn't shop at Bunnings this xmas...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Conflict over settlements

This morning's Herald reports that Treaty Settlements Minister Michael Cullen was forced to flee a settlement signing ceremony on a Northland beach after angry scenes with protestors. The tone of the piece - spun that way by the government, and eagerly taken up by DPF and his commenters - implies that the protestors belonged to the group the settlement was being signed with. It's not until the end that it notes that they are a different hapu, upset at the prospect of seeing land they regard as theirs (and which is included in their own claim) given away to their neighbours.

This sort of conflict is occuring more often with Treaty settlements, as the government starts dealing with some of the more difficult cases. Tribal boundaries were not exactly fixed, and so to some extent the settlement process inevitably entails an element of dispute resolution as well as historical redress. To point out the obvious, historical redress is not about returning land to Maori. It's about returning land to the right Maori - the descendents of those who owned it when it was taken. The worry is that in the current rush to settle, there's a serious chance of getting it wrong - which in turn means the issue comes back to haunt us.

As for DPF, I think its worth remembering that Treaty settlements are not about affirming his sense of munificence (or "goodwill" as he terms it), but about righting the wrongs of the past. And where those wrongs are not righted, but are in fact compounded, I don't see why anyone should take it lying down.

Overturning a coup at the ballot box

Thailand went to the polls today in general elections aimed at restoring democracy in the wake of last year's military coup, and from exit polls and preliminary results, it seems that supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are leading. One exit poll has the People's Power Party (an electoral vehicle established to replace Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party) holding an absolute majority, while another predicts 202 out of 480 seats. Either way, the PPP will be in a very strong position to form a government - which poses something of a problem for the Thai military, who face having their coup overturned at the ballot box. The question now is whether they will accept the results, or stage another coup until the people vote the "right" way.

Update: 228 seats. Not an outright majority, but a very strong position. All eyes are now on the military to see whether they will yield power...

How specific do they have to be?

A further example of the US government's descent into lawlessness under Bush: the CIA withheld its tapes of Al Qaeda suspects being tortured from the 9/11 commission, even though the latter had asked for them. Their excuse? The commission just wasn't specific enough:

A C.I.A. spokesman said that the agency had been prepared to give the Sept. 11 commission the interrogation videotapes, but that commission staff members never specifically asked for interrogation videos.

The review by Mr. Zelikow does not assert that the commission specifically asked for videotapes, but it quotes from formal requests by the commission to the C.I.A. that sought “documents,” “reports” and “information” related to the interrogations.

Because obviously, such a wide-ranging request couldn't possibly include videotapes the CIA had already identified as relevant. Which raises the question: how specific do they have to be? Identify the torture victims by name? Kevin Drum is right. this is a transparent lie, unworthy of a ten-year old. And hopefully, it will not result in those responsible escaping prosecution. But beyond that, when government agencies start displaying this level of casual contempt for the bodies supposed to be overseeing them, something is terribly wrong. Democracy and accountability need to reassert themselves in the US. Fortunately, Americans will have a chance to start doing that next year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Islamophobia in Sydney

Over in Sydney at the moment, local residents are up in arms about the construction of a Muslim school in the suburb of Camden. The riot squad was called to a public meeting on the issue, a fundamentalist Christian Party is sowing hate, and there are text messages going around trying to organise a Cronulla-style riot. Then there's this:

Later in November two pigs' heads were rammed on to metal stakes and an Australian flag draped between them on the site of the proposed school.
Charming. Absolutely charming.

None of this would be happening if this was a Catholic school (of which Camden aparently boasts about eight) - everyone accepts their right to religious education. But standards are apparently different where Muslims are concerned. This is nothing more than Islamophobia, and a nasty example of the strong undercurrent of racism, bigotry and intolerance which stil exists in Australian society.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Freedom of information expands in the US

In the wake of 9/11, there was a massive narrowing of freedom of information in the USA, as then-US Attorney-General John Ashcroft ordered federal government agencies to deny FOIA requests where there was uncertainty about the effect of release on national security. The US Congress has just unanimously voted to reverse that decision, creating a presumption of release unless thereis a definte finding of a security risk. But more than that, they've also dramatically tilted the playing field in favour of freedom of information, by requiring agencies to meet requests within 20 days or waive all fees, explain redactions (as is require dunder New Zealand's Official Information Act), expanding the law to cover nonproprietry information held by government contractors (something we should be doing here), and (most importantly) requring government agencies to meet requestor's legal fees if they lose or settle a FOIA lawsuit. It will also establish an "Office of Government Information Services" to resolve disputes without the expense of litigation and report on the FOIA's implementation. The net effect is to strengthen the FOIA, making it that much easier for US citizens to participate in their democracy and hold their government to account.

Unless of course Bush vetoes...

Friday, December 21, 2007

A victory on whaling

Japan has announced it has called off its planned hunt for 50 humpback whales in the Antarctic, after pressure from the IWC and the international community. This is great news, but it is tempered by the knowledge that they are still planning to hunt and kill almost 1,000 Minkie whales for a bogus "scientific" program, whose chief research topic seems to be how long whale meat will keep in a freezer.


The Dominion-Post is going to be charged with contempt of court for publishing the police's evidence in the case of the Urewera 17.

Good. While lots of people wanted to know what the police had, the newspaper's actions undermined the accused's right to a fair trial, tarring them indelibly in the public mind as terrorists. Fairfax media needs to be held to account for that, pour encourager les autres.

At the same time, it's not enough. The Urewera 17 case also saw an organised campaign of leaking from the police designed to smear their suspects, which also undermined the accused's right to a fair trial. Isn't it time the police were held to account for that, and told that they are there to serve justice, not "get their man" regardless of how many laws they have to break to do so?

Protecting their revenue stream

The silly season has begun, and our newspapers are already scraping the bottom of the barrel for political news. And so this morning we have the unedifying spectacle of the Herald complaining that ACT leader Rodney Hide spent part of his Parliamentary Services budget sending a Christmas card (with the highly political message of "seasons greetings") to his constituents. This is the sort of desperate pettyness you'd expect from a newspaper desperate to fill its pages over the Christmas drought, but it gets worse: they then go on to attack Phil Goff for sending his own card, which (it is implied) is worse because it includes details of his Christmas office hours and details of where he will be holding clinics over the break.

Worse? That's right - the Herald apparently thinks that making yourself available to address your constituents' needs (and making them aware of the fact) is a Bad Thing. Unless of course its done by buying an ad in the Herald. As with their campaign against the Electoral Finance Act, they're simply exploiting public hatred of politicians to protect their revenue stream.

A very bad report

I've spent some time reading the State Services Commissioner's investigation into the engagement of Clare Curran by the Ministry for the Environment [PDF], and it is a very bad report indeed, in more ways than one. While Erin Leigh's allegations of a political appointment were not substantiated, the report harshly criticises the Ministry for the Environment for failing to use a proper tender process for the appointment, and for failing to properly identify and manage the potential conflicts of interest arising from the manner of Ms Curran's appointment (at the same time, it is also clear that Ms Curran did not bring her politics into her work, as the National Party has tried hard to imply; she behaved professionally. The failing was on the part of MfE in not ensuring that the appointment was seen to be on merit, and in failing to quash rumours that Curran was a political appointee). Given this, it is no surprise that MfE Chief Executive Hugh Logan decided to resign. He had failed to properly manage his Ministry, and failed to ensure that the values of the public service were upheld. For that, his head had to roll.

However, there's another sense in which it is a bad report, and that is that it exonerates Climate Change Minister David Parker for his grossly improper suggestion that Curran be hired, and takes the position that it is perfectly acceptable for Ministers to intervene in employment decisions in this way. It is not. Our public service is founded on two principles: political neutrality and appointment on merit. In order to protect these principles, Departmental Chief Executives are legally required to be independent in their employment decisions. While a Minister has no formal power to hire and fire, the need to maintain a good working relationship means that even a suggestion can compromise this independence, and ultimately the values of the public service itself. And that applies even to apparently innocent and well-intentioned suggestions like Parker's. For everyone's sake - their own, their chief executive's, the poor employee who ends up being tarred as a political appointee's, and the public's, whose faith in the public service is undermined - it is better that they simply not make such suggestions at all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Election funding: reasons for support

Why should you support the Electoral Finance Act?

Just look at who opposes it.

I'm playing on the Electoral Reform Coalition's most powerful pro-MMP ad here, but there's a reason: because the same people who opposed MMP - Roger Kerr, Michael Friedlander, and the rest of the BRT plutocrats who saw real democracy as a threat to their interests - also oppose the EFA and its measures to limit their ability to buy elections. Now there's a surprise!

The Annual No Right Turn Christmas Appeal

Christmas is supposed to the season for giving, so I'd like to take the opportunity to remind everyone to remember others at this time of year. Below are a couple of links to worthy causes. If you've enjoyed reading No Right Turn this year, or are simply naturally generous, please consider flicking them a few dollars to help them in the year ahead.

If you support human rights, then please consider donating to Amnesty International (online form here). They are a strong, consistent, and impartial voice for human rights worldwide: for the release of prisoners of conscience, for an end to torture and disappearance, and an end to the death penalty. They do good work, and they get results. Amnesty's ability to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses and mobilise public opinion has saved thousands of people from torture,imprisonment, and death.

Or, if you think supporting fundamental human rights is "too political" (or, more amusingly, "anti-American" - torture being an American value according to the Bushites), then please consider supporting the SPCA. This time of year they have a lot of abandoned and neglected pets to deal with, and they need all the help they can get. You can make a donation here, or if you want to volunteer your time, there's a contact list here.

Finally, if you'd like to directly help people in developing countries, Oxfam has some interesting ideas here. Why not buy someone a goat for Christmas?

These are causes which appeal to me, but there are countless others out there which are equally deserving. I have no way of knowing whether any of you will donate or not, but I'm hoping that you will. It's Christmas, after all.

A bad report?

The report of the State Services Commission into the hiring of Clare Curran is due out today, and MfE Chief Executive Hugh Logan has already resigned.

I guess it will be a very bad report then.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Trust issues

While the Electoral Finance Act's passage into law has solved the problem of big money in Parliamentary elections, it seems that they're not the only elections we need to be concerned about. Local body election returns have just been released, and it turns out that newly-elected Palmerston North mayor Jono Naylor's campaign was almost entirely bankrolled by laundered donations, with a single anonymous trust contributing more money to his campaign than was spent by all other candidates combined. While Naylor claims not to know who his ultimate donors are, he knows the identity of their representative; however he is refusing to divulge it, and there is no guarantee that he is not lying, or legal requirement now for him to come clean if his donors subsequently reveal themselves.

Given the obvious potential for corruption in local body politics - a single planning o roading decision can make a fortune for a developer with property in the right area - there's an obvious need for transparency. Unfortunately, the law does not guarantee it. While the Local Electoral Act requires candidates to file returns and disclose the identity of those who donate over $1,000, it still allows anonymous and laundered donations. This simply isn't good enough. If we want to have clean local government, we must have full transparency. There's a perfectly good transparency regime in the Electoral Finance Act which addresses these problems, and it must be applied to local body elections as well.

Labour delivers

It's December, so the government has raised the minimum wage again - the ninth increase since taking office. Since 1999, the minimum wage has increased by over 70% (and by around 50% in real terms) - which is a dramatic difference with National's performance last time they were in government. Between 1990 and 1999, National only managed to raise it by 88 cents (around 10%) - and even that was due to the influence of NZ First. And in real terms, there's just no contest:

(Image stolen from Kiwiblogblog. The Standard also has a useful graph here).

While business leaders and the right will no doubt wail and gnash their teeth, these increases are a vital means of closing the gap with Australia. Not only do they have a knock-on effect, with wage increases higher up the chain due to other workers' desire to preserve their relativities; by raising the cost of labour relative to capital investment, they also encourage the latter, thus helping to boost productivity and our long-term economic performance.

The next stage is to restore the relativity with the average wage. Currently, the minimum wage is around 56% of the average; the CTU wants to see it boosted to two-thirds, and the NDU is planning a strong industrial campaign next year in support of this figure. Hopefully it will succeed.

Election funding: a citizen's jury

Following the passage of the Electoral Finance Act, the government has also announced a review to look at longer-term issues around electoral law, such as the structure of electoral agencies and public funding. Significantly, the review will include a citizen's jury as a means of ensuring comprehensive public participation.

This is a good move. The EFB was necessary to plug the glaring loopholes exposed by the 2005 campaign (which National is still in denial about), but it was primarily a patch, which ignored some obvious solutions such as a single electoral agency because there was no time to implement them. An independent review will give those issues a thorough going over, while a citizen's jury will ensure that the system reflects the interest of voters, not politicians, and will give any changes it recommends an unimpeachable democratic mandate. The politicians will ignore at their peril.

A global moratorium on the death penalty

The United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution is non-binding, but it is a strong statement from the international community on human rights, and it should hopefully see a few more countries halting executions.

Naturally, the US clubbed together with its usual allies on human rights issues - China and Iran - and voted against.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Electoral funding: 63-57

The Electoral Finance Bill just passed its third reading, by 63 votes to 57. United Future opposed the bill in the end, and Gordon Copeland was not present.

Democracy won, plutocracy lost, eat that.

Cullen signals tax cuts

Meh. To be honest, I'd rather have a health system where this did not happen, a welfare system where benefits were actually sufficient to live on, and an education system where "free" schools did not have to charge fees in order to get by. But then, I'd also rather have a left-wing government which invested in public services for the benefit of all, rather than frittering away its revenue and hard-earned strong fiscal position pandering to the rich...

Time to leave Afghanistan

There is an old military maxim: never reinforce failure. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what the New Zealand Army wants to do in Afghanistan. With Taliban activity rising, they're wanting more troops, and a change in role from helping people to killing them. It's superficialy appealing - after all, if the problem can't be solved with current resources, surely the solution must be to throw even more at it - except for one thing: like the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is already lost. Even NATO has basically admitted this. Like Vietnam, the occupiers win every battle, but it makes no difference. There are always more resistance fighters to replace those killed, and killing even more does not address the root causes of the conflict or advance a long-term solution. It may buy time for that to happen, but all the indicators suggest that it is simply not enough. Contra Bush, it is not simply a matter of killing all the "Evildoers"; occupation is not a witchhunt.

In short, we are stuck in the middle of a war whose inevitable result is failure. Our response should not be to increase our commitment - that would be reinforcing failure, throwing good troops after bad, and seeing them come home in body bags. Instead, we should do the sensible thing: admit defeat, and leave.


The Finance and Expenditure Committee has called for submissions on the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill. Two copies, by Friday, 29 February 2008, to:

Finance and Expenditure Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
Finance and Expenditure is a backwards committee, and does not accept electronic submissions.

The bill will establish an emissions trading regime as well as a ten-year ban on the construction of new thermal generation - both vital components of our response to climate change. Big business and the Deniers will be screaming loud on this one, so if you support government action, you should make your voice heard.

Making a submission is not difficult - it can be as simple as writing a letter saying "I support/oppose the bill" and giving reasons why. If you're not sure, check out the Clerk's online guide here.

Election funding: D-day

After a marathon two-week committee stage and an attempted filibuster by National, the Electoral Finance Bill will finally receive its third reading today. I am looking forward to its passage. While National has tried to spin the bill as an attack on democracy, it is the complete opposite: it will in fact protect our democracy from the corrupting influence of money. When the bill becomes law, the rich will find it a lot harder to buy elections. The loophole exposed last election - of using third party campaigns to circumvent party spending limits - will have been plugged, and in addition donations to political parties will be subject to a far stricter transparency regime in the past. The rich will no longer be able to buy policy from parties while keeping their identities secret; the laundering of donations will be outlawed, and breaching the anonyminity of donations processed by the Electoral Commission will be a crime. Together, these measures will preserve our political equality, and ensure that our parties are responsive to the people, rather than shadowy figures with large chequebooks - things all true democrats should welcome.

25 years of the OIA

Yesterday, December 17, marked another significant constitutional anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, on December 17, 1982, the Official Information Act became law.

The OIA grew out of the 1980 report of the Committee on Official Information, Towards Open Government [PDF]. Chaired by Sir Alan Danks, the committee was originally convened to consider changes to the classification system and the "purpose and application of the Official Secrets Act 1951". In the end, it recommended that it be scraped, arguing:

The case for more openness in government is compelling. It rests on democratic principles of encouraging participation in public affairs and ensuring accountability of those in office; it also derives from concern for the interests of individuals. A no less important consideration is that the government requires public understanding and support to get its policies carried out. This can come only from an informed public...
What did the Act change? This is best illustrated by looking at the previous regime. Under the Official Secrets Act, official information was considered to be the property of the government. There was a default presumption of secrecy, and disclosure without authorisation was a crime. Those seeking access had to plead their case and provide justification, and could easily be refused if the information they sought was politically sensitive or embarrassing to those in power. An example of the process in action was related by Greg Newbold in his chapter in Davidson and Tollich's Social science research in New Zealand : many paths to understanding (Longman, 1999). As a student in the 70's working on a thesis on New Zealand's prison system, he had to beg the Minister for access to the government files needed to complete his research. Unfortunately, the Minister was hostile to the project (especially given Newbold's history as a former prison inmate) and refused him permission. In the end, he went downstairs to the archives, and lied to gain access.

Nowadays, Newbold would likely have been given access as of right. The presumption of secrecy has been replaced with one of openness - the OIA's Principle of Availability declares that "information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it". What constitutes a "good reason" is laid out in sections 6 and 9 of the Act, but the grounds are limited, most must be balanced against the public interest in release, and where they do apply they will usually only result in deletions rather than documents or information being withheld in full. The net result is that practically everything is available for public scrutiny; the difficulty isn't getting the information from the government, but in knowing what to ask for...

The effect this has had on the conduct of public affairs cannot be overstated. Scarcely a week goes by without political journalists breaking a major story based on "documents obtained under the Official Information Act", and the Act has been used to access even highly sensitive information that politicians would rather keep under wraps (such as the costings of the government's student loan policy during the 2005 election campaign). Journalists and opposition politicians use the Act to perform their vital role of holding the government to account. But more than that, the OIA is also used by ordinary people in their everyday dealings with the government. In his paper The Official Information Act 1982: A Window on Government, or Curtains Drawn? [PDF], Steven Price gives examples of citizens who used the OIA to find out how to get speed limits lowered in their street after a road accident, to investigate the decisionmaking process which led to their child's expulsion from school, and to investigate mining consents, as well as to look at central government policy on a range of issues. As he points out, "this is the stuff of democracy" - citizens taking an active part in their government and their community.

However, while the OIA has had an enormous effect, it has not been a complete success. Research from Price and others has found that while the Act works well for ordinary requests, requests for politically sensitive information routinely face obstruction and frustrating delays which undermine its purpose. Often information is time-sensitive, and a delay of even a few days can make the difference between news and trivia. And it is worth remembering that while the release of the government's student loan costings during the 2005 election campaign was one of the great triumphs of the Act, it was only through the Ombudsman's intervention that they were obtained at all. So clearly there's some way still to go. That said, while not perfect, the situation is still remarkably better than it was back in the dark ages before the Act was passed, and the OIA must undoubtedly be considered a success.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Graham McCready's private prosecution of Trevor Mallard has already been criticised for being a vindictive abuse of the legal process for purely political ends, but now it's managed to reach a new low, with McCready trying to extort a $100,000 "donation" to one of his charities in exchange for dropping the case and offering diversion. So much for any claim that this is about justice. Rather, it is about victimising a public figure and subjecting them to disproportionate penalties for an offence neither the victim nor the police believe is worth prosecution. I know private criminal prosecution is occasionally a check on police inaction (e.g. in the case of Gerry Brownlee, where the police refused to press charges against him for a reasonably serious assault because he was a public figure and the victim an obnoxious lefty), but this is really dragging the whole process into disrepute.

Our police cannot be trusted with tasers

One of the hallmarks of a civilised society is strong limits on law enforcement agencies' use of force. In New Zealand, our police cannot beat or shoot you simply because they feel like it. Rather, they can only use force which is reasonable to achieve a lawful purpose, and they have to comply with internal guidelines when doing so. Exceeding those limits is a crime (usually assault), and should result in prosecution.

According to a study by the Campaign Against the Taser, police exceeded the guidelines for the use of tasers in 40% of cases in the recent trial. They are supposed to use them (or threaten to use them) only in cases where suspects are "assaultive" - meaning using or credibly threatening to use physical force. But in 27 of 69 cases where tasers were drawn or used, the victims did not meet that threshold. In 11 of those cases, they were in fact complying with police demands. For their pains, they were threatened with electrocution and torture (three of the 27 were in fact tasered, though it is unclear whether they were "compliant", "passively resisting", or running away. It does not matter; either way, it was outside the guidelines, and an unlawful use of force).

The Crimes Act is very clear: threatening to apply force is assault. The police officers responsible should be facing charges, just like anyone else who threatened to electrocute someone would. They should also be evicted from the force. There should be no place in our police force for thugs who violate the public's trust by using force unlawfully, any more than there should be for rapists.

But apart from the question of holding the police to account, this also makes it clear that our police cannot possibly be entrusted with tasers. The availability of a non-lethal option makes it easy and painless for the police to threaten force, leading to inevitable mission creep and a shift to American-style compliance policing (where the police order people about, and threaten to shoot/beat/tase/pepper spray them if they refuse or do not comply fast enough). And this is not something any of us should want to see in New Zealand. If we want to keep our police under control, and prevent the slide into a swaggering, gun-toting, US-style of policing, then we must scrap the taser.

Between ISPs

Disruptions may continue for a while longer, it seems. I've moved, and thanks to Woosh's inability to simply move my broadband account to a new address without reducing my service and forcing me to sign up for uneeded and unwanted services, I am now between ISPs. I have at least a week in dial-up hell to look forward to, and it may be longer given that xmas is just around the corner.

I know I used to cope with dial-up access. Now I'm wondering how I managed...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Vetoing for torture

And in more good news from the US, the House has just passed a bill barring the CIA from waterboarding:

The measure, approved by a largely party-line vote of 222 to 199, would require U.S. intelligence agencies to follow Army rules adopted last year that explicitly forbid waterboarding. It also would require interrogators to adhere to a strict interpretation of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. The rules, required by Congress for all Defense Department personnel, also ban sexual humiliation, "mock" executions and the use of attack dogs, and prohibit the withholding of food and medical care.
Naturally, Bush is threatening a veto. Because the last thing he wants is for his torturers to be barred from waterboarding or using Abu Ghraib tactics. Really, the man has no shame at all.

One state at a time...

New Jersey has scrapped the death penalty. One down, 36 more to go, and then we might be able to start calling the US a civilised country...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Climate change: time to stop indulging the US

Negotiators are Currently meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in an effort to establish the framework for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. But as with previous talks on the subject, we're seeing the usual games, with the US (aided and abetted by its reliable stooges Canada and Japan) attempting to disrupt the talks and prevent them from agreeing to a ballpark target for future emissions reductions by developed nations of 25 - 40%. They're also objecting to a statementthat emissions must peak and decline within a decade. Both positions are mainstream scientific opinion, endorsed by the IPCC in its latest report, which makes a mockery of the US's claim to want "science driven" policy.

The US does this at every meeting. They play no constructive role in negotiations, but attempt to wreck them and prevent others from reaching any positive agreement. It's time we stopped indulging them, or pandering to their belief in their own relevance. The US is run by a lame-duck President leading a lame-duck administration, and everyone knows policy will change when he leaves office in January 2009. If the current US administration will not participate meaningfully in these negotiations, then the rest of the world should simply work around them, reach a strong agreement, and let Bush's successor join up when they enter office.

New Fisk

Syria denies killing General in car-bomb attack

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Can't they just join the SCA?

Kiwiblogblog on monarchists:

In truth, monarchists are little different from those weird groups of people who form themselves into make-believe nations and call themselves President or King and bestow weighty titles on themselves and their fellow club members (”Kevin, Thane of Multar and Grand Vizier of the Royal Seat”). Monarchists and these other fantasists take all the pomp and circumstance associated with a traditional Head of State very seriously.

A quick glance at your average monarchist site (and believe me, they’re all pretty average) and you quickly come realise they’re the kind of people who love to indulge in the full theatre of The Monarchy and all its ermine-decked foppery. They like to talk about the Liz Windsor as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II or address themselves with full regalia - “His Excellency The Most Reverend Holiness Professor Dr The Honourable Captain Ima Plonker, KPCGS, MA(Hons) (Oxon), DipGradTechPumpAss, MRIENZ, DL, SC, RNZN(Ret.), Esq”.

Which is all well and good as entertainment (hell, I like to dress up and play monarchy on occasion) - but its ridiculous to suggest running a government that way.

Americans love torture

Yesterday, in pointing out that the US has already tortured an innocent man, I noted that the US people either do not know or do not care that this has happened. A reader responded by pointing me at yesterday's CNN poll, the results of which speak for themselves:

Are there circumstances in which waterboarding of prisoners is acceptable?

Yes: 55% 52,690
No: 44% 42,219

It's not just the Bush Adminstration - it's the American people. So much for the US's claim to be part of the civilised world.

(Oh, and just in case anyone wants to argue ignorance, this was apparently run alongside a poll asking "Do you consider waterboarding to be torture?". 80% of respondents answered "yes").

The hardest word

Hot on the heels of the ratification of Kyoto and the end of the "Pacific Solution" comes the demise of another icon of the Howard-era, with the new Australian government opening talks with Aboriginal leaders on the wording of an apology for Austrlaia's crimes against its indigenous people. The actual apology will be delivered next year.

This is a move Australia has to make. But more than that, it also needs to take concrete steps to lift the living standards of its indigenous minority, reduce racism, and enable them to be full participants in Australian society. That's a long-term project, the work of a generation - but a formal apology is the best way to begin it.

A New Zealand innocence project

Nine To Noon this morning had a fascinating interview [audio, temporary] on the New Zealand Innocence Project, which starts its inaugural conference tomorrow. For those who don't know, innocence projects work to free those who have been wrongfully convicted from prison. The movement started in the US, and focused on freeing death row inmates whose innocence could be conclusively proven due to post-trial DNA testing, but has expanded into other crimes as well. The New Zealand version will deal with any crime where innocence can be proven, but from their conference timetable, it looks as if Scott Watson and Peter Ellis are likely to be significant clients.

No matter what you think of those individual cases, this is a project you should support. While our justice system is predicated on the idea that it is better for a dozen guilty people to go free than see an innocent jailed, mistakes are clearly made. Currently, we have no backstop to catch these cases and work to correct the inevitable errors - we must rely on dogged defence lawyers, campaigning media, and wealthy individuals with a sense of conscience. Having a dedicated group to help those who can make a strong case for their innocence will improve the quality of our justice system, and reduce the likelihood of innocent people serving long terms of imprisonment for crimes they did not commit. And that is something even members of the "hang 'em high" brigade ought to support.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The nightmare is real

The Truffle asks about torture's "nightmare scenario":

Suppose an innocent person ends up in Gitmo?

Suppose this very person is subjected to--what's the right-wing PC term?--"advanced interrogation techniques"?

See, there's such a thing as mistaken identity. A perfectly innocent man may have the same name as, say, an al Qaeda operative. Or he may bear a close resemblance to said operative.

Setting aside the implication that torture is more justifiable if applied to the guilty than the innocent (it's not - it's unjustifiable if done to anyone), the scary thing is that this has already happened. The victim's name is Maher Arar, who was arrested by US authorities in New York in September 2002 while returning home to his native Canada. However, he wasn't sent to Guantanamo, but rendered to Syria, where he was tortured for almost a year. He was beaten with electrical cables, threatened with falaqa and electrocution, and kept in a lightless three foot by six foot "grave" for a cell. In the end, he signed a false confession, in which he admitted to training with Al Qaeda, before being released to Canada. The Canadian government has since publicly cleared him of any links to terrorism, and given him C$10.5 million in compensation. In the US, a lawsuit against the government was dismissed after the government invoked "State Secrets Privilege" in order to cover up its wrongdoing, and the US government still refuses to admit that it made a mistake.

This nightmare is real. And rather than rising up in revulsion at it, the US people have just shrugged their shoulders and gone about their business. While Arar's story has been widely reported, the American people either do not know or do not care that their government tortured an innocent man. He was, after all, just a foreigner.

Climate change: avoiding deforestation

Last month, the government of the South American nation of Guyana made a dramatic offer: they would place their entire rainforest under international control as a carbon reservoir, in exchange for development assistance. Now the UK government looks set to take them up on the deal.

This is excellent news. Tropical deforestation is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and Guyana's rainforest contains as much carbon as the UK emits in 40 years. Stopping that carbon from being emitted is vital to preventing or limiting climate change. At the same time, it's not enough. Guyana is just one country, and while its trees will now be preserved, the chainsaws are still working in Brazil, Indonesia, and Congo. If we want to limit this cause of climate change, then we'll need to find some way of stopping them there too.

Fortunately, it looks like there is good news on that front as well: negotiators at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali have agreed to include deforestation in the successor to Kyoto. Details are sketchy at present, but it looks like the rich world will pay the poor to keep that carbon (and biodiversity) standing. The question now is whether we will live up to those promises, or welch on them as we did on clean development. So maybe poor nations should be demanding cash up front, rather than continuing to trust in the promises of the wealthy.

The tip of the iceberg

The Police Complaints Authority review of Operation Austin has revealed another horrifying fact: police examined complaints from more than 50 women relating to historic sexual offending by police officers. Of these, 25 were considered serious enough and supportable enough to justify further investigation. Many of the cases had "remarkable similarities" to that of Louise Nicholas. In other words, the four or five prosecutions we've seen represent the tip of the iceberg, the tiny bit poking above the surface, beneath which lurks a vast mass of historic police misbehaviour which we will likely never see, and whose perpetrators will never be held to account for their crimes. While I'm sanguine about the difficulties of historic prosecutions, as someone who expects the very best behaviour from those trusted to protect us, it's a horrifying thought. How many of these offenders are still in the force? How many are in senior positions? And how can we bring about the necessary changes in police culture when we still have this cancer lurking below the surface?

New kiwi blog

Steven Price finally joins the blogosphere with Media Law Journal.


The House completed the committee stage of the Election Funance Bill yesterday, and immediately moved into urgency to clear the Order Paper before christmas. This used to be a tradition, but in the last few years good house management (and a thin legislative program) have allowed it to be largely dispensed with. Now, it seems it's back with a vengeance - they have 14 first readings to deal with, which if each goes for its full two hours, means 28 hours of debate. That should keep them sitting all the way till Friday (except that, under Standing orders, it's still considered to be Tuesday).

In practice, of course, fatigue will set in, and debates will be shorter, which is one reason I don't like urgency and like to see it kept to a minimum. Another is that the government's urgency motion has just eaten Member's Day, which is just a little shitty. In fact, I'm surprised the smaller parties agreed to it, given the increased importance of Member's business over the last few years.

Realisticly, Parliament is likely to wrap this up sometime late on Thursday and send all those bills off to committee, then reassemble next Tuesday for the final passage of the Electoral Finance Bill and the adjournment motion. After which everyone goes on holiday for a few months.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

60 years of human rights

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,


That's the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 60 years ago yesterday. The declaration is the UN General Assembly's view of the minimum human rights which should be enjoyed by all. These include freedom of speech, fredom of religion, free elections, freedom from torture and slavery, fair trials and equality under the law and some basic social, cultural and economic rights (including rights to education and "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family"). It has since become one of the foundations of international human rights law. But sixty years on, the values expressed by the UDHR are under attack. In the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, fundamental rights are being eroded in the name of fighting terrorism or being "tough" on immigration. One country - the USA - has fallen so far it has legalised torture, while others turn a blind eye.

The lesson is simple: if we want our governments to respect human rights, we need to stand up for them. Even when those targetted are people we despise, we need to stand up for them - because the rights of any are the rights of all, and the freedoms taken from the weak today may be taken from us tomorrow. As Pastor Niemöller famously pointed out, if we don't speak up for others, there may be no-one left to speak up for us.

Another nail in Rickards' coffin

In the wake of his second acquittal on historic rape charges stemming from his time as a young police officer in Rotorua, Clint Rickards harshly criticised the investigation against him, calling it a "shambles" and saying that he would have been embarassed to have led it. He then lodged a complaint with the Police Complaints Authority. Now the PCA has come back and praised the investigation, saying that it reached "a high standard of excellence for an historical criminal investigation of its scale" and recommending that its procedures be adopted in other investigations. Another nail in the coffin of Clint Rickards overinflated ego...

As for the persistent claims (from e.g. Willie Jackson) that the prosecutions were all about race, please. Rickards was not prosecuted because he was Maori - he was prosecuted because there were credible allegations that he (and others) had committed a serious crime. Likewise he was not driven from the police force because of his race, but because on the most charitible interpretation, he was an exploitative arsehole who abused his position to sexually exploit young girls (or, less charitibly, a rapist who got away with it due to the passage of time and the actions of his corrupt mates). Whichever way you look at it, such behaviour is simply incompatible with a position of public trust such as membership in the police. And that applies whether you are brown, white, yellow, green, or polka-dotted.

Even the torturers think its torture

While Republican Presidential candidates equivocate over whether American tactics such as waterboarding constitute torture, one group of people are crystalclear about it: the torturers themselves. John Kiriakou used to torture for the CIA. He was responsible for the systematic torture of Abu Zubaydah, a mentally disturbed Al Qaeda logistics agent (a vile farce which should belie any claim that torture is effective). And in an interview with ABC, he's quite clear about what he did:

Now retired, Kiriakou says he has come to believe that waterboarding is torture.

"We're Americans, and we're better than this. And we shouldn't be doing this kinda thing," he said.

What's astounding is that he actually came forward. After all, he just admitted to torture - a federal crime with a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment - live on camera. Shouldn't someone be pressing charges?

The end of the Pacific Solution

Last month Australia had an election, in which the lying rodent John Howard was not just defeated, but unseated. Since then, there has been a sea-change in Australian politics, with Howard's platform of climate change denial, toadying to the Americans, racism, and radical NeoLiberal economic policies utterly repudiated, even by his own party. The new Australian government has already ratified Kyoto, and now they've just dismantled another core part of Howard's Australia: the "Pacific solution" of dumping refugees in Nauru and refusing to admit them to Australia even if their claims were found to be justified. While Labor is still promising to be "tough on immigration", they have begun emptying their prison on Nauru and resettling its inmates in Australia.

It's obviously good to see decency reasserting itself across the ditch. But there's also a lesson in this: elections matter. It's trite, but none of this would be happening if Howard was still in power. While Kevin Rudd was derided as a "me too" candidate who would merely manage under the same policy settings as his predecessor (a mistake I'm guilty of as well), Howard's defeat was also seen as a defeat for his platform, and the subsequent bloodletting in the now-oposition parties opened up political space for significant change. It's a lesson we might want to keep in mind, given that we're going to the polls within a year...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Why are we supporting Tonga's death penalty?

TVNZ reports that a diplomatic row has broken out between Australia and New Zealand over prosecutions for last year's November 17 riots. New Zealand police and lawyers ahve been helping the Tongan government to bring charges for the riots, but they are being stymied in their attempts by Australia's refusal to release autopsy and fire investigation reports. Why are the Australians refusing?

the Australian government will not release the reports its police did for the Tongan government on the grounds that the accused could get the death penalty if found guilty.
Sounds like a very good reason to me - and one we should be wholeheartedly supporting. New Zealand hasn't just abolished the death penalty - like most other civilised countries, we also refuse to extradite in capital cases unless the death penalty is taken off the table (just as we will refuse to extradite or deport people where there is a risk that they will be tortured). This ban should also extend to other forms of legal assistance: we simply should not be helping other countries murder people, "lawfully" or otherwise (arguably this is already required by the BORA, given the breadth of its application clause and its affirmation of the right not to be deprived of life).

As for the Tongans, if they want to prosecute this case, all they have to do is satisfy the Australians that the death penalty will not be imposed. That's their general position anyway - they're de-facto abolitionists, and haven't murdered anyone since 1981 - so I wouldn't expect it to be that difficult. If OTOH they seriously want to murder people for the riots, then fuck them.

Destroying the evidence

During the last days of the East German regime in 1989, agents of the Stasi worked franticly to destroy their archives. They knew that the regime would not last long, and that their carefully collected files could be used as evidence in future prosecutions. So they sent it to the shredders. Now, it seems that the CIA is doing the same, destroying videos of the interrogations of suspected terrorists. Ostensibly, this was done to protect the identities of the CIA operatives involved. In reality, given what was done to those prisoners - stripping, freezing, denial of medication, and waterboarding, all of which is clearly torture (even in US eyes, at least when other people are doing it) - it was done in order to protect them being prosecuted for torture.

Unfortunately for the CIA, it seems they didn't cover their tracks well enough; they're now being investigated for obstruction of justice. Worse, it seems that the tapes' destruction could derail several terrorism cases, and even see the terrorism convictions of Zacarias Moussaoui and Jose Padilla reversed due to gross prosecutorial misconduct.

Meanwhile in the UK the lawyer for one Guantanamo detainee (Binyam Mohammed, whose sickening account of his torture is here) is alleging that the CIA has photographic evidence conclusively proving his client was tortured:

Clive Stafford-Smith, the legal director of Reprieve representing Mr Mohammed, said that he also knows the identity of the agents who were present when his client was allegedly beaten and tortured. Writing to Mr Miliband, he said: "Given the opportunity, we can prove that the evidence was the fruit of torture. Indeed, we can prove that a photographic record was made of this by the CIA. Through diligent investigation we know when the CIA took pictures of Mr Mohammed's brutalised genitalia, we know the identity of the CIA agents who were present including the person who took the pictures (we know both their false identities and their true names), and we know what those pictures show."
Given that Reprieve is talking about prosecuting the CIA agents responsible, I expect the CIA will be firing up the shredders as quickly as possible.

Britain goes green

One of the basic facts of climate change policy is that if we are to make the drastic emissions reductions necessary to ward off dangerous levels of climate change, we need to take significant steps to decarbonise our electricty supply, switching away from old, dirty technologies such as coal in favour of new, low- or zero-carbon ones. In the UK, the government has been using this to push for a new generation of nuclear power stations, arguing that only nuclear can provide the electricity necessary to replace existing coal and gas turbines. But in an abrupt about-face, they've suddenly decided to push for wind instead, announcing a massive increase in offshore wind generation, with the goal of having an additional 25GW of generation by 2020. This would be enough to meet all of the UK's residential electricity demand.

The government is quite clear about what this entails: it will change the British coastline forever, with an average of 2 turbines per mile along the entire coast (in practice, the turbines will be clumped together, but they will become a ubiquitous feature of the seascape). But it's either that, or nuclear (a real salmonella option in the UK, given its nuclear industry's history of lax safety standards), or seeing parts of the UK go under water again. Energy security also appears to be a significant driver (as it is in much of Western Europe now). While this won't even come close to eliminating natural gas from the generation mix (the UKis aiming for a target of 20% renewables by 2020 - strong by European standards, low by NZ ones), it will at least provide some insulation against the sorts of supply disruptions Europe experienced earlier in the year.

As for the rest of Europe, the news from there is also looking good, with the German government increasing minimum prices for offshore wind, and an expected wave of new construction as the technology matures. So Europe at least is heading down the right path.

(Why offshore? Because the wind is stronger and steadier there, whereas on land it is disrupted by ground clutter. Europeans have to go offshore to get the wind and capacity factors we take for granted here in NZ, which makes wind a much more expensive option. We will no doubt see offshore wind farms here eventually too, but we have plenty of good sites on land to exploit first).

Coming back to life

First life disruptions are mostly over, and I should be back to a more normal posting schedule this week. Don't expect anything on Friday - I have Things To Do - but things should be entirely back to normal after that. Just in time for the silly season and xmas news drought...

In the ballot XXII

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

Minimum Wage (Meal Breaks and Rest Periods) Amendment Bill (Sue Moroney): This would amend the Minimum Wage Act 1983 to provide a minimum entitlement for rest and meal breaks - two paid 10-minute rest breaks and a 30 minute meal break in each work period of more than six hours (and proportionately less for shorter work periods). It's a good idea - we used to have such provisions, but they were repealed with the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, leading to some abuses - which will have absolutel no effect on the average employer, while protecting workers from abusive employers. But I'm curious as to why it is being placed in the Minimum Wage Act rather than the Employment Relations Act.

Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill (Darien Fenton): This would tweak the Employment Relations Act to better deal with cases of "triangular employment" - employees employed by one employer, but working under the control or direction of another (for example, staff employed by temp or labour hire agencies). Workers in such relationships would gain the right to be covered by any collective agreement operating in the secondary employer's workplace (so temps would have to be granted the same pay and conditions as permanent staff - examples here), and would be able to bring personal grievance cases against the secondary employer. In short, it would break down the legal front used to dodge costs and insulate poor employers from the consequences of their actions.

Social Security (Benefit Review and Appeal Reform) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford): This would scrap the existing Benefits Review Committee structure which handles primary appeals on decisions regarding benefit payments. The current system has been criticised as one-sided (all "reviewers" are employees of the Ministry of Social Development, and thus victims of its toxic internal culture), making poor-quality decisions, and failing to conform with basic principles of natural justice affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. Under the bill, it would be replaced by a system of independent benefit reviewers required to conform to the principles of natural justice, and able to award costs if an appeal is upheld.

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

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Election funding: National's fillibuster

Earlier in the week, Bill English promised that National would not fillibuster the Electoral Finance Bill, but rather would be "constructive".

I think today's list of questions for oral answer shows the lie behind that promise. In addition to the usual questions to Ministers, we have National and ACT MPs asking ten questions to select comittee chairs about committee business which they could easily look up for themselves, purely in an effort to drag out Question Time for as long as possible and so reduce the amount of time available for debating actual business. They did it yesterday as well, asking four questions. Normally, you might see one such question a week.

These are not the actions of a serious, responsible party truely interested in reform. Rather, they are the actions of a self-interested party eager to please its rich mates and rort and abuse the electoral process to buy their way to power, just as they tried to do in 2005.

Another one bites the dust

Tze Ming hangs up her keyboard to join the international civil service. Bugger.

Something to go to in Wellington

As some of you may know, Saturday is a global day of action against climate change, with demonstrations around the world to demand urgent action from negotiators in Bali on a strong post-Kyoto framework. In Wellington, they're holding a Climate Action Festival in Civic Square and the City Gallery cinema, with talks and a screening of Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary The 11th Hour. Panel discussions include "Climate change - from science to policy to action", with Peter Barrett (VUW), Dr Dave Lowe (NIWA) and Ralph Chapman (former head of the climate change office, now at VUW), and "The outlook for someday - options for everyone" with Cath Wallace (VUW), Russel Norman (Green party co-leader) and Ray Ahipene-Mercer (Wellington City Council).

When: Saturday, 8 December, 12:00 - 19:00 (panels start at 12:30)
Where: Civic Square, City Gallery cinema, The Film Archive
How much: Koha

Meanwhile, in Palmerston North, we apparently get a stall at the local recycling centre...

Information about other events in New Zealand can be found on Be The Change.

A closer look: the criminal justice system

Back in April, the Prime Minister asked former Ombudsman Mel Smith to undertake a comprehensive review of the workings of the criminal justice system. His report [PDF] was tabled in Parliament today. The media coverage has been dominated by his recommendation that a Royal Commission of Inquiry be established to investigate and elucidate the values underlying our justice system (something I wholeheartedly agree with - at the very least, it will have a positive effect on public debate), but he also made a number of other findings. Here's a few which caught my eye:

  • Media coverage of criminal justice issues is grossly distorted, overwhelmingly shallow, and used by some politicians and interest groups to build fear in order to harness political support.
  • There should be a single Minister for the Justice Sector, with responsibility for making sure that the various Departments involved in it - police, justice, courts, corrections, and CYFS - all work together (there would still be subministers, in the same way as there are for the Economic Development megaportfolio).
  • Despite media reports to the contrary, the system generally works well - for example, looking at prisons, we have very few prison escapes, very low rates of assault or suicide, and sharply declining drug use. However, it is a human institution, and thus falliable.
  • We are spending far too much money on the criminal justice system. Much of this is on building new prisons to cope with anticipated demand, but the average cost of keeping an offender in prison is $76,639 /year (this is ironicly much lower than other countries). This is beginning to have a negative effect on other areas of spending, such as schools and health.
  • Our incarceration rate is too high, and is growing due to a risk-averse approach from various agencies aimed at avoiding negative media coverage. We are denying parole too often and holding far too many people on remand, rather than granting them bail, particularly in light of conviction rates. If remand rates were the same as they were a decade ago, we would have 1,000 fewer people in prison.
  • Parole is "an essential aspect of any prison system", and provides both an incentive for good behaviour and a way of assisting prisoners to reintegrate into society. The risk-averse approach undermines this goal, and reduces the chance of rehabilitation.
  • Drug treatment, mental health, and other prison programmes need to be massively expanded if we are to reduce reoffending. 50 - 60% of offenders are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of offending, while 50% have diagnosable mental disorders. Helping them cope with these problems is both humane and significantly aids rehabilitation.
  • There should be more employment training, employment, and much greater use of release-to-work (under which prisoners get to hold down a regular job during the day, and return to the prison at night). The former alleviate boredom or teach skills; the latter has a real chance of preventing reoffending and reducing crime.
  • Maori and Pacific Peoples are massively overrepresented at all stages of the criminal justice system due to "“the unintended consequences of discretion at various stages in the criminal justice system and unevenness of decision making". maori are five times as likely to be apprehended and prosecuted, seven times more likely to be imprisoned, and eleven times more likely to be remanded in custody. The figures for Pacific Peoples are lower, but still grossly higher than those of Pakeha. Less polite people would call this what it is: pervasive racism.
  • The current emphasis on "victim's rights" (particularly by lobby groups) "risks jeopardising the integrity of the [justice] system at all levels in the process". In other words, we get lynchmobs and revenge, not justice.
  • Surveys on "victimisation" (how many people have been victims of a criminal offence) show that public fear is massively overblown. The chances of being raped, mugged or murdered are low to practically non-existent. Those frequently presented as being most afraid - the elderly and those living in rural areas - are in fact the least likely to suffer from crime. Offending and victimisation is highly concentrated, with 6% of those surveyed reporting more than half the offences.
  • Contrary to public fears, rates of youth offending have been dropping since the 1990's. Very little of it is serious, and most is appropriately dealt with by Police Youth Aid. Only 60 kids are jailed each year, and this has been stable for the past 6 years.
  • CYFS, for all the shit they get, actually seems to be doing a fairly good job at dealing with young offenders and stopping them from becoming adult offenders. Many police, OTOH, regard youth crime in the same light as electoral crime: not "real police work". Police who work with young offenders do a good job, but it is not institutionally valued, and they are frequently reassigned to "more valuable" tasks. Some police regions are working wonders on preventing youth crime, but their strategies have not been studied or taken up by police management, and it does not seem to be an institutional priority. They need to seriously change their attitude.
There's some interesting stuff in there, some of it quite encouraging, some very discouraging. Looking at it, it seems that the "hang 'em high" brigade's cries for bloody vengeance have had an overwhelmingly negative effect on our justice system, and have seriously impeded the development and implementation of policy that actually works. A Royal Commission or similar inquiry would at least allow us to have an evidence-based discussion, rather than one rooted in fear and hate, and focus on the values which ultimately underly the system: justice, fairness, and respect for human rights (as opposed to revenge, cruelty, and inhumanity).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fiji: one year on

Today, December 5, is a dark day for democracy. One year ago today, the Fijian government was overthrown by its own armed forces in a military coup.

The government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was not a good government - but it was an elected government, chosen in free and fair democratic elections. While I did not like its policies, they were lawful and constitutional and there was no question of their right or their electoral mandate to implement them. Its overthrow by the Fijian military was completely unjustifiable, an arrogant usurpation of the democratic rights of the Fijian people and a gross act of treachery.

Since the coup, Fiji has descended into a farce, with an ugly undertone of tyranny. People have been murdered in police custody. People have been arrested on trumped-up charges, or on no charges at all. Critics of the military regime have been subjected to intimidation, beatings, and travel restrictions. Meanwhile, the "interim government" (as it styles itself) pronounces policies for which it has no democratic mandate, and slips futher into the corruption and nepotism it was ostensibly established to overturn.

Worse, there seems to be no way forward. While the regime has promised democratic elections in 2009, it is also hedging, declaring that those elections will only be held if people cease criticising the regime, and claiming a right to prevent certain parties from standing, or to have a perpetal armed veto over future government policy. That is not "democracy" in any sense of the word. Rather, it is military tyranny in disguise. Fiji will only have democracy when the military withdraws entirely from politics, as they do in other democracies. And if they will not, then they must be disbanded.

A very expensive smear

Last month we learned that Climate Change Minister David Parker had grossly overstepped his authority and demanded that the Ministry for the Environment (which provides support for his portfolio) hire a particular individual in order to represent his personal political agenda. This was already utterly unacceptable, but the government's response was even worse: when questioned about it in the House, Environment Minister Trevor Mallard stood up and used the cover of Parliamentary Privilege to smear the whistleblower, saying that she had "repeated competence issues".

Mallard based his smear on advice from his Ministry. However, MfE Chief Executive Hugh Logan has just come clean and said that advice was wrong and that they had not intended it to reflect on Erin Leigh's performance or professional ability. They've since apologised to Leigh, as they should, and it will be very interesting to see whether Mallard does the same. Not that that should save him. His attack on Leigh for reporting wrongdoing by a Minister was unconscionable, and a clear attempt to bully her and other public servants into silence. And that is not something any Minister of the Crown should be doing. I do not like bullies and thugs, and I do not believe they are morally fit to sit in Cabinet.

Meanwhile, it seems that the person with "repeated competence issues" is not Leigh, but her former boss Hugh Logan. His past screwups are enough to raise doubt about his suitability to serve as a senior public servant, and now he’s just put the government on the hook for defamation. While Mallard is absolutely protected by Parliamentary Privilege from any comeback for his remarks, Logan and the Ministry are not. And the latter have just admitted defaming Leigh to a Minister, in a way which has had a significant effect on her life and business. In short, the government's response could turn out to be a very expensive smear indeed...

America thinks kidnapping is fine

Provided they're the ones doing it, of course:

The US has told Britain that it is legal under US law to kidnap British citizens from the UK (ineed, anyone from anywhere) if they are suspected of crimes in the USA -- and that this can be done instead of using formal extradition procedures.


[A US government lawyer] said that if a person was kidnapped by the US authorities in another country and was brought back to face charges in America, no US court could rule that the abduction was illegal and free him: “If you kidnap a person outside the United States and you bring him there, the court has no jurisdiction to refuse — it goes back to bounty hunting days in the 1860s.”

Of course, given the current one-sided extradition arrangements between the US and UK (under which the US can demand a british citizen be turned over to them, without having to show any evidence whatsoever), they don't actually need to bother.

Truth in advertising

An amusing way in which the tone of an advertisement completely changes with events.

Not a good sign

In my last post I wondered whether the findings in the latest National Intelligence Estimate that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago actually mattered to the Bush Administration. The answer, it appears, is no. Salon's Tim Grieve points out that Bush was briefed on this finding back in August or September this year:

Yes, that was before Bush said that he took "the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously," and that the best way to prevent "World War III" would be to prevent the Iranians from obtaining the "knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

It was before Condoleeezza Rice said Iran is "pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to nuclear weapons-grade material."

It was before Dick Cheney said that the United States should "reach for any tool that's available" -- including the "possible use of military force" -- to "discourage the Iranians from enriching uranium and producing nuclear weapons."

There's more examples there if you can stomach the mendacity.

So, in short, despite being told otherwise by his intelligence agencies, the Bush Administration was saber-rattling harder than ever and convince the public that Iran was a serious threat. In other words, they were trying to lie their way into a war. Again.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

No case for war against Iran

For the past three years, the Bush Administration has been sabre-rattling against Iran, drawing up plans for massive airstrikes (including the use of nuclear weapons), positioning forces so they can carry them out at a moment's notice, and threatening "world war III" if Iran doesn't immediately halt its nuclear weapons program.

Now it turns out that there isn't any such program. According to a just-declassified National Intelligence Estimate, based on data from 16 American intelligence agencies, Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme four years ago, and is now doing exactly what it says it is: enriching Uranium to support a civilian nuclear power program. In other words, there is no longer even a sliver of a case for war. The question now is whether that actually matters to the Bush Administration, or whether they're hellbent on war regardless...

Election funding: unsurprising

It seems that John Boscawen, the man spending big money to organise astroturf protests against the Electoral Finance Bill, is a member of the Business Round Table.

Why am I not surprised?

Election funding: the committee stage

Parliament is back today for its final session of the year, and the chief order of business is the final stages of the Electoral Finance Bill. While National has said they won't try and fillibuster and that they will instead be constructive, given the tenor of their proposed amendments, I'll believe that when I see it.

The debate should kick off sometime around 16:30. I won't be liveblogging this one, as I'm still rather busy, but you can always watch it live here.

Update (16:32): The committee stage has just started.

Productivity and the wage gap

Why are people in Australia paid more than people in New Zealand? The traditional answer from the right is that the former are taxed less, and therefore we should cut taxes on the rich to allow our living standards to catch up (this ignores the facts that there's no proven link between tax rates and economic growth, and Australians are actually taxed more at the top end anyway). The traditional answer from the left has been that it is a wage issue, not a tax issue, and that it is ultimately rooted in poorer comparative productivity growth due to low capital investment.

The latest report [PDF] from the Centre for Independent Studies - a right-wing think-tank whose usual job is to provide props for further demands for tax cuts - shows that the left have won the argument. According to the CIS,

The big difference between the countries is labour productivity. Australian workers produce a third more wealth for every hour worked, largely because they have more capital (machinery and technology) to work with.
But while they've finally recognised the key problem, the CIS loses it when looking for explanations:
New Zealand firms have invested less in capital than their Australian counterparts, but not because of a lack of savings or finance. Instead, the major challenge for New Zealand seems to be a lack of profitable investment opportunities.

Government policy has a major role to play in creating a healthy environment for growth and investment. International surveys show little difference between the two countries in terms of red tape and regulation, but the direction of policy is just as important as the static picture. Ad hoc government interference in areas such as energy, telecommunications, and asset sales has greatly increased investor uncertainty in New Zealand.

Tax is a major area of difference between the two countries. Australia is a much lower taxing country, especially in terms of income tax. This affects incentives to work, save, and invest.

If that all seems a bit random, it's because it is. Their answer in the Herald is just as unilluminating:
"There's obviously something there, some anomaly that's holding back investment," Centre for Independent Studies policy analyst Phil Rennie said yesterday.

"I've tried to find evidence for other reasons, but the strongest case for me still seems to be Government policy."

So, it's the Evil Gummint. They're not sure how or why, but it must be them, because they are the source of all problems - which can be cured with the usual "solution" of tax cuts, tax cuts, and tax cuts. If I had paid for this report, I'd be wanting my money back.

Perhaps some empirical data will enlighten the situation. The graph below shows one measure of our labour productivity (real GDP divided by FTE workers, which is roughly hours worked, indexed to 1978):

(Source: Paul Dalziel, "New Zealand’s Economic Reforms: an assessment", Review of Political Economy, 14, 31 - 46)

As can be seen, the productivity gap long predates the current Labour government, whose policy direction so exercises the CIS (in fact, the graph doesn't even extend to cover their first year in power). In fact, while there were ups and downs, the gap really only opened up during the "reforms" (which the CIS wants us to return to), during which our productivity stagnated. So what's the explanation?

Simple: labour costs. The decision on whether to invest in productivity improvements is determined by the relative costs of capital and labour. Employers will only invest in productivity improvements if the resulting increase in output is cheaper than hiring more warm bodies. And in 1991 - when the gap opened up - the government drove the price of labour down significantly by passing the Employment Contracts Act. So, a centrepiece of the Revolution has caused our current problem. I can see why the CIS wouldn't want to think in that direction.

As for policy to narrow the gap, the obvious one is to raise the cost of labour, by engineering a labour shortage, rebalancing employment law to allow unions to push for wage increases, and hiking the minimum wage to create pressure from below. Which is exactly what the government has done.