Monday, April 30, 2007

New kiwi blog

The Watermelon

Freedom of speech and Anzac Day

There was a basic contradiction in the argument of those objecting to the protests at dawn services on Anzac Day last week. On the one hand, the dead they were commemorating supposedly "died for freedom". On the other, that freedom apparently did not extend to disagreeing with that statement or questioning the prevailing narrative around those deaths. In an editorial today, the Dominion Post quietly challenges those objecting to such protests to eat their own rhetoric, and makes a strong case for freedom of speech:

However, leaving aside the legalities of the methods they employed, which are now a matter for the courts, the protesters were entitled to make their point. It will not have been lost on many at the service that the men who they were honouring had died at least partly in defence of the protesters' right to deliver their message, however wrong-headed and inappropriate it may have been.

The answer is neither to stop groups such as Hammerskins and the peace advocates from expressing their views, nor, as others advocate, ignore them and hope that a complete lack of publicity stifles them.

There can be no rational defence for suppressing views simply because they do not accord with the orthodoxy of the day.

There's a dubious circumlocution there - the charges of offensive behaviour and flag burning make the "legalities of the methods" being a matter for the courts is a polite mask for exactly the sort of censorship the DomPost claims to be opposing. But their broader point remains: in a free society, ideas and arguments must stand and fall on their own merits, rather than be crushed by the majority. The answer to objectionable speech must be more speech, not less.

NRT on the radio

I'm being interviewed about the sedition pledge on 95 bFM today at 13:00. You can listen in here.

Update: The podcast is here. I really need to learn to speak up on the radio...

Another indefinite detention

Earlier in the month Thomas Yadegary was freed from Mount Eden Prison after a judge ruled that his detention had become arbitrary and could no longer serve its purpose. But Thomas Yadegary wasn't alone. Last year, an OIA request revealed that there were six people who had been detained for more than a year for immigration purposes. And today we've learned about another one of them: Ali Reza Panah.

Panah's case is similar to Yadegary's: he left Iran in 2000, and converted to Christianity in Korea before travelling to New Zealand and applying for refugee status. That application has been denied and his appeals exhausted, and he has been detained for the last eighteen months in an effort to get him to sign an Iranian passport application.

The RSAA does not believe that Panah faces a genuine threat of persecution in Iran. They are wrong. According to the US State Department's 2006 International Religious Freedom Country Report for Iran, Iran has the death penalty for apostasy, and converts are subject to arrest, torture, and extrajudicial murder. Most tellingly, the New Zealand government has demanded Panah sign an indemnity saying that if he is subsequently persecuted in Iran, it is not the fault of the New Zealand government - hardly the action of people who believe he faces no danger.

Meanwhile, there is the other issue: we have kept a man in jail for eighteen months now because he will not sign his own death warrant, and show every sign of keeping him there indefinitely. This is an affront to our deepest values. Throwing people in jail without trial and keeping them there forever is the sort of thing practiced by absolute monarchs, third-world despots, or the Americans in their Caribbean gulag in Guantanamo - not by our New Zealand.

Last-minute wobbles?

Parliament is back this week, and everyone's favourite bill, Sue Bradford's Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill, will be back before the House on Wednesday. Opponents of the bill have used the recess to pressure its supporters into backing away, and when I first skimmed the papers this morning, it was being suggested that they had succeeded - both the Herald and Stuff were reporting that the Maori Party might change its stance and back John Key's non-compromise "compromise". Fortunately, it looks like they were wrong: Tariana Turia has said that while the amendment will be discussed, the party is still strongly behind the bill in its present form. And she's quite clear on why:

She said at the weekend the present law allowed a legal defence against abuse. "We will not support abuse. We have got to show leadership. If we are looking at all the statistics we have got the worst statistics in the OECD."

National loves to bash Maori over child abuse - now next time they do it, the Maori Partry will be able to turn around and ask them why they are on the side of the child abusers, instead of trying to do something about it.

Losing the war on terror

This month's Foreign Affairs has a scary piece from former CIA official Bruce Riedel assessing progress so far in the "war on terror". His assessment? Al Qaeda is winning:

Al Qaeda is a more dangerous enemy today than it has ever been before. It has suffered some setbacks since September 11, 2001: losing its state within a state in Afghanistan, having several of its top operatives killed, failing in its attempts to overthrow the governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But thanks largely to Washington's eagerness to go into Iraq rather than concentrate on hunting down al Qaeda's leaders, the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq. Its reach has spread throughout the Muslim world, where it has developed a large cadre of operatives, and in Europe, where it can claim the support of some disenfranchised Muslim locals and members of the Arab and Asian diasporas. Osama bin Laden has mounted a successful propaganda campaign to make himself and his movement the primary symbols of Islamic resistance worldwide. His ideas now attract more followers than ever.

The blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of George W. Bush - and in particular his decision to take his eye of the ball in Afghanistan in favour of settling old scores in Iraq. This gave Al Qaeda the breathing space it needed to regroup - as well as a second base of operations, an endless supply of recruits, and a guerilla war to train them in. And now, Bush is looking to repeat the process on Iran (and topple another of bin Laden's enemies into the bargain). It's almost enough to make you wonder whose side he's really on...

Strategic emptiness

Last week, National's foreign affairs spokesperson Murray McCully called for New Zealand to focus its aid spending more strongly on the Pacific. However, he caveated his call in a significant way:

Mr McCully said he was not announcing National Party policy, because it was "much too early" for that

This is one example; a second was mentioned yesterday morning on Agenda: National is apparently still telling business leaders "you elect us, then we'll tell you what we're going to do". And this is not a new phenomena, but part of a long-term trend. Since losing power in 1999, they seem to have adopted a deliberate strategy of emptiness - of refusing to put up policy and say what they stand for, and of being deliberately vague when forced to (see for example their 2005 election policies, which are charitably described as "thin"). Instead, National prefers to fight on empty slogans - "tough on crime", "one law for all", "political correctness gone mad" - rather than talking about what it is going to do if it regains power.

In The Hollow Men, Nicky Hager suggests two reasons for this. The first is the obvious one: a deliberate attempt to hide what they want to do if they gain power, because they know that the public will not like it. This was evident in the 2005 election campaign, when for example National agreed with its donors to keep its highly unpopular, and highly profitable (for the donors) policy of ACC privatisation secret from the public. Or when it kept its policy of borrowing for tax cuts secret until the last minute (and then had the gall to complain when people took the vague promises they initially made at their word). Or when they desperately tried to avoid talking about Iraq, nuclear ships, and their relationship with the US.

The second reason is more interesting: vagueness on policy avoids the need for National to confront the differences between its radical and conservative wings. Having policy means having an argument within caucus (or at least the dominant clique), creating winners and losers and bad feelings of the sort which led to tension and departures in the 90's. Not having policy - or having only the vaguest generalities - means all of that can be avoided, and the party can instead focus on winning elections. The problem is that the differences have to be confronted at one stage or another - you can get away with emptiness in opposition, but not in government - and this simply delays the inevitable while worsening the consequences.

But regardless of the reason, this is not how democracy is supposed to work. Our democratic system is based on the idea of the public choosing between competing political parties (or coalitions of parties) to determine which will hold power. Implicit in this is that the public at least has the opportunity to know what the choices actually are. But rather than fronting up, National is deliberately trying to keep the public in the dark as much as possible - even on something as simple and uncontroversial as aid spending. This simply isn't good enough, and the public deserves better.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Canada's plan on climate change: increase emissions

Back in February, the Canadian House of Commons gave the Conservatives a sharp reminder of the limits of minority government by passing a private member's bill requiring the government to table a detailed plan to meet Canada's Kyoto obligations. The bill is yet to pass the Senate, but today the government attempted to head it off by releasing a new Regulatory Framework for Air Emissions [PDF], including greenhouse gases. But rather than planning to meet their obligation for a 6% reduction from 1990 levels over 2008 - 2012, the government has instead shifted the goalposts, and is now promising to cut emissions by 20% from 2006 levels by 2020. As 2006 emissions are presently 30% higher than 1990, effectively they're promising to increase emissions by 4%.

The chief mechanism for doing this is a weak system of carbon taxes and emissions trading linked to emissions intensity. Major firms would be required to reduce their emissions per unit output by 18% over three years, and then by 2% per annum thereafter. Excess emissions could either be covered by trading and offsets, or by paying a $15 / ton carbon tax. However, there's no actual limit on emissions, so efficient polluters will be able to emit as much as they want.

The Canadian government is trying to sell this as an excellent policy for 1997 (when Canada signed Kyoto, and when their Liberal predecessors should have acted on it). That's a lie. It was an inadequate policy even back then, as New Zealand's experience with intensity-based Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements shows (short version: targets were met, but emissions rose. But the government got to pretend it was doing something for a few years, which was the primary goal). Ten years later, its not even a bad joke. Instead, its the last ditch attempt by a government committed to inaction to continue sticking its head in the sand. Unfortunately, it looks like they'll get what they want; the policy will be implemented solely through regulation, so the Canadian Parliament will not have a chance to scrutinise or strengthen it. Their only option would be to bring the government down - a risky plan which could simply result in another divided Parliament. OTOH, given the electoral pressures on the various minor parties propping up the government, they may be left with little choice.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

New Fisk

We are now in the firing line, sadly

Friday, April 27, 2007

Signing the lion

Amnesty International is currently touring New Zealand on a campaign to raise awareness about human rights abuses in China, with a petition in the form of a large, colourful, traditional Chinese parade lion. In towns with a sister city relationship with China, they're inviting Mayors and councilors to sign the lion and raise human rights with their Chinese counterparts.

Today, the lion visited Palmerston North. After sunning itself at Massey University for a while, it ventured into town in search of Mayor Heather Tanguay. Unlike her counterpart in Dunedin, she was willing to sign (though only in a personal capcity).

The lion will be visiting other towns and cities around the North Island over the next week (click here for a map). If anyone is interested, it will be in Auckland on May 4, and apparently at Auckland uni the following Monday. Eventually it will make its way down to Wellington, via the Bay of Plenty, to be presented to the Chinese embassy.

Civil unions in New Hampshire

The New Hampshire state legislature has passed a civil union bill, and it will be signed into law within days. Eight states down, 42 to go...

Voting to end the war III

The US Congress has set a deadline for the US to withdraw from Iraq. Both the Senate and the House passed the Iraq supplemental funding bill through its final stages today, and both voted to make continued funding of the war contingent on troop withdrawals beginning by October and complete by 31 March 2008. Bush is of course blustering about a veto, but as the withdrawal plan is contained in the very bill funding the war, he will be playing chicken with his troop's salaries (and suplies). While the Democrats don't have the numbers to overcome a veto, nothing is stopping them from waiting two months to add a sense of urgency, then again passing a bill which again makes funding contingent - or not passing one at all. In short, with COngress holding the purse strings, this is not a fight Bush can win.

Meanwhile, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has submitted articles of impeachment against Vice President Cheney, charging that he manipulated intelligence to fabricate the threat of Iraqi WMD, deceived Congress about the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and undermined the national security of the US by threatening Iran. It has no hope of success - impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which the Dems just don't have - but these are "high crimes and misdemeanours", more so if you accept the joke of the Clinton impeachment (Clinton lied about his sex life, which was no-one else's business anyway; Cheney lied his way onto a war. Quite a difference there). The charges deserve a thorough going over, and even if the vote fails in the end, it will be an important step towards holding the Bush Administration to account.

New part-kiwi blog

Ethical Martini, by a pair of journalism lecturers, one in Auckland, one in Hobart.

Ancient history: the Coalition for Open Government

When the Coalition for Open Government (re)formed earlier in the month, they mentioned that they were a new version of an older group, which had campaigned in the early 80's for the Official Information Act. This tied in to another of my interests - the OIA - so I decided to do some background research. The Coalition for Open Government seems to have formed to oppose Robert Muldoon's National Development Act - a draconian planning law which allowed central government to "fast track" projects deemed to be of national importance - projects like the Clyde Dam, or the Motonui synfuels plant, or the proposed Aramoana aluminium smelter ("Thing Big", in other words). The Coalition produced an analysis of the bill when it was introduced to Parliament, and then when it was before select committee, produced a weekly newsletter reporting on the committee process, with excerpts from key submissions. This was known as the Open Government Report. Funded by donations and produced on a shoestring budget (which barely paid for printing and postage), the Open Government Report was mailed out to 3,000 people each week, including MP's, officials, and members of the public.

The bill passed, of course - no MMP or troublesome coalition partners in those days - but the Open Government Report continued, though on a far less regular schedule. From March 1980 the focus was on reporting on how the National Development Act was used, and highlighting the projects the National government was trying to ram through under it. They also acquired a new interest: freedom of information. In 1980 the Committee on Official Information under Sir Alan Danks had published their report, Towards Open Government [PDF - and kudos to the Ombudsmen for putting this online], in which they recommended the repeal of the Official Secrets Act and its replacement with a new regime in which the government would

...reaffirm its responsibility to keep the public informed of its activities and to make official information available unless there is good reason to withhold it.

A later Supplementary Report contained a draft bill, which the government introduced to Parliament in 1981. The Coalition for Open Government was scathing of the bill, viewing it as lacking teeth and granting too much power to Ministers (who originally had the power to veto a recommendation by the Ombudsman). They were also concerned about the exclusion of local government and quangoes. But they pushed hard on the bill, and contributed to the public debate on it during 1981 and 1982. Meanwhile, they also did valuable work on other issues as well - on the reform of public broadcasting, the racist Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982, the Motunui outfall decision, and on plans for expanded coal mining at Huntly. In 1984 they also reported on the implementation of the OIA over its first year, and the large number of Ministerial vetoes issued by an increasingly authoritarian government. Finally, in late 1984, after the election of the Fourth Labour Government, they decided to call it a day - apparently due to an initial five year time limit they imposed on themselves. After a final retrospective issue, the Coalition for Open Government went their separate ways - though there was some interest in creating a successor organisation to monitor the increasingly important private sector (I have no idea how this turned out).

Reading back through these newsletters, its a completely different world - one in which the artificial majorities created by an unfair electoral system allowed that same government to ram through whatever legislation took its fancy, while the lack of an OIA allowed them to lie about it with total impunity, misrepresent their statistics and cover up the inconvenient projections. In order to prove that the government would have to subsidise electricity to the proposed Aramoana smelter, for example, the Coalition for Open Government had to reverse engineer the entire electricity planning system from public sources. Nowdays, we'd just demand the report, and in all likelihood, get it. While governments can still lie, it's a bit harder for them now.

And of course, it was a world without the internet. To get their message out required a team of eight or so people to write, type, typeset, print, envelope-stuff, and post several thousand copies of a newsletter, at a cost of around $500 an issue (excluding labour). Nowdays, people would just set up a blog and a mailing list. The cost of reaching people has got dramatically cheaper, and yet fewer people and groups seem to be doing it. Partly that is because MMP has taken the rough edges off government - while people rail against the current Labour government, it doesn't even come close to Muldoon or Lange in its constitutional excesses, and there is consequently less public outrage or motivation to participate. But it also seems to be a general retreat from politics as well. The history of the first Coalition for Open Government shows that politics matters and that a small group of motivated activists can make a difference. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, its a lesson we should take to heart.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


The NZ sedition pledge has reached its target in a mere 36 hours. Thanks to everyone who signed it; now its time to start writing those letters. Meanwhile, if you haven't signed the pledge, it is still open until May 11th - so if you oppose the sedition law and want to see it repealed, sign up and let everyone know about it.

Fiji: hunting the bloggers

Since the December 5 coup, the Fijian blogosphere has sprouted a network of bloggers opposed to the military regime. One of them - Fijian Black, of Good Men (And Women) Doing Something - is currently promoting a silent protest against the coup, the form of a "day of inaction" on May 1st. It may not amount to anything - these sorts of protests usually don't - but even such minor signs of opposition are intolerable in the military's eyes, and so now they are trying to hunt down the pseudonymous blogger, presumably so they can subject them to the same treatment meted out to their other critics.

When a regime suppresses dissent, it is generally a sign that they do not believe they can win the argument on its own merits. When they're reaching as far down the pecking order as anonymous bloggers, then its clear that they have no arguments other than brute force. The Fijian military's actions speak to its own fundamental illegitimacy.

Something to go to in Auckland

The Council of Trade Unions are running a public forum on "The Hollow Men: Our Democracy Or Theirs?" in Auckland next week. Speakers will include Nicky Hager, political scientist Raymond Miller, and former Alliance leader Laila Harré.

When: Tuesday May 1 2007, 7.30pm
Where: University of Auckland, Lower Lecture Theatre, (behind the Clocktower building) City Campus, Princes St.

If you're concerned about election funding, then it should be well worth going to.

Some "compromise"

Yesterday, Sue Bradford and John Key met to discuss the latter's desire for a "compromise" on the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill. The discussions were not fruitful. Those wondering why need only consider the amendment [DOC] Key was proposing:

Every parent of a child and every person in the place of a parent of a child is justified in lightly smacking the child in the course of their parenting duties if the smacking used was minor and inconsequential

As I noted earlier, this isn't an offer of compromise - it's a demand for surrender. It is explicitly counter to the purpose of the bill ("abolishing the use of parental force for the purposes of correction"), and Bradford was right to reject it. We should not be enshrining violence against children in law, any more than we should be allowing husbands to use "minor and inconsequential" violence against their wives, or Pakeha to use "minor and inconsequential" violence against Maori.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 37th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at BogsBlog.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Lobbying on sedition

The government has responded positively to yesterday's call by four minor parties to repeal our archaic sedition law, saying that it is a sign that repeal has wide support. This is good, but we shouldn't leave him in any doubt. So I've created a Pledgebank pledge saying

I will write to Justice Minister Mark Burton urging the repeal of New Zealand's sedition laws but only if 20 other New Zealanders will do the same.

You can sign it here.

Twenty people doesn't sound like many, but based on previous pledges its an achievable target, and I want this to succeed. You can also sign up after the target has been reached, and I encourage people to do so - the greater the show of support from the public, the greater the chance that the government will act.

Tony Milne running for Christchurch City Council

Tony Milne is running for the Christchurch City Council under the Christchurch 2021 ticket. I don't know Tony well - hell, I haven't even met him, only exchanged emails and blog posts - so I can't endorse him except in the general sense of being on my preferred side of the political spectrum and agreeing on various issues. But I can at least wish him luck.

Meanwhile, I'm intrigued to see that he's trying to raise money online using ChipIn (click here to donate). It's mediated by PayPal, and denominated in US$, both of which are irritating, but it will be interesting to see how it works out. In the US, the internet has become a vital fundraising tool, particularly for left-wing candidates seeking money from the grassroots. What I'm wondering is whether there's enough kiwis online for it to become useful here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Working together to repeal sedition

I was in Wellington today, but I was able to stop past the joint United Future - Green - Maori Party - ACT press conference in which they announced the formation of a joint coalition to repeal New Zealand's sedition laws. All four parties are concerned about the law's impact on freedom of speech and the ability of people to criticise the government. And all are united in their desire to see it repealed as quickly as possible. I think Keith Locke said it best; "we shouldn't have thoughtcrime on our statute books" (amusingly, after explaining that sedition criminalised "exciting disaffection" against the government, and that "every day in Parliament we do just that", he felt the need to proclaim his support for the government. Clearly he's worried about prosecution...)

Both Peter Dunne and Heather Roy said that this was a good sign that MMP is working - and I agree. When the Greens and United Future can agree on something, its almost certainly a sensible idea. And when ACT and the Maori Party can join them in finding common ground, I'd have thought that makes it pretty much a no-brainer. There's support from right across the political spectrum for repeal, and a majority in Parliament if anyone wants it. The question now is which of the major parties will step up and put forward a bill.

DPF has more on the press conference here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Blog holiday

I'm in Wellington tomorrow visiting the National Archives, so there will be no bloggage. Wednesday being a public holiday, there probably won't be anything then either (unless I get bored or someone does something exceptionally stupid). Normal service will resume Thursday - just in time for the end of the week.

Fortunately Parliament will be back next week, so I'll have stuff to blog about.

For a global democracy

The Independent reports that a group of international politicians, academics and business leaders have launched a campaign to democratise the UN by adding an elected assembly. This is a fundamentally good idea - one of the biggest problems with the UN is its "democracy deficit". Those who speak at the UN represent governments and the interests of governments (or the people who buy them) - not of their people. As a result, the global governance structure which is gradually emerging through multilateral treaties is systematically biased towards the powerful, and we see inaction on important global issues such as climate change, genocide, and poverty. Only by adding a fully elected and democratically accountable assembly can this deficit be overcome.

It won't be easy. Democratisation faces institutional opposition, including from the very people you'd expect to support it - the Americans. And not all countries are properly democratic and able to fully participate. The Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly is therefore proposing a gradual process, similar to that used in the formation of the European Parliament. The first step would be the establishment of an assembly drawn from national legislatures as a consultative body to the UN. This would move gradually towards direct election, at the same time being given greater participation in and control over the UN system. The ultimate goal would be a fully elected world Parliament, exercising control and oversight over and providing greater legitimacy to the UN system.

This is an interesting project, and one that deserves our support. It recognises both the need for some form of global government, and the fundamental truth that power derives from the consent of the governed, that there is no authority without democracy. At the same time, it also recognises that democracy has to grow from the bottom up, that it evolves rather than being handed down US-style on stone tablets. In the case of the UK (and hence New Zealand), that process took 500 years, two revolutions and a regicide. Hopefully in the case of the UN it will be both quicker and more peaceful.

The campaign's strategy paper can be found here [PDF]. Their FAQ is here [PDF], or you can view the list of signatories here. Maybe we should try and get a few more New Zealand MPs to sign up?

Still not shooting at anyone

For the past two years I've been using the OIA to monitor the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan, with an annual request asking essentially whether they've been shooting at anyone and whether anyone has been hurt. The answer this year is pretty much the same as last year: a reassuring "no":

No New Zealand Defence Force personnel deployed in Afghanistan have fired weapons in the past year in response to anti-government milita action, so to the best of my knowledge, no people have been injured or killed as a result of NZDFactions. NZDF personnel, however, do fire their weapons in routine training, and as part of their preparation for patrols. In general terms, personnel participate in live firing training once every two weeks. Approximately 60,000 rounds of small arms ammunition are expended in training exercises during a six-month personnel rotation.

During the two most recent completed personnel rotations (during the period October 2005 to September 2006) for which injury/medical statistics are available, there were 212 cases of non-infectious disease (including muscular, urogenital, neurological, eye, ear, nose, throat, skin and gastrointestinal conditions); 65 cases of infectious disease (including such illnesses as gastroenteritis and respitory infections); and 26 injuries (mainly work-related). 11 minor dental procedures were also required, and during the period, 228 deployed NZDF personnel received routine medical examinations. Other miscellaneous conditions/events recorded were one gynecological condition, two animal bites and three cases of stress.

Please note that injuries/infections are recorded seperately, and that some individuals may have been affected by more than one condition.

(Note also that there's some overlap in the injury statistics with the previous response).

Meanwhile, it seems that my complaint to the Ombudsmen last year paid off; rather than taking six months to process this request, it went through in the usual 20 working days. Nice to see that Defence are actually complying with the law for once...

Aid and the Pacific

In a spech to the United Nations Association on Saturday, National's foreign affairs spokesperson Murray McCully called for New Zealand to focus its aid on the Pacific. But while McCully had clearly done his homework on the sorts of projects NZAID funds in other parts of the world, he omitted one vital fact: the government already does exactly what he is suggesting. A quick look at the 2006 estimates of appropriation for Vote: Official Development Assistance [PDF] shows that approximately two-thirds of our current aid spending is classed as "Pacific Development Assistance", and only one third "Global Development Assistance" ($466.72 million vs $224.43 million over three years) - up from 47% five years ago. "A core geographical focus on the Pacific" was a key part of NZAID's mandate when it was split off from MFAT in 2002, and so far it has lived up to it.

As for the wider point, it is appropriate that we focus our efforts on our immediate neighbours. We have close cultural ties with many of the Pacific islands (sometimes as a former colonial master; more often because we have large expat communities living here), it is logistically easy to assist them, and few other countries are interested in the region. That means that if we don't help, no-one else will. In addition, we have an interest in ensuring that our neighbours are peaceful and stable, and aid is a way of promoting this. However, that doesn't mean we should completely ignore the rest of the world. There are problems beyond our backyard too, and we should do what we can to help with them.

And now, we wait

British police have forwarded a file on the "cash for honours" scandal and the UK Labour Party's election fundraising activities to the Crown Prosecution Service, and are reportedly recommending that charges be brought against Lord Levy, New Labour's top fundraiser, and Ruth Turner, one of Tony Blair's advisors. And so now we wait to see whether the CPS will follow through and prosecute, or whether they'll turn a blind eye to political corruption and attempts to pervert the cause of justice.

Unfortunately, I suspect they'll chose the latter. Oh, the CPS lawyers may recommend prosecution, but the case is being closely overseen by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General - a member of the government and close ally of Tony Blair. Despite a clear conflict of interest in the case, he has refused to recuse himself, and given his past record of changing advice to suit the government - BAE, Iraq - I don't think we can have any confidence in his impartiality.


Two elections were held over the weekend. In France, the highest turnout in 50 years saw socialist Ségolène Royal and authoritarian Nicolas Sarkozy move on to contest the second round. All eyes are now on the centrist voters who backed François Bayrou, and the election really depends on which way they swing. I'm hoping for a Royal victory, but its by no means assured. Still, at least this time Le Pen didn't make it through. More on European Tribune here and here.

Meanwhile, Nigeria was also trying to elect a President. Unfortunately, this being Nigeria, the election tactics were rather different. Ballot papers were not delivered, armed thugs intimidated voters and stole ballot boxes, election officials were abducted by "men disguised as police" (a sordid euphemism also used in Iraq to mask police abuses of power) and one group even tried to blow up the electoral commission HQ with a truck bomb. The conduct of the poll was so bad that Nigeria's largest election monitoring group has called for the whole election to be re-run. As for why its so bad, partly its a matter of growing pains - Nigeria was a dictatoship until recently, and previously power has always changed hands at gunpoint - but its also a matter of corruption. Being in power means that you and your cronies have access to billions of dollars in state revenue to distribute; being out of power means you have nothing. So, in a sense, the stakes are simply too high...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Elections in Timor-Leste III

Two weeks ago, East Timor went to the polls in the first presidential elections since independence. The results were delayed due to problems with the count, and then by an appeal by the unsuccessful candidates, but the courts have confirmed the poll, and we finally have a result. Fretilin candidate Francisco Guterres will face off with current Prime Minister José Ramos Horta in the run-off next month. The opposition have united behind Ramos Horta, and if they bother to turn out to vote, he seems almost certain to win. Meanwhile, hopefully the Timorese will have learned from the election and try to fix some of the more obvious problems with the process before the Parliamentary elections in June.

At least we're not racist

Larvatus Prodeo reports on a story in the Australian media that one quarter of Australians surveyed in the Human Beliefs and Values Survey would not want to live next to gays. It's an appalling statistic, and so I tracked down the paper - Love Thy Neighbour: How Much Bigotry is there is Western Countries [PDF] - to see whether New Zealand was any better. Sadly, from the table of results on p26, it seems we're not really - 22.3 percent of New Zealand respondents also said they would not want gays as neighbours, and this is similar to results from the USA (22.9%) and UK (24.1%). I really have to echo LP's question and wonder what the hell these people are afraid of...

The survey asked about prejudice against other groups, and there is at least some good news there: New Zealand is the second least racist country of those surveyed, with only 3% not wanting to live next to people of another race. Paradoxically, we're slightly more prejudiced against immigrants or foreign workers (5.4%), though this is still pretty good internationally. Unfortunately, the survey failed to ask about Jews and Muslims, so NZ has been excluded from the subsequent analysis measuring overall bigotry. Maybe they'll remember to do it next time...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Climate change: the real vanguard

Back in October, Helen Clark proposed putting New Zealand "in the vanguard" of the fight against climate change, by setting a long-term goal of carbon neutrality. It's a great objective, but still to be backed by real policy which lays out a pathway for achieving it (expect something in a couple of months). Meanwhile, another country has just declared that they will be going carbon neutral: Norway:

"By 2050 greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced drastically. Rich countries should become carbon neutral. This does not mean no emissions from the countries in question. But it does mean that each tonne of greenhouse gases emitted is to be offset by an equivalent reduction elsewhere. This adds up to zero emissions," [Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg] said.

"Norway will be at the forefront of international climate effort. I propose that in the period up to 2050 Norway will undertake to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 100% of our own emissions." He said the government would "sharpen" measures to meet its existing obligations under the Kyoto protocol by 10% in the period up to 2012, and had agreed to a 30% cut in emissions by 2030.

Unlike Clark, Norway's Prime Minister has set a clear timetable: carbon neutrality by 2050. And unlike New Zealand, Norway has serious policies already in place to limit domestic emissions. They've had a carbon tax since 1991, which has driven significant improvements in energy efficiency; greenhouse gas emissions are subject to planning laws (we removed them from ours); and they have actively encouraged forest sequestration (rather than leaving it to the market). They will still be dependant on purchasing offsets on the international market to achieve neutrality, but it is backed by a solid policy base which is pushing their economy in the right direction. Compared with New Zealand's seventeen years of inaction on climate change and utter lack of policy over that period, and its not difficult to see who the real vanguard is.

New Fisk

Caught in the deadly web of the internet

Friday, April 20, 2007

Own goal

National has scored another own goal by accusing Helen Clark of hypocrisy for having met with the Brethren herself while criticising National for doing so. But rather than meeting secretly to plot to circumvent electoral spending restrictions through an anonymous smear campaign, or to coordinate that campaign and massage the co-branding of its material (something it is clear from The Hollow men that practically every National MP did, with a very few honourable exceptions), it turns out she was forced to increase her security in order to stop them from harassing her, and told them to put their stuff in the mail to get them to go away. Quite a difference there, isn't there?

Climate change: cooking the books?

National and the Greens are accusing the government of massively underestimating the cost of our Kyoto deficit, to the tune of $1.2 billion. And they're backed on this by Murray Ward, the former head of the climate change office. So, are they right? Is the government cooking the books?

Partly. One factor in the estimate is using a carbon price of NZ$30 per ton rather than the US$9.65 per ton used by Treasury. Treasury's price is based on carbon prices now, but those prices are expected to rise, and as a result Treasury's estimate is regarded as being on the low side (this also has policy consequences, BTW - lowballing the cost limits the measures the government will take). But the other factor is to look at MAF estimates for expected deforestation. These estimates show forest owners are planning to permanently deforest 47,000 hectares, rather than the 27,000 used in the projected balance of emissions. However, that estimate is in the absence of policy, and as you may be able to tell by the squealing, the government is planning to do something in this area - specifically, limiting deforestation through a deforestation permit system. If enacted, this will limit deforestation to about 27,000 hectares, and ensure that forest-owners pay the full cost of any excess.

So, the government doesn't seem to be cooking the books on the level of emissions, but should at least signal that we face a lot of risk over price - and construct policies accordingly.

Meanwhile, it's a little rich to see this criticism coming from National - a party whose "solution" to deforestation is to let it happen while giving away a billion dollars to their donors in the forestry industry. It would be nice to see the major opposition party actually present some serious solutions for once, rather than trying to actively make things worse for the benefit of their rich mates.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Election funding: the Greens weigh in

Following the leaking of the government's proposals for election funding reform, the Greens have weighed in with their own policy [PDF]. As expected, there's a lot similarity with the government's proposals, but generally they take a much tougher line. There's also some similarities with the proposals of the Coalition for Open Government.

The first proposal is for a public inquiry or citizens' jury to review the whole system of election finance laws and how they are enforced, as well as the desirability of public funding. The law hasn't been fully reviewed for at least 15 years, if not longer, and in light of the increasing influence of money (or at least attempts by the rich for it to have a greater influence) a comprehensive review seems justified. In the meantime, they propose a package of measures to introduce greater transparency and plug the most obvious gaps exposed in recent years. These include lowering the declaration threshold to $1,000, a ban on foreign donations, weekly disclosure of funding in the lead-up to the election, and a $35,000 annual donation limit. The latter is intended to encourage parties to broaden their base, rather than relying on a narrow clique of rich donors who consequently have disproportionate influence over policy formation.

On overall spending, they support keeping the existing spending caps but extending them out to the beginning of election year, on the basis that election campaigns are now beginning earlier and earlier in a deliberate attempt to avoid restrictions (National began its 2005 campaign in January and spent up large for that very reason). They also support retaining the existing broadcasting rules, at least for the time being. On third-party campaigning, their proposals are similar to the government's: declaration and a $50,000 cap. Though interestingly, they make no mention of an exemption for communications with members (something I think is a vital safeguard for free speech, and which promotes exactly the sort of participation the Greens want to see). Finally, they propose removing party appointees from the Electoral Commission (which allocates broadcast funding) and Representation Commission (which sets electoral boundaries).

It's a solid set of proposals, and a useful contribution to the debate. I think the Greens are right to call for a full review and public enquiry, and on very solid ground on transparency and the removal of party appointees from electoral bodies. But the cynic in me doubts they'll get those bits past the government, unless there is overwhelming public demand.

Meanwhile, I now await with bated breath National's proposals for reform. Do they actually have any, or are they simply committed to protecting the status quo they so obviously abused last time?

Good news on aid?

Foreign Minister Winston Peters is tipping a substantial increase in foreign aid in next month's budget. This is good news, but I'll be waiting to see the actual numbers and in particular whether the government lays out a path to meeting our promise to increase aid to 0.7% of GDP by 2015. We're a comparitively rich country in international terms, but our current level of foreign aid is truly pathetic. We can, and should, give more.

Prisoners have freedom of religion too

One of the freedoms we take for granted in New Zealand is freedom of religion. People are free to believe as they like, and worship as they like. Except, apparently, if they are Catholic and in prison. This week's NZ Catholic (offline) reports that Corrections have recently reversed longstanding practice, and started applying the ban on alcohol in prisons to visiting priests - meaning that prisoners cannot celebrate mass. United Future MP Peter Dunne is attacking this decision as "political correctness gone mad", but he's wrong. It's "'tough on crime' gone mad" - and part of the blame for the hardline approach can be laid squarely at the feet of parties like Dunne's, who have whipped up public fear and hatred of criminals as a lazy way of winning votes.

Snarky semantics aside, Dunne is completely right in considering this a violation of fundamental human rights. The celebration of mass is a vital part of Catholic religious observance, and preventing it effectively prevents them from properly practicing their religion. While the Corrections Act 2004 defines alcohol as an "unauthorised item", it also requires prison managers to provide for prisoners varying spiritual and religious needs, "so far as is reasonable and practicable". And of course s15 of the BORA affirms the freedom of every person to practice their religion in public or private, individually or with others. I have no doubt that if this policy was challenged in court, Corrections' policy would be found to be unreasonable, and the Corrections Act would be "read down" so as to be given an interpretation consistent with the BORA, as required by s6. The question is whether Corrections will waste public money defending the indefensible, or whether they'll admit their mistake and reverse their policy. Unfortunately, looking at their past behaviour, I suspect they'll choose the former.

Te Waka decision

Yesterday the Environment Court released its decision into Unison's 111 MW Te Waka windfarm expansion, overruling the Hastings District Council and declining the consent. Four groups, including two local iwi, had challenged the consent on the grounds that the proposed site of the wind farm had significant landscape value, and significant cultural value to local iwi, both of which would be "desecrated" by the visual impact of the wind farm. The Environment Court agreed:

“Important as the issues of climate change and the use of renewable sources of energy unquestionably are, they cannot dominate all other values.

The adverse effects of the proposal on what is undoubtedly an outstanding landscape, and its adverse effects on the relationship of Maori with this land and the values it has for them, clearly bring us to the conclusion that the tipping point in favour of other values has been reached,” said the decision.

(Naturally, the Dominion-Post reported the decision as being all about Maori spiritual values...)

This is going to be a significant decision. Various windfarm projects (including Motorimu in Manawatu,and Project Hayes in Otago) are currently being challenged on the basis of their visual impact on the landscape. The Environment Court has just said that there are limits - though those limits seem to be quite high (a key factor was the cumulative visual impact with other wind farms in the area). Expect a lot of anti-wind farm groups to be pointing at this in future consent hearings.

As for the decision itself, I don't have a problem with it. The RMA process is about balancing values - the values laid out in the Act, the values of the local community as laid out in its plans and policies, and the value of proposed developments. In this case, that balance favoured an outstanding natural landscape (a view that I have some sympathy for). But that doesn't mean that it will everywhere, or that wind-farm projects will no longer be able to gain consent. Neither is it an excuse, as Gerry Brownlee insists, for gutting the RMA. There are plenty of potential sites which are not outstanding natural features, where wind farms will have few problems gaining consent.

Unison is reportedly planning to appeal the decision, and whatever you think of it, that should be welcomed. A High Court judgement will clarify the law and give us all more certainty on where the balance lies.

Not serious

I was right: John Key isn't serious about improving the anti-smacking bill. His demand that Sue Bradford agree to his position before even talking to him makes it clear that rather than seeking to advance the purposes of the bill, he is instead seeking to fundamentally undermine them; he is seeking surrender rather than genuine compromise. And as I said yesterday, there is nothing to compromise over, and no reason to do so. The bill has a majority, and unless there is a dramatic change in the political landscape, is going to pass. Its opponents had better start getting used to the idea.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Since the invasion of Iraq, the British have hired dozens of Iraqis to serve as interpreters to help mediate their relationship with the local population. Rightly or wrongly, these people are seen as collaborators by the resistance. Many have received death threats. An alarming number have been kidnapped and killed. As a result, some have been forced to flee the country and seek safe haven elsewhere. You'd think that the British government would recognise that it owed these people something, and that they would provide sanctuary until it was safe for them to return. But you'd be wrong. Instead, the UK has simply abandoned them.

No matter what you think of the occupation, its an appalling display on ingratitude by the British. And it certainly won't be convincing Iraqis to cooperate with them in the future.

Climate change: pulling numbers out of their arse

The Greens are currently touring the country as part of a campaign to push their latest proposals on climate change. One of these proposals is for a "climate defence fund", funded by money raised from putting a price on carbon, and used to fund energy efficiency, emissions reduction, and (presumably) adaptation projects. So far, so good - this sort of revenue recycling is a no-brainer. It gives us "double dividends" as well as explicitly linking the price of emissions with relieving the damage they cause. But then they talk about the level of this funding:

Fitzsimons said climate change was the greatest threat to the country so at least $1.6 billion should be spent on preparing for its effects – the same as the defence budget.

(Elsewhere, they say that "climate change is the greatest threat we face. Spending the same as our defence budget ($1.6 billion) is the least we should do").

It's great rhetoric, but I can't for the life of me see the point in such a high level of funding, or how it would be spent. I took a quick look at revenue recycling last year, and came up with an additional $45 - $50 million a year of projects that could be funded in this way, and that number could be doubled if capacity constraints were relieved. Funding further rounds of the Projects Mechanism would cost around $50 million a year, and the government is planning $20 - $30 million a year for its afforestation grants scheme. Again, those numbers could be increased somewhat, and the government could start planting trees itself, but we're still talking in the ballpark of a few hundred million dollars. Even if we doubled it (if we're really imaginative in working out good ways of spending money on this), we're still left with a billion dollars to spare.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the Greens need to go away and do some rough costings of what they want to fund. Otherwise, it just looks like they're pulling numbers out of their arse purely for rhetorical effect - which doesn't do a thing to convince people that you have serious, sensible, well-thought-out policy.

Nothing to compromise over

There's a lot of talk in the papers this morning about National wanting a "compromise" over the anti-smacking bill. But personally, I see nothing to compromise over. The brute fact is that John Key and his fundamentalist Christian mates want bad parents to be able to continue to assault their children. We don't. There's no middle ground in there; it's an either/or proposition. The only reason people talk "compromise" in such situations is to give a nicer mask to a demand for surrender.

I also don't see any reason to "compromise". Currently, the bill has a majority in Parliament. That majority shows no sign of weakening, and the fundamentalist campaign against it instead seems to have hardened MPs' resolve, just as their campaign against Homosexual Law Reform did. As things stand at the moment, the bill will pass its committee stage unamended on May 2nd, receive its third reading after the Budget, and come into force sometime in late June or early July. There's no need to water it down for it to pass, and given that it has been dangerously watered down already, it would be undesirable anyway.

If Key has a genuinely better wording which would achieve the purpose of the bill rather than subverting it, I'm all ears. But I really don't think that is the case. Instead, Key is just grandstanding, and at the same time trying to wriggle out of the trap he is making for himself over repeal.

(I make no apologies for the language used in this post. Hitting people is assault. Parents who hit their children are bad parents. If you're outraged over this label, then there's a very simple way to avoid it: don't hit your kids).

Human rights film festival

For the past two years, the Human Rights Network Aotearoa has organised an annual Human Rights Film Festival. Well, it's back for another run, with a slate of films focusing on "identity". It will hit Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in early May; unfortunately it doesn't look like its coming to Palmerston North.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


The Exclusive Brethren have officially disowned the secret seven, with an official spokesperson saying they are acting independently of the church. But does anyone really believe them?

Personally, I'll be watching to see whether they continue to run similar anonymous smear campaigns in other countries, rather than trusting the word of a group which has shown it is quite willing to lie to advance its political aims.

Election funding: food for thought

One of the advantages of the blogosphere is that it can provide a platform for people with specialist knowledge to disseminate it to a wider audiance, so informing public debate. Over on Liberation, Bryce Edwards is doing exactly that, with a lengthy series on Debunking myths about party finance in NZ, based on his 2003 PhD thesis Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation (available from Canterbury uni library, for anyone really interested).

While the post titles may not give much comfort to those of us wanting to reform the system, there's definitely food for thought there.

Election funding: enforcement

The Coalition for Open Government has a pair of posts up discussing ways to improve the enforcement regime around electoral law. In the first, they argue that having four different groups responsible for enforcement is a recipe for buck-passing and inaction, and propose folding the relevant functions into a single independent body with prosecutorial power. In the second, they argue compellingly for treating violations of election law as the serious crimes that they are:

Breaches of the serious electoral laws need to carry penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the offences – it is ludicrous that a candidate found destroying ballot papers cast for their opponent faces at most 6 months’ imprisonment, and worse that a party deliberately overspending it’s spending cap can’t even be charged (and in individual in that party convicted of that corrupt practice faces at most a $4000 fine and 1 year in prison).

Politicians and others who deliberately flout the rules we have in place to protect our elections from corruption should face stiff penalties – penalties that, with strict enforcement, will act as a real deterrent to anyone considering breaching the law.

They propose imposing criminal liability on parties, aligning the regimes under the Broadcasting and Electoral Acts so parties face similar offences for violating either, and increasing penalties so that they are commensurate with other offences and actually act as a deterrent. As they point out, you can get 7 years for stealing a car or anything valued at over $1000. Isn't stealing or attempting to steal an election just as serious?

I support these proposals. While the restructuring of election bodies may not be able to be done properly before the next election, the foundations can be laid for it to start soon afterwards, and prosecutorial power can at least be devolved. Increasing penalties for breaches however is something we can do quickly. The question is whether self-interested politicians will do it, or whether they'll once again write the law to suit themselves.

(Hat tip: DPF)

Election funding: public funding dead

So, the government's plans for public funding seem to be dead. I expected this - it was apparent two weeks ago when Winston effectively vetoed it - and while I support public funding as a way of getting a more level playing field in our democracy and reducing the rich's ability to buy themselves influence and power, if the votes aren't there, they're not there.

However, that doesn't mean we should just let the issue die. There's a good case to be made, and if the government can't make it in a highly politicised environment against the backdrop of its own misdeeds over pledge cards, it should look at using a more neutral forum. Some sort of public inquiry process, similar to the Royal Commission into the Electoral System, would be a perfect vehicle for doing this. Meanwhile, what's important is that they press on with the necessary reforms around transparency, third-party campaigning and enforcement and get a much tougher regime in place before the next election, so we don't see the sorts of abuses we saw in 2005.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Faith-based policy fails again

An article of faith among the American religious right, and the Bush Administration which represents them, is the value of abstinence-only "sex education". If you tell teenagers not to have sex, get them to take "chastity pledges" and wear wierd jewelry, they'll resist their natural urges (not to mention the example of thousands of generations of teenagers before them) and not do it - with a consequent reduction in teenage pregnancy, abortion, and STIs.

There's just one problem: it doesn't work:

A survey of more than 2,000 teenagers carried out by a research company on behalf of Congress found that the half of the sample given abstinence-only education displayed exactly the same predilection for sex as those who had received conventional sex education in which contraception was discussed.

Mathematica Policy Research sampled teenagers with an average age of 16 from a cross-section of communities in Florida, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Virginia. Both control groups had the same breakdown of behaviour: 23% in both sets had had sex in the previous year and always used a condom, 17% had sex only sometimes using a condom; and 4% had sex never using one. About a quarter of each group had had sex with three or more partners.

Not that this will convince the Bush Administration - a hallmark of Bush's Presidency has been a complete disregard for facts in favour of their ideological preconceptions. But it might help convince policymakers here to stand up to pressure from our local religious lunatics and keep this bullshit out of our schools.

Not even social science

The Business Council for Sustainable Development is pushing the results of a survey which shows that 77% of respondents consider climate change to be a problem, as well as widespread support for various policy options (including making emitters pay). But there's a problem: the survey isn't worth the bits it is written in.

The survey was conducted by ShapeNZ - a subsidiary of the BCSD - and was conducted online. People signed up on the website (with the offer of a cash prize as a sweetener) and answered a bank of questions. Their answers were then "weighted to make it representative of the New Zealand population in terms of age, gender, voting behaviour and personal income". This helps a little, but fundamentally you still have a self-selecting sample rather than a random one. And this could significantly skew the results.

Such a methodology would be rejected by any social scientist (unless there were compelling reasons which made random sampling impossible - and then it would be heavily caveated). But it is regurgitated uncritically by the Herald, and is considered to be a useful guide for policymaking. Sometimes I really do despair...

Wasting the bully pulpit

Labour's dismal handling of its election reform proposals demonstrates the same basic failure that almost cost them the last election: a failure to make the argument or even try to win over the public. There is a strong case to be made for public funding and greater transparency - but Labour hasn't made it. Rather than responding to the leaking of their policy by trying to convince the public of the need to prevent money undermining our democracy, they responded with sullen silence for most of the week. It wasn't until Thursday that any Labour MP spoke up for the proposals - and then only because the Brethren presented a target too good to ignore.

Maybe the government thought that their plans would not be popular with the public, and so decided to remain silent. But as I've pointed out before, you don't win arguments by not making them. By not even bothering to advocate for their policies, they yielded the battlefield to the Opposition, allowing National to frame the debate. In the process, they passed up a perfect opportunity to win over the public and have us pressure the opposition and the minor parties for reform, rather than allowing them to pressure Labour for the status quo.

Labour has made this same mistake over civil unions, "political correctness", public spending and tax cuts - the latter almost costing them the 2005 election. As for why they do it, it is because they apparently don't believe in political leadership. Labour party official and blogger Jordan Carter has been quite explicit: political parties are just "logs floating down a river". They can't lead public opinion; they can only follow it. There's a valid point here about the limits of political power. But there's also a mistake in viewing public opinion as a given, rather than as something politicians can change.

Theodore Roosevelt once referred to the US Presidency as a bully pulpit - by which he meant a superb platform from which to advocate for an agenda. Within New Zealand, holding the government benches is the best bully pulpit you can get. When a Minister says something, the media listen. The requirement for balance means they will seek out alternative views, but the government's position will be reported, allowing the public to assess it on its own merits. Labour is systematically wasting this opportunity - and in doing so pissing away one of their biggest advantages. I don't know whether it is stupidity, or the hubris of seven and a half years in office in an MMP environment which has led them to draw the conclusion that everything can be dealt with by negotiating with other parties, and that the wider public don't matter - but either way if they don't start actually talking to us and trying to persuade us of their programme (to the extent that they actually have one), they will receive - and deserve - a good kicking at the next election.

Nigeria, oil, and terrorism

The Observer has a fascinating pair of articles on oil and terrorism in Nigeria, talking about the tensions and corruption which have seen regular hostage-takings in the Niger Delta, and how a handful of men in speedboats could significantly affect global oil prices:

Crude awakening, part one
Crude awakening, part two

Definitely worth the read.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Guest Column: The Case Against The Case Against Aid

Why common counter arguments against giving aid are mistaken.

By Terence Wood

In my previous post on New Zealand's need to give more aid I argued for increasing overseas development assistance both on moral grounds and with respect to our own enlightened self-interest.

These are, I think, persuasive arguments for increased aid. So it is unsurprising that critics of aid generally don't argue against them directly. Instead, they usually make one of three claims: (1) that aid doesn't work; (2) that trade not aid is what is needed; and/or (3) that corruption is the main problem in developing countries and that aid will do nothing to help this.

In this post I will examine each of these arguments in turn.

Aid Doesn't Work

The first and probably most common argument against aid is that it simply doesn't work.

Australian academic Helen Hughes (not to be confused with the New Zealander of the same name) made this argument forcefully in her polemic Aid Has Failed the Pacific [PDF]1. Appealing at one point to research on the matter:

Aid appears to be inversely related to growth. Recent research shows that worldwide aid has not even been effective in countries that have adopted pro-growth policies.

Which sounds convincing until you realise that Hughes has engaged in a rather selective reading of the evidence at hand. It is true that there are some cross country regression analyses that show that aid has little impact on economic growth2. However - and you won't read this in Hughes' polemic - the majority of recent empirical evidence actually shows the opposite: that aid does have a positive impact on growth (I've written more about this here, there's a good discussion of recent research here, a summary of much of the positive research here [PDF]3). I've noted elsewhere my scepticism of cross country regression analyses and I think they are a particularly problematic tool in assessing aid effectiveness. So my intent here is not so much to use the positive studies of aid effectiveness to make the case for aid, but rather to simply point out that people such as Hughes who cite "empirical research" in their arguments are telling less than half the story.

Another strategy employed by people who claim that aid doesn't work is to point to a failed aid project and then use this as an illustration of aid's inevitable worthlessness. Once again, at first glance, this can appear persuasive: the history of aid, it is true, is strewn with white elephants.

Yet people who point to aid failures as evidence that aid doesn't work are doing the exact same thing as those who selectively mine empirical research: they are engaging in a one-sided reading of the evidence.

In the long and winding history of development, accompanying the failures are numerous examples of aid success stories. Aid money was involved in the eradication of small pox and the near eradication of polio worldwide, and aid contributed to the control of river blindness in Africa. Aid money also funded oral rehydration therapy in Egypt which saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and aid appears to have played a role in the economic takeoff of Botswana, South Korea, Bolivia and Vietnam4.

If there's one lesson to be learnt from the history of aid giving, it is not that aid doesn't work. Rather, it is the simple point that aid given well is more likely to work, while aid given poorly is likely to fail. And, in New Zealand we are lucky in that we have a very good aid agency and so can be confident that much of the aid we give will actually help people.

Trade Not Aid

Another argument often employed in the case against aid is that, compared to the benefits of international trade, aid's impact is trivial. And because New Zealand has very low trade barriers we are already "doing our bit for development".

To me the central premise of this argument is flawed. Why does the fact that we are doing one thing right mean that we shouldn't do another? (And, while we're at it, exactly how again is trade going to stop that HIV epidemic in Papua New Guinea?) Worse than this though is the fact that the trade not aid argument is based on a misunderstanding of the role that trade plays in fostering development.

On the surface the case for trade as tool of development is persuasive. Theories of specialisation, and comparative and competitive advantage have a distinguished pedigree in economics, and one needs only to look at the impact of sanctions on countries such as Iraq and Cuba (not to mention self-imposed autarky on North Korea) to see the importance of international trade in building affluent societies.

The trouble is, however, that trading one's way to wealth isn't as simple as opening your borders, hoping everyone else will do the same, and then watching your GDP rise. In reality, the relationship between trade and development is more complicated5, with the countries that have done the best from international trade typically engaging strategically and often shielding their "infant industries" from competition. Perhaps the most important point though, is that the countries that benefit most form international trade are those that have the capacity to do so. And our low trade tariffs are of no benefit to countries that lack this capacity. At present capacity constraints can be found in many of the countries that we give aid to. Hopefully, aid and domestic reform may mean that these nations will one day be able to benefit fully from international trade. But, until that time, it is wrong to use the argument that our own near absence of tariffs means that we are doing enough6.

Corrupt, Corrupt, Corrupt

The final argument made by opponents of aid is corruption is the main obstacle to development and that until it is tackled in developing countries other efforts such as aid giving are going to be of little use.

Once again this argument has prima facie appeal: it can hardly be denied that corruption poses a challenge to development. And some of the world's most corrupt countries are also some of its poorest. However, a closer look shows that things aren't as simple as they appear at first glance. For a start, the relationship between poverty and corruption probably runs both ways: while corruption slows development, many poor countries are also more corrupt simply because they are poor and cannot pay their civil servants well. On top of this, corruption, while a challenge, isn't an insurmountable obstacle to development. Countries such as China, Indonesia and Vietnam are undeniably corrupt yet in recent years (outside a dip associated with the Asian crisis) these countries have all grown rapidly, and done a good job in reducing poverty [press play].

Corruption isn't the only hurdle for development, either. In his book The End of Poverty (see my footnotes for a full reference) Jeffrey Sachs shows that, after corruption is controlled for, African countries have still performed worse than other parts of the developing world. Something that he attributes to geographical constraints and disease burden (having neo-liberalism rammed down their throats by multi-lateral institutions can’t have helped either).

When it comes to the problems of overcoming disease and geography, the role of aid is obvious. Yet, aid can also play an important role in tackling corruption. Aid can be used to fund civil society organisations to act as watchdogs on their own governments. Aid also gives us leverage when working with governments and can be used as an incentive for reform7.

Finally, it is worth noting that poor governance is sometimes merely the result of inability rather than dishonesty on behalf of government officials. Aid can, by funding capacity building, be an important tool in overcoming this.

Conclusion and What You Can Do

Over the week that has elapsed since I wrote my first post on aid more than 200,000 children have died from diseases associated with poverty. Many more have been born into lives of extreme hardship and limited opportunity; likely to be denied even the ability to perform the simple task of reading that you are currently engaged in.

As I said in my first post, surely this is an intolerable state of affairs.

What's more the common critiques of aid are unconvincing. Aid can work. And the potential of trade and problems of corruption are no excuse for not giving more aid. While aid won't solve all of the issues of under-development it will help.

So the question remains: why do we continue to fail to meet our obligations in this area?

If you feel inclined to take action on aid giving there are currently two campaigns running in New Zealand around the issue of aid and development.

The first of these is specifically related to meeting our aid targets. This is the Point Seven Campaign.

The second campaign is Make Poverty History, which campaigns on aid alongside other development platforms.


1. For a good critique of Hughes' paper refer to the conference paper by Ewan Morris on page 27 of this PDF.

2. Two credible, recent papers that purport to cast doubt on aid's impact on growth are "New Data, New Doubts: Revisiting 'Aid, Policies, and Growth'" (Easterly, Levine and Roodman) and “Aid and Growth: What Does the Cross-Country Evidence Really Show?” by Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian.

3. And for the enthusiast: a meta-study of aid studies that shows that a significant proportion of the positive research is robust and resilient to expanded data sets and changed specifications can be read here. Also worth noting is the point that GDP growth is not the only reason for giving aid. This paper [PDF] by Otago University academic David Fielding (and others) regresses aid levels vs other indicators of human wellbeing such as health and education and finds positive results.

4. My references for these claims are:

  • Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: how we can make it happen in our lifetime, Penguin, London
  • Levine, R. & Kinder, M. 2004. Millions Saved: proven successes in global health. Centre for Global Development, Washington
  • World Bank, 1998. Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn't and Why, Oxford University Press, New York

5. And one which is too complicated to discuss in any depth in this post. A very good introduction to the reasons why carte blanche trade liberalisation isn't a good strategy for the Pacific is can be found here [PDF]

6. It is also worth noting that New Zealand's involvement in the arena of international trade is not wholly benevolent. In the case of recent Pacific trade agreements (and the accessions of Pacific Island countries to the WTO) our negotiators have often pushed for rapid and comprehensive liberalisation of Pacific countries without due concern for the costs associated with this.

7. This I should note is not as easy in practice as it sounds and may only work in certain circumstances. Nevertheless, with all but the worst governments, some form of engagement is usually better than none. In the case of the worst governments the dilemma then becomes whether pulling aid out will harm the country's most vulnerable people.

Just what we need

Former Labour MP Taito Phillip Field is apparently planning a new political party, based on "family values". Because that's just what we need - another right-wing Christian party. Still, if he thinks he can retain his seat (and possibly bring a friend with him) by pandering to the same narrow slice of the political spectrum already claimed by United Future and Destiny NZ, then good luck to him. And if we're lucky, he'll split the vote and take them all down with him...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Election funding: freedom of speech

The Herald today reports that the Crown Law Office is concerned that some of the government's proposals for electoral spending reform could impact on freedom of speech. Of course they do; the question isn't whether they impact on freedom of speech, but whether they are justified limitations in a free and democratic society. And I think it's fairly clear that they are. Spending limits and disclosure thresholds are justified by the need to prevent the rich from buying elections, to prevent political corruption, and to ensure that parties are ultimately accountable to voters rather than wealthy donors. This is widely accepted - except by the anti-democratic National Party, which wishes to preserve its "right" to sell policy in secret to the highest bidder - and Crown Law apparently doesn't question it. But if we accept that, then we must also accept some restrictions on third party activity at elections, in order to prevent circumvention of the rules. Currently, we do this by requiring disclosure - every election advertisement must have the name and address of the person authorising it - and by barring advertisements which solicit support for a candidate or party unless they are authorised by that candidate or party (in which case they count as an election expense). However, the 2005 election revealed a significant hole in the rules around negative advertising, as well as an unprecedented attempt to circumvent them by a clique of wealthy right-wing donors (for example, the Talley Brothers' plan to set up a $1 million anonymous campaign in support of Don Brash - a plank which "stank" according to electoral law expert Andrew Geddis). These attempts at circumvention are likely to get even worse in 2008, and unless we want to see political parties (well, the National Party) making a mockery of the law and using their rich friends to buy the next election, we need to plug the loophole. Requiring third-parties to register and subjecting them to a spending cap does this, while the exemption for communications with members preserves their freedom of speech while also encouraging democratic participation.

(I should note at this stage that there are already third-party declaration and spending limits in the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, and that from my quick skim of Hansard they did not attract an adverse BORA report. I'm currently trying to OIA Crown Law's advice on those limits, as well as their advice on the 1992 Electoral Reform Bill, which became the Electoral Act 1993...)

Crown Law's other concern - about the proposed ban on foreign donations - is equally unsustainable. Democracy is fundamentally about a community governing itself. It follows from this that policy should be decided by that community - not by rich foreigners. We've already had one case of a wealthy foreigner trying to buy political support for a government, and that is one too many. Limiting donations to New Zealand citizens or residents (or organisations with a New Zealand presence - which means at least a PO box) will prevent this sort of abuse, and given our liberal attitude towards dual citizenship, its not too onerous a restriction.