Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Against a Royal Commission for Auckland

So, the government has announced a Royal Commission to investigate local government reform in Auckland. Coincidentally I've been discussing this by email with Rich of ObservatioNZ, though in the context of Mark Blumsky's Auckland and Wellington Local Government Reform Bill, and I have to say I'm deeply suspicious of it. Partly this is because the chief advocates of amalgamation seem to be business interests who see seperate councils representing their constituent's different interests as an impediment to ramming through their pet projects. And partly it is because of their explicitly anti-democratic agenda. It would be one thing if they were talking about preserving or even enhancing existing opportunities for representation, and merely talking about amalgamating the mayoralty at the head of a larger, more parliamentary-style council - but they're not. Instead, the number of councillors across the city is attacked as being "inefficient", and they seem to regard a low ratio of voters to elected representatives (that is, more representation and greater access to and accountability of representatives) as a Bad Thing per se. I'd feel a lot more comfortable if this was coming from the grass-roots - but they seem to be the people who have been completely cut out of the discussion, in favour of the usual local business elites.

But quite apart from my suspicion, a Royal Commission is simply the wrong format for this type of discussion. Better to have a citizen's jury instead.

A junket?

National is boycotting a select committee trip to Australia, claiming that it is a "junket". The basis of their claim? That the committee would work for only 20 hours during the week they're in Australia. This seems fair enough, until you remember one very important fact: that the committee normally works for only four hours a week - and in fact normally wouldn't be sitting at all next week as Parliament is in recess.

Still, MP's do more than just sit on committees - they have to sit in the House too. So, how long would they spend doing this in a normal week? Seventeen hours (and that's a maximum; in practice MPs are rostered in and out depending on their other duties). So, add that to their Select Committee work, and it looks like they're doing close to a full week's work. Which incidentally many of them will be flying the length of the country every week to do.

So, rather than making a principled objection to a junket, National is instead relying on people's ignorance of our political system to stage a tawdry beat-up. How typical.

Deportation to Algeria is unsafe

That's the conclusion of the UK Court of Appeal, ruling on the cases of three Algerian men the British government wants to get rid of. While the court found that diplomatic assurances that deportees would not be tortured could generally be relied upon, it also found that there was strong evidence that the particular individuals concerned would face a real rsk of torture or degrading treatment, and so halted efforts to deport them.

The parallels with the Zaoui case should be obvious.

Election funding and the Bill of Rights Act

The most common criticism of the government's proposed Electoral Finance Bill is that it violates the right to freedom of expression affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. But is this true? IMHO, no. As for why, it is worth remembering two things: firstly, that the rights affirmed in the BORA are not absolute, instead being subject to "such reasonable limits... as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". And secondly, that the right of New Zealanders to vote in free, fair, and genuine elections is itself affirmed in the BORA. The latter doesn't just mean that we get to vote - the elections must be genuine, which (in New Zealand, and everywhere else in the western world outside the USA) means preventing the rich and powerful from using their undue influence to affect the result.

So, this is about balancing rights then - something the BORA doesn't actually give us much guidance on. But it does establish a strong general case that some restrictions on donations, spending, and advertising are required by the BORA and will constitute a justifiable limit, provided they're proportionate to the aim of ensuring genuine elections.

So much for the general, what about the specific? Crown Law's advice on the consistency of the bill with the BORA is informative here. They follow a similar argument to that above (though with input from Canadian and UK cases as well as the UN rulings on the ICCPR), and reach the same broad conclusion. As for the specific clauses of the bill,

  • The limits on donations, expenditure, and the registration and reporting requirements are all found to be justified.
  • The extension of the "regulated period" to one year is considered to be "at the outer edge of acceptable limits", but is ultimately found to be consistent (in part because it is not unusual internationally).
  • The lower spending cap on third parties is justified on the basis that it is political parties, rather than third parties, who are the principal participants in an election. However, this is predicated on the restrictions not being "so severe as to preclude meaningful participation in the electoral process". I'm not sure that this condition is met - the spending cap may not be high enough to allow what I'd regard as the benchmark of "meaningful participation", the purchase of a full-page ad in every major daily newspaper.

The biggest problem however seems to be around "issue advertising". Here Crown Law argues that restrictions are justified by its use in other jurisdictions (and here) to circumvent spending limits. However, they fudge blatantly here in saying that

[as] this provision will be interpreted consistently both with the purpose of the Bill in maintaining electoral fairness and with the right to free expression under ss 6 and 14 of the Bill of Rights Act, the scope of regulation of issue advertising remains limited to that necessary for electoral purposes.
Which, while true, is a bit of a dodge. This is potentially one of the most contentious and broken bits of the bill, simply palming things off on the courts in this way simply isn't good enough. OTOH, a BORA-analysis isn't really the place for suggesting amendments. Instead, that seems to be our job.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sliding backwards

During the old days of the Soviet Union, political dissent was equated with mental illness, and opponents of the regime were frequently institutionalised in psychiatric hospitals to be tortured "cured". They even invented their own "mental illness" to explain these detentions: sluggishly progressing schizophrenia. For a while after the breakup of the USSR this practice ceased, but under Putin it has had a resurgance, and now it seems things are back to "normal". The latest victim is an opposition activist called Larisa Arap. The sign of her illness? She questioned the use of electroshock therapy on children. As a result, she was forcibly detained for "treatment".

This is Putin's legacy: a country which briefly had a chance at moving towards democracy and joining the civilised world seems now to be sliding back towards authoritarianism.

Tried in secret

The second phae of the hearing into Ahmed Zaoui's security risk certificate starts today - but unlike the earlier sittings, these parts will be closed both to the public, and to Zaoui himself. Instead, the SIS will present their "evidence" directly to the Inspector-General in secret - evidence which is so secret that not even Zaoui is allowed to hear it. Zaoui will be represented by a "special advocate", who will do their best to point out flaws in the SIS's case, but they will be unable to consult Zaoui or to seek information from him which may well provide an innocent explanation for the SIS's claims. As a result, the special advocate will be unable to do a proper job, and the SIS's "evidence" will be effectively uncontested. Which is, I suspect, the point.

The exclusion of the media from the initial hearings was bad, but this is worse. It is a mockery of a judicial process, which violates the right to natural justice affirmed in the BORA. Such a process has been found to be "critically flawed" in the UK, to the extent that British lawyers now refuse to participate in it. It is simply shameful that it is being used here, in a country which supposedly respects human rights.

In the ballot XX

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

Auckland and Wellington Local Government Reform Bill (Mark Blumsky): This is an expansion on John Key's previous Auckland Local Government Reform Bill, aimed at delivering a "world-class city-wide governance structure" for both cities. It would do this by creating a Local Government Reform Taskforce for each city, aimed at producing a new model for local government which reduces fragmentation and duplication while ensuring effective local democracy. The taskforces would report back by 2010, with each city holding a referendum on its future in the local body elections of that year. The big flaw in the bill is the very tight time window - the report-back date is July 31, while local body elections are held in October, so there's very little time for the resulting reforms to be considered (and no time at all outside of election season). For a change as far reaching as that proposed, I'd expect a little more time so the public can properly deliberate.

Environment (State of the Environment Reporting) Amendment Bill (Nick Smith): This would provide for five-yearly benchmarking by the Ministry for the Environment in the form of a "state of the environment" report, giving a wide overview of New Zealand's environmental problems, what needs to be done about them, and the effectiveness of our responses. It will also provide a compilation of raw data in one place for easy access, and allow long-term trends to be better monitored. It's a good idea, though I'd support annual reporting, just as is done for social indicators.

Infant Feeding Bill (Steve Chadwick): This bill is aimed at protecting a mother's right to breastfeed, by adding breastfeeding alongside childbirth as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Act 1993, and by requiring the Ministry of Labour to develop a code of employment practice covering breastfeeding in the workplace. The bill does not seek to limit a mother's choice in deciding whether to breastfeed.

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

Pleasing changes

The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has finally reported back [PDF] on Sue Kedgley's Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Amendment Bill. The bill would give workers the right to request flexible working hours in order to care for dependent children; this was considered too daring for Labour, and so it was buried in committee for a year to allow officials to examine existing practices. But now the committee has finally completed its report, and recommended that the bill be passed, though with amendments. Unlike the amendments to Sue Bradford's Minimum Wage (Abolition of Age Discrimination) Amendment Bill (which basically gutted it), these amendments have strengthened the bill. Instead of applying only to flexible working hours, the bill would allow for flexible working arrangements, including work from home. The criteria which allow flexible arrangements to be requested have been broadened to include care for dependent relatives. Refusals are now appealed in the first instance to a labour inspector for mediation, rather than directly to the Employment Court. On the potentially negative side, requests must now specify how the variation in arrangements will help the employee better care for their dependent, and give an ide aof how long they will be needed for, while the grounds for refusal have been extended. But these changes don't seem unreasonable, and seem to be modelled on UK law. As someone who submitted on the bill, I'm quite pleased with the outcome.

Because of the large number of Member's Bills currently facing their Second Reading, the bill likely won't be heard until September.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

New Fisk

Why my landlord is expecting the worst

Saturday, July 28, 2007

America to the rescue!

Earlier in the month, Parliament changed its standing orders to protect MP's overinflated egos from public puncturing by resurrecting lese majeste and banning the use of images from the House for the purpose of "satire, ridicule or denigration". This hasn't gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world, and so we get our very own mention on The Daily Show:

Yes, we may not be able to shit on our own politicians, but John Stewart will be our anus. And a very good anus he is too - though I wish he'd pointed himself at Peter Dunne. It would have been interesting to see him explode...

All I can say is that I love having a free market in legal jurisdiction. I wish Parliament luck in trying to drag Americans into their Star Chamber for "contempt" (something MP's are fully deserving of over this move). Still, there is an interesting question: will they try and stop it from playing on local TV (C4 screens the Daily Show four nights a week)? And will they go after people who violate their ban by spreading it?

(Hat tip: DPF)

Update: Apparently it screened on C4 last night - the one night this week when I haven't been able to watch the Daily Show. Damn.

The price of torture

Today's Guardian has more evidence that America's attitude to torture is helping it lose the "war on terror". In addition to acting as a prime recruiting tool for terrorists, American torture also has another important consequence: it prevents other intelligence agencies from sharing information with them. And the example couldn't get any bigger:

"In 1998, SIS [MI6] believed that it might be able to obtain actionable intelligence that might enable the CIA to capture Osama bin Laden," the [UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security] committee says in its report. It adds: "Given that this might have resulted in him being rendered from Afghanistan to the US, SIS sought ministerial approval. This was given provided that the CIA gave assurances regarding humane treatment." British intelligence made a similar request in 1999, and obtained the same response from Whitehall

The CIA refused to give such an assurance, and so the intelligence was never provided. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Advocates of torture will no doubt see this as proving their case, and argue that the refusal of the British to "do what was necessary" and "get their hands dirty" resulted in bin Laden going free. But I'd take the opposite tack: it is the refusal of the US government to give credible assurances of basic standards of humane treatment - assurances necessary to prevent members of allied agencies from facing criminal charges for conspiracy to torture - which has harmed their cause. And given that the US supposedly shares a commitment to human rights and has signed numerous international instruments guaranteeing humane treatment, I really can't understand why they fail to do so.

Fiji: spot the difference

Earlier in the month, the Fijian police took Tevita Malasebe from his home "for questioning". They then apparently beat him to death. Now eight police officers have been charged over the beating and subsequent attempts to cover it up, and the government seems quite willing to prosecute them to the full extent of the law.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are still begging for access to suspects in the cases of Nimilote Verebasaga and Sakiusa Rabaka, both of whom were beaten to death earlier in the year. But there's an important difference: Verebasaga and Rabaka were beaten by the military, who purport to be above the law.

Fiji's coup hasn't just undermined its democracy and economy; it has also done lasting damage to the rule of law. And that may be the most difficult part to fix.

Friday, July 27, 2007


The terrorism charge against Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef has been dropped due to lack of evidence. But despite admitting that the Australian Federal Police had "made a mistake", the Australian government is not apologising (far from it), and is apparently still planning to deport him despite the "evidence" against him having been shown to be simply false.

There'll be a press conferance in about 15 minutes from the Immigration Minister on the deportation decision.

Update: It seems I spoke too soon - Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has restored Haneef's visa. After the way he's been treated, he may still want to leave Australia and never come back, but at least he won't have a vindictive deportation preventing him from travelling in future.

All in all, a victory for justice - and a defeat for John Howard.

Update 2: Or not. It certainly seemed that way earlier, but now it appears Haneef's visa has not been restored, and that he is now being held in something called "residential detention" (which no-one, not even his lawyers, seem to have heard of), while the Minister desperately looks for information to justify kicking him out reviews his decision. So, the Howard government are bastards once again, willing to continue to ruin an innocent man's life rather than admit they were wrong. Pricks.

Sedition in Tonga: an acquittal

Since the Nuku'alofa riots in Novemeber last year, the Tongan government has launched a crackdown on the opposition, prosecuting a number of People's Representatives (elected MPs) and democracy campaigners for sedition for their role in "inciting" the riots. However, there's been a significant victory for the Tongan opposition today, with the acquittal of Sione Halafuka Vea on sedition charges.

Halafuka Vea had given a speech the day before the riots, in which he said that the crowd would be going to Parliament the next day. The government had claimed that this helped incite the subsequent riots, however this was rejected unanimously by a jury. It's not the end - five People's Representatives are still facing charges - but it is a good sign.

Electoral Finance Bill passes its first reading

The Electoral Finance Bill passed its first reading yesterday, 65 - 54 yesterday, with the Greens, NZ First, and United Future supporting it and National, ACT, the Maori Party and the kibble voting against. It's now been sent to the Justice and Electoral select committee, but interestingly leave was granted to expand the committee's membership temporarily to allow a wider representation of parties (currently, it has only three parties on it; Labour, National, and the Greens). This should ensure that all parties' views are considered during the select committee process.

As for the public's views, the committee will likely call for submissions next week, so it might be a good idea to start thinking about making one. And there's a lot to think about - quite apart from my own criticisms, the coalition for Open Government has been busy analysing the bill, and it doesn't much like what it sees either (from the other direction, DPF is of course standing up vigorously for the right of the rich to buy elections). Given the number of problems with the bill, it might be best to pick a section - donation limits, or third parties, say - and focus primarily on that.

As usual, I'll post a notice when the committee advertises for submissions.

Maybe next time

Sue Bradford has dropped her plan to introduce a bill to lower the voting age to 16 due to lack of public support. It's a pity - I think there are strong arguments for such a move and that it would enhance our democracy - but if the support isn't there, it isn't there, and there's not much point putting up a bill which is going to fail (unless the goal is to make people vote against it).

Don't think this is the end of the idea, though. Bradford is talking about a public education plan, and I expect the bill will be back in five or ten years once there's a bit more public support. And hopefully next time it will succeed.

Gone by lunchtime

David Benson-Pope has resigned from Cabinet just in time for the midday news. Good. What he did - implicitly telling a Chief Executive to fire a public servant on political grounds - was a gross violation of the CEO's independence in employment matters, and a clear threat to the political neutrality of the public service. Such a person simply can not be allowed to hold a Ministerial warrant.

The question now is who will replace him, both in the short- and long-term. Environment is small enough to be easily passed on to another Minister, but Social Development is a massive responsibility and needs both a safe pair of hands and someone who can devote their full attention to it. Unfortunately, Labour's safe pairs of hands are all tied up devoting their full attention (with varying degrees of success) to other portfolios, so this is going to require an actual reshuffle and juggling of portfolios to fix.

As for Benson-Pope, I don't think this is a sin he can come back from, and his Ministerial ambitions are effectively at an end. It will be interesting to see whether he decides not to run again at the next election, and so free up space for more new blood, or whether he is content to spend the rest of his political life as a backbencher.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Falling apart

The case against detained Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef seems to be falling apart, with the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions announcing that he will review the charges in light of news that evidence presented to the court by Australian Federal Police in support of the charge was incorrect. It's expected that the charges will be dropped, but this isn't necessarily good news for Haneef: dropping the charges will free him from police custody, allowing the government to deport him and so sweep their embarassment under the carpet.

OTOH, given Australia's treatment of him, Haneef is probably better off leaving. But if he doesn't contest his deportation, it - and these bogus charges - will follow him round for the rest of his life, and probably prevent him from ever travelling in future. I wonder if he can sue?


The first ballot for Member's Bills since last November was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Public Works (Offer Back of and Compensation for Acquired Land) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell)

The bill has previously been covered by an "In the ballot" post, here.

I'm still waiting to see the full list of bills in the ballot, as my previous source has moved on. If anyone can help me with this and wants to become one of my moles (or other burrowing mammal of choice) in Parliament, I'd greatly appreciate it.

Update: A Long-nosed Potoroo has forwarded on the list, and there were a host of new bills in the ballot, including:

  • Auckland and Wellington Local Government Reform Bill (Marc Blumsky)
  • Infant Feeding Bill (Steve Chadwick)
  • Citizenship (For Descendants of Those in the Service of New Zealand) Amendment Bill (Judith Collins)
  • Sentencing (Protection of Children from Criminal Offending) Amendment Bill (Brian Donnelly)
  • Immigration (Probation Period) Amendment Bill (Ron Mark)
  • New Zealand Superannuation (Non-Qualified Spouse Entitlement) Amendment Bill (Pita Paraone)
  • Education (K├┤hanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa Maori, and Early Childhood Standards) Amendment Bill (Dr Pita Sharples)
  • Environment (State of the Environment Reporting) Amendment Bill (Dr Nick Smith)
  • Reserve Bank (Amending of Primary Function of Bank) Amendment Bill (Doug Woolerton)

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

No freedom of speech in Malaysia

Raja Petra Kamarudin runs Malaysia Today, one of Malaysia's most popular websites. The site is a strong critic of government policy, and on Wednesday Raja Petra was summoned to a police interview regarding claims he had insulted Islam and Malaysia's king. He has since been released, but is apparently still being investigated under Malaysia's Sedition Act, which explicitly forbids criticism of certain aspects of Malaysia's constitution.

Raja Petra is not alone. Earlier in the month police arrested blogger Nathaniel Tan for a comment posted on his blog alleging corruption on the part of a government Minister. This was deemed to violate Malaysia's Official Secrets Act (that old joke is getting less funny by the day). The Malaysian government has since threatened a wider crackdown on cyberspace, including using Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without charge or trial. At the same time, they've claimed that they are not trying to "strangle internet freedom". Of course not. They're simply trying to silence everyone who disagrees with them, which is of course completely different.

Why they gutted it

Why did the government effectively gut its Electoral Finance Bill and allow the current practice of parties receiving large anonymous and laundered donations to continue? Prime Minister Helen Clark gave an answer in Question Time yesterday:

it is quite clear that the absolute banning of anonymous donations would have to be accompanied by more public funding, because otherwise there are political parties, I would suggest, across the spectrum that would simply be unable to raise money.

So, if we force large anonymous donors to tell us who they are so we can judge whether they are trying to buy influence, they won't donate. I'd have thought that immediately draws their motives into question and is an excellent reason for greater disclosure.

As for why Labour thinks this is a problem, it is worth remembering that they received $315,000 in anonymous funding in the lead-up to the last election - a third of their total. They're as corrupt and addicted to money as National.

Speaks for itself

How much terrorism is there in New Zealand?

With the government again pushing to strengthen anti-terrorism laws (this time by creating a redunandant general offence of terorism and repealing the "loophole" which allows people to collect funds "for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights"), you'd get the impression that the country was awash with terrorists and that existing law had proven inadequate to combat the threat - that terrorists and their funders were walking free from our courtrooms on "technicalities", and that the law had to be strengthened (despite the significant erosion of our civil liberties) in order to ensure that these people could be prosecuted. But you'd be wrong. According to the police crime statistics (thoughtfully incorporated into StatisticsNZ's Table Builder), there have been exactly zero recorded offences against the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 since it was passed. No financing, no recruiting, no participaton in terrorist groups,and certainly no bombings. The closest we come is stupid people making fake bomb threats or sending talcum powder through the mail.

So, why do we need to strengthen the law (and erode our civil liberties) again?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New Fisk

Zahir Shah: The last king of Afghanistan

Fiji: the first test

One of the first moves of Fiji's military junta after illegally seizing power in December last year was to try and balance the budget. It did this by the simple expediants of a unilateral 5% pay cut across the civil service, and lowering the retirement age to 55 (allowing it to effectively fire a large number of senior public servants). These moves did not go down well with the affected civil servants, and they have been threatening strike action ever since. last night, it finally began, when 90% of Fiji's nurses walked off the job until their pay is restored. The teachers are due to follow them next week, and other public servants may soon join in as well.

This is the first real test the junta has faced, and so far they are handling it badly, threatening to fire striking workers and hinting darkly at "taking action" if the strike adopts a "political" tone or results in public protests. In an ominous sign, the police have been put on alert, and the army has held a televised "riot control" drill more reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It's a clear effort to intimidate the nurses and other workers into surrendering their employment rights, but fortunately so far they are having none of it. There is a real worry though that the military will follow through on these threats and disrupt the strike with force - and if that happens things could get very messy indeed.

Member's Day: youth rates and the foreshore (again)

Today is a Member's Day, and according to the Order Paper [PDF] there are two important pieces of legislation potentially up for debate. The first is Sue Bradford's Minimum Wage (Abolition of Age Discrimination) Amendment Bill. This was gutted by a Labour-dominated select committee last month, but Bradford feels that it still offers some improvement (though obviously not as much as she had hoped), and the Greens will be pushing on with the bill rather than withdrawing it.

The second is Tariana Turia's Foreshore and Seabed Act (Repeal) Bill. This is doomed to failure now National have come out against it - but the aim of the bill may simply be to force Labour to repeat their divisive, damaging, and racist vote to confiscate any Maori (but not Pakeha) rights over the foreshore and so remind Maori that Labour doesn't represent their interests. While a better tactic may have been to delay it repeatedly, leaving it like a sword of Damocles hanging over Labour's head, and leaving open the possibility of strongarming National into backing it when they needed some legislation passed (possibly even after the election), the Maori Party is clearly betting that they will be able to get the issue back on the agenda during coalition negotiations. Besides, if the bill fails, they can always reintroduce it next year, and every year after that until it passes. Despite the wishes of Pakeha rednecks, this issue is not going to go away; Maori will not accept the abrogation of their rights to due process and equality under the law, and will fight for them until they are restored.

Unless there is a fillibuster (or rather, MPs deliberately talking out bills, which has been common in recent months), I expect debate on the youth rates bill to start about 17:00, and if we're lucky they'll get to the foreshore and seabed bill before the end of the evening. If they start it before 21:00, there will be a vote tonight, and the possibility of a ballot tomorrow - the first ballot in eight months.

The workers win again

Following the ruling that its lockout of its workers was unlawful (PDF here), contractor Spotless Services Ltd has caved and agreed to offer hospital workers in its employ the same terms and conditions as offered by every other contractor and DHB. Spotless's workers - including 700 non-union staff - are now celebrating a $3/hour (25%!) pay rise. But the effects won't just be felt by hospital cleaners - the higher wages offered in hospitals will help drag up wages across the entire sector, and indirectly across the entire economy.

There's a clear lesson in here for workers in low paid jobs: if you fight for it, you can significantly improve your wages and conditions. And hopefully, more of them will.

On the wire

I was interviewed on bFM yesterday about the government's Electoral Finance Bill. You can download the podcast here [MP3].

I don't think I did very well in this one - too much nervousness, not enough coffee.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

David Benson-Pope must go

David Benson-Pope must resign over the Madeleine Setchell sacking. Why? I can think of three reasons:

  • He has misled the public, professing ignorance to the media when he had been briefed. Ministers have been sacked for less.
  • While he is blaming a member of his staff for instigating the sacking by calling MfE Chief Executive Hugh Logan, he also claims that he would have made the call himself, and "reserves the right" to express such concerns in future. This shows a disturbing lack of respect for the independence of the Chief Executive in employment matters, and a complete failure to understand the issues around public service neutrality.
  • While the actual call was made by a member of his staff, as Minister, Benson-Pope is responsible for it. Like Colin James, I believe in Ministerial responsibility. This principle has been weakened in the past two decades, as the move to managerialism in the public sector has allowed responsibility and accountability to fall into the gap created by the Chief Executive's Performance Agreement. But if there's one thing a Minister is still responsible for, it is the conduct of the staff in their own office.

An honourable Minister with respect for the conventions of publis service neutrality and Ministerial responsibility would tender their resignation. A sensible Prime Minister would ask for it. I guess now we'll get to see whether Benson-Pope and Clark are honourable or sensible or have any respect for those principles.

Election funding: the rhetoric and the reality

The rhetoric: Helen Clark, Question Time, 6 September 2006:

I look forward to the National Party’s support for clamping down on anonymous donations. I understand that in Australia everything over $250 has to be declared. That sounds like a good idea to me.

The reality: no clampdown on anonymous or laundered donations, and no change in declaration thresholds.

So, what happened? Why did Labour lose its urge for reform? With both the Greens and NZ First declaring themselves in favour of greater disclosure, they had a majority there if they wanted it. So why didn't they take it?

Spotless lockout unlawful

The Employment Court has ruled that Spotless Services' lockout of its staff is unlawful, and an attempt to compel workers into surrendering their right to strike. The SFWU is now pressing for backpay, but even if they don't get it it will still be a significant victory. Companies will now have to think twice before using "health and safety" as a pretext to abuse their workforce.

Hopefully now Spotless will come to the table and accept the national collective agreement agreed to by the DHBs and every other contractor. And if they don't, I would hope that the DHBs start looking seriously at cancelling their contracts for nonperformance.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A closer look: the Electoral Finance Bill

In the wake of the 2005 election and its scandals over pledge cards, GST, and the circumvention of spending limits by the National Party in collusion with the Exclusive Brethren, the government promised a comprehensive reform of election finance law. Today, they finally introduced their Electoral Finance Bill into Parliament. So how does it measure up?

Badly. While the government promised reform, what it has delivered is, in most areas, an administrative tidy-up. And in some areas, the would actively make things worse. The biggest changes are to the rules covering third party campaigning, where - as promised - the government has introduced a tight regime, particularly with regard to donations and disclosure. But this simply highlights the failure to deliver in other areas.

Starting with the general provisions, the bill introduces the concept of a "financial agent" - a person appointed by a party, candidate or third party as being responsible for their election spending. The primary purpose here is to give the police someone they can prosecute for any breach, avoiding the embarrassing situation that prevailed with the National Party's convenient "mistake" over GST. It also requires parties - and in some circumstances, candidates and third parties - to appoint an auditor for their expenses, reducing the potential for fiddling the figures. But these are primarily administrative changes.

One significant change is that the "regulated period" in which expenses count as election expenses now covers the whole of an election year up until polling day, with a three-month minimum for rich parties to disrupt the normal election schedule, but I think the electoral backlash will discourage such behaviour.

For parties and candidates, the donation rules remain practically unchanged. The disclosure thresholds are the same - $10,000 for a party and $1,000 for a candidate - as are the spending caps. Anonymous donations are still permitted, as are donations laundered through trusts. About the only good point here is the definition of "donation" has been tightened to cover goods provided under, or purchased above, their market value (so, Bob the Builder's cheap paint job is partly a donation, as is a $500 T-shirt). On the negative side, the definition of "anonymous" has been significantly loosened. At present, a donation is "anonymous" if the identity of the donor is unknown to the candidate, or (for a party), to its candidates and administrators. The bill will change this so a donation is anonymous if the identity of the donor is unknown to the financial agent. While those involved in the administration of the affairs of a candidate, party, or third party have a duty to disclose if they know the identity of a donor, there's no such duty on candidates, and as written, the bill would allow donations to be legally anonymous while candidates know full well who the money has come from and to whom they are beholden. This is a recipe for political corruption, and it is difficult to see it as anything other than deliberate.

By contrast, third parties will be subject to a host of new restrictions. They will be required to register with the Chief Electoral Officer, and will face a spending cap of $2,000 for advertisements related to any candidate, and $60,000 in total. I support spending limits, but as noted here, there are some concerns that the total cap is too low, and the candidate cap may be as well. It would be interesting to compare it to, say, the cost of a full- or half-page advertisement in a major daily newspaper to see whether third parties are allowed to say anything at all about candidates. As expected, communications by bodies to their members are exempt - they are not "electoral advertisements" - so the bill does at least promote participation in politics through broad, membership-based organisations.

The most interesting part is that covering donations to third parties. This reads as a "what might have been" for the overall donation and disclosure regime. Third parties will be required to declare any donation over $500, and anonymous donations greater than this amount are barred (the money must be given to the Chief Electoral Officer to be passed on to the government). Laundering donations is also prohibited - those collecting money on behalf of multiple contributors must disclose the name and address of every one, and those "transmitting" money to third parties must disclose who they are fronting for. Failure to do either means the donation must be treated as anonymous - giving large contributors an incentive to abide by the rules or see their donations forfeited. Conspiring to circumvent the prohibition on anonymous donations is an offence, as is failing to identify a donor when transmitting funds. It's a tough regime, but one which achieves the purpose of imposing transparency, and it has to be asked why parties and candidates are not subject to a similar regime. If it's good enough for third parties, then its good enough for MPs.

The broadcasting regime continues mostly unchanged, and there seems to be no change to the spending caps. However, there is a welcome removal of political party representatives from the decision-making process around broadcasting allocations - something I would hope would lead to a fairer process rather than one which entrenched the status quo around the two main parties.

Finally, there is some small improvement around penalties, with a significant increase in fines for an illegal or corrupt practice from the current $3,000 or $4,000 to $10,000 or $15,000 respectively - or $40,000 for financial agents and party secretaries who should know the law (the one year jail term for a corrupt practice remains). This is better, but still lower than other, less serious offences. As the Coalition for Open Government has argued, you can get seven years imprisonment for stealing a TV - but only a year for stealing an election. I guess its just another case of politicians looking after themselves.

So overall its a disappointing bill. While I like the general thrust of the third party rules (though I'm concerned about the spending limits), the rules around candidates and parties are practically unchanged. There's no limits on donations, no ban on large anonymous donations, and no restrictions on laundering. There's also no pre-election disclosure, meaning that we still have to vote blind with no idea of who is trying to buy our politicians until long after the fact. The bill is a slight improvement, and worth supporting, but it is also hard not to feel that the government has failed to live up to its rhetoric and betrayed us again.

Habemus lex

The government's new Electoral Finance Bill is now online [PDF].

It's quite large (94 pages), so it'll take a while to chew through.

(And premature apologies for any bad latin)

New kiwi blog

The visible hand in economics - investigating the role of government in the market.

The end of public service neutrality

On Friday, the State Services Commissioner released his briefing on the sacking of Madeleine Setchell, revealing that her dismissal was instigated by a member of the Minister for the Environment's staff questioning her appointment on political grounds. The Prime Minister today claimed that the staffer acted on his own initiative, and had not discussed the issue with the Minister, but even if we accept that (and I'm not sure that we should; in some Ministerial offices people don't sneeze without being told to), it is more than bad enough. What she is saying is that people can now be sacked from the public service on a Ministerial advisor's say-so - a clear violation of the CEO's independence in employment matters.

But it gets worse. On "Morning Report" this morning, the Prime Minister also came out and said outright that the problem was that Ms Satchell was appointed in the first place (quoted here; audio here (5:15)). So, that's it, then: under Labour, those with views (or partners) deemed "too close" to the opposition need not apply. It is difficult to see this as anything other than an end to public service neutrality - not to mention an invitation for any future National government to purge any public servant with similar "connections" to Labour. While John Key has said there will be no utu from National, if it does happen, Labour would not have a moral leg to stand on.

This isn't just wrong, it is also stupid. Quite apart from the inherant desirability of a neutral public service appointed on merit rather than political loyalty, as Tracy Watkins points out in the Dominion-Post this morning, we're just too small for a US-style changeover of top-level staff every time there is a change of government. New Zealand has only a limited number of skilled bureaucrats, policy wonks, and public sector managers, and there simply is no alternative workforce in thinktanks and universities waiting to step in when the government changes. With such a limited talent pool, we simply cannot afford to exclude qualified people on the basis of Ministerial authoritarianism and paranoia. Unfortunately, that now seems to be exactly the direction we are heading in.

Incumbent governments tend to grow more arrogant and authoritarian the longer they last. One of the reasons we de-elect them is so they can learn some humility. Labour is beginning to look like it is in need of such a lesson. Unfortunately, the "cure" - a National government which still has not completely rejected the revolution, and with sharply authoritarian tendencies of its own - is probably worse than the disease.

National still wants to sell us out

The Sunday Star-Times had an intersting piece over the weekend on the possibility that Solid Energy would be floated on the sharemarket. Most of it seems to be based on wishful thinking from analysts and stockbrokers, who want more and larger companies on the sharemarket so they don't feel so inadequete (can't they just buy a fast car or something?) - but the bit that makes it interesting is this:

However, the National Party said in the 2005 election that it was willing to consider selling a 30 per cent stake in Solid Energy, and SOE spokesman Gerry Brownlee said that was still the situation. But that may not mean a sharemarket float.

"We were led to believe a big offshore interest could be willing to take a stake, which would guarantee markets and good prices for Solid Energy," Brownlee said.

So there you have it: despite all their efforts to distance themselves from the 90's and disown the privatisation agenda, National still wants to sell us out. Except this time, they don't even have a plausible excuse - Solid Energy is not unprofitable, and it is not badly run. Instead, they simply want to redirect its revenue - which currently benefits the people of New Zealand and helps to pay for schools, hospitals, police and roads - into the private pockets of their corporate cronies and donors. And the only way this is profitable to the latter is if it is done corruptly at less than the market value - just as it was in the 90's.

Condoning war crimes

On April 26, 2006, a squad of US Marines abducted 52-year old Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his house in the Iraqi village of Al Hamdania. They marched him to a ditch, shot him in the face, and planted an AK-47 and a shovel next to the body so they could claim he was killed while trying to plant a bomb.

Six Marines have so far been charged over their role in the killing. On Wednesday, a military jury convicted one of them, Marine Corporal Trent Thomas, of kidnapping and conspiracy to murder. The charges were serious, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, and prosecutors had recommended a 15-year prison sentence - but on Friday, the jury - all of whom had served in Iraq - sentenced Thomas to reduction in rank, a bad conduct discharge, and time served (14 months). But hey, its not like the victim was an American, right?

Once again we see the ugly truth behind America's public position on war crimes. While the Bush administration proclaims it has zero tolerance for US soldiers who engage in "abuse" (a mealy-mouthed term disguising torture, murder, and in this case participating in a death squad), the fact is that military juries consistently acquit soldiers accused of war crimes against Iraqi civilians (that is where they're charged at all) - and on the rare occasions they do convict, they hand out token sentences. Sadisticly threaten helpless prisoners with dogs so you can amuse yourself by making them shit themselves? Six months. Torture a prisoner of war to death? $6,000 fine and confinement to barracks for 60 days. It's difficult to see this as anything other than the US military condoning war crimes. But then, that's hardly surprising given the attitudes of their President and wider society.

(Hat tip: Talk Left)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Scrambling to end the story

Now that the Mohammed Haneef prosecution has backfired messily, the Australian government is scrambling to dump its sudden hot potato. Their preferred solution? Cancel the Criminal Justice Certificate (which allows him to stay in Australia while the case against him is resolved) and just deport him:

"Our best option is to cancel the Criminal Justice Certificate, which was issued to keep Haneef here in Australia after we cancelled his visa, and that is my understanding of what our intentions are," one Government source said.

"Cancel the certificate and get this guy out of Australia. The story ends there and he can become someone else's problem."

The aim here is of course explicitly political:

"There is no upside proceeding with this. We keep him here, then it remains an issue every day until the election. We deport him and it's over," the source said.

Which is ironic, given that the reason the government has made such a stink about Haneef - whose charges smack of guilt by association and shouldn't pass the laugh test - was so they could whip up fear and make it an issue every day until the election.

The Australian government's treatment of Mohammed Haneef has been despicable. For them to now attempt to shuffle him under the carpet to cover up their embarassing mistake even worse. It is unjust, and a gross misuse of the immigration system for political purposes. Haneef deserves his day in court so he can clear his name. But that is the last thing a government obsessed with using terror to whip up pre-election fear wants.

New Fisk

No wonder the bloggers are winning

Friday, July 20, 2007

Support striking workers

Currently, around 800 hospital cleaners and service staff are on strike and have been locked out by their employer, Spotless Services Ltd, over their efforts to be part of a national collective agreement covering all service workers in the public health system. As with the supermarket distribution worker's lockout last year, this is an effort by a large company to keep its workers divided and to financially beat them into submission and force them to accept poverty-level wages. And we shouldn't put up with it.

The Service and Food Worker's Union have established an 0900 number for those who would like to give some financial support: 0900 LOCKOUT (0900 56256) will make a $10 donation. Since Spotless has issued lockout notices for the next 14 days, the workers will need ongoing support. So I've created a pledge on Pledgebank saying:

I will donate $20 each week to support the striking hospital workers but only if 10 other New Zealanders will too.

You can sign it here.

$20 is the cost of two calls to the 0900 LOCKOUT number, and that's all I'm asking people to sign up for: call that number twice a week until the lock-out ends. Obviously, don't sign up unless you can spare the cash.

The supermarket lockout last year failed because the workers had significant public support. It would be nice if Spotless's attempt to bully its workforce failed too.

Update: I've bumped this to keep it at the top of the blog for a few days.

Update 2: Logo couresy of Binary Heart.

Update 3: 9 signups. Only one more to go...

As expected

The British Crown Prosecution Service will formally report tomorrow on the "cash for honours" scandal, and will apparently recommend that no-one face any charges. This is entirely expected - the British establishment always protects its own, even when they've sold peerages or concealed electoral donations in clear violation of the law.

Heads will roll over this. The New Labour establishment is angry with the police for daring to suggest that they are not above the law, and Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who headed the investigation, is likely to be first in line for revenge. Yates may have the last laugh, though - he promised a Parliamentary committee that all the evidence he collected would be made public. So we'll be able to see whether the CPS's decision is in fact reasonable, or whether they're simply engaging in the usual tawdry political coverup.

"Spare capacity"

This week's Listener leads with a piece based on interviews of both major party leaders (offline), which has a revealing little snippet from National Party leader John Key. After making the usual complaints about the economy "treading water" during Labour's tenure - demonstrably false, as a perusal of GDP growth statistics will show - he then goes on to hint at his preferred solution:

Well, what's he going to do about it? Stand by for a lecture in Economics 101 as he flies into the theory that our economy is unable to grow on a non-inflationary basis because we have no spare capacity. "It's got so bad that if we get any growth in the economy beyond about two percent, the Reserve Bank has got to increase interest rates!" he exclaims. "Now that's not going to make New Zealanders wealthy, because there is no capacity there."

So what is this "spare capacity"? Unemployment. Key is complaining that too many New Zealanders have jobs, meaning employers have to compete for labour, and they can't just expand production by hiring another warm body at the minimum wage like they did in the 90's. To the rest of us, of course, this is a Good Thing, and one of the government's greatest succes stories. But to Key and his big-business backers, it's a disaster which cuts into their profits. So they propose throwing people out of work, or running welfare policy as labour market policy to conscript our shrinking number of beneficiaries (more and more of them seriously ill rather than jobless) into a "reserve army of labour" to reduce wage pressure - in the process reducing the wages, conditions, and living standards of ordinary New Zealanders.

This is the real John Key. Like Don Brash before him, he stands for increasing the wealth of the few by deliberately inflicting suffering on the many - just as National did in the 90's.

Pledge successful

The Pledgebank pledge to support the locked-out hospital workers has reached its target, so I'll be reaching for my phone. Meanwhile, there's still a little time before the deadline, so you can still sign up if you want to show your support.

Bad to worse

The Mohammed Haneef case has gone from bad to worse in the last few days. After two weeks detention without trial, a bullshit charge, and an authoriatarian attack on the rule of law when Haneef succeeded in winning bail, Australian government officials began selectively leaking evidence to blacken his name and assist their efforts to whip up fear prior to the election. This was countered when Haneef's lawyer went public with the full transcript of his client's police interviews, allowing the public to see the full picture. The Australian government practically screamed treason, and you can see why: because comparing the transcript to the affidavit lodged by the police in opposition to Haneef being granted bail shows that they lied to the court:

The police affidavit states: "On 2 July and 3 July 2007 Dr Haneef participated in a taped record of interview with the AFP and stated the following: Whilst in the UK he resided with suspects 1 and 2 (alleged suicide bomber Kafeel Ahmed and his brother Dr Sabeel Ahmed), at 13 Bentley Road, Liverpool."

However, in the record of interview, obtained by The Australian on Tuesday, Dr Haneef tells police that he lived at 13 Bentley Road, Liverpool, with several doctors, whom he names. None are the two suspects. Dr Haneef tells police he visited Cambridge on two occasions in 2004 and stayed for up to six days with Kafeel Ahmed.

Dr Haneef also states that he had moved out of 13 Bentley Road when Dr Sabeel Ahmed subsequently stayed there.

"I don't know exactly how long did he live there for, because I wasn't staying there then," Dr Haneef says.


The police affidavit asserts that Dr Haneef, 27, a Gold Coast Hospital registrar since September last year, "had no explanation as to why he did not have a return ticket" from India to Australia. Dr Haneef, whose wife, Firdous Arshiya, gave birth to their first child by emergency caesarean section on June 26 in Bangalore, India, was trying to leave Australia on July 2 on a one-way ticket bought the same day by his father-in-law in India.

While the police affidavit stated Dr Haneef "had no explanation" about his one-way ticket, the record of interview shows that he gave a detailed explanation to police while answering questions. Dr Haneef told police that as he did not have funds in his Australian bank account his father-in-law had booked and paid for the one-way ticket with an understanding that "when I go there we can arrange for the coming back ticket. Because I just got 7 days' leave approved".

There's a name for this: perjury. In most countries, it's a crime, and in Australia carries a penalty of 14 years imprisonment - or life if done for the purposes of securing a conviction. I would hope that the AFP officer(s) who put their name to that affidavit are prosecuted to the full extent of the law; unfortunately, as that law is enforced by their mates, I doubt it.

Correction: Graeme has pointed out in email that in Australia "perjury only carries a life sentence if the perjury was committed for the purpose of securing a conviction for an offence which itself carries a life sentence". I should really read these things more carefully.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act extended

Last month I noted that the government was trying to break their deal with the Greens regarding the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act 2005 by hiding a clause extending the sunset period in their Criminal Justice Reform Bill. The clause was removed by the Select Committee, but the government put up a Supplementary Order Paper [PDF] to reinsert it. That SOP just passed 64 - 57, with National, the Greens, ACT, and Gordon COpeland voting against. So, the Act will now be extended - and the government enjoy virtual impunity for its misbehaviour and violation of human rights - until 30 June 2010.

This is what you get for voting Labour: redneckery and viciousness under the name of "justice".

How much is free trade with China worth?

In the past, I've been cautiously supportive of a free trade agreement with China, on the grounds that we can both use it to extract some concessions from the Chinese government on human rights, and establish a pattern linking trade with human rights. But over the past few years, I've come to think that the price of that agreement is just too high. For those who haven't reached that conclusion yet, perhaps they should look at the price we are paying, and ask themselves whether it is worth it:

  • Is it worth our silence? Fear of upsetting the Chinese and derailing the deal has resulted in New Zealand remaining silent on the gross human rights abuses happening in China - abuses we would criticise if they happened, say, in Zimbabwe or Sudan or Burma, but which we close our eyes to for fear of upsetting the Chinese authorities.
  • Is it worth our freedom? The Chinese government carries out minor human rights abuses right here in New Zealand, as embassy officials work to monitor, silence, and undermine their critics.
  • Is it worth our complicity? Our eagerness for a deal has seen New Zealand officials cooperate in the above - for example in the eviction of journalist Nick Wong from Parliament, the banning of Falun Gong from Wellington City Council funded events, and of course Jenny Shipley's infamous blocking of protestors from public view.
  • Is it worth the kidnapping and rendition of a New Zealander? Because that's apparently what the Chinese government did, right here in Auckland in 2005. Naturally, the government's reactionis low key, because they Don't Want To Upset The Chinese.

People unpersuaded by the last one should ask themselves how many of our lives they're willing to sacrifice to a totalitarian regime in order for our ultra-rich to make more money. Ten? A hundred? A thousand? Are they willing to see us tortured, or killed so that our organs can be harvested as well? Because that's what they're supporting.

As for me, I was persuaded long ago, and this simply seals it: the cost of a free trade deal with China is simply too high.

A moral victory

The Health committee has reported back [PDF] on Dr Jackie Blue's Official Information (Openness of District Health Boards New Zealand) Amendment Bill, and recommended that it not proceed. However, despite that, it seems the bill has been successful. The aim of the bill was to make District Health Boards New Zealand, a lobby group established by the DHBs to act in their interest on agreed national issues, but outside the jurisdiction of the OIA as it is not a related company - subject to the OIA by directly amending schedule 1 of the Ombudsmen Act. However, that's not the only way to amend the schedule, and the government has since signed an Order In Council to add District Health Boards New Zealand to the schedule, making the bill unnecessary.

So, a victory for freedom of information, and a moral victory for Dr Blue. She didn't get her bill, but she got the change she wanted, and a lot faster than if it had had to go through the legislative process.

The elephant in the room

As the New Zealand dollar heads towards 80 US cents, there seems to be a curious myopia in the media. They'll report on the latest wailing and gnashing of teeth from farmers, and the (self-interested - no government wants a housing market crash in the run up an election) threats from Michael Cullen to use The Bomb and order the Reserve Bank to loosen up on the housing market inflation. But they're completely ignoring the other half of the story: that this isn't just about a nasty positive feedback loop between interest and exchange rates, which causes the value of the NZ$ to rise, but also about a steady weakening of the US$ due to President Bush's poor economic policies and attempts to inflate his way out of his war debts.

The Reserve Bank's TWI / exchange rate time series [XLS] tells an interesting story. Here's a graph of how the NZ$ has performed against other currencies, indexed against their value in September 2000 (around the bottom of the last big trough):

Since September 2000, the NZ$ has risen 17% against the Euro, 19% against the AU$, and 30% against the Pound - all of which are within normal fluctuations. But its risen 80% against the US$, and doubled its value against the Yen. Looking at the European Central Bank's collection of time-series data, its clear that this is because both currencies have weakened, rather than being much to do with New Zealand.

This is the elephant in the room: that our dollar is probably going to appreciate in value against the US$ until Americans stop overspending and printing money to pay for their insane war. And farmers had better get used to that fact.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 43rd Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Stump Lane.

Climate change: flatlining transport emissions?

Over the past year I've ocasionally speculated that rising fuel prices would put an end to (or at least slow) the trend of rising transport emissions. And looking at the consumption figures from this year's Energy Data File, it looks like I was right:

(Source: Ministry of Economic Development, Energy Data File June 2007, Table D.7, p. 51)

The long-term trend is even more stark. Between 1995 and 2005, petrol consumption rose by an average of 1.3 percent a year. Last year, that growth slowed to 0.1%. Over the same period, diesel consumption rose by an average of 4.6% a year. Last year, it grew only 0.7%. High prices seem to have flatlined demand growth - which is a Good Thing from an emissions perspective.

Unfortunately, it won't last. Prices this year have been lower, so demand growth (and hence emissions growth) may have returned to its old path. And with the dollar pushing US$0.80, it's only going to get worse again. If we want to stop this, we need to both incoporate the cost of carbon into transport fuel prices and make serious efforts to push people towards more fuel efficient vehicles. Fortunately, the government is at least moving in the right direction in these areas, even if only by stealth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An attack on the rule of law

That is the only way to describe the Australian government's latest actions in the Mohamed Haneef case. After detaining him for two weeks without charge, the Australian authorities finally charged Haneef with "recklessly supporting a terrorist organisation". However, as the only claim made was that he had left a cellphone SIMcard which was not even used in any terrorist attacks with relatives who later turned out to be alleged terrorists (how reckless of him, being related to the wrong people), and there was no evidence that he was any threat to the community, a magistrate granted him bail. This wasn't good enough for the Australian government, who didn't want their chance to grandstand and whip up fear in the run-up to an election ruined by such petty things as courts and evidence, so they pulled his visa, circumventing the court's decision, and allowing them to detain him indefinitely without charge.

This is authoritarianism worthy of any absolute monarch or petty despot. If that is what the Australian government is going to do whenever the law isn't on their side, you wonder why they bother having the charade of courts and laws at all.

Be afraid, be very afraid

That seems to be the message of the Australian government to Sydney residents, in telling them to pack a "go back" or survival kit in preperation for a terrorist attack.

Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that Australia is scheduled to have federal elections by the end of the year. Nothing at all.

Climate change: cutting it fine

Since the scrapping of the carbon tax eighteen months ago, the government has been working on a new climate change policy. So when will it be ready? The select committee report [PDF] on the 2007/08 Appropriations for Vote: Agriculture and Forestry has some disturbing news. When discussing the results of the consultation process on the government's Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change discussion paper, it noted:

A report containing technical analysis and recommendations will be provided to the Minister in the next month, and the Government will make final policy decisions in October. Any necessary legislation should be introduced by the end of the year.

(Emphasis added).

This is cutting it a bit fine. The House rises on 11 December, so even if a bill is introduced at the beginning of October, it will be before Parliament for barely two months. That's simply not enough time for a full select committee process - meaning that the legislation will not be subject to proper democratic scrutiny. Worse, the policies likely to emerge from the process - a deforestation permit trading system and (recycled) tax on nitrogen fertiliser - are complex and will require some lead-in time, both for the industry to adapt and for the necessary administrative structures to be established. Which means that we are unlikely to see policy actually implemented until June 2008 at the earliest - a full six months into the Kyoto First Commitment Period. For a government which claims to be serious about acting on climate change, this is not a good look.

I just hope they're quicker off the mark on energy policy and emissions trading.

New kiwi blog

In a strange land - Deborah on feminism, citizenship, democracy.

Samuels joins the exodus

Labour MP Dover Samuels will be stepping down at the next election, making way for "new blood". I can't say I'm particularly sorry to see him go. Samuels is a time-server whose most memorable contribution to New Zealand politics in 12 years was pissing in his own hat. Still, at least he wasn't actively malignant, which is more than can be said for some of his Parliamentary colleagues.

I have a softer spot for Paul Swain, who also announced his retirement yesterday. Whatever I think of his politics (and he was one of Labour's more consevative MPs), I have to respect a guy who decided to quit Cabinet so he could have better work-life balance and spend more time with his kids. If only we had more MPs who truly understood the value of slack.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A victory for stupidity

That's the only way to describe the pulling of the Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill. The bill would have brought some basic consumer protections to the alternative medicines industry - for example, ensuring that these products actually work, or at the very least don't kill people. Sure, it had flaws - notably that the regulatory agency it established would not have been subject to the Official Information Act - but these could have been fixed, and pale in comparison to the present regime which allows people (unscrupulous or otherwise) to sell unproven or even unsafe products, and make claims about them which would be considered false advertising if made by, say, a popular fruit drink.

The irony here of course is that the people who have opposed this bill and the introduction of basic safety standards are the same people who demand that food origins be certified down to the individual paddock to prevent contamination by GE material, advocate tougher regulation and testing of food and prescription medicines, demand high thresholds for the safety of vaccines, and (rightly) scream bloody murder if a large company uses a probably safe, but unapproved product in baby formula. But all of that concern goes out the window when it comes to alternative medicines, in favour of a mindless assertion that "if it's herbal, it's OK". The hypocrisy is simply breathtaking.

(And lest anyone think I'm ignoring them, some people also opposed the bill on the basis that forcing the alternative medicines industry to ensure that its products worked and were safe would "expand bureaucracy" and impose "unnecessary compliance costs". In other words, they support the right of businesses to rip off and even kill their customers. These people are simply evil).

I support strong product safety and consumer protection standards, particularly in the case of medicines where sick and desperate people may be exploited into buying ineffective products on hope. I think that people have, at minimum, a right to know what they are taking, and what (if anything) it will do to them - whether it will work, and what the potential risks and side effects might be. For all its flaws, the Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill would have helped significantly in that area. Unfortunately, due to the opposition of people I can only describe as flakes, our protections in this area will remain inadequate.

John Key in a nutshell

Key promises local body change, but won't say what

The Herald's subeditors have inadvertantly perfectly captured Key's strategic emptiness, that effort to be all things to all people by speaking only in generalities and never adopting a firm position or serious policy. But you can't govern like that, and eventually National is going to have to tell us what it really stands for and what it plans to do.

Hopefully, we'll be able to force them to do it before the next election.

Parliament goes live

While there's been a lot of effort focused in the last month on MP's efforts to protect their overinflated egos from public puncturing by resurrecting lese majeste and banning the use of images from the House for the purpose of "satire, ridicule or denigration", there is another side of the story as well - and that is a massive expansion in the coverage of Parliament. Where previously I've had to huddle around the computer listening to the webcast audio feed if I wanted to keep tabs on proceedings, from today there will be full video of all proceedings in the debating chamber. You can tune in here from 14:00.

If you're hoping for fireworks, you'll likely be disappointed. Other than Question Time, most of this week looks like it will be taken up by some of the most boring (but necessary) Parliamentary business ever: the committee stages of an Appropriations debate. But we might at least be able to see if anyone from ACT bothers to turn up.


DPF has posted his submission on the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill. Here's mine. I'll be submitting this electronically later this afternoon, so if you have comments or suggestions, best email them quickly.

  1. I support the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill.
  2. The crime of sedition is an archaic remnant of feudalism. It is incompatible with the freedom of speech respected in modern democracies and affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
  3. The law is aimed primarily at speech, rather than action. While some speech, such as direct and immediate threats of violence, should be criminal, a proper respect for freedom of speech means that any criminalisation of speech alone should meet a very high bar. The traditional limit is Justice Holmes’ “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” : speech must cause a clear and present danger to public safety, or be likely to cause imminent lawless action in order to justify restriction. The law of sedition does not meet that threshold.
  4. The definition of a “seditious intention” is both broad and vague, to the extent that whether speech is criminal or not is almost entirely a matter of interpretation. Constitutional lawyer Albert Venn Dicey argued that if the law was interpreted strictly, it would outlaw practically all political dissent. Sir Kenneth Keith made a similar point, arguing that the law could be used to target peaceful protest or those advocating civil disobedience .
  5. The explicit targeting of speech “bring[ing] into hatred or contempt, or [exciting] disaffection against” the monarch or the government is undemocratic. As one MP noted, “every day in Parliament we do just that” . As for the monarch, I do not see why she or the institution she represents should be held sacred; whatever its merits, it should not be a crime to advocate republicanism, or any other system of government.
  6. While the law includes a defence protecting speech made in “good faith”, it has rarely been successful in protecting political speech. To the contrary, the history of sedition prosecutions in New Zealand related in the Law Commission’s report shows that the law has consistently been abused to persecute those critical of government policy or whose political opinions were outside the “mainstream”.
  7. The Law Commission report includes a short history of sedition prosecutions in New Zealand. Others can be found on the blog No Right Turn at http://norightturn.blogspot.com/2005/08/sedition-by-example-index.html. It is worth noting that the victims of sedition include two former Prime Ministers (Peter Fraser and Walter Nash), three former Cabinet Ministers (Bob Semple, Hubert Armstrong, and Paddy Webb), and at least two other MPs (Harry Holland and Fred Cooke). All were members of the Labour Party, and prosecuted for their involvement in the labour movement, in socialist causes or for opposing conscription during the First World War. One of them – Webb – was prosecuted while a sitting MP, for a speech he gave during a local body election campaign.
  8. Some may be concerned about speech inciting violence. As the Law Commission pointed out, there are numerous offences in existing law which cover such cases – not least sections 66 (“parties to offences”) and 310 (“conspiring to commit offence”) of the Crimes Act 1961. Other possibilities include s87 (“Riot”), and s3 (“Disorderly behaviour”) of the Police Offences Act 1981. To the extent that it covers the direct incitement of actual violence or disorder, the law is unnecessary; and speech which falls short of that threshold should not be criminal at all.
  9. I ask that the committee support the bill and recommend that it proceed.
  10. I wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.

I'll do a Sedition by Example on Webb sometime, since its one of the most egregious abuses of an abusive law. Hopefully, it'll be the last one I have to do.

Update: The Holden Republic's submission is here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Something to go to in Wellington

Locked out hospital cleaners will be picketing Spotless Service's corporate HQ in Wellington tomorrow.

When: Tuesday, 17 July, 15;15 - 16:15
Where: 108 The Terrace

Please bring a friend and make some noise.

"Reckless support"

After two weeks in police custody in Australia, Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef has finally been charged with recklessly supporting a terrorist organisation. What did that "support" consist of? According to the magistrate at his bail hearing today, he left a cellphone SIMcard with relatives on his last visit to the UK so they could use the time remaining on it. His "recklessness" seems to lie in the fact that those relatives later went on to try and blow something up. Note that the Australian government is not claiming any intention on Haneef's part, or that he had any suspicions about the future activities of his relatives - they're simply saying that he gave something innocuous to someone who later turned out to be an (alleged) incompetant terrorist.

This is setting the bar awfully low. Not only does it smack of collective punishment - victimising the relatives of the people who committed the actual crime - it also means that Australians can't actually determine whether they are committing a crime by "recklessly supporting terrorism" until potentially years after the fact. Which makes it impossible for Australians to know they are obeying the law, unless they avoid giving anything to anybody. Though in practice, this being Australia, the only people who will have to worry about this will be Muslims.

When the law can't tell you whether you're breaking it or not, and permits ex post facto criminalisation of innocuous and normally entirely legal acts, it is a bad law and has to go. Unfortunately, in the current climate, where politicians seem only to happy to whip up fear of terrorism so they can grandstand in the light of their own Australian "terrorist" "threat", that doesn't seem very likely.

Representing his constituents

After a brief pause for mediation, the hospital lockout resumes tonight, with Spotless Services unwilling to grant its workers the same pay and conditions enjoyed elsewhere in the public health system. Meanwhile, the hospital cleaners have received strong political support from Labour MP Mark Gosche, who has called upon DHBs to use the threat of contract cancellations as leverage to "tell Spotless bluntly to pay like everybody else is or get out of the public hospital business". I agree. Spotless's failure to pay their workers properly has caused chaos in the affected hospitals, and that alone should be causing DHBs to seriously consider cancelling their contracts or seeking other penalties for nonperformance. Generally, if people don't turn up for work, they don't get paid. It would be nice if the same standard applied to corporations.

Meanwhile, ACT MP Heather Roy naturally thinks Gosche should "butt out", and that he shouldn't be involving himself in an employment dispute. But Gosche is performing the most basic function of an MP: representing his constituents. But apparently that's illegitimate if those constituents are poor rather than rich.

Thanks, George!

One of the key platforms of Dick Cheney's George Bush's defence policy has been the construction of a National Missile Defence, a system of ground-based interceptors designed to intercept nuclear missiles heading towards the United States. While ostensibly aimed at "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iran, neither actually have missiles capable of reaching the continental US (though North Korea is close), and other nuclear powers such as Russia believe that it is really aimed at them - an impression enhanced by the US's desire to station radars and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Russia is concerned that a US anti-missile system will effectively counter their nuclear deterrant (a serious concern, given the weak state of the Russian nuclear forces), rendering them (more) vulnerable to a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Which isn't a situation they want to be in. So, they've decided to up the diplomatic ante by suspending their participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, suspending inspections and the exchange of data. This doesn't sound like much, but underlying it is a threat to deploy more forces in the Kaliningrad enclave, directly threatening Poland and allowing them to strike at the missile defence bases. Needless to say, this isn't particularly good for international security, and its particularly bad for Europe, which once again gets to bear the brunt and be the playground for America's foreign policy squabbles.

As with the "war on terror", Bush's efforts at improving the security of Americans have in fact exported insecurity and made the world a much more dangerous place for everyone else. Thanks, George!