Friday, November 30, 2007

Shrinking coalition watch

Australian Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd has promised that Australian combat troops will be out of Iraq by mid-2008. The US doesn't seem to have many friends left, does it?

OTOH, the way Canada is going, adopting Bushite positions on climate change and the death penalty, I'm sure it'll be no time at all before Harper is sending Canadian troops to die for Halliburton.

Defeating paedophobia

The Law and Order committee has reported back [PDF] on Ron Mark's Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill, and recommended that it not be passed. The bill would have lowered the age of criminal responsibility for "serious crimes" (anything with a penalty of over three months imprisonment or a $2000 fine - which translates to pretty much anything in the Crimes Act) to 10, allowing kids to be railroaded into the District Court and jailed for anything beyond the most minor shoplifting. It was a vicious expression of the growing paedophobia of NZ First's elderly voter base in reaction to a few nasty cases, but as the saying goes hard cases make bad law. In the end the select committee was not convinced of the need to overturn the entire youth justice system and the longstanding principle of doli incapax simply to satisfy Ron Mark's reactionary and authoritarian impulses. Instead, they're pointing at the current review of the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 as a way of addressing some of the issues raised by the bill.

The interesting question now is whether NZ First will throw its toys out of the cot. Labour support for sending the "kids in jail" bill to select committee was a centrepiece of the Labour - NZ First confidence and supply agreement [PDF]. Wil NZ First jerk the chain in order to push its vicious agenda, or will they accept that their bill was so flawed that not even National would support it and resolve to try again some other time?

Literacy and headlines

New Zealand reading skill takes a drop, reads the headline in today's Herald, reporting breathlessly that New Zealand has fallen from 13th to 24th place in the Progress in International Reading Study. But then it goes on to say:

But despite dropping on the list, New Zealand students have maintained a consistently high standard of reading in the past five years.

Their average reading score was 532, higher than the study's international average of 500.

The average score for New Zealand students in the first study in 2001 was also high, at 529.

So, while the headline says we got worse, reading skills actually improved. Except, obviously, for those of the people responsible for the Herald's headlines...

Democracy may win in Venezuela

Venezuela will go to the polls this weekend in a constitutional referendum. While the referendum will amend large parts of Venezuela's constitution, the primary aim is to extend the Presidnetial term and repeal the existing two-ternm limit, allowing President Hugo Chavez to run for further terms rather than having to retire at the end of 2012. No matter what you think of Chavez's policies, this sort of self-interested constitutional tinkering is deeply undemocratic and constitutionally dangerous, and something no democrat should endorse. While no constitution is carved in stone (and neither ought they to be), changes of this nature need to be done for some reason other than prolonging your own time in power.

The good news is that according to recent polling, the referendum may fail:

A survey for Datanalisis, a polling company, said 49% of likely voters would vote no and 39% would vote yes. A tracking poll by the opposition-linked Hinterlaces pollster predicted a technical tie.
The bad news is that Venezuelan polls are notoriously unreliable, given that they tend to be performed by partisan agencies and avoid poling the poor. But there's at least some hope that democracy may win in Venezuela, and it may avoid further sliding into authoritarianism.

Update: And OTOH, it looks like the CIA is up to its usual dirty tricks again. It would be nice if the "exporter of democracy" actually lived by its rhetoric and let the people of other countries make their own decisions, rather than seeking to covertly influence or even overturn them [Hat tip: Dawg's Blog].

New Fisk

A different venue, but the pious claims and promises are the same

Thursday, November 29, 2007

First life intervenes

As you may be able to tell from the lack of posts, I'm a bit busy at the moment. To steal Russell's phrase, first life is intervening.

Hopefully posting will return to normal next week.

In the meantime, things I'd like to blog about: the Information Commissioner's conference happening in Wellington this week (there's been little mention of it in the news, but I've been getting some interesting press releases about what's being discussed there), another edition of "In the ballot", the recent child health report, and of course more on the Electoral Finance Bill.

Climate change: "a massive threat to human development"

The United Nations released its annual Human Development Report [PDF, large] on Tuesday, and in amongst the rankings, it also delivers a pretty stark warning about the effects of climate change. Calling it "the defi ning human development issue of our generation" and "a massive threat to human development", it goes on to say:

Climate change is already starting to aff ect some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world. A worldwide average 3° centigrade increase (compared to preindustrial temperatures) over the coming decades would result in a range of localized increases that could reach twice as high in some locations. The effect that increased droughts, extreme weather events, tropical storms and sea level rises will have on large parts of Africa, on many small island states and coastal zones will be inflicted in our lifetimes. In terms of aggregate world GDP, these short term effects may not be large. But for some of the world’s poorest people, the consequences could be apocalyptic.


This development progress is increasingly going to be hindered by climate change. So we must see the fight against poverty and the fight against the effects of climate change as interrelated efforts. They must reinforce each other and success must be achieved on both fronts jointly.

And otherwise, we are going to condemn half of humanity to a future of diminished opportunity and life expectancy, and increased danger of drought, famine, or extreme weather events. And that is not something we can morally do.

(Oh, and for those who care, NZ ranked 19, one place up on last year, and 9 places ahead of its GDP ranking. Progressive social policy makes all the difference in the world. Meanwhile, Norway was toppled from its six-year reign in the top spot by Iceland).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The numbers on member's bills

FrogBlog has an analysis of the member's bills passed, defeated, and discharged so far this Parliamentary term. The short version: three bills have been passed, and thirty failed. All of those passed have been from the Green Party, demonstrating their ability to "build a democratic coalition, negotiate and put forward sensible pragmatic solutions to problems" (though its worth noting that at least two of National's bills resulted in the desired changes, despite being defeated). It's a lesson the other parties should learn. In an MMP Parliament, with no fixed balance of power, there is a real opportunity for opposition parties to pass legislation, if they pick their issues carefully and do the hard work of building a coalition behind it - in other words, for the legislature to act like a legislature, rather than a rubber-stamp for the executive. Unfortunately, I've yet to see other parties exploit this to the same level that the Greens have done; instead, they've focused primarily on highly ideological bills aimed primarily at making public statements rather than being passed. While there's certainly a place for that ("here's what we'd do differently"), it does represent a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Raise the refugee quota

Paris Aristotle, director of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, says that we are not pulling our weight on refugee policy, and that we should raise our annual refugee quota. I agree. New Zealand accepts a derisory 750 refugees per year [PDF], or around 179 per million people. By contrast, Australia - who we all like to deride as racist and xenophobic in the wake of the Tampa affair and Howard's internment camps - accepts 6,000 per year, or 285 per million. As a country which prides itself on our commitment to human rights, shouldn't we aim to be at least as good as the Aussies?

Unfortunately, Immigration is still firmly in denial:

An Immigration Service spokesman said that, in proportion to its population, New Zealand had one of the highest rates of refugee acceptance.
Maybe they should go into business making Tui billboards?

American homophobia

How low can American homophobia go? I think it'd have to get pretty low to beat the policy of Palm Beach Community College in Florida, which gives its staff discounted medical insurance for their pets, but not their gay partners. So, in their eyes, gays aren't just subhuman - they're subcanine, subfeline, and subanurine as well.

[Hat tip: Galloping Beaver]

Another funding scandal for UK Labour

Just when the cash for honours scandal has died down, the UK Labour Party has been hit by another funding scandal, with the revelation that a wealthy property developer donated for than 600,000 pounds through four intermediares over the last few years. Some of the intermediaries apparently did not even know of the donations made in their names. This is a clear violation of the UK's election funding laws, which ban this sort of laundering, and it has already claimed the scalp of Labour's generla secretary. But no-one thinks he was the only person who knew about it, and questions are now focusing on how much other top party officials and senior MPs colluded in this flagrant violation of the law. Despite its promise to clean up politics and restore trust to the political system, it seems New Labour has behaved in a deeply corrupt manner to disguise the identity of its donors, and that this rot may go all the way to the top.

Coincidentally, we will be passing similar provisions to the UK in the Electoral Finance Bill (though there will be some scope for anonymous donation, laundering is banned). And it will be interesting to see whether National's rich donors will obey the law, or go to similar lengths to disguise their donations and influence.

Climate change: saving the rainforest

When we think of the causes of climate change, we think firstly of the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transport. However, deforestation, primarily of tropical forest in the developing world, is also a significant cause, and is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions - more than the entire transport sector. So if we want to solve this problem and bring our environment back into a sustainable balance, we need to find a way of discouraging poorer countries from cutting down and burning their trees. The problem, though, is that this is grossly inequitable. Timber and agriculture are significant industries in those countries, and usually their primary path to development. The west developed and insustrialised by cutting down its forests (look at how denuded Western Europe is), and we can't really deny that right to developing nations. If we want them to stop deforesting, we need to provide an alternative way for them to raise living standards and develop economically.

This has led to calls from the Rainforest Coalition for the west to pay them to preserve their forests. And this week, it has seen a dramatic offer from the former UK colony of Guyana to place its entire standing forest under international control as a carbon resevior. That's more than 16 milion hectares (37 million acres, for people who like archaic units) of tropical rainforest, holding as much carbon as the UK emits in 40 years, and (based on the data in their Initial National Communication under the UNFCCC [PDF]) absorbing around a quarter of the UK's annual emissions every year.

Naturally, they want something in exchange: a bilateral aid deal with the UK government, technical assistance, and help with encouraging private sector investment. If the absorption from Guyana's forests was priced at US$10 / ton (which may be a low estimate), they would be worth about US$300 million a year, or 10% of Guyana's GDP, which would be a welcome addition to Guyana's economy (they could also benefit from ecotourism, with the right investments). But the real value is in the resevoir, in stopping the trees from being cut down and setting them aside as a permanent carbon store and biodiversity reserve.

The bad news is that none of this counts under Kyoto. Guyana is a non-Annex I party, so has no Assigned Amount, therefore can not sell its absorption on the international market (there's an answer to this, of course - become an Annex I party). And avoided deforestation isn't considered solid enough to receive CDM credit (and for good reason). Despite this, the UK government is looking seriously at the offer as a way of sending a strong signal on the need to fight climate change and establish a model for bringing forest protection into the post-Kyoto framework. And if they don't take it up, I strongly suggest the New Zealand government starts looking at it (in combination with other nations). If we are to tackle climate change, we need to save the rainforest as well reducing our emissions, and this seems to be a good way of starting to do it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It is time to end the occupation of Iraq

Well, that's what the Iraqi government is saying anyway. The UN mandate governing the occupation is up for its annual renewal, and the Iraqi government has made it clear that this is the last time it should be rolled over. After 2008, foreign troops should leave, or normalise their presence by bilateral treaties rather than UN-imposed diktat.

I take it as a given that the Iraqi government's wishes should prevail on this - it's their country after all. But it will be interesting to see whether the UN - or the US - agrees.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Election funding: disappointed

For the past few months I've been hoping for a miracle on the Electoral Finance Bill. Not that the bugs in the bill would be ironed out and that we'd get a workable piece of legislation that restricted the undue influence of money in the electoral process - that was always going to happen - but that the National Party would stop acting in bad faith and start acting like the responsible party interested in reform it proclaimed itself to be.

Unfortunately, it looks like I'm going to be disappointed.

National has unveiled its proposed amendments to the bill, and top of the list is amending the law to ensure that activities carried out by a candidate "in his or her capacity as a member of Parliament" during the three months leading up to an election are counted against their spending limit. National claims that this is to prevent incumbents being advantaged by being able to spend their parliamentary budgets on promoting themselves, but the blunt fact is that MP's have a job to do, and this job necessarily involves communicating with the public. We expect our MPs to issue press releases, advertise constituency clinics, inform their electorates about what is happening in the House, and solicit feedback from voters - basically, participate in and enable our democratic conversation. Currently, they are able to do this right up until an election is called, when Parliamentary Services cuts off their money. But if National has their way, then MPs will basically be unable to do their jobs for the last three months before an election.

This is the most meritless issue possible, chosen not because it is a serious problem with the bill - it is not - but because it will allow the National Party to whip its supporters up into a frenzy of hate with talk of "public funding by stealth", pledge cards (but It's OK If You're From National), and the government "writing themselves an exemption". Not that they actually want to win - because the bill would cripple them more than anybody else. National's dirty little secret - the thing they never tell you while screaming about how evil it is for MPs to be able to spend public money on telling people how to raise issues with them - is that the biggest beneficiary of such funding is... the National Party. Which adds a whole new layer of hypocrisy to their already appallingly unprincipled behaviour.

National's other proposed amendments - shortening the regulated period and narrowing the definition of "election advertising" to include only explicit solicitations or discouragements to vote for a particular party - are likewise pure wrecking behaviour, and the latter would have the effect of legalising the Brethren's tactics and allowing National's rich mates to once again wage anonymous negative campaigns without any spending limits - the exact problem the bill is aimed at fixing. These amendments will fail, but they show just how hollow National's rhetoric of wanting reform actually is. The National Party is not interested in reform of electoral funding or in limiting the undue influence of money on our democracy. Instead, their goal is the exact opposite: to preserve the ability of their rich mates to buy elections. And that is the very opposite of the democracy they are pretending to cloak themselves in.

Tasers are torture

It's official: tasers are a form of torture. That's the ruling of the Committee Against Torture, the monitoring body for the Convention Against Torture, when discussing the use of tasers by Portugese police:

"The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use," the committee said in a statement.
It goes without saying that I think this is a very good reason not to deploy such weapons in New Zealand. They may have a limited use as a replacement for firearms in certain circumstances, but certainly not as a replacement for pepper spray and hence a routine part of the police arsenal.

But if that's not enough, there's a broader reason to oppose the deployment of tasers or other "nonlethal" weapons, and that is in order to avoid a shift in the nature of our policing and interactions between the police and citizens. At the moment, our police operate under a principle known as "policing by consent", which basically means they focus on actually talking to people, workign with communities, de-esclating conflicts, and minimising the use of force. Increasing the force available for routine use by individual officers runs the risk of shifting this to the American model of "compliance policing", where the police simply order people about, and threaten to shoot/beat/tase/pepper spray them if they refuse. Many of the deaths attributable to tasers are all the more shocking because they are products of that sort of police culture, where police went straight for weapons rather than seeking to reduce conflict, and we've had some disturbing incidents in New Zealand which suggest that the availability of pepper-spray is creating this sort of mindset. And that is a disease I really don't want to see spread. If our police start behaving like Americans, swaggering around with a taser on their hip and their hand hovering near it whenever they talk to people (as Greg O'Connor and Ron Mark seem to think they should), then they will have become more of a threat to ordinary New Zealanders than the people they are supoosedly protecting us from.

Unseating Prime Ministers - a correction

It looks like I was wrong in saying the other night that we've never had a serving Prime Minister de-elected in the manner of John Howard - but you have to go back a long way to find one, way back before the age of party politics to the time of "continuous ministry". In 1887,Robert Stout lost his seat and the premiership on a narrow vote. As a result, he left politics for six years, during which he worked on bringing the labour movement into the progressive front which would become the Liberal Party, and was not re-elected until 1893.

Climate change: the rich renege - again

Early next month, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting in Bali to discuss a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. An important part of these negotiations is likely to be a promise by rich nations to help fund adaptation and emissions reduction in poor nations in exchange for the latter agreeing to gradually accept binding emissions reduction targets. But there's a problem: rich nations have promised this before, and are spectacularly failing to live up to those promises.

According to the Guardian yesterday, at the UNFCCC summit in Bonn in 2001, rich nations pledged a total of US$410 million per year to the Global Environment Facility to fund adaptation and reductions in Annex II countries. The funding was due to start in 2005, and so so far the GEF should have received US$1.2 billion to help fight climate change. But according to a report [PDF] presented to a GEF meeting last month, total contributions over three years amounted to a paltry US$177 million - just 15% of the total. Another US$106 million has been pledged, but not actually paid, and whichever way you look at it, wealthy nations are falling well short.

This seems to be a disturbing habit; I've posted before about how the rich nations have reneged on promises to increase aid spending. This is both wrong and stupid. On the moral front, we should keep our promises, and not promise things we have no intention of delivering. And on the pragmatic front, this continued reneging devalues our word, and reduces the utility of such promises as a negotiating tool. To put it bluntly, given our failure to live up to the promises made at Bonn, why should poorer nations accept any promises we make at Bali?

The first climate change election

Something I should have pointed people at on Saturday: Julian Glover's piece in the Guardian on the environment and the Australian election. He even goes so far as to call it "the world's first climate change election", though it focuses more broadly on general environmental policy as well.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Independence day

Today, 25 November, is the 60th anniversary of New Zealand's adoption of the Statute of Westminster. It's a little-known anniversary, but an important one - by this act, we required the British Parliament to relinquish the right to legislate for us except at our request, essentially making it our act of formal independence from Britain. Unlike the US, our path to independence was one of slow, steady, and peaceful growth rather than violent revolution, a recognition by both parties of a practical situation rather than a unilateral declaration and throwing off of the colonial chains, but it is still constitutionally significant. On this day sixty years ago, we finally became a nation in our own right, rather than just a colonial appendage of "mother Britain".

Unfortunately, 60 years on, we still have one colonial link tying us to Britain's apron-strings: the monarchy. Despite being legally independent, having our own government, judiciary, culture and common law, we are still ruled by an absentee monarch who lives 12,000 miles away. And they are appointed not on merit, but on the basis of hereditary - of being descended from someone who ultimately raped, looted, and slaughtered their way to power. This is an absurd situation, and sixty years on, I think it is time we said "enough". We should become a republic, and finally cement our political independence from Britain by having our own head of state, elected by and answerable to the people of New Zealand, rather than unelected and hence answerable to no-one.

Unseating Prime Ministers

Much of the coverage of Howard's defeat in Australia has focussed on the fact that he has become the first Prime Minister since 1929 to lose his seat. Which immediately raises the question: has it ever happened in New Zealand? Has a serving PM ever been de-elected?

Apparently not. None of our recent Prime Ministers were (Marshall, Rowling, Muldoon, Moore and Shipley all survived in their constituencies, but were later rolled as party leader). And looking back, it seems that in the age of party politics, every defeated party leader has survived. We've had Prime Minister's resign, we've had them die in office (Ballance, Seddon, Massey and Savage), but none have ever been de-elected in this way. Which I guess just tells you that our Prime Ministers are better at finding safe seats (and keeping them safe) than Australian ones.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The end of the lying rodent

According to ABC's coverage of the Australian election, the ALP has done it and attained government. And as icing on the cake, John Howard, the lying rodent, has lost his own seat of Bannelong.

Take that, George Bush.

Unfortunately, the ALP is pretty far right for a "labour" party. They've basically done a Blair and copied the policies of the right, except on areas central to their party such as WorkChoices (the Aussie version of the Employment Contracts Act). OTOH, they'll be ratifying Kyoto and pulling out of Iraq, which is a definite improvement on the liberals. And, as a plus, they won't be nearly so racist and xenophobic.

As for what this means here, it depends. John Key will be taking heart from the ability of a copycat candidate to win on change alone. And Helen Clark will be taking heart from the failure of the conservatives to bribe their way to victory with big tax cuts. But at the end of the day, all poltiics is local; New Zealand is not Australia, and the voters here will make their own minds up. Believing that there will be change here because there has been change overseas is simply cargo-cultism. Unfortunately, that seems to be a common problem among political analysts.

New Fisk

Darkness falls on the Middle East

Friday, November 23, 2007


Taito Phillip Field has been charged with 15 counts of bribery and 25 of attempting to pervert the course of justice. The latter are interesting, and clearly give the police a backup if Field wins his appeal against the High Court granting leave to lay the corruption charges. And if he is convicted on any one of them, he will be forced to resign from Parliament. Of course, if he had even a shred of decency, he would have done that already.

Well, it's never happened before, has it?

John Howard's "Liberal" Party using lies and xenophobia as an electoral tactic? Surely not!

Disappearance convention update

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance now has an international coalition to support it and lobby for signatures and ratifications. So far 71 countries have signed, and 3 have ratified (though Argentina and Mexico still have to transmit their ratifications to the UN). Unfortunately, while the list of signatories now includes most of western Europe, New Zealand has not signed and still has no intention to. While MFAT claims to have problems with "some technical aspects of the convention" (notably its consistency with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), it's telling that countries like France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Denmark - all of whom are strong supporters of the ICC and of international human rights instruments - do not believe there are problems. Instead, our refusal seems to be based on a fear of offending the United States, which has used enforced disappearances as a tool in its "war on terror".

New Zealand claims to be a strong supporter of human rights on the international stage. It would be nice if we actually lived by that statement, rather than shoving our principles under the carpet to avoid offending the powerful.

Science is now terrorism

The "war on terror" has always included a strong element of suppressing science and technology, as 9/11 caused various intelligence agencies to freak out over just how easy it was to kill people in a modern technoligical society. So we've seen the US government stripping Iraq of medical isotopes to prevent them from being used in radiological weapons (which means Iraqis get to die of cancer in the name of American security), and the SIS spying on New Zealand universities in case students learn anything "dangerous". But it's now reached its ultimate absurdity with a British man who has been forbidden to take high-school-level science courses because he is a suspected terrorist:

The man, referred to as A.E., is contesting the decision in court, in what is believed to be the first case of its kind. The preliminary hearing over whether A.E. should be allowed to take AS-level courses in human biology and chemistry took place on 16 November at London's High Court. The UK Home Office, which has an order restricting A.E.'s actions and affiliations, argues that such coursework could be turned towards terrorism. His solicitors counter that the knowledge is public, and that the furthering of A.E.'s education poses no threat.
(To see what's in the courses, try here or here).

This is Orwellian in the extreme. The idea that the government should be able to vet what people read and learn is utterly totalitarian. What next? Banning people from reading the Encyclopedia Britannica or Wikipedia because they might learn something so simple as the germ theory of disease or the basics of enthalpy? Bombing high schools and universities to prevent the spread of dangerous knowledge?

What's even more absurd that this is stuff he already knows - the man is a trained doctor, wanting to brush up and continue his medical education (his qualifications naturally being unrecognised in the UK). But science is apparently terrorism, at least if you're from the Middle East.

(Hat tip: Scruffydan).

Climate change: a solution to methane?

New Zealand has a climate change problem: too many cows producing too much methane. But now we might have a path to a solution, in the form of a methane-eating bacteria:

GNS Science microbiologist Matthew Stott said the bacterium was found after tests showed a lack of methane at the surface of the geothermal area known as Hell's Gate.

"We knew methane was being produced ... We were puzzled why it wasn't reaching the surface.

"What we have found is an extremely tough methane-consuming organism that is new to science. It grows happily under extremely acidic conditions in the lab."

Unfortunately its not an immediate solution because we clearly can't put it in a cow (foreign bacteria in animals is usually known as disease). But in the long-term, it might be able to be modified to be a useful part of a cow's rumen flora, or used to modify existing bacteria to soak up the methane. But that would take decades of research. In the meantime, it can almost certainly be used to reduce emissions from old landfills (newer ones are already required to control their emissions by tapping off the gas - one of the few areas of New Zealand climate change policy which has actually been successful). But even that will require years of research to determine whether it will produce useful emissions reductions and check whether it has any harmful side-effects. Still, it could be quite a useful tool in our package of solutions.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Rickards resigns

Good riddance. But why did he take so long to recognise that his position was untenable? And was he paid to go away?

Election Funding: the second reading

The second reading of the Electoral Finance Bill is about to begin. You can watch here, or listen in here.

I might do some liveblogging on this. We'll see. (Update: what the hell...)

Annette King: Believes the public interest in the bill shows the strength of our democracy, and that the amendments have met the concerns of most submitters. The bill will safeguard democracy by limiting the undue influence of money on the electoral process - something she believes is popular with the public.

Bill English: Says the bill is an example of misplaced priorities, and that the government should be concentrating on economic growth and the number of New Zealanders leaving for Australia. Calls the bill a shambles which guarantees litigation; Election 2008 will as much about the rules for the election as the will of the people. Accuses the government of abusing the legal process to skew the electoral system in its favour, and making a law to stifle its critics.

Lynne Pillay: The bill will assure the electoral process is transparent and fair, and not open to the undue influence of wealth. Disappointed in National's deliberate scaremongering, and accuses the opposition of being concerned solely with their own funding. The games they played in select committee shows the lie behind their claims that they want to work constructively to improve the bill. Pointed out that public lobbying has led to policies such as four weeks annual leave, and that the bill preserves the right of groups to advocate on issues and changes in policy. says that the increased spending cap for third-parties was based on the figures named by NGOs who expressed concern.

Tony Ryall: The government is going to amend the bill to fix more problems! And this is a Bad Thing! [WTF?] The bill will cement the interests of "big union money" in or electoral system. Is outraged that unions won't tell National how much they spent last election [how much did the Fair Tax lobby spend, Mr Ryall? How much did Peter Talley want to spend?] Sticks to the talking point that the government is changing the rules to suit itself to win the election, and openly threatens that National will do the same. Promises that National will repeal the legislation [though how they'll do that when most possible coalition partners support it is an interesting question] Says the bill will be a fiasco on the level of the Florida recount in the 2000 US Presidential election, with endless litigation [Only if National and its rich backers decide to launch it, Mr Ryall...]

Doug Woolerton: NZ First in favour of the bill. Most submissions expressed concern about anonymous donations and their influence on the political system. The bill ensures transparency and ensures donors are identified. Reads out a list of National's 2005 election donors, most of whom were trusts [to much hooting and gibbering from the Opposition benches], and accuses National of being primarily concerned with secrecy. Also points out that while National complains about the use of public money, they are currently its biggest beneficiary, to the tune of $7 million, and spent massive amounts during the 2005 campaign which was fortunately (for them) outside the interval of the Auditor-General's inquiry. If national was serious about its rhetoric, it should hand back this money, and bankroll its campaign itself.

Metiria Turei: Bill is necessary to protect the equality of the ballot from the inequality of the wallet. We have good rules already which help to establish a level playing field, but 2005 revealed real problems which must be dealt with. One of these problems was the Brethren campaign, which worked hand in glove with National to circumvent their spending limit and hide the identities of those responsible. This was a huge loophole in the law, which must be closed, otherwise spending caps will become meaningless and our elections will be bought by wealthy secret interests working in collusion with parties. A second problem was the lack of transparency around certain party's donations. The Greens support full disclosure of every donation over $1,000 [but will they put up an SOP?] Says national's opposition is driven by their desire to continue to exploit these loopholes, receive secret money and collude with third parties to circumvent their spending limits. If the Greens thought for one moment that the bill undermined human rights, they would oppose it, just as they have opposed the Terrorism Suppression Act.

Peter Dunne: Quite an impassioned speech! Quoted the Royal Commission on the Electoral System on the need to restrict third parties. "That quote is at the heart of this legislation". Believes the House supports this, but that grubby politics has intruded into the issue. The people of New Zealand have a right to know who is donating to political parties. New Zealand campaigns have been free of dirty money and secret campaigning until the last election, and this raised real concerns among the public. Debunks National's scaremongering. The bill does not limit people's right to express their political opinion, or lobby for change. Instead, it prevents people and groups from seeking to participate in the election campaign to circumvent spending limits. Points out that opponents of the bill are arguing for open slather for secret campaigning, a problem recognised and limited around the world. Supports a one-year regulated period to prevent the current practice of scheduling huge amounts of spending to overflow into the regulated period - something he calls a cynical manipulation. Thinks the bill will provide certainty in this area. Criticises the process and both major parties, one for wanting to stich up the numbers first [necessary under MMP], the other for deciding it would oppose no matter what. The law needs to be passed, otherwise we will see the same problems as we saw in 2005, and that is not acceptable. United Future will support the second reading, examine the amendments in committee, and then decide whether to support the third reading.

Heather Roy: Says the current law has significant flaws which restrict the operation of fair and open democracy. But in her opinion, the flaws are that it restricts spending by parties and prevents them from buying TV advertising, not that it fails to ensure a level playing field. Focuses on the candidate spending limit, which is arguably too low. Bill advantages incumbents, and will make electorate campaigns almost impossible to win for independent candidates or parties not already in Parliament or on a party list. [Coverage interrupted by need for caffeine] Believes transparency requirements compromise the secrecy of the ballot, and that people should be allowed to give money anonymously.

Chris Finlayson (with Chris Auchinvole barking in the background): Claims to have tried to be constructive [yeah, right]. Claims the bill is simply utu for National's "highly effective" campaign in 2005. Complained at length about the select committee process, and called it an "embarassment to Parliament". Is disappointed in the Greens, and questions their commitment to human rights. The bill has numerous flaws, and he will be paying close attention at the committee stage. Threatens "a bucketload of litigation" in 2008.

Charles Chauvel: quoted Don Brash: "the business community can not provide enough votes to win, but they can provide money". This attitude underpins National's opposition to the bill. Bill will ensure one person, one vote - not one dollar, one vote. Praises public participation in the select committee, and says that the committee has responded to submissions with amendments. Brethren campaign revealed a loophole which must be plugged. Thanked Graeme Edgeler (who is apparently in the gallery) for his very detailed submission and proposed amendments. Also mentioned my Scoop piece (here). The reason the bill is being passed is because National tried to rort the system in the last election, and the government is going to make sure it cannot happen again.

Hone Harawira: The Maori Party supports elections conducted in an environment of transparency. Welcome the tightening of rules around political donations. But while they support the principles behind the bill, they cannot support the bill itself due to the concerns of the Electoral Commission. Concerned with the definition of election advertising, and with the extension of the regulated period. Wants wider discussion on electoral reform, and things the issue should be given back to the public for proper debate. They will not be party to a bill with such flaws.

Anne Tolley (with Chris Auchinvole again): Says democracy is under attack from Labour, the Greens, NZ First and United Future, who outvoted them at committee [does she know what the word means?]. Talks about previous cross-party agrement on electoral law, and claims this has been undermined by the government [and National's position of mindless opposition had nothing to do with it, of course]. Complained more about the select committee process, and claimed to have been shut out by the committee majority at every turn. Praised the Electoral Commission submission, and claims the bill is aimed at shutting down the government's opponents.

The bill passed its second reading 65 - 54, with National, ACT, the Maori Party, Gordon Copeland and Taito Philip Field voting against.

Access to Parliament

At the beginning of Question Time this afternoon, Gordon Copeland raised an incident yesterday in which a member of the public was denied access to the public gallery because he had participated in yesterday's protest against the Electoral Finance Bill. Apparently, a Speaker's ruling bans anyone protesting in Parliament grounds from entering the House for 24 hours. Copeland (backed by Keith Locke) asked the Speaker to reconsider this ruling, on the grounds that security has been improved in the last year, and access to Parliament should be the right of all New Zealanders.

I agree with Copeland. The ban seems to be a purely punitive measure, aimed at punishing members of the public for taking their concerns to the heart of our democracy. And this is simply unacceptable. In a democracy, we have a right to protest, and a right to observe the proceedings of our government. We should not be punished for exercising one by the prevention of the other.

The Speaker is apparently considering the issue, and is seeking submissions from Members of Parliament. I suggest that we, the public, also have an interest, and that we should voice it. If you'd like to, you can email her here.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 52nd Crnival of the Liberals is now up at Yikes!. This edition is dedicated to the seperation of church and state, in honour of the 60th anniversary of Americans United For Separation Of Church And State.


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

  • Climate Change (Transport Funding) Bill (Jeanette Fitzsimons)

So the Green ballot mojo wins again! As for the bill, I'm not sure whether it is new, or simply a retitled version of the Climate Change (Public Transport Funding) Bill discussed here. I guess we'll know soon.

There were five new bills in today's ballot:

  • Social Security (Benefit Review and Appeal Reform) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford)
  • Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill (Darien Fenton)
  • Overseas Investment (Restriction on Foreign Ownership) Bill (Sue Kedgley)
  • Minimum Wage (Meal Breaks and Rest Periods) Amendment Bill (Sue Moroney)
  • Family Proceedings (Paternity Orders and Parentage Tests) Amendment Bill (Judy Turner)

In addition, there were a number of updated and retitled versions of older bills. 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.

(Thanks to the Long-nosed Potoroo for sending on the information)

A ballot!

Tariana Turia has postponed the Foreshore and Seabed Act (Repeal) Bill, meaning that there is now space on the Order Paper. So for the first time in months, we're having a ballot. I guess they were hoping to get something else introduced by the end of the year.

Almost there...

International crude oil prices hit US$99.29 overnight. So, we'll probably be through the US$100 / bbl threshold by the end of next week.

As for what it will mean, probably rather less than people think. What was so damaging about the early oil crises was that the price basically quadrupled overnight. Here's it's gradually crept its way up on the back of a supply crunch and security concerns. People and the market are already used to high oil prices and the idea that they will increase, so there isn't the economic shock there was thirty years ago. But an important psychological threshold will have been breached: oil will be more expensive in real terms than at any time in the past, without such an acute crisis. This I think should make it clear that the age of cheap oil will be over, and that we'd better start using it far more efficiently. Which can only be good for emisisons reductions.

The question is whether Treasury and the Ministry of Economic Development will accept this in their modelling, or whether they'll still persist in basing our long-term economic forecasting on the idea that this is as high as it gets, and prices will drop. Not while the US is still up to its neck I Iraq, I suspect...

New kiwi blog

Gondwana Man - A New Zealander’s journey to a sustainable future.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Utterly unacceptable

Yesterday we learned that, contrary to reports last week, the Ministry for the Environment did not put the contract won by Labour Party activist Clare Curran out to tender, but hired her directly in violation of normal procedures. That's bad enough, but tonight TV3 dropped this bombshell:

Erin Leigh worked at the Environment Ministry in 2006 on climate change issues - but she resigned suddenly over what she calls inappropriate political interference by the minister.

Parker suggested in 2006 that the ministry hire labour party activist, Clare Curran to develop climate change strategies.

"She was there representing David Parker's personal political agenda - it was highly unusual, my advice was to push back on the minister and it could be illegal," Leigh says.

Leigh says her warnings were ignored, and she resigned in protest before Curran started.


She says her boss, Neal Cave, also resigned over the political meddling.

If these allegations are substantiated by the State Services Commission, David Parker should be sacked from his portfolios immediately. Suggesting someone's name for a position is grossly improper, but interfering directly in an employment decision is utterly unacceptable and can not be tolerated. Parker may be clever and competant, but if he can't understand the difference between a public servant and a political operative, and insists on treating his department like a private fiefdom, then he is simply unsuitable for any Ministerial position.

Election funding: more scaremongering

Since the release of the Justice and Electoral committee's report [PDF] on the Electoral Finance Bill, there has been a barrage of scare-mongering from the right, with opponents of the bill (and advocates of big money) claiming that it imposes disclosure requirements on protest placards and public speeches, and that ordinary New Zealanders will have to watch what they say in order to avoid falling foul of the law. The latter is simply bullshit. As for the former, here's what Dean Knight (a lawyer, not a spindoctor) has to say:

Farrar is correct that, on its face, the new definition would seem to capture megaphones, chalk on the pavement, and placards. But I'm not convinced that a court would necessarily hold that such speech would be covered. Legislation needs to be interpreted "in the light of its purpose", including any other contextual indications in the legislation (s5, Interpretation Act 1999) .

Any sensible purposive interpretation would hold that holding a placard or shouting through a megaphone would not be an advertisement for this purpose. The purpose of the regime is transparency. Personal advocacy where one's identity is readily apparent doesn't need the same disclosure regime as billboards, newspaper adverts, and TV ads. I would expect that the courts would interpret the provisions accordingly in the unlikely event that those policing the regime actually cared about the conduct enough to prosecute.

(Emphasis added).

So, nothing to worry about. But for the avoidance of doubt (and really, to get the clowns to shut up, though I'm sure they'll just find something else to scream about), he proposes some clarifying amendments. which fix the problem - which is more than those complaining about it have bothered to do. Hopefully some party will take them up and put them in an SOP by next week.

Next year's entertainment

The Business Committee has released Parliament's recommended sitting programme for 2008 [PDF]. The important dates are that the House will resume on February 12, and that its fnal week will begin on 23 September. This is a couple of weeks before its legal expiry, and allows 7 weeks before the last possible election date of November 15.

So, it looks like we'll have a three month drought in serious political coverage over summer. How will I cope?

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, probably the last for the year, and the government has once again delayed its local legislation to ensure time for the third reading of Sue Kedgley's Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Bill. The bill will bring some welcome employee-centric flexibility to the New Zealand workplace, and make it a lot easier for parents with young children or other caregiving responsibilities to juggle work and life. While it's not a government bill, it's easy to see how this fits into the government's programme of encouraging more people into the workforce by addressing work-life balance concerns.

The passage of the bill will be a great moment for Kedgley, and for the Greens. They've already had two member's bills passed this term (s59 and youth rates), and have a good chance of getting another two through by the election (waste management and corrections (mothers with babies)). They've shown considerable skill at picking good issues and building coalitions behind their legislation, as well as compromising where necessary to get it passed. If only more parties would behave like this...

As for other business, Gordon Copeland's New Zealand Bill of Rights (Private Property Rights) Amendment Bill will go down to its inevitable defeat, and the House will be able to make a start on the second reading of Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill (which looks to raise her tally to three). If they get through that in time, then they'll finally be able to make a start on the Foreshore & Seabed (and there'll be a ballot), but I don't think its particularly likely. And with Parliament trying not to sit past December 11th, we're unlikely to see one until next year.

Making sausages

Otto von Bismarck is reported to have once said that laws are like sausages - it is better not to see them being made. I think this should be borne in mind when reading the Herald's latest hatchet-job on the Electoral Finance Bill. According to the Herald, officials were given only two days to draft amendments restricting anonymous donations, and the Ministry of Justice only three days to analyse them. But this is the normal process. Select committees meet weekly, and it is not at all unusual for them to agree on the broad direction of amendments at one meeting, and want to have a concrete draft with advice ready for the next. This imposes a tight deadline on officials, who must scramble to draft the relevant clauses and assess their overall impact, but that is ultimately what we pay them for. As for the Herald's other complaint, that officials "were specifically told not to consider any other options to cover anonymous donations", of course they weren't. In case the Herald has forgotten, it is Parliament which makes the law, not officials. At this stage of the legislative process, the latter's job is simply to do what the select committee tells them; they may brief on options if the select committee says "we have a problem, what can we do to fix it?", but where the committee already has a direction in mind, it is the role of officials to implement it.

The Herald knows all this (or at least, they do if their political reporter knows her job, which I see no reason to doubt). But they've decided to ignore it in order to whip up outrage over a bill which will adversely impact their bottom line. And I don't think this sort of misleading reporting does the public any good at all.

(More interesting is the Electoral Commission's advice on the spending limit for third parties. I'm not sure what the appropriate level is here, though $60,000 was obviously far too low. But while the ability for interested groups to make their voice heard is obviously an important factor, so too is the fact that our elections are supposed to primarily be contests between the political parties. They are the people we are deciding between and who will ultimately be held accountable for their policies, and so we need to ensure that their message is heard rather than being drowned by people who have nothing at stake and will never face the judgement of the electorate for the policies they are advocating. While $250,000 is only 10% rather than 5% of the total party spending limit, it's getting to be an appreciable fraction of the total campaign expenses of some of our smaller parties. According to their election returns, the Maori party spent $372,000 in 2005, United Future $409,000, and NZ First $771,000, and I think its those parties we need to be thinking about here rather than the major ones. That said, I'm still not sure if Parliament has got the balance right on this question, and I'm looking forward to it being debated in the Committee Stage. There's an opportunity there for a party to make a case for a higher limit and present constructive amendments, but it remains to be seen whether the opposition will take it).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Doing things differently

One of my hobbies here is tracking the progress of private member's bills - the bills MPs get to introduce by themselves, rather than as government business. In New Zealand, the procedure for introducing a member's bill is laid out in Standing Orders 276 and 277, and is relatively simple: a new bill can be introduced any time there is space on the Order paper for it. If there are more bills than there are spaces, the Clerk holds a ballot to determine which bills will be introduced and in which order. In practice, this boils down to having a ballot the day after Member's Day (and sometimes in the weeks between as well), as necessary when spaces open up. Once introduced, bills have a fairly good chance of progression: every second sitting Wednesday is a Member's Day, and government intrudes on Member's Business at its peril. So so far we've seen a large number of member's bills voted on this Parliamentary term, with many progressing to select committee, and a handful (all from the Greens) passing into law.

In the UK, they do things rather differently.

There are two main ways of introducing a member's bill [PDF] in the UK Parliament. The first is known as the Ten Minute Rule, and allows any member to get a short debate on introducing a bill. As in New Zealand, there are always more bills than there are spaces, but where the NZ Parliament holds a ballot, the British one is very rigid: a bill can only be introduced under the Ten Minute Rule by the MP who is first to walk through the door of the Bills Office on the appropriate day. So, naturally, this being the UK, the MP's queue, and some have been known to sleep out overnight to get the valuable debate slot. Somehow, I think a ballot would be fairer.

The second method is more similar to our own, only instead of balloting for bills, the British ballot once per year for MPs, each of which then gets the chance to introduce something. As most MPs don't have a bill in mind, this leads to a scramble of lobbying as those with ideas for legislation try and persuade someone with a valuable slot on the Order Paper to take up their bill. Again, you have to wonder whether balloting bills wouldn't be fairer.

(There are also two other methods of introduction, but they're much less important).

Either way, as in New Zealand, member's bills are debated on a designated day - they have 13 Fridays a year (so slightly less time than we do). Unlike New Zealand, there are no time limits on debate, so things progress rahter slowly, and a strongly contested bill could be effectively "talked out" unless the Speaker intervenes. But I guess those are the rules they've decided to set for themselves.

I wonder how they do it in Australia?

Climate change: the stakes in Australia

Australian Labor Party Leader Kevin Rudd has outlined his first acts in government if he wins this weekend's election and becomes Prime Minster. Top of his list? Ratifying Kyoto. It's a costless decision domestically, as Australia is meting its generous Kyoto target and will have credits to sell, while a growing number of Australians are becoming concerned after years of crippling drought and water shortages. But it will also have a significant effect internationally, in that Australian ratification would leave the USA totally isolated in post-Kyoto negotiations, with no allies at all in the denialist camp. This is unlikely to make any change to George Bush's position - but it will make it that much easier for his successor to reverse it and rejoin the international community on climate change. And that seems to be a good reason to hope for an ALP victory at the weekend.

(Oh, and withdrawing from Iraq was number five on the list. So an ALP victory will mean america will be without allies on that front as well).

Tracy Watkins gets it

For a while I've been talking about how MMP means the rules have changed, and pointing out that once you consider possible coalitions, National may be a lot further from government than they look, despite fairly large leads in the polls. Now, it seems that the Dominion-Post's Tracy Watkins has noticed as well. In her column on Monday, she pointed out that MMP throws a spanner in National's works, and that Labour, rather than National, would be celebratingthe latest poll:

On the surface of course the poll is hardly bad news for National. But – once the vagaries of MMP are thrown into the mix – that is not the same as good news.

Sure, National's support has dropped – but at 50-odd per cent, which is where National was polling in September, there was always likely to be some slippage. And a result of 45 per cent on election night would put the Treasury benches within National's reach. But – and this is where the worry beads get pulled out – not close enough to be assured of crossing the line. Based on Saturday's poll results, National would hold 57 seats and could muster another two with the help of its natural allies, ACT and UnitedFuture. Close – but not close enough to break out the cigars.

Labour, in the other camp, would hold just 51 seats, but can call on its natural allies the Greens and the Progressives, taking it to 58 seats.

Under this scenario, the Maori Party is kingmaker. And if events of the past few weeks have proved anything, it is that they remainan uncomfortable fit with either of the major parties. Its response to the police terror raids put it beyond the outer fringes of where most of Labour and National's mainstream supporters stand.

This is basically the same result we've seen for a while: the Maori Party will choose our next government. And they'll be even more likely to if they win six rather than four of the Maori seats. Unfortunately this point is usually left out of what passes for poll analysis, which tends to have a shallow focus on the two-party horse race, despite the fact that FPP has been dead for 12 years.

The other refreshing thing about Watkins' column is that she addresses the other aspect of MMP: it can bring together strange bedfellows. While I think the Maori Party is more likely to go left than right, it's not a given. So what happens if they end up supporting National? According to Watkins, it means the latter's agenda would be scuppered from the beginning. While they would have a majority on confidence and supply, they would have a difficult time getting one on legislation in a Parliament which was predominantly left-leaning. As a result, they'd either have to pursue a far more centrist path, or rely on using confidence votes to push things through. And the latter would likely swiftly upset the Maori party, resulting in a midterm change of government. And the same would go for the Greens.

The result is that it's basically all-or-nothing for National. Unlike Labour, they can't govern or deliver on their promises if forced into a coalition which crosses the political centreline. Which makes you understand why so many of them long for the days of FPP...

Election funding: scaremongering

Having failed to defeat the Electoral Finance Bill at select committee, National has now resorted to scaremongering about it, with Deputy Leader Bill English warning that "ordinary people" will need to watch what they say to avoid falling foul of the law, and that they should seek legal advice "to make sure they don't break the law simply by voicing their opinion."


As far as ordinary people are concerned, the EFB imposes no restrictions that do not already exist in law, and actually provides clarification in the area of blogging. It does not stop you from voicing your opinion on a political candidate or party. It does not stop you from distributing a small number of flyers or taking out an ad in a community newspaper, though you will have to disclose your name and address, just as you must under existing law. And it certainly does not stop you from e.g. starting a blog and venting your opinions on the internet. Quite the contrary, in fact, as personal, non-commercial blogs (such as this one) are specifically excluded from the definition of "electoral advertisement", and therefore are exempt even from disclosure.

In short, "ordinary people" have nothing to fear from the Electoral Finance Bill. The only people it affects are those who want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on parallel campaigns and helping parties to circumvent their spending limits. And those aren't "ordinary people" at all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Election funding: the HRC on the report

The Justice and Electoral Committee's report [PDF] on the Electoral Finance Bill praised the Human Rights Commission's input and said that the HRC "believed the changes enhanced freedom of expression and upheld the right to participate in electoral processes". So what do they really think? Fortunately, they've since put out a statement:

Several significant changes to the Electoral Finance Bill go some way to addressing the Human Rights Commission’s concerns about freedom of expression and citizen’s rights to participate.

“We’re pleased to see the very wide definition of election advertisement has been dropped which allows outside groups to participate in issues-related advocacy,” says Human Rights Commission, EEO Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor.

“We also welcome the acknowledgement of younger people’s rights to participate and the end to age discrimination against those under 18 years in electoral processes.”

The Commission also welcomes the proposed amendment that removes the need for a statutory declaration which was an unnecessary compliance burden.

And on the negative side, the HRC thought the regulated period was still too long, and that third-party spending limits should have been higher. These changes of course would have run directly counter to the purpose of the bill, which was to prevent the circumvention of spending limits through parallel campaigns and early spending. The only interpretation is that they think that these are not serious problems in New Zealand. I humbly suggest they read The Hollow Men, look at the National's 2005 campaign, and think again.

They also think that the changes should have gone back to the public for further consultation - something which, to be blunt, is not part of normal Parliamentary procedure, and for which there is no time anyway. If the bill is to come into force on January 1 2008 - something vital to achieving its purpose - it must be passed before the end of the year. A delay would see us facing another election in which shadowy campaigns funded by big money attempted to subvert the will of the electorate. And that is something we should not allow to happen. The right to free and fair elections is a human right, just as freedom of speech is - but on this occasion, it seems the HRC has got the balance wrong.

Election funding: reported back

The Justice and Electoral committee has finally reported back [PDF] on the Electoral Finance Bill, and recommended that it be passed. However, the bill has been substantially amended, and generally in a positive way. The two most important changes - and the ones that completely take the ground out from under those arguing against the bill - are the removal of clause 5 (1) (a) (iii) (the "taking a position" clause) from the definition of electoral advertising, and the removal of the onerous statutory declaration system for third parties. Combined with an increase in third-party spending limits and some tweaks to ensure that advocacy NGOs ordinary business of representing their member's interests is not captured by the bill, the upshot is a bill which has no effect whatsoever on the freedom of spech of ordinary people or NGOs, while properly restricting the ability of the rich to circumvent party spending limits with parallel campaigns and so buy elections.

Other positive changes include applying the "transmitter" regime to candidate and party donations (effectively outlawing laundering except by the Electoral Commission), clarifying the exemptions to ensure the media are not inadvertantly captured, removing the discriminatory provisions from the third-party requirements, and doubling the penalty for a corrupt practice from one to two years imprisonment. They also clarify the situation around anonymous donations to make it clear that financial agents can not be willfully blind to the source of a donation (as they can be at present).

The down side is primarily around disclosure limits. Quite apart from the ugly compromise of having the Electoral Commission launder anonymous donations, there has been no reduction in the disclosure threshold for parties, there is still no requirement for pre-election disclosure (meaning we have no idea who is buying our politicians until after the fact), and the threshold for third parties has been increased from $500 to $5000. I would have by far preferred a simple $1,000 limit for everyone, under the same rules originally applied to third parties: either you disclose the identity of the donor, or forfeit the money. Unfortunately, this still protects the place of secret money in election campaigns, something a democratic society simply should not tolerate.

Overall, the bill has been substantially improved, and I seem to have got most of the changes I requested in my submission. The Coalition for Open Government seems happy too. And judging from the wailing and gnashing of teeth over on the right, it looks like the bill will have exactly the desired effect: limiting the pernicious influence of money over our elections, and ensuring that each of us has an equal political voice. And that is something the right in New Zealand are deeply opposed to.

Another tool for democracy

NZ Referendums is a site aimed at encouraging use of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993. The Act is theoretically a powerful tool for letting politicians know what we think, but a high threshold (you need the signatures of 10% of eligible voters, or around 200,000 people) and hostility from MPs has seen only three referenda voted on since it was passed. The website aims to change that by providing a platform for people to float broad ideas for a topic and gain an idea of support, hash out the exact wording in preperation for a formal referendum proposal, and then use the network of supporters to collect signatures.

Given the threshold involved, I'm not sure that this will really be an effective tool (OTOH, it's a tool, which is a lot better than we have at the moment). However, it strikes me that such a site would be perfect for organising petitions to Parliament. These have similar co-ordination issues to referenda, but without the intimidating threshold, and are IMHO a much more useful method of feedback. Hopefully the site will be upgraded to allow this - or else I suppose someone else could always set one up...

(Hat tip: Holden Republic)

Climate change: working around Bush

US President George Bush is well-known for his opposition to serious action on climate change. Domestically, he has refused to ratify Kyoto, while internationally he has worked to undermine it (chiefly by trying to set up rival agreements which promise - and therefore will deliver - nothing). However, the US is a federal system, and so state governments have taken the lead where the federal government will not. In 2003, north-eastern states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to establish a joint "cap and trade" scheme to limit their emissions. Earlier in the year, western states followed suit with the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative. And just last week, mid-western states set up their own scheme, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord. The membership of these emissions trading and reduction schemes is shown in the map below:

(Map of greenhouse gas agreement membership in the US. RGGI members in blue (observers in light blue), WCI in green (observers in light green), and MGA in red).

While the states have formed three seperate schemes, their markets will be linked to each other and to the global market by the Climate Registry and the International Carbon Action Partnership. So it is effectively one big emissions trading scheme covering most of the US. In other words, most of the US is now effectively "in" Kyoto and working to reduce their emissions - despite Bush's opposition.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

We don't want tax cuts

That's the finding of a Fairfax poll released today. Asked the obvious question - tax cuts or public services? - people overwhelmingly chose the latter:

As for which public services people would prefer, the answer is obvious: health and education. While National likes to talk about "low quality" spending in these areas and question whether spending more money will bring any benefit, when people are facing long waiting lists because the government will not fund enough operations, and have to wait at A&E because of capacity constraints caused by underfunding, that's a difficult case to make. It's also difficult to argue when schools are having to charge parents hundreds of dollars a year in "voluntary" donations for services they should be providing for free. And of course we have the example of the re-universalisation of primary healthcare to show how spending more money on health can make a real difference to people's lives.

Another interesting finding is that we don't want privatisation either, even the "partial selldown" National offers - 56% (including 49% of National voters) oppose any further asset sales.

This is the real choice we face in next years election: tax cuts for the rich and looting the state, or decent, well-funded public services which benefit everybody. And this poll is the reason why National really doesn't want to talk about it, but instead adopts tactics of lies, obfuscation, and spin.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as “the Balibo Five”, died at Balibo in Timor- Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.
That's the finding of a coroner's report [DOC] into the deaths of the Balibao Five, just released this afternoon. In other words, it was murder, and a war crime. The question now is whether the Australian government will seek to extradite and prosecute those responsible, or whether they will continue their policy of looking the other way on Indonesian human rights abuses and extend it to abuses committed against their own citizens.

As the Indonesian Human Rights Committee point out, it's a question also faced by New Zealand, as one of those killed - Gary Cunningham - was a New Zealander. We have a case, we have a clear law (the Geneva Conventions Act 1958) under which the offence can be prosecuted, which provides for extraterritorial jurisdiction for such offences. The government should put its money where its mouth is on human rights, and use it.

Election funding: an ugly compromise

A couple of weeks ago, the Dominion-Post reported that the government would be correcting its biggest blunder in the Electoral Finance Bill, and would be moving to end the practice of anonymous and laundered donations. But if the report in today's Herald is correct, their "solution" will leave a bitter taste in many people's mouths. Rather than cracking down on anonymous donations and imposing proper disclosure of everything so that we will know who is trying to buy our politicians, the select committee has instead tried to go halfway. So, trusts and bagmen will be required to declare the source of the money they are passing on, and there will be a new declaration threshold of $1,000, above which the identity of the donor must be disclosed - all of which looks pretty good. But parties will still be able to receive large anonymous donations, provided they are funnelled through the Electoral Commission. The amount will be capped at $240,000 per party, but the net effect will be the same: we will still have dirty money in our political system, only rather than being laundered by National's corrupt network of trusts, it will be done by the official election watchdog instead.

There's no question that this is an improvement on the current system, where there are no limits on how much secret cash parties can receive while conspiring to keep the identities of the donors (and the influence they gain over policy as a result) out of the public eye, but its a very ugly compromise. And again, it is light years from Labour's early rhetoric, in which they promised to end laundering and impose a declaration threshold of $250. Once again, Labour's self-interest has won out over principle, cloaked in sophistry about how dirty money is harmless if the donations are "truly" anonymous - as if we could ever trust them on such an issue.

I'm with DPF in thinking that the Greens should put their money where their mouth is on this issue, and put up an amendment at the committee stage to kill this system of government laundering and force National and Labour to vote on disclosure. But its also worth remembering that National claims that they too oppose anonymous and laundered donations (despite being their chief beneficiary). It's time we called them on it. National can adopt a constructive approach by putting up amendments and daring the government to vote against its own base by opposing them, or it can continue to display its bad faith through mindless opposition in service of their donors. It will be interesting to see which they choose...

90 lashes

That's the penalty in Saudi Arabia for a women being in the car of an unrelated man. And apparently it more than doubles if they rape you.

This is simply monstrous. And yet these are America's "progressive" allies in the Gulf. If that's "progressive", I'd hate to see what regressive countries do.

"Not unduly harsh"

That's the opinion of Britain's Law Lords on the government's practice of deporting Darfuris back to face torture, harassment, and genocide in Sudan. Which makes you wonder: what would they consider "unduly harsh"? And if what is going on in Sudan doesn't constitute a valid fear of persecution under the Refugee Convention, what possibly could?

Grossly improper

For well over a century now, New Zealand has been blessed with a professional, politically neutral public service, which faithfully serves the government of the day regardless of their ideological bent. A key underpinning of this has been the independence of the public service in employment decisions. Public servants are hired and fired not by Ministers, but by Departmental Chief Executives, a move designed to ensure appointment on merit and prevent cronyism, patronage, and political retaliation. But recently, this has come under threat. First, there was the sacking of Madeleine Setchell on the basis of her partner's political views - an act found to have been simply wrong by a subsequent investigation by the State Services Commission. And now it seems it has a sequel, in the hiring of Clare Curran. Unlike some, I am not interested in Curran's political views - such conflicts of interest are routinely managed within the public service, and pose no real problem. Instead, the problem is how she was hired: her name was originally floated by the acting Minister:

Mr Parker told reporters he had suggested Ms Curran's name to the ministry during a discussion on what communications help it needed.

He had suggested her because "I knew her to be very able in these areas".

Mr Parker said he had known Ms Curran long before she joined the Labour Party through her work with her company Insight Communications.

"I didn't recommend who they should hire and I wouldn't do that," he said.

But regardless of how it was phrased, this is still grossly improper behaviour from a Minister. Chief Executives have a statutory duty to act independently in employment matters, and Ministers should respect this. While the contract was put out to tender, and Curran was appointed on merit, suggesting a specific individual for a position could be seen as an attempt to influence the employment process, and this should be avoided. It is, bluntly, simply not a Minister's business who works for "their" department, and they should keep the hell out of it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Death penalty moratorium update

Last month, New Zealand joined a coalition of progressive nations in backing a UN General Assembly resolution [PDF] calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty. Currently, the resolution is before the UN Third Committee, where various pro-death penalty countries led by Singapore are attempting to scupper it. But while it has 85 co-sponsors (out of a total UN membership of 192), the voting has been close, with 80-odd countries in favour vs about 70 against, with a further 42 countries either abstaining or not showing up to vote. If it survives, then it will face a final vote in the General Assembly in mid-December.

Election funding: it's today

According to the business statement just read out in the House, they'll be doing the second reading of the Electoral Finance Bill on Thursday. Which means the select committee report should be coming out sometime today.

I'll be watching the select committee page closely, and have an analysis as soon as possible after it hits the web.

Correction: Corrected misheard day.

Update: Or maybe not. Maybe it will be tomorrow, or it could be as late as 11:30 on Monday. I'm not sure I can cope with the tension...


Back in August, Polish soldiers killed six civilians during a firefight with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan. Now seven Polish soldiers have been charged with war crimes over the incident:

Poland's chief military prosecutor said the troops had not come under attack from insurgents as previously thought.

The prosecutor said they violated international law when they opened fire on the village. Women and children were among the dead.

Rather than an accident or "collatoral damage", it seems this was a premeditated revenge attack on the civilian population in retaliation for an incident earlier in the day. That is not legal, it is not moral, and those involved should be going to jail.

Election funding: the HRC changes its mind

Opponents of the Electoral Finance Bill have made a lot of noise about the Human Rights Commission's submission [PDF] on the bill, which called the bill "a dramatic assault" on freedom of expression and called for it to be radically changed. But according to a story in yesterday's Independent (offline), it seems the HRC has changed its mind:

The Human Rights Commission has altered its view after the Justice and Electoral select committee's handling of the controversial Electoral Finance Bill, according to Green Party co- leader Russel Norman.


Norman said he understood the commission has written again to the committee. In the second letter the commission says it has been impressed that the select committee has gone a long way towards alleviating its concerns in its redrafting of the legislation, Norman said.

This prospect was always apparent, given that the HRC's conclusion was based on the definition of electoral advertising, the high regulatory burden on (small) third parties, and the bill's discrimination against children and young people. But these flaws were widely pointed out, even by the bills' supporters, and so were highly likely to be changed. And now that they have been, the EFB's opponents will have to come clean about the fact that they're not really defending democracy or freedom of expression, but rather the "right" of the rich to try and buy themselves power.

BZP bill back

The Health Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Misuse of Drugs (Classification of BZP) Amendment Bill, and recommended that it be passed unamended. I'm appalled, but not surprised. Reading their report, the committee has simply ignored the empirical evidence of relative harmlessness, and not even considered how to resolve the serious inconsistency with the BORA [PDF] raised by the Attorney-General (which could have been fixed with a very simple amendment), instead handwaving it away with the promise of a future review. So, it's prohibition for prohibition's sake, and bugger consistency, evidence, or fundamental human rights.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We're paying him for this?

It's fairly well-known that National's Bob Clarkson doesn't exactly like being an MP. I thought however that despite that, he'd at least bother to turn up and do his job. But apparently not:

According to the wonderful TheyWorkForYou website these five quotes have been Bob Clarkson’s scintillating and sum contribution to parliamentary debate since 21 August:
  • (17 Oct 2007) Interjection : “Bureaucratic!”
  • (10 Oct 2007) Interjection : “Tell us the end of the story.”
  • (19 Sep 2007) Interjection : “Force?”
  • (22 Aug 2007) Interjection : “A bit like the Labour Government.”
  • (21 Aug 2007) Interjection : “Yes, I did, actually.”
That's 19 words in 21 sitting days - less than one word a day. And for that, we pay him $110,000 / year?

Though, to be fair, Clarkson did get to ask a question today - but as Toad points out, this is his second for the year. And its not like he's been doing much else - he's issued only three press releases. Again, why are we paying this man?

A proportionate response?

From the Herald: Hikoi marches on police commissioner:

Protesters from the Tuhoe Hikoi have marched up Molesworth St to Police Commissioner Howard Broad's office.

They were met by a four-deep police cordon armed with batons.

Because that's really the way to respond to public protest: an overwhelming show of force with an explicit threat of violence. Would they have done the same if the protestors were pakeha? And how many actual criminals would those police have been caching if they weren't acting as a personal bodyguard to the police commissioner?

It's also worth noting that while the police thought the protestors justified this response when outside their boss's office, they didn't think it justified such a response when it was at Parliament (which represents the people they actually work for). But I guess its just another example of the police putting a high value on "protecting their own", and a much lower value on their actual job of protecting the public.