Thursday, January 31, 2008

National accepts the inevitable - but can they be trusted?

National has finally accepted the inevitable and endorsed the government's interest-free student loan policy. They're even offering an early-repayment bonus (though a fairly miserly one, which is asking to be gazumped). But their reasoning for this leaves a lot to be desired. They're not accepting it because its good policy which lifts the burden of debt from the young, but because

"We lost the election."
Of course, if they're so quick to flip-flop when they lose an election, you also have to wonder whether they'll be just as quick in flip-flopping if they win.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 57th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at World Wide Webers

The State of the Environment

The government has just released a State of the Environment report, its first for ten years. Unfortunately, the picture it paints isn't so rosy, with our environment under significant pressure from spiralling greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution from the "dairy boom", and little progress made on restoring native biodiversity. On the plus side, we've protected more land, improved air quality somewhat, and have good policies in place to reduce waste and greenhouse gases, but we clearly still have a long, long way to go.

I should add that the publication of this report is a nice victory for National's Nick Smith, who has been advocating regular environmental reporting for some time. Now we'll be seeing regular reports every five years, which combined with the new national environmental indicators, should give us a concrete picture of where we're doing well and where we need to work harder.

Edwards drops out

Bugger. He didn't have a chance of winning, but if he kept going he was likely to have serious influence, and with his focus on poverty and inequality - something Americans don't usually talk about and Democrats shy away from for fear of being lablled "socialist" (a dirty word in America) - that influence was desperately needed. OTOH, he has already pulled the campaign somewhat in that direction, so he has achieved something by running.

New kiwi blog

Thinking Long Term

Who else should they be for?

In his column in the Independent today (offline), Chris Trotter argues that the Maori Party will not support Labour after the election. He begins with an analogy from C S Lewis' The Last Battle:

Nowhere is this universal treachery made more gut-wrenching than in the book's climactic scene, when, as the free beasts of Narnia prepare to make their final stand, the mighty talking horses break free from their captor's bonds and come thundering to the King's aid: "[T]he children opened their mouths to cheer but that cheer never came. Suddenly the air was full of the sound of twanging bow-strings and hissing arrows. It was the Dwarfs who were shooting and for a moment Jill could hardly believe her eyes - they were shooting the Horses. Dwarfs are deadly archers. Horse after horse rolled over. Not one of the noble Beasts ever reached the King. 'Little swine,' shrieked Eustace, dancing in his rage. 'Dirty, filthy, treacherous little brutes.'

". . . But the Dwarfs jeered back at Eustace. 'That was a surprise for you, little boy, eh? Thought we were on your side, did you? No fear. We don't want any Talking Horses. We don't want you to win any more than the other gang. You can't take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.' "

Trotter then argues that, thanks to the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Maori Party will "be for Maori" and refuse to support either side in post-election negotiations. The implication is that this is somehow treacherous. But who else should they be for? To point out the obvious, the purpose of the Maori Party is not to keep Labour in power, but to represent its constituents, to stand up for the views of the people who actually bothered to vote for them. And if those constituents want their party to press a hard bargain, or cry "a plague on both your houses" and stand back and represent them from the crossbenches, that's their right, and there's nothing "treacherous" about it.

(The same applies to the Greens, or to any other party. They're there to represent their voters, no more, no less, and no-one other than those voters has any claim of loyalty on them at all).

I'm fairly sanguine about Labour's ability to do a deal with the Maori Party, but if they're genuinely worried about it, they have a simple path open to them: start preparing for policy concessions and backdowns. Otherwise, if they are unable to form a government because they cannot secure the support of the Maori Party, they will have no-one to blame but themselves.

The "Kiwiblog right"

DPF objects to my use of the term "Kiwiblog right" to describe the dickheads who vandalised Helen Clark's electorate office again. I have to say that the primary target of the term wasn't DPF himself (who, as he points out, condemned the first attack when it happened), but the hate-filled bigoted mouthbreathers who infest his comments. And I have to say that the comment thread on DPF's post is a perfect example of the group and the behaviour I was referring to. Quod erat demonstrandum.

At the same time, DPF can hardly plead innocence in this. For the past two years, he has driven his blog headlong into the sewer, whipping up hate and pandering to the worst elements among his commenters as part of a conscious campaign to radicalise the base for his party. Well, it's worked - he has attracted a strong following of enraged supporters. Unfortunately, they're the sorts of people sane people don't want to know. The sorts of people who threaten to kill MPs, threaten to rape other bloggers, run right-wing hatelists, and who think that photoshopping people's heads onto porn is the height of political wit (that is when they're not making spurious comparisons with Mugabe) (and yes, while much of this has been done on people's individual blogs, those responsible are all core members of the Kiwiblog community, who help set the tone for the rest and make it the sort of place people don't go without full biohazard suits. Unless they like rolling in shit, that is). Having whipped up the hate and established an environment which has encouraged this sort of lunacy, it's a bit rich of DPF to try and disclaim any responsibility now.

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. If DPF doesn't like his blog becoming a byword for a particularly odious strand of political extremism, then he has a simple option available: clean up his community. But if he continues to support and encourage such extremism, he can hardly complain when it begins to reflect badly on him.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Broken glass II

It seems the kiwiblog right have struck again, with another brick through Helen Clark's electorate office window. Shouldn't these dickheads be in court already?

Unfortunately, with National still whiping up hate in its base and pandering to the worst elements of the sewer, this is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Paedophobia plumbs new depths

The public reaction to the murder of a teenage tagger by an elderly businessman over the weekend has been pretty disturbing, with several groups blaming the victim and expressing support for the accused's brutal crime. But it's now reached its nadir with Christchurch City Councillor Barry Corbett saying that he supports the murder of teenage taggers:

"If I was on the jury, I would let [the accused] get away with it, but that is just me,"
So, minor crimes by children, bad. Murder by adults, fine. What a hypocritical creep.

More wind

Meridian Energy have announced plans for a 71 MW wind farm, at Mill Creek, north-west of Wellington. They're currently in the pre-consent stage, but once complete it will bring generation in the Wellington area to 210 MW (more if Puketiro is also consented and completed), which should pretty much make Wellington self-sufficient for domestic supply.

Given its location, the project will likely face stiff opposition from the Makara loons, who will end up being basically surrounded by wind turbines. But it will almost certainly win consent, though it may have to sacrifice a few turbines in the process.

Climate change: reopening Motunui

The Taranaki Herald Daily News reports that Methanex is planning to reopen its Motunui methanol plant. The plant will manufacture up to 900,000 tons of methanol a year, which by my calculations (based on the figures in the 2006 National Inventory Report appendices) would add 705,000 T CO2-e to our annual emissions. It's a small fraction of our total - around 0.1% - but it will still need to be covered by the purchase of carbon credits. And as Methanex is likely to be in and out before industrial emissions are brought into the ETS in 2010, the taxpayer is likely to be left holding the bag, to the tune of $10.5 (if you believe Treasury's figures) to $21 (if you use realistic ones) million per year. That's a lot of hip operations we'll be forgoing to effectively subsidise a multinational corporation's profits.

This is simply unacceptable. I take it as axiomatic that companies should pay the full cost of their activities, rather than being allowed to externalise them and dump them on the rest of society. Unfortunately, thanks to the government's previous failure to implement policy, its slow schedule for implementing the ETS, and its utter refusal to allow the RMA to be used as a stopgap measure in the meantime, that is exactly what Methanex will be allowed to do.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Boot camps don't work

This morning, John Key suggest that the country deal with youth crime by sending young offenders away to boot camps to have some discipline bullied into them. However, there's a problem: it doesn't work:

“International evidence demonstrates that military style courses at best have no impact on reducing offending and at worst increase offending rates.

“In New Zealand, boot camps run under Corrective Training had a reoffending rate of 92 per cent. Consequently they were abolished when Labour came into office.

(Emphasis added, and Goff is wrong; the re-offending rate was actually 94.5% after 4 years. By way of comparison the re-offending rate of first-time offenders imprisoned after their first offence (i.e. exactly the sort of people expected to be sent to Correctional Training for a "short, sharp, shock") was around 80%. In other words, boot camp increased reoffending).

I think that speaks for itself about the sanity of Key's proposals. Like work for dole, boot camps are grossly counterproductive and empirically unsustainable. But then, the aim seems more to be to appear tough and pander to paedophobes (particularly elderly NZ First voters) than to actually do anything about the problem.

Climate change: the media and the scientific consensus

Why has the world - and in particular the US - been so slow to act on climate change? There has been a scientific consensus since the 1995 IPCC Second Assessment Report that climate change is both human caused and a serious concern, a consensus that has only grown stronger over time. Unfortunately, this consensus hasn't been reflected in the media. That's the conclusion of a paper [PDF] by Maxwell Boykoff in the journal Climatic Change earlier this month. Boykoff studied television news clips on climate change from 1995 to 2004, and categorised them according to whether they presented humans as having a significant or negligent influence on the climate, or took a balanced view and presented both sides. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the stories - 69.33% - fell into the latter category (only 2.67% were outright denialist). But while this is textbook journalism, it is also fatally misleading about the issue:

The institutionalized and professional journalistic practice of balanced reporting has served to amplify a minority view that human’s role in climate change is debated or negligent, and has concurrently engendered an appearance of increased uncertainty regarding anthropogenic climate science. This ‘policy-relevant’ information, in turn, enters a highly contested arena when it permeates climate policy discourse and is used in policy decision-making. When mass media coverage distorts rather than clarifies scientific understanding of anthropogenic climate change, it can greatly impact how U.S. federal policy actors both perceive and approach actions and remedies.
(Emphasis added)

It would be interesting to see a similar study for New Zealand, but I suspect that it would produce the same dismal result.

This is a general problem with the reporting of scientific issues, and its not going to go away. Journalists are going to have to find a better way of reporting thse issues than the absurdly misleading "An eminent scientist says the world is round; here's someone from the Flat Earth Society who disagrees". Both the public and politicians depend on the media to inform debate, and on climate change at least, they seem tohave fundamentally failed in that task.

New Fisk

Eight dead, and echoes of Beirut's bloody history reverberate around its streets

John Key chooses his target

In 2005, Don Brash tried to win an election by waging a divisive campaign of hate targeted at Maori. Fortunately for New Zealand, it didn't work. Unfortunately, John Key seems to have decided to use the same tactic, and now he's chosen his target: young New Zealanders, a group conveniently unable to vote and hence unable to defend themselves at the ballot box. His speech today was dripping with paedophobia, portraying an us vs. them scenario of New Zealand against its own children, and promising brutal solutions to protect "us" ("people like you and me" - older, white, New Zealanders) from "them" ("teenage parents", "illiterate and innumerate school leavers", and other young people). Harsher sentences, electronic tagging, parenting orders, plus of course the old conservative chestnut, boot camps. "Send 'em all to the army to learn some discipline, that'll sort 'em out". But in case someone forgot to tell granddad, they're not actually allowed to beat people in the army anymore like they were in his day. And no, Key hasn't forgotten National's uber-policy of looting the state - these camps will be contracted out to private providers, meaning that we will effectively get private youth prisons (with all the evil that entails) in New Zealand.

But we shouldn't think that Key isn't compassionate: he's also promising to cut off benefits for young people who are not in work (in which case they don't need them) or in training. But as Russell points out, Key's nightmare of "16- and 17-year-olds being able to leave school and drift along aimlessly while being financially supported by the Government" is a fantasy. Young people are only eligible for benefits if they are partnered with children, or genuinely unable to fall back on their parents for support (for example, because they have fled an abusive family). Government support seems well-justified in both cases, and Key's preferred tactic of threatening starvation doesn't seem like a good solution to either.

In short, this is the same old National Party: divisive, punitive, vicious, and bullying those unable to defend themselves. And I'm glad Key has finally made it clear to the public.

Monday, January 28, 2008

No tears for Suharto

So, Suharto is dead. As with other despots, I won't be shedding any tears for him. The man was a corrupt and brutal dictator, who looted his country to enrich himself and his cronies and kept his nation in fear for the 32 years of his rule. He was a mass-murderer, responsible for the deaths of over half a million communists and Indonesian Chinese in the bloody purges which followed his rise to power. And he ordered the invasion and occupation of Timor Leste - an occupation which the UN has said amounted to genocide. Sadly, he died before he could be held accountable for any of these crimes - but at least he won't be causing Indonesia any further problems.

Something to go to in Wellington

Te Papa and the VUW Centre for Public Law are once again holding their annual Treaty debates to explore the Treaty of Waitangi and its place in New Zealand today. The first debate will be held this Thursday (31 January), and feature Dr Matthew Palmer and Professor Mason Durie. The second will be next week (7 February), with Dr Charles Royal and Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres. Both will be held in Te Papa's Soundings Theatre, at 18:30; entry is free.

Hessen state elections and political strategies

The German state of Hessen went to the polls over the weekend to elect a new state government. The contest was interesting because rather than the left succumbing to Blairism and shifting to the right in an effort to minimise their political differences, they instead offered a clear choice between a right running a divisive campaign based on the hatred of immigrants and "communists", and a left promising better schools, a minimum wage, and a shift to renewable energy.

The results [Translated from German] are now in, and while no-one is a clear winner yet (German states use proportional representation, and there are tricky coalition negotiations ahead), there is at least one clear loser: Roland Koch and the Christian Democrats. They've gone from a near majority of 48.8% to a virtual tie with the Social Democrats on 36.8%, and will almost certainly end up losing power as a result. And this doesn't bode well for Angela Merkel's chances next year.

But there's also an obvious local application: the success of the SPD in Hessen shows that a left party can do well by standing up for what it believes in rather than cuddling up to the right. And by doing so it can also change the tone of politics, and shift the political discussion in our direction, and away from the right-wing rhetoric of tax-cuts, immigrant-bashing, and pandering to the rich. If Labour wants any hope of a fourth term, it needs to do exactly that. People are not going to turn out to support a party which offers only more of the same, a slower creep to the right than National does. Neither will they see any great reason not to vote for change. If Labour wants to win this year, it needs to actually inspire people, give them reason to vote for it, offer popular policies that National never could, or which (better yet) bring National's ugly service-slashing side to the surface again. Pallid centrism and "don't change horses in mid stream" just won't be enough.

The question is whether Labour will learn that lesson in time, or continue down its current path.

(European Tribune has more on the Hessen election - and that in Lower Saxony - here).

Election funding: a martyr in his own mind

So, Andrew Moore has been forced by the Electoral Finance Act to pull his website which encouraged people to vote against the government, saying that he couldn't afford lawyers fees or the fine if he was prosecuted. Of course, there was another option available to him: he could have complied with the law. The requirements for doing so were not onerous - adding a statement setting out his name and address - and would have historically been required if he had published his advertisement in any other medium. But apparently, that was too much for him, so instead he has chosen to play the martyr and silence himself instead.

This is not something anyone should have any sympathy for. The requirement that electoral advertisements (and his website undoubtedly fell into that category) bear the name and address of those responsible for them is longstanding, and goes all the way back to the 1956 version of the law. The Electoral Finance Act simply updated it and ensured that the law kept pace with technology. Political discussion and advertising have moved online - the various party blogs and websites are proof of that - and the law should follow. An advertisement is an advertisement, and it should be regulated as such, regardless of what medium it is published in. Otherwise we are simply opening ourselves up to a situation in which parties can spend unlimited amounts of dirty money online in an effort to buy elections - something which would be deeply corrosive of our democracy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

New Fisk

Visions that come to men as they sleep

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Must read

Eric Schlosser: The Prison-Industrial Complex. It's absolutely horrifying, more so because we're so clearly bringing it here.

FPP still alive at the Herald

From the Herald this morning: minor parties disrupt two-horse race:

The election picture is becoming complicated, with a Herald-DigiPoll survey showing the gap between National and Labour narrowing - and the Greens and the Maori Party wielding influence over who will form the next government.
How dare they!

But of course this is how the system is supposed to work - parties wield influence over government formation in proportion to their share of the vote, and the result may more depend on post-election coalition negotiations and a party's ability to make friends more than its direct share of the vote. It hasn't been a "two-horse race" for twelve years; you'd think the news would have sunk in at our self-proclaimed newspaper of record by now.

Easton on Privatisation

This week's Listener has an interesting piece by Brian Easton on The "P" Word - privatisation - in which he hooks into both the history and ideology of privatisation in New Zealand:

Sometimes a private monopoly under rigorous regulation will give a better outcome. Sometimes production can be a combination of public and private supply. That was the idea behind public-private partnerships (PPPs) where the private sector provided the capital (say, a school or hospital) that the public sector used. I may be seeing biased samples, but whether they come from Australia, the UK or the US, many of these arrangements have been a financial disaster to the public purse because the risks were stacked against it. Too often the private provider had little incentive to minimise that risk.

Unfortunately the pro-privatisation side of the debate is dominated by business advocates, or their acolytes, who are the beneficiaries of the transfer from the public sector. They claim that privatisation generates greater efficiency, but there is surprisingly little evidence of this. An OECD survey concluded that the efficiency gains came from corporatisation when the government tightened up the running of the public enterprise.

Gains from selling such businesses were much less clear. If there are no national gains from the privatisation, the considerable private profits are made at the public expense of inferior services, higher prices and running down the capital asset. That is what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Not a few of today’s millionaires were the beneficiaries.

As for the theory that private businesses are more efficient than corporatised public enterprises because their managers are under greater pressure from the threat of a sharemarket takeover, it has no adequate empirical underpinning. Recently, one of its proponents, Michael Jensen, seems to have backed down, because firms behaved differently when his theories were put to the test.

Unfortunately, that evidence doesn't seem to have reached the National Party, who still advocate part-privatisation of New Zealand's infrastructure monopolies and oligopolies on exactly those grounds. But then, that seems to be more about transferring revenue from the government to private pockets, rather than any real concerns about these businesses (which return massive dividends to the government) being run "badly". Easton reaches the same conclusion:
General privatisation is not a policy. It is a substitute for a policy, an excuse to dole out generous returns to one’s friends at the expense of the public.
This sort of looting of the state is not something we should permit to happen again in New Zealand. But preventing it means either refusing to elect National until it swears off any attempt to enrich its friends, or ensuring they are saddled with a coalition partner who will pull the plug at the first sign of such corruption.

New kiwi blog

Climate Kiwi - climate change news from Aotearoa and around the world.

(Hat tip: Frogblog)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Not even the Christians want Gordon Copeland

It looks no-one wants Gordon Copeland. First, there was his embarassing fallout with Destiny New Zealand. Now, his own party, Future New Zealand, has decided to dispense with his leadership, and even changed their name in an effort to disassociate themselves from him. Copeland is trying to but a brave face on it, but it seems his former colleagues don't really want him. How sad.

Climate change: the false goal of emissions intensity

Over on PASystem, Don Christie asks the obvious question in response to our dismal progress on reducing emissions: "what about emissions intensity?" Firstly, our emissions intensity has indeed improved over the years, as shown in the graph below:

(Source: emissions from National Inventory Report; GDP in constant 1995/96 dollars from

The problem is, firstly, that it has not improved by enough (that lack of policy again) - in order to generate today's GDP on 1990's emissions, it'd need to be over $2,000 / ton of CO2. But more importantly, intensity is a false goal. If we are to deal with the problem of climate change, we need to actually reduce emissions. If we are to maintain the same standard of living while doing so, we must significantly improve intensity. But that alone isn't enough, because it is perfectly possible to improve intensity while spewing even more carbon into the atmosphere. And that is exactly what has happened in New Zealand over the last decade.

Basically, intensity targets give the illusion of progress while doing nothing at all to address the real problem. And that is why I prefer to focus on gross and net emissions.

But there's also another type of carbon intensity we can measure - emissions per capita. And on that front, New Zealand hasn't been doing very well at all:

(Source: emissions from National Inventory Report; population figures from

Despite all our progress in making more money per ton of carbon emitted, we now emit almost a ton more per person than we did in 1991. Again, this can be an illusory statistic - per capita emissions can reduce while emissions rise if the population is growing - but it captures the essential task better than GDP does. If we are to deal with the problem, we need to get per capita emissions heading steadily downwards. And in the long term, they need to reduce by well over 50%.

The good news is that now New Zealand has policy, which should prod the economy (and hence people's emissions) in the right direction. But it'll take a few years before it is all fully implemented, and there are serious questions as to whether it will be enough to produce the necessary reductions.

Time to increase student allowances

Tertiary education Minister Pete Hodgson has hinted that he might increase student allowances in the budget. Good. As the story points out, it hasn't been adjusted for many years, and desperately needs to be. But while increasing payments will improve the lot of those students lucky enough to receive them, it won't do much to reduce those staggering debt levels, due to the simple fact that very few students are eligible for assistance. According to the Ministry of Education [XLS], almost half a million people participated in tertiary education in 2006, 307,000 of them full-time or full-year (and thus meeting the most basic eligibility criteria of being a "full-time student" in one sense or another). But of those, only 59,000 - one in five - received any form of assistance. And that number has been dropping steadily as incomes have risen while eligibility thresholds have remained static.

So, while a Good Thing, increasing allowances won't do anything at all to help the 80% of students who don't receive them, and who are responsible for most student debt. If we want to do that, we need to significantly broaden eligibility. Adjusting income thresholds so they reflect the current economic situation, rather than that of 1992, would be a start. But ultimately, re-universalisation should be the goal. No-one should have to borrow for food and rent in this country, and I'd have thought a Labour government would recognise that fact.

Another corrupt New Labour minister falls

Peter Hain, UK Work and Pensions Secretary and Secretary of State for Wales, has resigned after the Electoral Commission announced it was referring allegations that he had violated election finance laws and accepted over 100,000 pounds of donations without proper disclosure to the police.

Good riddance. And now if New Labour can end its toadying to wealth, maybe the people can have their party back.

Lying their way to war

We all know now that the Bush Administration lied its way to war in 2003, repeating endlessly the twin allegations that "Saddam was in bed with Osama" and "Saddam had WMD", neither of which had any basis in reality. Now, five years on, the Center for Public Integrity has documented the lies that led to war and compiled them into a database which both lists what was said publicly, and compares it with what was being said in private. Their major finding?

President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.
They even have a handy graph showing the lies by month:

(Click for a larger version).

A decade ago, the US tried to impeach its President for lying about a blowjob. Bush lied his way into a war which has so far killed hundreds of thousands. He shouldn't just be impeached - he should be tried for crimes against peace and imprisoned for the rest of his life.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

New Fisk

A lesson in how to create Iraqi orphans. And then how to make life worse for them

Bad timing and sustainability

National's Nick Smith has opened his political year by attacking the government's record on sustainability. Unfortunately, he chose the day when we learned that New Zealand had been ranked the 7th most sustainable country in the world (and more importantly, miles ahead of Australia and the US) according to the World Economic Forum's 2008 Environmental Performance Index.

What's missing from the Herald's recycled wire story is that in 2006, we ranked first. However, the index has changed significantly since then, most notably by the inclusion of indicators on climate change. And one thing Smith got right in his speech was that our performance in that area has been less than stellar, with the continued failure to implement policy seeing emissions continuing to rise (unmentioned by Smith is his own party's role in that failure, both by foot-dragging in the 90's and its tooth-and-nail opposition to serious action over the last seven years. Even today, it steadfastly refuses to confront our major source of emissions, instead promising its farming base a free ride at taxpayer expense. but I digress...) However, on that front at least, things are looking up, and it looks like we will finally get a price on carbon within the next year, coupled with some serious regulatory measures to ban coal-fired power plants and reduce transport emissions. This still puts us well behind the European nations topping the rankings - they've had carbon taxes and vehicle emissions standards for over a decade, with a corresponding effect on their emissions - but it is at least a serious start.

The 2008 Environmental Performance Index can be found here. 2006 data is here.

One less pest

Yesterday, I chopped down the sycamore tree growing in my yard. While I like trees, and this one was large enough to provide a bit of privacy and shade, sycamores are a pest species banned from sale and propagation in much of the country. While they're a marvel of evolution, their masses of "helicopter" seeds mean they spread like wildfire and have a nasty habit of colonising and then crowding out native bush. In Wellington, reserves along the Hutt hills are slowly being taken over by them; closer to home, environmental groups have been clearfelling them from blocks of native bush in an effort to stop them from taking over entirely. I don't want to be part of this environmental problem, so there was nothing for it but to chop the thing down and bag up the seeds for disposal. Fortunately it was small enough that I didn't feel too guilty.

In its place, I think I'll plant a Kowhai, as soon as I figure out which variety I should be putting here.

Time to clean up local body politics II

Over the last month I've been making some noise about the need for Electoral Finance Act-style transparency provisions to be applied to local body politics. Last Friday, the Manawatu Standard provided a perfect example of why they are necessary, by revealing the identity of the "anonymous" backer behind Palmerston North mayor Jono Naylor's purchase of his office (sadly offline). It turns out that this backer - city real estate developer and L J Hooker franchisee Keith Marriott - wasn't exactly unknown to Naylor, having donated $5,700 through his business as well. The trust was used simply to prevent the public from finding out that one man had funded more than 95% of Naylor's campaign.

Naylor immediately announced that he would not be voting on issues involving his campaign financier, saying that this was "not a legal requirement" but was necessary "to ensure people can be confident of my impartiality". Unfortunately, Marriot has already got his payoff. Last month, and just after his election expenses were announced, Naylor debated and voted for a planning change applied for by another trust run by... Keith Marriott. This raised eyebrows at the time, given Marriott's contributions through his business to Naylor's campaign and L J Hookers' benefiting from the project, but Naylor denied that there was any conflict of interest. Now it turns out that there was, and a pretty major one at that. While it's not clear exactly how much money Marriott will make, from a major subdivision you can bet it will be a lot more than $36,000. Which means he's more than got his money's worth. As for Naylor, it's worth noting that his sudden interest in impartiality arose only after he got caught. If his backer had not been revealed, he'd have been quite happy to keep the relationship - and his enormous conflicts of interest - secret. So much for Christian ethics.

This sort of corruption should not be tolerated in our local government. Unfortunately, by allowing the identities of donors to be kept secret (through either "anonymous" donations or laundering trusts), the current law pretty much encourages it. How many other local body politicians are corruptly selling us out to their "anonymous" donors? We simply have no way of knowing.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we want to prevent corruption in local body politics, then we need to start by preventing anonymous and laundered donations and identifying every donor. Otherwise, our existing protections against conflicts of interest are a bad joke. Beyond that, we also need to amend the Local Authorities (Members' Interests) Act 1968 to prevent local authority members from discussing or voting on issues affecting their major campaign donors, and to increase the (derisory) penalties for doing so. Otherwise, we are simply inviting corruption, and the outright purchase of local government by the rich.

Election funding: now there's a surprise...

It turns out that Peter Shirtcliffe, Hollow Man extrodinaire and with something of a history of setting up front organisations to undermine democracy in this country, is bankrolling the anti-Electoral Finance Act "Free Speech Coalition". And in similar news, it seems that other Hollow Men - the Talley Brothers, who offered to run a $1 million parallel campaign in support of Don Brash in violation of existing electoral laws - are bankrolling Tim Shadbolt's little exercise in martyrdom. What these people have in common, of course, is the desire to buy political influence, elections, and ultimately policies beneficial to themselves and their equally rich mates through waving around scads of dirty money (as Shirtcliffe almost managed to do during the 1993 MMP referendum). The Electoral Finance Act limits their ability to do this, so it is no surprise at all that they oppose it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Disenfranchising the poor

DPF responds to my criticisms of the UK electoral enrolment system with some criticisms of his own directed at New Zealand's system. he concludes by saying

I can’t think of a system more open to abuse than one with no eligibility check for enrolment, no proof of ID for enrolment and no proof of ID for voting.
Let's look at the facts here. According to the Justice and Electoral Committee's Inquiry into the 2005 General Election, a total of three cases of enrolment fraud were detected during the 2005 election. All were reported to the police. 21 cases of dual voting were discovered during the 2005 election, and these were also reported to the police. The conclusion is that voter and enrolment fraud in New Zealand is relatively rare. Despite this, the National Party (and its mouthpieces like DPF) insist that we must require physical ID at all stages of the electoral process. Here's what the Electoral Enrolment Centre had to say about that:
One possible solution to dual voting and other forms of identity fraud during the enrolment and voting processes is to require voters to produce proof of identity before enrolling and voting. This option might reduce the relatively small incidence of electoral and voter fraud. However, requiring proof of eligibility might result in more people choosing not to vote. The Electoral Enrolment Centre told us that requiring a person to produce proof of eligibility when applying to enrol or vote would create a significant barrier to participation. Voter turnout has generally decreased since the 1987 general election, and such a requirement might result in further decline.
Which is of course the point. But it's not just about reducing turnout generally, but about reducing turnout amongst those more likely to support the left. The blunt fact is that the poor are less likely than the rich to have the required forms of ID or be comfortable dealing with bureaucracy, and thus less likely to be able to vote under such a system. Which is exactly what National wants. This isn't about preventing fraud - which is virtually nonexistent in New Zealand - but about disenfranchising the poor by stealth.

(The Republicans in the US are particularly bad at this as well. Kevin Drum has some good stuff on it here and here).

Unlike those on the right, I believe in democracy. One person, one vote, regardless of wealth. I think it is vitally important that every eligible voter - every New Zealand citizen or resident - is able to express themselves on election day and have their say in who gets to govern us. Obviously, our electoral authorities should take precautions to prevent fraud, and they do: every enrolment is cross-checked, and dual voting is easily detected and the votes disqualified. Those checks are reasonable and justified. What is not justified is erecting barriers to democratic participation in an effort to shift the result. National's friends in America may think that is acceptable electoral politics; New Zealanders do not.

How not to run an election system

The Council of Europe is criticising the UK's electoral system as open to fraud. It's an appalling indictment of a modern democracy, but then when I read the specifics, it seems the problem is that the UK just isn't that modern in its electoral processes. Rather than having individual registration like New Zealand does, the UK handles electoral enrolment on a household level. Apparently, once a year they send someone round, and the "head of household" (itself a fairly archaic concept) tells them who lives there. The potential for the creation of bogus enrolments is obvious, and compounded by the limited ability of electoral officials to conduct checks. Throw in a recent move to push postal and proxy voting to boost enrolments, and the entire system is looking highly vulnerable. It needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st (or even 20th) century, before these flaws are exploited.

Compensating the stolen generation

Last year when an aboriginal man succeeded in winning compensation from the South Australian government for being forcibly taken from his parents as a child as part of a plan to assimilate and eradicate his people, I commented that any real compensation for the Stolen Generation would have to come through a political process - something I didn't view as particularly likely, given the pervasive racism of Australian society and its deep level of denial about its crimes against its indigenous people. But it turns out I was wrong - Tasmania's state government had already established a compensation fund for the Stolen Generation back in 2006. And sometime this week, they'll finally be paying out to the 106 people found to be eligible for compensation.

The amount of money received - AU$58,000 - is much lower than that gained by Bruce Trevorrow through legal action. OTOH, the reason Trevorrow was successful was because the South Australian government had behaved illegally - which was the exception rather than the rule. The horrifying thing about the Stolen generation was that this policy of slow genocide by separation was generally conducted entirely legally, and thus it is not something the courts can really do anything about. Tasmania's offer of compensation sidesteps that problem. More importantly, it acknowledges that what the government did was wrong - the first step to real reconciliation.

I'm now waiting to see if any of the other Australian states follow Tasmania's lead on this. But I'm not exactly holding my breath.

Supporting theocracy in Afghanistan

Sayad Parwez Kambaksh is a journalism student at Balkh University in Afghanistan. Last year, he downloaded a paper criticising Islam off the internet and discussed it with his lecturers and classmates. And for that, he has been sentenced to death.

So much for the idea that the Karzai government is a modernising force which will guarantee basic human rights. Rather, it's clear that Afghanistan has no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion, and no freedom of academic inquiry, which stages unfair trials and imposes draconian sentences for spurious "crimes". And we're supporting that. Currently, New Zealand has a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan Province, which is indirectly helping NATO to prop up this government.

We simply shouldn't be doing this anymore. We'd never send troops to prop up Iran's theocracy (quite rightly, too), and we shouldn't send them to prop up Afghanistans. Instead, we should bring them home.

(Hat tip: JimBobby)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The obvious question

If our absentee monarchy won't perform even their ceremonial functions for us, why do we still keep them around?

Isn't it time we recognised the actual situation - that the Governor-General is de facto head of state - rather than continuing the charade?

More from Moore

Former Prime Minister Mike Moore follows up on his piece last week in which he proposed a constitutional convention with a second piece in which he responds to his critics. In doing so, he makes it crystal clear that his proposal is aimed primarily at "throw[ing] some sand in the gearbox" and impeding any future move towards a republic:

Doing nothing is a valid option. The threshold must be very high, and the case overwhelming and compelling for any change.
Which again makes you wonder what sort of republic he thinks we're drifting towards. Despite Moore's insinuations, a shift to a republic does not mean reinventing our constitution from scratch. The expected model - in which we simply twink out the monarchy and Governor-General and replace it with an elected or appointed figurehead with exactly the same powers and constraints - is no change at all in a legal sense. A President in such a system would be able to do exactly what the current Governor-General can do: attend dinner parties, open Parliament, and sign whatever the Prime Minister puts in front of them. The reason for the shift is almost entirely symbolic, about asserting our independence, our belief in democracy, and our dignity as human beings 9things which a foreign monarchy is fundamentally incompatible with). This is obviously something which should be discussed and ultimately approved by the people. At the same time, the degree of change isn't anywhere near meriting Moore's uberconservative approach (and I'd regard the case for democracy and dignity as already having been made - something I'm sure Moore would agree). Moore's proposal then is simply an attempt to pre-emptively raise the bar and lock in current arrangements, a last gasp by a dying generation to maintain cultural dominance and strangle the future.

New Fisk

Film-makers must atone for their sins

Friday, January 18, 2008

Places to go, people to be

Up north, everyone is off to the Big Day Out. Meanwhile, I'm off to the gaming equivalent, which wil be smaller, quieter, and probably involve more tentacles. Normal bloggage will resume on Monday.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Another monarchical fiction

The New Zealand right seems to be quite fond of monarchical fictions about our constitution. Firstly, there's their persistent belief, trotted out every time Parliament passes legislation they don't like, that the Governor-General may refuse assent to legislation. Another, most recently voiced at The Hive, is their seeming belief that the Governor-General has some sort of "choice" who they appoint as Prime Minister:

This is election year. Most people believe that National will be the largest party in the new Parliament but only the very brave are saying that National will win more than 50% of the vote. Most people believe that the next Government will be determined by a coalition deal stitched up after the election. And it is quite possible that things will be very close in this coalition race. The Governor-General might well be confronted with a choice as to which side has formed the coalition/supply support agreement that is most likely work. It hasn't happened yet, but it could. Both Labour and National could be going to the GG to say that they can form a government. In these circumstances The Hive would rather have a totally impartial Chief Secretary at Government House rather than one who wants another three years of Labour. The Chief Secretary would be the first port of call for counsel for the GG.
This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Governor-General in government formation. According to longstanding constitutional convention (and sheer practicality), the governor-general "appoints as Prime Minister the leader of the party or group of parties that has, or appears to have, the support of the House of Representatives" (Cabinet Manual 1.17). This support can not just be claimed, as Queen Bee suggests, but must be confirmed by each party involved (4.36). So, this isn't something over which there can be uncertainty - either you have a majority, or you don't. And in situations where it is unclear, where the parties have not made it public who they will support, it is the Governor-general's job to wait for matters to become clear, rather than stepping in and choosing one side or the other as the winner.

(What happens if the Governor-General ignores convention and appoints whoever they want? The last time it happened - when William IV sacked his PM and appointed Sir Robert Peel in his place - the resulting "government" was simply unable to govern. Without a Parliamentary majority, it could not pass legislation, it could not appropriate funds, and lasted all of four months. After which it became crystal clear that the monarch (or their stand-in, in our case) simply couldn't do that sort of thing any more).

Of course, if we really wanted to end this fiction, we'd stop doing things arse-backwards in the manner of an absolute monarch deigning to recognise the people's choice, and have Parliament vote before a government is formally appointed. That way, there can be no disputing the outcome, and no question of where the support of the House lies.

Farewell to Nandor

Well, not yet, but he's just announced that he will not be seeking re-election. It's a shame - Nandor was an effective MP and a voice we needed in Parliament (not to mention great for pissing off the fuddy-duddies) - but as I said earlier, what he does with his life is his own business, and nine years in the Parliamentary zoo is more than we have any right to ask of anyone.

"Supporting Al Qaeda"

Since September 11, the US Republicans have been constantly alleging that by not backing their political program for wealth transfer and endless war, their political opponents have been "supporting Al Qaeda".

It now turns out that the exact opposite was the case. Mark Siljander, a former Republican Congressman, has been charged with laundering money for and obstructing a federal investigation into a charity with ties to Al Qaeda. I guess that's what happens when you put personal enrichment ahead of all other goals.

Somehow, though, I don't think this will silence the Republican sewer in its allegations and insinuations of "disloyalty".

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The sewer goes over the edge

For those who have forgotten, RedWatchNZ was a neo-Nazi hate site which aimed to "build a catalogue of information and pictures of the Left", including names, addresses, phone numbers, photographs, and pictures of their houses. They closed down early in 2007, something no-one was very sad about. Now, it seems Whale Oil has decided to move into their vacant niche, beginning a series exposing personal details of left-wing figures, starting with John Minto.

I've been worried for a while about the radicalisation of the right in New Zealand. The "mainstream" National Party seemed to have a conscious tactic last year of whipping up hate and pandering to the worst elements of the sewer. Well, this is where it gets them: hatelists and hitlists and people behaving like low-grade National Front thugs. And to those objecting to the comparison, I have only one thing to say: if you don't want to be compared to Nazis, don't behave like them.

New Fisk

Bloody reality bears no relation to the delusions of this President

Climate change: a trans-Tasman bubble?

The Press reports that Australian climate scientists are pushing for New Zealand and Australia to jointly implement their Kyoto obligations as part of a trans-Tasman "bubble". Such bubbles are permitted under article 4 of the Protocol, and result in the participants having a joint target internationally; how they split it amongst themselves is their own concern (so for example the EU sets different targets for each of its member states, while pursuing an overall goal of an 8% reduction from 1990 emissions).

The advantage to New Zealand in such an arrangement is obvious: Australia has a generous Kyoto target (an 8% increase on 1990 emissions), and they are currently meeting it. By contrast, New Zealand is failing to meet its target of reducing emissions to 1990 levels, and is currently looking at having to purchase credits on the international market to cover the shortfall. By my quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, Australia's savings would neatly cover our shortfall, so we'd pretty much get instant compliance as far as the international community was concerned.

What's not clear is what the advantage would be to Australia. Yes, it would demonstrate commitment etc, but the credits Australia would be using to cover our excess emissions are worth money, and such a deal could effectively cost them up to NZ$1 billion. So there'd be a lot of dickering over price, and how much we had to pay them to cover us.

Questions of interest aside, there are other advantages, primarily in the form of a joint emissions trading system, and possibly other joint action as well. This will improve the operation of the ETS (such markets work better the more participants there are), and help ensure the price of carbon is "right" (rather than being distorted by many sellers and few buyers, for example). OTOH, implementation might be delayed due to Australia's previous foot-dragging, which would be a disaster for New Zealand.

Overall, I think this is an option worth seriously pursuing. But I expect the Aussies will be a lot less keen on it than we are.


Last night, Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean took two Sea Shepherd activists hostage, beat them, and tied them to a mast so they were repeatedly immersed to freezing Antarctic sea water. This is a dangerous escalation in the violence used by the Japanese against those protesting against its actions. But it also shows their cruelty doesn't just extend to whales, but also to people. OTOH, this isn't anything new for Japan - one only has to remember their appalling treatment of POWs during WWII - and a perusal of past human rights reports show that they are still struggling at times to remove this legacy of cruelty from their justice system (though also moving in the right direction, albeit slowly).

Fortunately, it now looks like the hostages are going to be freed. But you really have to wonder what else the whalers are going to try this year...

George Bush doesn't care about freedom of speech

President Bush is visiting his good friends in Saudi Arabia at the moment (you know - the ones who whip rape victims, throw people in prison for peacefully seeking to change their government, executes more people than Texas, and has the death penalty for homosexuality and adultery). Given his claimed support for human rights in the Middle East, you'd expect Bush to be raising the case of imprisoned Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan. Unfortunately, it seems he's more interested in the price of oil than in freedom of speech...

Climate change: Antarctica is shrinking

More bad news on the climate front: contrary to earlier reports, Antarctica is shrinking:

A comprehensive study of Antarctica’s ice confirms that the polar cap is shrinking. In 2006 alone, Antarctica lost nearly 200 billion tonnes of ice, researchers say — the equivalent of a global sea level rise of more than half a millimetre. That’s 75% more than losses in 1996, they add.
The reason is that ice is flowing more swiftly down glaciers and into the sea. Meanwhile, contrary to expectations, there has been no growth in East Antarctica - the mass of that ice sheet has remained stable. The upshot is that we are probably looking at far greater rises in sea-level over the next century than the IPCC predicts, with a consequent effect on human lives.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Climate change: the market solution

The government is currently pursuing a market solution to climate change, with the goal of fully internalising the cost of carbon into the economy via emissions trading. But what would the effects of such policies look like? This:

High petrol prices have begun to bite into big-car sales, with surges in registrations for motorbikes and a significant slowdown in the 1600cc-plus vehicle category.

Figures supplied by Westpac show registrations for 1600cc to 2000cc cars dropped 5.5% in 2007, while gas guzzlers in the 2500cc to 5000cc range rose only 0.5% on the back of two years of "thumping growth" in registrations, says Westpac senior economist Doug Steel.

Motorcycle registrations rose 18.9% last year to 11,540 the highest increase for 20 years. On a monthly basis, motorbike registrations were 50% higher in October 2007 compared with October 2006.

As a share of the total market, sales of vehicles over 2000cc have dropped from 24.8% in 2004 to 20.7% last year, while under-1600cc cars have leapt from 20.9% in 2004 to 24.8% in 2007.

This is just in the road transport sector, and its the result of sustained high petrol prices caused by Bush's war and a global supply crunch, but after a couple of years it has already effectively flatlined growth in our domestic fuel consumption (the latest New Zealand Energy Statistics for the September 2007 quarter paint a similar picture). Internalising the cost of carbon will strengthen this signal, and encourage further shifts towards smaller, more efficient vehicles.

Internalising the cost of carbon should see a similar change throughout the entire economy, with new investment driven towards cleaner and more efficient options (which in turn will create a push to develop more such options). And that ultimately is an important part of how we are going to solve this problem: by using the market as a weapon against itself, to push consumption and investment in a more sustainable direction.

"A banana republic without the bananas"

That's where former Prime Minister Mike Moore thinks we'll end up if we don't stop our constitution from evolving. It's an interesting allegation, given that the expected endpoint of such evolution is a system exactly the same as the present one, only without the Queen. What does that make us now then? A banana monarchy?

Against a constitutional convention

In a think-piece in the Herald this morning, former Prime Minister Mike Moore floats the idea of a constitutional convention to manage constitutional change. He's concerned by the prospect of "ad hoc" or "populist" change, but reading between the lines he seems more interested in impeding change than in ensuring it is done properly. There's also an unhealthy tone of MMP-revanchism which suggests that in some cases he hopes his "eminent persons group" will take us backwards rather than forwards. But then, Moore and the political programme he represented is one of the main reasons we have MMP, so it's hardly surprising he wants to roll back the clock and return to the "good old days" of executive dictatorship, when a tiny clique could impose their political program on the rest of us, without having to worry about coalition partners, let alone the wider public. But I digress...

As the report of the Constitutional Arrangements Committee found two years ago, constitutional change in New Zealand has overwhelmingly been by a process of "pragmatic evolution" and tinkering with the core system as needed. And this is one of the strengths of our system, in that we can respond to constitutional challenges and problems as they arise. One of the problems with this process has been that Parliament has often failed to discuss such issues properly with the public (though again, I doubt anyone could make that claim of the switch to MMP, given that we forced it on them), and this is one of the itches Moore is attempting to scratch. However, his proposal for an "eminent persons group" is the very opposite of the public-driven process we need; it takes the constitution out of the hands of the people, and turns it into a plaything for the elite - who as we saw during the debate over MMP and their continued attempts to revive an upper house, have a very different idea about democracy and constitutional arrangements from the rest of us. While their findings would eventually be debated by an elected constitutional convention, leavened of course with a bunch of MPs and unelected "eminent persons" (who while they will not be able to vote, are explicitly intended to have an influence on the outcome without any democratic mandate to do so), the nature of their selection puts them at some remove from the public. A citizen's jury, randomly selected from the electorate, and with a primary goal of driving public engagement and debate and so a sense of public ownership, is a far more democratic mechanism for discussing major changes such as the final shift to a republic.

But the biggest flaw in Moore's proposal is the belief that we can and should try and solve all of our constitutional questions all at once. We can't, and neither should we try to. Every generation effectively remakes its constitution anew, and questions arise constantly as the balance of ideas - and power - shifts. The idea that we can solve these problems once and for all, so that they will never arise again, and institute a form of government perfect for all eternity is nothing but a pipe dream. We have only to look at the US to see the results of such a utopian belief: ossification, and a constitutional structure burdened with the skeletons of 18th century issues. A robust constitutional structure allows evolution to meet the challenges of the times, rather than strangling everyone with the dead hand of the past.

This does not mean that I think constitutional change should be made in an ad-hoc manner, without public consultation - far from it. I simply think it should be done by evolution, rather than revolution, with issues addressed as they arise, and the public involved every step of the way. And if this process results in changes which end up not working in the long run, we can always change them again. Our constitution should be a living thing, which grows to respond to the challenges of the times, not something embalmed in a tomb.

As for Moore's proposal it is undemocratic, revolutionary, and ignores the fundamental need for constant change. And that is why I am against it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Election funding: trolling for prosecution II

So, Tim Shadbolt is intent on getting himself prosecuted so he can challenge the Electoral Finance Act, and is planning on publishing an ad telling people to vote for a particular candidate and party without authorisation from them, and without any disclosure statement setting out his name and address. But before anyone starts considering him a martyr for free speech, it's worth remembering that this was an offence under the old law, which has simply been repeated in the new. Section 221 of the Electoral Act 1993 reads:

1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3) of this section, no person shall publish or cause or permit to be published in any newspaper, periodical, poster, or handbill, or broadcast or cause or permit to be broadcast over any radio or television station, any advertisement which—

(a) Is used or appears to be used to promote or procure the election of a constituency candidate; or

(b) Encourages or persuades or appears to encourage or persuade voters to vote for a party registered under Part 4 of this Act.

(2) A person may publish or cause or permit to be published an advertisement of the kind described in subsection (1)(a) of this section if—

(a) The publication of that advertisement is authorised in writing by the candidate or the candidate's agent or, in the case of an advertisement relating to more than one candidate, the candidates or the party to which they belong; and

(b) The advertisement contains a statement setting out the true name of the person for whom or at whose direction it is published and the address of his or her place of residence or business.

This wasn't a new imposition in 1993 either - it goes back at least to the 1956 Act. As for why we have it, it is necessary to enforce spending limits; without it candidates could easily avoid their cap by using a third party campaign as a front (as National did with the Exclusive Brethren and Fair Tax lobby in 2005).

The upshot is that what Shadbolt is planning has always been illegal, and if he'd published such an advertisement before the 2005, 2002, or indeed the 1960 election, he'd have been prosecuted, just as he will be now.

New kiwi blog

NewZblog - "a fine blend of politics with a left twist".

Pinker on the roots of ethics

Stephen Pinker has a fantastic piece in the New York Times today on The Moral Instinct. It's a good explanation of what evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers (well, those who aren't fundamentally opposed to an empirical investigation of ethics) have learned about our moral sense and conflicting moral impulses.

As for what it means, Pinker points out that those impulses are no the be-all and end-all of morality, and that reason plays a role well beyond just filling in the gaps. Morality is, in the words of Plato, "no small matter, but how we ought to live". In a world where people have different values and different weightings on their moral impulses, reason and impartiality becomes the arbiter, at least if we wish to have any hope of living together.

What science tells us is the roots of our moral impulses, why we are predisposed to think in a certain way. It doesn't tell us how to resolve conflicts between these impulses, which (if any) we should privilege or listen to, or why. Like any other sense, or moral senses are falliable, and prone to misfiring; this means we must always question them and assess whether our natural reaction is justified. So, we still need to keep on thinking, and keep on arguing. The difference is that we'll know ourselves a little better.

A public holiday for Sir Ed?

The Greens are proposing that Sir Edmund Hillary's birthday be commemorated as a Mondayised public holiday. I think its a great idea. Sir Ed is a New Zealander who deserves recognition, and such a holiday would fall neatly into the winter gap when we don't have any. It would also provide a holiday which isn't about other people's gods or killing people, on which we can celebrate life and recreation, which isn't a bad thing IMHO.

Where can we sign a petition?

Dealing with dirty dairying

The Northland Regional Council seems to have the right idea on dealing with dirty dairying: they've been bringing prosecutions. In the first, a sharemilker who let his effluent pond overflow into a stream for a week was convicted and fined $23,000. And they're threatening more prosecutions to clean up other dairy farms in their area.

If only more councils had the balls to enforce the law, rather than cringing in the face of an industry which seems to believe in a god-given right to poison our environment...

Wishful thinking

Yesterday's Herald carried a column from peter Neilson of the NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development, presenting the results of the latest research from online polling company ShapeNZ. Among the "findings" was the suggestion of a possible deal with the Greens for bold tax reform:

A National-Green- Maori Party-New Zealand First-ACT party cross deal on bringing in a new single tax rate of 20 cents in the dollar, funded by increasing GST from 12.5 to 20% - is most favoured by voters for these parties.


ShapeNZ asked people to chose between three tax reform options: cutting top personal income tax rates from 39c to 30c; cutting the top personal and corporate tax rates to 28 cents, or introducing a single rate of 20 cents, paid for by increasing GST from 12.5% to 20% (while fully compensating people of low incomes and benefits for price rises resulting from the GST increase).

The 20cents in the dollar option is the one most favoured by Green Voters (27%, compared with 6% for the 30c and 14% for the 28c options), ACT (53%), NZ First (35%) and Maori Party (37%).

I put the scare-quotes around "findings" because ShapeNZ uses a self-selecting sample for its surveys, weighted for age, gender, income and various other variables in order to make it "representative". This methodology is fundamentally unsound, and would be rejected by any self-respecting social scientist as having a high chance of producing significantly skewed results. It is basically a Stuff poll, and should be regarded as having the same level of reliability (i.e. none at all).

But even if you believe in ShapeNZ's voodoo methodology (in which case I know a finance company who wants some money), there's a second reason for doubting these "results" - namely that they are inconsistent with survey results taken on the same topic by the same method just three months ago. Back then, the tax option Neilson is touting was overwhelmingly rejected [DOC] by a similarly non-random sample, with 60% opposing it (most strongly) and only 17% expressing any support. So, either there's been a massive shift in public opinion in the absence of any real debate (or indeed, any mention of these particular tax options outside of these surveys), or one (or more) of these "polls" must be wrong.

But questions on methodology aside, I think the suggestion that the Greens and NZ First would ally with National and ACT to resurrect Roger Douglas's December 1987 tax package is just pure wishful thinking on (former Rogernome) Neilson's part. There's not even a suggestion they would back such a policy in their respective tax policies (Greens, NZ First), it is fundamentally incompatible with their commitments to social justice, and it would likely be regarded as a betrayal by their voters. Either party, or both, may be able to form a coalition deal with National after the election, but I really can't see this sort of tax policy as being any part of such a deal.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

All in a day's work

US President George Bush, October 5, 2007:

This government does not torture people.
Judgement of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Shafiq Rasul et al v Richard Meyers et al [PDF], January 11, 2008:
The plaintiffs concede that the “torture, threats, physical and psychological abuse inflicted” on them, which were allegedly approved, implemented, supervised and condoned by the defendants, were “intended as interrogation techniques to be used on detainees.” Compl. ¶ 141. In fact, as the district court correctly noted, “the complaint alleges torture and abuse tied exclusively to the plaintiffs’ detention in a military prison and to the interrogations conducted therein.” 414 F. Supp. 2d at 34. Under Ballenger, then, the underlying conduct—here, the detention and interrogation of suspected enemy combatants—is the type of conduct the defendants were employed to engage in.


While it may generally be unexpected that seriously criminal conduct [in this case, torture - I/S] will arise “in the prosecution of the business,” here it was foreseeable that conduct that would ordinarily be indisputably “seriously criminal” would be implemented by military officials responsible for detaining and interrogating suspected enemy combatants.

(Emphasis added) Or, in other words, torture - a criminal act under US and international law - is now all in a day's work for the US military.

(Hat tip: Talkleft)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Guantanamo: another year of silence

For the past six years, the US government has been detaining, abusing, and torturing suspected terrorists at its gulag at Guantanamo Bay in gross violation of international law and basic standards of human rights. The New Zealand government likes to hold itself up as a strong voice for both, so what have we said about this crime?

Still nothing. In fact, according to Prime Minister Helen Clark, the issue is not on her agenda.

The policy of shameful, sycophantic silence continues...

Guantanamo: six years of shame

Today is the sixth anniversary of the opening of the US gulag at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, During those six years, 775 people have been detained without trial; 305 of them are still there. Despite endless promises that the prisoners would be put on trial, and a review process that has ranged from the farcical to the Kafkaesque, only 10 of them have ever been charged, and only one - Australian David Hicks, who plead guilty in order to return to Australia - convicted. The rest have languished there, without charge, without trial, without hope, in what has become one of the greatest symbols of America's decline into despotism. And this despite the fact that less than half of them are even accused of committing hostile acts against the US or its allies.

Guantanamo violates two of the most basic principles of human rights: that everyone, no matter what they are accused of, is entitled to a fair trial, and that no-one, no matter what they have done, should be detained arbitrarily or tortured. These rights go back a long way; they were some of the first human rights principles recognised in the western world. Once upon a time, the US regarded them as worth going to war over. Now it has joined the Chinese, Uzbeks, Saudis, and other leading examples of human rights in pissing all over them. Unlike them, it doesn't even have the decency to be ashamed about it.

Guantanamo is an obscenity and a symbol of the corruption of America. Six years on, there can be only one response: Guantanamo delenda est - Guantanamo must be closed.

Friday, January 11, 2008

You can't make this stuff up

The FBI has had an international wiretap under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - used for listening in on terrorists and foreign agents - cut off due to unpaid bills.

Don't they know that if you don't pay your phone bill, the terrorists win?


So, a new study by the Iraqi Ministry of Health for the WHO says that the Iraq war has killed an estimated 151,000 Iraqis - only a quarter of the figure from the 2006 Lancet study. So, rather than killing ~2.5% of the prewar population of Iraq, Bush's war has only killed ~0.5%! Allah be praised!

There are reasons to question the new study (people whose family members died fighting the government or its masters are likely to be less forthcoming when questioned by government officials; mass migration from and within Iraq; difficulties properly sampling in Baghdad where most of the deaths occurred) and reasons to support it (more clusters, a good response rate), but either way you look at it, the shocking fact is that the death toll of Bush's war is almost triple the Iraq Body Count figure, and an order of magnitude higher than Bush's "estimate" of 30,000 dead. It's also of a comparable level to the death toll from Saddam Hussein's Al-Anfal campaign, for which several former members of the Iraqi regime were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. What does that say about the eventual fate of members of the Bush regime responsible for this obscene war?

The warmongers are already calling this a refutation of the Lancet study (it being easier to defend the murder of 151,000 people than 655,000), but it's worth pointing out that it uses exactly the same methodology they were attacking just a year ago. You can't call a methodology fundamentally flawed when you don't like the results, then rely on that same methodology to overturn them. But somehow, I suspect they will anyway.

Sir Edmund Hillary

Bugger. He'd had a long life, and everyone goes sometime, but bugger just the same. He was a great New Zealander and a kiwi hero, not for climbing a mountain (though at the time people thought that was impressive), but for what he did afterwards. And he quietly symbolised kiwi values - honesty, decency, modesty - not like the loud and self-inflated "heroes" of the business community, who mostly seem to symbolise greed, selfishness, and self-aggrandisement. New Zealand just won't be the same without him quietly reminding us just by his presence of what really matters. Bugger.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

That time of year again

Nominations are open for the 2008 Bloggies. It has an Australia/New Zealand category. You know what to do...

Election funding: more deceit and fearmongering from DPF

Over at Kiwiblog, DPF dogwhistles up some outrage over an anti-Labour sign a reader has put up on his property, saying "it is of course illegal". What he fails to point out is that this has always been the case. Section 221A of the Electoral Act 1993 required any "advertisement relating to an election" to carry a statement setting out the name and address of its promoter. This is long-standing law, not a new imposition, and the Electoral Finance Act in fact narrows its application - such disclosure used to be required at all stages of the electoral cycle, but now is required only within the regulated period.

DPF knows all this - he managed National MP Mark Blumsky's campaign in 2005, and has a thorough knowledge of the law. But he'd clearly rather deliberately mislead his readership in an effort to monger fear. Which speaks for itself about his integrity.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 55th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at The Greenbelt.

A backlash against backlash

Why did Hillary Clinton win in New Hampshire? The short answer is women and misogyny. Women turned out in force to back her, and one of their motivations was the increasingly misogynistic tone of the media pundits, combined with caveman antics by arseholes. This was a backlash against backlash, or in the words of Talkleft, "a revolt of women sick and tired of the likes of Chris Tweety Matthews and the Media Misogynists". And whichever way the nomination ultimately goes, its a good thing that it has happened.

Still protecting their own

So, the cop brother of one of the Mt Maunganui pack rapists (who included former cops Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum) was caught looking up details of the victim in a police database, presumably so he could harass or attempt to discredit her. Rather than being disciplined, fired, or prosecuted, he was allowed to resign, reputation intact.

This is simply unbelievable. After the whole police rape scandal, a damning report, at least four court cases and and several convictions, it seems the police have learned precisely nothing. Cops are still covering for cops, still protecting their own - which as the victim points out is exactly what got them into this mess in the first place:

"That's why those other police officers got to be rapists. They took for granted their power and their powerful positions."
If the police want any hope of rebuilding their reputation and regaining the trust of the New Zealand public, they need to stamp out this toxic internal culture of protecting their own. When police officers violate the law or the public trust, they should be held accountable for it. otherwise, they are simply inviting further scandals, and further corruption and criminality from the people we trust to protect us.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

New Hampshire results

From the Concord Monitor.

Too early to tell anything yet.

Update: So it's Clinton. Looks like we have a race after all.

Why we don't want a US-style health system

One of the goals of the National Party in the 90's was to move New Zealand towards a more American style of healthcare, cutting public provision and running down the public health system in an effort to force people to go private or get health insurance. It's a goal they still retain today, though they seem to have got it into their skulls that it will never fly with the public, and so have switched the focus to enriching their donors in other ways instead.

As for why we should never consider a US-style healthcare system here, we have only to look at the results of a study by Ellen Nolte and C. Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, "Measuring The Health Of Nations: Updating An Earlier Analysis" (abstract, summary). This found that the US was last among rich nations in deaths from treataable disease (meaning their death rates were higher), and improving at a much slower rate (4% over 5 years vs an average of 17% across the 18 countries studied). The difference translates to an estimated 101,000 deaths per year which would be avoided if the US health system was as good as France's, Japan's, or Australia's (or, as Jerome put it, each year, 101,000 Americans die needlessly because they're not French).

Alternatively, we could simply look at bang per buck. The US spends more on healthcare than any other country, and yet ranks poorly amongst developed nations on basic indicators such as life expectancy, and infant mortality. And the reason is the inflated cost of private provision. The lesson is simple: if you want an efficient, effective health system which benefits the public rather than shareholders, you need strong public provision.

An illusory surplus

So, the Auckland Regional Council made a surplus last year, and the right, including the anti-rates brigade and Auckland Mayor John Banks, are calling on them to blow it on a rates cut or funding Auckland's rugby world cup stadium. Except that when you delve into the figures, the surplus is illusory - it's an artefact of cashflow, of the ARC receiving some money earlier than expected (a $20 million payment from the government), while not spending as much as expected due to projects being delayed. To put it another way, it's as if they'd been paid early while several bills had been delayed in the post. The money is all effectively budgetted and spent, but Banks et al think they should blow it on a new TV, just to celebrate the fact that they have money in the bank.

No sane person would manage their personal finances this way. But according to the right, this is how we should run New Zealand's biggest city. Cthulhu help us if they ever get back into power.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Not much news today

Even Russell has been reduced to blogging about cats.

Screw this, I'm going into town in search of some source material.

The problem with primaries

The US election started last week with the Iowa caucuses, and tomorrow (actually late this afternoon, in the case of one small hamlet) we'll see the second round, in New Hampshire. And in the intervening time, the problem with the US system of staggered primaries has become apparent. Barrack Obama led the Democratic caucus, garnering 37.6% of the vote. And in the wake of that victory, the ground has sharply shifted in other states as voters have flocked to back the winner and the media narrative has become one of "Clinton in trouble". Obama is now leading in New Hampshire (previously he had trailed Clinton by around 10 points), and in South Carolina (which is the next official primary; while Michigan will be holding its primary next week, the Democrats are refusing to seat their delegates as they have violated South Carolina's sacred right to be third. Or something). And given the way US primary elections work, if Obama takes those three early primaries, his candidacy will then become "inevitable" (at least in the eyes of the media). Clinton can probably hang on to contest Super Duper Tuesday in February, but she will be in serious trouble, and there's a high chance people won't turn out to vote for her because she is "losing".

No matter what you think of the virtues of the particular candidates (and really, I don't give much of a damn between them; the important thing is that neither is Bush, or a committed clone), this is simply crazy. It is highly likely that, due simply to timing, democrats in a few tiny states will effectively determine their party's candidate - despite holding between them only 2.5% of the 4367 delegates attending the convention. Whichever way you look at it, that simply isn't democratic.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Climate change: more denial in the Herald

And it's all FAQ stuff from Brian Leyland. "The world was warmer during the Middle Ages" (wrong), sunspots and cosmic rays (wrong and wrong), we can't trust the projections (wrong), the world has not warmed since 1998 (wrong), and even though it's not happening, it'll be good for us anyway (wrong. Really, really wrong). And then he has the cheek to claim the government has been "badly advised". Hardly. They listen to scientists who base their opinions on the evidence, not flat earthers funded by the oil industry. As for the Herald, I doubt they'd let the flat earth society or holocaust deniers push their delusion as fact under the cover of a news story; why do they allow it for climate change deniers?

But the real target of Leyland's ire is the government's National Energy Strategy, Powering Our Future. This sets out a loose plan to shift our energy supply in a more sustainable direction, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also to ensure sustainability in future in the face of declining fossil fuel supplies. A key part of the strategy is a strong push for renewable electricity generation, in the form of wind and eventually wave power, and a phasing out of dirty fossil fuel generation (though some of this is inevitable as plants age and gas supplies dry up). To Leyland - a power engineer by trade - this is anathema; the primary aim of an energy strategy should be to ensure that we have a "reliable and economic" (meaning "cheap") supply of electricity, and bugger the environmental externalities (which aren't just limited to climate change. What industrial users save on the price of coal generation, the rest of us pay for in pollution and lung cancer). But the market has already judged the reliability and economic case for renewables, and the results speak for themselves: the amount of wind generation has doubled in the last year, and we now have 2,000 MW of new generation in the process of being consented. This is well in excess of forecast demand growth, and well in excess of even the government's 2030 projections (I have no idea where Leyland gets his 6000 MW figure from - presumably, his arse). And that's without any subsidies, based solely on the consenting risks and an appreciation of the real cost of wind vs thermal generation (something Leyland likes to ignore). As for expense, the cumulative cost to the economy of this transition to 90% renewable generation is $300 million over 25 years - which is pretty much chicken feed.

Basically, Leyland is yesterday's man, pushing yesterday's dirty technology, unable to understand that the world has moved on, that we now have cleaner (and in many cases cheaper) alternatives, and that it is no longer socially acceptable to environmentally subsidise heavy energy users by ignoring the true costs of thermal generation. In short, this advocate for the fossil fuel industry is a fossil himself.