Monday, March 31, 2008

Attitudes to childlessness

Over at the Hand Mirror, the Ex-Expat vents at the Sunday Star-Times piece on how New Zealand women aren't having as many children as they used to:

Unless I misunderstood my sex ed classes, I was under the impression that men were also needed to create offspring and ideally should be around to help raise them.

I am well aware that men's reproductive lifespan is far longer which is part of the reason for the undue focus on women's reproduction. However what is making my blood boil is the underlying assumption of this and other stories is that women are the ones that will take time out to raise a family.

In this story, though, its more of a reflection of demographers' methodological practices (for obvious reasons, it is easier to count children by asking mothers than fathers) than an attempt to push gender roles. More interesting is the attitude to childlessness itself. Rather than approaching it as a matter of individual choice, it is seen as a problem, which will lead to labour shortages and impose costs on the state (no mention is made of the substantial education, health, and ecological costs which are saved by not breeding). And reading the actual report [PDF] on which the article is based, even the title ("Busy making other plans") suggests that childlessness is more accidental than desired, as if those other plans for education, a career, or indeed a life were not a conscious choice to prioritise those things above having children.

It would be nice if, just for once, they recognised that voluntary childlessness was not a problem, or a matter of frustrated choices, but frequently a matter of individual preference, and as valid a choice as breeding.

A near miss

Since August 2003, New Zealand has had troops in Afghanistan, working as a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan province. They've been doing the usual work of the New Zealand army - building schools - rather than actually shooting at people, and so the deployment has met little public opposition. But that might be about to change. Yesterday, a new Zealand patrol was hit by a roadside bomb. No-one was hurt, but someone might have been, and its a sign that things are getting more dangerous.

The question we should be asking ourselves now is what price we are willing to pay in Afghanistan. Are we willing to see people come home in bodybags? Because if we stay there, that's looking increasingly likely to happen.

Given the nature of Afghanistan's government, I think the price is "nothing at all". I am not willing to see kiwi troops die to defend an oppressive theocracy which violates human rights. This near miss is a warning to us all of what the future might hold, and a clear signal to bring our troops home.

China exports oppression

The Olympic torch made it to Athens today to be officially handed over to China. There were the expected protests, and the expected arrests - which is fair enough when people charge a police cordon and try to block a road. But reading the media reports, the Greek police seem to have gone well beyond what was necessary to allow the event to proceed. According to BBC,

Police had warned they would confiscate all banners, signs or objects that might be thrown.
While the New York Times reported that
[E]ven before the hand-over began, three supporters of the Falun Gong spiritual movement were detained outside the sprawling all-marble Panathinaiko Stadium for distributing leaflets on the movement, which is outlawed in China.

“They continue to remain in police custody and we have been given no reason by the authorities for their arrest,” the Falun Gong supporters’ lawyer, Ignatios Tatoulis, said.

The latter in particular is simply outrageous. Greece is a modern democracy, a member of the European Union, and a party to various human rights instruments (including the UDHR, ICCPR and ECHR) which affirm the right to freedom of speech. And they're arresting people for quietly handing out leaflets?

It sounds as if rather than aiming to ensure the event goes ahead safely while protecting the rights of all their citizens, the Greek authorities are primarily interested in protecting China's image. And rather than ensuring China improves its human rights under the glare of global scrutiny (as originally advertised), the oppression Olympics are instead exporting Chinese oppression around the world.

Climate change: the race for carbon neutrality

In 2006, Helen Clark showed some vision for once and announced a bold plan to make New Zealand carbon neutral. This has since been elaborated in policy into some specific goals: the energy sector is supposed to be carbon neutral by 2025, the industrial sector by 2030 and transport by 2040 (hopefully agriculture will follow soon afterwards). But New Zealand isn't alone - there are three other countries pursuing carbon neutrality: Iceland, Norway, and Costa Rica. The question is, who is going to get there first?

Looking at it, my money is on Iceland. They're already almost totally renewable in electricity (which is traditionally the big emissions source in western nations), and their largest problem is transport emissions. But they have tremendous geothermal energy resources, and have already announced an ambitious plan to use these to produce hydrogen, with the aim of becoming the Saudi Arabia of the Atlantic. If this is successful, it means that in time they may be able to entirely eliminate their transport emissions as well (and if they can't run their cars on hydrogen, they always have the backstop of being able to run them on renewable electricity). Those emissions which can't be eliminated - the small amount from agriculture, and the CO2 from those geothermal stations - can always be offset, either domestically (Iceland needs more trees), or with robust offsets overseas.

Norway isn't in such a good position. While it also has an almost entirely renewable electricity sector, it does not have Iceland's potential for expansion. Currently, they're in the same situation New Zealand was in in the early to mid 90's, expanding their generation capacity with gas because it seems like the cheapest option. Unlike New Zealand, they have had robust policy in this area for decades, which gives them some credibility.

As for Costa Rica, the idea that a developing nation might beat the first world to carbon neutrality should shame us all. "Common but differentiated responsibilities" was supposed to meant we moved first, not them. But I am wondering why, if they're planning this, they don't just join Annex I - that way they could sell their surplus AAU as well.

But regardless of who wins, the gauntlet has been laid down, and Helen Clark is going to have to be a lot more ambitious if she wants to retain New Zealand's reputation as a world leader on environmental issues.

A good idea

National has anounced it wants to double solar water heating grants to $1,000 and simplify the applications process. It's a good idea. Solar water heating is one of the most cost-effective means we have of reducing demand for electricity, and hence greenhouse gas emissions, so its something we want to promote. Boosting the grant to $1,000 should encourage more people to apply and so get more heaters installed.

That said, it's not just a matter of money. The reason the current policy has failed seems to be more about split incentives between installers and customers than the amount of money involved. But if National's process tweaks involve fixing this, then we might finally see an effective policy.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Drowning out protest

The moment the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony was upstaged by protest, it became clear that wherever the torch went, it would face protestors aiming to highlight the Chinese regime's abuse of human rights. This threatens to undermine China's propaganda exercise, so they've organised a response. When the torch visits London next week, they will have thousands of Chinese students lining the route to drown out any hint of dissent.

It certainly shows the lie behind those claiming that politicians boycotting the opening ceremony will make no difference. Neither, supposedly, will a few people waving a flag. But China is so image conscious that they will massively overreact to that possibility. Which just shows how important it is to keep up the pressure and deny them the happy propaganda images they are seeking.

Zimbabwe elections

Zimbabweans went to the polls yesterday, in presidential elections widely expected to be rigged. Despite that, they voted anyway, with some queueing all night to exercise their right. The mood in the country seems to be for change - no-one can stomach Mugabe anymore - and this seems borne out by interim results (illegally) released by the Movement for Democratic Change, which show a clear win for the opposition. Of course, these are interim results from actual polling places, before they've been doctored by Mugabe's thugs, so the end results will probably look quite different.

The question then is what happens next. Mugabe has already said that he will use the army to crush any post-election protests, but people might be willing to run that risk anyway. The result will almost certainly be a bloodbath. Alternatively, Mugabe could meekly accept the people's will, and either bow out or accept a runoff election which, if it were free and fair, he will lose. But sadly, that's probably too much to hope for.

The kingmaker debate

I've spent the last two hours watching TVNZ7's Kingmaker debate over their web feed. But while it was refreshing to see a channel devote a whole two hours to debate among the minor parties, it also suffered from the flaws of the medium - namely, that in trying to squeeze everything in in two hours, it could only touch lightly on things, and never really got into policy, let alone detail. The moderator, Guyon Espiner, also had an irritating habit of trying to lead people around by the nose or provoke a reaction, rather than letting the conversation among the participants flow naturally. And despite having an entire panel of journalists in the audience, they were only allowed to ask about four questions during the entire thing, which seems to have been a wasted opportunity.

OTOH, watching the ad breaks, it seems that 7 will have a lot more political programmes where that policy detail and free-flowing conversation can be explored, which is a Good Thing. Now all I need is a decoder.

As for the debate itself, here's a few highlights and observations:

  • Rodney Hide's opening pitch was that we should "beat Australia". I can think of a sure-fire way of doing that: send Roger Douglas there. He'll ruin Australia's economy the same way he ruined ours, and we'll catch up to them in no time.
  • Jeanette Fitzsimons seems awfully confident that Nandor's Waste Management bill is going to pass by the end of the year. Which suggests they might have cooked up a deal to adopt it after all.
  • While everyone there bar Rodney was a republican, it is no-one's top political priority.
  • Peter Dunne is hot to abolish not just MMP, but also the Maori Seats. Fortunately, no-one else seems keen on that proposition. The big surprise was Rodney Hide, who while he opposes them, also accepts the reality that a vote where Pakeha vote to disenfranchise Maori is not a recipe for social harmony, and so agrees with the left that we have to wait for them to wither away in their own time (if at all).
  • The poll results on privilege and racism, which showed that 43% of those surveyed think the most privileged group is Maori, while rating Pakeha as the most underprivileged group, are both appalling and unsurprising. Jim Anderton is right in suggesting that Pakeha are generally ignorant of Treaty issues, and this leads to misunderstanding and resentment (and this is exploited, as Jeanette Fitzsimons pointed out, by both the media and politicians). What it suggests is that we need far better education both about the wrongs of the past, and how little has been done to right them - because once you explain these to people, they generally understand.
  • Espiner asked why the Treaty settlements process had "slowed down". Again, there's a lot of bullshit and ignorance on this - the government is settling more claims than National did in the 90's, but they're smaller. Surprisingly, it was Rodney Hide who pointed out that this was because the large 90's settlements (Tainui, Ngai Tahu, and fisheries) were the easy ones. Unfortunately, it takes just as long to investigate and negotiate a $30 million settlement as a $170 million one.
  • Jim Anderton happily admitted that the exclusion of agriculture from the ETS was a subsidy. So much for our farming standing on its own two feet and paying its own way.
  • Their poll showed that a shocking 37% of New Zealanders favoured the return of the death penalty (58% opposed it). None of the politicians there seemed keen on it.
  • Most parties recognise that MMP is about cooperation, and so are reluctant to state bottom lines (particularly when there is a complete policy vacuum from National). Of the ones who did, Rodney Hide says he will only support a government which scraps the top tax rate, while the Maori Party would not work with a government which planned to scrap the Maori seats (Jeanette Fitzsimons also said that the Greens would not support a government which planned to reintroduce the death penalty). Peter Dunne named constitutional reform as a policy priority, so we may see a minor party demand the destruction of our democratic system as the price of its support.
  • All but the Maori Party said that they would announce their coalition preferences before the election, so people would know what they were voting for (the Maori Party said they'd have to talk to their voters first, which is fair enough).

If you missed it, the debate will screen on TV One at midnight tonight.

New Fisk

Where is our man for all seasons?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The boycott is on

Since China's crackdown in Tibet, pressure has come on governments and leaders around the world to show their disapproval by refusing to attend the "oppression Olympics". Now that pressure has borne fruit, with a number of European leaders refusing to attend the opening ceremony:

Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, became the first EU head of government to announce a boycott on Thursday and he was promptly joined by President Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic, who had previously promised to travel to Beijing.

"The presence of politicians at the inauguration of the Olympics seems inappropriate," Tusk said. "I do not intend to take part."

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, confirmed that [German Prime Minister Angela] Merkel was staying away. He added that neither he nor Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister responsible for sport, would attend the opening ceremony.

It's a small gesture, but a significant one, which hits the Chinese where it hurts: by denying them the prestige they hope to gain by hosting the games. And with Merkel out, the pressure is now on other major European leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown to follow suit.

As for New Zealand, I doubt Helen Clark will follow. She's already demonstrated that she's willing to walk over Tibetan corpses to get her free trade deal; after that, boycotting the opening ceremony would simply seem hypocritical.

Earth Hour

Tonight, between 20:00 and 21:00, I'll be turning out the lights as part of Earth Hour - a global demonstation urging action on climate change. It's not a big step, but its a highly symbolic one, and I urge everyone to join in.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 61st Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Last Left Turn Before Hooterville.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Interviewing the leaders

The Standard is planning to interview (or at least question by email) the leaders of our political parties over the next few weeks:

Starting next week we’ll submit two questions to a leader each Monday, one of which will be the same for each of them to allow you to compare those answers; the second question will be ‘leader specific’.
The first victim will be the Progressives' Jim Anderton. They're currently soliciting reader's questions in their comments, so if you have any suggestions, head on over there.

Rejection, not apathy

In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee considers the results of the latest Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement [PDF] - which found that UK citizens were overwhelmingly disengaged from politics to the extent that only 53% of them plan to vote - and asks the obvious question: how has this happened, and why don't people vote anymore. She also gets the answer right: because it doesn't matter. With no real difference between the major parties, and a political system which denies real choice, they no longer have anything worth voting for:

When people shut the door on canvassers saying, "You're all the same", they're not wrong in these strange political times. Give them clear choices and they'll come out and choose, otherwise they will sit at home and sulk, rightly sensing politics is a Westminster stitch-up with the parties fighting over the same shrinking piece of all-things-to-all-people centre ground.

Those most likely to vote are the old - 78% of the over-65s. Is that because they are dutiful citizens? No, it is because they have deeper affiliations stretching back to the days when parties did stand for identifiably distinct values. Above all, parties stood for different class and economic interests. Them-and-us was spelled out loud and clear: whose side are you on, who stands up for people like us?

There is no united British civic interest, except in matters of national security. There is as clear a difference in economic interest now as ever there was: indeed it is getting stronger. Twenty years ago, FTSE chief executives earned 17 times the pay of their workers, now they earn 75 times more. But no party has anything to say about that, none daring not to be the party of the rich. Yet great economic divides are there: the median earners on £22,000 and below are 50% of the voters - but that's a bit less than MPs get as expenses for running their second homes. So much gold dust is kicked in the nation's eyes by scores of TV programmes selling property beyond most people's imagining, or celebrity handbags costing thousands, that the delusion that most people are affluent has entered Labour's lexicon and even its soul. Labour needs a coalition of interests - but not to deny those interests.

Disgruntlement with politics may not express itself as a question of class, but it is the job of politicians to articulate people's strong if inchoate feelings, to crystallise ideas and describe society as it is. If they pretend that Britain is one great homogenous affluent bloc, with a few dysfunctional poor people to be sorted out, they sell a warped picture of the way we live now - and, instinctively, voters know it.

Looking through the Hansard Society's report bears this out. Those least likely to vote - at only 34% - are the poor, who aren't really represented by any party at the moment, and the young, who have witnessed with their own eyes how little difference it makes (having seen a government elected to end Thatcherism merrily continue it as if nothing had happened - and then engage in an illegal war of aggression overwhelmingly rejected by its own voters). As a result, fewer people every year believe that their involvement can make a difference - and the number of people who actively disagree with this is growing. It's not apathy the British political system is facing - it's rejection.

Faced with this, the proposed shift to preferential voting seems inadequete. Yes, it's an improvement, but not enough of one, and designed clearly to give a veneer of democracy to the current cosy oligarchy. What people want is real choice,and they're not going to get it with a system which squashes out minority voices and prevents new parties from rising. To get that, they need proper European-style proportional representation.

A politician with ethics

Next month, Helen Clark will be flying to Beijing to sign a preferential free trade agreement with the Chinese regime. Several other MPs are supposed to accompany her, but there's a fly in her ointment: United Future leader Peter Dunne is refusing to go in protest at China's bloody crackdown in Tibet. It's good to see that someone in Parliament (a Minister, even) has a backbone over this.

Meanwhile, what I want to know is who else has been invited - and whether they will also refuse to go, or whether they are willing to cuddle up to a regime which imprisons dissidents, denies freedom of speech, and murders protesters in the streets?

Demand action on Tibet

Avaaz, the global civic activism group, has an online petititon calling on the Chinese government to show respect for human rights in its actions in Tibet, and to open a meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama. It reached its initial target of a million signatures in a week, and they're trying to boost it to 2 milion in the next for days. You can sign it here.

An admission

Four years ago, Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel clerk, was beaten to death by British soldiers in Basra. Today, after a failed court martial which saw only one of Mousa's kilers jailed (and then for only one year after admitting a lesser charge of inhumane treatment), the British government has finally admitted responsibility. The immediate effect of this is that Mousa's relatives, who are currently suing the British government for gross violations of human rights, will gain compensation. But it can't end there. Mousa is not the only Iraqi to have been murdered in British custody, and his fellow prisoners are not the only ones who were tortured. Rather than being a one-off mistake, there has clearly been a systematic failure which has led to torture and abuse. The government needs to launch a ful enquiry into the treatment of prisoners by British forces in Iraq - not just to finally tell the truth about what happened to Baha Mousa, but also to make sure that it never happens again.

Fiji: challenging the coup

Last week, oral argument wrapped up in one of the most important legal cases in Fiji's history: Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase is challenging the coup which overthrew him in court. To my eye, Qarase's case is open and shut: Fiji has constitutional sovereignty, and s109 (1) of the Fijian Constitution is very specific about when and how the Prime Minister can be removed and a new one appointed:

The President may not dismiss a Prime Minister unless the Government fails to get or loses the confidence of the House of Representatives and the Prime Minister does not resign or get a dissolution of the Parliament.
The obvious interpretation of this clause was backed by the Fijian Court of Appeal in their judgement on Yabaki v President of the Republic of the Fiji Islands, a case over the last coup:
The Fiji Constitution, by the prescriptiveness of s109(1), denies the President such a right [to dismiss the Prime Minister with only "soundings" of the feeling of the House] as that given to the Governor [of Western Nigeria] in Ankitola. Consequently, it did not matter that his soundings may have indicated a general lack of support for Mr Chaudhry or indeed that Mr Chaudhry himself supported a dissolution - albeit with himself as caretaker Prime Minister. The framers of the Constitution appear to have been at pains to circumscribe the President’s power of dismissal of a Prime Minister and to have required the House and not the President to determine whether the Prime Minister has lost its confidence.
The military regime's response has been to assert that the President has absolute and unreviewable monarchical power - no matter what the constitution says. That claim didn't fly in the United States, and it shouldn't fly in Fiji. Unfortunately, since the coup, the military have carefully stacked the judiciary (and many of the decent judges have left rather than accept an illegal appointment), so Qarase's chances of a fair hearing are fairly slim.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A good move

Air New Zealand is now offering carbon offsets on its flights. The first question with any offset scheme is whether the offsets are robust, but in this case they're using Emissions Reduction Units from Trustpower's Tararua windfarm - actual Kyoto AAU, so they're rock solid environmentally.

The question now is how many people will do it. However, one obvious customer will be government departments, which now have to pursue carbon neutrality. And I think they'll be quite happy to pay the extra five bucks a ticket to do so.

Why we should boycott Beijing

Writing on Slate, Anne Applebaum presents a compelling argument that the west should boycott Beijing. As she points out, sporting boycotts have been effective in the past (particularly against South Africa) and there is a long history of politics at the Olympics (Mexico City, anyone?). But more importantly, she points out the truth that everyone wants to deny: that the Beijing Olympics are not just about sport. Like the 1936 Berlin Olympics, they are being hosted as a giant act of political propaganda, with the aim of improving China's standing on the world stage, and announcing its arrival as a global superpower. And every national team which attends, every athlete which competes there, is helping that purpose.

What the west needs to make clear is that countries which deny political freedom and murder their own citizens will never be accepted as members of the international community, no matter how rich and powerful they are. If China wants that status, if it wants respect as well as fear, it will need to clean up its act. Sadly, our politicians are likely to be too spineless to make that argument - so we will have to do it for them.

Reasons to get Freeview

Damn TVNZ for launching TVNZ 7 before there are decent Freeview decoders available. It means I'll miss out on this:

TVNZ 7 launches on Sunday with The Kingmaker Debate – a live political debate between the minor party leaders who will be crucial to the political landscape after the election later this year.

Political party leaders Jeanette Fitzsimons, Peter Dunne, Rodney Hide, Pita Sharples, Jim Anderton and Winston Peters have been invited to participate in the debate, to be mediated by TVNZ's political editor Guyon Espiner.

If this is a taste of what they're planning, then we might finally have a space for the sort of serious, thoughtful, detailed political journalism I'd like to see.

Hopefully they'll make the debate available online. Otherwise, any chance of someone torrenting it?

Update: Fortunately, it looks like the debate wil also be streamed live on

Tax cut myths: "waste"

Radio New Zealand reports that National is talking up the affordability of large tax cuts for the rich, claiming that they will be able to fund them because they will "curb wasteful spending and rein in bureaucracy". But how realistic is this? Not very, it seems. Using National's own figures for their expected "savings" - "$500 million over three years that could be used for more ‘frontline’ staff and tax-cuts" - The Standard has calculated the size of the resulting tax cut. It comes out to a paltry 50 cents a week.

So where will National (and Labour) get the money? Despite all their efforts at denial, the truth is that tax cuts will be funded by reprioritising and redirecting other spending. Every dollar given to the rich in tax cuts is a dollar that could be spent on health, on education, on police, infrastructure or social services. The inevitable result is that those services will be worse than they otherwise might have been. Tax cuts for the rich mean fewer (and more poorly paid) doctors, teachers and police, more schools asking for "voluntary donations", poorer roads and public transport, and less assistance to families in need. Given that few people are satisfied with the present state of our public services (and the Opposition certainly isn't), cutting taxes at the expense of those services seems to be a very counterproductive idea.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Worth a thousand words

Mike Moreu once again demonstrates that a picture is worth a thousand words:


Meanwhile, a group of 15 monks who were disappeared after parading peacefully through the streets of Lhasa carrying the Tibetan flag are still missing. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to which New Zealand is a party, this sort of forced disappearance is a crime against humanity - so this is very clearly something Helen Clark should be raising with the Chinese authorities. But somehow, I don't think she will.

Another ice shelf collapses

New Scientist reports that the Wilkins ice shelf is in the process of breaking up,and is now hanging by a thread. Currently, the shelf is being held back from total collapse by a thin ice berm, only 6km wide - but if this goes, then the entire shelf will likely collapse within weeks. This won't cause any sea-level rise - ice-shelves float - but its a stark reminder of what could happen to some of the larger ice shelves such as the Ross or Ronne as the Antarctic warms.

Reported back

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Treaty of Waitangi (Removal of Conflict of Interest) Amendment Bill, and recommended that it not be passed. The bill would have prevented judges of the Maori Land Court from sitting on or chairing the Waitangi Tribunal, replacing them with retired High Court judges, ostensibly to prevent "conflicts of interest" (and possibly in an effort to remove tribunal members NZ First has taken a dislike to). But the committee found that the judiciary already had robust protocols in place to handle any conflict (generally involving recusal), that there was no inherent conflict of interest, and that these judges brought invaluable and irreplaceable expertise and knowledge to the Tribunal. Their conclusion:

We consider that the amendments proposed could severely limit the ability of the Waitangi Tribunal to draw on the expertise of those best qualified to act as members and to provide recommendations on matters of national importance.
Unfortunately, due to the Members' Day logjam, the bill may not get a vote before the election - meaning that it could still come back to haunt us if NZ First increases its political leverage.

(I have posted more on this bill here).

Absinthe, pedophobia and wowserism

Last week I noted National MP Paul Hutchison's sudden interest in absinthe, and wondered aloud what his purpose might me. He's since filed more written questions, which make it crystal clear:

2395: Further to the reply to question for written answer 1790 (2008), will he make any restrictions on the availability and manufacture of Absinthe in New Zealand?

2396: Further to the reply to question for written answer 01791 (2008), is he concerned that people could develop unwanted side effects by drinking Absinthe; if not, why not?

2397: Further to the reply to question for written answer 01791 (2008), is he concerned that young people might use Absinthe as a party drink to substitute for party pills; if not, why not?

So, it's about pedophobia and wowserism then. Colour me unsurprised.

Hutchison is presumably concerned about the legendary hallucinogenic effects of absinthe. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work. According to Wikipedia,

Today it is known that absinthe does not cause hallucinations, especially ones similar to those described in 19th century studies. Thujone, the supposed active chemical in absinthe, is a GABA antagonist and while it can produce muscle spasms in large doses, there is no evidence that it causes hallucinations. It has been speculated that reports of hallucinogenic effects of absinthe may have been due to poisonous chemicals being added to cheaper versions of the drink in the 19th century, to give it a more vivid colour.
All absinthe makes you is drunk. It's a clear-headed drunk, but you can get the same effect much cheaper with Irish coffee. But given his overwhelming concern that somewhere, somehow, a young person might be having fun, Hutchison will no doubt suggest that we ban that too.

Sanitising the State of the Environment

Nine To Noon yesterday had an interesting interview [audio] with environmental scientist Dr Mike Joy, on freshwater quality. In it, he accuses the Ministry for the Environment of effectively sanitising the freshwater chapter of its recent State of the Environment report, by using the wrong indicators, averaging them out so as to mask problems, and adopting a relentlessly upbeat spin. For a report which is supposed to provide an overview of the environment and indicators so we can track progress, this isn't exactly helpful.

I suspect that MfE would say that their choice of indicators was driven by what Regional Councils collect. But they have the power to force measurement if they want it, and have recently done exactly that for air quality. Freshwater quality if the most prssing environmental problem we face in New Zealand today; it would be nice if the Ministry responsible for advice on it actually bothered to get a complete picture of the problem.

(The rest of the interview is quite interesting as well, and well worth a listen).

Other people's choices

Colin Espiner, discussing the return of Roger Douglas (and his attempt to recruit Don Brash back to ACT) demonstrates an all-too-common misunderstanding of MMP:

To me this demonstrates the problem with the party list system. There isn’t an electorate in the country that either Sir Roger or Brash could win, and yet if ACT is silly enough to place them high enough on the party list, then they may soon be back in Parliament.
Indeed they might. But while I loathe either prospect, I would have to accept it as the legitimate democratic choice of ACT voters, in the same way that I accept the election of John Key and Burqua Bob as the legitimate democratic choices of the voters of Helensville and Tauranga respectively. These people aren't there to represent me, they're there to represent their constituents. And if those constituents make what is IMHO a "silly" choice, I just have to lump it.

Espiner would no doubt object that both Key and Clarkson are electorate MPs. But so what? There's nothing special about electorates - unless you count their propensity to produce distorted and undemocratic outcomes. List MPs, particularly those of small parties where there are no electorates to confuse things, are directly elected by their voters. If you vote for a party, you are endorsing their list. When I voted for the Greens last election, I did so because I wanted to see Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Bradford, Keith Locke, Metiria Turei and Nandor Tanczos in Parliament (Sue Kedgeley I can live without, but she wasn't a deal breaker). And if I didn't like their list, I would have voted for someone else. The same is likely to be true of those who voted for ACT, United Future and NZ First - they cast their votes that way because they wanted Rodney Hide, Peter Dunne, Winston Peters, and their respective friends in Parliament.

I loathe Roger Douglas and Don Brash with a passion, but I recognise the pair of them perfectly exemplify the selfish inhumanity ACT stands for. But if enough people vote for them to get them elected to Parliament - either by beating the undemocratic 5% threshold, or by winning an electorate somewhere, I just have to accept that. People are entitled to have the representative of their choice represent them in Parliament. It's called "democracy", and maybe Espiner should remember that we live in one.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Will Helen Clark raise this with the Chinese authorities?

In a radio interview this morning, Helen Clark said she would raise human rights with Chinese authorities when she is there next month to sign a preferential free trade deal with the Chinese regime. Well, here's something she could raise. Last year, Yang Chunlin, an unemployed factory worker from Heilongjiang province, circulated a petition saying "We don't want the Olympics, we want human rights". For this, he has just been convicted of "subversion" and sentenced to five years imprionment.

This is one of the most basic political freedoms there is: the freedom to point out problems and ask the government for redress. China denies that freedom to its citizens. Will Helen Clark raise this with China, or will she follow the usual cowardly path of keeping her mouth shut so as not to jepordise the profits of New Zealand farmers?

Fairness and dignity

The government's plan to restore a minimum entitlement for breaks in the workplace has produced the usual reaction: squealing from employer's groups, with the Hospitality Association warning that it will introduce "time police", while Business NZ claims that it is unnecessary as workers and employers are working it out for themselves. The former is simply scaremongering - the law will create a minimum entitlement, and there'll be no compulsion to take it. OTOH, bosses will not be able to force people to work without breaks anymore - a prospect which I can see will be deeply concerning to the Hospitality Association's penny-pinching members. As for the latter, according to the EPMU lack of proper breaks is one of the biggest complaints they get from non-members - which suggests that many employers aren't "working it out" to the satisfaction of their members.

This law is fundamentally about two things: fairness and dignity. And it is sad to see that our employers, as represented by their membership organisations, do not believe in those values.


The UK has apparently unveiled a "radical" plan for voting reform. This "radical" plan? Preferential voting:

Ministers fear that the Commons will have difficulty retaining its status as the pre-eminent legislative chamber if peers, elected by proportional voting, can claim greater authority than MPs, who are sometimes put in office by less than a third of the electorate. Straw has warmed towards the alternative voting system in the past two years, seeing it as an improvement on the first-past-the-post system.

Michael Wills, the constitutional affairs minister, praised the alternative voting system at a meeting on electoral reform last month. "The alternative vote has many attractions, including the fact that you have to get 50% plus one in that constituency, therefore you have a greater legitimacy," he said.

Preferential voting is the electoral reform you have when you don't really want electoral reform. Sure, it's an improvement over first past the post - practically anything would be - but its not much of one. While it results in every MP having an actual majority in their constituency, it doesn't address the core problem of large manufactured majorities, and parties winning government without holding a majority (or sometimes even a plurality) of the overall vote. What the UK needs is a proper European-style proportional representation system - that would allow the will of the voters to really be felt. But sadly, that's the last thing on the Labour-Conservative oligarchy's minds.

As for the other proposals, making voting easier is always good, but compulsory voting infringes people's right to decide to have nothing to do with the process (or just to be lazy). While I think people should vote (and smart people will - your vote is a weapon; use it wisely), I don't think they should be forced to just so politicians can juke the stats. OTOH, given current turnout rates in the UK and levels of political disgust, compulsory voting will either see a third of the population fined for refusing to endorse a political system and Parliament that neither represents nor works for them, or the embarrassment of seeing spoiled ballots win a plurality of the vote. And neither will be particularly good for the UK's democracy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Adopting bills

One of the consequences of the Members' Day logjam is that the House will almost certainly not be passing Darrien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill before it rises for the election. Of course, if the government wants to see this bill passed, it has options: Standing Order 271 allows a Members' Bill to be adopted by the government with the Member's consent. So, they could see how far it gets, then rescue it at the last minute for a committee stage and/or third reading, to get it through before the election.

More interesting is the prospect of their doing this for the Waste Minimisation (Solids) Bill. The government has said they support it, and it was even mentioned in the recent State of the Environment report as being government policy. But if they want it enacted before the House rises, they're goign to have to adopt it and do it themselves. I guess we'll find out how serious they are about it in a week or two, when its scheduled to emerge from committee.

The Members' Day logjam

The Press this morning has a piece on Members' Bills, highlighting the logjam that has built up on that part of the Order Paper. With only eight Members' Days until Parliament rises, and an enormous stack of bills built it, it looks as if interesting bills - Tariana Turia's Foreshore and Seabed Act (Repeal) Bill and Meyt's Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill are unlikely to get a first reading anytime soon.

The reasons for this are threefold. First, there has been a flood of private and local bills at the top of the Order Paper. These must be dealt with before any Members' Bills, and while frequently they are dealt with quickly (its not unusual for a local bill to be sent to committee by leave in five minutes, and then to have its final stages combined into one debate when it returns), most of each Members' Day has been spent on them. Second, there has also been a flood of second-reading debates, as all the bills sent off to Committee over the last two years come back to the House. Not only are second reading debates longer, they also pre-empt first readings, effectively putting these bills at the top of that part of the Order paper.

These two facts would create a logjam in and of themselves, but there has been a significant aggravating factor, in the form of deliberate delaying tactics by both National and Labour to prevent the House from getting to business they don't want to deal with. So National, which opposes Lynne Pillay's Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Bill, has spent a lot of time over the last few months talking it out, and talking out every trivial piece of legislation appearing before it on the Order Paper. Meanwhile, Labour has been doing the same thing, even advancing George Hawkins' Manukau City Council (Control of Graffiti) Bill (a piece of legislation made utterly irrelevant by the imposition of national-level controls) to the committee stage last week solely to waste time. The target of Labour's delaying tactics isn't clear, but I suspect it is Ron Marks' Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill, on which the numbers aren't certain, and which could progress against the wishes of the government if it actually makes it to a vote.

The upshot: Members' Days have been much blander this year than in the past, with the interesting and controversial legislation on the Order Paper not making it to debate. And its not going to get any better. While there's another pile of Members' Bills dues back from committee over the next few months (including Pita Paraone's Treaty of Waitangi (Removal of Conflict of Interest) Amendment Bill and Nandor Tanczos' Waste Minimisation (Solids) Bill), with the way things are stacked up now, none of it is likely to receive a second reading.


One hundred years ago, coal miners went on a historic strike to win the right to a proper lunchbreak. Now, one hundred years later, the government is finally planning to legislate for it.

I guess its progress, but its astounding that its taken us a hundred years and five labour governments to get here.

New Fisk

How Ireland exorcised the ghost of empire

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Slippery John strikes again

The Sunday Star-Times reports that National is feeling pressured into bringing forward its tax-cut plans. But what's interesting in the story is how Key reacted to being told he appeared to have changed his mind again:

Last August, Key said the earliest a National-led government could deliver tax cuts would be April 2010.


Key appeared confused when speaking to the Star-Times about what he had already announced on the timing of tax cuts. He disputed he had said 2010 was the earliest tax cuts could take effect. Instead, he told the Star-Times last week: "We said that was the last date, so we obviously have got some flexibility."

When reminded an August 2007 report in the Dominion Post quoted Key as saying 2010 was the earliest date for tax cuts, he said: She "must have the wrong date".

Those with a memory longer than a goldfish may realise we've seen this before. Repeatedly. It speaks of a man who either cannot remember what he was saying about a core policy just a few months ago and is just making it up as he goes along, or one who is supremely uncomfortable with any suggestion that he might have ever changed his mind. Either way, the approach of attacking journalists (and whining to your rich media manager mates to interfere in the editorial process and get a "clarification" run) for remembering what you said last time is disturbing.

Really, is it that difficult to say "circumstances have change"?

New Fisk

It's not a straight road to dictatorship

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What does Paul Hutchison have against Absinthe?

For the past week I've monitoring an intriguing set of Parliamentary written questions from National's Dr Paul Hutchison to the Minister of Health, about drinks containing absinthe and their possible side effects.

1790: Is he aware of any drinks on the market that contain Absinthe; if so what is the Absinthe content?

1791: Is he aware of any side effects that may occur from consuming drinks containing Absinthe?

1792: Is he aware of any drinks on the market that contain Absinthe at 8% content?

As someone who has regular appointments with the Green Faerie, I can inform Dr Hutchison that the answers to his questions are "many", "the same as for any other alcoholic drink", and "no. Try 80%". I'm also curious as to why he is interested. Presumably his reference to 8% means he's concerned about Absinthe alcopops, but while these are a barbarity (absinthe is properly consumed after being diluted with iced water dribbled through a suger cube), I don't see why they should be treated any differently from any other alcoholic beverage. 8% is a lower alcohol content than your average glass of wine, and we don't have any problem with people drinking that...

NZ First, National, and coalitions

Winston Peters has announced his post-election coalition preferences: as in 2005, he will negotiate first with the largest party. It's a perfectly reasonable position, which will give some certainty to voters about what the possible outcome might be (assuming, of course, that Winston makes it back in. He might not - on current polling, NZ First won't make the 5% barrier, and Winston is not guaranteed to win an electorate). It is also a fairly good strategy to maximise NZ First's leverage.

NZ First has learned from its disastrous 1996 coalition deal with National. Rather than push for a "cast iron" coalition agreement, with an agreed policy platform from the outset, in 2005 NZ First went with a much looser arrangement [PDF], promising confidence and supply in exchange for "consultation" and a limited set of policy concessions (most of which were "we'll look at it"). Sure, Winston is in outside Cabinet, but the rest of his party isn't, and they have a free hand to criticise the government. They also have an almost entirely free hand on legislative matters, forcing the government to bargain with them on a case-by-case basis for support on legislation. While they've been quite reasonable about this, offering support by default unless they have a serious problem with a bill, the fact remains that they effectively have a veto on legislation. And the mere possibility of that has significantly constrained the government's program.

This has worked because Labour is used to MMP, used to compromise, and is able to moderate its policy programme while finding areas of common ground it can work with other parties on (e.g. kiwisaver). But I can't imagine it working so well with National, firstly, because the party has not adapted well to MMP (it still has an arrogant "born to rule" attitude, and has systematically failed to exploit the government's weak position this term by building coalitions and running its own legislative agenda). And secondly, because of the policies it wishes to pursue. There's a much wider gulf between NZ First and National than between NZ First and Labour, and I can't really see Winston voting for privatisation, superannuation cuts, and looting the state, no matter how many baubles he's offered. If forced to rely on NZ First, National may find itself government, but unable to enact their core election promises or policy platform outside of law and order. The net result is likely to be hissy-fits and threats of an early election to "gain a mandate".

The same analysis applies to either of National's other possible partners across the centreline, except there the policy gap is even wider. Basically, if National has to rely on anyone other than ACT or Peter Dunne - in other words, if they fail to score more than 47% of the vote - they're crippled.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Five Years

Five years ago today, the United States and its "coalition of the willing" invaded Iraq, ostensibly to destroy Saddam's WMD to punish Saddam for allying with Al-Qaeda to build a "model of democracy" in the Middle East to end Saddam's reign of terror to demonstrate American power and get revenge for 9/11. No WMD were found, neither was any association with Al-Qaeda, Iraq's democracy has been stillborn in a wave of ethnic clensing, and people live in worse fear than they did under Saddam. But at least America has demonstrated how mighty it is, right?

America's promises to rebuild Iraq turned out to be lies. The pitiful amount they committed was stolen by corrupt American officials, or diverted to pay for security. Their promises to end torture turned out to be lies - instead, the Americans have simply replaced one bunch of torturers with another (when they're not doing it themselves). Their promises to restore stability also turned out to be lies; Iraqis have no security, and live in constant fear of being killed by sectarian death squads or trigger-happy American troops.

And the cost of all this? Nobody knows. Estimates of the dead range from 90,000 (at the most conservative) to well over a million. And all but the most conservative sources lead to an uncomfortable truth: Bush has been a bigger butcher of Iraqis than Saddam:

Estimates of the Iraqi deaths caused by Saddam's regime amount to a maximum of one million over a 35-year period (100,000 Kurds in the Anfal campaign in the 1980s; 400,000 in the war against Iran; 100,000 Shias in the suppressed uprising of 1991; and an unknown number executed in his prisons and torture chambers). Averaged over his time in power, the annual rate does not exceed 29,000.

Only the conservatively calculated Iraq Body Count death toll credits the occupation with an average annual rate that is less than that - some 18,000 deaths in the five years so far. Every other source, from the WHO to the surveys of Iraqi households, puts the average well above the Saddam-era figure. Those who claim Saddam's toppling made life safer for Iraqis have a lot of explaining to do.

Saddam was hanged for a tiny fraction of those deaths. Other Iraqis went to the gallows for the Al-Anfal campaign. I don't agree with the penalty, but I do agree that anyone responsible for deaths on that scale should face justice and be held accountable. And applying that standard even-handedly can only lead to one conclusion: Bush and Blair should be rotting in a cell in The Hague.


Bush speech hails Iraq 'victory'

Really, he should be writing for the Onion.

Learned nothing, forgotten nothing

Roger Douglas' fervour to restart the Revolution immediately brough to mind Talleyrand's comment about the exiled Bourbon of France: "they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing". And it seems I'm not the only one. In their "hive mentality" column in the NBR today, Ben Thomas and David Young make a similar comparison:

Addressing the well-covered Act conference last weekend, list MP Heather Roy said Act should present itself as a "plausible and revolutionary government in exile." It's a strange comment, but one that sums up the place of Sir Roger Douglas in New Zealand political life: a kind of neo-liberal Dalai Lama who hasn't been able to return to his own land, but finds refuge the world over consulting on privatisation programmes and market reform.

At the very least, Act's band of market liberal visionaries have the air of deposed European monarchs living in small London apartments, wearing traditional uniforms, holding "cabinet" meetings around dining tables and planning for what they see as an inevitable return to the throne.


Rogering us again

ACT held a press conference this morning, at which Roger Douglas reminded everyone of why they hate him: he promised to take us straight back to the 80's if elected to Cabinet, with plans to slash public spending, privatise the education and health systems, dump working for families, and (of course) give enormous tax cuts to the rich. Questions on whether MMP would be a problem were airily dismissed by Rodney Hide with a claim that "There are a lot of people in the National Party who agree with what we are saying".

Over on his blog, Colin Espiner responds with the obvious question: will John Key rule out a Cabinet post for Douglas? Key has already says he does not want to run a radical hard-right government; if he means it, he should put his money where his mouth is. Otherwise, the public are perfectly entitled to think that if they vote National, they'll get Rogered - a proposition which is likely to inspire fear and loathing in anyone outside of ACT's band of zealots.

Update: And Key comes to the party:

"If ACT are hell bent on following a radical right-wing agenda and won't fit in with a moderate pragmatic agenda then we can’t work with them. They’re ruling themselves out if that's what they are doing," Key said.
Unfortunately, we won't know whether he means it until its too late. The only way to ensure Douglas stays out is to vote for parties which will refuse under any circumstances to work with him.

Climate change: fuel switching

This morning's Herald notes that Genesis Energy has significantly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by running its new gas-powered e3p turbine in preference to the old coal-fired Huntly. Of course it has - gas is a far more carbon efficient fuel than coal, and the higher efficiency of the newer turbine also makes a significant difference. How much of a difference? According to a Ministry for the Environment report into electricity emissions factors [PDF], Huntly emits 930 tCO2 per GWh, while a modern closed cycle gas turbine emits only 370. Which sugests that we could make a major reduction in our electricity-sector emissions by swapping out Huntly for a new gas turbine. In the UK, this fuel switching from old coal to new gas has been the major reason for their significant decline in CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, a complete swap would be expensive - working on the price of e3p, it would come to approximately NZ$1.3 billion, assuming no economies of scale. Fortunately, there's a cheaper option. Huntly burns coal now because of gas supply worries, and because Genesis roped itself into a long-term supply contract with no accountign for externalities. But the station originally ran on gas, and the supply worries have now eased somewhat (so much that Methanex thinks it can go back to turning natural gas into fertiliser). Huntly's steam turbines are grossly inefficient - only 38% - but even so switching to gas would lower its emissions to around 530 tCO2 per GWh - a reduction of over 40% at no additional capital cost. Whether it is economic remains to be seen, but one of the aims of the government's ETS is to make such switching economic, and hopefully it will be enough to push Genesis in the right direction.

Another vampire from the crypt

National has selected former ACT MP Stephen Franks as its candidate for Wellington Central. Franks was notable for the particularly noxious and intellectually dishonest stand he took against the Civil Union Act, which included a fairly vile (and fortunately failed) attempt to gut the Human Rights Act and allow employers to sniff into people's sex lives, and for supporting Judith Collins' attempt to deny abortion access to those who need it most. Then again, the National Party shared most of these positions, so he'll fit right in.

No doubt Franks will try and present himself as a "liberal" during the election campaign. He's not - he's just a tawdry panty-sniffing moral authoritarian who thinks everyone else's sex life is his business. The only "freedom" he is interested in is the freedom of the rich to victimise the rest of us. And that is a "freedom" we very much need to control if we are to live our lives in peace.

China to India: thankyou for your oppression

The world's largest dictatorship is thanking the world's largest democracy for suppressing pro-Tibet protests:

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has said he "appreciated" the steps taken by Indian authorities in handling protests by Tibetan refugees in the country.

More than 100 refugees were detained in India while attempting to march to the Chinese border last week.


India has not allowed large-scale public protests for fear of embarrassing Beijing.

I wonder if Helen Clark will be receiving a similar thankyou for her efforts to whitewash the issue?

Meanwhile, Chinese human rights activist Hu Jia has gone on trial in Beijing. His crime? Passing information on Chinese human rights abuses and environmental problems to the media. In New Zealand, that's an essential part of the democratic process. In China, they call it "inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system", and stick you in jail for five years. But again, you won't be hearing any complaints about this from Helen Clark - she has a trade deal to think of.

His time ran out and Death fell softly from the summer sky...

The SF fans among you will recognise the title of this post as the final words of Arthur C. Clarke's "Death and the Senator". Now that Clarke's time has run out, I thought I'd take a little time to remember him.

My love of Clarke's work goes back a long way. The first two "real" books I ever owned (I'm unsure as to which was the first, but I still have both of them, well-read, though smelling a little dusty) were Malcolm Edwards' collection Constellations: Stories of the Future, which contained (among other things) Clarke's story "The Wind From The Sun", and Clarke's Islands in the Sky, a children's novel about a kid who scams a trip to a space station. And with those, I was hooked - both on science fiction and on Clarke. Over the years, I devoured pretty much every short story he had written - the libraries were awash with his collections - then moved on to the novels. Imperial Earth, Childhood's End, Rendezvous with Rama, 2001 and 2010. His later novels, written "in collaboration" with various others, tended to suck, so I gave up on them. But his classics are some of the finest works of SF ever written.

Still, it's the short stories I keep coming back to. Clarke was a master of that form, able to deliver a honed-down story (and his point) in just a few pages. Rather than focusing on logic puzzles (Asimov's trap - he was really a mystery writer) or scientific trivia, Clarke focused on people and big ideas - and yet his stories are the best I know for presenting the wonder and beauty and cold mathematics of space travel. His venture into film is the perfect example of this - the science in 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfect, but its just a backdrop for something else. That something else might be alien contact ("The Sentinel"), a crisis of faith ("The Star"), or the consequences of nuclear war ("If I Forget Thee, O Earth"). The best of these stories will be remembered long after Clarke is dust.

As for which is my favourite, paging through The Collected Stories (the same publishing technology which allows Robert Jordan to write 900 pages of nothing also allows the publication of almost everything Clarke has ever written in one fat volume), I'd have to vote for "Transit of Earth", the bleak story of a doomed scientist facing his fate with no hope of rescue, and nothing to do but record the damn numbers. Matter of fact science, sense of wonder at the universe, and tragedy all in one package. Unfortunately, it's not online, but if you can find it, read it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New Fisk

The only lesson we ever learn is that we never learn

Outright discrimination

What is it with bar owners and the Human Rights Act? Two years ago there was a spate of them trying to raise the drinking age by themselves, and discriminating against 18- and 19-year-olds. Now some Wellington bars (or at least its bouncers) has decided not to admit the old. This is of course illegal - as illegal as refusing to admit people because they're Maori. While they may not be a bar's ideal demographic, older customers are equal members of society, and deserve to be treated as such.

How many people does China have to kill?

The Chinese regime's crackdown in Tibet and our government's lacklustre response has raised an important question: where do we set the line on human rights and free trade? How many people does a regime have to kill or torture or force to work in sweatshops before we decide that we will do no favours for them and we do not want their tainted money? The Greens' Keith Locke will be trying to get an answer on the government's moral limits in Question Time today:

3. KEITH LOCKE to the Minister of Foreign Affairs: What human rights abuses, if any, would lead him to advise the Prime Minister to reconsider the April signing of a preferential trade agreement with China?
Unfortunately, I don't expect any real answer. Instead, I expect Locke will be showered with abuse for daring to ask such an uncomfortable question. Which in itself will speak volumes about the immorality of the government's position.

Update: As predicted, evasion and abuse. Our government seems to have no moral limit in trade policy at all. "Fuck the morals, does it make any money" seems to be the name of the game.

Heads they win, tails we lose

For the past year, National has been telling us that with the economy so strong the government doesn't need to run surpluses, and so that money should be given away as tax cuts for the rich. Now that things aren't looking so good, he's switched to claiming that we need to stimulate the economy with - you guessed it - tax cuts for the rich.

A case of "heads they win, tails we lose"?

National vigil for Tibet

It seems that tonight's vigil for Tibet at parliament isn't the only one. Amnesty International and other groups have also organised vigils in Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin. Here's the details.

Auckland: 17:30, Aotea Square
Christchurch: 17:00 Cathedral Square
Dunedin: Dunedin: Union Lawn, Otago University, 12:30
Wellington: Parliament, 17:30.

Please show your support for human rights and the Tibetian people.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More mealy-mouthed bullshit on China

Today, the government put up a motion at the beginning of Question Time on the situation in Tibet. Unfortunately, as with their previous responses, it's more mealy-mouthed bullshit:

I move that this House express its deep concern at reports of violence and riots in Tibet and subsequently elsewhere in China; call on all sides to show restraint; express its strong support for the right of people to protest peacefully; urge the Chinese authorities to react carefully and proportionately to protest; and urge China to engage in meaningful dialogue with representatives of the Tibetan people in order to achieve a lasting resolution of problems in Tibet.
A government which truly supported human rights would condemn, rather than merely "express concern", and would aim that condemnation clearly at the Chinese regime, rather than seeking to blame their victims. But its already abundently clear that our government has been bought,and that their eyes are firmly fixed on the FTA, and bugger how many protestors the Chinese shoot or run over with tanks.

During the subsequent debate, several parties expressed a desire for a stronger motion. Judy Turner's speech is a fantastic read, not just for the rhetoric, but also for what it reveals about NZ's "response". Apparently, our government hasn't even summoned the Chinese Ambassador to express its disappointment or "concern" directly. They're so scared of upsetting the Chinese that they can't even do that.

I'm utterly disgusted by Labour's inaction on this issue. They've sold our souls to an authoritarian regime, compromising our fundamental values so our farmers can sell more milk. They've betrayed themselves, they've betrayed us, and hopefully they'll be paying a price for it at election time.

New kiwi blog

The Hand Mirror - a collection of New Zealand's best female bloggers.

(Hat tip: In A Strange Land)

Climate change: good news on deforestation

MAF has released its annual survey of deforestation intentions, aimed at predicting deforestation rates, and it has some good news: deforestation is expected to decline by 75% due to the government's ETS. The 2006 survey predicted around 50,000 hectares of deforestation over CP1, but the 2007 survey shows this will reduce to 12,000 hectares. In carbon terms, that's around 30 MTCO2-e - a figure that will make a substantial difference to our performance over CP1 (primarily by shifting our forestry emissions from the high scenario to a much lower one).

The survey also gives us a good reason to implement the ETS as proposed rather than weakening it to allow greater land-use flexibility: such a move would result in deforestation ballooning to 31,000 hectares, effectively making us 15 MTCO2-e (and about NZ$375 million) worse off. This is simply not a change we can afford to make.

Protest China's crackdown in Tibet

Frogblog has word of a vigil for Tibet in Wellington tomorrow:

When: Wednesday, 19 March, 17:30.
Where: Parliament

If you want to remind our MPs that we expect a stronger stand on human rights than we've seen so far, then please go along.

Dunne and MMP revanchism

With an election due at the end of the year, we're seeing the usual calls from the right to roll back MMP and return to the "good old days" of first past the post. The latest to join the chorus is United Future's Peter Dunne, who thinks its time for another referendum on the issue. His reasons are the usual laundry list you expect from the grumpies:

We have seen MPs defeated in their electorates returning to Parliament via the party list. There has been the list MP, elected solely on the basis of his party crossing the threshold by virtue of winning an electorate seat, claiming to remain in Parliament after deserting his party.
But the first is a feature, not a bug, while the second can occur under any electoral system and is a normal part of the political process. Reform was formed this way, Labour was formed this way, National was formed this way, even Dunne's own party was formed this way, when he and some centrist friends deserted their parties just before the 1996 election - and I didn't see him wailing about how the voters were betrayed then (I also didn't see him wailing about defeated electorate candidates entering Parliament via the list when his own party collected seven such MPs in 2002, and two in 2005).

But Dunne reserves the bulk of his criticism for the Maori seats (which, as I recall, were also present under FPP), raising fears of an overhang preventing National from forming a government. But as I've pointed out before, overhangs are not a "Maori seat" problem - any electorate can cause them. They're the price we pay for having a mixed-member system and an archaic attachment to local constituencies. And if we want to solve this problem and reduce disproportionality, the answer isn't to move back to an electoral system which entrenched it and manufactured a majority for whichever party wins a plurality (or indeed, allowed a party to win a majority of the seats without even winning a plurality of the vote) - but to move to a list-only system where the only thing that matters is the proportion of the party vote. But you won't see Dunne advocating that because he wouldn't be in Parliament under such a system.

(And again, there's a rich irony in seeing Dunne complain about the prospect of an overhang, when on current polling and with his party vote fragmented, he looks highly likely to be an overhang MP himself by the end of the year).

Dunne's concern about National being prevented from forming a government is telling. Most MMP-revanchism is driven not by principled concern for a more democratic electoral system, but by partisan concern for electoral outcomes. By guaranteeing a more democratic outcome and requiring every government to have the support of the majority of the electorate, MMP makes it more difficult for the right to win. And it says something about their attitude to democracy that their preferred response to this is to try and restore an undemocratic political system, rather than change their policies so as to better win over the people.

A shameful straw man

In the wake of her failure to properly criticise Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet, Helen Clark has attempted to defend her government's unconscionable decision to continue pursuing a free trade agreement with the Chinese regime. Her basic argument?

If New Zealand traded and entered into trade agreements only with countries with which it had identical interests and views, "then apart from Ireland and Switzerland and Scandinavia, it would be pretty thin pickings".
This of course is a straw man. It's not a question of us only trading with countries with "identical interests and views" (something which doesn't exist between individuals, let alone countries); its a question of us going out of our way to offer preferential access to a country whose actions clearly put it beyond the international pale. While Clark shamefully attempts to paper over this difference, it's real, and reflected in our foreign policy. We're not negotiating an FTA with Zimbabwe. We're not negotiating an FTA with Uzbekistan. We're not negotiating an FTA with Belarus or Burma. So why the hell are we negotiating one with China?

Hawke's Bay DHB report

The Director-General of Health's review of conflicts of interest at Hawke's Bay DHB has been released, and it strongly criticises the board, both for its handling of conflicts of interest and its dysfunctional relationship with management. The report takes a wider view than just the allegations around Peter Hausmann, and finds a consistent systemic failure on the part of the Board to properly disclose and manage conflicts of interest. Hausmann is treating this as a vindication, but I wouldn't say so. Instead, both he and his fellow Board members failed to live up to the standard we expect from those in positions of public trust. They displayed consistently bad judgement, and failed to establish or adhere to even minimal standards around such conflicts. If that's "vindication", it's setting the bar pretty damn low.

The report blames this failure on a lack of guidance from the DHB, but the Ministry of Health should be carrying part of the blame here. Given the small size of our health community and the limited pool from which DHB candidates are drawn, such conflicts are inevitable, so you'd expect some robust guidance from central government on what to do about them. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any. If we want to stop this sort of thing from happening again, we need to do more than just leave it to DHBs and hope they will muddle through. And OTOH, how hard can it be? The appropriate policy is obvious the moment you stop to think about it: if there's the slightest hint of a conflict, disclose it and withdraw from any relevant decision-making. It's not rocket science, its not sainthood, its just basic common sense. If elected representatives think that's too much to expect, they should be looking for another job.

In light of this, it seems that David Cunliffe's decision to sack the Board and appoint a Commissioner was entirely justified - and the report notes that it would have recommended the appointment of a Crown Monitor to supervise if the Board hadn't been sacked already. With what I've read, I'm very glad the Minister beat them to it.

The full report and recommendations can be found here [PDF].

A condemnation that isn't

So, after two days of weasel words and dithering, the New Zealand government has finally come out with a formal statement condemning China's brutality in Tibet. Except, if you actually read it, it does no such thing - rather than condemnation, New Zealand simply "expresses concern", and rather than calling on China to respect the right of peaceful protest, it notes that we respect that right and calls on China to "react carefully and proportionately". There's not even a call to release the political prisoners China has detained.

Again, if this was happening in Zimbabwe or Burma, we'd be screaming about it. But again, the cost of that FTA is our complicity and silence, and Helen Clark has just proven it in spades.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Be afraid. Be very afraid

Roger Douglas won't just be running for election again - ACT wants him in Cabinet. National professes reluctance, of course, but if the numbers go ACT's way, they might not have much choice about it (and despite Key's statement, the prospect of being "forced" by a coalition partner to restart the Revolution and complete Douglas' "unfinished business" will not be unwelcome to many in National).

Fortunately, Douglas is so reviled that the prospect of his return should be self-defeating. But I'm sure there'll be people wanting to help it along with a "a vote for National is a vote for Douglas" campaign.

(Meanwhile, this should be a reminder to everyone that, contra Buffy, a stake is not enough. You also need to sever the head and put holy wafers in the mouth. Otherwise the bastards just keep coming back...)

Mealy-mouthed bullshit

Despite a death toll of at least 80 and eyewitness reports that Chinese police have gunned down protesters in the streets of Lhasa and Aba, our human rights supporting Prime Minister is still refusing to condemn the Chinese government's crackdown in Tibet. Instead she's waiting for "more accurate information" and calling on both sides "to exercise restraint". This is the sort of mealy-mouthed bullshit issued by the US when their Israeli proxies show their usual disregard for civilian lives, not what I'd expect from a Prime Minister who leads a government which claims to be a strong advocate for human rights.

Meanwhile, both the government and opposition are claiming that human rights are "independent" of the Chinese FTA. They should have no trouble condemning the current abuses then. Their failure to do so suggests that the Chinese see the two as linked, and that the profits of our farmers must be bought by our complicity and silence.

Something I'd missed

The Cook Islands took the final step and abolished the death penalty late last year. They are now listed as abolitionist on the Amnesty International database. The Cooks had never executed anyone since self-government, but their law (based on the NZ Crimes Act 1961) retained the death penalty for treason. Now it has finally been abolished.

Four more countries and we'll have a legally (rather than just in practice) death-penalty free South Pacific.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New Fisk

Silenced by the men in white socks

The government must condemn China's brutality in Tibet

On Friday, Tibet erupted in protests against the continuing Chinese occupation, drawing the expected crackdown from China's authoritarian regime. So far at least ten people are dead, and Tibetan sources put the figure much higher. And with protests continuing and the Chinese regime declaring a "people's war" against democracy in the region, the death toll is likely to rise.

Normally when an authoritarian regime abuses human rights and murders protestors, the New Zealand government speaks out about it. It's what we did over Burma, and over Zimbabwe. But the government has been conspicuously silent over Chinese human rights abuses of late, because it is negotiating a free trade agreement with China. It does not feel it can criticise China openly for fear of upsetting the deal and costing the country (actually, farmers) hundreds of millions of dollars in potential exports. So we get embarrassments like Winston Peters' torturous exercise in Parliament last week as he struggled to avoid saying what everyone knows: that China is an authoritarian regime which denies basic human rights. In other words, the cost of the deal is our complicity and silence, even when China abuses human rights right here in New Zealand.

This is too high a price to pay. It was too high when China was merely conducting oppression as usual, and its certainly too high now that they're shooting people in the streets. Our government must condemn China's crackdown. Otherwise, screw the airport - Labour will have sold our souls.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Censoring the Environment II

Who censored the final chapter of Ministry for the Environment's State of the Environment report? After some digging with the OIA, I have an answer: it was MAF.

First, a recap: the State of the Environment report was supposed to be a summary of key environmental indicators. When the report was released, the absence of any conclusions was noted, then the draft final chapter was leaked to the Greens. According to Trevor Mallard, the chapter was pulled because it was not supported by the facts - an assertion which is laughable if you actually bother to read it. MfE gave a different story:

peer review of the draft conclusions chapter by central government agencies and regional councils made clear that it qualitative content was not in line with the factual nature of the report
But according to documents obtained under the Official Information Act, the draft was commented on by five agencies: the Ministries of Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry, Health, and Transport, and the Treasury. Contrary to MfE's claims, no regional councils were part of the process. And contrary to their implication, the comments were mainly supportive. MFish mainly tweaked grammar, and made one substantive suggestion around the characterisation of the number of species in the Quota Management System. Ministry of Health suggested a better wording of urbanisation statistics. Transport wanted the report to highlight the number of deaths due to car exhausts. Treasury suggested a tighter wording for the section on "economic drivers and land use", and questioned the absence of material on the government's sustainability agenda.

In fact, the only peer reviewer which appeared unhappy with the draft was MAF, whose first comment sets the tone for the rest: "why is the land-based sector singled out as having legacy problems"?

From there on, it's the sort of exercise you would expect from any entrenched industry group. They criticise the content as "emotive". They demand greater highlighting of industrial (rather than farm) pollution. Taking lessons from the tobacco lobby and climate change denial industry, they question the evidence (though without any evidence or argument themselves) for the effects of increased fertiliser use and increased stocking rates on water quality. They object to any suggestion that land might need to be managed to prevent environmental problems. And then they go on to talk about urban planning... the basic approach seems to be "this makes farmers look bad, therefore it must be shot down, wherever, however".

In short, it is a perfect example of industry "capture" of a government Ministry, and the comments seem to have been enough to get the entire conclusion pulled.

This raises even more questions. Not only do we have a supine Ministry for the Environment which censors "unhelpful" information; we also have a Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry which has been taken over by and is advocating for the interests of the very people it is meant to be regulating. The latter can not be good for policy in the area, and it is not good for the public. The evidence clearly shows that what is good for farmers is not good for New Zealand. And if MAF holds the opposite view, then I think they need to be reminded who they are working for.

Update: An archive of MAF's feedback on the draft is here.

New Fisk

The cult of the suicide bomber

That Commerce Bill

Yesterday I reported that the government had introduced a new Commerce Amendment Bill which was aimed at regulating Auckland International Airport. The bill is now online, and it seems that that is just a small part of it. The bill is the product of a long review process into the operation of the Commerce Act and its application to electricity lines and gas network companies; it substantially rewrites the general rules around price controls to specify the purpose of regulation (to benefit consumers and provide incentives to monopolies similar to those they would have in a competitive market), formalise the decision-making process and provide options on how controlled industries may be regulated. One of the aims seems to be to push the Commerce Commission towards more negotiated settlements where monopolies voluntarily accept regulation to avoid something worse, which should make things easier.

Airports feature briefly; they are already subject to some information reporting under the Airport Authorities Act 1966, and this regime is tightened and moved to the Commerce Commission, who are better placed to deal with any market abuse. Again, it's a good move - airports are natural monopolies, and we need to keep an eye on them. And it may just discourage stupid "investors", foreign or otherwise, who think they can buy up such assets solely to exploit that monopoly position.

It's up to the government

With shareholders in Auckland International Airport happy to have the Canadian Pension Plan in control, the deal is now in the hands of the government. But it's hard to see it succeeding at that stage. The criteria in the Overseas Investment Regulations 2005 include:

  • Whether the investment is beneficial to New Zealand (no; it's speculation, not productive investment, and brings nothing to the table other than a threat of asset stripping);
  • Whether refusal will adversely harm our international reputation or breach international obligations (no; most countries protect strategic assets such as airports, and our reputation can only be enhanced by refusing to play host to a dodgy tax scam);
  • whether the investment will "assist New Zealand to maintain New Zealand control" (well, duh).
In addition, there's the basic test laid out in the Act itself of whether the investment will create or retain jobs, introduce new technology, increase exports or competition, or increase development investment. The answer to all of these questions is again "no" (again, its pure speculative investment, people buying an asset with the hope of screwing monopoly rents from it. This is simply not the sort of "investment" we need, and it provides nothing beneficial to New Zealand).

Given the legal criteria, it's hard to see how the CPP's application can succeed. But I'm sure the worshippers of the free market will kick and scream when they are inevitably told to piss off.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hitting Auckland Airport again

Today the government introduced a new Commerce Amendment Bill to the House, with the intention of getting it to select committee by the end of next week. While the ful text isn't up on yet, the description on the Parliament site makes the target of the bill clear:

The primary focus of the bill is to fundamentally reform the regulatory control provisions of the Commerce Act 1986. Other amendments include imposing enhanced information disclosure regulation on certain services supplied by 3 international airport companies and providing for the enforcement of variation of undertakings given under section 69A of the Commerce Act 1986 in relation to clearance or authorisation of mergers.
A point of order from Gerry Brownlee on the bill made it clear that the bill would primarily amend parts 4 and 5 of the Act, dealing with price controls and authorisations for mergers. Reading between the lines, it seems they'll be demanding international airports to justify their prices, and setting themselves up to impose price controls if e.g. a foreign owner decides to extract monopoly rents. It's a good move anyway - airports are natural monopolies and deserve tight scrutiny and proper regulation to prevent abuse. The fact that it may annoy the Canadians is just icing on the cake.