Saturday, May 31, 2008

The world moves on cluster bombs

Earlier in the year, representatives from more than a hundred nations met in Wellington to hammer out a draft agreement to ban cluster bombs. On Thursday, in Dublin, they formally approved the resulting treaty. It will formally open for signature in December, and once ratified, will commit its members to "never under any circumstances" use, develop, produce, or sell cluster bombs, and to destroy their stockpiles within eight years. And once they have, the world will be a safer place.

The treaty will also commit its members to refusing to assist other countries to use or develop cluster weapons - a commitment which will have some interesting side effects. In an extraordinary act of statesmanship quite unlike the craven toady role played by his predecessor, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has decided to back the treaty, and has ordered the UK military to destroy its cluster bomb stockpiles. He has also told the US to remove all cluster bombs from its bases in the UK. The Americans are unlikely to be happy at this blatant act of independence by a colony client dependency "ally", but there's not much they can do about it. The UK is a lot bigger than New Zealand, and a lot harder to bully into line. And on this issue, it has a lot of friends. Pretty much every state in NATO has signed up, and if they all ratify, the only place the US will be able to store its indiscriminate civilian-killing weapons is (typically backwards) Poland.

Friday, May 30, 2008

More lese majeste in Thailand

Last August, a former chief of staff to deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin (and now government Minister) Jakrapob Penkair gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. In it, he criticised one of the generals who had led the 2006 coup and attacked Thailand's system of "guided democracy" and patronage:

Patronage system is problematic because it encourages unequality among individuals.

And that’s a direct conflict to Democracy.

It encourages one person into thinking of depending on the other or others.

It breeds endless number of slaves with a very limited number of masters.

It prevents Thailand from coming out of age.

For saying this, Penkair has now been charged with lese majeste and faces between three and fifteen years in prison. Three to fifteen years for pointing out the simple truth that Thailand's rich and powerful have systematically infantilised their own people in order to maintain their positions.

This is how monarchies and aristocracies remain in power. And it seems to me to be an excellent reason for getting rid of them.

Climate change: farmers' false pleas of poverty

So, dairy farmers have had their annual payout raised to a record $7.90 per kg of milk solids.

And they still say they can't afford to pay for their pollution? Bullshit.

Old parties never die

The Standard's report on the latest Herald digipoll has an interesting feature: Christian Heritage is polling 0.1%. Christian Heritage? Didn't they disband a couple of years ago after their leader was convicted of child rape? Well, yes. But the digipoll reports whatever people say, and clearly there is at least one person in their polling sample who believes Christian Heritage still exists. Or maybe they're hoping for a resurrection...

Reform comes to Tonga

Tonga officially opened its Parliament yesterday, during the speech from the throne, Princess Regent, Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita made it clear the government would move quickly on reform:

She confirmed that the next elections, in 2010, will be conducted under a reformed structure.

Princess Pilolevu said it would make this session an historically important one, in that it would be the last under a system that has guided the Kingdom of Tonga for the past 133 years.


Princess Pilolevu said the Tongan Government next month would introduce a bill to establish a constitution and electoral commission to consider the reform and to draft the necessary legislation.

It's good news, but OTOH, Tonga's corrupt kleptocracy has reneged on such promises in the past, so I'll believe it when I see it.

For independent prosecutors

In the wake of three high-profile murder acquittals this week, lawyer Chris Comeskey has called for the existing network of Crown Solicitors to be replaced by an independent public prosecutor's office. I agree. The current system - in which the police make the decision then hire an approved private law firm to handle the courtroom details - is simply insane. There are no checks and balances, and no-one has an incentive to make sure the evidence is strong enough to support a conviction - the police have already convinced themselves of their chosen suspect's guilt, while the law firm has both an obligation to represent their client, and a direct financial incentive to press ahead no matter how weak the case is. As a result, cases where the evidence is iffy make it to court, wasting the time and money of the police, the court, and of course the hapless defendants (not that anyone seems to give a damn about them),

What we need is an independent body, acting as a check on the police and ensuring that their evidence is up to scratch. Not only will this result in less time and money wasted on poor cases where the police "know" they have the right person but haven't bothered to do the work to convince a jury; it should also result in fewer miscarriages of justice. While public prosecutor's offices inevitably develop a prosecutorial mindset, the mere fact that they are separate from the police and tasked with delivering not suspects, but convictions, should help protect them against the groupthink which all to easily takes hold.

Of course, this would mean the police would be subject to greater oversight and would no longer be able to do shoddy work, so I can see why they wouldn't like the idea. But the rest of us should be all for it.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Parties III

Another minnow party has popped up for election year: icount. This seems to be yet another grumpy party complaining about politicians who don't keep their promises and "ignore the people". But their solution is rather innovative. Where other grumpy parties demand binding citizens initiated referenda (usually in the most stupid variation available; it can be done properly (thoughts here and here), but these people seem constitutionally incapable of it), icount plans to have remote-controlled list MPs. Members will vote on party policy through the website, and MPs will then mirror those views in Parliament, with any MP who does not being forced to resign (good luck enforcing that).

Of course, in order to get list MPs, they need to not only get 5% of the vote, but also manage to get 500 financial members so they can get registered as a party. And so far, they have no acknowledgement at all of the need for the latter. And with only 5 months until the election, they probably have their work cut out for them.

(Hat tip: 100 Word Blog).

The future of the Bush Administration

Last night, members of the Bush Administration got a glimpse of their future: at the Hay festival in the UK, several people (including George Monbiot) attempted to make a citizens arrest of former Bush official John Bolton for war crimes:

As Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, ended his hour-long discussion at the Hay festival, Monbiot, who had earlier challenged him for alleged breaches of the post-war Nuremburg Principles, moved towards the stage waving a charge sheet.

But security staff, alerted by pre-publicity, intervened and bundled Monbiot out of the tent as 20 supporters chanted "war criminal" and waved placards. The comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, who tried to pursue Bolton as he left the other side of the tent, was also blocked by security staff.

This is going to happen practically everywhere they go from now on. Universal jurisdiction is a well-established legal principle for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and plenty of countries (including New Zealand) have applicable laws. And while today it is activists seeking publicity, one day it will be real police, with a real warrant from a Spanish or Italian judge. Just like Pinochet.

The upshot is that Bolton and his fellow conspirators would be wise to never set foot outside the USA again. Otherwise, they're going to end up in jail.

The ODT joins the modern era

The Otago Daily Times has a new website - and one which is actually useable.

Something else to scan every morning, I guess.

(Hat tip: DPF).

Run out of town on a rail

Nepal has finally declared itself a republic, and run its king out of town on a rail. Previously regarded as a god, his popularity had declined after he decided to rule absolutely and murder people to retain power. He will now be treated as a commoner, and his palaces will be seized and turned into museums for the benefit of the people.

Sic semper tyrannis, and don't let the door hit your arse on the way out.

Old kiwi blog

Prog-blog is back.

Climate change: the downward path

If the government's planned Emissions Trading Scheme goes ahead, then in 2013 we will have an all sectors, all gases system, with a domestic emissions cap somewhat lower than projected emissions. While the agricultural sector will enjoy generous free allowances insulating it from bearing the full costs of its polluting behaviour, it will at least be included, and there will be some pressure to reduce emissions and seek greater efficiencies at the margins. So what happens after that?

Simple: we progressively reduce the cap. Both National and Labour have at least nominally committed to long-term emissions reductions (though National has set its target so far in the future that it looks like another excuse to do nothing at the moment), and reducing the cap is the best way of producing them. A diminishing supply of permits will force polluters to either reduce emissions, or to buy credits from overseas to cover their excess. Provided overseas reductions are robust, it doesn't matter which they do - a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon, and it doesn't matter much where its not coming from.

How steep a path we take depends in part on whether there is an international agreement setting tough targets to drive emissions reductions. But we can get some idea from the party's commitments. National, for example, has committed to reducing net carbon-equivalent emissions to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. Net 1990 emissions were 40 MTCO2-e, so this equates to a 2050 cap of 20 MTCO2-e. If the 2013 cap is 65 MTCO2-e, then this means lowering the cap by ~1.2 MTCO2-e per year, or 6 MTCO2-e per five-year period.

Labour's downward path is more difficult to determine. They've committed to a carbon-neutral electricity sector by 2025, carbon-neutral stationary energy by 2030, and carbon-neutral transport by 2040. What this means in practice is simply not allocating any credits to cover their emissions, forcing them to buy offsets from forestry or overseas, but the net result is that by 2040 the government will only be allocating credits for agriculture and industrial emissions. Unfortunately, there's no clue as to how much they will allocate, but given the level of agricultural emissions (37.5 MTCO2-e in 2005), if that is all Labour plans to do, their path is almost certain to be higher than National's (another way of looking at it is to look at the amount required to be offset in each of the start years: this suggests Labour would lower the cap by 24 MTCO2-e by 2040, or a mere 0.9 MTCO2-e per year).

But what if we want to go deeper? The good news is that we have a fair amount of flexibility here, and by spreading reductions out gradually we are less likely to see shocks. So for example if we wanted to reduce 2050 emissions to 25% of net 1990 emissions (or about 10 MTCO2-e), we would only have to lower the cap by 1.5 MTCO2-e a year instead of 1.2. That's not a big difference annually, but it will make all the difference in the world at the end-point.

In the long-term, setting a downward path for emissions isn't that difficult. The difficult bit seems to be taking the first steps.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I didn't expect to say this, but Tariana Turia is right. The government's apology to Vietnam veterans today does not go far enough. In addition to apologising to those poisoned by American chemicals and then denied proper care by successive governments, we should also be apologising to Vietnam. Vietnam was an unjust war, fought for America's imperial aggrandisement. It caused the deaths of over a million North Vietnamese soldiers and two million civilians - over 10% of the North Vietnamese population. We should not have participated, and that fact needs to be formally acknowledged.

Blame the woman

So, who's to blame for forcing National to unexpectedly reveal its KiwiSaver policy sooner than it planned to? Commentators are quite clear: it was the woman's fault. Here's John Armstrong:

Wilkinson, who was marked out early for promotion from the current crop of first-term National MPs, has blotted her copybook.
And DPF:
One can only feel some sympathy for Kate Wilkinson, even if tempered with some annoyance. Some MPs are known to be prone to speaking before thinking, but Kate isn’t one of them. It was an uncharacteristic mistake...
Both of these comments strike me as more than a little unfair. Lest we forget, Wilkinson isn't just a backbencher, but National's labour and industrial relations spokesperson. She was thus entitled to expect to be told of upcoming policy changes to avoid making this sort of "mistake". Instead, she was mushroomed - kept in the dark and fed shit. To then be blamed by party mouthpieces like DPF for the "error" of echoing previous statements and sentiments of National's leading clique - following the public party line, in other words - simply adds insult to injury.

But ultimately this isn't about National's misogyny or the way it relegates its female MPs to junior roles relating mostly to kinder, kirche, and kuche. It's about National's undemocratic strategy of formulating policy in secret and keeping it close to its to its chest, refusing to inform even its own MPs until it is ready to spring it on the public at a time chosen to give them little time to think about it. As Gordon Campbell points out, this strategy is the very worst of Roger Douglas. And sadly, I suspect the fact that policy secrecy has just bitten them in the arse won't convince them to be more open and tell the New Zealand electorate what they stand for so we can make an informed choice; instead it is likely to lead to even greater secrecy, and a fear of saying anything from junior MPs in order to avoid the "mistake" of contradicting a secret policy they have neither been informed of or consulted on.

An interesting question

Will National's $2.4 billion commitment to fund Kiwisaver register in the next version of the Herald's "porkometer"?

Or is something only "pork" if the government does it?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Climate change: some "benefit"

The Herald reports that climate change will benefit farmers, according to a new report from MAF. Except that, when you actually read the report, that turns out not to be the case at all. The EcoClimate report uses climate change impact projections from NIWA to predict changes in production. And the headline result - buried in section 5 of the summary, far beyond where any journalist would bother to skim - is quite clear:

For average years, the projections show no strong increase or decrease during the coming century in production when averaged over the whole country. Projected national dairy production ranges from 96 to 101%, and projected sheep/beef production from 91 to 96% of the 1972–2002 average.
(Emphasis added)

That's a long way from "benefiting farmers", particularly when you notice that most of that range is on the downside, i.e. there is in fact likely to be a slight decrease in average agricultural production.

As for why, a picture is worth a thousand words, though this one needs a little extra interpretation:

2080 expected drought frequency, low-medium (l) and medium-high (r) warming scenarios.

The scale on the bottom is drought frequency, calibrated against a one-in-twenty year scenario. So, in the low-medium scenario, which is likely to be an underestimate the way things are going, most of the east coast will suffer droughts between 2 and 4 times more often. In the medium-high scenario, that's most of the country, and Canterbury and great chunks of the North Island will be looking at what was previously a one-in-twenty year drought every 2 - 5 years. And those droughts will be much more severe; at the moment production in the worst years (like the one that cost us a billion-odd dollars off GDP a decade back) was 70% of average. That's going to drop to 50%. So, more regular, and more extreme.

Of course, its not so bad if you live in Otago, and if you live in Southland, Taranaki, or the King Country, climate change will indeed be beneficial. But what this report basically tells us is that farmers on the east coast of New Zealand are fucked.

The full report is here [PDF].

HNZ managers feathering their own nests

Just prior to the 1999 election, WINZ CEO Christine Rankin got into serious trouble after it was learned that her department had blown $165,000 on chartering aircraft in order to transport 140 managers to a conference at the exclusive Wairakei Resort Hotel. It was a prime example of the private sector's culture of extravagance and managers feathering their own nests invading the public sector, and ultimately one of the reasons why Rankin was subsequently dumped. But with Labour's election, that culture of extravagance was supposed to have ended.

Unfortunately, it seems that Housing New Zealand didn't get the memo:

National Party Housing spokesman Phil Heatley has revealed 94 Housing New Zealand managers spent two days at a conference at the luxury Tongariro Lodge.

"The total cost of the two-day staff meeting was just short of $70,000 and included $5,000 in miscellaneous expenses, and $12,000 in travel costs.

I don't deny that public sector organisations need to have these sorts of conferences, and unlike Rodney Hide I do not believe they should hold them in a cardboard box under the Auckland motorway with refreshments of bread and water. But neither do I think they should be holding them in luxury resorts which pride themselves on their exclusive, millionaire clientele. These may be the sorts of circles HNZ managers move in in their private lives - I don't know, and I don't care - but when spending public money, they need to remember that they are public servants accountable to taxpayers. They may have been able to get away with this sort of extravagance at shareholder's expense in the private sector companies they were recruited from, but they damn well shouldn't be doing it on the public purse. And any of them who disagree should be tendering their resignations right now.

Climate change: the Greens on the ETS

Following the government's cowardly backdown on the climate change, the Greens made it clear that they would not support an environmentally compromised ETS. Speaking on Nine To Noon this morning, Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons clarified those comments, laying out the conditions they need to support the bill [audio]. They boil down to two things: the ETS must be made fairer, and it must be made more effective.

On the fairness front, the Greens want to see some movement on agriculture. Currently, the rest of us are looking at subsidising farmers to pollute until at least 2030, at a cost of almost a billion dollars a year. The "polluter pays" principle, and simple fairness, demand that farmers pay the costs of those emissions themselves (and its not as if they can't afford it). The Greens recognise that the agriculture sector needs to be eased in, and so are suggesting an early entry of fertiliser into the scheme, or a requirement for new farms or dairy conversions to cover costs initially until the full entry of agriculture in 2013. The former would be far more effective and easier to manage than the latter, especially given that fertiliser is the area where there seems to be real potential for emissions reductions.

Early entry for part of the agriculture sector would also boost the effectiveness of the scheme, but the Greens also want the government to reverse its decision to delay the entry of transport, and instead have a staged entry, with oil companies responsible for 30% of their emissions in 2009, 60% in 2010, and 100% in 2011. This was estimated to add 2 cents a litre to the cost of petrol per year, spreading out the cost and avoiding a large, one-off shock. It's a good idea, and one I hope the government will consider.

Unfortunately, it's looking like the government will have a difficult task ahead of them. In order to pass the bill, they need to cobble together a deal between the Greens and NZ First. But while the latter seem receptive (especially since the government is now talking about recycling revenue to compensate those worst affected - something they should have been doing a long time ago), they're probably not going to want to see it strengthened, especially in the area of agriculture. So, the bill may yet fail.

The other interesting point is that the Greens hinted they might try and renegotiate the ETS in the wake of the election as part of coalition talks. So this issue isn't going to go away, and the government (whoever they are after November) is not just going to be able to ignore it.

National backflips on Kiwisaver

Another flip-flop from National: having spent the last year railing against employer contributions to KiwiSaver, they now seem to support them. Responding to a Labour press release highlighting comments by Kate Wilkinson which supported repealing employer contributions, National quickly issued a "clarification" saying:

National will release its KiwiSaver policy later this year, but suggestions that National will do away with compulsory employer contributions to the scheme are incorrect.
As Vernon Small points out, its not the usual way you announce such a major policy change, and has likely undermined another one of National's prepared election-campaign inoculations. It also raises big questions about how they plan to fund their "bigger, faster" tax cuts for the rich, as those employer contributions are effectively paid for by the government via a system of tax credits.

But as great as it is to see the political ground shifting and National committing to continue to implement yet another left-wing policy, its also worth remembering the obvious fact that this is not what National's big business backers are paying them for and not what National candidates are standing for election for. They want a National government which enacts right-wing policy, rather than managing Labour's social democracy. Once you remember that, then its difficult to avoid serious doubts about either Key's honesty with the electorate, or his ability to deliver on his promises.

Justice and the right to silence

David Slack this morning has some pointed words for the Prime Minister in response to her comments on the Kahui acquittal. The short version? "Butt out". Politicians criticising judicial outcomes violates important principles such as the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary and police. While people are angry that a crime has been committed but no-one has been held accountable for it, at the end of the day the basic problem is that the police didn't deliver the goods. While they had a prima facie case, they were unable to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. It is thus entirely proper that Kahui goes free.

As with the police rape case, such acquittals are the price we pay for justice. "Better that ten guilty men go free than an innocent be unjustly imprisoned". Any lesser standard of evidence would undermine the integrity of our justice system, and transform it from a justice system into a punishment one - a sort of organised lynchmob picking out anyone who looked vaguely guilty and victimising them whether they'd actually committed the crime in question or not. That might satisfy the "hang 'em high" brigade, who are perpetually unable to look beyond their own sense of outrage, but it does not satisfy me. We have more than enough innocent people in jail already, and the cases of David Dougherty, Arthur Allan Thomas and Peter Ellis ought to give us grave thoughts about the direction the screaming mob want to take our legal system in.

As for the calls to remove the right to silence, as I have said before, these are both dangerous and authoritarian. The right to silence exists to ensure confessions are voluntary rather than being beaten out of people, and because in our justice system it is the crown, not the defendant, which must prove their case. Yes, removing it would likely result in a lot more "confessions" and convictions. They just wouldn't be of the right people. But the boys in blue wouldn't have to work so hard, and would have more time to spend down at the donut shop, so it's unsurprising they favour such a move.

Which brings me back to the real problem here: as I said above, the basic reason this case failed was because at the end of the day, the police failed to present sufficient evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt (in fact, given how short it took them to deliver their verdict, I'd suggest the evidence was woefully inadequate). Maybe we should think about how that happened, rather than queuing up to undermine our justice system and give those same police free licence to string up anyone they want in future?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Removing the royal

Two years ago, monarchists were outraged when the government did away with the archaic title of "Queens' Counsel", replacing it instead with the more appropriate "senior counsel". Now they look to be about to make another such move, with the Law Commission recommending in its report on commissions of inquiry that we do away with Royal Commissions.

Actually, that's an exaggeration - they simply recommended that a new type of inquiry - "public inquiries" replace the old commissions of inquiry and royal commissions. They likely gave no thought whatsoever to the name, simply choosing one which reflected the purpose of such inquiries (to cover areas of great interest to the public). That's how relevant the monarchy is to modern New Zealand: we don't even bother to think about removing it from our language.

Now, if only we'd do the same for our government...

Making the law up as they go

Since the time of Solon, civilised countries have followed the principle that the law should be written and public. This allows people to know whether their behaviour is legal or illegal, and prevents the powerful from victimising others by making the law up as they go along.

The Labour government plans to throw that principle out the window.

In a recent Cabinet Paper on Reducing the Level and Impact of Organised Crime in New Zealand: Recommendations for Legislative Reform, Justice Minister Annette King floated a number of options to target "'street level' problems" caused by gangs, such as "incidental intimidation" caused by the presence of gang members. The options of UK-style Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), or California-style civil injunctions on gangs were rejected due to significant human rights issues and uncertain effectiveness. However, Cabinet directed officials to study a third alternative: granting a general power to police to "defuse" "intimidating" situations:

It is therefore proposed to vest the police with a new power that simply enables police officers to take reasonable and necessary measures to alleviate intimidatory situations – without criminalising any person who may have contributed to those situations. It would be an offence, however, to refuse to comply with a constable’s lawful directions. For example, individuals lawfully directed to "move on" or to remove clothing will be susceptible to arrest only if they refuse to cooperate.
This is an authoritarian's wet dream. Instead of Parliament having to pass a law to outlaw gang patches or exile people from Rotorua, individual police officers will be able to make the law up as they go along, and anyone who disagrees will be stuck with a $2,000 fine or three months in jail. The paper fully acknowledges the potential for abuse and victimisation - that
members of the community have be known to feel intimidated by the presence of persons with facial tattoos or a moko, homeless people living on the street, people engaged in public demonstrations, union members on picket lines, or groups of youth wearing "hoodies" in public places
and so individual police officers might well use their "discretion" (read as: power to legislate out of their arses) against such people. It also acknowledges that such powers are likely to face significant legal challenges on BORA grounds, and that Crown Law thinks it will be read down to require a very high threshold before such powers can be used. But none of that seems to matter: the government wants to be seen to be "doing something" and is quite willing to throw out a 2,500 year old legal principle and people's right to liberty in order to be seen to be "tough on crime" (left unstated: most people will simply comply out of fear of arrest, few will bother to challenge such directions in court, and the police will ignore the rulings anyway just as they have Brooker v. Police. So any judicial oversight and human rights protection will be non-existent; we'll all be subject to the arbitrary power and prejudices of the police).

This sort of shit is why I can never vote for Labour. Too many knee-jerk authoritarians, and no respect for personal liberty.

Illustrating the difference

For those who are interested in tax cuts, Keith Ng has an interesting analysis of the government's Budget package. The upshot: Labour's tax cuts are significantly more generous to the 70% of us who earn less than $40,000 a year than anything National has offered in the past (graph here). They are of course less generous to those on higher incomes, but you expect that from a centre-left government.

And that's the difference between National and Labour in a nutshell. While I have no enthusiasm for tax cuts, Labour is at least trying to ensure that the many benefit. National is interested only in the few. And as far as they're concerned, the rest of us - the vast majority of New Zealanders who earn less than $75,000 a year - simply don't exist.

Down and safe

Last August, NASA launched its Phoenix probe towards Mars. Less than an hour ago, it burned its way through Mars' atmosphere, popped parachutes, and softlanded on Vastitas Borealis. I guess the great galactic ghoul was taking the day off...

So, now we get to see what's under there, whether there's water - or microbes. We might also get to see just how much dry ice it gets buried in when the Martian winter comes.

A South American Union

Something I missed: on Friday, South American leaders got together and signed a treaty founding a South American Union along the lines of the EU. Like the EU, this has developed out of earlier regional integration - the Andean Community and Mercosur trade pacts, the Latin American Parliament, the Banco del Sur - which have been combined and given political direction. The new union will work towards economic development, a single market and common currency, the free movement of peoples and deeper political integration, with full union expected by 2019. Meanwhile, the US's proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas rots on the sidelines. South American governments want economic integration, but they want it on their own terms, rather than being dictated to by the US.

Whether this project is successful or not remains to be seen. But its a good start, and it will be interesting to watch.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Climate change: is it enough?

Last night, I hacked the government's ETS allocation plan out of Budget data, revealing that over the initial phase of the ETS, they planned to allocate 100 MTCO2-e to sectors projected to emit 105 MTCO2-e. The obvious question which flows from this is "is it enough"?

The obvious answer is "no". Our Kyoto target is to reduce emissions to 1990-levels on average. At current projections, we're expected to exceed this by 22 MTCO2-e over CP1. So that's the amount we need to underallocate by. Anything more, and we're committing to having to buy credits on the international market. The problem is, we've started late (we really should have done this back in 2002, which was when it was originally expected to be implemented), and with the scheme being progressively introduced and initially excluding our worst polluters - farmers - there are serious equity issues in asking those sectors which enter early to bear the whole burden of emissions reduction. The initial goal should be to get the scheme up and running and get that carbon price into the economy; once that's done then we can progressively lower the cap to reduce emissions.

(And that said, the government should keep a close eye on things over the next few years and take the opportunity if it can to push things a little further. If for example the scheme seems to be succeeding or high oil prices reduce transport emissions, it should preserve those gains by reducing the allocation proportionately in later years. Though I suspect the lag time involved here will make that difficult).

The real potential for emissions reductions will happen after 2013, when all sectors are part of the scheme. The equity argument disappears then, and so the government can just start lowering the cap to force reductions.

As for what the cap will be then, the Budget and the net position again give some guidance. The Budget allocates ~23.5 MTCO2-e in 2011 and 2012 to cover the sectors which are part of the ETS at that stage (note that this is significantly less than the projected demand from those sectors of 35 MTCO2-e). In addition, the agricultural sector will add around 40 MTCO2-e / year, and the waste sector around 1.5. Assuming they allocate enough to cover the latter, we're looking at around 65 MTCO2-e of credits a year against annual demand of around 76.5 MTCO2-e. This is still higher than 1990 emissions (61.9 MTCO2-e), but clearly there are going to have to be some reductions or some international trading (or some deferred deforestation; the forestry industry will receive another 33 MTCO2-e of credits to cover deforestation post-2013. I don't know what their projected demand is, but they are likely to be a source of credits for everyone else).

Again, we can ask "is this enough"? The answer this time is "maybe". In Question Time the other day the government was suggesting that post-Kyoto we could be looking at an international target of a 5% to 15% reduction on 1990 emissions by 2018. We'd likely meet the former once forests were taken into account. And if we end up with the latter, we would at least be moving pretty strongly in the right direction.


Something I didn't notice in the Budget yesterday: the government has stolen National's solar policy. This isn't surprising - the current policy offered too little money and was too much hassle, so it was in for a major shakeup; National's proposal to double the size of the grant and simplify applications was a good idea, and an obvious one at that (the government's contribution has been to shift the paperwork onto the home owner and give them cash in hand, thus solving the split incentive problem of installers having no reason to fill out forms so their customer gets a discount).

Combined with their efforts to change local government's minds on the need for resource consents (the actual hard work), hopefully this means we'll see a lot more solar water heaters installed over the next few years.

Carnival of the liberals

The 65th carnival of the liberals is now up at Neural Gourmet.

Climate change: how big is the cap?

How does emissions trading work? The textbook answer is that the government sets a cap on emissions, issues that many permits, then demands that polluters return enough to cover their emissions. Polluters trade permits amongst themselves to determine who gets the right to pollute within the cap. Pared down to the basics like this, one thing is immediately apparent: every ton of CO2-equivalent requires a permit, so the environmental effectiveness of the scheme is determined solely by the size of the cap. The lower the cap, the less carbon dioxide is emitted, and the greater the financial incentive to invest in efficiencies or simply stop polluting entirely.

The key question for New Zealand's ETS then is "how big is the cap"? In its first phase, the EU ETS made the mistake of overallocating, distributing so many permits that polluters had no need to reduce emissions and no incentive to do so. We don't want to make the same mistake as them.

Fortunately, there's a clue in the Budget. The Notes to the Forecast Financial Statements includes a note on provisions for ETS credits. This is basically a way of tracking the expenses and revenue as the government allocates credits (the loss of an asset, and hence an expense) and then has them returned (the gain of an asset, and hence revenue; I'm not sure where actual revenue from the sale of credits is booked or forecast). Divide those numbers by Treasury's current carbon price (NZ$22.18/ton, according to their latest estimate) and you get an idea of how many carbon credits the government plans to allocate. Using the "expenses" line (which is the value of credits allocated), the numbers come out like this:

  • 2009: 33.77 MTCO2-e
  • 2010: 16.05 MTCO2-e
  • 2011: 23.58 MTCO2-e
  • 2012: 23.58 MTCO2-e

For a total of ~100 MTCO2-e over CP1.

The next question is "how does this compare with demand"? Different sectors enter the ETS at different times, but the government's Net Position Report 2008: Projected balance of emissions units during the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol [PDF] has some details on projected emissions. Here's some rough figures:

  • Forestry: The government plans to allocate 21 MTCO2-e to cover deforestation for the whole 5 years, but the latest net position only expects the forestry sector to use 17 MTCO2-e (it can sell the rest for profit).
  • Energy (excluding transport): This enters the ETS in 2010. Projected emissions are on p42, and average 18.32 MTCO2-e a year over the period. However, that includes around 5 MTCO2-e / year of "other fuel combustion" (agricultural and forestry machinery) and fugitive emissions. The former will be included from 2011 under liquid fossil fuels, while the latter doesn't seem to be included at all. Call it 13.32 MTCO2-e a year for a nice, round number, for a total demand of ~40 MTCO2-e.
  • Industry: This enters the ETS in 2010, and projected emissions average 4.3 MTCO2-e / yr. So that's ~13 MTCO2-e over the whole period.
  • Liquid fossil fuels: This now enters the ETS in 2011, and projected emissions are 14.2 MTCO2-e / year. To that we need to add the 3.2 MTCO2-e / year of "other fuel combustion", for a total demand of ~35 MTCO2-e.

So total demand will be ~105 MTCO2-e. Which means someone is going to come up short and either have to reduce their emissions, or buy in credits from overseas to cover them. Which they do doesn't matter - a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon, and the atmosphere doesn't care where it comes from (or rather, doesn't come from); the important thing is that we're not overallocating, and that emitters are going to have to do something in order to stay within the cap.

Treasury does it again

Frogblog has a nice sideline in tracking Treasury's ludicrous projections of oil prices - they always pick oil to peak in the near future and then decline to a stable level well below current prices. So last year for example they picked oil to stay flat at just short of US$70/bbl. That projection rather speaks for itself.

And today? They expect oil prices to peak at around US$115/bbl sometime next year, and then decline to a nice, stable US$100/bbl. In reality, its just hit US$135/bbl, and setting a new record price every other day.

This isn't just an amusing cock-up which shows how divorced from reality Treasury is; the economic projections underlying Treasury's core forecasts of things like economic growth, unemployment, tax revenue and social spending depend critically on that number. And they're not even in the ballpark. While its good enough for astrophysics (astrophysicists usually being happy if something is within an order of magnitude), it's not good enough for economics. As we may well find out next year when actual revenue and spending bear no relation to Treasury's "projections".

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Who benefits from Labour's tax cuts?

Do Labour's tax cuts really favour the poor over the rich? I spent much of this afternoon sitting down crunching numbers, and the answer is "not really". OTOH, given the chosen mechanism - lowering the bottom rate and some bracket adjustments to reflect shifts in income over the past few years, this is probably about as good as it gets. Anyway, here's the benefit to various groups of the first phase as calculated from Treasury's Who pays tax... and how much? data:

(Methodology: the lack of proper income distribution data forced me to do this backwards. The total cost of the package was calculated from Treasury's detailed model data (it came out to $2,053.615 million per year). The benefit to each group but the lowest was calculated using the number of taxpayers in that group and the annual benefit of lower changes; where a threshold change fell within a group, its effect was calculated from the detailed model data. The benefit to those in the 0 - $20,000 category was calculated by subtraction. 2007/08 data was used because there is no detailed model data for 08/09 yet).

So, it's nowhere near as grossly inequitable as the BRT's proposal, which cost about the same but funnelled 92% of the benefits into the pockets of those earning $60,000 a year and over, but it still disproportionately benefits the wealthy. But as mentioned above, it is probably about the best that could be managed given the methods chosen.

Interestingly, dividing the cost equally among all 3.2 million taxpayers could have produced a social dividend of $635 a year - more than most of the population get under the current scheme, without the disproportionate benefits to the rich. Cullen would have been better off by pursuing egalitarian distribution.


Unlike last year, I was expecting something in this year's Budget. Not the inevitable tax cuts - unlike the right, I am not obsessed with tax, not do I begrudge the government spending money on health, education, and protecting people from the vicissitudes of life. So the centrepiece of Cullen's budget left me cold. No, what I was expecting was some large social policy, like a restoration of benefit levels, or an expansion of paid parental leave, both as a reminder of what Labour stands for, and as part of a strategy to force National's hand and wedge it between the people and its base.

What I got was nothing. Oh, they're inflation-adjusting the health budget, making some minor tweaks around student allowances, and continuing to fund KiwiSaver (a real financial poison pill for National). But there's nothing there for the left. No new social programmes, no increase to superannuation, no social dividend, not even a new university in South Auckland, let alone a commitment to fund Auckland's rail expansion quickly. All we get is a tax cut which at first glance at least favours the poor over the rich, but still buys into right-wing agenda that the solution to every problem is a tax cut. And this is supposed to inspire people to vote for them?

Labour had an opportunity with this budget to regain some ground and give people positive reasons to support them in the upcoming election. They squandered it.

Pedophobia defeated

Parliament surprised me last night: Ron Mark's Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill, a nasty piece of pedophobia which would have seen kids stuck in jail with hardened criminals for anything other than the most minor shoplifting, went down 14 to 107. The guilty parties were NZ First, United Future, ACT, Gordon Copeland, Taito Phillip Field, and Brian Connell, who crossed the floor to vote for it (well, its not as if he has anything to lose anymore, does he?).

It's nice to see sanity prevail over political opportunism and the desire to appear "tough on crime" by bashing the young. I wonder how long it will last?

It's official

The market thinks we're running out of cheap oil:

Fears of a shortage within five years propelled long-term oil futures prices to almost $140 a barrel on Tuesday, further stoking inflationary pressures in the global economy.

Investors rushed to buy oil futures contracts as far forward as December 2016, pushing their prices as high as $139.50 a barrel, up more than $9.50 on the day. The spot price hit a record $129.60 a barrel.

Veteran traders said they had never seen such a jump and said investors were increasingly betting that oil production would soon peak because of geopolitical and geological constraints.

Arguably it already has. Oil producing countries are pumping as much as they can. There is simply no more supply. Partly that's due to capital constraints, a lack of infrastructure to get more oil out of the ground, but given the timespans involved it means we are likely to be in a state of near-permanent shortage from here on out. Which means the days of $1.50 / L petrol are over.

This isn't going to destroy civilisation, but it is going to have a serious effect on New Zealand. It's going to cost tourists a lot more to come here, so fewer will come. And it will cost us a lot more to send stuff overseas. Domestically, it will cost all of us a lot more to get to work in the mornings, or down to Wellington for the weekend. Which given how mobile and spread out the average New Zealand family is, could become annoying for many.

Of course, our government could have reduced the impact by investing in public transport systems and forcing us to buy more fuel efficient cars. Instead, they've squandered money on roads which fewer of us will be able to afford to drive on. And in Auckland, they're still trying to build a second airport which no-one will be able to afford to fly to. To call this "shortsighted" is an understatement, but unfortunately its what we've got. Which means the eventual transition to less transport is going to be far more painful than it had to be.

I'm just glad I live close to a bus route.

Choice under threat

Over the last two days, the UK Parliament has been voting on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Designed to set rules around experimentation with stem cells and genetic engineering, the bill had been hijacked by pro-lifers in an effort to use it to reduce the UK's current 24-week time limit for abortion to 20 or even 12 weeks. This would have significantly narrowed the window between the detection of a pregnancy and the time-limit in which termination was legal, creating a greater sense of pressure and making it easier to forbid abortions on procedural grounds. The result would have been more women forced to have children they did not want (unless they were rich enough to be able to afford to hop the channel or order some RU486 over the internet, of course).

Fortunately, they lost. But only narrowly. And what's scary is that according to one expert, a Tory victory would likely result in a majority for restricting a woman's right to choose. We may face the same problem here. In 2004, 23 of National's then-27 MPs (including the "liberal" John Key) voted unsuccessfully to require teenagers to notify their parents before being allowed to have an abortion. If National's new intake is anything like as conservative as its 2002 rump, then a National victory this election will dramatically shift the Parliamentary balance towards further restrictions and control over women’s' bodies. They won't repeal abortion rights - National has no appetite for that shitfight, even if its fundie hardliners do - but they will be in a position to nibble around the edges, increase the number of hoops people have to jump through, and force kids to have kids. All of which is monstrous enough.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Election funding: the EPMU decision

The High Court has released its decision [PDF] on the National Party's judicial review of the Electoral Commission's decision that the EPMU is eligible to be a third party. The result? Crown law's legal advice that the law applied only to "natural persons" was wrong; it includes corporate entities. Whether or not any particular corporate entity such as the EPMU is "involved in the administration of the affairs of a party" is an open question.

The EPMU's application will now go back to the Electoral Commission, which will have to decide if it is involved in the administration of the labour Party. DPF is claiming that they are, on the basis that Andrew Little is on Labour's governing council and the union is an affiliate of Labour whose members have a say in Labour's decision making. But the EPMU is more than Andrew Little, and the idea that mere membership in a political party forbids establishing a third party is clearly at odds with parliamentary intent. So, I expect the Electoral Commission to register the EPMU. And, sadly, I expect DPF to challenge that registration by once again attempting to beat up the EPMU's affiliate membership into something it is not. This is both deeply hypocritical, and deeply stupid. After all, if mere membership of a political party forbids establishing a third party, what does that mean for a party employee?


Today, the government announced a 5% boost to schools' operational funding in order to reduce their reliance on "donations" and provide better computer technology.

National lost no time in denouncing it as "pork".

So, there you have it: according to the right, education - a core function of government which provides the basis of opportunity to every New Zealander - is "pork". Meanwhile, promising additional funding for private schools - an explicit state subsidy to private enterprise and the rich's social snobbery - is just fine and dandy. The hypocrisy is both obvious and deeply revealing, both of National's attitude toward the purpose of government (enriching their mates by looting the state), and the utter contempt the party of the few have for the rest of us.

Members' Day

Today is a Members' Day, and now that all those pesky local bills are out of the way, we're down to the serious business with a slew of second readings. First up is Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill, which has been waiting to finish its second reading since November. It has widespread support, so I don't expect any problems there. Second is Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill, which would bring "independent contractors" (you know, like the cleaners who clean your office, or those meatworkers in Levin who are paid piecework rates and suspended if they try and join a union) under the protection of the minimum wage. I'm not sure how the vote will go on this one, and its entirely up in the air. Finally, there's the big one: Ron Mark's Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill. In case anyone has forgotten, this is the bill that will see kids stuck in jail for anything other than the most minor shoplifting. Mark, being a rather vicious authoritarian, thinks this would be a Good Thing. Sane people, who recognise that children are not always morally responsible and that prison is only good for training people to be better criminals, disagree. The select committee sided with the latter, so I expect the bill to be voted down. But in an election year, with both parties trying to pander to the pedophobes, I'm not sure we can take that for granted.

Looking forward, I'm still not sure if Nandor Tanczos' Waste Minimisation (Solids) Bill will be getting a second reading before the election. If the government wants it passed, it is increasingly looking like they'll have to adopt it.

New Kiwi Blog

The Standover Group:

Welcome friend, to the home of the leading organisation in the fight against equitable social change, the Standover Group.

An influential union of muscular enterprises and entrepreneurs, the Standover Group is committed to furthering what is in the best interest of the most important section of New Zealand society - big business.

It's satire, and quite biting. I look forward to seeing more of them.


Vision of Humanity has released its second annual Global Peace Index. The good news? We're the fourth most peaceful country at the world, coming in behind the usual Scandinavian suspects. The bad news? Last year, we were second. Our ranking has increased, but others have improved faster (mainly due to having lower imprisonment rates, which is the oozing sore in our stats).

For those interested in other comparisons, Australia dropped two places to 27th, the UK stayed static on 49th, and the US dropped 1 to 97th (this is from looking at last year's rankings; their "compare" page seems to have some funny data in it).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Honesty and humility are not weaknesses

Shock! Horror! Phil Goff admitted Labour might not win the election! But while it's got the media excited, and Audrey Young calling it a "gaffe" and a breach of "convention" (whose? Hers?), I think the rest of us should be pleased at this outbreak of political honesty. Governments should live in fear of the people, and it is no shame for a Minister to say they are worried about re-election. A government which refused to acknowledge the prospect of defeat would be arrogant (or worse); and if a government polling as badly as the current one refused to acknowledge it, then we'd have strong reason to question their sanity and connection to reality.

But those views are anathema to the Wellington harpies. To them, it’s all about "the game". And as a result, they not only ignore the substance of politics - you know, the policies the parties are offering and the public is choosing between - but also create a place where ethics are the complete inversion of the real world: where deceit is a virtue, having no policies is inconsequential, honesty is a weakness, and acknowledging reality is a sin.

A thousand points of light

The New World Order party has gained registration and will be able to contest the party list. Now, if only they'd get a website so we can all laugh at the joke.

Policy = spending

Over on PASystem, the Fundy Post's Paul Litterick makes an important point: policies = spending. To flesh it out a bit, the standard definition of "policy", which you'll find at the front of any textbook on the subject, is that it is about the allocation of government resources in pursuit of a goal. These resources come in many forms - the power to make and enforce laws is a resource, for example - but they also cost money. So at the end of the day, policy requires spending. How much depends on what you're trying to do and how, but it all costs money in one way or another.

So, what the Herald's "porkometer" actually tells us is that the government has lots of policies (some of them quite expensive). The other thing it tells us is that six months out from an election, National has almost none (or at least, none that it cares to tell us, the voters, about).

It would be nice, with an election coming up, to know what we were actually voting for, and to have some idea of the alternatives. But I guess our political journalists just aren't interested in telling us.

All your communications are belong to us

Having stuck a surveillance camera on every street corner (with no discernible effect on crime), the British government is planning the next stage of its transformation into a totalitarian surveillance society: a database containing details of every phone call, every email, every VOIP call, every text message, and everyone's internet usage, all in one place so the police and intelligence services can go fishing.

But don't worry - only the guilty will have anything to fear. The government can be trusted not to lose this information. Or sell it. Or use it to dig up dirt on their political opponents. The police would never use it to keep tabs on their abused partners, and the security services would never trawl for dirt with which to blackmail politicians in the name of "national security" (and preventing budget cuts). The government is your friend and can be trusted. And everyone needs to be protected from the scary terrorists.

Meanwhile, Orwell is spinning in his grave. It is increasingly looking like the only thing he got wrong was the date.


Political journalism in New Zealand hit a new low today, when the New Zealand Herald decided that all government spending (except, apparently, tax cuts) should be classified as "pork". Hip operations for the elderly? Pork. Restoring New Zealand control over infrastructure? Pork. Building a new high-speed broadband network? Pork. Government? Pork. This is the sort of radical discourse you expect from American "drown government in the bathtub" conservatives and not even Rodney Hide (who is no fan of government spending) would accept it (he would for example accept that the government's spending on police, courts and prisons to protect the assets for the rich was not "pork"). But one of the joys of being the media is that no-one gets to ask you about the views you sneak into stories (or in this case, barge like an elephant carrying a howdah with a full brass band).

Make no mistake: the Labour government has engaged in pork-barrel spending. Their $9 million to the racing industry is one example. The coalition agreement roading projects in their coalition partners' electorates were another. IMHO their massive environmental subsidies to the farm lobby are a third. But to claim that every dollar spent is "pork" is simply ridiculous. Taking care of the sick, ensuring that every New Zealander gets a good start in life, and providing infrastructure are not "pork". They are what government exists to do. if the Herald has forgotten that, or thinks we would be better off without it (which is what their rhetoric implies), then I quietly suggest they take a look at those parts of the world where the government (such as it is) does not engage in such spending. Somalia, anyone?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Rolling back democracy

In 1993, the New Zealand electorate voted for a more democratic electoral system. One of the reasons was disgust at a system which allowed parties to govern without majority (and in some cases even plurality) support. Another was a desire to castrate the executive and prevent small cliques of idealogues from imposing their demented vision on the country. A third was a desire for a fair electoral system, which saw all parties receive representation proportional to their support, rather than magnifying differences to give disproportionate results and excluding all but the two main parties. Since then, MMP has given us democratic government, better representation, greater diversity, and greater legitimacy. And now National wants to roll it back.

This shouldn't come as any surprise - the right has always hated democracy, seeing it as a check on their power and privilege (not to mention a fundamental challenge to their inflated and inegalitarian view of themselves). And MMP has posed particular challenges for National - having to have friends and make compromises in order to gain power was always going to be a problem for a party which sees itself as the "natural party of government". But in a democracy, parties which have trouble getting elected should change their policies in order to appeal more to the voters. Changing the electoral system to give you an advantage just isn't on. That's the sort of thing shitty little autocrats like Berluscioni and Chavez do; we shouldn't allow it to happen in New Zealand.

As for Peter Shirtcliffe, I'm not surprised to see him rear his ugly head on this issue again. He tried to buy our constitution once in 1993; we shouldn't let him do it again.

Reported back

The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has reported back [PDF, large] on the Land Transport Management Amendment Bill and recommended that it be passed. The billis highly technical, but the most significant part of it allows regional councils to institute regional fuel taxes to fund local transport and public transport priorities. While there are a number of amendments in this area, they're all technical, and aimed at tweaking the scheme rather than gutting it. So it looks like we will at least get the legal framework in place; now all we need is a Minister with a backbone.

Significantly, the National party, which claims to oppose this aspect of the bill, didn't even bother issuing a minority report on it. The obvious interpretation is that they have no good reasons for their opposition, and it is a purely political stance; if they were in government, they'd be passing it too.


In the Dominion-Post this morning, Tracy Watkins reports that National is set to offer $50 per week to the "average" worker. What's "average" according to National?

Mr English made it clear that them priority would be workers earning $60,000-plus - in particular those pushed into the top 39 per cent tax bracket by wage rises.

‘‘We need to keep faith with those people, that's our top priority,'' he told TV1's Agenda yesterday.

But those people aren't "average". According to Treasury's 2007 income-distribution figures (which will no doubt be superseded on Thursday), only 14% of taxpayers earn $60,000 or more. National isn't offering tax cuts for ordinary, working New Zealanders; they are instead offering their usual programme of tax cuts for the rich.

As for the cost, giving each of the 456,000 taxpayers who earn $60,000 a year or more $50 a week would cost $1.186 billion a year. That's the minimum cost, and given the facts of income distribution and Key's promise that the actual amount will be higher, it is likely to be much greater - almost certainly approaching the $1.5 billion required for the speculated social dividend ($60 a week would make the cost just about even). So, that's the choice we are facing this election in a nutshell: between a party who distributes wealth for the benefit of the many, or a party which distributes wealth for the benefit of the few.

Poneke returns

After disappearing for a couple of days, Poneke is back. It looks like the sewer hasn't won after all...

Climate change: National on emissions trading

National's decision not to support the ETS isn't just a disaster for New Zealand; it is also an about-face of Orwellian proportions. For the past two years - ever since Nick Smith convinced Don Brash that the path to government lay in seducing enough Green votes to drive the Greens out of Parliament - National has been urgently demanding an ETS and claiming credit for the idea. Don't remember? Here's a few highlights:

A Bluegreen Vision for New Zealand, National Party environment discussion document, 5 October 2006:

A tradable emissions permit system offers New Zealand the best way forward.
Nick Smith, "National backs call for emissions trading", 13 April 2007:
Emissions trading is the right way to address climate change
John Key, "50 by 50: New Zealand's Climate Change Target", 13 May 2007
We will introduce a comprehensive 'cap and trade' emission permit system to manage greenhouse gas emissions. This system will encourage cost-effective emission reduction across the economy.
Bill English, "Emissions regime proposals look sound", 20 September 2007:
The general approach looks sound and is broadly consistent with the approach National has been advocating over the last year since the release of the Bluegreens environment discussion document.

National advocated a tradeable emissions permit system

Nick Smith, Question to the Minister of Conservation, 7 November 2007:
[I]s this policy not just another example of Labour “me too-ism” alongside Labour’s new policy on tax, Labour’s policy on charitable donations, Labour’s policy on an emissions trading system...
Nick Smith, first reading of the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill, 11 December 2007:
[W]e believe that an emissions trading system is the sensible approach for New Zealand to take in response to the huge challenge of climate change. In fact, back in 1999 the National Government did a large amount of policy work on this subject and it concluded that an emissions trading system was the right way forward.
Gerry Brownlee, first reading of the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill, 11 December 2007:
[T]he Government is only now, after 8 years, getting to where National was back in 1999.
David Carter, first reading of the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill, 11 December 2007:
[I]t is not an option to do nothing. New Zealand ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. There was significant debate around that decision of Helen Clark to ratify at that time. I remember National arguing very strongly that we did not need to be ahead of our major trading partners. But that debate is a past debate. New Zealand has ratified Kyoto. We have significant international commitments to meet; therefore we have to get on with it.
John Key, 18 May 2008:
National will not support the bill going to a second reading
So much for National's environmental credibility. Not that they ever really had much, but they've now proven solidly that they simply cannot be trusted, and that all they are interested in is greenwash.

Climate change: a disaster for New Zealand

That is the only way to describe National's decision today that they will not support the government's Emissions Trading Scheme. Having sat on our hands for the past fifteen years and repeatedly failed to implement policy, we now seem set to ensure that the situation continues. As a result, emissions will continue to rise, and we will face an even larger bill to meet our Kyoto obligations.

This is not the move of a sensible, responsible party ready to be government. Instead, it is the move of a party which continues to cling to climate change denial and pander to polluters, which does not give a damn about the environment, and which imposes costs on ordinary New Zealanders in order to enrich its donors and cronies. We will all pay for this, while the polluters laugh all the way to the bank.

Labour's only option now to pass the bill is to try and cobble together an arrangement with the Greens and NZ First. That will be difficult, if not impossible given the parties' respective red lines. But they have to try. While any party could be forgiven for saying "fuck this", dumping the whole problem in National's lap, and then regurgitating their attacks on rising emissions and increased liabilities, we simply can't afford for that to happen. Climate change is already costing us, both in terms of shifting weather patterns and in liabilities under Kyoto. The latter are already at $1 billion, and without the ETS' financial curb on deforestation, that number can basically be expected to double (and that's before any increase in the price of carbon). So, if the bill doesn't pass, National will have cost us a billion dollars - $225 for every man, woman, and child in New Zealand. Thanks, John.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

New Fisk

So just where does the madness end?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rotten to the core

New Zealand, and the New Zealand public service, have an admirable record for being free of corruption. Bribery is just not something we think about, and the idea of slipping an official a few hundred dollars to "assist" their decision making is as alien to us as invading countries for their oil resources.

Unfortunately, it seems the same cannot be said of the Immigration Service. TVNZ last night reported that Immigration's Pacific division had persistent problems with corruption:

Around 60 people work at the Pacific division. But ONE News has discovered in just three years from 2004, 19 cases of serious offences were proven against staff there, including theft, bribery and fraud.

From those 19 cases, nine people were fired or resigned and three were referred to police.

Even one incident of corruption is too many - but this seems to be widespread and pervasive. And it has to be stamped out.

As for Immigration, this just rubs it in: the whole department is rotten to the core. Led by a self-serving fraud, agreeing to lie in unison to prevent proper public oversight, and now taking bribes and kickbacks for favours. And they want even more power to abuse? Screw that - they can't possibly be trusted. The whole department needs a full, independent review to cut out the rot - and once that is done, it needs to be watched like a hawk to make sure it never reappears.

Equality wins in Californa - for now

The California Supreme Court has ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. So, in a day or two, gay couples in California will be able to marry. Not just get a civil union, but marry.

But while this is a stunning victory for equality, it is already under threat: the ruling has been widely anticipated, and an an anti-gay marriage initiative to amend the state constitution already has enough signatures to get on the ballot in November. Kevin Drum points out that California's last anti-gay marriage referendum, in 2000, succeeded by 63% - 37%. This time, the odds will probably be better, but its going to be a very tough fight.


Thanks to Winston Peters, ordinary New Zealanders will now be subsidising the racing industry - and specifically, its richest breeders and horse owners - to the tune of $9 million a year. And not by funding the construction of venues or by covering the costs of events to represent their presumed entertainment value to the public, but by directly subsidising prize pools.

Sure, it's not a hell of a lot of money, but its objectionable all the same. I'm dubious about subsidising sport as it is, but this is a particularly bad way of doing so, a direct subsidy from the poor to the rich. And from a Labour government, that stinks.

Climate change: NZ's net position

The government has released its Net Position Report 2008: Projected balance of emissions units during the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol [PDF], which it recently cited as justification for its cowardly backdown on the ETS. On reading it, some of my initial fears have been confirmed - the numbers used to justify pulling transport from the ETS assume that transport is part of the ETS, while the methodological improvements in forestry are unexplained. However it also explains some of the other assumptions which makes them seem a lot less dodgy. In particular:

  • The "methodological improvement" to transport emissions projection is using more realistic assumptions (US$100 / bbl rather than US$60/bbl). As a result, they're now projecting transport emissions to basically flatline during CP1, which seems reasonable (they mention 2007 petrol usage data which shows that transport emissions actually dropped between 2006 and 2007, solely as a result of high oil prices). Of course, with oil currently hovering around $125/bbl and setting a new record every day, this still seems low. But its not as obscenely wrong as previously.
  • The current drought is incorporated into agricultural emissions because it is expected to result in substantially fewer sheep being around next year, so that is a real reduction. On the down side, they're projecting more and dirtier cows, producing 2.17 TCO2-e / yr rather than 2.05. Multiply that by the expected 6.06 million dairy cows, and we're looking at 0.72MTCO2-e / yr just from the dairy sector alone. And thanks to the government's continued pandering to farmers, you and I will be paying for that increase in pollution.
And back on the bad news front: the reduction in deforestation emissions is predicated on the ETS as it stood pre-backdown, and therefore on forest-owners having someone to sell credits to. With transport's entry delayed, then prices will be lower, which will probably see more deforestation. So those numbers will probably get worse, unless the government jiggles the electricity sectors allocation to compensate.

Poneke bows out

Poneke has hung up his keyboard and deleted his blog. His actual farewell message is difficult to find, but is reproduced on the Thorndon Bubbles' RSS feed, several pages in:

Blogging has been fun. I have really enjoyed writing this blog. But writing a blog, given my occupation and family circumstances, is hard to juggle with work and family commitments.

Election year makes it especially so. I am genuinely non-partisan, but the New Zealand blogsosphere is so partisan that to continue blogging would, I fear, eventually cause some other bloggers to accuse me of being partisan.

Therefore, it’s time to stop, at least for now. Thank you for reading, and especially, thank you for the huge number of comments you’ve posted in response to the articles posted here.

And so the sewer (who had been turning up recently and leaving their usual turds around, and reacted particularly nastily to Poneke's recent pieces criticising them) bullies another intelligent, articulate voice into silence. It's a great loss to the NZ blogosphere, and to our hopes of becoming something better.

As for partisanship, whatever I thought of Poneke's opinions, one thing that was clear was that they were actually his, rather than being grabbed verbatim from some party's daily talking points. Like me, he was fighting for his own "team", not someone else's (to the extent he was fighting at all, rather than merely making cynical observations). Unfortunately, for some in the blogosphere, any failure to toe their party line makes you a toady and a hack. If you're not with them all the way, you're against them - a "partisan" for the other side who must be beaten into silence. And sadly, they've won again.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Drinking Liberally in Wellington

Drinking Liberally is a US political movement aiming to connect people on the left, from unionists to greens, anarchists to Democrats over a few glasses of their beverage of choice. The aim is to provided a social space for lefties to get together, swap ideas, vent their collective spleens and argue about politics. And now it's coming to New Zealand - and specifically, to Wellington.

When: Wednesday 21 May; after that, the first and third Thursday of every month
Where: Southern Cross Tavern, Abel Smith St
How much: Obviously, you will need to buy something to drink. Or get someone to buy it for you.
Contact:, or join the mailing list.

It kicks off next Wednesday; the first speaker will be the Greens' Nandor Tanczos. Be there, or be thirsty.

Climate change: reducing the impact

One of the concerns about the Emissions Trading Scheme is the impact of higher electricity prices on the poor. The standard way of solving this problem is through revenue recycling - using money from the ETS to reduce the impact on the poor by reducing their emissions. And that's exactly what the government is doing. The Greens have convinced the government to spend $53.4 million over 5 years (three quarters of it in the first two) to upgrade the energy efficiency of state houses, installing insulation, draft-proofing, pipe-lagging, hot water cylinder wraps, and energy efficient heating. Not only will this reduce the electricity bills of state housing tenants (thus reducing the impact of the entry of electricity into ETS), it will also significantly improve their health:

"Research indicates that insulated homes use on average a fifth less energy than uninsulated homes. People report health improvements, including half the number of respiratory symptoms. Children in insulated houses had half the number of days off school," Ms Fitzsimons says. "About three-quarters of the money will be spent in the first two years, meaning that by the time electricity is brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme most tenants will be paying lower electricity bills.
It's an excellent move, and a big policy win for the Greens. At the same time, the government needs to do more in this area. State house tenants are not the only people affected by the ETS, and the payoffs for insulation are significant (in colder areas, it pays for itself from the health benefits alone). Given those payoffs, it should be significantly expanding the EECA insulation grant scheme as well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The Bush administration has dropped charges against Guantanamo detainee Mohammad al-Qahtani, who they had alleged would have been the "20th hijacker" in the 9/11 attacks. For those who don't recognise the name, al-Qahtani is otherwise known as "detainee 063". He was subjected to prolonged torture - sleep deprivation, forced exercises, stress positions, white noise, sexual humiliation, snarling dogs, forced enemas and prolonged isolation - under the personal supervision of then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. This torture eventually drove him mad:

By late November 2002, an FBI agent wrote, Detainee 063, Mohamed al-Kahtani, was "evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to nonexistent people, reporting hearing voices, cowering in a corner of his cell covered with a sheet for hours on end.)"
No court in the world would convict a defendant after that sort of criminal misconduct by the prosecution, or regard statements extracted by such methods as even remotely reliable. And this is why the charges have been dropped. So the Bush administration's policy of torture isn't just a disaster for human rights - it is also a disaster for justice.

The question now is what the US will do with al-Qahtani. They can't prosecute him. They can't even use him as a witness. They should therefore let him go, but I doubt they'll do that. Instead, they will almost certainly continue to detain him, effectively punishing him without trial or appeal. In their effort to fight monsters, the US have become monsters themselves.

The thermal moratorium and the market

Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons blogs at Frogblog on the ETS, and the government's proposed moratorium on new thermal generation. She points out that the moratorium has no teeth - given the list of exemptions, it permits precisely what it purports to ban, to the extent that no submitter could find an example of a thermal plant that could not be squeezed through the numerous loopholes.

This poses a real challenge to the government's 90% renewables target. State-owned Genesis energy is currently planning on squeezing a 480MW gas-fired power plant through those loopholes, and this will discourage investment in renewable generation:

[Genesis have] figured out that if they build it as a peaking plant (not allowed to run more than say, 30% of the time) then whenever supply gets a little tight they can apply under the “emergency” clause to run it all the time for “security of supply”. Knowing there are 480 MW of gas station just sitting there waiting for an opportunity will discourage others from building renewables, so supply is guaranteed to get a little tight. However, if that doesn’t work there are other exemptions it can try.
The upshot is that if we don't want renewables to be Maui-ed by dirty generation, then we need a moratorium with teeth. Or alternatively, a Minister with balls - something neither party seems to be offering.

Underlying this is the problem of the market. According to free market dogma, the market will produce the most efficient allocation, but in practice it favours underinvestment. Shortages are profitable as they drive up the spot price (expect record dividends from electricity generators next year), while investment in security of supply - or "overcapacity" as they call it - drives down profits. So we go from shortage to shortage, never quite having enough, at an economic cost of a few hundred million dollars every couple of years.

Markets are useful tools. But clearly, they do not work for electricity. If we want to ensure that we have enough all the time, without the price spikes we've seen over the last decade, we need to bring the sector back under government control.

Election funding: unsurprising

So, Trevor Mallard's Labour-emblazoned electorate vehicle has been deemed an "electoral advertisement" under the Electoral Finance Act. What's surprising is that anyone is surprised by it. The EFA uses a "reasonable person" test, and I think any reasonable person would agree that this eye-catching paint job is intended to persuade people to vote in a particular way (and if it wasn't, why would he be doing it?). That makes it an advertisement, which must bear a promoter statement.

As for DPF's contention that this makes the entire vehicle attributable expenditure, I doubt it. The advertising is in the paint job. Without it, it's just a van. But I guess he has to adopt extreme positions to keep the sewer-dwellers fed.

Climate change: another subsidy for a polluter

How would you feel if a multinational company came to town, made a mess, and left us with an $18 million bill?

That's what will effectively be happening when Methanex restarts its Motunui methanol plant next year. The plant will produce around 700 kTCO2 a year, at a cost to the taxpayer of around $18 million. We will be paying that cost because Methanex will restart that plant, then shut it down again before industrial emissions are brought into the ETS in 2010. They'll be in and out like lightning, leaving us to pay for their mess.

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. But thanks to the government's systematic inaction on climate change and its refusal to use the RMA as a backup policy, that is exactly what will happen. And Methanex will be laughing all the way to the bank at our expense.

Climate change: hoisting Rio-Tinto with their own petard

Yesterday saw Rio Tinto stick their hand out for corporate welfare, threatening to shut down their Tiwai Point aluminium smelter unless shielded from the effects of the emissions trading scheme. It is, of course, motivated purely by self-interest - the ETS would mean paying more for electricity, which would mean lower profits for Rio Tinto's shareholders. And it's par for the course for Rio Tinto, who made exactly the same threat just a few years ago to get government-owned Meridian Energy to cut them a cheap deal on power, and a few years before that in an effort to get the government to sell them the Manapouri power station (fortunately, they were unsuccessful). And its particularly egregious because Tiwai Point is already shielded - the ETS includes provision for companies which are "trade exposed" and adversely affected by either the cost of emissions or the cost of electricity to receive substantial amounts of carbon credits as compensation to ensure their profitability. While this shielding - essentially a subsidy from the New Zealand taxpayer to Rio Tinto's foreign shareholders - will eventually expire, by that time we expect much of the rest of the world to be part of a global climate regime (either by imposing their own carbon price, or by having it imposed for them in the form of border taxes on imports from polluter nations).

Rio Tinto's naked self-interest has naturally produced a backlash, with comments ranging from fuck 'em to fuck off. And I agree. But not just because I dislike capital acting as a "virtual senate" to veto the policy of democratically elected governments, but also because Tiwai Point is not actually economically beneficial to New Zealand. We would be better off if we simply shut it down. And the glorious thing is you can show it with Rio Tinto's own numbers.

Back in 2004, when Comalco (as it was known then) was threatening to leave New Zealand if forced to pay market rates for electricity, it produced a self-serving little report on The Continued Economic Contribution of the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, 2004 – 2012 [PDF]. This assessed the smelter's aggregate economic benefit to New Zealand - including corporate taxes, employment, fixed charges, dividends from SOEs, and deferred investment in the national grid (that apparently being a "benefit") - at a grand total of $121.2 million per year. For the period 2013 to 2022 (which is the period we're talking about here), they expect a lower benefit: $103.8 million per year.

These benefits are outweighed by the benefits of shutting the plant down. How? Because as many people have noted, Tiwai Point uses around 15% of the nation's electricity - electricity that could (with a significant grid upgrade) be used elsewhere. That is more than the around 12% generated annually by coal, so the most significant advantage of such a shutdown would be that we would be able to effectively shut down the inefficient, coal-burning Huntly power station and relegate it to permanent dry-year backup. And that's where the benefit would come in, because Huntly costs us a lot of money.

According to the Ministry of Economic Development report on New Zealand Energy Greenhouse Emissions 1990 - 2006, Huntly's emissions in 2006 totalled 4.671 MTCO2 (yes, they're it for the coal column; co-gen is counted separately). Assuming a carbon price of $25/ton, that effectively cost us $116.775 million (2005 emissions were even higher). So, at current prices, it is economically worthwhile simply to let them leave, and stick the extra $10 million a year into an economic development agency for Southland. But it gets better. Remember the need for a grid upgrade? We're already doing part of it. That knocks just over $13 million off Comalco's calculated benefit (because remember, having a shitty national grid is a Good Thing in their books), increasing the benefit of their departure to $26 million per annum. So, the economically rational thing to do is call Rio Tinto's bluff, get Transpower to upgrade the Invercargill-Livingstone link, and watch them go.

This is on their own numbers, remember. They have been hoist with their own petard.