Monday, June 30, 2008

An important question

Meanwhile, over at Truthseeker, Steve asks an important question: with the US and Israel beating the drum for war against Iran, where does John Key stand? The problem is, we just don't know. And with kiwi lives and our country's reputation and ideals in the balance, we bloody well should.

A dirty company means a dirty campaign

I have to say that I'm not exactly surprised by the revelation that John Key is still using Don Brash's Australian campaign consultants. Key's entire leadership has been about changing National's image, without changing the substance - ditching the 90's-tainted Brash, while still keeping the same 90's policies, and the same hollow men pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The worry though is what sort of slime Crosby / Textor are going to smear during the election. Overseas, they're infamous for running divisive campaigns based on whipping up hate and fear and exploiting prejudice and xenophobia. In Australia, they propelled John Howard back into office in 2001 on the back of a hate-campaign against immigrants, culminating in false claims in the leadup to the election that asylum seekers were throwing their children off boats in an effort to get into Australia. In the UK, they whipped up fears of crime, and ran a thinly-veilled racial-hate campaign against immigrants. And in New Zealand, of course, they gave us "mainstream" New Zealand and iwi/kiwi.

So, what are they going to give us this time? More iwi/kiwi? Islamophobia? Religious bigotry on smacking and abortion? Homophobia? Or that old stand-in, law and order? Whichever one they choose, it'll be big on slogans and dogwhistling. But the last thing you'll ever get from it is any actual policy.

Given its reputation and tactics, any decent political party would refuse to touch a firm like Crosby / Textor with a barge pole. But pretty clearly, National aren't decent. As Frogblog's gradma says, you know a person by the company they keep...

As expected

The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee have reported back [PDF] on the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement and enacting legislation, and recommended that it be passed. While professing their concern for human rights in China, the Committee didn't see any problems with signing a preferential trade deal with one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. But then, did we really expect any different?

The report also includes as an appendix MFAT's National Interest Analysis of the deal, which doesn't mention human rights even once. Which I think shows you how much they care about our values and our international reputation.

Climate change: climbing higher

One of the predicted consequences of climate change is that plant and animal species will migrate to follow their preferred temperature range. In particular, due to the regular way temperature changes with altitude, plants will climb uphill, colonising new ground as it becomes warm enough for them to survive in, and retreating from their old range as it becomes too hot for comfort.

It's been happening for a while:

Climate change has caused plants to seek cooler conditions at higher altitudes, scientists suggest.

A study of 171 forest species in mountain ranges of western Europe found that many plants had climbed an average of 29 metres each decade.


"This is the first time that it has been shown that climate change has already had a significant effect on plant species over a wide range of temperatures during the past century," explained Jonathan Lenoir, the paper's lead author.

Of course, there are limits to this process. One is speed of response. Fast-reproducing, short-lifecycle plants like herbs and ferns can respond quickly to temperature. Longer-lived and more slowly reproducing plants like trees can't. So if the temperature changes too rapidly, they may not be able to keep up. The second, of course, is geography: no matter how fast you can move, eventually you run out of mountain (or mountain with soil). And when that happens, there is no option but extinction.

Vote for the President of New Zealand!

Sadly, not really. But the Republican Movement has set up a website with a mock-election for New Zealand's new head of state. It includes information about the current role of the head of state (and presumes that this will not be changing much), a survey, where it asks for views on the title, term, and method of election, and finally a form where you can nominate a candidate. It was the latter which was most troubling, because despite inclining towards a directly elected head of state, I really have no idea who I'd want to do the job. Recently, we've filled it with judges, retired ombudsmen, and other rather grey public officials, who do it well precisely because they approach it as something like a judicial office, where their job is not to rock the boat, but to do what convention requires. But such people tend not to be public figures. And in real life, they're not likely to seek or campaign for the position, in part because it would undermine the neutrality they need to do their current jobs. In the end, I nominated some elder statespeople with the mana and presumed discretion to pull it off, but I'm not sure I'd want to see the job become a sinecure for former politicians.

So, public nomination comes up against the problem of lack of public knowledge. Which is, I suppose, why in Ireland nominations are done by Parliament and local bodies rather than the general public.

Anyway, once they have enough nominations, they'll winnow them down somehow, then conduct a mock-election using Preferential Voting. So get over there and nominate!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Small parties die

This election cycle has seen the emergence of a number of new political parties - the Liberals, iCount, RAM and the New World Order among them. It has also seen the demise of a few. The Direct Democracy Party seems to have vanished, perhaps because the Nazis feel they no longer need it as a front. Outdoor Recreation deregistered itself last year and won't be running any candidates. ACT breakaway the Freedom Party have vanished without trace. And now it seems the Equal Values Party have given up the ghost as well. According to an email, they won't be contesting the election this year, and will simply be leaving their website there as a "time capsule". Given that they gained all of 86 votes last time, that's not exactly surprising, I suppose.

Given the turnover among minnow parties, I can't help but wonder which of the new ones founded this year will disappear before the next election.

NZ First first to be prosecuted?

The Electoral Commission released a pile of decisions today, and it looks like NZ First will be the first party reported to the police (and possibly prosecuted) for violating the Electoral Finance Act. The complaint concerns two banners displayed on a house in Tauranga which did not bear promoter statements. NZ First's financial agent did not respond to the Electoral Commission's request for an explanation (perhaps they were waiting for Winston to tell them what to say?), the matter was not inconsequential, and so it has been forwarded to police. The full decision is here [PDF].

Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission did not uphold Blair Mulholland's complaint against the Greens, as the posters did not appear in the authorised form (which included a promoter statement), or a second complaint against the Greens for having a billboard with an incorrect address on it (it was designed before the EC's educational notice and promptly corrected). It has also ruled that National's "join the conversation" flyer which Audrey Young was complaining about is not an election advertisement and so did not need to bear a promoter statement. Which strongly suggests that contrary to the Herald's fearmongering, they have also decided that party logos are not election advertisements.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Climate change: why an ETS?

Over on Truthseeker, Steve asks why trade emissions credits anyway?, and suggests we might want to consider alternative policies:

Legislatively mandating emissions reductions to an open and transparent regulatory schedule and NOT operating a market may actually be cheaper and ultimately more effective than an ETS.
So, why are we pursuing an ETS rather than command and control measures? In this post, I'll try and give an answer; in a future post, I'll try and give some ideas about what a regulation-based policy would look like.

Firstly, terminology: "Command and control measures" is policy-speak for Steve's "open and transparent regulatory schedule" - things like mandated technologies, zoning regulations, and input or output controls (e.g. banning toxic chemicals) which work primarily through regulation and the threat of sanction. They are traditionally contrasted with "economic" or "market-based" instruments such as cap and trade, carbon taxes, or waste charges, which work through the price mechanism. I don't want to recap the whole "regulations vs free markets" debate here, but both have advantages and disadvantages. With command and control measures, you get certainty - you know what you are banning, and you know that it is actually banned. Against that must be set the danger of perverse incentives, capture of regulation by lobbyists, or that regulators may not know enough about the subject to regulate the right things (though see previous). Economic instruments solve the latter problem by getting markets to work for you and find ways to reduce whatever it is you want to reduce that regulators may not have thought of, but at the cost of introducing uncertainty - there's always a danger that polluters will simply pay the price and keep on polluting, especially if they are in a position to pass it on to their customers.

While I have a slight preference for (certain types of) market instruments because they implement the "polluter pays" principle, and dump the social costs of pollution on those responsible, its not actually an either-or question. Other countries, such as Norway have pursued mixed policies with great success. IMHO, which is better is simply a question of effectiveness. It might very well be that regulation would produce better climate change outcomes than the ETS - that really depends on the strength of the former and how many holes there are in the latter.

Unfortunately, that is decidedly not the view of the New Zealand policy community. During the 80's, that community was captured by a radical clique of free marketers, with a rigid belief that government cannot do anything right and that markets are always and everywhere superior to regulation. And those views have utterly dominated climate change policy. While regulatory solutions were floated early on (e.g. in the 1990 report of the New Zealand Climate Change Programme 's "policy" working group), they were quickly discounted. Instead, policymakers became fixated on the idea of a "least cost" solution, which axiomatically ruled out any possibility of regulation from the get-go. We've stayed on that path ever since. One of the consequences, though, is that in our quest for a pure, perfect, least cost policy (alternatively a carbon tax (1994), then emissions trading (1999), then a carbon tax again (2002), and now back to emissions trading (2007)), there has been no interim policy while we work out the final details of our economic instrument - we've been shackled to this purist market vision. As a result, we haven't actually done anything to reduce emissions. The perfect has very much been the enemy of the good.

So, ideology and an insistence on an optimising rather than "good enough" solution is the long-term answer. Added to this, there's also a hefty dollop of political convenience. In the wake of the 2002 carbon tax, emissions trading seemed easier to sell to a hostile business community than regulation. Finally, there's the need for an immediate solution: we're pursuing an ETS at the moment because we need policy now. While we could tear it all up and start again, given the length of the policy cycle, that would delay any action by at least two to three years. And we simply can't afford that sort of delay. The government's ETS is a long way from perfect. It's ugly, it gives handouts to polluters, and doesn't do nearly enough to curb emissions in CP1. But it is "good enough", and delivers substantial long-term environmental benefits. And given a choice between that and a further delay to design and implement a perfect regulatory regime, I'll take the bird in the hand any day.

Probing the policy vacuum 2

Scoop's Gordon Campbell has posted the second part of his examination of National's policy vacuum, focusing on telecommunications, employment law and the environment. But its the other topics - PPPs and the public service - that are the most interesting. On PPPs (which National is proposing to use for transport, in schools and hospitals, prisons, and anywhere else it can find an excuse to funnel public money into the pockets of its cronies), Campbell points out the very real problems with accountability that occur (short version: we take all the risks, they get all the money). On the public sector, he highlights the possibility (first raised by Fran O'Sullivan in the Herald earlier in the week) that National would fold the Ministry of Economic Development back into Treasury.

The latter sounds like a point of interest only to public sector wonks, but its quite important. One of the benefits of the Revolution was a focus on "contestable policy advice" - the idea that competing departments would present their views, creating a "marketplace of ideas" which would result in Ministers getting better advice than if they only listened to their own departments. Of course, we got this for entirely selfish reasons - it allowed Treasury to stick its fingers in everyone else's pies, and in the 80's and early 90's environment where they had all the policy analysts (and other departments' budgets were cut to ensure they couldn't afford any), allowed them to utterly dominate the discourse and bend Ministers to their will. This process began to break down in the mid - late 90's, but Treasury still dominated the scene. One of the reasons for Labour's creation of the MED and MSD mega-ministries was to correct this, and ensure true contestability - a struggle of equals rather than a one-sided pseudo-contest. And it largely seems to have worked. Of course, a side effect is that Ministers are exposed to ideas beyond Treasury's ideological free-market blatherings, so you can see why the advocates of restarting the Revolution would want to roll it back.

Priceless yet pointed

Scoop's Lyndon Hood once again shows the value of good satire with this piece on smacking and the police torture verdict:

The debate over changes to section 59 of the Crimes Act was marked by concern that ordinary parents, going about their everyday business of hitting their children, would be criminalised.

The more pointy-headed supporters of the amendment had a response. The "loving smack" championed by the bill's supporters - perhaps we imagine it as a slightly grumpy sort of caress - would be so minor and forgivable a technical assault (as if I were to slap your wrist for trying to navigate away from this column) that no judge or jury in the land would convict. And hence, it isn't properly illegal.

This position has been spectacularly vindicated by a recent court case. If it's not assault to repeatedly baton and pepper spray a man who was offering no harm to himself or others - just imagine what you can do to your child!

Horsewhip them, perhaps?

Digging a deeper hole

National responds to John Key's appalling ignorance of New Zealand history by claiming that he has been quoted out of context and releasing his full statement:

We may be many voices but ultimately we are one people. One of the unique things about New Zealand is that we are not a country that's come about through civil war or a lot of fighting internally. We're a country that peacefully came together - Maori and the Crown decided from both partners' side that it was in their interests to have a peaceful negotiation. That's what the Treaty was, a founding document - a development document - for New Zealand, and I think that we could work things out in a peaceful, sensible and mature way has actually been a defining part of New Zealand's history. It's very important, and it's important we honour that now.
(Emphasis added) Maybe Key should try telling that to the people the settler government murdered at Parihaka, or to those whose land was stolen at gunpoint in the Waikato and Taranaki, or to those clubbed by Massey's Cossacks for standing up for their right to earn a decent wage. Rather than demonstrating his understanding of our history, Key is simply digging himself a deeper hole.

But then, can we really blame him? He's simply repeating the myths he was told at school back in the 60's and 70's, an era when our education system wasn't exactly known for its accurate portrayal of New Zealand history. And OTOH, this is a man who wants to be Prime Minister, who will have to negotiate with those who suffered those terrible injustices if he is to advance his ambitious Treaty settlement programme. And he can't possibly do that in good faith while pretending for his almost exclusively Pakeha supporters that those injustices never really happened.

La la la I can't hear you

White House Refused to Open Pollutants E-Mail

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week.

The document, which ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status, was the E.P.A.'s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required it to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment, the officials said.

So, the most powerful government in the world behaves like a four year old when told something it doesn't want to hear: stick their fingers in their ears, make a lot of noise, and claim they can't hear. And the worst bit is that they've been successful - the EPA has now issued a new version of the report, sans conclusion, which makes no recommendations and strips out a finding that "tough regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over the next 32 years."

This is how they "create their own reality": pretend the real one doesn't exist. And all of us will be paying a price for it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Something to do in a hurry

If you have some time this afternoon, why not help Parliament improve their website? There's a short survey, then an exercise in grouping various pages under subheadings so they can get an idea of what people expect to find where. It takes around 15 minutes, requires Flash, and today tomorrow is the last day for it.

Appalling ignorance

I was going to blog about John Key's appalling ignorance in claiming [audio] that

One of the things that is unique about New Zealand is we're not a country that has come about as a result of civil war or where there has been a lot of fighting internally.
But it seems that The Standard has said pretty much what I wanted to say. Anyone who isn't aware that the settler government imposed its rule on New Zealand pretty much by force of arms and stole land at the point of a gun in gross violation of the Treaty of Waitangi, or that on at least two occassions in our history (1913 and 1951), the New Zealand government has declared war on its own people, alternatively sending armed thugs into the streets to beat and shoot them, and declaring it illegal to give them food, is simply too ignorant to be Prime Minister. But then, should we really have expected anything better from a guy who doesn't remember where he stood on the Springbok Tour?

Meanwhile, according to the Herald, Key is "looking at 'taking other actions' in relation to the comments". So, he'll be forcing another "correction" from a journalist for having the temerity to report Key in his own words?

Equality beyond humanity

The Great Ape Project is a campaign to extend basic human rights and legal protection to the non-human Great Apes (Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, and Orangutans) on the basis that they generally share morally significant characteristics with human beings:

They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future... The Great Ape Project seeks to end the unconscionable treatment of our nearest living relatives by obtaining for non-human great apes the fundamental moral and legal protections of the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture.
GAP has just had a significant success in Spain, with a bill to grant such basic protections being endorsed by a Parliamentary committee:
The new resolutions have cross-party or majority support and are expected to become law and the government is now committed to update the statute book within a year to outlaw harmful experiments on apes in Spain.


Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain's penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 per cent of establishments to comply with the new law.

While there's not a lot of great apes in New Zealand (other than the obvious 4 million), this still strikes me as a topic worthy of a members bill. We pride ourselves as being at the forefront of the struggle for human rights; we should be at the forefront of the struggle for hominid rights as well.

Update: A correspondent informs me that the Great Ape Project has already had some success in New Zealand, having been responsible for the addition of s85 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999, which bans experimentation on "non-human hominids" unless it is either in the best interests of the individual ape or their own species. Which is great - but shouldn't we be going further?

Questions for oral answer

What do MPs ask their questions for oral answer about? They Work For You has compiled some statistics, reproduced below:

As you'd expect, the PM is first, as a basic issue of government accountability, and the big portfolios of health, education and justice feature heavily. Finance is near the top because of constant questions about taxes, justice because of the EFA. Immigration and corrections however seem to get vastly disproportionate coverage, likely due to their being knee-jerk issues.

It will be interesting to see how the chart changes in the next Parliament.

Climate change: still not a priority

Listening to the Business Statement, it seems the government won't be making any moves to pass the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill next week either. Which means they're beginning to run out of time. The first of their other high priority legislation - the Biofuel Bill - is already back from committee, and the rest is due back shortly. Which means that if it doesn't hurry up and cut a deal with the Greens, the government is soon going to have to choose between its competing priorities.

As Colin James pointed out in the Herald on Tuesday, this bill is too important to fail. And the consequences of failure would be an immediate increase in emissions of ~14 megatonnes - $350 million, at a carbon price of $25 / ton - as forest owners rush once again to convert land to dairy farms (a process which the bill has suddenly put a stop to). That's simply not something we can afford to happen, so the government had better get its act together ASAP.

Nandor bows out

Green MP Nandor Tanczos will retire from Parliament today to make way for co-leader Russel Norman. I'll be sorry to see him go. For the past nine years, he has been a tireless advocate for the environment, justice, human rights, and yes, saner drug laws. And then there's the childish glee at the outrage his mere presence causes among a certain type of conservative.

As the Dominion Post points out, Nandor's legacy is a new independent prison inspection regime, the Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act 2004, and hopefully, the Waste Minimisation Bill currently before the House. While he won't be around to see the latter pass into law, it will almost certainly make it through its final stages before the expiry of Parliament. While two bills in nine years doesn't sound like much, its more than most non-government MPs manage, and a testament to his ability to choose issues and build coalitions to support them. And there's no question that these laws have made New Zealand a better place.

Nandor's valedictory is at 17:30. You can watch it online here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No referendum II

As mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister stood up in Question Time today and said that the Ministry of Justice had recommended against holding a referendum in conjunction with this year's general election. The briefing paper has now been released to the media, and thanks to my inquiry, I was on the list. You can read it here [DOC].

The paper is actually from the Chief Electoral Officer, not the Ministry of Justice, dates from March, and says exactly what the Prime Minister said it did:

Conducting CIR with the 2008 general election would cause voter confusion, lead to congestion in polling places, and put at risk the timing of the Parliamentary preliminary count.
It cites the 1999 election, when two referenda led to serious problems in electoral administration, as evidence for this. As a result, the Justice and Electoral Committee's post-election inquiry recommended that future referenda be conducted by postal vote. The Chief Electoral Office agrees, and recommends a postal ballot in 2009, so as to avoid further disruption to their pre-election planning. They do present the option of going ahead anyway, but note that
Preparations for the possibility of CIR being held with the general election are diverting resources away from the CEO’s focus on delivering a quality general election.
As for why this has happened, I think this bit speaks for itself:
8. The CEO is not funded to conduct CIR and whichever option is adopted, a between budget bid would be required if either petition is successful.
(This became quite apparent when reading the Chief Electoral Office's 2006-2009 statement of intent earlier this afternoon - referenda played no part in their pre-election planning).

So, that settles it then. While Family First will no doubt mutter darkly about satanic government conspiracies to deny democracy, the integrity of the Chief Electoral Office is unquestionable. If they say it can't be done, it can't be done, EOFS.

No limits

On Labour Day in 2006, four police officers repeatedly assaulted a mentally ill man in a cell at Whakatane police station. After beating him about the head with batons, they locked him in a cell, and sprayed pepper spray into it for ten minutes - treatment which certain constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment, and may constitute torture under New Zealand international law.

A Tauranga jury just found all four of them not guilty on all charges.

The upshot? There are no limits on the police's use of force in New Zealand. "Reasonable force" means "whatever seems reasonable to a power-crazed authoritarian thug at the time", and includes prolonged beating and even torture. The jury made a terrible mistake today, and we will all bear the consequences for it.

Given this decision, one thing is clear: if these are the ground rules, we can never allow the police to use tasers. Given the complete lack of oversight, the risks are simply too great.

No referendum

According to the Prime Minister in Question Time today, the Ministry of Justice has already advised that based on the 1999 experience, holding a referendum at the same time as the election would lead to severe logistical problems, voter confusion, and a delayed count. This would not be a problem with sufficient lead time, but they would have had to have started around April to get it done properly. So instead they've recommended that any referendum be held by postal ballot sometime next year.

I am endeavouring to get a copy of the advice ASAP.

Update: I should add: according to MoJ, a referendum would cost $10 million whether it was run concurrently with the election or not. So the financial argument used by some to justify running it as quickly as possible is simply bogus.

Something missing

I haven't been closely following the royal commission into Auckland local government - I don't live there after all - but I can't help notice that there's something very important missing from the vision of Auckland's future promoted by former mayoral candidate and lobbyist Alex Swney:

His vision was for a two-tier system, starting with 15 to 25 local community councils with boosted powers that would elect one member each to represent them on an all-powerful greater Auckland council led by a prime minister-style mayor they, and not the public, would elect.
What's missing of course is democracy. Sure, the people get to elect some minor ward committees and such, but all the real power will be held by people who are not directly elected, and thus not accountable in any way to the people for their decisions. With that sort of setup, calling the head of Auckland's local government a "lord" mayor, with all its connotations of undemocratic, unaccountable, feudal rule, will simply be truth in advertising.

Democracy is a bottom line in this country. That means that those responsible for running our cities must be directly elected and directly accountable. And that applies whether Auckland has one council, three, eight, or a hundred. I am absolutely appalled at the eagerness of Auckland's business community to dispense with this basic principle. However, given their historical hostility to democracy and inflated perception of themselves as being more important than the everyone else, I am not exactly surprised.

Treelord and carbon credits

The government and iwi representatives have signed the "Treelord" deal, returning 170,000 hectares of Central North Island forest and accrued CFR trust revenues to a coalition of seven iwi. It's a major step forward for New Zealand and for Treaty justice, but its not perfect. Carbon credits were supposed to be an important part of the deal, but the government's Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill has been amended by select committee to assign more credits to post-2002 forest owners at the expense of giving far fewer to former CFRT land used in Treaty settlements - in effect, giving fewer credits to Maori based solely on the colour of their skin. There is no absolutely justification for this move - it was simply a racist move designed to favour the interests of rich, mostly Pakeha forest owners at the expense of Maori. Which is New Zealand's history in a nutshell, really.

That single amendment has stripped approximately $90 million from the value of this settlement, and it ought to leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone. It's 2008. Can the racist theft stop now please?

Drinking Liberally hits Auckland

It looks like Auckland has finally got its act together and founded a Drinking Liberally chapter of their own. Their first meeting is next Wednesday (the 2nd of July), with Public Address' David Slack as guest speaker. After that, they'll meet on the fourth Wednesday of every month.

When: 19:30, Wednesday, 2 July
Where: London Bar, corner Queen and Wellesley Streets
How much: they probably expect you to buy drinks or something.

Restaurant review: the crown creperie

Tries to murder people by serving undercooked chicken. Avoid.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Probing the policy vaccuum

Over on Election 08, Scoop's Gordon Campbell examines the National Party's policy vacuum, and asks the detailed policy questions the rest of the media should be asking. Meanwhile, The Standard compares National's laughable 2-page policy summary [PDF] with the detailed and specific information available from the Greens. The short version:

The summary page of the Greens’ industrial relations policy alone is longer than the summary of all of National’s policies.
This simply isn't good enough. According to the polls, National is likely to be the next government, yet they are telling us next to nothing about what they plan to do when in power. Which of course, leaves them free to do anything they like without fear of contradicting a pre-election promise. This simply isn't good enough, and the people of New Zealand deserve better.

Climate change: corporate welfare

The government's proposed ETS currently includes generous provisions for easing its impact on large polluters, allocating up to 90% of 2005 emissions plus 90% of the increase in the cost of electricity to emitters deemed "trade exposed". How much will this cost us? According to the Sustainability Council, it comes out to $1.4 billion, not including the farming sector.

"New Zealand" Aluminium Smelters (owned by the US mining giant Rio Tinto), whose own figures show their Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter is a net drain on the country once the cost of emissions is accounted for, will get $600 million. "New Zealand" Steel (which is in fact owned by the British / South African / Australian conglomerate BHP) will get $100 million. The "New Zealand" Refining Company (owned by a conglomerate of foreign oil firms) will get $70 million. Four major pulp and paper manufacturers (three of which are foreign owned) will get $400 million. Finally, Fonterra, New Zealand's worst polluter, will get $200 million.

This is nothing but corporate welfare, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. That $1.4 billion will come directly out of the pockets of ordinary taxpayers, and flow directly into the pockets of these mostly foreign companies mostly foreign shareholders. And while we're bearing the cost, they'll be laughing all the way to the bank. And this, under a Labour government...

Easton on tax cuts

In his Listener column this week, Brian Easton points out the basic truth about tax cuts: they cost money:

The other side of taxation is government spending. Reducing tax levels means government outlays have to be reduced too, if not immediately then eventually when the borrowing is repaid.

So when someone says, “We should cut taxes,” they are also saying, “We should cut government spending.” If they are saying, “We should get tax cuts from the increase in government revenue coming from the growth of the economy,” they are also saying, “We should restrain government spending.”

But is this what New Zealanders want? Unfortunately, the parties promoting tax cuts don't make the choice explicit - they work hard to pretend that they can cut taxes without any reduction or restraint in government spending, or that they can make savings by reducing "waste" - something Easton is rightly suspicious of:
It is easy to promise to cut “wasteful” public spending when in opposition. But ask any cabinet minister and, irrespective of the party, he or she will say it is very difficult in government. There is a constant- political clamour to spend more, even when it may not be effective. Trying to cut waste is like trying to get the fat out of a quality beefsteak: it is stippled through the meat and eliminating it usually damages the beef. The capacity of a department or a section to deliver services can be undermined, with worse service to the public or poorer service to ministers.
This is exactly what happened during the 90's: deep cuts to the public service led to an overall reduction in its capacity, and to government departments routinely hiring consultants at inflated prices to perform their core functions. National supported it because it was "efficient" (which says everything that needs to be said about their vision of "efficiency"), and because it was their mates getting rich off this transfer of public money. And it ought to be concerning that their front bench is still stacked with radicals from that era.

Of course, as Easton points out, there's another option: cut programmes. But that as Easton points out, that has consequences of its own.

What do New Zealanders think if the choice is made explicit? A poll last year showed that New Zealanders didn't actually want tax cuts, and that's backed up by further research from the PSA and UMR research today. According to their poll, 60% of New Zealanders oppose larger tax cuts, and 71% oppose tax cuts if they result in higher user charges for health and education (full details here [PDF]). But tax cuts (especially for the rich) are popular amongst National's tiny clique of ultra-wealthy donors, so I suspect we'll be hearing more about them regardless.

Too late

Note: see the correction at the bottom of this post.

So, it seems that the child-beaters' political stratagem has come to nought. Having gained an extra 60,000 signatures in the hope of getting them over the 10% threshold required to force a referendum on the child discipline law, it turns out that even if they do manage it, they're too late: there is now no time to organise a referendum before polling day. As with their earlier debacle over overenthusiastic child-beaters signing the petition twice, their response is a faith-based assertion that there is "plenty of time", coupled with dark mutterings about government persecution and conspiracies to frustrate god's will. And as with that earlier debacle, they are simply victims of their own ignorance.

The provisions of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 are quite clear. When the Clerk of the House receives a petition calling for a referendum, they have two months to certify it and present it to the Speaker. Assuming that the additional signatures are not from similarly overenthusiastic loons who believe that signing a petition more than once helps their cause, and that it is indeed certified, the Speaker then presents it to the House. Finally, the government has a month in which to set a date. Then - and this is the bit that everyone seems to have forgotten - the Governor-General issues a writ for the poll. And if the referendum is to be held on election day, that must be done 60 days in advance.

Do the maths: the whole process takes five months, which pushes the date back to the end of November (sometime around the 28th, once you take the vagaries of the House sitting programme into account). But the latest date an election can be held is November 15th, and some are predicting the election will be held in mid-October. In short, it's not happening. If they have the signatures, the child-beaters will get their vote, but they'll have to wait until next year to get it.

Correction: A correspondent informs me that the 60 days refers to the return of the writ for a referendum, and that it is usually issued about a month in advance. So, the process takes four months, not five, meaning there is still time if the government is not planning to go to the polls early. And on that question, who knows?

It would certainly be a lot easier if we knew the election date in advance, like they do in the US.

Guantanamo: freedom?

For the past six years, the US government has been holding a group of Chinese Uighurs prisoners in its Guantanamo Bay gulag, despite admitting that they are not terrorists and pose no threat to the United States. Now, one of them has done the unthinkable: got a US court to overturn their designation as an "enemy combatant":

The three-judge panel directed the US military to release Mr Parhat, transfer him or promptly set up a new military tribunal to try him.

The court also specified that Mr Parhat could petition a federal judge for his immediate release in light of the Supreme Court's 12 June decision.

It is not clear yet whether the US government will appeal to keep an innocent man in prison, or whether they will admit defeat and release him. I'm hoping for the latter. As for where to send him, there is only one just solution. The US has refused to return Parhat to China because of fears he will be tortured by the Chinese regime. That is a prima facie admission that he has a well-founded fear of persecution. Having admitted that, the US has a legal and moral duty to grant him refugee status and give him a new home in America.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mugabe has won

So, it's over - and Mugabe has won. Zimbabwe's dream of a peaceful democratic revolution has been crushed by torture and murder. For a while there was some hope that Mugabe's brutal dictatorship could be overthrown at the ballot box, but with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrawing from Friday's run-off to prevent further bloodshed, that hope is dead.

It is unclear whether the withdrawal will have any legal effect (it wouldn't in New Zealand - you can only withdraw before nomination day - but Zimbabwe's electoral law may be different), whether Mugabe will be declared the winner by default, or if the elections will go ahead anyway. But if they do, they will not confer legitimacy - there is none to be gained from an "election" with only one candidate.

As for Zimbabwe, it's clear now that their only hope of freedom is to wait for Mugabe to die. Given that he's 84, that could happen quite soon (OTOH, look at how long Castro has held on for). But even then, the transition might not be smooth.

Soon to be a major motion picture

Via The Standard, I see that The Hollow Men has been adapted into a documentary by Alister Barry, the filmmaker responsible for the excellent In a Land of Plenty and Someone Else’s Country. Better, it will be screening at this year's International Film Festival. Guess I'd better think about getting some tickets then...

Rugby and the right to silence

I haven't commented on the English rugby team rape allegations because there doesn't seem to be much to say. A group of touring rugby players allegedly raped a woman and put her in hospital. They should be investigated, and, if the evidence supports it, prosecuted. While they've now left the country, in the absence of formal charges (or indeed a formal complaint from the victim - which is a big problem in many rape cases), there was no justification to detain them, and they can always be extradited if charges are subsequently laid. And while they remained silent, that is their right: in this country, no-one has to talk to the police.

However, I have noticed a curious double standard in regard to the latter. A couple of years ago, there were screams of outrage and calls for obstruction of justice charges to be laid when the parents of the Kahui twins refused to talk to the police about their children’s' deaths. There have been no similar screams in this case. Has the New Zealand public finally recognised the value of the right to silence? Or is it simply because the alleged offenders in this case are rugby players?

The party of stupidity

According to Gerry Brownlee, "bright sparks" is now a term of abuse. I guess National really is the party of stupidity.

And OTOH, Brownlee is a former woodwork teacher...

Reported back

The Local Government and Environment Committee has reported back [PDF] on the government's Biofuel Bill, and recommended that it be passed. The bill will effectively create a tradable permits regime obliging oil companies to collectively sell an increasing amount of biofuels each year. While the levels are low, the bill plays a long game, and is really aimed at establishing a domestic biofuels industry which can grow in the long-term.

The big debate around this bill has been around sustainability, with concerns that some biofuels (primarily those produced in America by energy-intensive US agricultural methods) are not particularly energy efficient, and that they may be grown at the expense of food crops. The committee has addressed this by requiring all biofuels to be sustainable, and requiring the Minister to create a regulatory standard defining sustainability as quickly as possible (because it must be able to respond quickly to scientific evidence, regulation is the right policy tool here). It also sets down some principles the Minister must obey in formulating that standard. Sustainable biofuels

  • must emit significantly less greenhouse gas over their lifecycles than fossil fuels
  • must not compete with food production or be produced using land of high value for food production
  • their production must not reduce indigenous biodiversity or adversely affect land with high conservation values.
The Minister will have to specify methodologies for assessing lifecycle emissions, but in order to qualify, fuels will have to produce an improvement of at least 35%. So, no American bioethanol. The farmers of Iowa will be heartbroken (if they even knew this bill existed).

Other changes include greater powers to demand information (so that sustainability can be verified), tweaking around the penalties regime, pushing back the start date to account for delays in the bill, and a reduction in the final target from 3.4 to 2.5 percent. The latter sounds bad, but the targets have been set so they can be met by anticipated domestic production; it had been raised in response to promised investment, but that has now fallen through, so its back to where it started. Again, though, this bill is really about forcing oil companies to install the required infrastructure and create a domestic market, which can be grown (particularly when second-generation biofuels come online in a few years' time).

Meanwhile, National's minority report is a stunning exercise in dishonesty. With the ETS bill they simply pretended that the committee had not amended the bill or addressed the concerns they raised, confident that the media would be obliged in the name of balance to repeat their talking points regardless, and they use that same tactic here. They're also claiming that oil companies need to know the sustainability standard - how fuel is produced, not what it is - before they can invest in infrastructure, which is simply bullshit. But it would let Shell, Mobil, Caltex and the others get away with doing nothing for a while longer (and I'm sure a National Minister of Energy would oblige them by dragging their feet). It's all a little odd, coming from a party which just last year was claiming to have invented the biofuels policy, and that the government wasn't moving fast enough in implementing it. Now we're getting the same free-market, non-intervention, "the ETS (which we oppose) will sort it all out" mantra which resulted in no policy in the 90's. What changed?

New Fisk

Today's despot is tomorrow's statesman

Saturday, June 21, 2008

New Kiwi blog

Adding Noughts in Vain - "a geek's eye view of energy issues, climate change and New Zealand politics".

Friday, June 20, 2008

A question

If the US military doesn't train death squads, why do they have a field manual on it?

Reported back

The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has reported back [PDF] on Darren Hughes' Airport Authorities (Sale to the Crown) Amendment Bill, and recommended that it not be passed. The bill would have given the government a first right of purchase on any former airport land when it came up for sale, addressing the oozing sore of Paraparaumu Airport (which was flogged off for a song by National in 1995, in gross violation of its duties under the Treaty of Waitangi and the Public Works Act, and subsequently subdivided for massive windfall profits) as well as any similar problems - but the committee didn't bother to address any of that. Instead, their "report" is simply a note that Hughes plans to withdraw the bill now that he is a Minister.

31 people submitted on that bill (no, I wasn't one of them). 16 bothered to turn up in person to discuss it. The least they deserved was some comment on the bill itself. Instead, the committee essentially told them that their views do not matter, and that public participation does not matter. And politicians wonder why they are held in such contempt...

The public deserve better than this.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 67th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Situation Awareness.

"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes"

That's the conclusion of Major General (Ret) Antonio Taguba on the Bush Adminstration's policy of torture. In 2004, while still serving in the US Army, Taguba had investigated allegations of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison. His report [long] concluded that what had occurred was both illegal and immoral, and called for most of those involved to be relieved of duty and prosecuted for war crimes. For conducting a thorough investigation and standing up for American values, Taguba was sidelined by the Army, then forced into early retirement. Now, in the preface to a report by Physicians for Human Rights on the medical evidence for torture by the US government, he accuses his former superiors of war crimes:

In order for these individuals to suffer the wanton cruelty to which they were subjected, a government policy was promulgated to the field whereby the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were disregarded. The UN Convention Against Torture was indiscriminately ignored. And the healing professions, including physicians and psychologists, became complicit in the willful infliction of harm against those the Hippocratic Oath demands they protect.

After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

The report itself is more solid evidence for the pile. Torture leaves scars, both physical and psychological. There is a standard process - the Istanbul Protocol - for investigating and documenting those scars to determine whether torture has taken place. Physicians for Human Rights examined eleven former US detainees - four from Guantanamo and seven from various prisons in Iraq. They found physical evidence of intense beatings, stress positions, electrocution, and rape. An example:
In the most horrific incident Amir recalled experiencing, he was placed in a foul-smelling room and forced to lay face down in urine, while he was hit and kicked on his back and side. Amir was then sodomized with a broomstick and forced to howl like a dog while a soldier urinated on him. After a soldier stepped on his genitals, he fainted.


Physical examination revealed features consistent with his account, including tenderness of one of his testicles and rectal tearing.

All but one of those examined suffered severe psychological consequences as a result of this mistreatment, including
severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, including intrusive recollections of trauma suffered in detention, hyperarousal (persistent symptoms of increased arousal, e.g., difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance), avoidance and emotional numbing behavior. PHR’s clinicians determined that these symptoms were directly related to the torture and ill-treatment reported having taken place while in US custody...
Again, this is a standard methodology, used to investigate and uncover torture around the world. The US accepts that methodology when applied to torture in other countries. It can hardly turn around and reject it when applied to its own misdeeds (but just you watch...)

As for the conclusions, PHR is quite clear:

All of the abusive interrogation techniques and patterns of ill-treatment endured by these eleven men — including beatings and other forms of severe physical and sexual assault, isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nakedness, severe humiliation and degradation, and sensory deprivation, many of which were experienced over long periods of time and often in combination with other prohibited acts — constituted acts of torture as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under domestic criminal statutes and international human rights and humanitarian treaties, including the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, that were in effect at the time the acts were committed.
And those responsible for them - "including those who authorized the use of methods amounting to torture or exercised command authority over them" - should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Strapping the chicken

With oil prices going through the roof and looking like they'll never return to pre-Bush levels, you may be wondering why the government is still committed to building motorways rather than crash-investing in public transport. The answer? Because they're still using 2002 oil prices of US$26 a barrel (oh, and ignoring carbon costs, counting positive externalities of roads but not public transport, and valuing the wasted time of car drivers at a far higher value than that of public transport passengers). Which just goes to show you can prove anything you want if you strap the chicken tight enough - but it’s no way to run a transport policy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sex selection

So, the Bioethics Council has recommended that parents using IVF be allowed to use pre-implantation genetic testing to choose the sex of their children. And thinking about it, its hard to see why they shouldn't be. The biggest objection is the effect such sex-selection could have on the overall gender ratio. But when only 450 IVF babies are born in New Zealand every year, its hard to see this being a real problem.

What about the more general issue? Should we even try and select the sex of a child? Again, I don't see why not. Sure, it's "unnatural", but big deal. So is surviving past 25, living in houses and not being eaten by leopards, and very few of us have a problem with that (those that do should stand by their beliefs and form an orderly queue outside the leopard cage at the nearest zoo). More philosophically, any claim to an inviolable "natural order" runs smack into Hume's is-ought distinction, which basically says "you can't derive moral values solely from facts about the world" - you need some sort of linking premise. The classic ones are a simpleminded identification of "natural = good" (which falls over the moment anyone actually bothers to look at nature), or "god said so" (which might convince a rather stupid four year old, but is unlikely to convince anyone else, particularly if they do not share your imaginary friend).

So much for "nature". What about practical reasons? That brings us back to gender ratios. The ex-expat expresses concern about this, based on what has happened in China and Korea where sex determination and selective abortion have produced severe distortions. But as someone who doesn't think the "need" to perpetuate the human species justifies any intervention in people's reproductive choices whatsoever, I certainly don't think a mere gender ratio is sufficient (or the need to preserve blonde hair, green eyes, or any other part of the human gene pool). People's reproductive choices are solely their own, and no business of the state, no matter what. Yes, an imbalanced gender ratio would constitute genocide if it was the deliberate result of government policy. But if it’s the result of millions of individuals choosing to favour one gender over another, then it’s just Other People's Choices, and we just have to live with it.

No freedom of speech in Turkey II

Earlier today, I blogged about how there was no freedom of speech in Turkey, citing the case of Bulent Ersoy, a singer currently being prosecuted for questioning whether the Turkish government's war against the Kurdish people was really worth it. But now Turkey's authoritarian militarists have topped even that: they've charged an entire children's choir with "spreading propaganda" for the banned PKK. Their "crime"? They sang in Kurdish while overseas. And for that, they could get up to five years in jail. It would be farcical, if wasn't so obscene, and it is no wonder the Kurds want to be independent from a country which regards any expression of their culture as treason.

Climate change: not a priority

I've just listened to the Business Statement, in which the government lays out its agenda in the House for the next week. The glaring absence? The Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill. It seems that the government does not have an agreement yet, and as a result, the bill is not a priority.

The government can delay a little bit, but it has other important business due out of select committee in the next few weeks, and the Parliamentary timetable will be quite pressed to accommodate it all. If it delays too long, it runs the risk of not being able to get it through before the election, which in turn means the significant risk that National will gut it or simply sit on their hands for another three years while "waiting for Australia" (or some similar excuse). And I don't think that's really a chance we want to take.

Filthy farmers

Last night, Campbell Live screened a story about an illegal dump in the Wairarapa: large quantities of household and farm waste, including hazardous substances, dumped in a stream flowing into the Pahaoa river near Martinborough. That's disgusting enough, but it's worse: the person apparently responsible is someone who should know better: South Wairarapa District Councillor Julie Riddell. So we have a person responsible for setting policy and enforcing the law flagrantly violating both. A decent representative would resign when caught out like this, but I'm not holding my breath.

As the Greens point out, this is a fairly common practice by New Zealand farmers, and its one that has to stop. We control waste for a very good reason: to prevent it from poisoning us and spreading disease. But farmers just don't seem to care. If they don't, then we need to start making them care, by enforcing the law and vigorously prosecuting those who violate it. But given the way those responsible for enforcement - district councils - are so dominated by farmers, again I'm not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to ask Councillor Riddell about her dump and whether she is going to clean it up, you can email her here.

Update: Frogblog reports they're doing something about it:

A few hours after Campbell Live’s segment a 20 tonne digger and truck arrived at the farm and both are cleaning the creek up. Funny how the world works.
So, farmers will act if publicly shamed. Something to remember for the future.

No freedom of speech in Turkey

Bulent Ersoy is a Turkish singer. Last February, she made what would be considered a fairly common remark in a western democracy: she questioned the value of the Turkish government's war against the Kurds, and said that if she had a son, she "would not send him to the grave for the war of other people". As a result, she has now been charged with "making the public detest military service"; if convicted, she faces up to three years in jail.

This is simply obscene. Turkey pretends to be a modern democracy, but its citizens are forbidden to debate some of the most important questions a country can face: whether to go to war, and whether the price is worth it. Those issues, apparently, are too important for ordinary Turks, and solely the purview of the authoritarian militarists who run Turkey's "deep state". It's a grossly undemocratic attitude, which stinks of the very worst of early twentieth century authoritarianism. Unfortunately, that's the very era Turkey's elite are trying to cling to.

But in addition to being a violation of human rights and its commitments under the ECHR, this case also highlights a real problem with Turkey joining the EU: militaristic nationalism. Two world wars and almost thirty million dead have cured the rest of Europe of that particular disease, but it still thrives in Turkey. And it is that, rather than Islam, which presents a real cultural barrier to integration with Europe.

Berlusconi strikes again

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has a problem: he's currently on trial for corruption in Milan for allegedly bribing a witness in a previous corruption case. Fortunately, he has a solution: suspend all "non-priority" criminal trials:

There was uproar in the Italian Parliament today as Silvio Berlusconi, the centre-right Prime Minister, sought to push through a decree which the left-wing opposition said would save him from a possible prison sentence by suspending "non priority" trials for a year.


If passed the decree, part of a wider "security package" on law and order, would suspend all trials for offences committed before 2002 except in the case of crimes punishable by a prison sentence of 10 years or more and those which involve violence, the Mafia or workplace accidents. Mr Berlusconi said this was intended to speed up Italy's notoriously slow and inefficient judicial process.

However Lanfranco Tenaglia, the Shadow Justice Minister, said it was really to do with "the Prime Minister's perennial conflict of legal interests". In a letter to Renato Schifani, the Senate President and a political ally, Mr Berlusconi admitted that "my lawyers have informed me that this measure would be applicable to one of a number of fanciful trials that far-left magistrates have brought against me for political reasons".

So, change the law to let yourself off from a serious criminal offence. It's the sort of behaviour I'd expect from someone like Mugabe, not the elected leader of a supposedly western democracy. OTOH, it's not the first time Berlusconi has pulled such a stunt - in 2005, shortly before he was de-elected, he reduced Italy's statute of limitations (in the process letting murderers, rapists, and other serious violent offenders escape justice) in order to protect a crony about to be convicted of corruption. And yet, for some reason, Italians keep electing him. Do they like being ruled and represented by a corrupt little thug? Or is he really the least worst politician they can find?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

There she goes

The Wilkins ice shelf, which suffered a major collapse back in March, is now looking like history, with another large chunk breaking off (includes animated satellite photos). This is the first time scientists have recorded an ice-shelf breaking up in the depths of winter. As for the long-term prognosis, it's not good:

"The remaining plate has an arched fracture at its narrowest position, making it very likely that the connection will break completely in the coming days," Braun and Humbert said.
As for the cause, they're pretty clear:
The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced extraordinary warming in the past 50 years of 2.5°C, Braun and Humbert explained. In the past 20 years, seven ice shelves along the peninsula have retreated or disintegrated, including the most spectacular break-up of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002...
Wilkins is a small ice-shelf, but its a scary reminder of what could happen to some of the larger ones if the climate continues to warm.

(Hat-tip: Frogblog)

Challenging the broadcasting allocation

The Alliance (remember them?) has filed papers in the High Court challenging the Electoral Commission's broadcasting allocation. Their basic argument is that the allocation unjustifiably favours larger parties, while denying small parties what is pretty much their sole opportunity to register in the public consciousness. And I agree. Unfortunately, the problem doesn't stem from the Electoral Commission, but from the law itself. In allocating funding, the Electoral Commission is required to have regard to:

(a) The number of persons who voted at the immediately preceding general election for that party and for candidates belonging to that political party; and
(b) The number of persons who voted at any by-election held since the immediately preceding general election for any candidate belonging to that political party; and
(c) the number of members of Parliament who were members of that political party immediately before the dissolution or expiration of Parliament; and
(d) Any relationships that exist between a political party and any other political party; and
(e) Any other indications of public support for that political party such as the results of public opinion polls and the number of persons who are members of that political party; and
(f) The need to provide a fair opportunity for each political party to which subsection (1) of this section applies to convey its policies to the public by the broadcasting of election programmes on television.
While subclause (f) provides some balance, the basic thrust of the law is "larger parties get more money". It's unjust, its inequitable, it denies democratic choice, and it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which preserves the status quo. But the system was set up by - you guessed it - large parties interested in preserving their monopoly on power, so did we really expect any different?

As I have said before, the law desperately needs to be changed to ensure that it is the voters who decide electoral outcomes, not the handicappers at the Electoral Commission. But that's about as likely as MPs voting themselves a pay cut.

As for the Alliance, I think their challenge is doomed to failure. But it might get them some publicity, which is probably the point of the exercise.

Climate change: doing the numbers

Yesterday, United Future announced that they would not support the ETS as it imposed too high a cost on business and households. Today, for exactly the opposite reason, the Maori Party joined them. The upshot is that now the government has only one option to pass the bill: cobble together an unlikely alliance of the Greens and NZ First.

This is going to be very difficult. While NZ First will support the bill as it stands, provided the government throws in a little something to help people cope with higher power prices, the Greens want serious concessions to improve the environmental credibility of the scheme. The problem will be finding something that NZ First won't veto. As for their two key demands, the government won't want to give them a more progressive introduction of liquid fossil fuels (which is a mistake; gradual introduction will prevent exactly the sort of shocks people are worried about), while I suspect NZ First would veto early introduction for fertilisers. So what do they have to bargain with? While the Greens should be asking for a lowered CP1 cap, or a commitment to a steep downward path for the cap once the scheme is fully implemented, the blunt fact is that Labour is in no position to make such promises, as it cannot keep them. OTOH, locking in the latter in legislation now would at least require a future government to actively change it, which would need time and political support, while resulting in significant adverse publicity and possible threats to trade. And it would be exactly the sort of symbolic victory the Greens would need to justify backing the scheme to their supporters.

And that said, I think the Greens should grit their teeth, play the long game, and support it anyway. Yes, its unfair, rewards polluters, and makes the rest of us subsidise "self-reliant" farmers who still have their heads in the sand, but even in the worst case the long-term environmental benefits outweigh that, while it opens significant possibilities for reductions. And that's what I expect the Greens to vote for - not for short-term rage (as much as I share it), but for the long-term benefit of the planet.


This year saw one of the worst abuses of anti-terror law when Samina Malik, the so-called "lyrical terrorist", was convicted of terrorism. While the conviction was officially for possession of Al-Qaeda propaganda, the fact that she had written poetry praising Jihad was used by the prosecution to demonise Malik as a dangerous woman likely to act on her beliefs. Today, that conviction has been quashed, after the Crown Prosecution Service admitted it was unsafe. Looking deeper, it seems that the prosecution lied to the jury about what documents were considered illegal, and falsely represented propaganda and theological material (as opposed to, say, bomb-making manuals) as grounds for conviction. They have now decided not to press for a retrial.

While Malik did not serve a prison sentence, she was unjustly convicted, and I'm glad to see sanity finally prevail.

New Fisk

Snapshots of life in Baghdad

Members' Day

Today is a Members' Day, and while I was expecting to see the committee stages of Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers With babies) Amendment Bill and Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill, that's not going to happen. Instead, Bradford and Fenton have delayed their bills. The net result, once the fluff is dealt with, will be to push Nandor Tanczo's Waste Minimisation (Solids) Bill to the front of the queue; it will almost certainly complete its second reading today, and then be at the top of the Order Paper for its committee stage in two weeks' time.

As for why such tricks are necessary, it's because there are only five Members' Days before Parliament rises - including today. Getting a bill through its final stages needs at least three of those days (maybe more, depending on what's ahead of it and how long the committee stage is), so time is definitely getting short. With this move, the Greens and Labour have I think made sure the waste minimisation bill will go through before the election - though possibly at the expense of a minimum wage for contractors. And OTOH, if the government is adopting bills to get them through, its certainly easier to adopt their own rather than have to deal with how to give a minor party sufficient publicity off what would become a government bill.

Today will also see the final death of Pita Paraone's Treaty of Waitangi (Removal of Conflict of Interest) Amendment Bill. Good riddance. The bill was a result of NZ First's obsession with the perceived biases of the Maori Land Court, and arguably an attempt to remove specific individuals from the Tribunal, which would have robbed the Tribunal of specialist expertise for no reason. I'll be glad to see the back of it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Knee-jerk reactions

Given the sensationalist nature of New Zealand's crime reporting, the clustering of three random homicides in Manukau in the course of a week was always going to result in a knee-jerk reaction. What I didn't expect was quite how knee-jerk it would be. Today, Prime Minister Helen Clark gave in to the public pressure to appear to be "doing something" by proposing reducing the number of liquor outlets "in poor areas". You don't get much more knee-jerk than that.

The ostensible reason for this is the correlation between alcohol and crime - according to police, "overseas studies suggest that between 50-70 percent of all police work is associated in some way with alcohol" (the basis from this seems to be research from the UK and Australia, summarised in a police presentation here, but there's no real reason to suggest NZ will be markedly different). So, the idea is that reducing the number of outlets will reduce consumption, and reducing consumption will reduce crime.

It sounds convincing, but it breaks down the moment you look at the details. Firstly, as the Herald piece points out, the 1989 liberalisation led to a massive 1250% increase in liquor outlets nationwide, with alcohol being available in cafes, supermarkets and corner dairies as well as the traditional pub and bottle store. But despite that, per-capita alcohol consumption has decreased - we now drink less than we did pre-liberalisation. In 1987 (on graph here), we consumed about 10.2L of pure alcohol per person, mostly in the form of beer. In 2007, it was 9.2L. So much for the first link in the chain. As for the second, according to the police's own estimates, that one litre per head decrease should have led to a 2 - 10% decrease in violent crime. Instead, violent crime has increased (older stats here; I should update them some time). While that doesn't rule out a decrease in alcohol-fuelled crime being masked by an increase from something else (like P), empirically, the police's argument isn't looking very good at all.

As for Clark, quite apart from being knee-jerk and empirically unsustainable, her response's focus on cutting outlets in poor areas also comes across as insufferably snobby and paternalistic. The problem isn't alcohol as such - it's that poor people can't be trusted with it! If the residents of Manukau have access to beer and spirits, they'll run wild, have orgies, commit crimes, and kill people - unlike the richer, whiter inhabitants of the North Shore. It's the sort of attitude I'd expect from the very worst of nineteenth century politicians, not from the leader of a supposedly progressive, modern, 21st-century political party.

Reminder: Drinking Liberally

Drinking Liberally is on again this Thursday. They seem to have settled on a schedule now of the first and third Thursday of every month. It also looks like there'll be a chapter starting soon in Auckland.

When: 18:00, Thursday 19 June
Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith St
How much: However much you feel comfortable spending on food and drink.

No speaker this week (they want a more social session), but they do have someone lined up for two weeks' time.

Lights out for incandescents

The government has finally decided to follow Australia and phase out incandescent light bulbs. About time. As I said last year, this is a total no-brainer. Sure, incandescents are cheap, but technologically, we might as well be using candles. Incandescents waste 95% of their energy producing heat, rather than light. Compact fluorescents are more efficient, last longer, and are much cheaper in the long run, while LED "bulbs" seem to be even better. In the long run, mandating more efficient lighting technology (while subsidising introduction) will save everyone money, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Which seems to be a very good reason to do it.

Editorials on abortion

So, what have our newspapers been saying about last week's decision by the High Court questioning the lawfulness of many abortions? It's been a week, and the major dailies (and one provincial paper) have now spoken. Here's the summary:

  • The New Zealand Herald calls for the defence of the status quo, in Gains made a generation ago should not be eroded today
  • The Dominion-Post says Abortion reality check overdue, but talks mostly about the need for Dutch-style sex-education to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
  • The Press, in an editorial unimaginatively titled Abortion review, says that the decision is "hardly surprising", and argues that "the law should be changed to bring it into line with 21st-century attitudes."
  • The Timaru Herald, in Abortion on demand, says that politicians will finally have to face up to the issue, but that they should find it easier to liberalise the law than their predecessors did.
  • The Otago Daily Times calls for a full review of the Grounds for abortion, and asks "whether we have, in 30 years, achieved an appropriate balance of rights where unborn children still have little legal status and negligible privileges, and where abortion is by far the most common medical surgical procedure our young women receive."

So, two outright liberal, one cautiously liberal, one avoiding the question while pretending to address it (like the politicians, really), and one apparently conservative.

It might be interesting to see what line these papers took back in 1977. Anyone?

Climate change: Oram on the ETS

On Nine To Noon this morning, Kathryn Ryan interviews business commentato Rod Oram [audio] on the ETS. His assessment? The amendments are almost entirely technical, while the substantive changes address many of the concerns of the business community. Whether this is regarded as an "improvement" I guess depends on how you feel about corporate welfare for polluters. He sums up by quoting the Business Council for Sustainable Development:

The bill has been made as quote gentle and generous as it could be. In other words, emitters get off really very lightly, so almost all of the cost over say the next ten or fifteen years is actually borne by taxpayers not by the companies.
Which really makes you wonder what it would take to make our business community happy.

As for National, Oram assesses their objections as entirely dishonest, particularly when it comes to "aligning with Australia" (which is actually trivially easy and doesn't require us to delay implementation at all). But then, did we really expect any different?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Campbell interviews Dunne

Over on Election08, Scoop's Gordon Campbell interviews Peter Dunne. The interview includes this assessment of his former party members:

we had some people who imagined that United Future could become New Zealand’s version of the Taliban... [a]nd they’ve now thankfully left to pursue their course to oblivion.
Dunne also talks about abortion, and it appears that while he's Catholic, he's relatively sane on this issue (or rather, recognises that he cannot dictate that others live according to his religious beliefs), and seems to favour some liberalisation simply for practical reasons:
the procedure of a woman, her doctor and two certifying consultants is somewhat cumbersome. I think probably, you should be looking at the woman, her doctor and informed consent.
And that said, he could have a strange idea of "informed consent". His former party mates certainly did, and Gordon Copeland still has a bill in the ballot requiring women to sit through SPUC propaganda in order to get an abortion - something which is both demeaning, and a significant barrier to access. OTOH, given his general sanity and attitude towards Copeland, that's unlikely to be the case - still, it would have been useful if Campbell had explored exactly what he meant there.

Climate change: reported back

The Finance and Expenditure Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill and recommended that it be passed. While they've made a large number of technical amendments, the broad outline of the bill has remained unchanged; implementation is still progressive, and the ETS will still cover all sectors and all gases from 2013. The big changes:

  • The entry of PFCs and HFCs has been delayed from 2011 to 2013. These are highly damaging greenhouse gases, but comprise such a small proportion of our emissions that it will make no real difference (and it helps that the sector is doing reasonably well at controlling emissions).
  • Coal-seam methane is now included, so coal miners will have a direct financial incentive to capture it.
  • A major change to forestry allocation which will see units allocated in favour of land owners who bought their forests before the announcement of the deforestation cap in 2002. This seems to be offset by allocating fewer units to Maori (technically, to land set aside for future Treaty settlements, but it has the same effect). So, if you're a Pakeha forest owner, you get 39 tons a hectare; if you're Maori and gained the same patch of land through a recent or future Treaty settlement, you get 18. It's flagrant racism, but then, this is the same government that passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act.
  • There is now provision for allowing forest offsets (that is, for deforestation to be offset by plantings elsewhere) if this is reflected in a future international agreement. Which seems fair enough, given that the problem stems from Kyoto. At the same time, I don't think this is likely to happen at all.

The National Party has their expected whiny minority report, in which they profess concerns for the aims of the ETS, then propose systematically gutting them in favour of polluters and donors. Still, they've at least recognised that agriculture can't be exempted, and they seem to be supportive of early entry for fertilisers. Which suggests some possibilities for amendments during the committee stage.

The bill will now lie on the table for three sitting days, during which time the government will scrabble to get the numbers to pass it. If they do, it'll see its second reading and committee stages next week, and likely be passed by early July. If not, then the election will likely mean we won't see any emissions controls until 2010.

My arguments on why the Greens should support the bill are here

Climate change: we are not alone

The Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill is due back from committee today, so we're seeing the usual last-minute lobbying from those interested in the subject. Among which is this piece from polluter-lobby the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, which repeats the usual claim so beloved of New Zealand's business comunity:

New Zealand seems alone in the world in its determination to put a price on every tonne of emissions at a high price.
Europe? Japan? Australia? Most of the United States and Canada (though not their respective federal governments)?

The fact is that we are not alone in pursuing emissions trading as a solution. To the contrary - it would be failing to impose a price on carbon which would be ducking the mainstream of international policy. But then, truth has never been that important to those opposed to robust climate change policy, has it?

Trivial and superficial

I shouldn't need to remind anyone of this, but this is an election year. In just four or five month’s time, New Zealand will be going to the polls to decide who gets to run the country for the next three years. So you'd expect our political media to be at the top of their game, exploring every issue, making sure the public is informed on what the parties stand for and what they disagree on, so we can make an informed choice and make our votes count.

Sadly, you'd be mistaken. Exhibit A? The New Zealand Herald over the weekend. Its lead story? Key winner of sexy vote. It's second? MP gets engaged with proposal written in the sand. Trivial, superficial, tabloid crap. It's no wonder parties get away with not having any policy, or lying to the public - our political "journalists" are too busy worrying about who looks fat. Next week: "John's policy bump", "Helen's hidden pain", and some zoom-lens topless photos of Rodney Hide. Can I have some real news please?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Actual waste

National is always going on about "government waste", and now Nicky Hager has finally found a real example: a number of government departments are paying Thompson and Clark Investigations $1,000 a month for "intelligence" consisting of

unreferenced material from the internet and rough summaries of open sources, interspersed with sarcastic comments about the community groups.
A thousand a month for that? Couldn't they just read Kiwiblog for free?

(And OTOH, given that we spend $100 million a year on a Security Intelligence Service which produces similar garbage, is it really a surprise?)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

New Fisk

The Middle East never tires of threats