Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare

Over the past 60 years, the United Nations has agreed numerous international instruments covering human rights. Now, the World Society for the Protection of Animals is pressing them to expand the circle, and draft a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare. The UDAW would recognise that animals are sentient, establish minimum standards for animal welfare, and outlaw cruelty. If agreed to, it would help shape policy towards a better, less cruel world.

The New Zealand government is supporting this proposal, and rightly so. We like to think of ourselves as a progressive country and a defender of human rights. But underlying that progressive vision are humanist values which oppose pain and suffering, regardless of species. Support for decent animal welfare standards is thus a natural outgrowth of our concern for human rights.

The road to a UN declaration will be a long one, and probably take at least five years. But if it is successful, and governments act on it, then the world will be a better place.

Another option

At the moment, everyone (including me) is looking to the TV networks to defend democracy and force the major party leaders to participate in TV debates with the minor parties. But a correspondent has pointed out another option: the minor parties themselves could apply pressure. For example, by standing up together and saying "we will not support any party as government if they will not face us together in a debate".

Will they do this? We can but hope.

The Progressive List

The Progressives have released their party list. The most obvious point is that they are living up to their name on gender, with a 50% ratio in their top 8 candidates (which is probably as far as we need to look), and 12 13 women out of 27. However, they have gone backwards on diversity. Last election, the Progressives were the diversity party, with candidates from the Tongan, Cambodian and Bangladeshi communities in the top ten. This time round, that diversity has been pushed well down the list, and the top spots are all Pakeha. Given that relative list ordering has generally been retained from last time, part of the reason is obviously that those candidates have found other things to do with their lives - but given the Progressives' willingness to parachute a candidate into their top three, and their access to strong candidates from diverse communities, they could surely have done better.

As with other parties, I've done a table showing the top candidates relative placements with last time.

2008 RankName2005 RankDifference
1Jim Anderton10
2Matt Robson20
3Josie Pagani----
4Paula Gillon13+9
5Phil Clearwater14+9
6Viv Shepherd7+1
7Trevor Barnard15+8
8Brenda Hill17+9
9Craig Hutchinson----
10Justin Robson----
11Jeffrey Ly----
12Suki Amirapu27+15
13Somnath Bagchi----
14Sukhdev Bains29+15
15Racheal Cheam----
16Mohammad Kazemi-Yazdi22+8
17Debbie Lucas----
18Claire Main35+17
19Phillipa Main36+17
20John Maurice21+1
21Jacqui McAlpine37+16
22Dawn Patchett41+19
23Tala Po'e42+19
24Pavitra Roy43+19
25Elspeth Sandys44+19
26David Somerset48+22
27Ralph Taylor----

Further details of their top five candidates can be found here.

Correction (1/10/2008): Corrected number of women candidates; The Hand Mirror has the gender analysis here.

Retaining the royal

Back in May, the Law Commission recommended streamlining the current ad-hoc system used for public inquiries. One of the consequences of this streamlining would have been doing away with the archaic term of "Royal Commission". Today, the government introduced its Inquiries Bill, which largely adopts the law Commission's recommendations. Except, unfortunately, for the last bit:

The bill reforms and modernises the inquiries law and follows a Law Commission review. The new forms of inquiry would replace commissions of inquiry but Royal Commissions will be retained under the new law.

“Ministers considered the public perceived Royal Commissions to have greater gravitas than other types of inquiry,” Mr Barker said. “There are occasions where the appointment of a Royal Commission is necessary to provide assurance that a matter is being given serious, independent consideration.”

Because obviously, nothing gets serious, independent consideration unless done under the stamp of monarchy.

This is simply the colonial cringe in action. It is also pure spin. Royal commissions will differ from the new public inquiries only in name, but apparently we're meant to trust the latter more (and the former less) because of the presence or absence of the word "royal". Wouldn't it be better to instead look at the substance...?

Vetoing democracy

So, Labour and National's conspiracy against democracy has succeeded. TV3 has pulled its planned multi-party leader's debate, while TVNZ has meekly accepted that the major party leaders will not be participating (though at least they will be providing small-party leaders with a platform so the electorate can judge them). Neither station seems to have given a moment's thought for the other option: cancelling their head-to-head debates unless Clark and Key showed up for the multi-party one. So much for the idea that the media defends our democracy...

Clark and Key's argument is that the public is choosing between them as potential Prime Ministers, and so deserve to have an uncluttered view. But to point out the obvious, we will not be voting for a Prime Minister on November 8th. We will be voting for a Parliament. And we will be doing it with our party votes. Under MMP, leader's debates aren't just about potential Prime Ministers, but also about judging the parties against one another so as to determine the broad makeup of Parliament. And that, it seems, is the last thing either National or Labour want.

A plague on both their houses. They are both undemocratic, arrogant, and colluding to return us to their cosy pre-MMP oligarchy. And hopefully, the electorate will punish them for it.

Drinking Liberally Wellington

Drinking Liberally is on in Wellington again this Thursday, and the guest speaker is former Listener journalist Gordon Campbell.

When: 17:30, Thursday, October 2
Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith Street
Contact: wellington@drinkingliberally.org

Be there or be thirsty.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Reported back

The Law and Order Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill and recommended that it be passed. While they have made some amendments which improve the bill (e.g. reducing the penalties to a level more consistent with those for intimidation and similar offences), they've also added some terrible ones. For example:

  • The police could seize insignia that had been displayed in a specified place after the fact when you're no longer there - making this bill not so much about reducing public intimidation as "taking stuff off gangs";
  • The police could stop and search a vehicle without warrant if they believed an offence had been committed under this act. Normally, they only get to do that sort of thing where they suspect a vehicle is carrying guns or drugs;
  • The select committee noted that the law covered tattoos. They did not regard this as problematic in any way.
These are simply authoritarian powers, and it is difficult to see how they can possibly be justified in a free and democratic society. They are also unnecessary. To point out the obvious, intimidation is already a crime, and if police are concerned about gang members intimidating members of the public, they should charge them with it. But if their behaviour doesn't meet the threshold required by the existing law - which requires more than simply being brown and patched in the wrong part of town - then they have no business intervening.

A bit more on employment relations

I've had a bit of feedback on this morning's post on employment relations, which is worth sharing. First, while the Maori Party hasn't officially released policy on this issue, they have told the EPMU where they stand - and it is firmly on the left. So, if National ends up having to rely on them for support after the election, they probably won't be making many changes in this area (which seems appropriate if parties representing a majority of voters oppose their proposals).

Meanwhile, The NBR's Ben Thomas pointed me at a piece he wrote back in August ("Getting to work on work policy", sadly offline) where National claimed that their promise to "continue to allow union access to workplaces with the employer’s consent, which cannot be unreasonably withheld" was not intended to alter the current situation, and that they did not plan to change that section of the Act. Which begs the question: why are they saying it then? Their policy is clearly worded to give employers the impression that unions will be denied access; if in fact they do not intend to deliver, they should not be saying it. Anything else is simply dishonest.

There must be an election on

So, NZ First's Peter Brown is warning immigrants from societies with a "class system" or poor attitudes to women's rights to stay away from New Zealand. I guess there must be an election on or something.

But the irony is that Brown himself is an immigrant from a society with a strong class system and a hereditary aristocracy: the UK. And judging from his voting record, his own attitude to women's rights (or indeed, those of anyone who isn't dead, white, and male) isn't too flash either.

Jules Verne burns tonight

One for the space geeks: the Jules Verne, the ESA's space dump-truck used to support the International Space Station, will be deorbited tonight at about 23:00 NZDT. It will burn up over the Pacific Ocean at around 01:00 tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, we won't be able to see it from here.

Choices: employment relations

Now that Parliament has dissolved and the election campaign is officially underway, its time to start the serious election coverage. Elections are about choices. On the surface, we choose who gets to occupy the government benches for the next three years - but the real choice we are making is about what policies get implemented. So, over the next six weeks, I'll be looking at what our choices are on issues such as health, education, and the environment. The focus will primarily be on the major parties, as rightly or wrongly they will form the core of any post-election government. Minor party policy is of interest primarily as a source of ideas for the majors, or as a possible veto if they are forced together.

I'll start with employment relations. This is one of the classical divides between left and right, and it matters to almost everyone's life. By setting the ground rules for employment relationships, employment relations policy determines the balance of power between employees and employers. On the individual level, this means it affects workplace entitlements like meal breaks and sick leave, how much we get paid, how many holidays we get, and the security of our lives. On a larger scale, it helps determine the distribution of wealth in society. Changes to employment law or entitlements can make a real difference to people in need - or it can enrich the already rich at the expense of everyone else.

Labour's policy in this area has been simple: firstly, give unions the power to fight for wage increases, by restoring rights removed in the Employment Contracts Act. Secondly, use monetary policy to create a labour shortage by including full employment in its Policy Targets Agreement with the Reserve Bank. Thirdly, make regular large increases to the minimum wage, boosting incomes at the bottom of the pile and providing an argument for better wages for those further up. Then let nature take its course. The result has been a period of sustained wage growth, which has significantly benefited ordinary New Zealanders and seen our income distribution begin to return to its pre-revolutionary state. Around the edges, they've increased annual leave to four weeks (thanks to the Alliance), introduced flexible working arrangements (thanks to the Greens), and protected meal breaks - but the core has been creating an environment where unions can be effective in performing their basic function of getting benefits for their members.

National has tried to give the impression they would retain these policies. In fact, they plan significant changes. The headline changes are a 90-day probationary period during which employees could be fired at will (effectively stripping them of all employment rights), and giving employees the "choice" to sell their fourth week of annual leave (a "choice" which is likely to be dictated to them by their employer, on the employer's terms). These are both bad moves, which will significantly restrict workers' rights and job security at the bottom end of the market. But more fundamental are their moves to restrict union access to workplaces and remove the union monopoly on collective bargaining. The former would restrict the ability of unions to represent their members; the latter would allow employers to sideline them in favour of their own "bargaining agents", supposedly representing the employee but in fact appointed by and working for the employer. If this sounds horribly familiar, its because its the situation we used to have under the Employment Contracts Act; it effectively crippled unions, lowered wages, and funnelled the fruits of growth into the pockets of the rich.

(As for those minimum wage increases, you can kiss them goodbye. According to National MP John Hayes, National "believe[s] in tax cuts, not the minimum wage". They have said nothing about possible changes to monetary policy, and some journalist should probably ask them about it...)

As for the minor parties, ACT stands for "more freedom of contract" (which means fewer rights for employees), United Future for the status quo, and the Progressives and Greens for further improvements within labour's basic framework. The Maori Party don't seem to have released a formal policy, but have talked about a $15 / hour minimum wage and have voted for every progressive piece of legislation on this issue, so they're probably in the "left" camp (as - broadly - are NZ First). Which means National is going to have real trouble actually implementing its policies in this area if they end up lacking an easy legislative majority.

We have a clear choice in employment policy between a party which uses it to benefit the many and a party which wants to use it to benefit the few. You might want to think about which one you prefer.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

STV wins in Wellington

Wellington residents have voted to retain STV rather than return to the old "block vote" (FPP) electoral system. Good. STV is proportional and democratic, and allows citizens to elect the representatives they want. By contrast, the block vote (which we still suffer under in Palmerston North) allows a narrow plurality to leverage itself into absolute victory. Readopting FPP would have been a serious step back for democracy, and I'm glad Wellingtonians showed more sense.

[Hat tip: Poneke]

New Fisk

Bush rescues Wall Street but leaves his soldiers to die in Iraq

A conspiracy against democracy

Adam Smith once said of businessmen that they "seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public". The same could be said of our two major political parties. Rather than acknowledging that we operate in a multi-party system now, they have cooked up a cosy little deal, refusing to appear in any leaders debates which involve the leaders of other parties. As far as they're concerned, the only choice the public need to make is a binary one between National and Labour. The public doesn't need to hear from anyone else.

This is simply a conspiracy against democracy, and we should not tolerate it. And rather than accept their conditions, TV3 and TVNZ should cook up their own deal to defend our democracy against these would-be oligarchs, and jointly insist that both leaders attend at least one debate featuring all other Parliamentary party leaders before getting their chance to go head to head by themselves.

We voted to get rid of the two-party oligarchy in 1993. We shouldn't allow the big parties to introduce it through the back door by conspiring to deny their smaller competitors any media coverage. If our media is to inform the public, and if our democracy is to be meaningful, we must allow everyone a fair chance to have their say.

Friday, September 26, 2008

New kiwi blog

pundit.co.nz - a collection of respected political pundits, including Jon Johansson and Jane Young.

[Hat tip: 08 Wire]

And they're done

The House has finished its business for the year, and has adjourned for the election. So, they're done.

I wonder if Parliament has a dead dog party?


New Zealand has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Good. Now, if only we'd sign up to its Optional protocol, so that those rights were actually enforceable...

Climate change: a backdown on forestry

Writing in the NBR this morning, Ben Thomas points out that the National Party have backed down completely on the issue of deforestation offsets. During the debate over the Emissions Trading Scheme, they pushed for forest owners to be allowed to cut down their trees provided they planted an equivalent area elsewhere. But in their forestry policy [PDF], they commit to offsetting "subject to a full assessment of the costs involved".

Those costs are significant. The Kyoto Protocol does not recognise forest offsetting, which means that any such scheme will leave the government liable for the full cost of carbon. At current rates of deforestation, that would cost the government about $600 million. Even National recognises that that is a non-starter:

Mr Ardern says he does not envisage a National government offering any kind of subsidy along those lines.

“I can’t imagine any National government coming up with any sort of multi-million dollar package that in effect was a transfer of taxpayer funds to a particular sector, because that’s a subsidy in anyone’s language.”

Instead, they're promising to try and renegotiate the international climate change regime so that it recognises the issues of commercial plantation forestry rather than focusing on the problem of strip-mining tropical rainforest. But this is already government policy, and the ETS already allows the activation of an offsetting scheme if the international regime changes. So, despite all the noise to the contrary, National has adopted the government's policy. It would be nice if they were honest enough to admit it.


Earlier in the year, I took the Herald's Audrey Young to task over her overinterpretation of polling data. Unfortunately, she's doing it again. In a piece on this morning's Herald poll, she reports that Winston Peters' support base lies in provinces:

[Peters] is favoured by four per cent as preferred Prime Minister in the latest Herald-DigiPoll survey, down 1.6 points.

But only 1 per cent of Auckland respondents favoured him compared with 5.6 per cent in the rest of the country.

We know from the main article that the poll sampled 700 respondents (though it is not clear what proportion of them responded "I dunno"). So what Audrey is saying is that of the 28 people (at best) who said they wanted Winston to be Prime Minister, only three or four of them lived in Auckland. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer to base my conclusions on slightly larger sample sizes than that (still, it could have been worse - she could have been tracking the changes in Winston's Auckland support - "changes" which would almost certainly be the result of pure statistical noise with that size sample...)

This sort of overinterpretation of polls is likely to become rife in the leadup to the election. But it doesn't add to the public's knowledge at all. If journalists are that pressed for copy, here's a suggestion: they could try writing about policy. You know, that thing that politics is actually about, and which the politicians are nominally fighting over? But sadly, it seems our political journalists would much rather focus on the game rather than what is at stake.

Update: Yes, I'm aware that the p-value supports Audrey's overall conclusion. But there's a difference between saying "the poll says that Winston has less support in Auckland than elsewhere" and sticking solid numbers on it; the latter gives an entirely false sense of precision given the tiny sample size. OTOH, as has been pointed out, journalists never qualify their statistics, and if they tried, their subeditors would cut it out, so I'm probably being too harsh here.

New Fisk

Six years in Guantanamo

Thursday, September 25, 2008


David Benson-Pope has given his valedictory speech. Which means we can finally put DPF's conspiracy theory - taken up and repeated by a credulous media - that he is standing as an independent to rest. If you give a valedictory, you're not standing, end of story.

The republic is on the agenda

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. And it is founded on both sexual and religious bigotry. The succession of the English monarchy is governed by the Act of Settlement 1701 (UK), which enshrines not only male primogeniture, but also anti-Catholicism. It bans Roman Catholics, or anyone married to a Roman Catholic, from ascending to the throne. And it requires the English monarch to "join in communion with the Church of England" - a gross violation of the freedom of religion.

Now the UK government plans to repeal it. It's about bloody time. Monarchy is bad enough, bigoted monarchy is worse.

Tthe repeal will require the consent of other Commonwealth countries. In New Zealand it will also require a law change, as the Act is still part of New Zealand law. Which means that it puts the monarchy, and by implication, a republic, on the political agenda, whether the government likes it or not. If we're going to muck about with 300-year old legislation, we might as well do away with it - and the monarchy - altogether, and leave it to the British.

[Hat tip: Larvatus Prodeo]

New Kiwi blog

Think Big.

Locked out

Yesterday, Wellington's bus-drivers staged a one-hour strike in rush hour as part of their campaign for a living wage. In response, bus service operator Go Wellington has locked them out indefinitely, effectively reneging on its contract with Greater Wellington Regional Council to provide service.

The bus drivers' cause is just. They are paid a mere $12.72 an hour - not much more than the minimum wage. That's less than they would get in McDonalds or the Warehouse with no experience or training. It's also less than they would get in Auckland - up there, after a seven month campaign, bus drivers won themselves a base rate of $16 / hour. The Wellington drivers are asking for less - a mere 8.6% increase. They should get it.

If you'd like to help, you can send Go Wellington your thoughts here. Alternatively, you can ask GWRC why it is paying for bus services that are not being delivered and whether they have a penalty clause for non-delivery of services in their contracts here. The Tramways Union is apparently organising a strike fund, and I'll post the details so people can contribute as soon as I see a press release about it.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 74th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at XXBN.

The alternative

(Cross-posted from Larvatus Prodeo, and aimed mainly at foreign readers)

Seven weeks out, and the New Zealand election campaign has yet to really get under way. While the date has been announced, Parliament is still sitting (under urgency, to get through a raft of Treaty settlement legislation and administrivia which really needs to be dealt with), and the campaign proper won't begin until it rises (which is likely to happen late tomorrow night, or maybe Friday afternoon). In the meantime, and in the absence of policy announcements, campaign scandals and such, I'm left with nothing to talk about but the broad issues.

Deborah has already covered what Labour has done in government over the last nine years. If re-elected, Labour will likely continue to govern in the same vaguely left-wing, incrementalist style, slowly extending employment rights and the welfare state as money becomes available. So in this post, I thought I'd look at the alternative: what would National do if they form a government?

A problem here is that we don't really have complete information to judge. National has been following a "small target" strategy, which means minimising differences with the government and refusing to release policy until the last minute so as to prevent public scrutiny - and government criticism. This is highly frustrating to those of us who like solid policy to chew on and pick through or who think parties should offer us meaningful policy choices rather than just one of red or blue. But there's still some policy out there, and some broad trends can be discerned.

(I should note here that I am a lefty, and so my perceptions of National's policy will inevitably be coloured by this. That's something you'll just have to deal with)

First, National would offer tax cuts. Great stonking ones, if you believe their finance spokesperson. Whether they'll actually be able to deliver in an economic environment which has their own leader warning against "lolly scrambles" is an interesting question, but they've previously expressed some willingness to run deficits if necessary - "balancing the books" apparently now being some sort of socialist plot. The exact shape of their tax cut programme will be announced some time after Treasury opens the books on October 6, but traditionally National has favoured the rich (sorry; "average" New Zealanders, which it defines as the 15% of the population who earn over $60,000 / year) over actual ordinary New Zealanders; I'll do a full distributional breakdown when the policy comes out.

Secondly, National would shift employment law back towards favouring the interests of employers. They have ruled out a return to the hated Employment Contracts Act, instead saying that they would "reform" the existing Employment Relations Act, but their announced policies indicate a clear desire to roll back Labour's reforms around union access to workplaces, collective bargaining, public holidays and annual leave, while introducing a 90-day "probationary" period in which workers could be fired at will. They are also likely to reduce employee and possibly government contributions to the KiwiSaver workplace savings scheme, and are highly unlikely to continue Labour's policy of regular increases to the minimum wage.

Thirdly, reforming the Resource Management Act - our core planning and environmental legislation - is a high priority for National, featuring in most of their policy announcements. The RMA allows local communities to control development, both through policy setting and participation in the resource consent process. National thinks this introduces uncertainty and increases costs; they would prefer a system where developers can do whatever they want without all of this messy "democracy" and "participation" business. Their solution is to erect barriers to public participation, preventing "frivolous" objections, holding hearings in the Environment Court (which means formality, lawyers, and cross-examination - all of which costs money and frightens people off), and introducing a priority consenting scheme allowing them to bypass the entire process for important projects and favoured applicants. This would both reduce participation, and significantly weaken environmental protections.

Fourthly, National have promised both to abolish the Maori seats, and to hold a referendum on MMP. The latter is a deliberate effort to roll back democracy and replace the current fair electoral system with an unfair one in which there are fewer checks on government power. The long-term story here is that democracy and coalition politics put an end to the neo-liberal policies National favours - once Parliament reflected the actual will of the people, such policies were a non-starter. So National seeks to advance its policies by stacking the electoral system and undermining democracy - a dangerous path which displays a deeply undemocratic mindset.

On health and education there is not much real information yet. National have made vague promises to improve outcomes (either literacy rates or elective surgery waiting times), but given no real details. They may provide more details during the campaign, or they may leave this area deliberately empty, so as to spring radical policies on us by surprise.

They have other policies - privatising ACC (our no-fault universal accident insurance scheme which keeps lawyers out of business), capping the number of public servants, using public-private partnerships for roads (which worked so well in Australia), and tweaking the Emissions Trading Scheme to favour polluters - but the above are the main ones. And while they have attempted to minimise differences, there's a clear distinction between them and Labour.

All of the above of course assumes that National gets to do what they want. But thanks to MMP, that is more difficult than it seems. While they are currently polling high, National is unlikely to win an absolute majority on election day, meaning they will need to talk to other parties if they want to pass legislation. And unless they manage to win more than ~46% of the vote, they will have to talk to parties beyond their preferred partners of ACT and United Future. The problem for National is that those parties - the Greens and Maori Party - are strongly opposed to these policies, and are highly unlikely to vote for them under any circumstances. So National may find itself in the unenviable position of being able to form a government, but unable to enact its preferred policy platform. National voters will be deeply unhappy with that. The rest of us will probably be somewhat relieved.

Psychologists reject torture

One of the disturbing features of America's policy of torture is the way it has co-opted medical professionals in serious human rights abuses. Every torture session is monitored by a Behavioral Science Consultation Team which recommends techniques and sets limits to ensure the victim is not tortured to death. Unsurprisingly, many medical professionals regard this enabling of torture as a gross violation of professional ethics (not to mention US and international law), and both the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association have banned their members from participating in interrogations. Now, the American Psychological Association has joined them, with its members passing a referendum banning participation in torture in the face of a leadership willing to collaborate with torturers. Members violating the ban could face disciplinary action - which is the least they deserve.

Now, if only the American people would impose similar restrictions on their government and military. Oh, that's right - they already have. The problem is enforcing it on a government which considers itself above the law.

Don't forget

Vote With Both Eyes Open has released two more posters, reminding people of the past actions of Murray McCully and Tony Ryall. If you feel like joining in, you can download them, print them out, and stick them up. Or, if you have something different you want to say, you can always design your own. Provided you include a promoter statement and don't spend too much money, you can say whatever you want (and certainly, everything that you could say under the Electoral Act).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


For the past three years, National has been screaming about "government corruption". But according to Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index, we are one of the cleanest countries in the world, ranking first equal with Denmark and Sweden.

I wonder if National will be apologising anytime soon?

The full index is here [PDF]

"Pro-life" = pro-death

Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Bill has passed the lower house, and will go before the Legislative Council in October. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is stepping up its campaign against the bill, threatening to close their hospitals in Victoria if it passes. Their specific problem is a clause in the bill which requires doctors with a moral objection to performing an abortion to provide an effective referral to a patient so that they can get one elsewhere; according to the Catholic Church, recognising that the patient's wishes come first is a gross violation of their freedom of conscience (the freedom of patients to actually get the medical care they are seeking are apparently not important). But worse, they object to a clause which imposes a positive duty on medical practioners to save the life of the mother by performaing abortions in an actual emergency, regardless of any belief they have to the contrary. According to the Catholic Church, women in these circumstances should simply be left to die.

And people wonder why Catholicism has such a bad name...

I respect the freedom of conscience of Catholic doctors to refuse to perform abortions, but at the same time the wishes of the patient are paramount. The requirement to make an effective referral is a good compromise on this issue. As for refusing to save lives in an emergency, this is simply depraved indifference, tantamount to murder, and if Catholic doctors are unable to perform their duties, they simply have no business practicing medicine.

There's a more scathing critique at Hoyden About Town.

[Hat-tip: Larvatus Prodeo]

Reminder: Drinking Liberally in Auckland and PN

Drinking Liberally will be happening in Auckland tonight, usual place (London Bar, cnr Wellesley & Queen Sts), usual time (19:30), with Margaret Wilson as speaker. Sounds interesting, and after her observations on MMP last month, I wish I could be there.

Drinking Liberally will also be happening in Palmerston North this Friday:

When: 19:30, Friday, 26 September
Where: Zoe's Bar, Kingsgate Hotel, Fitzherbert Ave
Who: Former MUSA President Paul Falloon

Hopefully there will be more than a handful of people this time.

Free Raja Petra Kamarudin!

Raja Petra Kamarudin is a Malaysian blogger, and editor of the anti-government Malaysia Today website. Ten days ago he was arrested over posts supposedly insulting Islam. Today, the government announced that he would be detained under Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act. He will receive no trial, and his detention is purely at the pleasure of the Home Minister. While the term is officially for two years, it can be renewed indefinitely.

Detention without trial is a fundamental abuse of human rights. Indefinite detention without trial is worse. But this is what the Malaysian government is doing to its critics in its desperate struggle to stay in power. If Raja Petra is lucky, that struggle will be unsuccessful, the government will fall, and he will be freed. Otherwise, we could be seeing a lot more indefinite detentions in Malaysia...

France ratifies the Disappearance Convention

France has ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. So, 15 more countries to go, and it will enter into force.

Sadly, New Zealand still shows no sign of signing yet.

Labour gives no guarantees on Pharmac

One of the concerns with a US-NZ FTA is that the US will demand that we give up Pharmac, the pharmaceutical buying agency which uses our bulk-buying power to screw better deals out of multinational drug companies. So yesterday in Question Time, the Greens asked the government to give a simple guarantee that they would not let this happen:

Dr Russel Norman: Will the Minister publicly guarantee that he will not sign any trade deal with the United States that undermines Pharmac’s role as a monopoly purchaser of pharmaceuticals on behalf of all New Zealanders—yes or no?

Hon ANNETTE KING: As with all our free-trade agreements, in order for New Zealand to be able to agree to any outcome the agreement overall must be able to pass the test of being in our national interest. Those issues will be discussed and we will look at our national interest.

Given the simplicity of the question, this obfuscation can only be taken as a refusal. Labour - the chief party of the centre-left - will make no commitment to ensure the cheap drugs upon which our health system (and our health) relies.

The real worry here is that FTA negotiations are conducted in secret, and the results presented to us as a fait accompli, which Parliament must then vote for. So, we won't know whether or not we've been sold out until it is too late. Such secrecy is simply unacceptable in a democracy. Unless the negotiations are conducted completely in the open, so that the public can exercise full democratic oversight over the entire process and prevent our government from selling us out, we should not accept the outcome.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Parliament has voted to censure Winston Peters, 62 - 56, with Labour and NZ First as the only parties opposing censure. Nice to know where Labour stands on transparency.

They've just moved into urgency to pass a raft of settlement legislation before the House finally rises for the election. Exactly when that wil happen is unclear. But as a side-effect. Tuesday will eat Wednesday, and so we don't get a Member's Day tomorrow.

The cost of tax cuts

What's the cost of National's proposed tax cuts for the rich? The PSA is running some clear and incisive issue ads which get to the heart of the issue:


(Click here for a larger version [PDF])

So, do you really think its worth it?

[Hat tip: The Standard]

Climate change: oh fuck

It looks like we've hit the tipping point for positive feedback from arctic methane clathrates:

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

Underground stores of methane are important because scientists believe their sudden release has in the past been responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species. Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia's northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

In some places the release is so large it doesn't even have time to dissolve - it just bubbles to the surface like you'd see in a fish-tank.

This is serious. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and its sudden release from subsea clathrate beds can raise the temperature in an extremely short timeframe. Such releases have been implicated in two mass-extinction events: the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum 56 million years ago, and the Permian–Triassic extinction event 251 million years ago. If these releases continue, we could find ourselves living in a very different world, and without much of the ecosystem we have relied on to support us.

Mapping transport inequalities

The Greens have published some interesting maps showing the impact of climate change and rising oil prices on transport. Based on 2006 census data, they show the proportion of people in the suburbs of eight cities who travel to work by car, colour coded from green (few) to red (lots). Wellington, with its well-developed commuter rail network, is mostly green [PDF]. But take a look at Auckland [PDF]:


Orange and red all over the map - they don't have decent trains or buses, and so are forced to take the car. As oil prices rise, life for people in those orange suburbs is going to become a lot more expensive.

How much more expensive? We'd need more data. Earlier this year, The Oil Drum highlighted a study showing the impact of rising oil prices on Sydney suburbs, which had crunched together car use (annual vehicle kilometres), household incomes and petrol prices to work out the average percentage of household income which went on petrol. The results of an increase in petrol prices were not pretty. This data is available for New Zealand; maybe someone should do it for Auckland?

Why we need food country of origin labelling

Suspect sweets found in NZ:

New Zealand food safety officials are to test Chinese milk sweets on sale here but banned overseas after being found to be tainted with melamine.

Tests in Singapore found that White Rabbit Creamy Candy was contaminated with the chemical.

Forcing manufacturers and importers to label their product with where it was made would give consumers that much more information on which to base their decisions. And in cases like this, where China is shipping contaminated food to the world, its a vital proxy. The only people who have anything to gain from secrecy are those who want to sell unsafe products. And that's not something we should let them get away with.

A world first

Rwanda went to the polls last week in Parliamentary elections, and in addition to re-electing their governing coalition, they also scored a world first by electing the first ever female-majority Parliament:

Rwanda will be the first country where women will outnumber men in parliament, preliminary election results show.

Women have taken 44 out of 80 seats so far and the number could rise if three seats reserved for the disabled and youth representatives go to females.

Partly, this result is due to a quota - 30% of all seats are reserved for women, with the MPs elected indirectly by provincial councils. But it is also due to progressive candidate selection (at least as progressive as we have in New Zealand), which saw women take 35% of the remaining seats as well. As a result, 55% of the new legislature are women (compared to a mere 49% of the old Parliament - for all its problems, Rwanda at least does female representation properly).

Meanwhile, with one of our major parties still barely managing to select a list which is one-quarter female, we clearly have a long way to go.

[Hat tip: Little Miss Brightside].

The cost of free trade

Labour is patting itself on the back over the announcement that it will begin free-trade negotiations with the USA. Meanwhile, the rest of us might like to ask how much it will cost and what we will have to give up in order for New Zealand farmers to make a bit more money. Fortunately, the US Trade Representative compiles an annual report on "Foreign Trade Barriers", which is quite informative on the issue. Here's a list of New Zealand policies the US considers to be unacceptable barriers to trade, culled from its New Zealand report [PDF]:

  • Restrictions on GM crops;
  • Our current pathetically weak labelling scheme for GM products (informing consumers is a barrier to trade!);
  • Import restrictions on potentially diseased food (stopping people from getting BSE is a barrier to trade!);
  • Sane copyright law which recognises the rights of customers;
  • Voluntary local content quotas for TV and radio (customer preferences are a barrier to trade!);
  • The Overseas Investment Act (requiring that investment actually be beneficial is a barrier to trade!);
  • Pharmac.
The question we should all be asking is how much, if any, of this we are willing to surrender so that farmers can get richer. My answer is "none". All of these policies serve a real purpose; they all benefit New Zealanders by protecting us from disease, giving us information about products, ensuring that products actually work, and allowing us to have a public health system. If we can have an FTA with the US without having to compromise on them, great. If not, they can fuck off. Free trade with America is not worth having to swallow their absurd intellectual property laws (which allow companies to sell broken products so they or their IP partners can make more money, and bar consumers from fixing them). And it is not worth ripping the ground out from under our public health system.

Of course, if there is a change of government, National will be more willing to give ground to the US (since they care more about farmers than the rest of us). And that could cost us dearly in the long run.

(Hat tip: Joe Hendren, who looked at this last year)

Conflicted and dishonest

TVNZ tonight had an expose on John Key's dodgy dealings with TranzRail shares back in 2002 and 2003. We've heard some of this story before, when it was revealed that he had failed to declare a financial interest in the issue when questioning Michael Cullen in Parliament. But the new revelations make it much worse. We have Key intensely questioning Cullen in a select committee meeting on the deal to buy back the track, when he has 50,000 shares lurking in the background, and other committee members have recused themselves for financial reasons. And we have Key increasing his stake, then pumping the stock in his MP's newsletter without disclosing that he had an interest, and doubling his money as a result. This is coming awfully close to using Parliamentary resources to run a pump and dump scam, and it shows at the minimum a complete inability to make the necessary distinction between public and private business. It seems Key was unable to check his wall St money-man instincts at the door when elected to public office, and just kept on wheeling and dealing.

(And remember, all of this was wrong by Key's own standards. In October 2003, during the debate on Parliament's register of pecuniary interests, he said:

It might be a bit uncomfortable, but if I am a shareholder of Tranz Rail and I want to get up in this House and start talking about that company, then my shareholding is relevant.
Of course, Key had done exactly that, without saying a thing...)

But the most interesting bit is actually Key's reaction to being found out. And as with Lord Ashcroft, his first response was to try to obfuscate and lie his way out of trouble:

Key says he is "absolutely confident" the New Zealand public can trust him.

But what about when it comes to trading in shares? Key was asked by ONE News Deputy Political Editor Francesca Mold, how many shares exactly did he and his family own in Tranz Rail?

"Fifty thousand at the maximum point. Sometimes 25,000, sometimes 50,000," he said.

He was asked did he personally buy 50,000 shares in Tranz Rail in 2005 and sell them five weeks later.

"Oh look actually maybe 100,000 from memory, yes. Sometimes 50,000, sometimes 100,000 yep," he replied.

It was put to him that that is an issue he should be clear about.

"Well, sorry, yeah, it was 100,000 in total," he said.

His answer to why he had only ever admitted owning 30,000 shares in the past? "No one's ever asked".

These are not the answers of an honest man. Instead, they are the answers of a bullshitter, with the truth admitted only when he realises it is already known. That dishonest attitude may have served Key well when he was crashing currencies for fun and profit - but we expect rather better from our politicians.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Judgement of the Privileges Committee on Winston Peters [PDF]:

We recommend by majority that the Rt Hon Winston Peters be censured by the House for knowingly providing false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests (p. 19).

We recommend by majority that the Rt Hon Winston Peters be ordered to file, within seven days of the House so ordering, amended returns for the years ended 31 January 2006, 2007, and 2008 covering any gifts, debts, or payments in kind that he has not previously registered (p. 20).

We recommend unanimously that the Standing Orders Committee review the Standing Orders relating to pecuniary interests (p. 20).

We recommend unanimously that the Clerk of the House of Representatives enhance the support available to the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests in order to provide an authoritative source of advice for members making returns of pecuniary interests (p. 21).

It may have been by majority vote, but it was also the right decision. Any member of the public would understand that having someone else pay your legal bills on your behalf (or indeed, act as your lawyer for free) is a gift and should therefore be disclosed in the annual return. Peters didn't disclose it. Even if you believe his version of events, he didn't make an honest effort to ascertain whether he needed to, despite knowing that people were paying such bills on his behalf. This was a clear violation of Standing Orders (not to mention Ministerial guidelines); his censure is thus entirely appropriate.

Typically, Winston is unrepentant to the end. And sadly, Labour is backing him all the way. Which is a good reason to be contemptuous of them as well. Some things are more important than politics, and political transparency is one of them. Sadly, Labour seems to have forgotten that. And they deserve everything they get from the public as a result.

Does ACT now support the death penalty?

ACT revealed its secret 5th-place list candidate yesterday: Sensible Sentencing Trust lawyer David Garrett. The Herald highlights the viciousness of their "law and order" policy, self-described as "harsh quick justice" (harsher penalties, more prisons - you know, all that stuff that simply doesn't work), but it misses an important point: Garrett is an advocate of the death penalty.

Does this mean that ACT now supports state murder? Maybe some journalists should ask them...?

(BTW, World Day Against the Death Penalty is coming up. Anyone want to write a guest column?)

Getting medieval

A Middle Eastern city. "Modesty police" roam the neighbourhood, harassing "indecently dressed" women and enforcing the religious ban on MP3 players. Women are required to sit at the back of public buses, and forbidden to board unless "properly" dressed. Women who leave their husbands or who pursue unapproved relationships are beaten in their homes by religious gangs and threatened with murder. Tehran? Cairo? Baghdad? Nope - Jerusalem, where Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews are attempting to impose their religion on everyone else by force and create their very own theocracy. What is it with religious extremism and misogyny?

The party of bigotry

National MP Nick Smith launched his campaign in Nelson last night - by channelling the sewer and repeatedly questioning Michael Cullen's sexuality. If you disagree with National, apparently, you must be gay...

I guess they really are the party of bigotry, then.

Doing it again

In the Dominion Post today John Key attacks spend-up pledges to lure voters :

National Party leader John Key has warned that there is no room for a lolly scramble this election as the world economy faces uncertain times.


Mr Key told a road transport forum yesterday that the country was facing "challenging economic conditions" and that could have serious effects on the economy for some time yet.

"This is not a time for a big- spending government with a careless attitude towards the public purse."

Of course, this would be a little more believable if it wasn't coming from a party promising everyone a $50 a week tax cut. But I guess its not a big-spending lolly scramble if you're a tory.

None of their damn business

According to yesterday's Herald, an Auckland primary school is concerned that one of their teachers is moonlighting as a prostitute. They shouldn't be. Or rather, if it doesn't affect her work output or pose a conflict of interest (and there's no suggestion of either), then it is simply none of their damn business. Quite apart from the fact that prostitution is not a crime anymore, what goes on in the privacy of people's bedrooms between consenting adults is their own concern, and absolutely no business of their employer. Like to be tied up and whipped? None of your boss's business. Swing? None of your boss's business. Smear yourself in vegemite and roll around in flour? None of your boss's business. It might be amusing, it might be titillating, it might even be depraved, but it is simply not part of the employment relationship. Our employers may get to dictate how we spend our time at work, but they do not get to dictate our sex lives - and any employer who tries to deserves to be told that in no uncertain terms.

The fact that the employee in question is a schoolteacher does not change this in the slightest; schoolteachers deserve to have the privacy of their sex lives respected just like anyone else. And if prissy parents are concerned about "role modelling", maybe they should be providing their desired moral lessons themselves.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New Fisk

Why does the US think it can win in Afghanistan?


In the Middle Ages, there was an institution known as scutage. Vassal knights who did not want to fight in their lord's wars could buy themselves out of their feudal obligation with a sufficient donation. Now, the US seemingly wants to inflict this system on the rest of us:

The US is seeking $20bn from its allies to help stabilise Afghanistan as it plans to send thousands more of its own troops to confront the growing insurgency in the country, American officials disclosed yesterday.

Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, said the US was considering a fundamental review of its strategy. But his message was clear - the US expected countries which did not contribute troops to Afghanistan to contribute money instead.

(Emphasis added).

Note to the US: we are not your fucking vassals. If you want to bankrupt yourself and kill your children fighting a pointless war over a patch of worthless mountains in the middle of nowhere, then that's your own problem. But please don't expect the rest of us to share your insanity.

Good news, bad news

Good news from Italy: Angelino Alfano, the Italian Minister of Justice has refused permission to prosecute Italian comedian Sabina Guzzanti for suggesting that when the Pope died, he would go to hell where he would be sodomised by demons.

Bad news from Italy: the refusal isn't because the Minister gives a damn about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or his country not acting like a medieval theocracy, no - it's because of "the Pope's capacity for forgiveness". So, he supports the idea that criticising the Pope should be a crime - a truly medieval concept.

Could Italy join the rest of us in the modern world sometime soon, please?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Better work stories

For the past few years, the police have been advertising for recruits with the slogan "get some better work stories". I wonder if they'll turn this into an ad?

An internal police investigation is under way into an alleged beating in the Christchurch Central Police Station cells that left a man with a fractured eye socket and ribs, putting him off work for 11 weeks.

Self-employed fencing contractor Jason Brougham, 35, was arrested for wilful damage to a vehicle on the night of December 30 last year.

Brougham said when he left custody the next day he had two fractured ribs, a fractured eye socket, concussion and bruising, including a boot imprint on his forehead, after a beating he said was inflicted by five officers over a 20-minute period while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

Apparently Brougham had been slightly uncooperative, and talked back to the officers processing him. The police are allowed to use "reasonable force" to conduct a search. But I challenge anyone to claim that a 20-minute beating by five officers resulting in grievous bodily harm is "reasonable". This is thuggery, pure and simple. And the fact that it is at the hands of the police, people who are supposed to uphold the law and be our protectors, makes it worse. These officers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and stripped of their positions. And if the police are unhappy with that, they need to learn that they are there to serve the public, not abuse us.

Must watch

Last election, TV3 screened a neat little show called The Pretender, detailing the attempt of right-wing property developer Dennis Plant to win the fictional seat of Wakatipu South. It was a wonderful political satire, beautifully understated, and it was a shame when it finished.

Now its back, poking at the themes of our election and of waka-jumping. Plant's new party even has its own website, though I'm sure I've seen that name before. I wonder how Gordon Copeland feels about the implied poke?

Suffrage Day

Today, September 19th, is Suffrage Day. 115 years ago today, on September 19 1893, New Zealand women won the right to vote in Parliamentary elections. This is well worth celebrating - even making into a public holiday - but we should also remember that despite full electoral participation, we still have a long way to go. Stuff's poll showing that a third of women believe they do not yet have full equality with men may seem ridiculous to some in the sewer, but the belief is well supported by evidence. earlier this year, the Human Rights Commission released its second Census of Women's Participation [PDF], tracking the role of women in the private sector, public sector, government and academia. It painted a dismal picture. Among its findings:

  • Only 33% of MPs and 29% of local government members are women;
  • Less than 9% of company directors are women. Only 6 companies out of the NZSX's top 100 have equal representation on their boards of directors (and that's giving them the benefit of the doubt on rounding errors); 60% of those companies have no women at all. The statistics are even worse for NZAX and NZDX companies. Our corporate sector is a tightly-held old-boys club.
  • Women are more strongly represented in the state sector, comprising 34% of the directors of crown-owned companies, and 42% of state-sector boards. But this still isn't equality.
  • Less than 15% of major newspaper editors are women, and women are paid significantly less than men in the public relations industry.
  • Women form only 29% of the police force, though this statistic is inflated by the preponderance of women in non-sworn positions. 19% of sworn constables are women, and the proportion declines precipitously with rank. Our police, too, are a boy's club - which is why they're so shit at protecting women’s rights.
  • Women hold less than 20% of senior academic positions in our universities. At Lincoln, our most sexist university, its 10%. Because of this narrowing of the pool, only 7% of Royal Society Fellows are women.
If this is equality, then the sewer doesn't know the meaning of the word.

And bringing this back to Suffrage Day, all of this can be changed with appropriate government policy. But if we want to see it changed, then all of us - women and men - need to vote for it.


Ricahrd Dawkins' website, richarddawkins.net, has been banned in Turkey. Why? Because he called a Turkish creationist's book "preposterous" and inane. This, according to a Turkish court, is defamatory and blasphemous, so the entire website has been blocked from Turkish internet users, who obviously can't be trusted to read and assess such criticism for themselves.

Sedition in Malaysia

The Malaysian government is currently in crisis, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on the verge of winning a vote of no confidence in the Parliament and toppling the Prime Minister. So they're lashing out, using the full force of Malaysia's internal security regime in an effort to cling to power. Last week, they arrested an opposition member of Parliament, a journalist, and blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin (again) for daring to criticise them. Today they arrested another blogger, Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, better known as Kickdefella. His crime?

Deputy Comm Koh said he is being investigated for instigating others to fly the national flag upside down in his blog postings.
And for that, he could be sentenced to three years imprisonment under Malaysia's Sedition Act.

I think this rather proves his point. Malaysia is in trouble. And the sooner its government goes, the better.

Minor parties as policy innovators

In his column in the National Business Review, Ben Thomas asks and answers an interesting question:

But where are the government’s new ideas coming from to continue the dream of moderate social democracy it has been working on for nine years?

At least as far as its key area of employment relations is concerned, the answer is probably – the Greens. To a large extent the Labour government has outsourced its industrial relations policy-making to the Greens over the last three years.

While the government has tinkered round the edges, over the past parliamentary term it is the Greens which have led the way on employment relations policy, passing bills abolishing youth rates and requiring greater flexibility from employers towards parents and caregivers. And while they've recently advanced some serious legislation of their own, around mandatory breaks and infant feeding, and introduced a bill to strengthen the rights of contract workers in "three party" employment arrangements, both of these are also Green policy.

Which raises a further interesting question: with both parties hugging the centre under MMP, does this make the minor parties the major sources of policy innovation? Quite possibly, and particularly for those with a strong ideological niche. "Wing parties" such as the Greens are free from the necessity to care about what the majority of the population think. They thus have a free hand to explore the policy space at their end (or corner, because its not really 2-D) of the political spectrum. They are, in short, free to dream, to ask the question "what would we do if we had the power to change the world".

Not all of those dreams will be good ideas. But some will be, and will be worth adopting or backing by their corresponding major party as an adjunct to its more centrist policy. And thus the policy space is enriched...

Obviously, as a leftie, this is great when the Greens pull it off. But the worry in the next Parliament is that ACT may end up filling a similar role for National, regardless of whether they're formally in the government or not (and remember, the Greens aren't). You have been warned.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Declining influence

And while we're on the topic of declining influence, the New York Times has an interesting piece on the declining influence of the US Supreme Court in international jurisprudence. Once upon a time, you couldn't read a court decision on constitutional or human rights issues without tripping over a US Supreme Court judgement. Now, non-US courts prefer to cite the European Court of Human Rights, the Canadian Supreme Court, or even the South Africans. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, because thanks to the war on terror and the US government's adoption of torture, no-one likes the US anymore. But more importantly, there's the US's own reluctance to cite decisions from other courts (something which some US commentators seem to equate with treason). The US has basically isolated itself from the international legal conversation through its arrogant exceptionalist stance. And their judiciary is poorer for it...

A good policy for once

National has released another snippet of its health policy, and this bit is actually good. $10,000 / year student loan write-offs for doctors who work in podunk for three years? It's so blindingly obvious (and cheap - anything less than $10 million / year is pocket change) that I'm shocked the government hasn't done it already.

Sadly, the rest of their (leaked) health policy focuses on subsidising the private health insurance industry, to the tune of at least $40 million a year, with the aim of it putting the elective surgery component of the public health system out of business (rather than vice-versa). It would be nice if our main opposition party focused on what was good for ordinary New Zealanders, rather than looting the state for the benefit of its donors and cronies. But as we're seeing with the US bailouts, that's what right-wing politics is all about these days.

The dangers of online polls

What would happen if you hosted an online poll on your facebook page, and people voted overwhelmingly against you?

Ask Nathan Guy.

But apart from being amusing, it's also a reminder of the power of the internet to allow the people to speak and subvert politicians' messages. And we should all be using it a lot more between now and polling day.

Their own stupid fault

The Guardian reports on a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations on the EU's declining influence at the UN on human rights issues, and bemoans the loss of European leadership:

The west's efforts to use the United Nations to promote its values and shape the global agenda are failing, according to a detailed study published yesterday.

A sea change in the balance of power in favour of China, India, Russia and other emerging states is wrecking European and US efforts to entrench human rights, liberties and multilateralism. Western policies in crisis regions as diverse as Georgia, Zimbabwe, Burma or the Balkans are suffering serial defeats in what the study identifies as a protracted trend.


"The EU is suffering a slow-motion crisis at the UN," says the report, noting that the west is now being regularly outwitted in global diplomatic poker by the Chinese and Russians. "The problem is fading power to set the rules. The UN is increasingly being shaped by China, Russia and their allies ... The west is in disarray. The EU's rifts with the US on many human rights issues at the UN in the Bush era have weakened both."

I've just spent the last hour reading the full report [PDF], and the issue is a bit more complicated than it first appears. The ECFR analyses votes across the General Assembly, Human Rights Council, and Security Council, and there are slightly different stories for each of them. But there are two big themes which stand out.

The first is that its their own damn fault. Democracy, even amongst nations, is a participation sport, but the EU has taken its eyes off the ball and neglected to work at building support for its positions. Instead, they've arrogantly assumed that other countries would follow their lead because that is what they've always done, while ignoring some of the structural reasons for their past victories. Throw in a China which does play the game and is reportedly "a better listener than the EU", and it is no wonder that European influence is declining.

The second is blowback from the US's invasion of Iraq. Why won't other countries back motions condemning human rights abuses in places like Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma and Sudan? Because of the games the US played in the leadup to Iraq, and their misuse of UN resolutions to provide a pretext for their aggression. As a result, such motions are seen rightly or wrongly as a leadup to bombing or other military. And there are plenty of countries generally supportive of human rights who won't want to back that.

So, if they want to regain their influence, the EU has to wake up and actually play the diplomatic game. It also needs to distance itself from the US, and adopt a less hypocritical stance on human rights (e.g. the human rights of migrants, which it consistently opposes for basically racist reasons). When it has done this, it has succeeded - the Disappearance Convention and the 2007 death penalty moratorium resolution show that. But both of these were core human rights issues, rather than something which could be used later as a pretext for a unilateral bombing campaign.

MMP: Opening the list

Last month, the New Zealand Herald made some rather stupid statements about MMP and representation, suggesting that it had done nothing to improve the representation of women, Maori and immigrants. This is demonstrably false, but facts apparently no longer matter to our "newspaper of record". But at the end of the piece, they also suggested an "improvement" to MMP: doing away with the party list and instead awarding list seats to a party's highest-polling losers in electorate contests. It's a stupid idea, reflecting the FPP revanchist's obsession with geographic electorates, and ignoring completely the fact that parties (e.g. the Greens) or even MP's (e.g. Tim Barnett) can have national constituencies with votes distributed thinly (and pseudo-randomly) across electorates, but it also touches on one of the key concerns around MMP: accountability. Many people (usually old, dead ones like Granny Herald) feel that list MPs aren't really accountable to voters, but only to the party hierarchies which select them. This ignores the democratic list selection procedures used by some parties, but they feel that way nonetheless. Granny Herald's solution is to force every MP to stand in an electorate and pander to parochial concerns. I have a better one: we should vote for list MPs directly.

This is known as open-list proportional representation, and it is used in other PR jurisdictions, including most of Europe. And its perfectly compatible with MMP. How would it work? Mostly, like the present system - you would have two votes, an electorate vote and a party vote, with the latter determining the overall makeup of Parliament and the number of list MPs. The difference is that where currently we make our party choice on a ballot showing a list of parties, each party would instead have its own ballot, showing its party list. To vote for a party, you take its ballot, and tick a name on their list. The party list is reordered, wholly or partially, depending on how many votes each list candidate received.

I say "wholly or partially" because there is more than one way to do this. Some versions use full open list, where the party ordering is just a tiebreaker, and the actual order is determined by the number of votes each list candidate received; others place greater weight on a party's choices, and require list candidates to exceed some quota before disrupting the default order and being bumped to the top. But either way, you have a mechanism for imposing accountability across a national constituency and enabling voters to directly pass judgement on list MPs. And its a much better system than the parochial one proposed by the Herald.

Unfortunately, this would be difficult to implement - it requires changing the method of voting, and hence needs a 75% majority or a referendum to overcome the entrenchment clause. But its basically a minor change, and the politicians can do it for us if we let them know loudly enough that we want it.

TB on the Daily Show

Tony Blair will be appearing on the Daily Show tomorrow night. If C4 sticks to its normal schedule, rather than lapsing inexplicably into reruns, that means it should screen here on Friday.

(And it never fails to amuse me that Tony Blair shares his nickname with a horrible disease that has killed millions. Kindof appropriate, really...)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Coerced self-incrimination

The government tabled a new Search and Surveillance Powers Bill in parliament today. The bill is the result of a Law Commission inquiry into the issue. Much of it is simply a tidy-up and clarification of existing law which puts all search powers in one place. Some bits are concerning - for example, the s27 power to search any vehicle without warrant for stolen property, which is a significant expansion, or the s32 (2) (a) power for temporary closure of roads to prevent "public disorder" (which given the police's definition of public disorder as anyone being untidy or expressing a political opinion (rather than the actual criteria of a riot in progress), is a gross invitation to abuse). But the most concerning aspect is the new powers under subpart 11 for "examination orders".

An examination order allows the police to force someone to turn up and answer their questions, on pain of a year in jail if they refuse. Currently, only the Serious Fraud Office has such powers, in order to combat serious and complex fraud. The new version would place these powers under judicial supervision, so it is some improvement - but these orders are still a gross violation of the right to silence. Worse, they have been expanded to cover organised crime, and can be issued where the police suspect a criminal conspiracy. There's no requirement that the conspiracy be aimed at serious crime, only "a continuing course of criminal conduct", so there's potential for misuse from the start. But that's not the half of it. The real problem is that despite the presence of a specific clause preserving the right against self-incrimination, the police will be forcing people to incriminate themselves on pain of jail if they don't.

How so? Because getting the order requires the police to believe there is a conspiracy. One of the features of a conspiracy is that if you are considered part of the conspiracy, you are guilty of anything done by any other member in furtherance of the conspiracy's aims. So, while the police may be asking you about what other people have done, if they think you are part of a conspiracy with that person (and they are not required to tell you, nor are they forbidden from charging you with conspiracy later based on your answers), then any answer you give is incriminating yourself. So unless granted complete immunity, the only answer anyone should ever give if questioned under such an order is "I exercise my privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to answer that question".

The right against self-incrimination is one of the core protections of our justice system, and is protected both in the Bill of Rights Act and in our common law tradition. It protects us from abuses of power, and keeps the police honest. The provisions of this bill are an attempt to coerce testimony and force people to incriminate themselves. Parliament should reject them.

Reminder: The Suffrage Eve Debate

Just a reminder that the Suffrage Eve Debate is happening in Auckland tomorrow night:

When: 19:30, Thursday 18th September
Where: Lecture Theatre ENG3402, School of Engineering, University of Auckland, 20 Symonds St
Who: Anjum Rahman (blogger and Labour list candidate), Sarita Divis (Alliance candidate), Nikki Kaye (National candidate), Lyn Murphy (ACT list candidate) How much: Gold coin donation appreciated

Apparently, there will also be cupcakes.

The Greens industrial relations policy

While everyone else has been focusing on the circus, the Greens released their industrial relations policy today. And its good. Boosting and indexing the minimum wage, expanding paid parental leave, improving working conditions and holiday and leave entitlements, protecting casual and contract workers, and strengthening the ability of unions to negotiate the multi-employer collective agreements which have driven wage growth recently. I think they'll have problems with some of their plans for pay equity - its a bit more difficult to do that sort of thing in a devolved employment market - but their initial focus there seems to be around information, which is essential to making the market work properly anyway. They're also pushing for a shift back to standardised employment conditions in the state sector, which is an interesting and welcome move.

They're also looking at the big picture, promising a task force to investigate moving to a 35-hour working week, as seen up until recently in France. This would be a welcome shift, but again would be difficult to implement in a devolved employment market (actually, maybe not - you just introduce the time limit coupled with a mandatory overtime provision, or time in lieu for salaried workers). It's unlikely to increase employment as much as a simple analysis would suggest, but it's also unlikely to be as unsuccessful as the French implementation, due to our more flexible labour market. And OTOH, I don't see this as an employment policy anyway - it's more about promoting leisure, freeing us from the daily grind and giving us our lives back. If economic growth and productivity increases don't improve our wages (and they haven't - our employers have simply taken those profits and laughed all the way to the bank), we should take the benefits in leisure instead.

There's also a proposal for an extra Mondayised public holiday between Queens Birthday and Labour Day. I can think of a very good one happening right this week: Suffrage Day (September 19th). We should celebrate this every year, and a public holiday seems to be an excellent way of doing it.

Fiji: the police murder again

Since the 2006 coup and their takeover by the army, Fijian police have murdered three people in custody by beating them to death. Now they've killed again. Back in July, convicted robber Josefa Baleiloa escaped from prison. In the course of his recapture, police beat him into unconsciousness, and has spent the last two months on life support in a Suva hospital. Now he has died, another victim of Fiji's culture of police brutality. Despite promising an investigation at the time of the original assault, none seems to have been conducted, and the military thug in day-to-day control of the police seems to be impeding the investigation. But now that Baleiloa has died, it looks like the police will finally be forced to act, and hold their own to account.

Climate change: melted

Some good news from the Arctic for a change:

Sea ice in the Arctic appears to have passed its minimum extent for 2008 without breaking last year's record.

The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says the ice covered 4.5 million sq km (1.7 million sq miles) at its lowest point on 12 September.

Last year's minimum was 4.1 million sq km (1.6 million sq miles).

So, not as bad as it could have been - it's only the second lowest extent ever recorded, rather than setting a new record.

I am now waiting for the obligatory release from the Deniers saying that this shows that global warming is a myth.

More information at NSIDC.

The panopticon society

In addition to inventing the ethical system of utilitarianism, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a prison, the Panopticon, which allowed every prisoner to be watched at all times by a guard they could not see (and did not even know was there), creating a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience". Now the UK seems to be trying to turn its society into a panopticon. They already have more surveillance cameras per head than anywhere else on the planet. Now they're planning to use them to track everyone's travel:

The police are to expand a car surveillance operation that will allow them to record and store details of millions of daily journeys for up to five years, the Guardian has learned.

A national network of roadside cameras will be able to "read" 50m licence plates a day, enabling officers to reconstruct the journeys of motorists.

Police have been encouraged to "fully and strategically exploit" the database, which is already recording the whereabouts of 10 million drivers a day, during investigations ranging from counter-terrorism to low-level crime.

Full and strategic exploitation means data mining. Not only is there enormous potential for abuse - e.g. police officers snooping on their families - there is also enormous potential for false positives. And in a surveillance society on edge from the threat of terrorism, that means tragic consequences. Meanwhile, law abiding citizens will have their every movement stored for five years, just waiting for a broke administration to sell the data to Americans for marketing purposes. That is if they don't just lose it...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An interesting question

Now that oil is below US$100 / barrel again, will the government reverse its spineless decision to delay the entry of transport into the ETS? Or was the "high oil prices" justification bullshit all along?

Compare and contrast

Bill English, on Scoop today: No time for reckless spending promises:

Further financial instability in world markets will create more uncertainty about a quick recovery from the current recession in New Zealand, says National's Finance spokesman, Bill English.

Mr English is commenting on recent events in the US financial markets.

"These significant events could have negative consequences for our economy through lower commodity prices and less availability of credit.

"At the very least, households face more uncertainty about their economic outlook.

"This election campaign is not a time for reckless promises from desperate governments...

Bill English, in the Herald this morning: National sticking to $50-a-week tax cuts :
Despite global financial turmoil, National's finance spokesman, Bill English, has indicated the party is still considering tax cuts of $50 a week.

Asked on Radio New Zealand whether cuts of that magnitude were still on the table, Mr English replied: "It will be around those expectations."

His comment comes just before the next Treasury quarterly report is expected to show a recession, and follows ongoing ructions in the United States with the bankruptcy announcement of investment bank Lehman Brothers and forced sale of Merrill Lynch to the Bank of America.

How does English reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions? "It's not reckless if you're a tory...?"

Banning gangs

So, the government calls an election, and just days later, Phil Goff is banging the law and order drum, suggesting banning gangs. You couldn't get a clearer example of the way politicians try and exploit fear, posture as "tough on crime", and offer kneejerk "solutions" in an effort to win votes.

Goff's solution is modelled on a South Australian law, which allows the government to declare a group to be a criminal organisation, then ban its members from associating, communicating, or being in certain places (including public places and events - "downtown Wanganui", say, or "the 2008 election"). All of this is done without any judicial oversight, on the whim of the Minister and advice of police; the only time a court really gets involved is when the orders are breached, when they get to stick the victim in jail for five years for visiting his mum or going to the supermarket (the control orders are formally issued by a magistrate, however they must make them, so they're simply acting as a rubber-stamp for the police). This paradigm of rubber-stamp "justice" and "law" by executive fiat deeply alien to our judicial culture, pisses all over the Bill of Rights Act, and grants carte blanche to the police without any checks and balances. I can see why Phil Goff would like that - he's the driving force behind the government's similarly rubber-stamp asset forfeiture regime - but I don't see why the rest of us should. This sort of legislation is unacceptable for terrorists, and it is unacceptable for ordinary criminals. It has absolutely no place in a democratic society.

(And that's not even getting into the question of whether it would actually work, or whether it would simply drive gangs underground where they're harder to keep track of. And its worth noting at this point that the South Australian law is explicitly aimed at forcing gangs to leave the state and making them someone else's problem...)

It's also worth noting that the police already have draconian powers in this area. Section 98A of the Crimes Act imposes a penalty of five years imprisonment for participating in an "organised criminal group", defined as

a group of 3 or more people who have as their objective or one of their objectives —

(a) obtaining material benefits from the commission of offences that are punishable by imprisonment for a term of 4 years or more; or

(b) obtaining material benefits from conduct outside New Zealand that, if it occurred in New Zealand, would constitute the commission of offences that are punishable by imprisonment for a term of 4 years or more; or

(c) the commission of serious violent offences (within the meaning of section 312A(1)) that are punishable by imprisonment for a term of 10 years or more; or

(d) conduct outside New Zealand that, if it occurred in New Zealand, would constitute the commission of serious violent offences (within the meaning of section 312A(1)) that are punishable by imprisonment for a term of 10 years or more.

Of course, to secure a conviction, the police actually have to go to court and present evidence that a group carries out such activities, and that the person knowingly participated in it, rather than simply going to the Minister and threatening to have their sockpuppet Greg O'Connor slag them off for being "soft on crime" if she doesn't do what they want. But that's as it should be; punishing people should require strong evidence and full judicial safeguards. Otherwise, we open ourselves to miscarriages of justice and abuses of power. And we have quite enough of those already.