Friday, October 31, 2008

Pumpkin time

It's Halloween, my favourite holiday of the year - and as usual I have carved my traditional pumpkin. A fairly jolly fellow, but that's how I feel today:


I have a pile of chocolate. I wonder if I'll have to share it?

The myth of clean coal

Writing in the Guardian, Fred Pearce explodes the myth of "clean coal":

It is, of course, oxymoronic. Coal is about acid rain and peasouper smogs, asthma and mercury contamination, radioactive waste emissions and ripping apart mountains, killing trees, lung cancer and, of course, global warming.

Coal emits more carbon dioxide for every unit of energy generated than any other fuel. Sure you can clean it up a bit – though the toxins you've taken out of the ground have to go somewhere. But clean coal? Just say no.

It's a nonsense phrase for a mythical technology which does not yet exist and will arrive much too late to do any good. But its being peddled - hard - by a fossil fuel industry who realise that selling snake oil is the only way they can stay in business. So they invest tens of millions every year on PR to propagate this myth, while continuing to burn the same dirty coal in the same dirty power stations and release it straight out of the same dirty chimneys into the atmosphere.

This is not a myth we can afford. Sure, if it ever arrives, it'll be great - but allowing this industry to keep on destroying our planet for profit simply on the hope that one day they'll be able to stop is a policy for failure. We need to be investing in the real alternatives we have to reduce emissions now, not in the hope of a mythical future solution. And the first step is to ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants. New Zealand has already taken that step; will the rest of the world follow?

Justice for Binyam Mohamed?

Binyam Mohamed is a UK resident currently detained in the US gulag in Guantanamo Bay. In 2002 he was arrested in Pakistan, beaten, threatened with execution, then disappeared and rendered to Morocco by the CIA, where he was systematically tortured by having his chest and genitals sliced with a scalpel. In August, a UK court found that MI5 had colluded in and facilitated that torture. And now, they may be facing prosecution for it:

Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, has asked the attorney general to investigate possible "criminal wrongdoing" by the MI5 and the CIA over its treatment of a British resident held in Guantanamo Bay, it was revealed tonight.

The dramatic development over allegations of collusion in torture and inhuman treatment follows a high court judgment which found that an MI5 officer participated in the unlawful interrogation of Binyam Mohamed. The MI5 officer interrogated Mohamed while he was being held in Pakistan in 2002.

This is good news - torturers must be brought to justice, no matter which government they work for. And it may have a deterrent effect on other MI5 agents cooperating with the US in illegal interrogations. But while I'm glad to see justice done, at the end of the day Mohamed is still in Guantanamo. And there will be no real justice in his case until he is released.

The right way to do prison work

The Herald's Simon Collins has a short piece this morning on the success of the Department of Corrections release to work scheme. This is the right way to do work in prison - prisoners are released during the day to work, are paid real wages under normal working conditions, and the costs of their "accommodation" are deducted transparently from their pay. It pays for the prisoner, and as Collins reports, it pays for the employer:

Roadworks company Fulton Hogan took a gamble by employing prisoners to help build a new motorway through Mt Roskill last year - and it has paid off in more ways than one.

The company says the 20 prisoners it took on through the prison system's release-to-work scheme have proved more reliable than many workers employed through labour hire firms, and six are still working on the motorway months after leaving jail.

This is one of Corrections' real success stories, yet its underutilised - according to the fact sheet there are only 120 places nationally. Why don't we use it more often? Firstly, it requires intensive case management and supervision to get those results. Secondly, it is regarded as "soft" by the "hang 'em high" brigade, and thus a source of flak. But most importantly, its more expensive to the department than renting their prisoners out as slave labour while paying them Chinese sweatshop rates. And so the combination of laziness, risk avoidance and cost-cutting undermine the implementation of truly effective policy.

Their party

Yesterday the Herald published its annual "mood of the boardroom" survey. The result was unsurprising: 90% of CEOs want John Key as the next Prime Minister. Which kindof speaks for itself about who will benefit from National's policies and who they represent.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Latest CTU video

In case you haven't seen it anywhere else:

Vote for them

The Greens online billboard generator is neat for two reasons. The first is obviously that you get to make your own Green Party billboard with your own photo. The second is that you get to see the billboards other people have been making. The latter is an insight into what matters to Green Party voters. And there's some great stuff in there, which neatly encapsulates what the Greens stand for. In addition to the expected photos of families, children and pets, there's also buses and trains (they really need some wind turbines), Kea, Tui, kereru, whales, and Tuatara. But best of all are the shots of New Zealand's natural environment: cabbage trees, beaches, pancake rocks, forests, mountains, rivers, estuaries and the ocean, all contributed by ordinary New Zealanders, and all tagged with that simple slogan: "vote for me". It's a powerful message, and it tells us a lot about what we care about.

Making a difference

Do political blogs make a difference? The answer, according to academics studying the 2005 election, was "not really". We have too few readers to significantly affect public opinion. But we can and do affect political parties and the policies they offer.

The debate over entrenching the Maori seats has provided a perfect example of this. Over the past few days a number of bloggers (including Graeme Edgeler, Big News and myself) have been hashing over the mechanics of entrenchment. Today, Dave at Big News reports:

Yesterday I did a post on the Maori Party Bill to entrench the seats linking a similar post from No Right Turn, who had also seen the bill. The post was sent to and read by all Maori Party MPs yesterday - not sent by me - and as a result, I was told by the Party today that directly as a result of the suggestions and comment in this blog, the bill is to be amended to embrace our suggestions that parts of the Maori Electoral Option should be entrenched with the seats.
(There's a slight misconception there: I hadn't seen the Maori Party bill, but it was pretty obvious what they wanted to do and how to go about it).

Speaking up makes a difference. Getting involved makes a difference. participating in our national conversation makes a difference. And we should all do it more often.

Insurance for the recession

Thanks to the actions of Wall St gamblers, the economy is in trouble, and people stand to lose their jobs. So what's the government going to do about it? In the case of National, we don't know yet - they will release their policy tomorrow. As for Labour, they're offering to waive stand-downs and means testing for the unemployment benefit for 13 weeks for those made redundant. It's a good move, which will insulate people to some extent from the effects of the recession and provide people with a window in which to find their feet again. At the same time, the unemployment benefit is a lot lower than the average wage, and most employment contracts include no provision for redundancy. So many will find themselves with bills to pay while facing a sharp drop in income.

What this stresses is the need for redundancy payouts. Labour is promising to legislate for statutory redundancy payouts; National has made no such promise (and their response [PDF] to the EPMU workrights survey specifically avoids the issue). That seems to be a clear choice right there.

Speaking out

I'm not a member of a political party. But I do believe that people should participate in our democracy, speak up about their views, and join our national conversation. It's one of the reasons I run this blog. It's also why, at the tentacled-hour of 7:30 this morning, I found myself holding one end of a bright yellow banner by the side of the road for the "Vote with both eyes open" campaign. Elections are too important to be left to the politicians; we should all speak up on them and make ourselves heard. And contrary to the fearmongering of the right (who seem to think its not speech unless you can spend more money than most New Zealanders make in a year), the Electoral Finance Act is no barrier to that.

As for the banner holding, it was good. Lots of honks of support and "good on you"s from people pleased at either our message, or just the sight of something different in the campaign. A few obscene gestures from men - exclusively men - in large, gas guzzling cars, but you expect that (arseholes are ubiquitous). The local National Party candidate, Malcolm Plimmer, was parked just down the road, and we certainly got more support than him.

There's something incredibly fulfilling about participating in our democracy, about protesting or holding a banner. It feels good - it feels like you're doing something. We should do it more often. All of us.

Why the Maori seats matter

LudditeJourno has an excellent piece on the difference the Maori seats have made to indigenous representation in New Zealand. The whole post can be summed up in this one graph:

(Note that New Zealand's Parliament is much smaller than any of the others)

The Maori seats have ensured that Maori have had representation - unlike the indigenous people of Australia, the US or Canada. They have ensured Maori have had a voice. It may not have been much of a voice, and it may have been ignored for much of our history (the way Parliament behaved towards Maori MPs in the C19th was simply appalling), but its been there, and its been worth something. It's made our Parliament far more representative than it would have been, and been a perpetual and powerful reminder that we share this country - something people like John Key seem to want to ignore.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


There's been a lot of discussion over the last few days about the Maori Party's demand to entrench the Maori seats, and the response of various political parties to it. Helen Clark has said that she will entrench the Maori electoral option, which is being called meaningless in some parts as it does not protect the seats themselves. For various reasons, I think its a bit more complicated than that.

The Maori seats are effectively created by three chunks of the Electoral Act 1993:

  • Sections 76 - 79, covering the "Maori option". Section 76 says that Maori may enrol on either the general or Maori roll, and that they can choose when they register or from time to time under s77. Section 77 specifies when the option must be held (after each census, unless its an election year, in which case there is a one-year delay) and requires the Registrar of Electors to publish the results. Section 78 deals with the administrivia, while section 79 bars transfers between the rolls except by exercise of the option (this is necessary to keep electorates within quota).
  • Section 45, which requires the Representation Commission to divide the country into Maori electorates, using the same rules used for general electorates in the North Island (except that unlike general electorates, Maori electorates can span the islands).
  • The definition of "Maori electoral population" in section 3 (1).
Superficially, entrenchment of one part without the others undermines the whole exercise. There's no point in having Maori seats if there is no Maori electoral population, and there's no point in having Maori electors if there are no seats to represent them. However, an existing entrenched provision - the definition of "general electoral population" specifically excludes the Maori electoral population. So if a mechanism to establish that population (or even just the definition itself) is entrenched, then any effort to remove the Maori seats will have the effect of completely stripping Maori of representation (and good luck with that; it'll make the foreshore & seabed look like a rotary meeting). So, we might be able to get by with entrenching only the Maori option after all. However, the mechanism by which the number and boundaries of general seats is determined is also entrenched, so for reasons of equality alone, we should entrench s45.

How much do we need to entrench? Historically, New Zealand has adopted a minimalist attitude to entrenchment. We've entrenched the definition of elector and the machinery for dividing seats, but none of the provisions which say e.g. that people actually get to vote. We leave the administrivia out of it, on the basis that we will probably need to change it at some stage. This obviously creates vulnerabilities if a government really wants to be evil. But if we get to that stage, we should be putting heads on spikes anyway, making the point rather moot. This suggests that we should protect s45, 76 and 77, but not 78 or 79.

To lend some concrete shape to the proposal, here's the bill:

Electoral (Entrenchment of Maori Seats) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Electoral (Entrenchment of Maori Seats) Amendment Act 2009

2. Commencement
This Act shall come into force immediately upon receiving the Royal Assent.

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Electoral Act 1993 to entrench the Maori seats.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Electoral Act 1993.

5. Maori seats entrenched
Section 268 (1) is amended by adding the following paragraphs:

"(g) section 45, and the definition of the term Maori electoral population in section 3(1), relating to Maori representation.

"(h) Sections 76 and 77, relating to the Maori option and its periodic exercise."

As a proposal for entrenchment, this would have to pass by a 75% majority under Parliament's Standing Orders. Which means it would effectively require the support of both major parties. And with National opposed, that looks unlikely.

Party of torture

Since September 11, 2001, the Republican party has become an eager advocate of torture. They have howled that "the gloves [should] come off", they have excused the abuses of Abu Ghraib as a "college hazing ritual", they have demanded that suspected terrorists be waterboarded, and they have vilified those who have objected to these crimes as traitors and "girly-men" (because, obviously, being able to torture is the ultimate test of virility). And now, they seem to regard it as a qualification for office. Lt Colonel Allen West is running for Congress in Florida. Lt Colonel Allen West is also a torturer:

In August 2003, Colonel Allen West – commanding a US unit in Baghdad – heard a rumour that one of the Iraqi policeman he was working with was a secret insurgent. He ordered his officers to go and seize Yehiya Hamoodi, a thin, bespectacled 31-year-old, from his home. They dragged him into a Humvee, beat him, and then handcuffed, shackled and blindfolded him. In a dank interrogation room, they told him he had better start talking.

Perplexed and terrified, Yehiya explained he didn't know what they were talking about: why was he here? So West was called in. He told Yehiya he was going to be killed. While his men beat him again, he explained he had one last chance to save his life – by talking.

Yehiya protested: I am innocent! What are you talking about? So West took him outside, had him pinned down, and began to shoot. First he fired into the air. Then he ordered his men to ram Yehiya's head into a barrel used for cleaning weapons – and fired right next to his head. Then he began to count down from five. Finally Yehiya began to scream out names – any name he could think of, just to make it stop.

The men he named were seized and roughed up in turn. No evidence was found of any plot, and after another 45 days of terror, Yehiya was released.

Mock-execution is clearly recognised as torture under the Convention Against Torture, and West should be serving a long jail sentence for what he did. Instead, in yet another example of the US military's lax attitude to torture, he was fined $5,000 and allowed to retire with full benefits.

The idea that any major political party would choose such a man as a candidate for political office is abhorrent. A man like this should not be in Congress; he should be in jail.

Insult to injury

Reading National's prisons policy [PDF], private prisons aren't the worst of it. They're also planning a massive expansion of prison slave labour, enforced by the threat of denying parole. So, under National, we will be running private, for profit slave camps, where prisoners are forced to work for the private profit of outside businesses. Easy, cheap labour, with no labour rights, no employment contract, no effective means of dispute resolution, no enforceable workplace safety standards, and no right to strike, kept in line with the threat of physical violence - just like America.

This is simply evil - there is no other word to describe slavery. It is also a toxic nexus ripe for abuse, which will undoubtedly come back to bite us. National will no doubt posture, and remove the right of any prisoner to enforce their rites through the courts (as they promised to do over earlier human rights abuses in prisons). But that simply means prisoners will have to seek justice by other means...

Against private prisons

National announced its prisons policy [PDF] today, in which they promised a wholesale privatisation of the prison system. Rather than being run by the government, National would have our prisons (and our prisoners) managed by private companies for profit.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is objectionable. The most basic one is that it is fundamentally immoral for private companies to be profiting off human misery by running prisons. A second is that, like policing and the courts, this is a core business of the state, and not something that should be contracted out, let alone run according to "market forces". There are also problems with perverse incentives, and with private prisons overseas having a reputation for brutality, abuse and neglect. But there's another reason as well, which I think other people will miss, and that is that privatising prisons will weaken their accountability to the public.

At the moment when the Department of Corrections transports prisoners in an unsafe and inhumane manner, runs an illegal detention regime, or kills prisoners by neglect, they can be held accountable. NGOs and members of the public can use the Official Information Act to uncover mistreatment and generally keep an eye on them (and I have). But I can't OIA a private prison provider, because they're not part of the government. And I can't even OIA the terms of their contract with the government to find out how much we're overpaying them, whether they have penalty clauses for reoffending rates, or who pays when their guards inevitably abuse their state-assigned powers - because its all "commercially sensitive". What privatisation does in this area is take a core area of government business, and one we really want to keep an eye on, and move it forever out of public scrutiny. That is not just undemocratic; it is dangerous. And we should not be considering it for a moment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Majority vs plurality

What to make of the One News - Colmar Brunton poll showing that 79% of voters believe that the party with the most votes should get to form the government? The most charitable explanation is that there is a significant ambiguity between plurality and majority, which the public and the pollsters didn't go to too much trouble to resolve. The less charitable is that 79% of voters are simply constitutionally illiterate. What matters in our constitutional system - and has always mattered since the beginning of "responsible government" in the nineteenth century - is that the government has a majority in the House on confidence and supply. Where that majority comes from or how it is made up doesn't feature into it; all that matters is that it is a majority.

In the past, those majorities have been produced by an unfair voting system. Now, under MMP, there's a more direct relationship: give or take overhangs and the (shrinking) "wasted vote", a majority in the House rests directly on the support of a majority of voters. Which is as it should be. In a democracy, the government should have majority support - simply being the largest discrete faction doesn't cut it. Majorities composed of many subgroups may present interesting management problems, but they are no more or less legitimate than any other arrangement. What matters is the numbers, not the composition.

This may see the party which wins the most votes on election night excluded from government by a coalition of smaller parties. Big deal. It's the majority support that matters, not how well you did individually. And its not as if New Zealand hasn't seen such arrangements before; in the 1928 election, United (as the rump of the Liberals were calling themselves then) won 30,000 fewer votes (5% of the total) than Reform, but was able to form a government with the support of the Labour Party. But 50 years of two party rule under FPP seems to have erased that from our memory.

By pushing the idea that the largest party should automatically form the government, National and its cheerleaders are seeking to overturn the principle of majority rule. Instead, their "principle" (espoused only for reasons of tactical convenience) is that the plurality should rule, and bugger the majority. And that is a deeply undemocratic idea.

Another National Party conflict of interest

What is it with the National party and conflicts of interest? First we have John Key abusing his Parliamentary position to ask questions about Tranzrail while holding a substantial parcel of shares in it (and then trying to lie about it afterwards). Now we find out that he's not the only one. The Standard has the scoop: National's energy spokesperson Gerry Brownlee similarly abused his Parliamentary position between 2002 and 2005 to ask questions specifically about Contact Energy while owning shares in it. One of those questions was specifically about the share price:

Gerry Brownlee: Is the Minister aware that similar comments from the Prime Minister last week wiped millions of dollars off the capital value of Contact Energy; can he tell us whether he has discussed those threats with the Minister for State Owned Enterprises; and can he also tell us how bringing generators to their knees helps the current crisis?
Translation: "why have you cost me money?

This isn't just ethically dubious; it is also a clear violation of Standing Orders. SO 166 requires members to declare their financial interests in an item of business such as a Parliamentary Question before participating in any discussion. By failing to do so, Brownlee repeatedly committed contempt of Parliament (though one which cannot be punished, as there is a very strict time limit).

But the story doesn't end there; in 2006, Brownlee's shares in Contact disappeared into a trust, presumably to hide them from the register of pecuniary interests. Meanwhile, he used his Parliamentary position to advocate for positions on e.g. climate change and energy policy which would be beneficial to dirty thermal generators like Contact. If the trust isn't blind - if for example its like a normal family trust - then he was still conflicted when advocating those positions, as Standing Orders include in their definition of a "financial interest" benefits to trusts in which the member has an interest. And he'll still be conflicted if he ends up as Minister of Energy in a National-led government, enacting their policy to free up thermal generation and fast-track resource consents for gas-fired power stations (policies which would be - coincidentally, I'm sure - financially beneficial to Contact, and hence himself).

The public deserves better than this. We deserve MPs who are honest, and who can be seen to be so. Gerry Brownlee doesn't meet that test, and so shouldn't be sitting in the House.

Meanwhile, it does make you wonder. Two senior National MPs so far have been discovered to have these sorts of undeclared conflicts of interest. How many others are there? Someone should really seriously look into this.


Back in September the government appointed an expert panel to conduct a review of electoral administration and political party funding. The panel has now called for submissions on the first stage, the review of electoral administration.

Currently, four bodies have a role in overseeing elections: the Representation Commission, which sets electoral boundaries; the Electoral Enrolment Centre, which maintains the electoral roll; the Electoral Commission, which regulates political parties and election funding, and conducts education campaigns to encourage people to vote; and the Chief Electoral Office, which actually runs the elections. The expert panel is basically asking the question of whether this is the best structure, or whether it should be changed. It is also asking whether the current system of getting the police (who are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and have some very fixed ideas about what is a "real" crime and what is a waste of their time) to handle breaches of electoral law is a good idea, or whether investigation and prosecution should be shifted to another body. It's a fairly technical discussion, but one which could have a major impact on how our elections are run and how much our parties can get away with.

If you'd like to have your say on this, you can download the discussion document and list of questions here [DOC]. You can submit online or by email, or by snailmail to

PO Box 5719
Lambton Quay
Submissions are due by Wednesday, 17 December.

The discussion document lists several previous reviews which have touched on the topic. Here's some links in case anyone wants to do some homework:

Plenty of reading there, and some of it might be useful for any debate on the Maori seats as well.

Sent to their deaths

Under John Howard, Australia followed an extremely harsh refugee policy aimed at deterring refugee claims. Those claiming refugee status were detained indefinitely in remote concentration camps or forcibly transferred to third countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Some were offered money to withdraw their claims, while others were told by immigration officials that it was safe to go home while being threatened that they would die in prison if they refused to depart. The policy was an expensive failure - most of those processed were found to be legitimate refugees, though often after years of detention - but it did see around 400 Afghans deported back to their homeland on the grounds that it was safe for them to return.

Whoever told them that lie has sent people to their deaths. At least nine of those deported refugees have now been murdered by the Taliban. The true death toll could be as many as twenty. Others are now living in hiding in Pakistan.

This is a fundamental failure on the part of Australia to properly apply the Refugee Convention. Under the Convention, anyone who has a well-founded fear of persecution qualifies as a refugee. In retrospect, the dead definitely had well-founded fears. Australia refused to recognise those fears, and as a result, people are dead. The entire country should be hanging its head in shame.

As for John Howard, those dead Afghans are his legacy: people Australia should have saved, but cruelly turned its back on. While he didn't kill them himself, he might as well have, having established the policy that saw them deported to their deaths in a cynical ploy to exploit and feed xenophobia and racism for electoral gain. The man is no better than a murderer.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Counting heads

So, just days after denouncing a potential Labour-led coalition as a "five-headed monster", National's John Key has got an extra head of his own in the form of Peter Dunne. It's not unexpected - Dunne has always swung to the right, and last election was busy cosying up to the radical and racist Don Brash, before ultimately siding with Labour in order to shaft the Greens - but it does somewhat undermine Key's scare-talk. It's a fact under MMP that no party gets to govern alone; some form of coalition arrangement will be necessary no matter who is in government, and given the increasingly loose nature of those arrangements, there will also be constant negotiations over legislation in order to secure a majority. The question of coalitions then is not "will there be one" but "what agenda will it pursue" and "will it work". And whichever way you look at it, those questions favour Labour.

National does not like the idea of coalitions. It does not like the idea of compromise. While Jim Bolger was able to maintain a deal with Winston Peters over a bottle of whiskey, and Jenny Shipley displayed remarkable coalition management skills in holding her government together at the end of its term, in opposition they have returned to the arrogant born-to-rule prick attitude of yesteryear. National thinks it should be government, and that it should be allowed to do what it wants. The role of minor parties in such an arrangement is to shut up and vote the way they are told, regardless of their own policies or objections. In opposition, particularly in the last Parliamentary term, this attitude has seen opportunities to form temporary coalitions to defeat or amend government legislation go begging, as National has arrogantly demanded other parties obey them while offering nothing in return.

National's preferred coalition partners are United Future and ACT. On current polling, they may need to add the Maori Party to that mix to gain a majority on confidence and supply. While Peter Dunne isn't scary, ACT certainly are, particularly with Roger Douglas at number three on their list, so that arrangement might not look so good to the public. More importantly, it is difficult to see how National will be able to accommodate the desires of ACT (and its own internal neoliberal faction) when it needs the votes of the Maori Party to do so. The Maori Party are unlikely to promise blanket support to government legislation - they are not going to sign up to be a doormat - instead deciding issue by issue as they do now. And as many of National's policies fail the Maori Party's test of "is it good for Maori", National would not be able to enact much of its policy programme. The same applies in reverse to ACT: policies likely to meet the approval of the Maori Party are unlikely to be approved by them.

Labour would likely need a broader coalition of the Progressives, Greens, Maori Party and perhaps NZ First (if they get in) to govern. But while its a larger number of parties, there is also a far greater level of policy agreement among them. All oppose privatisation. All support a higher minimum wage. All generally favour public services over private enterprise. All take the side of the many against the few. In short, those heads are all generally looking in the same direction. There are a few areas of strong policy disagreement - NZ First on law and order, the Greens on GE - but none of these is a dealbreaker. And Helen Clark has already shown that she can manage differences and find common ground between disparate partners in order to advance her policy agenda.

Under MMP, we elect a Parliament rather than a government, so we don't get to directly choose which of these arrangements we want. But of the two, the latter is likely to be both more agreeable to the NZ public, and more stable. The most likely outcome of a National-led coalition will be a (very) early election, either due to a failure to manage coalition differences, or as part of a deliberate two-election strategy to dispense with its partners and rule with an absolute majority. You might want to consider that when voting.


In the past, our Prime Ministers have been policy heavyweights in their cabinets, taking serious portfolios and making a difference in them. Muldoon was famously Minister of Finance - and demonstrated why it was a bad idea to let the PM hold that portfolio. Lange was Minister of Foreign Affairs, where he gave us the nuclear free policy and an independent foreign policy, and of education, where he gave us "tomorrow's schools". Palmer established the Ministry for the Environment, and played a key role in the development of the RMA. Moore took up Lange's foreign affairs position, and played a key role in international trade talks. More recently, Helen Clark has played a transformative role in her portfolio of arts, culture, and heritage.

So, what portfolio does John Key want to take if he becomes Prime Minister? Tourism - a portfolio so important to National that they haven't even issued a press release on it since May 2007.

What a lightweight.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

New Fisk

Financial doom and gloom is everywhere – except Lebanon

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Carnival of the Liberals

The 76th carnival of the liberals is now up at Pharyngula.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A face in the crowd

Morgue has been watching Billy T James on NZ On Screen, and has noticed a very familiar looking face in the crowd:

there's a clip from NZ comedy legend Billy T James in 1990, doing a 'newsreader in the future' gag with the nation's crooner Sir Howard Morrison. Howard delivers this line: "..there's no truth in the rumour that the last four remaining Pakeha seats will be abolished..." There is applause and laughter, and the camera cuts away to someone in the crowd smiling happily at this riff on NZ's controversial Maori seats...

...waitaminute... that...

Clearly the man has taste in comedy.

Pakistan says no to America's war

The Pakistani Parliament has voted unanimously for a resolution calling on the government to end military action against the Taliban in its tribal areas, and instead try to negotiate with them. It's a stunning rejection of America's war, which puts Pakistan's interests - notably its interest in not having to fight a US-provoked civil war - first.

Predictably, the US is not happy with this outbreak of democracy:

Yesterday a US official made clear what it expected. "Pakistan needs to and is attacking insurgents in its northern areas," Patrick Moon, a deputy US assistant secretary of state, said during a visit to Kabul. "Sanctuaries for Afghanistan Taliban in Pakistan complicate our security operations. Pakistani Taliban and other extremists such as al-Qaida are posing a threat to the stability of Pakistan."
I don't think the Pakistani Parliament disagrees on the threat at all; what they disagree about is the solution. The idea that guerrilla wars are won by exterminating all the "evildoers" (or school students, as the case may be) is simply a US fantasy, born of too many cowboy movies and a latent appetite for genocide. At the end of the day, when the US has gone home, Pakistanis will have to share the same country with the people the US has been fighting. And the only way to do that is by negotiation and finding a way to live with one another.

Oh dear

Future New Zealand's Dennis Plant, whose fictional antics have been gracing our TV screens on Sunday nights, now has a blog...

Winston "cleared" again

The Electoral Commission has cleared Winston Peters - rather his party secretary Anne Martin - of any offence in relation to NZ First's fraudulent donation returns in 2007. While the full decision has not been released to avoid prejudicing the ongoing police investigation, given the details revealed in the NZPA story, it is pretty obvious why. The relevant law is s214C of the Election Act 1993 (repealed in December 2007, but still in force for that year's donations), which states:

Every Secretary of a political party registered under Part 4 of this Act who forwards to the Electoral Commission under subsection (1) of this section a return that is false in any material particular—

(a) Is, if the Secretary forwards the return knowing that the return is false in any material particular, guilty of a corrupt practice and is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to a fine not exceeding $20,000, or to both; and

(b) Is, in any other case, guilty of an illegal practice and is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding $20,000, unless the Secretary proves—

(i) That he or she had no intention to mis-state or conceal the facts; and

(ii) That he or she took all reasonable steps in the circumstances to ensure that the information in the return was accurate.

From the NZPA story:
[But] Mr Peters said Mrs Martin [was] fully aware of the $80,000 donation.

"Yes she was aware of it, she went with the auditor to the Electoral Commission...trying to sort out whether it should or should not be declared," he told RNZ

The commission told her to get legal advice and that advice was that the donations through the trust did not have to be declared.

This clearly shows that there was no intention to conceal the facts, and that all reasonable steps were taken. So no offence was committed.

In many ways this stinks - NZ First clearly had a deliberate scheme to conceal their sources of funding from the public eye, and thus evade public oversight. But because the law puts the onus on the party secretary, the real people responsible - Peters and his co-conspirators in the Spencer Trust - cannot be held accountable for it. If we want accountability, we will just have to seek it at the ballot box.

The Great New Zealand Vote Party

Every election, we worry about young people not voting. This election, the youth wings of the major parties, the students associations, various TV and radio stations, and the Electoral Commission have got together to do something about it. Their idea: a Great New Zealand Vote Party.

  • Have your own party during voting hours: 9am – 7pm.
  • Take your mates to polling booth. They’re everywhere!
  • Organise a...
    • BBQ
    • Street Party
    • Pool party
    • Community ‘Vote’ Festival
  • Register your party here and be in to win DJ Mikey Havoc at your Election Day party
Celebrating election day is a good idea (I do it every election, typically with chocolate fondue) - but I'm not sure that Havoc is really an incentive.

(Oh, and no,this isn't treating - the "reward" (if you can call it that) is for holding a party, not necessarily for voting)

Rally against the National Front

The National Front (or "Nationalist Alliance", as they're calling themselves now) are holding a rally in Wellington tomorrow to celebrate "national flag day", their annual attempt to claim the New Zealand flag as their own symbol of hate. Wellington anti-racists are organising a rally and picnic to show our disapproval:

When: 10:00am, Saturday, October 25
Where: Wellington Cenotaph, on the corner of Bowen St by Parliament.
Bring: food and fairy wings.

If you don't like Nazis, then please turn up and say so.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Which way will the Maori Party jump?

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

The polls have begun to tighten in the NZ election, with several showing the National Party's expected majority evaporating under the pressure of the campaign and the international financial meltdown. Meanwhile, the parties are also deciding their coalition preferences. The Greens have announced explicitly that they will back a Labour government, and ACT has done the same for National. United Future hasn't made an explicit arrangement that I can recall, but would clearly be happier with a National government, while National leader John Key has ruled out any sort of arrangement with New Zealand First (though he was clearly expecting them not to be a factor anyway). But neither coalition is sure of a majority, even without the complication of a potential overhang - which leaves the Maori Party as likely king- (or rangitira-) maker.

So which way will they jump? The media has been full of speculation over the last few days, aided by the differing positions of the party's co-leaders (Tariana Turia is clearly keen for a deal with National as utu for Labour's betrayal over the Foreshore and Seabed; Pita Sharples prefers a deal with Labour). On the policy front, the party clearly has more in common with Labour than National (it is generally seen as being to the left of Labour on economic issues), and its bottom line of entrenching the Maori seats would be very difficult for National to swallow (particularly since they've been courting the redneck vote and promising to abolish them for the last five years). Labour OTOH might grumble, but they have no fundamental objections, and it basically matches their policy of leaving the seats' fate in the hands of Maori. More importantly, the grassroots membership, who will be consulted on any deal, are likely to swing towards Labour - meaning the party leadership will have to have a very attractive offer to persuade them to accept supporting National.

Of course, there is a third option: the party could abstain on confidence and supply, let government fall where it may, then sit on the cross-benches and act as a veto on legislation. This would neatly defuse any Pakeha whining about the Maori Party exploiting their overhang to produce an undemocratic outcome, while maximising power; instead of having to make one deal, once, whoever is in government would have to come crawling to them on every vote. This would pose no real problems for Labour - they've been governing under such arrangements for the past six years. But it would pose real problems for National; they still haven't grasped MMP properly yet, do not play well with others, and are likely to get sulky and pouty at the thought of parties refusing to vote for policies they fundamentally oppose. But there are two problems with such a plan. Firstly, its practicality depends on the numbers; there has to be no other real alternative the government can go to for votes. The Greens aren't a problem to this; either they're part of Labour's legislative minority, or just as unlikely to agree with National. But if NZ First gets in, the plan is probably a non-starter. Secondly, its difficult to imagine that National would put up with this sort of arrangement for long; they'd simply call an election at the first legislative defeat, citing the need for a "mandate" - a highly desirable (for them) tactic as most of the other parties would be broke and unable to seriously compete. OTOH, a clear statement that he Maori party will not tolerate a mid-term election and will throw confidence and supply behind Labour rather than have one may be enough to prevent such a tactic.

Whichever option the Maori Party choose, the other parties - and the New Zealand electorate - are going to have to get used to Maori wielding real power and having a real influence on policy. Hopefully we'll be able to cope.

Dean Knight on WCC's suppression of free speech

Dean Knight examines the issue of Wellington City Council's attempt to silence the Vote With Both Eyes Open campaign, and agrees it is dodgy:

I'm sceptical about the role of a private agency in regulating this important public activity, and am disappointed the Council's documents seem to fail to make any mention of the Bill of Rights.
He goes on to cite a Canadian case where the Canadian Supreme Court overturned a bylaw forbidding billsticking on telephone polls as a disproportionate limit on free speech. I don't think we need to go that far; the key problem is that WCC through its contractor (which despite nominally being a commercial enterprise, is exercising an important public function, just like TV3 is when it is holding election debates) denies permission and wants to charge grassroots political advertising, while granting it and waiving charges for other non-profit or community groups - an unjustifiable distinction based on political content, the very thing they should be protecting. Unfortunately, actually challenging WCC in court is likely to cost too much and take too long to be worthwhile; which means in practice freedom of speech is only for the rich.

Reminder: Drinking Liberally in Palmerston North tomorrow

Drinking Liberally has its usual monthly meeting in palmerston North tomorrow,with guest speaker keith Locke.

When: 19:30, Friday, 24 october
Where: Zoe’s Bar, Kingsgate hotel, Fitzherbert ave (behind the Fitz)
Bring: cash, because they have very inconvenient EFTPOS.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]


In a piece on the utterly laughable proposition of whether Sarah Palin is "operating from a plane of intelligence so elevated it seems like stupidity" (yes, really), the Guardian mentions that US ice-cream chain Ben & Jerry's is offering free icecream to anyone who votes in the US election. Which sounds cool - but in New Zealand it would also be illegal. Section 217 of the Electoral Act 1993 defines the offence of "Treating", buying or providing food or entertainment in exchange for votes. The relevant section is this:

Every person commits the offence of treating who corruptly, by himself or herself or by any other person on his or her behalf, either before, during, or after an election, directly or indirectly gives or provides, or pays wholly or in part the expense of giving or providing, any food, drink, entertainment, or provision to or for any person—

(a) for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting; or

(b) for the purpose of procuring himself or herself to be elected; or

(c) on account of that person or any other person having voted or refrained from voting, or being about to vote or refrain from voting.

(Emphasis added).

It's a corrupt practice, with a penalty of two years imprisonment and/or a $40,000 fine. Plus of course you get purged from the electoral roll and can't vote or stand.

Why is this relevant? Yesterday's Herald had a story promoting Kea NZ's Every Vote Counts campaign by offering free tickets to rugby games for people who encourage their overseas friends to vote. Which seems to fall within subclause (c) ("any other person having voted... or being about to vote").

As much as I a the sentiment behind this campaign (and I've emailed my overseas friends and told them to participate in our democracy), I like having a non-corrupt electoral system even more. Encourage people to vote all you like, but please don't try and bribe them into doing it.

What will National do if they gain power?

(And unlike 08 Wire's contributions, this one is properly authorised).

Caring too much

The Guardian and the British Humanist Association have begun an "atheist bus campaign" to counter religious advertising in the UK with some atheist counterpropaganda. But while their message - "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" - is one I agree with, and it will undoubtedly generate a few smiles while offending some people who deserve to be offended, proselytising is something religious people do. More importantly, I just don't see the point. I don't waste my time believing in gods - but I don't waste my time not believing in them either. The whole idea is simply completely irrelevant to my life. Why bother to stick that on the side of a bus? IMHO, its caring far too much about something no-one should be caring about at all.

Still, if you do care, you can donate online here. They've already reached their initial target (it only took them a few hours after going live), so they're extending the campaign.

(And on a related topic: Salon has a review of Phil Zuckerman's book Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, which is quite interesting. I doubt the Danes and Swedes would bother with an atheist advertising campaign either - but then again, they have no need to).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wellington City Council suppresses freedom of speech

Wellington City Council is apparently attempting to suppress the Vote With Both Eyes Open campaign, denying them permission to use public bollards for their posters, and threatening to fine them for each poster they put up. This is a serious attack on freedom of speech, and it is difficult to see how it could survive any sort of Bill of Rights review. WCC provides free public advertising space; they cannot legitimately censor it on the basis of political content - particularly during an election campaign. Claiming that there is a non-free alternative does not cut it - it simply confines political speech only to the rich, while silencing the broader community.

Our democracy is enriched if people speak up and participate in it. Wellington City Council should be supporting that. They should recognise that grassroots political campaigns are not a commercial enterprise, and let them speak freely.

Advance voting begins

If you are overseas, you can now vote. So get on with it.

Telling us what we already knew

Over the years, we've had a mass of evidence showing us that the neoliberal policies of tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor, flexible labour markets and deregulation foisted upon us by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson in the 80's and 90's caused poverty and inequality. While a tiny clique at the top made out like bandits (sometimes literally, as in the case of Fay and Richwhite), this came at the expense of the vast majority of New Zealanders being made worse off. Looking solely at income distribution and inequality, the picture is confirmed by the Department of Statistics' 1999 report New Zealand Now: Incomes (summary here), and more recently by the MSD report Household Incomes in New Zealand: Trends in Indicators of Inequality and Hardship 1982 to 2007 (highlights). And now the OECD has weighed in. Its report, Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, confirms that both poverty and inequality rose significantly in New Zealand over the past twenty years.

Looking at the country note [PDF], its a dismal picture. We have moved from being one of the better countries in the OECD for inequality to one of the worst ones, and we have seen our poverty rate - originally quite low - climb to match the OECD average (and that average has grown over the period). While inequality is now trending downwards, as of 2005, poverty was still growing - though that should have begun to change given recent patterns in income growth.

Meanwhile, National is offering the very policies which caused all this as a core part of its election platform. Something to think about before voting, perhaps.


Over the past six months, the US has been trying to negotiate a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq to allow the occupation to continue when the UN mandate expires at the end of the year. At the moment they have a draft agreement, but it has to be passed by the Iraqi Parliament. Iraq's National Security Council is busy trying to find amendments which will allow it to gain Parliamentary support. Meanwhile, the US is upping the pressure, with Defence Secretary Robert Gates warning that there will be "dramatic consequences" if the deal is not approved.

What sort of consequences? US troops apparently would have to "basically stop doing anything". So, they wouldn't be able to harass Iraqi civilians on the street. They wouldn't be able to drive in enormous menacing convoys, pointing their guns at other drivers and occasionally shooting them up for kicks. They wouldn't be able to set up roadblocks, and kill anyone who doesn't understand their (English) commands to "stop". They wouldn't be able to call in airstrikes and bomb wedding parties, or massacre innocent villagers and then claim they were victims of a roadside bomb. They wouldn't be able to use their patrols as cover to abduct and gang-rape civilians. And they wouldn't be able to kick in people's doors in the middle of the night and drag them off to be tortured in Abu Ghraib.

If these are the consequences, they are entirely positive. The Iraqi Parliament should say "bring it on", vote down the SOFA, and end the occupation.

Toxic II

Chris Trotter has turned from the toxic to the outright threatening:

The Maori Party needs to understand this, and understand it well: If it denies Labour a fourth term by negotiating a coalition agreement with National, that will amount to - and will be taken as - a declaration of war on the whole labour movement - brown as well as white.

And then, if I may paraphrase Gough Whitlam: “You may well say God save the Treaty, because NOTHING will save the Maori Seats.”

You can feel the outrage; he's like some medieval overlord whose peasants refuse to love him. How dare they! They must be punished!

Trotter needs to get it through his head: no-one owes anyone else their loyalty, let alone their obediance. The sole purpose of a political party is to advance the interests of its supporters. And if the Maori Party decides that those interests are better advanced through National than Labour, we (and they) just have to live with it.

Reminder: Drinking Liberally in Auckland tonight

Drinking Liberally has its usual monthly meeting in Auckland tonight, with Green co-leader Russel Norman as guest speaker.

When: 19:30, Wednesdya, 22 October
Where: London Bar, cnr Wellesley & Queen Sts (opposite Civic), Auckland.
How much: Buy a drink.

[Hat tip: The Standard]

An improvement, of sorts

Remember Sayed Pervez Kambaksh? Last year, he was sentenced to death for blasphemy for downloading a paper on the role of women in Islam from the internet and discussing it with his fellow journalism lecturers. Now, that sentence has been commuted to a mere twenty years imprisonment. It's an improvement, I guess, but you still have to ask: what sort of a country hands out twenty-year jail sentences for voicing the "wrong" theological views? And why are putting kiwi lives at risk to defend it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Since the beginning of this year, ever since realising that the Maori party would represent the interests of their supporters rather than being a mute footstool for Labour, Chris Trotter has been conducting a race-baiting hate campaign against them. Today, with a post on Democracy, Citizenship & the Maori Party, that campaign has reached its toxic nadir. After accusing Maori as a group of being "hostile to the democratic principle" and painting the Maori party as "radical nationalists", he then goes on to say:

Also deserving of closer scrutiny, in my opinion, is the fact that the Marae Digipoll reveals that upwards of 70 percent of those questioned do not identify themselves primarily as New Zealanders. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of those on the Maori Roll identify themselves as Maori.

This statistic has profound constitutional implications. If 70 percent of those availing themselves of the anomalous constitutional phemonenon of the Maori Seats do not unreservedly identify with the state responsible for preserving - and, indeed, augmenting - the institution of guaranteed Maori representation, then on what basis does that state sanction the Seats’ continued existence?

In other words, Maori are treasonous for retaining their own ethnic and cultural identity. This is nasty, toxic stuff, of the sort thrown about by the (dominant) loony wing of the US Republican Party. It has no place in American political discourse, and it should have no place in ours. New Zealand is a modern, liberal, democratic society predicated on the idea of the consent of the governed. The idea that the citizens of such a society automatically owe it any loyalty at all is highly questionable to say the least; the idea that they should identify themselves first and foremost by their national affiliation rather than any of the other (accidental or consciously chosen) overlapping identities they have is simply ludicrous. We're a bigger and better society than that. You can be gay or straight, pakeha or Maori, religious or godless, geek or rugbyhead, windows or Linux, left or right, all or any of the above - and which is most important to you is a matter for you alone. It is none of the state's business how we think of ourselves, what we identify with, or what we think of it. And to demand otherwise is a gross violation of freedom of conscience and the worst sort of puerile nationalism.


New Zealand has made the Huffington Post's list of "dirty elections":

But as far as campaigns, we don't know dirty.

Picking recent and ongoing campaigns in Nigeria, Russia, Austria, New Zealand, Taiwan and Zimbabwe, they remind that we're watching a Stepford Wives Tupperware gathering by comparison, with all the venom of virtually any congressional hearing ("I thank the gentle lady from Florida....").

DPF is (naturally) thrilled, but perhaps he should check first what they consider "dirty". The list is based off this article in Foreign Policy. It lists the "dirt" in the NZ election as Winston Peters calling John Key a "greedy merchant banker" (which apart from the missing "ex-", seems entirely accurate), and... the Googlebombing of John Key. It then puts this alongside elections featuring rampant Islamophobia, accusations of incest, and a politician pushing his debate opponent offstage before ordering his bodyguard to take him outside and shoot him.

Methinks someone lacks a little perspective there...

What might have been

Helen Clark has outlined the policies she was forced to cancel by the economic crisis: an expansion of paid parental leave, better primary health care, a concrete target for a higher minimum wage. These are all good, credible policies, and its a tragedy that the endless greed of America bankers forced them to be put on the back burner. But this isn't just an exercise in "what might have been" - it's also a window on what could be when times are better and the government has more money. And that vision seems to be focused on equality, on opportunity, and on making the market work for people rather than the other way round.


Winston Peters, signed election pledge, August:

I pledge my party will not initiate or support the sale of Kiwibank.

Winston Peters, campaign billboard:


Winston Peters, campaign speech yesterday:

The first step is to separate Kiwibank from New Zealand Post to eventually establish it as a stand alone commercial bank.

The second is to float shares in the Bank that can only be bought and owned by New Zealanders - they cannot be on-sold to foreigners.

So, having pledge not to sell kiwibank, and made opposing privatisation and protecting "NZ owned banks" a core part of his platform (he has another billboard pledging to protect NZ jobs and assets), he's planning to sell it. And while he says he'll sell it to kiwis, that makes no sense (why sell people something they own anyway?), and it didn't work with Auckland Airport (which Petes also sold); the revenue stream will be offshore quicker than you can say "tie me kangaroo down, sport".

Clearly, Winston's promises mean nothing. But anyone who has observed him for more than five minutes already knew that. You have to have Alzheimer's to vote for this man.

Labour's commitment to dirty rivers

National's plan to gut the ETS wasn't the only thing revealed in the Radio New Zealand environment debate [audio]. There was also a lot of discussion on water quality, which included this disturbing comment from David Parker (at around 40:40):

Parker: Our policy is in the national policy statement. Rivers should be clean enough to swim in.

Greensill: Rivers should be clean enough to eat out of.

Parker: No, that's not [unintelligible].

Unfortunately, his actual words were lost in the noise, but it was clear from his tone that he disapproved of Greensill's statement. Which begs the question "why"? Why shouldn't we be aiming to have waterways that are clean enough for us to drink the water or eat the things which live in them? Isn't that part of our "clean, green image"? Or should our next tourism marketing campaign use the slogan "100% pure - but don't drink the water"?

Climate change: gutting the ETS

Morning Report yesterday had an election debate on the environment, energy, and climate change, featuring David Parker (Labour), Nick Smith (National), Russel Norman (Greens) and Angeline Greensill (Maori Party). Overall it was the usual zoo, with Parker and Smith competing to see who could shout each other down the most often. But buried in amongst the noise, there is some signal. In particular, Nick Smith was forced to finally give some answers about what National plans to do to the ETS.

Those answers are not very encouraging. Firstly, National would remove the so-called "deforestation penalty" (otherwise known as "making forest-owners pay the full cost of their activities") by allowing forest owners to offset deforestation by planting trees elsewhere. While environmentally defensible (give or take issues of land quality etc), it ignores the fact that the Kyoto Protocol does not recognise such offsets (mainly because it is focused on natural forests, not plantations), and so they will result in a carbon liability to the government. The net result will be that the taxpayer will be effectively subsidising environmentally destructive dairy conversions to the tune of a couple of hundred million dollars a year - something which makes neither financial nor environmental sense.

Worse, National would also give industrial polluters a free ride, by shifting to intensity-based targets rather than emissions caps. As I've pointed out before, these are an illusion; intensity targets provide an illusion of progress, while allowing actual emissions - the thing we are meant to be paying attention to - to increase. And that is exactly what happened when National tried using such targets in the 90's. Large polluters gladly signed up to National's Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements, pledging to improve efficiency and follow "industry best practice", and they did just that. But overall emissions continued to rise; the intensity targets did nothing. The policy was a bad joke then; now its not even that. Instead, its simply a last-ditch attempt by a party which does not care to turn back the clock and excuse and subsidise pollution, and I'm surprised Smith can advance it with a straight face.

Finally, they would also relax the already insanely generous phase out period for the ETS's free allocation, meaning even more corporate welfare for polluters, and even more foot-dragging.

Overall, National's plan is clearly to gut the ETS, and to do its best to do nothing for another three years while the planet burns. This is not a policy either we or the planet can afford. But it is a perfect example of how deceitful and two-faced National is on the environment, promising to improve things, while actually planning to do exactly the opposite.

Monday, October 20, 2008

MMP and the Maori seats

Over on Tumeke, Tim Selwyn responds to my post about MMP and overhangs. He's interested in finding "an electoral system like MMP with no overhangs, that guarantees Maori representation". Unfortunately, he then focuses on the latter while pretty much ignoring the former, and the resulting "solution" - SMP plus a return to an unelected upper house - is actively worse than the present system. Electorates would be much larger, meaning poorer electorate representation. There would be no proportionality, meaning the system would be unfair and the results would not reflect the will of the people. And his upper house would simply lack legitimacy. MMP has flaws, but this is not any sort of answer to them. Fortunately, as Lewis Holden points out, our culture of constitutional incrementalism likely rules out such radical change.

As for what might be an answer, I've suggested one alternative: a list only system. I've suggested it because the tension between electorate representation and proportionality cannot be resolved; the mere existence of electorates, no matter how many or how few, creates the potential for an overhang. If we think overhangs are intolerable, and we want the fairness of proportionality, then it is the best solution. However, that still leaves wide scope for some geographic representation. Many European systems (e.g. Spain; the UK's EU elections) split their lists along regional lines, assessing the party vote first within each province. This has obvious potential for disproportionality, so the fairer systems also have a national topup to ensure overall proportionality (e.g. Sweden). That seems to be a fairly good solution, though its also worth noting that many other European systems get by perfectly well with only a national list (and others use MMP and accept overhangs as the price they pay).

How could Maori representation be guaranteed within such a system? Very simply: by treating the Maori roll as a region, and having a Maori list. Instead of the Maori roll determining the number of Maori electorates, it would instead determine the number of Maori list seats - about 12 using the current electoral populations. Who won those seats would be determined from the votes of those on the Maori roll by the usual method, though without a threshold; MPs would be elected from separate Maori lists (though dual candidacy would be possible). The overall proportionality of Parliament would be determined by the total vote, Pakeha and Maori, just as it is at present. So, guaranteed Maori representation, plus proportionality, in one neat package.

The real beauty of this proposal is that it can be incorporated into the present MMP system; just swap the Maori seats for a Maori list. On the 2005 election results, this would have seen Labour win 7, the Maori Party 3, and National and NZ First one seat each from the Maori list. These seats would have come out of their total quota, and so not led to disproportionality. Unfortunately, I can't see anyone supporting it. Those advocating the abolition of the Maori seats tend to be rednecks opposed to Maori representation, who would hardly welcome an increase in such representation, while the Maori Party would likely see it as decreasing their power, despite the fact that it increases overall representation for Maori. But I would dearly love to be proved wrong on this.

Closing the wallet

I've been impressed over the last two weeks by Labour's solid response in the wake of the PREFU. Where National was trying to pretend nothing had changed (or, alternatively, to pretend they had changed their policies in response when they had done nothing of the sort), Labour has addressed the problem head on, moving to help the banks while minimising the impact of the recession on ordinary people. They've also clearly scaled back their election promises to a few key packages, including raising benefit abatement thresholds and ending the obscenity of forcing students to borrow to eat - both fundamentally fair measures which needed to be done regardless of circumstance, and whose costs are spread over the long-term. Now they've gone one further: at Labour's Wellington campaign launch yesterday, Helen Clark announced that they had closed the wallet entirely:

I have not come here today to announce any more significant spending initiatives.

Nor do I plan to announce more.

It's a responsible move; big promises now will simply end up saddling the next generation with debt. And having just dug ourselves out of that hole, we shouldn't go back to it. But I'd like to see more from Labour - specifically, an inkling of how they plan to reduce that debt path while protecting public services. I can think of one very big, very obvious area of spending to cut, where the effect will be purely distributional (and not harm the poor); the question is whether Labour will do it.

National promises toll roads

National's transport spokesperson Maurice Williamson has once again promised that National will introduce toll roads, at a toll of up to $3 a trip:

"If it is quite a short distance road of a few kilometres, somewhere in the city-type link, you'd only be talking of $1 or $2. If it's a very long haul road you may be talking of $3.

"Those are the sorts of numbers."

Multiply that by two trips a day, five days a week, and National expects you to pay up to $30 a week in tolls - which is more than 85% of us will get from their tax cuts. What they give with one hand, they claw back with the other - just as they did with user-pays for health in the 90's.

The Greens decide

Earlier in the month, the Greens made it clear they would announce their preferred coalition partner before the election, and released the policy criteria on which the decision would be made. Today, they released their decision - and unsurprisingly, it's to back Labour (provided a good agreement can be reached, of course). The reason why is perfectly captured in their accompanying graphic [PDF]:


DPF will no doubt whine some more about "pre-determined outcomes", but the blunt fact is that Labour is much more supportive of Green policies than National is. And as a party of policy, that is what matters. The Greens are there to implement certain policies. Supporting a government hostile to those policies does not advance that goal.

This does not mean the Greens will refuse to work with a National government. They're an MMP party, and they've already demonstrated that they will work with anyone to advance their policies and improve legislation. But they don't owe anyone their support on confidence and supply, and if National wants that, they will need to become a lot greener.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Greens win the balance of power in the ACT

The Australian Capital Territory held its Legislative Assembly election yesterday, and the result has been a stunning victory for the Greens. Not only did they increase their support from 9.3% to 15.9%; thanks to the ACT using a fair electoral system, that increase in support has translated directly into political power. As a result, they now hold the balance of power, and will be able to form a government with either Labour or the Liberals.

Contrast this with last month's Western Australia elections, which saw the Greens win 11.9% but no seats. Which shows the difference a fair electoral system makes.

Full ACT election results are here.

New Fisk

From the fourth century BC, words our leaders should heed

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Feathering their own nests

We're in the middle of a financial crisis at the moment which has seen trillions of dollars of imaginary wealth evaporate, and the US government bailing out its banks to the tune of US$700 billion in an effort to prevent the whole financial house of cards from collapsing. So you'd think the wall Street fatcats who had driven those banks to (and sometimes past) the point of bankruptcy would at least be losing their bonuses, right?


Financial workers at Wall Street's top banks are to receive pay deals worth more than $70bn (£40bn), a substantial proportion of which is expected to be paid in bonuses, for their work so far this year - despite plunging the global financial system into its worst crisis since the 1929 stock market crash, the Guardian has learned.

Staff at six banks including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup will pick up the payouts despite being the beneficiaries of a $700bn bail-out from the US government that has already prompted widespread criticism. The government cash has been poured in on the condition that excessive executive pay will be curbed.

Bonuses are up across the board, despite some of these institutions having halved in value. And they're paying for it with public money. At Citigroup, they received US$25 billion from the bailout - and are paying out US$25.9 billion in salaries and bonuses. The bailout is disappearing straight into the pockets of the greedy scumbags who caused this problem in the first place.

This is simply obscene, on a par with Marie Antoinette's apocryphal "qu'ils mangent de la brioche". Which begs the question: why are we letting them get away with it?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Not just the Maori seats

Peter Dunne has launched an attack on the Maori seats today, saying that they "distort democracy" and "pervert the will of the voters". Unlike Rodney Hide, he is at least making principled arguments based on proportionality, rather than simply appealing to naked racism. At the same time, it has to be asked: why is he only talking about the Maori seats? Under MMP, any electorate can lead to an overhang. And yet the only time anyone ever mentions the word is when it relates to Maori representation.

Obviously, a big reason for that is that they currently enjoy a one-seat overhang in the House, and that that overhang looks set to continue. But they're not the only ones. It's a delicious irony that on current polling, Peter Dunne - the man complaining about other people's overhangs - would in fact be occupying an overhang seat himself (as would Jim Anderton). This is as much a distortion of democracy as the Maori Party's predicted overhang - but strangely, I don't see anyone complaining about it. Is it because they're white?

Dunne's hypocrisy aside, I agree with the goal of eliminating overhangs to ensure proportionality. But the way to do this is by eliminating electorates entirely, and moving to a list-only proportional system with no threshold, as seen in most of Europe. If people are unwilling to accept that, they have no basis to complain. Overhangs are the price we pay for retaining traditional geographic representation in a proportional system. If you want that style of representation, you have to accept the consequences. And you can't complain about simply because you don't like he people who are benefiting from it this election.

Confronting the ghost of Franco

In July 1936, Spanish fascists under General Francisco Franco attempted to overthrow the elected Spanish government. During the ensuing civil war and subsequent dictatorship, the fascists disappeared and murdered an estimated 200,000 people. Now, there is going to be justice for those crimes:

A Spanish judge has launched a criminal investigation into the fate of tens of thousands of people who vanished during the civil war and Franco dictatorship.

Judge Baltasar Garzon - Spain's top investigating judge - has also ordered several mass graves to be opened.

One is believed to contain the remains of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by fascist forces at the start of the war in the 1930s.


In his 68-page ruling, Judge Garzon says that Francoists carried out "illegal permanent detentions" which he says falls within the definition of crimes against humanity.

(Link added)

Since the restoration of democracy in 1978, Spain has had a tacit agreement to forget the past. But that has simply allowed it to fester (and allowed anti-democratic attitudes to survive in the Spanish military). The worst atrocities were carried out during the civil war, and the perpetrators will be long dead by now. But the truth will at least be told, the past confronted, and Spanish society finally allowed to properly reject it.

The US Presidential debate in a nutshell

debate 10-15-08 kos

No, this doesn't mean Sarah Palin gets to be President; he'd simply tried to exit in the wrong direction. But it does look like he's ceremonially dying onstage.

(Image stolen from The Impolitic; you can also see another version from the BBC)

Channeling the National Front

There's an election on, and so, like clockwork, Winston Peters is bashing immigrants again. This time round he's ditched the overt racial fearmongering of claiming that they're all terrorists or that we are being "colonised", instead going for the traditional cry of "they're stealing our jobs!" Indeed they are. I can think of one man, an immigrant from a land which does not share our tolerant and democratic culture, but instead has state religion and a class system, who has managed to become a Member of Parliament, thus depriving a decent, honest kiwi of a place in the House. That man is NZ First's Peter Brown.

Cheap jokes aside, we have a Minister of the crown channeling the National Front and whipping up racial hatred to get elected. Peters is a poisonous influence on our politics and on our society, and I am looking forward to his de-election.

Key lied

In the debate on Tuesday, John Key swore black and blue that he had made "no formal agreement" with the Maori Party to ditch National's policy of abolishing the Maori seats. Today, he's changed his tune:

National Party leader John Key is in the middle of another controversy after admitting today he told the Maori Party he was prepared to drop a policy to abolish the Maori seats in Parliament.

"They've raised it with us on numerous occasions and I've made it quite clear to them it's not a bottom line for us," he told reporters on the campaign trail in Dunedin.

Key's defenders might seek solace in that phrase "no formal agreement". It was merely a tacit understanding, nothing binding (sounds like their attitude to the Treaty, actually). The rest of us will call it what it is: a lie. And its deeply revealing of the character of the man that he would try bullshitting us rather than being upfront and saying that the policy was up for negotiation and obviously they'd have to take the Maori Party's views into account if they wanted to work with them.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering how the Maori Party feel about Key making a deal with them, then denying it in public and calling them liars, all in order to pander to his redneck base. If that's how National treats its potential coalition partners, then they may find that they don’t have any.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Locking in a decade of erosion

Labour announced its social welfare policy today, and the highlight was to raise benefit abatement thresholds. The initial step would be an increase from the current $80 a week (unchanged since 1996) to $100 a week. If you're wondering why that seems so familiar, its because National announced an identical move back in August as part of their beating up on the poor welfare policy. So, in the short term, its simply another recycled policy.

Where Labour differs is the long-term: this initial step is part of a five year plan to raise the threshold to the equivalent of ten hours pay at the minimum wage, with annual increases. I welcome the idea of cementing this relativity in legislation (if only they'd do that for benefits), but even so, this is actually a backwards step. When the threshold was set, in 1996, it was at the equivalent of 12.5 hours of minimum-wage work. So, their supposedly bold and innovative move to support beneficiaries transitioning into the workforce is actually cementing in place that decade of erosion, and so cementing in place lower living standards for those at the bottom of the heap.

This is not what I expect from the Labour Party. It's bad enough that Labour have wasted their nine years in government by not undoing the 1991 benefit cuts; to have them now cement that erosion adds insult to injury. If they were serious about helping beneficiaries transition into work, they'd raise the relativity of those thresholds, to at least 15 hours. This would allow beneficiaries to pursue real part-time work, rather than making it effectively impossible without benefit fraud. It would be a truly bold, imaginative policy, which would adapt our benefit system to the modern world. But sadly, that seems to be beyond Labour.

(There are however some interesting hints in that press release about where Labour sees the minimum wage going over the next few years, and they clearly expect it to be at least $14 / hour by 2012, and possible higher if this is assumed to be the final step in a transitional policy. So Labour isn't that far from those calling for a $15 / hour minimum wage, and it should be easy to move them in coalition negotiations).