Monday, December 29, 2008

New Fisk

How can anyone believe there is 'progress' in the Middle East?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who am I kidding?

Judging by the traffic, everyone else has buggered off for the holidays already - it's a virtual weekend out there. So, I guess I'll join you. Bloggage will continue, but it'll be light until New Year.

The same problems everywhere

It looks like New Zealand is not the only country to have problems with the police criminalising dissent and using anti-terrorist units to spy on lawful protest. Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot explains how the UK's National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu) - originally established to keep an eye on terrorism - has expanded its business to keep an eye on bird-watchers, otter-spotters, and other "dangerous extremists".

To illustrate the threats it confronts, the Netcu site carries images of people marching with banners, of peace campaigners standing outside a military base, and of the Rebel Clown Army (whose members dress up as clowns to show that they have peaceful intentions).
Well, we can't have any of that in a democracy now, can we? Imagine it! People peacefully expressing their views and disagreeing with the government! Clearly a Danger To Society which must be monitored. For our own good, of course.

Why do they think protestors are dangerous? Here's an example of their "thinking":

t was this Paranoia Squad that briefed the Observer last month about "eco-terrorists". The article maintained that "a lone maverick eco-extremist may attempt a terrorist attack aimed at killing large numbers of Britons". The only evidence it put forward was that someone in Earth First! had stated that the world was overpopulated. This, it claimed, meant that the movement might attempt a campaign of annihilation. The same could be said about the UN, the Optimum Population Trust, and anyone else who has expressed concern about population levels.
Right, so in Netcu's eyes, pointing out a problem means you are automatically going to kill people and blow stuff up to solve it. Where do they find these paranoid loons?

But the real reason, as in New Zealand, seems to be budgetary. Until recently, they've been kept busy monitoring the UK's animal rights movement (members of which have engaged in violent and criminal behaviour). But that strand of the movement seems to have been largely defeated, and so NECTU would be out of a job. Unless, of course, it found some new threats to monitor. And hey presto, they start fearmongering about "eco-terrorism" and demonising protestors to keep themselves in work. It's almost funny - until you realise that they are undermining democracy and ruining lives in order to keep themselves in business.

As in New Zealand, the UK's "anti-terrorism" seem to be completely out of control. And as in new Zealand, its time they were put back on a very short leash. But advocating that - accountability and democratic control of policing policy - probably makes me a "violent extremist".

Australia to abolish sedition laws

Three years ago, the Australian government passed draconian sedition laws as part its knee-jerk response to the "war on terror". Now, Kevin Rudd is planning to repeal them:

The Howard government's controversial ban on sedition will be scrapped and replaced with legislation that bolsters the protection of free speech under a series of changes to the nation's terrorism laws.

Yesterday the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, flagged plans to increase oversight of the national security apparatus and promised to accept the bulk of the recommendations from the Clarke inquiry, a 2006 Australian Law Reform Commission report on sedition and a parliamentary committee report on intelligence and security.

(The ALRC review recommended replacing the law with a narrower one bearing more resemblance to criminal incitement, with stronger protections for academic, artistic, scientific, political or journalistic speech to make it clear that merely criticising the government, or reporting or studying such criticism, was not in and of itself seditious or treasonous. They also recommended removing the ludicrous claim of universal jurisdiction which allowed people who had never set foot in Australia, let alone bore it any allegiance, to be prosecuted for "disloyalty" against it).

But its not all good news. There's this bit:

The new counter-terrorism laws - to be drafted in the first half of next year - will cover attacks that cause psychological as well as physical harm...
This current internationally accepted definition of terrorism (as seen in e.g. New Zealand's Terrorism Suppression Act) includes acts which are carried out for the purpose of "induc[ing] terror in a civilian population" - but it still requires that they cause death, injury, or serious destruction. So, in order to be "terrorism", it has to involve killing people or blowing stuff up. Allowing psychological as well as physical harm runs the risk of substantially lowering that threshold, allowing the misclassification of other offences as "terrorism", with all that that entails. Given that anti-terror laws are already overused, that would be a Very Bad Thing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A whitewash

Last year, in the run-up to the Australian election, Indian-born doctor Mohamed Haneef was arrested, charged with "reckless support for terrorism" on the basis of guilt by association, detained on immigration grounds to subvert a court ruling granting him bail, then summarily deported when the case collapsed. It was an appalling example of how anti-terror laws can be abused, and it rightly resulted in a judicial inquiry. That inquiry has now reported back, finding that the case against Haneef had no foundation, that he should never have been charged, and should not have been deported. But unbelievably, it has also

...cleared the Howard government of any improper behaviour, conspiracy or political motivation in ordering the detention and later deportation of the Indian doctor from the Gold Coast in July last year.

While finding flaws in the actions of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, the former immigration minister Kevin Andrews, the Department of Immigration and the AFP, the report finds there was no conspiracy nor political motivation in the decision to cancel Dr Haneef's Australian work visa and send him back to India after the terrorism charges against him were dropped.

So, the police perjured themselves when opposing bail, the Minister's office colluded with police to subvert the rule of law, and government sources spoke openly of deportation as a means of limiting the political fallout. But "there was no conspiracy nor political motivation" and none of it was "improper".

I think those conclusions speak for themselves about the quality of this "inquiry".


Writing in The Nation, A C Thompson has a disturbing story of how, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the residents of an exclusive, whites-only, non-flooded suburb or New Orleans got together, got some guns and pickups, and started shooting black people to "defend their neighbourhood" - with widespread neighbourhood support. They killed at least four people, and injured many more, but the New Orleans Police Department is completely uninterested. And there's no doubt it was racial - residents talked openly about "shooting niggers".

Equal under the law? Not if the murderers are white and the victims are black, it seems.

[Hat-tip: Orcinus]

Compare and Contrast

New Zealand Herald editorial, Saturday, December 20, 2008: Spending is now a social duty:

the less [consumers] spend the greater the risk may be to their jobs. Business starts a vicious spiral with lay-offs and consumers continue it when they take fright. There is no point saving money in a recession. Prices are low, builders, electricians and the like are available again. There is no better time for households to stock up, do repairs and extensions, afford some luxuries.


Spending in these circumstances is the more socially responsible course. The economy needs to be revitalised from the streets. Every purchase rings loudly in the ears of fearful shops and their suppliers, helping to offset the doleful predictions they read and hear from supposed seers.

New Zealand Herald editorial, Monday, December 22, 2008: Government must tread warily on deficits:

The Treasury's prediction that official debt will be back to early 1990s levels on the present track of revenue and spending should disturb Mr English. He has been in Parliament long enough to know how hard the road to fiscal health has been. The initial work cost the Bolger Government nearly all its political capital before its first term was through. The years that followed were sour with complaints of underfunded public services, shroud-waving health providers and food banks. It was a thankless struggle and nobody will want to repeat it.

The new Government's eye may be fastened on the economy's immediate needs but it must not lose sight of the surplus that helped sustain better days.

A case of private debt (which our rich friends and advertisers benefit from) good, public debt (which they have to pay for) bad?


Last week, Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi famously threw his shoes at US President George Bush during a press conference, underlining the failure of the Bush Presidency and its Iraq project. Within a day he had reportedly apologised, writing a grovelling letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki begging forgiveness for his "big, ugly act" and claiming a "terrorist" had invited him to do it. Now it turns out that apology was tortured out of him:

Uday al-Zaidi said his brother told him the letter was written against his will because he was subjected to torture, including being doused with cold water while naked.

"He told me that he has no regret because of what he did and that he would do it again," Uday said. "The thing that makes you cry and laugh at the same time is that when the prime minister said that my brother was not tortured and will not be tortured, he was under severe torture by security authorities."

And this is Bush's model for the Middle East he killed a million people to create: a country where people are tortured for insulting the state or foreign allies - just like under Saddam.

Tell me - was it really worth killing a million people simply to change the name in which torture is committed? I don't think so.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Worse and worse...

The police spying scandal just gets worse and worse. Spying on political parties, activist groups, and unions engaged in perfectly lawful activities is bad enough; violating legal privilege is worse. And now it seems police spy Rob Gilchrist attempted to pervert the course of justice by deliberately undermining his own evidence in a court case (and forwarding it on to the police in advance to boot). He also seems to have acted as a provocteur, managing protests so as to create conflict with police (which was then no doubt used by the SIG to justify their existence and their budget). But what really takes the cake is that included in the information he provided to police were pictures of a naked teenage activist. As the press release points out, that's not exactly something you send to people unless they've expressed an interest. Which begs the question: how is amateur porn of a teenage girl relevant to "terrorism"? What did the police do with the pictures afterwards? And will they be prosecuting themselves or Gilchrist for possession of an intimite visual recording? Or are the police and their spies simply above the law they claim to enforce?

Still no BORA-assessments

It's been more than a week since the government passed the Bail Amendment Bill and Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment Bill - both laws with potentially serious human rights implications. But the Ministry of Justice still has not published the assessments of their consistency with the Bill of Rights Act. Oh, they've gone as far as adding them to the list - but the links point to blank pages.

Hopefully they'll correct this soon. But in the meantime its just another symptom of their unseemly rush to legislate and their contempt for the normal Parliamentary process. Like the bills themselves, these assessments should have been available before the debate, so that Parliament would know what it was voting for. Instead, they're buried and released too late to have any effect.

Update: And now they're up. Neither raises any inconsistency (which is what you'd expect), but I am surprised that the assessment of the Bail Amendment Bill doesn't raise the court cases that led to the law being amended in the first place, and which may undercut its rhetorical effect...

"Balancing the economy and the environment"

During the election campaign, National promised repeatedly that it would "balance the economy and the environment". Where does that "balance" lie in practice? Here's an example: as one of his first acts in office, Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley raised the quota of sea lions (a threatened species whose population is in decline) allowed to be killed by squid boats by 40% - despite the scientific assessment showing it should be halved.

Some "balance".

New Fisk

One missing word sowed the seeds of catastrophe

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Predictable bigotry

On Thursday, 66 countries supported a landmark declaration in the UN General Assembly calling for full equality regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the legalisation of homosexuality, and an end to "violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatisation and prejudice" against gay, lesbian, bi and transgender persons. The declaration was widely supported by European and South American countries (who are leading the struggle for human rights at the moment). Notably absent from the list of supporters? The United States. They were the only country in the civilised world who refused to sign.

Still, it could have been worse. At least they didn't sign the competing declaration, backed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Vatican, which claimed that ending anti-gay bigotry could lead to "the social normalization, and possibly the legitimization, of many deplorable acts including pedophilia". And people wonder why religion is associated in the public mind with bigotry...

The declaration isn't any sort of official UN treaty. But now the issue has been broached (yes, really, it took them 60 years to start talking about it), and we can start pressing for real action. And hopefully soon we'll see a UN Convention on gay rights, or an optional protocol to the ICCPR and ICESCR to bring gender identity and sexual orientation fully within the UN human rights system.

Fresh Python

Terry Jones: I beg your pardon, Mr President

Friday, December 19, 2008

Exclusive: police spies violated legal professional privilege

Police spy Rob Gilchrist forwarded an email covered by legal professional privilege to the police Special Investigation Group.

As mentioned in the Herald, Gilchrist forwarded an email from activist Simon Oosterman, in which Oosterman asked him to be a witness in his case against police for misusing pepper spray. That email was covered by litigation privilege.

The rules governing litigation privilege are laid out in s56 of the Evidence Act 2006. While not in force at the time, the Act codifies common law on the subject, and the same rules apply. To be covered by the privilege, a communication must be for the dominant purpose of preparing for legal proceedings (whether actual or anticipated). Communications by a client to third parties - such as possible witnesses - are covered under s56 (2) (a). Oosterman's email to Gilchrist clearly falls under that category.

Litigation privilege prevents evidence from being presented in court, and it may not be seized by a search warrant (Calver v District Court (2004) 21 CRNZ 371) or intercepted by a wiretap or listening device. Where police apply for an interception warrant likely to intercept privileged material (e.g. on a legal office), the judge is required to prescibe conditions to prevent such communications from being intercepted. The Law Commission extensively discusses the issue in their review of search and surveillance powers [PDF], and the underlying presumption is that Such material is simply not supposed to be acquired by police under any circumstances. But in this case, the SIG has deliberately or inadvertantly bypassed all of those restrictions by the simple expedient of bribery.

Gilchrist subsequently served as a witness in the case. It is unclear if he forwarded any other information regarding the proceedings to his police handlers, or whether they told him that such information was off-limits. It is also unclear how police used the information we know they acquired. Only a full investigation into police spying will be able to answer that.


Over on Scoop, Selwyn manning has a perfect example of the pettiness of the spying undertaken by the police on left-wing groups and activists. In 2005, the police Special Investigation Group began an intensive and costly investigation of peace activist Harmeet Sooden. They investigated his background, his employment, his leisure and sport activities, political writings, and activist groups he was affiliated with. They acquired his immigration records, CV, driver's licence, and copies of newspaper reports about his captivity in Iraq, which occured while the investigation was going on. They did background research on groups he supported, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and Peace Movement Aotearoa. All up, they spent months looking into him, at a likely cost of tens of thousands of dollars. And they did all this in response to an unfounded complaint of tagging.

It's petty, sinister, and a gross abuse of power - a massive overreaction to a non-existent "threat". But its also a monstrous waste of police resources. If the SIG can waste months on this sort of bullshit, then clearly they don't have any real work to do. Which means we're better off disbanding them and getting them to investigate real crime, rather than engaing in politicla panty-sniffing.

Resurrecting the 90's

Before the election, I blogged that one of the choices on offer was between a government which used monetary policy to create a labour shortage to drive wage increases, and one which used it to create unemployment to drive wages down. Unfortunately, we got the latter sort - and they've wasted no time about changing things to ensure lower wages for ordinary New Zealanders and higher profits for their corporate backers.

How? This morning, the government signed a new Policy Targets Agreement with the Reserve Bank. So where previously we had this:

The objective of the Government's economic policy is to promote sustainable and balanced economic development in order to create full employment, higher real incomes and a more equitable distribution of incomes. Price stability plays an important part in supporting the achievement of wider economic and social objectives.
Now we have this:
The Government's economic objective is to promote a growing, open and competitive economy as the best means of delivering permanently higher incomes and living standards for New Zealanders. Price stability plays an important part in supporting this objective.
The difference is obvious: employment and equity are now no longer part of the Reserve Bank's equation. And the result will be a return to the neo-liberal mindset we saw in the 90's: that low wages are good for growth, and unemployment must be maintained at high levels in order to produce them and prevent "wage inflation" (ordinary people getting a share of those higher living standards the government claims to want). This has severe social consequences, and ensures that a large slice of New Zealand society - most of us, in fact - miss out entirely on the benefits of economic growth. Instead, their rich mates get it all - just like they did in the 90's.

Gone native

Pita Sharples, speech to PILLARS opening, 22 April 2008

Every Christmas, there is a standard feature that grabs space in every local paper.

It’s the prison Christmas menu. Last year, incidentally, it consisted of a portion of chicken, a serving of vegetables and luxury of luxuries, a Christmas mince pie. Hardly something to get excited about one would think, but the four dollar a day diet in our penal institutions falls into the same category as a series of other items that appear to fascinate readers.

You know the stories – those that ask WHY are prisoners playing petanque, watching flat-screen telly, getting access to Playstations, Xboxes, internet and benefiting from the luxury of underfloor heating?

Yet without fail, every Christmas, there are also articles missing from the paper which tell a different story than the lavish dinner in the School of Hard Knocks...

The Dominion-Post, reporting on now-Associate Corrections Minister Pita Sharples' visit to Rimutaka Prison, 19 December, 2008:
Associate Corrections Minister Pita Sharples rates the Christmas meal prisoners will eat next Thursday in 20 jails as better than basic average lunchtime restaurant fare.

Dr Sharples was treated to an advance serving of the Christmas lunch the 7600 prisoners will consume when he visited Rimutaka Prison yesterday in the company of Corrections Minister Judith Collins.

Dr Sharples, also the new Maori Affairs minister, tucked into the basic Christmas luncheon of vegetables, chicken and a Christmas fruit-mince pie that the prisoners will eat.

And the verdict? "Awesome." Dr Sharples joked he was looking to accommodate his family in a secure unit outside a New Zealand prison so he could feed them each for $4.50 a day.

That didn't take long, did it? He's had a Ministerial limo for exactly a month, and he's gone completely native. So much for the idea that the Maori party will change anything...

[Hat-tip: PA System].

Police spied on case against them

I said there'd be worse in the police spying scandal, and there is. Not only were the police spying on activists, political parties, and unions - their informant was also forwarding information on a legal case against the police:

The police-paid spy Rob Gilchrist passed officers information about union pickets, student demonstrations, and a pepper-sprayed protester who was preparing a case against them.


Mr Gilchrist also forwarded an email from well-known activist Simon Oosterman, asking for witnesses to his pepper-spraying at a GE Free protest because he was preparing a case against police.

I'm trying to find out if there were any other emails on this topic forwarded on, or if this was the only one. But either way, it's extremely dodgy. The information in this email was not legally privileged, but it is still a gross abuse of power. Ultimately it did not undermine the case - Oosterman won, and got a judgement saying that there was no place for pepper spray in a democracy - but its still information that the police should never have been looking into. And it would be fascinating to learn what the SIG did with it (whether for example they passed it on to the police Oosterman was complaining about).

Oh, and to top it all off, the Herald reports the police spied on student anti-fees protests. If that's the Prime Minister's idea of a "threat to national security", then I humbly suggest he needs to pull his head out of his arse - and order a public inquiry ASAP.

Climate change: positive feedback

One of the predictions of climate change scientists is that as arctic sea-ice decreases, the area will warm even faster, as the exposed sea will abosorb more heat.

It's happening:

Dr Stroeve and colleagues have now analysed Arctic autumn (September, October, November) air temperatures for the period 2004-2008 and compared them to the long term average (1979 to 2008).

The results, they believe, are evidence of the predicted amplification effect.

"You see this large warming over the Arctic ocean of around 3C in these last four years compared to the long-term mean," explained Dr Stroeve.

"You see some smaller areas where you have temperature warming of maybe 5C; and this warming is directly located over those areas where we've lost all the ice."

This positive feedback cycle is currently only affecting the arctic - but as the temperature there rises, it will have an increasing effect on the climate of the northern hemisphere. Exactly what it will do, they're not sure - but it will likely affect temperatures and precipitation, and therefore ultimately agriculture.

And meanwhile, the world's government's continue to dither. I don't think we can afford that for very much longer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Tuesday is over, and the House has adjourned for the Christmas break. For those interested, the Corrections Amendment Bill saw only a few speeches before they adjourned, and the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill didn't get any time at all. So, we'll have to worry about those when the House reconvenes in February.

Police spied on unions

The police spying scandal just gets worse and worse. In addition to spying on activist groups and political parties, it also seems that the police spied on unions. Police spy Rob Gilchrist systematically passed on emails from the CTU, EPMU, NDU, NUPE, the SFWU and Maritime Union. The emails cover protests, pickets, demonstrations, and conferences. None suggest any sort of illegal activity - only run of the mill campaigning and labour disputes.

There is reportedly no record that the police requested this information. Neither is there any record that they asked him not to. It is reasonable to conclude that if the police wanted information that was more focused on illegal activity, they would have said so. Instead, they seem to have been running a general dragnet, collecting political intelligence on left-wing groups engaging in perfectly ordinary and legal protest activities (a conclusion supported by the specific questions they asked about climate change and anti-war groups).

This shows the lie behind the Prime Minister's claims that the police were acting properly and focusing only on threats to national security. They weren't - not unless you think a bunch of unionists getting together to paint protest banners, or underpaid KFC workers going on strike is "a threat to national security".

The worry is that someone in the police Threat Assessment Unit and Special Investigation Group clearly thinks they are.

(I have worse to come...)

Update: And more from the Herald here. I have the emails in question (those relating to unions, at least), and they are utterly innocuous, with no suggestion of any sort of criminal activity. The police should have no interest in them whatsoever, and the fact that they did suggests a police force that is seriously out of control.

"A better place"

Today, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the last British troops would leave Iraq by July 2009. In making the announcement, he also praised those troops (some of whom have commited acts of torture), and claimed that "we leave Iraq a better place".

What does this "better place" look like? It is a country in ruins, with a million civilian dead and 3.7 million displaced (out of an estimated population of 29 million). Torture is as common as it was under Saddam, the country is wracked by sectarian violence, there is no security, and the basics of life - food, water, electricity - are even less accessible than they were before the war. It is, in the words of one Iraqi, a nightmare. If this is Brown's idea of "better", I'd hate to see what "worse" looks like.

Climate change: goals versus policies

One of the first rules of policy is to make sure your policies are aligned with your goals. So for example if you want to boost wages, you don't attack unions or make employment less secure. So how does this apply to New Zealand's climate change policy?

John Key's government has set itself the (fairly unambitious) goal of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. How do they plan to achieve this goal? So far, since assuming office, the government has:

Essentially, they have suspended, repealed or signalled their intent to repeal every concrete policy we have to reduce emissions. Instead, the market is expected to solve it all - though how it can do that in the absence of full price internalisation (which may arrive for energy in 2010 and transport in 2011, if the ETS is unsuspended) is a complete mystery. This is the same policy that failed spectacularly in the 1990's, and it is likely to have the same effect now - emissions will continue to rise, and taxpayers (rather than polluters) will continue to pay for them.

The upshot: National's practical policies are in deep conflict with their stated goal - so much so that it calls their commitment to that goal into serious doubt. These are not the policies of a government which wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. instead, they are the policies of a government which wants to increase them.

Domestic violence bill sent to committee

The government's Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill has just been sent to select committee. So that one at least will get the scrutiny it deserves.

Note that this is the first bill the government has sent to committee in its entire time in government so far. One out of five! It's a bad start from a bad government. And they look likely to do it all again in February when they repeal the EFA.

An obvious question

Tuesday's Question Time saw the first real questions asked about the police's spying on activists - including this one from Green MP Keith Locke:

Keith Locke: How can the Prime Minister have confidence in the Minister of Police when the paid agent Rob Gilchrist was forwarding emails from the Greens parliamentary office to the special investigation group, and does he think that police spying on MPs and their staff is appropriate in a democratic society?

Hon JOHN KEY: I think the member needs to accept that the police should act to protect the security of New Zealanders and our communities, and that they may engage in a wide range of methods in order to achieve that, provided that they are legal. As I said earlier, the Minister sought an assurance from the Commissioner of Police that the activities were legal and had foundation. I accept the commissioner’s perspective on that matter.

Which raises the obvious question: does the Prime Minister regard the Green Party as a threat to the security of New Zealanders? Whatever his answer, it would be fascinating...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This bill needs a select committee

The Greens have posted the government's Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill [PDF]. The bill incorporates some elements of the previous government's Domestic Violence Reform Bill, most notably the ability for police attending a domestic violence incident to issue "police orders" to a suspect where there is insufficient evidence to arrest someone. The threshold for these orders would be "reasonable grounds to believe" that the order is necessary to ensure the safety of the abuse victim - the same standard as would be required for a search warrant (or indeed for arrest) - and would force the suspected offender to "vacate any land or building occupied by a person at risk" for the duration of the order - which can be up to five days (extended from the original three). There is no recourse to the courts or inbuilt judicial oversight. If the subject of such an order is unhappy with it, they can spend tens of thousands of dollars and a few years taking it to a High Court judicial review - by which time of course it will have long expired.

Think about that for a moment: the government wants the police to be able to throw people out of their own homes for up to five days on suspicion.

Such orders might be a useful tool for dealing with domestic violence from persistent abusers. But they unquestionably raise serious human rights and due process issues. Here's what the Ministry of Justice had to say on the previous version of the bill (their advice on the new bill is, of course, unavailable):

11. As such, the effect of an order engages numerous rights under the Bill of Rights Act, including the right of expression under s 14 and the right to freedom of movement under s 18. Further, and noting that the safety order is in substance a short-term version of protection orders made by the Family Court under the existing legislation, the new provisions necessarily lack the procedural and institutional safeguards of that Court. It is therefore necessary to consider whether these various limitations are justifiable in terms of s 5 of the Bill of Rights Act.

12. The explanatory note to the Bill indicates (at 4) that the safety order provisions are intended to provide Police with an alternative where a person is believed to be at risk but where there is not a sufficient basis to arrest and to provide persons at risk with an opportunity to consider their options. There are also indications of practical difficulties faced by people at risk in making use of the existing Family Court regime.

13. Given those considerations, the threshold of necessity under proposed s 124B(1)(b), the relatively short duration of safety orders and the requirement of seniority of authorised officers, I consider that this provision is, on balance, a justifiable limitation on the rights concerned.

That balance is, at the best, very fine, and given the proposed extended duration of the orders, may very well have shifted (it will be interesting to see whether the new advice takes note of that change, or whether it just takes the same "the government wants to do it, so it must be OK" approach seen here). In any case, with such serious human rights issues involved, the bill demands a full debate. And the proper way of getting one is to put it before a select committee and allow public submissions to be heard.

The NBR claims that will happen. I hope so (I also hope Brownlee indicates these things more clearly in his urgency motions in the future. If Cullen could do it, so can he). This bill is too important to be rammed through under urgency. It needs and deserves a select committee.


While urgency has a place in our parliamentary system (e.g. to clear up the order paper before a break, or to conduct business which is actually urgent), there are rules for it. In particular, Standing Order 54 (3) provides that

the Minister must, on moving the [urgency] motion, inform the House with some particularity why the motion is being moved.
The explanation need not be a good one. "Because we wants to, precious" would qualify. In the past, "completing the Government's legislative programme" has been an acceptable answer. But that apparently was too much for Gerry Brownlee. When moving urgency yesterday, he made no attempt to explain it, and attempts to get the Speaker to make him provide one were simply met with a shrug - our arrogant new government simply doesn't think it has to explain itself to anyone (normally, it takes at least six years in office for that to happen).

It's a perfect sign of National's contempt for our democracy. And judging on their answer to this question, they plan to do it again the moment the House resumes in February to repeal the EFA. Maybe we should start keeping a tally - the proportion of time spent under urgency in this Parliament? Because its already looking disturbingly high.

Back under urgency

The House is back in urgency again, for the passage of the Energy (Fuels, Levies, and References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill, Electricity (Renewable Preference) Repeal Bill, Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill, Corrections Amendment Bill (No 2) and the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill. While I fundamentally disagree with them, the latter two have been through the select committee process, and their passage is simply part of the pre-Christmas rush. The first three, OTOH, haven't - they're been rammed through in the same abuse of democracy we saw last week. And once again, we're having to rely on the Greens to make available legislation which is being passed in our name.

(And while we're on the topic of secrets, the government still hasn't released the BORA vets of the bail and sentencing bills it passed last week. I wonder whether they're still writing them?)

Again, none of these bills is truly urgent, and there's certainly no reason to pass them in this way. And again with the domestic violence bill there are potentially serious human rights issues which should demand such examination. The result would almost certainly be better law, as mistakes would be found before the bill was passed. But it seems national is more concerned about puerile CEO games of "establishing their authority" and "making their mark" than good process or good policy. Couldn't they just piss on the Speaker's chair and be done with it?

Beaten in custody

Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi shoe-thrower, has reportedly been beaten in custody, suffering broken ribs, a broken hand, an eye injury and internal bleeding at the hands of the Iraqi National Security Advisor's private thugs.

It seems the new, free Iraq isn't that different from the old one.

Just what we all want to do

You too can now throw a shoe at George Bush.

(Unfortunately, its in Norwegian. But you drag the sliders on the power and angle, then tell it to "kast skoen").

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Strangling NATO in Afghanistan

Oh dear. Drivers in Pakistan are refusing to transport supplies across the Northwest Frontier to NATO and US troops in Afghanistan. 75% of US and NATO supplies go that way. Which means they're either going to have to drive their own damn trucks, find a new supply route in a hurry, or learn to fight a war without food, fuel, ammunition and toilet paper.

This is a major setback for the US, and unless they resolve it quickly, it's all over for them. Modern armies - particularly the US army, with its dependence on helicopters - are hungry and thirsty beasts. Cut off their supplies, and they wither and die.

Climate change: not just about cows

Today the government released the Briefing to the Incoming Minister for the tourism portfolio. Tourism, according to the BIM, brings in $8.8 billion a year, or around 5% of our annual GDP. As the briefing [PDF] points out, our perceived environmental performance gives us a competitive edge, attracting tourists to spend their money in the New Zealand market. And climate change poses a significant challenge to this. The Ministry briefing focuses on the risks of emissions reduction policy increasing costs and decreasing long-distance tourism. The briefing from Tourism New Zealand [PDF] is more explicit:

As New Zealand is a long haul destination for most visitors, it is at particular risk from increasing concerns about climate change. In conjunction with this, the 100% Pure brand means tourists visit with set expectations regarding the way New Zealand is managing the environment. It is therefore necessary for New Zealand to deal with environmental concerns and make the changes necessary to ensure that our environmental performance matches our rhetoric in our international marketing campaign.
(Emphasis added)

Whoops! To channel Jon Stewart, I'd love to be a fly on the wall when the new Minister for Tourism chews the new Prime Minister a new one over what his stupid pandering to ACT's climate change denialists is going to do to his portfolio... oh.

What this shows us is that the consequences of National's "review" could be far reaching, and are not just limited to cows. At last count, they've put over $12 billion in export earnings under threat. If Labour had done that, National would have been screaming (remember the hissy fit they threw over our refusing to send NZ troops to die in Bush's war in Iraq?) But I guess like so many other things, economic sabotage is OK if you're a tory.

The trout bill bites the dust

Today's Order Paper [PDF] is out, and looking through it, there is a significant absence: the Conservation (Protection of Trout as a Non-commercial Species) Amendment Bill. For those who don't know, this was the oldest bill before the House, having been introduced in November 1998, and hanging around waiting for its committee stage since 1999. Now, after ten years, it seems to have finally been dumped.

The title of the oldest bill in the House now pases to the Education (Establishment of Universities) Amendment Bill, introduced in 2004.

Last chance

Parliament sits again today, for what is likely to be, thanks to the government's abuse of urgency, the first and last Question Time until February. Think about that for a moment: Question Time is the primary means of holding the government to account on a day to day basis, by forcing Ministers to show up and answer, or at least dodge, the opposition's questions. And with them ramming through bills under urgency and presiding over a serious police spying scandal, there's a lot the opposition will be wanting to ask about. But by using urgency, the government can dodge all that, and effectively avoid serious scrutiny of its actions until well into the new year.

It will also be the last chance for us ordinary citizens to have any input into Parliament's activities for a while. While the government has rammed through bills under urgency without a select committee stage, there is still a way to force a committee to at least pretend to examine those bills, via a suitably worded petition. It will be interesting to see whether any of the opponents of the fire at will bill avail themselves of that opportunity, or whether they will let the government get away with it.

Climate change: a soft target

Over the past few years, a strong consensus has emerged among scientists: if we are to avoid dangerous levels of climate change (defined as a rise in average global temperature of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels), we must restrict the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 ppm of CO2-equivalent or lower. According to the IPCC [PDF], this means that developed nations must reduce their emissions by between 25% and 40% from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% to 95% from 1990 levels by 2050. Which makes the Australian government's decision to set themselves a target of a mere 5% to 15% reduction look like a commitment to failure.

The logic behind the target is simply perverse. The Australian government claims to want an international agreement aiming for 450ppm, but thinks this is unachievable. Therefore they have set their target on the basis of an agreement aiming for 550ppm. But by doing this, they are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy to frustrate their own claimed desires. Other nations will use Australia's soft target as an excuse to set similarly soft targets for themselves, with the result that 450ppm really will be unachievable. And that means the Great Barrier Reef will die, Kakadu will turn into a desert, and the Murray and Darling rivers will dry up, with a consequent effect on Australia's agriculture. The Australian government claims not to want this - but by their actions, they are heading there with all speed.

The lesson is simple. To misquote Napoleon, if you want 450ppm, aim for 450ppm. If the rest of the world won't follow, you can always slack off later. But by cutting early and deep, you maximise your flexibility while also demonstrating commitment, making your goal that much more likely.

But contrary to the Australian government's rhetoric, 450ppm was never their goal. Instead, its about ensuring their dirty coal industry stays in business - and so Australia gets lax targets and fat subsidies for polluters. As for the environment - and the reef, and the rivers, and Australia's drinking water - it can go to hell for all they care.

And worse...

It turns out the Worker's Party weren't the only political party caught up in the police's dragnet of left-wing groups. According to a press release from Keith Locke, the police also spied on the Greens:

"The Green Party is also concerned that some of its own emails were forwarded by their agent, Rob Gilchrist, to the Special Investigation Group. We will be asking the Police whether they encourage this practice. There is no evidence to date that they have discouraged it."
As Keith notes, spying on political parties is an anathema in a democratic society. Our police are dangerously out of control, and it is time they were brought back into line.

Meanwhile, I find it interesting that all our legislative and judicial safeguards against wiretapping and intercepting emails can be legally circumvented by bribery. Those safeguards exist for good reasons, and the sorts of crimes the police claim to be investigating these groups for are things they would never be able to get an interception warrant for. But apparently that all goes out the window if they pay someone. It's a nasty end-run around a law designed to protect us from exactly this sort of abuse of power, and a loophole Parliament should look at plugging.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Police spied on political parties

Over on Liberation, Bryce Edwards asks whether the left is too naive about police surveillance. but he also drops this bombshell:

Even the Workers Party added Gilchrist to their internal strategic email discussion group - and Gilchrist forwarded the emails onto the police.
So, under the guise of fighting "terrorism", the police were spying on political parties. That is simply unacceptable in a democracy. The SIG must be disbanded, and the officers responsible held to account.

Update: ...and Collins doesn't care. The Commissioner has said everything is hunky-dory, and that the spies are "working within their responsibilities" and she believes him. No word on what those responsibilities actually are, of course. Or where they get off on spying on political parties seeking election. Worse, Collins thinks it would be "inappropriate" for her to raise any more concerns; operational independence apparently meaning the police being allowed to do whatever they want with no political oversight. Can I have my democracy back, please?

Monarchy bows to democracy in Luxembourg

An interesting constitutional development in Luxembourg this week: earlier in the month, Luxembourg's monarch, citing "reasons of conscience", refused to sign a bill legalising euthanasia for the terminally ill. Then he turned around and called on Parliament to change the constitution to strip him of that power. On Thursday, the Parliament obliged, overwhelmingly passing the amendment through its first reading. It will get its second reading and become law sometime this week, clearing the way for the euthanasia bill to become law by Friday. And so Luxembourg's monarchy bows to democracy.

It's time our monarchy did the same. While the power to refuse assent is a monarchical fiction which has not been used for three hundred years, thanks to the phrasing of s16 of the Constitution Act, it keeps cropping up. It's long past time we put an end to it. The amendment required would be simple - simply make it clear that the Governor-General must sign a bill, or impose a one-week time limit as a fallback. Alternatively, we could follow the pattern of European democracies, and have the Speaker sign bills into law. Either way, the fiction would end, and it would be finally clear where law-making power lies in New Zealand: with the elected Parliament, rather than the unelected monarch.

A fitting end

Today, (soon to be former) US President George W Bush went to Iraq for what was supposed to be his "victory lap", a last tour over his bloodstained legacy before he leaves office. It was supposed to be a triumph, instead it descended into farce when an Iraqi journalist at the press conference threw his shoes at him.

(The BBC video of this (linked above) is particularly good, and the interview afterwards makes it clear how deeply Bush just doesn't get it).

It's a fitting end to Bush's presidency, and one which will be remembered. Every documentary on his career is now going to end with a slow-motion shot of him ducking flying footwear flung by one of the people he is supposed to have "liberated".

Key on police spying

On Sunday, Police Minister Hudith Collins reacted to the news that the police were spying on political activists in a typically thoughtless manner. According to her, we should "find it reassuring" that the police are going after protestors. John Key, at least gets it - and the radio this morning he made his discomfort clear:

"I think the main point here is we would need to be satisfied as any New Zealander would that those being investigated were worthy of investigation, in other words, they present a real or credible risk to the safety and security of communities, not just a group the police target because they feel like it," he said on TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

He said he would be concerned if frivolous investigations led to [a] public loss of confidence in the police's judgment.

"I wouldn't like an individual group like Greenpeace to be targeted," he said on NewstalkZB.

The question is whether anything will come of this, or whether it is just more lies, the centrist mask for a nasty brand of petty authoritarianism.

There is no question that this is a terrible waste of police resources. According to the Sunday Star-Times, the Special Intelligence Group has close to thirty officers around the country spying on protest groups and exploring their personal relationships. That's thirty officers who aren't doing real police work, thirty officers who aren't chasing burglars, car-thieves, P-dealers or rapists, thirty officers who could be doing much better things. And they should be. If this shows anything, it shows that we have no real terrorists in NZ - otherwise the police wouldn't have to create any. And given that, the SIG should be disbanded, and its staff reallocated to doing real work, rather than wasting their time and undermining our democracy.


The UN has banned Fiji from participating in future peacekeeping missions. Existing deployments will continue, but they will not be invited to participate again until Fiji returns to democracy.

This is an essential way of putting pressure on the interim regime. Fiji's military is a source of revenue for the country - they basically rent them out to the UN as mercenaries, and pocket the generous per diem payments the UN gives them. It's also a source of pride for the military. Cutting that off will target the people responsible for the coup in a significant way, and make it that much harder for them to pretend that everything is normal.

Now, if only they'd done this two years ago...

An optional protocol

Something I missed: on human rights day, December 10, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

For those who don't know, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is one of the core international human rights instruments, aimed at encouraging and enforcing the economic and social rights affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include rights to health and education, social security, an adequate standard of living, and labour rights. But unlike other human rights instruments, the ICESCR doesn't have any teeth; parties promise to protect, preserve, and progressively implement those rights, but they are not legally enforceable, and there is only the power of public embarrassment to make sure they do.

The Optional protocol will change all that. Based on similar protocols to the ICCPR and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, it will allow individuals to bring complaints directly to an international body. So for example, if the government hadn't decided to change its mind, the "Herception heroes" could have argued that PHARMAC's refusal to fund their preferred drug violated their right to health, and complained to the UN about it. The Protocol will also allow parties to complain about other parties' (lack of) implementation of the Covenant, and allow the monitoring body to launch inquiries of egregious breaches. These are all Good Things; they will ensure that governments live up to their commitments, rather than just treating them as platitudes and lies to children.

The interesting question is whether New Zealand signs up to it. We claim to be a world-leader in human rights, and in order to preserve that reputation, we will have to. But National opposes the whole concept of economic, social and cultural rights, and is unlikely to subject itself to a regime where they can be enforced. So, we'll probably have to wait until they lose power before we can join the civilised world on this.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New Fisk

Back to Portugal, where once there was revolution in the air

New Kiwi blog

New Masses.

Police state

When you ask people to name countries where the police infiltrate and spy on democratic protest groups, they will name places like China, Cuba, Iran and Burma. Now, we can add New Zealand to the list. In a piece in the Sunday Star-Times today, Nicky Hager and Anthony Hubbard expose a major police operation to spy on protestors under the guise of fighting "terrorism". The groups targeted include Auckland Animal Action, GE-Free New Zealand, Peace Action Wellington, SAFE, and Greenpeace. These groups are the conscience of our society. While they engage in (occasionally disruptive) protest action, they are not in any sense of the word "terrorists".

The problem here seems to be "mission creep". In 2004, the government set up a police Special Investigation Group to investigate "national security-related crime including terrorism". But the problem is that there isn't any terrorism in New Zealand, and we are well off international terrorist networks. So the police did what bureaucracies do, and turned their attention to the closest thing they could find in order to justify their budget: protestors. And finding no evidence of crime, let alone terrorism, they then started collecting personal dirt instead - anything rather than admit that their task was basically pointless. It would be laughable, if it wasn't so sinister. People's lives and relationships have been ruined because of this, and it will impose a significant chilling effect which may prevent people from speaking out on issues that matter to them. But its quite clear that the police don't care about freedom of expression or the right to protest; they don't care about the Bill of Rights they supposedly exist to protect.

This has to stop, and it has to stop now. If the SIG can't tell the difference between protestors and terrorists, and is engaging in this sort of anti-democratic activity, it needs to be shut down. I'm sure its members could be usefully employed collecting speeding tickets or something. But more, there needs to be a full investigation of the police's activities to find out where else they've been spreading their anti-democratic tentacles. In the mid-70's, the Ombudsman investigated the SIS over allegations that they had been spying on politicians and using the information for political gain; the same clearly needs to happen to the police. Until that happens, they will remain a clear and present danger to our democracy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tuesday is over

And they're done. After a marathon five-day sitting under urgency, Parliament has finally risen and gone home for the weekend. The normal passage of time has reasserted itself, and it is no longer Tuesday in the House (the politicians' presumption that time stands still under urgency has always amused me, and its a little reminiscent of Canute's attempt to command the tides. But I guess if a Pope can declare it not to be Friday because he wants to eat meat, then our MPs can pretend its still Tuesday in their little realm).

During that sitting, the government rammed through bills allowing 90 days of fire at will, imposing a crippling testing regime on primary schools, limiting the right to bail and increasing sentences for people who commit violence against children (which clearly includes smacking - bet the child beaters didn't expect that). None of these bills were so urgent they needed to be passed this week, and the govenment's refusal to send them to select committee was a gross abuse of our democracy. And they've paid for it; the goodwill Key had when he was elected has been significantly eroded.

(I am not including the government's self-interested tax-cuts in the above because it was a financial bill. Such bills don't normally get a select committee, and its entirely normal to pass them under urgency).

This rapid and secretive implementation of bad policy will hopefully come back to bite them. Select committees are useful - they find the mistakes and loopholes in legislation which its authors have overlooked. Thanks to the government's abuse of urgency, those mistakes wil have gone uncorrected. And when they emerge and cause problems - or when the inevitable stories about bad employers abusing probation, or schools neglecting education to focus on teaching National's moronic tests - people will remember that abuse. But the real worry here is that National will continue on this way. Over the last nine years, the realities of MMP and the democratic sensibilities of parties like the Greens and United Future have largely curbed the abuse of urgency that was so common under the previous National government. But with their support parties committed to backing them on procedural motions, and the help of the anti-democratic ACT Party (complete with the newly-reanimated Roger Douglas), National will not be limited in that way. And so we may see a return to the blitzkrieg tactics of the 80's and 90's, with policy being developed in secret and rammed through under urgency to bypass opposition and exclude the public from the democratic process. If that happens, National will likely be a one-term government. But it will be interesting to see if they are capable of recognising that.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Busy today, at VUW's 2008 post-election conference. I'll blog it over the weekend or on Monday, once I've trawled through my notes.

For Aotearoa

What's in a name? In the case of a country, an entire sense of national identity. At the moment, New Zealand is named after a Dutch - or, thanks to a bad translation somewhere along the way, Danish - province. Now, a campaign has started to give us a name that actually means something to us: Aotearoa (or "Aotearoa-New Zealand" for an interim period). The reasons they give are mostly jokey - its difficult to take the renaming of a country seriously - but there is one good one: it says something about who we really are. Not a fragment of Europe broken off and dumped somewhere in the south seas, but a Pacific nation, with our own indigenous culture and heritage. And that statement of national identity is why I think this proposal is worth taking a serious look at.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A service to democracy

For the past two days, Parliament has been sitting under urgency, debating bills that, when urgency was moved, had not even been drafted. Last night, they moved to rectify that, distributing some of the bills at midnight - but while MPs could see them, they were still kept secret from the public. Parliamentary Services will not publish a bill until it is formally introduced to the House.

Now, the Greens have rectified that, and scanned in copies of the bills for everyone to see. So, if you want to read, analyse, and vent on the Bail Amendment Bill, Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill, Energy (Fuels, Levies, and References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill or Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment Bill, now you can.

Truly ambitious

John Key talks a lot about how he is "ambitious for New Zealand". Last night, I listened to the opening speech of an MP who seems to be truly ambitious for this country: Dr Kennedy Graham. In his first speech before the House, he called for Parliament to adopt a truly ambitious goal and forever forswear war except in self-defence or the defence of others in accordance with the UN Charter:

Above all, it is time we abided strictly by the global constitution of our times, working within coalitions of the lawful rather than the unwilling. Sixty-three years ago, our forefathers created the United Nations to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war that, twice in their lifetime, had brought untold suffering to humankind. Under the UN Charter, ‘war’ has been rendered unlawful. Today, armed force may no longer be used by Member States save in the common interest. By adopting the Charter each Member State, including New Zealand, undertakes never to commit aggression.

It is time to ensure that we live up to our binding international obligations. It is time that the state responsibility New Zealand has assumed not to commit aggression is implemented in domestic legislation. Over the years we have translated international obligations into our own legislation – in 1946 to abide by economic sanctions of the Security Council, in 1987 to forswear nuclear weapons. In 2002, we made it a criminal offence for any New Zealander to commit genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.

Now is the time to take the next step – to make it a crime in domestic law for any New Zealander, including its leaders, to commit aggression, as defined by the UN General Assembly in 1974. This requires simply the adoption, by this House, of legislation to that effect.

(Emphasis added).

The definition Graham refers to is UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (full text here). It defines "aggression" as

the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations
and includes a non-exhaustive list of examples. The crime of aggression is within the scope of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (its listed specifically in Article 5 (1) (d)), but is currently undefined. A conference of parties is supposed to meet to agree a definition in early 2010, and any definition would have to be added to our International Crimes and International Criminal Court Act 2000. But until then, or if the COP can't agree a definition (and I am cynical about their ability to do so), we should adopt the UN General Assembly's definition to create a crime in domestic law. It would be a tremendous statement of our principles, on the level of the nuclear ban in the 80's, as well as implementing something we agreed to do back in 1948. And I'm hoping we'll see a member's bill from Graham on the topic in the future.

The return of monarchical fiction

Sigh. I know people are pissed off at the 90-day fire at will bill, but can we say so without peddling the tired monarchical fiction that the Governor-General has the power to refuse assent to legislation?

As I've pointed out repeatedly, they don't. And simply because the right spouted this crap every time they didn't get their way is no reason for us to do so. While the process they are using stinks, if Parliament passes a law, its the law, and no monarch or stand-in can or should say otherwise.

The Fire at will bill

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill is now up at

The core of the bill is new sections 67A and B, which allow small employers ("by agreement" - meaning by economic coercion) to impose a trial period of up to 90 days on new staff, during which they will have no right to bring legal proceedings if dismissed. While existing rights to bring proceedings for racial discrimination and sexual harassment are purportedly preserved, the effect of new s67 B (2) will be to completely undermine them in practice. So, this is a racist's and sexist's charter.

Oh, and as a bonus: employers can now sack you or dock your pay if you join KiwiSaver. Merry Christmas! (The government apparently intends to address this with amendments to the KiwiSaver Act, but if so, they should repeal the anti-discrimination provisions when they make those changes, rather than repealing them now and leaving employers with a year or more in which to exploit their absence. The failure to do this can only be regarded as intentional, a deliberate attempt to create a nasty loophole).

Finally, there's this nasty little bit at the end of the explanatory note:

The Small Business Advisory Group has recommended greater employment flexibility, including more effective trial periods and less rigid requirements around fixed-term contracts, as a means for helping small business in the current economic environment. Extending this initiative to all employers would have a positive effect on labour market efficiency. Consideration could be given to evaluating the outcomes of this legislative change with a view to extending it to cover all employers in the future.
(Emphasis added)

This is the thin end of the wedge for introducing greater employment insecurity in this country. And we shouldn't put up with it.

Fire at will bill introduced

The government has just introduced the Fire At Will Bill to the House. Unfortunately, its not online yet, so I can't see how bad it is. But so far, Kate Wilkinson just maxed out my Orwell-meter by claiming that

This bill is not taking away rights.
It certainly is. Under existing law, employees must be treated fairly when being dismissed. Under National's bill, that will no longer be the case within the first 90 days of employment. Fairness, apparently, is not a fundamental kiwi value under National.

Feathering their own nests

This morning, National passed its tax cut package as the Taxation (Urgent Measures and Annual Rates) Bill. The bill cancels Labour's planned cuts to the bottom rate, socking the poor with an extra $730 million over five years. That money goes straight into the pockets of the rich.

Unmentioned in all of this is how much our MPs stand to gain. Under Labour's plan, MPs would receive a further $600 a year by April 1, 2010. under National's, they get a lot more. Here's the details from the Parliamentary Salaries and Allowances Determination 2008:

  • John Key (Prime Minister): Paid $393,000, so gets $8,660.
  • Bill English (Deputy Prime Minister): Paid $267,700, so gets $5,154.
  • Gerry Brownlee, Nick Smith, and other Cabinet Ministers: Paid $243,700, so get $4,674.
  • Rodney Hide, Pita Sharples, and other Ministers Outside Cabinet: Paid $204,300, so get $3,886 (which casts the Maori Party's vote against a low-income tax credit to offset National's effective hike to the bottom rate in a whole new light; there's a name for MPs who vote to enrich themselves while fucking over their base: "former MP").
  • Other MPs: Paid $131,000, so get $2,420.

Oh, and John Key's figure doesn't include whatever he gets from his personal fortune of $50 million. Assuming he gets a mere 5% rate of return (and that he even pays his taxes, rather than hiding them with corporate shell games) that amounts to a cool $50,000 a year - more than 80% of New Zealanders even earn.

National aren't just rewarding their base - they're feathering their own nests. It's disgusting. It verges on corrupt. It is, at the least, a significant conflict of interest. And the two-thirds of New Zealanders who get basically nothing from this package deserve to know that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Global Zero

Today a new international campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons was launched in Paris: Global Zero. The campaign brings together 100 leading world figures - politicians, business and civic leaders, and human rights advocates - all pledging to work towards the final elimination of our nuclear arsenals. They're aiming to build a grassroots movement to pressure governments - not that it will be hard; a poll of citizens in 21 countries found overwhelming support for total nuclear disarmament, even in nuclear-armed states. The only country where disarmament did not have an absolute majority was Pakistan, and even there supporters outnumbered opponents.

This is a cause New Zealand and New Zealanders should be supporting. You can show your own support by signing the declaration. But more than that, the New Zealand government should be lending its support to this cause. While NZ wasn't included in Global Zero's poll, this is a cause that we as a country believe in. Our newly-elected government should recognise that, and represent our beliefs on the global stage. After opposing the domestic nuclear ban for so long, National needs to build trust on this issue. This is an opportunity for them to do so.

All I want for christmas is fair work rights

Annoyed at National's plans to abuse urgency to strip new workers of employment rights by christmas? Why not let them know about it? The CTU has just set up a handy website to help you email the Prime Minister on the issue. Or, you can print out your letter and post it free to "John Key, Freepost Parliament, Wellington". Act today, and let John Key know that what you really want for christmas are fair work rights.

Climate change: briefed

The government has released the Briefing to the Incoming Minister for the Ministry for the Environment [PDF]. The briefing has a special attachment on the all-of-government climate change programme, which goes into detail on policy, but it also has some broad recommendations. Starting with this:

New Zealand must both adapt to changes in climate and contribute to a coordinated international response to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol commits New Zealand to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, on average, over the period 2008 to 2012 or to take responsibility for any emissions above this level if it cannot meet the target. Emissions are currently about 25 per cent above 1990 levels. The consensus scientific advice is that emissions reductions of between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 to 95 percent below by 2050, will be required of developed countries if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.
(Emphasis added).

This makes National's proposed target of do nothing until "50% by 2050" look pathetic. But MfE are right. As Jonathan Porritt points out in the Guardian today, the current negotiations at Poznan are taking place within the framework of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report. But that report closed off its data in 2005, and in the past three years, the picture has got significantly worse, and we now seem to be on the verge of (if not well into) several nasty positive feedback scenarios (an ice-free Arctic, methane bubbling out of the Siberian permafrost and marine clathrate beds, the oceans' carbon buffer becoming saturated). In the face of this, our policy needs to get more ambitious, not less.

MfE goes on:

By demonstrating appropriate leadership through reducing our own emissions, New Zealand aims to influence major emitting countries in post-2012 negotiations.
So much for that plan. Thanks to Rodney Hide and industry special pleading, our influence just evaporated.

The climate change briefing recommends that the government resist pressure from industry to carve out exceptions to and exemptions from the ETS, and instead keep it simple (they are also concerned about the present balance unravelling under a tide of lobbying, which is well justified). It also recommends continuing to mirror international agreements in domestic policy settings (e.g. around forestry) in order to maintain open access to international markets, and taking a close look at "complementary measures" to back up the ETS where pricing alone doesn't work.

Unfortunately, all of this is completely the opposite of what the new government wants. We'll be lucky to merely maintain the status quo on climate change over the next three years, and we are more likely to actively go backwards.

Robbing from the poor to pay the rich

National has finally unveiled the fine print of its KiwiSaver plans, and it includes cancelling the $40 a year fees subsidy and removing the tax-free status of contributions above the new 2% maximum. The effect on the latter will be to increase taxes on people using KiwiSaver, by up to $400 a year. Where will the money go? Straight into tax cuts for the rich. So National's first act as government, the very first bill it passes, will be to rob from the poor to pay the rich. You don't get any more National than that.

What's in the urgency motion?

So, what's in the urgency motion? There's no Order Paper, but thanks to email, I have a rough list:

According to the Herald, some of those bills which are to be passed through all stages haven't even been drafted yet. So, MPs will be debating bills they have not seen, and will not be able to give them proper scrutiny. Mistakes will be inevitable - which will no doubt mean more urgency later to fix them.

As I said earlier, this is no way to run a legislature, or a democracy. You have to go back to Douglas and Richardson to see this sort of abuse of the Parliamentary process. And if this is how National intends to run Parliament - as if the change to MMP had never happened, and this was still an FPP elected dictatorship - then I think it is incumbent on the opposition to take a page out of National's book, and make the House utterly unmanageable until the normal Parliamentary and democratic process is restored.

The blitzkrieg then and now

Jane Kelsey, The New Zealand Experiment, p. 43, describing the neo-liberal blitzkrieg under Douglas and Richardson:

The changes were implemented by both governments at a blistering pace. Parliamentary conventions were frequently ignored. The constant use of urgency powers enabled the technopols to force through controversial legislation, and avoid the inconvenience of scrutiny before or by a select committee. Under Labour, this almost became the norm. In the first half of 1989, for example, parliament sat under urgency for a third of the time. Often there were not enough, or sometimes even any, up-to-date copies of the measures available for those taking part in the debate...
New Zealand Herald, reporting on Parliament today: Parliament goes into urgency to pass bills:
The Government put Parliament into urgency tonight so it can pass bills dealing with taxation, employment relations, bail, sentencing and education before the Christmas recess.

From tomorrow it will sit from 9am to midnight until the bills have been put into law.

Some of them are still being drafted and did not have titles when Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee moved the urgency motion.

(Emphasis added in both cases).

And so National returns to type. Undemocratic, autocratic, ramming things through under urgency with no notice, consultation, or public scrutiny. Worse, they seem to have deliberately done it in a way calculated to hide their legislative programme from the public; the Order Paper has no actual business, only the details for the State Opening, and it will not be updated until urgency finishes. So, it was an attempt at springing a complete surprise on Parliament and the public.

This is no way to run a legislature - or a democracy.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thoughts on the state opening

Watching the State Opening of Parliament today, with all its pomp and ceremony, I couldn't help but notice that while it is steeped in ancient tradition, that tradition is overwhelmingly monarchical and anti-democratic. In particular, it gets the relationship between Parliament and the Governor-General arse-backwards. Here's how.

The English Parliament, from which ours descends, was originally subservient to the monarch. The King (and it was always a king back then in the Middle Ages) would summon it when he wanted to impose a new tax, or (less frequently) to seek advice on a new law. A couple of centuries of leverage, a civil war, regicide, and a revolution gave us responsible government: the monarch's Ministers now needed the support of Parliament to govern. But they were still the monarch's Ministers, and it was still (officially, at least) the monarch's Parliament.

This was reflected in today's ceremonies. The Governor-General, standing in for the monarch, summoned Parliament to attend him. He gave a speech, laying out the priorities of "my government". To modern sensibilities, this is simply absurd. It is not the monarch's government - it's the people's. Our ceremonies and procedures should reflect that.

In this day and age, it is inappropriate for the Governor-General to be giving a speech from the throne. The elected Prime Minister should be doing it. And it should be done standing up in the House, where it can be immediately debated. Elected Prime Ministers should not be addressing the people from a throne like an absolute monarch.

These traditions are unlikely to change as long as we are a monarchy. Which is just another reason to get rid of it and shift to a republic: so we can get the relationship between people, Parliament, and figurehead right.

"Improving the lives of New Zealanders"

In the speech from the throne today, the government announced its commitment to "improving the lives of New Zealanders". It's first way of doing this? Abusing urgency to strip new workers of employment protection by Christmas.

Whose lives will this improve? Certainly not ordinary New Zealanders who work for a living. They'll be forced to tug their forelock to their bosses, suck up to them and not complain about anything, join a union, or sign up for KiwiSaver, work whatever hours and overtime are demanded (on whatever "notice" is given), and bugger what it says in the contract for the first three months - or else they'll be out. The flow-on effect will be reduced wages, working conditions and job security for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Employers - and particularly bad, abusive employers - will do well out of it.

The conclusion? To National, "New Zealanders" equals "employers". The rest of us - the vast majority of us - don't count.

Worse, they'll be doing this under urgency, with no select committee stage and no real chance for debate. As I've pointed out before, this is not the way things are done in our democracy. Serious policy (and this is serious policy) gets serious consideration and public consultation through a select committee. You have to go back to the FPP-era and the Douglas-Richardson blitzkrieg to find real policy bills being rammed through in this way. Unfortunately, National seems to be taking its cues on how to behave from that era. They're autocrats, and so they govern autocratically. It will be interesting to see how much tolerance the public has for this sort of abuse, and whether they will pay a price for it in three years time.

Reinstatement motion

Also inthe Order Paper: the reinstatement motion. From the look of it, the government is reinstating everything; it can then quietly dump any bits of government business it doesn't want to pursue in a couple of weeks when no-one is paying attention. It also likely means that there will be no ballot until March at the earliest, as it will take a few member's days for the backlog of bills to work their way through the system.

Climate change: the review

The Order Paper is out, and it includes the details of Nationals' special climate change review committee. The good news? We got an all party committee, and the terms of reference no longer include a review of the basic science. The bad news: the rest of the terms of reference are completely unchanged, there is no deadline, and the committee has been stacked from the beginning, with National and its support parties having 7 seats out of 11 on the committee (compared to only 56% of the House), and slots reserved for Rodney Hide and Peter Dunne, two of Parliament's most retrograde MPs on this issue (Ministers sitting on a select committee is also a little odd - but they're clearly there by special request).

So, National's strategy will be "it will cost too much", "we should switch to a carbon tax" (another two years down the drain) or "we should wait and see what happens at Copenhagen" (which is exactly the argument they used 12 years ago when they dumped our first attempt at a carbon tax). Delay and diversion rather than denial, but the effects will be the same: rising emissions, a free ride for our worst polluters, and untold damage to our "clean and green" image and international reputation.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sworn in

Parliament has been sworn in (with Su'a William Sio swearing first in Samoan, then English), and Lockwood Smith has been elected Speaker and dragged to the chair. Tomorrow we have the official state opening and speech from the throne, then Parliament can finally get down to business. It will be very interesting to see what bills the government decides to reinstate, and what it puts up in its urgency motion.

Swearing in Samoan III

So far, I've focused on national identity (and the perceived "threat" to it) in my posts on why Su'a William Sio should be allowed to swear his oath of office in Samoan. But there is also a strong liberal argument in favour. The most basic principle of liberalism is the harm principle, expressed by John Stuart Mill as:

the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
So, how does someone being sworn in in Samoan harm people? How does it hurt me? The answer is that it doesn't, any more than people swearing on the Bible rather than affirming does. It doesn't even matter that I can't understand it - it's a ceremonial occasion, and everyone knows what they are saying anyway.

Neither (as alleged by some of DPF's sewer-dwellers) would it be some sort of "special right" for non-English speakers; instead it is the same right that Anglophone New Zealanders take for granted: the ability to conduct official business in the language of their choice. We recognise that right already to a large extent - a lot of government forms are translated into multiple languages to make them accessible to as many people as possible (see for example the range of information available for electoral enrolments). We should extend that principle to oaths and declarations as well.