Monday, August 31, 2009

Climate change: Finally reported back

The Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee has reported back [PDF] on their inquiry into the ETS. Highlights:

  • Every party but ACT agreed that the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report should guide policy and that any uncertainties were around how bad it was going to be (with a note that the worst case projections are already being realised).
  • Every party except ACT and the Maori Party supported an ETS in preference to a carbon tax.
  • The all-sectors, all-gases shape of the ETS was confirmed. In the case of agriculture, they specifically recommended placing the point of obligation on processors rather than at the farm gate, to reduce administrative and transaction costs.
  • They push direct regulation around energy efficiency, vehicle fuel economy, renewable energy and other "specific activities with high emissions", starting with a full analysis of US and EU measures. A step away from the free market ideology of a single, perfect market solution?
  • They do not consider "carbon leakage" - firms shifting pollution to pollution-friendly jurisdictions - to be likely on any significant scale (and yet, they support free allocation to polluters to prevent it - go figure).


  • They recommend a full regulatory impact analysis before any amendments to the ETS. Which means delay, which will in turn be used to justify pushing back entry dates.
  • The committee supported international trading, but "[t]here may also be good reason to limit international linkages in the short term while the New Zealand emissions trading market matures".
  • While they do not explicitly recommend a price-cap, they say that "a case can be made", and focus on conditions for one rather than in saying "this is a stupid idea". So, it looks like we'll be subsidising polluters even more than we are now.
  • The government and its allies recommend intensity-based allocation for industrial polluters without any cap. In English, this means that we provide free units to polluters according to the amount they pollute, and the more they pollute, the more they get. In other words, a direct subsidy for pollution. This is a straight-out wealth transfer, from ordinary taxpayers, to (mostly foreign) shareholders in polluting firms. This could easily cost us a billion dollars a year. But National's donors and cronies will be laughing all the way to the bank.
  • They say nothing about sectoral entry dates for electricity, industry, or transport, and cautiously sidesteps the topic on agriculture. There is no guidance on whether they think entry dates should be delayed, or brought forward.
  • The committee expects emissions to keep growing until 2045. Which tells us that policy simply isn't strong enough.

Minority reports:

  • Labour favours keeping the scheme generally as it is, with a stronger 2020 target.
  • The Greens favour strengthening the existing ETS and requiring the Auditor-General to report on wealth transfers due to the scheme.
  • ACT are still in deep denial.
  • The Maori Party opposes the ETS as ineffective. They oppose the proposed changes (price caps, pollution subsidies, restrictions on trading) as making it more so. They would prefer a high carbon tax instead (given that they may be called upon to support exactly those measures, you can see why they wanted that pulled).

And so now the negotiation begins. From the look of it, the government does not have a majority for the pro-polluter changes it wants. Which means the current ETS simply continues, with electricity and industry entering it in January next year. Given that they want to weaken it, that seems to be the best option available.

Some interesting rulings on select committees

Currently, the report of the Emissions Trading Review Committee is being suppressed by the government to enable its negotiations. On Thursday, Labour attempted to get the Speaker to intervene to force the release of the report. He declined, claiming that it was not a matter of the Order of the House. However, going through past Speaker's Rulings shows that he was simply wrong. Here's Speaker Statham, in 1935 (SR 88/3):

As soon as the chairperson of a committee is directed to make a report to the House it should be made with the least possible delay. If there is delay, the only course open to the House is to make an order calling upon the chairperson to present the report. The report should be presented to the House with all possible dispatch, unless there is some special reason for withholding it.
(Emphasis added).

So, the Speaker has jurisdiction, and the House can intervene to force publication. So, what counts as "all possible dispatch"? Here's Speaker Tapsell, in 1995 (SR 88/6):

A chairperson of a select committee must report to the House within a reasonable time of being directed to do so. This does not mean at once, or even at the first opportunity. Indeed, it is desirable to hold back a report for a few days so that the necessary preparations can be made to reprint the bill. A delay of about one week in reporting to the House is quite acceptable.
That seems to let the Committee off the hook - except that it was in 1995, when computers and software were nowhere near as advanced as they were today. With modern technology, committees should be reporting sooner, not later.

Finally, can the Committee chair (Peter Dunne) change the report to exclude the Maori Party's minority report? Here's Speaker Statham in 1934 (SR 89/1):

The chairperson of a select committee may not report to the House in any way other than that in which the chairperson is directed by the committee. If doubts arise as to what the chairperson was directed to report, the report should be deferred for the committee to meet again and clarify the position.
The committee agreed to publish minority reports submitted before a certain deadline. The Maori Party submitted their report before the deadline. It must therefore be published.

Unfortunately, the House is in recess, so there is no way of doing anything about this. But it seems clear that the Speaker should have ordered the publication of the report, and if the chairman refuses, he should be held in contempt.

Update: A reader has run some numbers on recent committee reports. Nowdays, almost all present their report on the first or second working day following the meeting at which it is agreed. So, Dunne is well outside the bounds of normal practice and acceptability in withholding this report.

New Fisk

The curious case of the missing Egyptian and the Swiss police

Climate change: And still delayed...

It's now Monday, and despite the Emissions Trading Review Committee having voted to release its report more than a week ago, it still has not been released to the public. According to the Herald, the government is now negotiating with other parties on the changes it wants to make, and the report seems to be being suppressed in the meantime to avoid making the government - or the Maori Party - look bad.

This is not how Parliament is supposed to operate. Select committees have a vital role in reviewing legislation and in holding government to account. While parties will often negotiate with each other about the contents of select committee reports, burying one after it has been released is unthinkable. Its a perfect example of the dangers of majority government, and why we need to ensure that our governments are hamstrung by dependence on multiple coalition partners, rather than being able to do whatever they want.

A seismic shift in Japan

Japan went to the polls yesterday in legislative elections, and the result has been an electoral earthquake. The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan practically uninterrupted for the past 55 years, has been thrown out of office. The Democratic Party, which has never been in government before, now has a Parliamentary majority and will choose the next Prime Minister.

Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama is calling this a "revolution", and in terms of overthrowing and shocking the establishment, he's not far wrong. OTOH, Japan has merely moved from a party with 30% hereditary politicians to one with only 10%. And to these eyes, that doesn't seem like that much of a difference.

The Kiwiblog right strikes again

Sue Bradford has been receiving death threats during the campaign around last weekend's smacking referendum. This sort of thuggery has absolutely no place in our political system, and I'd expect it to be condemned by people across the political spectrum. Strangely, though, DPF remains silent. I guess he doesn't want to upset his core readership...

(And to pre-empt the expected outrage: as I said last time, lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. If you don't want to be a byword for misogynistic thuggery, don't provide a home for it).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why I hate the Sensible Sentencing Trust

Because they say things like this:

Criminals who hold inmates or Corrections Staff to ransom should not be negotiated with according to a Victims Advocacy Organisation.

George Baker murdered Liam Ashley in 2006 and yesterday took a fellow inmate hostage; the standoff was successfully brought to an end after police negotiated with Baker.


“There were no safety concerns prison staff or anybody else so there were a number of ways this situation could have been brought to a conclusion.”

“This was just George Baker, a criminal with 83 previous convictions including murder home invasion robbery of an elderly woman, threatening to kill, aggravated robbery and serious assault. Bakers hostage was a convicted sex offender.”

“At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves if Baker had ended up killing himself or his hostage would they have been a loss to society.”

McVicar said the answer of course is a resounding – “NO”.

And there we have it: the lives of "crims" are valueless, and we shouldn't care what happens to them. They can be killed, or allowed to die, with impunity. Criminals are the new niggers.

It seems in this case, the monsters are outside the prisons.

Entrenched racism

In the run-up to the 2007 election, then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard decided to repeat his successful racial wedge tactics with Aborigines as the victims, declaring a "state of emergency" in Northern Australia, taking over townships, and suspending anti-discrimination laws so it could subject aborigines to authoritarian and paternalist controls on the basis of race. Now, James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of indigenous people, has pointed out the obvious: that this was fundamentally discriminatory. And he didn't mince his words in saying so:

“There is entrenched racism in Australia,” Anaya told reporters in the capital, Canberra, after visiting several Aboriginal townships in the past week. “These measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self determination and stigmatize already stigmatized communities.”
The Australian has more:
Compulsory income management and blanket bans on alcohol and pornography were "overtly discriminatory" and further stigmatised already stigmatised communities, he said.

"People who have a demonstrated capacity to manage their income are included.

"It's inappropriate to their circumstances but is also, as expressed by them, demeaning."

The indigenous rights expert was also scathing of federal Labor's insistence that housing funds would only flow if indigenous communities signed over their land.

"It's a mistake to assume that indigenous peoples ... aren't capable of taking care of their homes," Prof Anaya said.

"Indigenous control can be appropriate to indigenous peoples' development, to their aspirations, to indeed being in control of their lives like all others."

As for compensation for indigenous people taken from their families by government agencies, the UN rapporteur was unequivocal: "There should be reparations," he said.

That's a pretty stunning condemnation of a government we all expect to behave better. It will be interesting to see how the Rudd government, which has moved a long way from Howard's position, responds.

Climate change: Still delayed

Another day, and thanks to the Maori Party, there is still no report-back on the shape of the ETS. The reason for the Maori Party's discomfort is obvious: they voted against the ETS last year because it was too weak, and the changes National seems to want - notably a closed market and price cap - would be hugely disadvantageous to Maori, who have extensive forestry interests. It would also devalue several recent Treaty settlements, opening the door for their renegotiation. But having crawled into bed with the government, the screws are now on them to support it. According to Stuff, National has just delayed its response to the Foreshore and Seabed report, though it denies the decision is connected to the current wrangling. And if you believe that, there's some beer ads you should look at...

But what if the Maori party refuses to sell out its core constituency for the sake of the rich? Labour has already made clear what it thinks of the government's proposals, and the Greens are hardly likely to vote for an ETS weaker than the one they only grudgingly supported last year, which leaves ACT, the party of climate change denial. Which doesn't look like a good prospect either. Which means that if the government sticks to its plan, it will not have a majority to pass its preferred amendments.

National will try and spin this as a disaster for the environment. But remember, we already have an ETS, which looks to be far stronger than anything National is offering. The best thing for the climate, and for New Zealand, is to let it continue unchanged.

The farmers are going to love this

Nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") is a powerful greenhouse gas. As such, it is regulated under the Kyoto Protocol, and New Zealand must account (and if necessary, pay) for its emissions. But according to a piece in the Guardian today, its also a fairly nasty ozone depleter, which has become the "elephant in the room" of man-made, ozone-depleting chemicals. With the decline in CFCs thanks to the Montreal Protocol, it is now the largest ozone-depleting substance we produce, and scientists are calling for it to be brought into the Protocol regime and controlled.

Overseas, most nitrous oxide is produced by industrial processes. Here, it is mostly produced by two things: fertiliser use, and cowpiss. Farmers have reacted strongly to any efforts to make them pay for the damage they are doing to the global climate, and many have retreated into deep denial rather than admit that their actions have consequences. If international pressure to control nitrous oxide grows, I expect them to do the same. Ozone denial, anyone?

Not enough

According to the Herald this morning, the special select committee examining the government's "Supercity" legislation has decided against at-large election. That's a victory, but there's a catch: instead, they're proposing six urban wards, each the size of one of Auckland's existing cities, and each electing three councillors. As Brian Rudman points out, this is simply the same problem in miniature. Such large wards will not demarcate "communities of interest", and with such large areas and populations, are likely to attract a vast number of candidates - saturating the ballot again and giving an advantage to incumbents and those enjoying name recognition. Meanwhile, the voting system - the old FPP block vote - is one of the most unfair ones possible, giving total dominance to a small plurality.

This system isn't good enough for Palmerston North, let alone for our largest city. Yes, its an improvement on election-at-large, but not much of one. Individual wards would be much better. If multi-member constituencies are retained, then the only fair way to elect people from them is STV.

But its very clear from National's actions over this that they are not interested in fair elections in Auckland. Instead, they seem to think that democracy and proper representation are some form of hazard to economic growth (or at least, growth for the rich, which is the only sort they care about). But even if that were true, government, whether local or national, is about much more than mere economic growth. Most importantly, it is about legitimacy, making decisions that those represented can claim as theirs. And National's scheme simply does not provide that. Instead, its simply a tawdry power grab, an attempt to stack the system from the outset to silence the people and favour the rich. And Aucklanders should not accept it.

What the ban on gay adoption means

The Press this morning has a good piece on what the ban on gay adoption actually means: people not being legal parents of their own kids:

Canterbury University lecturer Dr Linda-Jean Kenix believes she and her long-term partner, Jennifer Kenix, have been left "in a [legal] black hole".

The couple have two children. Linda-Jean Kenix's biological son, aged 4, was born in the United States and legally adopted by Jennifer Kenix. However, the pair's daughter, aged 3, was born in New Zealand to Jennifer, meaning Linda-Jean Kenix could not adopt her.

"We can't [adopt] because we're here in New Zealand," Linda-Jean Kenix said.
This is simply insane. These people are a family, and Kenix is the child's parent in every way that matters. But thanks to a bigoted law, this cannot be legally recognised, threatening a hideous legal mess if anything bad happens. That's bad for families, its bad for children, and it simply denies the reality of gay parents. This law needs to change.

Update (2017): This post originally contained the names of the children concerned as part of the quote. It has been drawn to my attention that the Christchurch Press has removed these names out of concern for their privacy. On request from the subject of the article, I have updated the quote to the current version in the article.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Taxing the banks

The UK's financial regulator is finally advocating a serious solution to the problem of banker's bonuses: tax the crap out of them. The entire financial industry is, as he says, "socially useless", parasitical on the real economy, the few real and useful services it provides dwarfed by a core business of making money go round in circles (and somehow, making it grow with each iteration). This swollen financial sector then disrupts the real economy when its scams fall over, while massively increasing inequality and inflating bubbles for their own fun and profit. The solution?

He told Prospect: "If you want to stop excessive pay in a swollen financial sector you have to reduce the size of that sector or apply special taxes to its pre-remuneration profit. Higher capital requirements against trading activities will be our most powerful tool to eliminate excessive activity and profits.

"And if increased capital requirements are insufficient I am happy to consider taxes on financial transactions – Tobin taxes."

(Link added)

As the critics point out, Tobin taxes are supposedly difficult to implement without international agreement (not really, and to the extent that they reduce socially useless currency speculation, that is a Good Thing). But if that's the case, they can always tax bank profits directly. Financial speculation is a social bad, and I have no problem with taxing it at a higher rate than actually productive activity.

Old Fisk

Democracy will not bring freedom
From the crusaders on, contempt for the Arabs is written in stone
For the truth, look to Tehran and Damascus – not Tripoli

Climate change: Delayed

I spent most of yesterday waiting for the final report of the Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee, only for it not to appear. From the discussion in Parliament today, it seems the committee wrapped up its work and agreed on its report last week, but that its publication has been delayed by the machinations of one party (ACT?) which having submitted a minority report, is now trying to change it as it negotiates with the government. Meanwhile, debate on the most important policy issue of the year is being delayed while Rodney attempts to exercise his veto again.

David Parker tried to table the report today. He wasn't allowed to, and publicly releasing it would be a breach of privilege. Fortunately, the internet has a safe, anonymous solution to this: WikiLeaks. And the sooner it shows up there, the better.

Correction: It seems the party at fault is the Maori Party, who have hastily withdrawn their minority report. It would be very interesting to see the original.

More information thuggery

More information thuggery from the National Party, this time from Corrections Minister Judith Collins. She has volunteered the expenses claims of certain Corrections employees, claiming that they are enjoying a "jet-set lifestyle" at taxpayer's expense. These people just happen to be representatives for the Corrections Association, and their expenses are high because they are regularly required to travel to meetings with Corrections management to represent the union's position.

Collins thinks this is outrageous. I don't think so. If an employer wants an employee to turn up somewhere other than their normal place of work - at a meeting at the other end of the country, for example - they pay expenses. That is ordinary practice in the public sector, it is ordinary practice in the private sector, and it is ordinary practice for our politicians (Collins remember enjoys taxpayer-funded travel and accommodation so she can nominally live in her electorate while working in Wellington, and I believe that is perfectly fair, to the extent those expenses are reasonable and necessary rather than a pure scam like Bill English's housing).

Collins' real problem seems to be that Corrections is talking to the union (which she has identified as an impediment to her plans to turn prisons into zoos) at all. But this is required by their collective agreement, which demands consultation on certain issues. And its required because its a bloody good idea - you can't run a safe prison without the consent of the guards, and as people on the front line who must manage and face the risks of any policy changes, their opinions are absolutely invaluable. That consultation costs money, but it is well worth it - and the alternative would cost far more, in human rights claims by prisoners and death benefits to prison officers' families.

Digging up our natural heritage

Since coming into office, National has pursued an anti-environmental agenda, "suspending' the ETS and moving to gut the RMA. Now it is moving on to the next step: opening up our national parks for mining. In a speech to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee announced plans to review Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act 1991, on the basis that

Some of the areas within Schedule 4 are known to host significant potential for zinc, lead, copper, nickel, tin, tungsten and other metals.

The current inclusion of these highly prospective areas in Schedule 4 has potentially denied significant opportunity for economic benefit at both a national and regional level. I have directed Crown Minerals to undertake a strategic review to determine areas possessing significant mineral potential that, with the removal of the access prohibition provided by Schedule 4, could through responsible mining techniques contribute considerably to our prosperity.

So, what exactly is protected by Schedule 4? Starting from the top we have:
  • National parks managed under the National Parks Act 1980;
  • Nature and scientific reserves managed under the Reserves Act 1977;
  • Wilderness areas managed under the Reserves Act 1977 or the Conservation Act 1987;
  • Wildlife sanctuaries managed under the Conservation Act 1987;
  • Wildlife sanctuaries managed under the Wildlife Act 1953;
  • Wetlands protected under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance;
  • Specified ecological areas (predating the framework of the Reserves Act 1977)
  • Any islands around the Coromandel Peninsula and Hauraki Gulf held or managed by DoC, excluding the Mercury Islands;
  • Any Conservation land in the northern part of the Coromandel Peninsula;
  • Marine reserves;
  • Specified examples of the above (which seem redundant).
Lands listed in the schedule are subject to very tight restrictions on mining activity which basically prevent any mining at all. And rightly so. These are all areas of high conservation value, deserving of the highest level of protection. But Brownlee wants to dig them up to enrich the (mostly foreign) owners of a few large crony corporations.

This is our natural heritage he is talking about, the thing that makes us unique as a country, and which is the bedrock of our entire tourism industry. And Brownlee wants to turn it into a giant hole in the ground. If he wants to advance this, he's going to have a serious fight on his hands, and its not just going to be legislative. People have taken direct action to protect our heritage before - during the debate over Manapouri in the 70's, and over Coromandel in the early 90's - and they will do it again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

And the children of New Zealand breathe a sigh of relief, part II

John Key has announced that the government will not support John Boscawen's child-beating bill. Nice to see National on the side of right for once.

This neatly sidelines the poisonous sadists. Rather than dominating the conversation for the next eighteen months, they get a single howl of outrage in a few weeks time, after which we can forget about them. And good riddance.

Argentina decriminalises marijuana

The Argentinean Supreme Court has struck down some of the country's drug laws, ruling that it is unconstitutional to prosecute and punish private marijuana use:

The Argentine court ruled that: "Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state."

Supreme Court President Ricardo Lorenzetti said private behaviour was legal, "as long as it doesn't constitute clear danger".

"The state cannot establish morality," he said.

Its a solid, liberal decision, and one which has the support of the government. They're expected to pass amendments defining a personal possession threshold in the near future.

The full ruling is here, for those who read Spanish.

Lying with impunity

Earlier in the month, my OIA excavations revealed that the Prime Minister had lied to Parliament when answering questions on his cycleway. Asked

What analysis did Treasury do on the cost-effectiveness of the national cycleway scheme in producing jobs, and is he prepared to provide the Treasury analysis, oral and written, to members of this Parliament; if not, why not?
Key replied "Rigorous analysis was done" - an answer his own Chief of Staff later admitted was strictly false and implicitly misleading [PDF]. Key's lie became the subject of a complaint of Breach of Privilege, and the Speaker has now ruled on it. Unfortunately, his ruling [PDF] leaves a lot to be desired, notably by creating a new standard requiring that words misleading the House must have been delivered "in a situation of some formality" and not merely in Question Time. Given that Question Time is the opportunity for Parliament (which in practice means the opposition) to hold the government to account, this seems to give Ministers carte blanche to lie with impunity. Secondly, while explaining the framework guiding his decision, he did not actually give a reason for it or explain which of the limbs he was relying of in dismissing the complaint. Was it too informal, trivial, or both? Basic standards of open government require reasons to be given so that those reasons can be scrutinised (and, where necessary, subjected to review). The Speaker - an MP from a different, less accountable era - has failed on that basic test.

As for the substance, unlike the Speaker, I believe it is a serious matter when the Prime Minister attempts to mislead the House, whether deliberately or casually. The ability (and custom) of the PM to lie his way out of tricky questions brings not just the House, but our entire political system into disrepute. As we're seeing in the UK, spin and lies destroy public faith in politics. By failing to demand a high standard of behaviour from Ministers, the Speaker has failed our democracy today. And we are all the losers.

"Events dear boy, events"

That was UK PM Harold Macmillan's response to someone asking what is most likely to blow governments off course - and thanks to the drawing of John Boscawen's Crimes (Reasonable Parental Control and Correction) Amendment Bill, we are likely to see a perfect example of this. Like it or not, the government is now going to spend the next year to eighteen months bogged down in a rehash of the debate over child-beating, pitting the empirical evidence of child advocates and health experts against the knee-jerk stupidity of the uninformed and the hate of Christian fanatics (who feel that the bill does not go far enough because it rules out using weapons such as wooden sppons, belts and horsewhips). That was bad enough the first time, and it'll be even worse now. Really, can't these bigots just piss off back to Alabama where they belong?


Thanks to the postponement of Charles Chauvel's Credit Reforms (Responsible Lending) Bill, a ballot for member's bills was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Crimes (Reasonable Parental Control and Correction) Amendment Bill (John Boscawen)

Well, that'll really put the cat among the pigeons.

There were three "new" bills in the ballot today: Darien Fenton's Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill, and Roger Douglas' Parole (Truth in Sentencing) Amendment Bill, and Kennedy Graham's Climate Change (New Zealand Superannuation Fund) Bill. All have been in the ballot before (Douglas' bill as far back as 2005), and all have previously been covered in "In the ballot".

Next member's day is 9 September.

Catching up: The referendum

So, the child-beating referendum has had its expected result: an overwhelming "no" vote on a marginal turnout. I have just two words to say to all of you who voted "no":

Fuck you.

You may have won the vote, but that doesn't make you right. Anyone who believes that violence against children is either necessary or acceptable is simply a monster. Anyone who thinks its fine because they were beaten as a child "and it didn't do me any harm" is simply stupid. Any dead people who feel their parenting style is implicitly being criticised are exactly right, and should get the fuck over themselves. The old law treated children as property, provided legal cover for extreme violence against children. The new one treats them as people, removes that cover, and sends a powerful social message that any violence is not acceptable. To some extent that message is redundant - the use of smacking has dropped precipitously, as today's parents reject the brutal methods of the past. But that does not protect the children of the hard-core child beaters who organised this referendum, the people who believe in faeries or devils or other bullshit and think they need to beat their delusions out of their children. Those children need our protection now, and it is absolutely the business of the state to protect them.

What this vote shows is that there's an awful lot of you monsters out there. Fortunately, you're dying out. And our country will be a much better place for children when you are gone.

A bad idea

Currently the government is planning a massive expansion of its DNA database with the Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Amendment Bill. Meanwhile, faced with a similar policy of mass databasing and DNA fishing in the UK, Charles Stross explains why its a bad idea. The short version:

  1. The database will be a big, fat target for every hacker on the planet, and police are constitutionally incapable of proper computer security;
  2. It is already possible for anyone with basic equipment and skills to whip up unlimited quantities of DNA for a particular sequence.

Together these suggest a nightmare scenario of corrupting the database and/or framing people (and the more ubiquitous the database is, the greater the incentives and ability to do either). On the plus side, this will eventually make such databases practically useless, just another part of the Net Of A Million Lies. But the process of learning that lesson is going to involve deep unpleasantness for some people, and almost certainly some innocent people going to jail on evidence that is no longer as cast iron as it is believed to be.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Not taking the hint

Back in June, the Speaker of the Samoan Parliament attempted to unseat nine opposition MPs on the basis that they were planning to form a new political party. The decision was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that there was no actual party yet, but that has not deterred the government. Now they have introduced an Electoral Amendment Bill preventing independent MPs from joining or associating themselves with any organisation with "political aims" during the Parliamentary term. The aim is specifically to prevent those opposition MPs from planning to run under a unified banner in the 2011 elections - in other words, to further tilt the scales in Samoa's stacked political system further towards the ruling Human Rights Protection Party.

This is an explicitly anti-democratic goal. Fortunately, if passed, it is likely to be overturned. Unlike New Zealand, Samoa has constitutional sovereignty with a bill of rights embedded in its constitution as supreme law. And during the earlier case, the Supreme Court dropped some pretty heavy hints that it thought that anti-party-hopping legislation violated the freedom of association affirmed in the Samoan constitution. What worries me is that the HRPP will not care. The current bill is itself an attempt to overturn the court's ruling, and they may very well try to amend the constitution to reinforce their position (in the name of "stability", of course) if defeated again. This is a party with a tremendous sense of entitlement to power, which no longer seems to accept democratic norms. And when that is happening in a close neighbour, it should concern us all.

A special prosecutor for torture

The US Attorney-General has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate, and if necessary prosecute, torture by the CIA during the war on terror.

Good. It's not justice, not yet - we'll only get that when the full story of the CIA's crimes is told, and those responsible convicted and jailed - but its the first step. As for Republicans' concerns that this could have a "chilling effect" on similar activities by the CIA, Cthulhu forbid that the CIA should ever be discouraged from behaving illegally, immorally, and in violation of US and international law. Cthulhu forbid they should fear prosecution when they waterboard people, threaten to kill their children or rape their mothers, subject them to mock executions, or otherwise torture them. Why, then they might be required to act like decent human beings, rather than sadistic Nazis.

My concern here is not that this goes too far, but that it does not go far enough. The prosecutor should not just be looking at the CIA - they should be looking at the politicians who crafted the policy and gave the orders, and who therefore enjoy command responsibility for what was done. The only way torture will end is if those scumbags - people like Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and Alberto Gonzales - are properly held to account.

Doing something right

Education is a subject of permanent public angst, and the conversation around it seems to paint New Zealand's education system as a failure. But a reader has pointed me at a graph which shows we're doing something right: New Zealand has one of the highest rates of top performing science students in the OECD:

And its not just science. Browsing the report this is based on (Top of the Class - High Performers in Science in PISA 2006 [PDF]), it seems that New Zealand is also very good at producing top readers (we rank third), and well in the top half of the OECD on mathematics (ranking 8th). So why the angst?

Reported back

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Amendment Bill. The bill would empower the police to forcibly take DNA samples from anyone arrested for an imprisonable offence, without any judicial oversight whatsoever. National's own Attorney-General thinks it is a gross violation of the right against unreasonable search and seizure, and to that I'd also add the preumption of innocence as well. The aim of the bill is to allow the police to build up a larger and larger database of profiles - including those of people who have been acquitted, and those of completely innocent people who have given them "voluntarily" after police intimidation - so as to go on fishing expeditions. And sadly, the Committee endorsed this, saying that expecting the police to go to a judge everytime they wanted to forcibly stick a needle in someone's arm or a swab in someone's mouth to gain extremely personal information would be "inconvenient". Instead, they think that the police's general requirement to respect the rights affirmed in the BORA is sufficient to ensure that these new powers are not abused. Yeah, right.

(Though what this does mean is that any police abuse can be dealt with by the courts, and this may result in cases being thrown out where they rely on DNA samples taken in breach of the BORA. But I prefer to put a fence at the top of the cliff rather than a hugely expensive and inconvenient ambulance at the bottom).

This authoritarian bill is massively out of step with international human rights law and police practice. Every other country in the world requires strong judicial safeguards around the taking of DNA. The UK police have just been told by the European Court of Human Rights that they cannot retain the DNA of innocent people. Meanwhile, we're moving in the opposite direction, towards more invasive powers and less police accountability. So much for being a human rights leader.

Drinking Liberally in Wellington this Thursday

Drinking Liberally is on again in Wellington this Thursday, with guest speaker David Shearer on his experiences overseas, and on the campaign trail in Mt Albert, and how he intends on applying lessons he has learned to his time in Parliament.

When: 17:30, Thursday 27th August
Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith St, Wellington.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Auckland for the weekend.

Back Monday.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


The Justice and Electoral Committee has called for submissions (not online yet) on the Crimes (Provocation Repeal) Amendment Bill. Two copies, by Monday, 31 August, to:

Justice and Electoral Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
The bill repeals the partial defence of provocation. If you need to be convinced why this is a good idea, read Kevin Hague's speech on it here.

Making a submission is as easy as writing a letter saying that you support or oppose the bill and stating the reasons why. If you need help, the Office of the Clerk has a handy guide here [PDF].


The usual ballot for member's bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Credit Reforms (Responsible Lending) Bill (Charles Chauvel)
  • Climate Change (Government Vehicle Procurement) Bill (Kennedy Graham)
  • Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (Roger Douglas)

Chauvel's bill has been previously covered here and here. The other two have been covered in "In the ballot" here and here.

There were two new bills in the ballot this week: Catherine Delahunty's Human Rights (Disability Commissioner) Amendment Bill, and Rahui Katene's New Zealand Order of Merit (Modernisation of Titular Titles) Bill (which sounds awfully familiar). The full list is on Red Alert here, and should be appearing on the Parliamentary website later in the day.

I should have another "In the ballot" post next week to fill in some of the final gaps.

Time for a new Adoption Act

The Herald highlights a speech [PDF] yesterday by Acting Principal Family Court Judge Paul von Dadelszen in which he calls for a complete review of the Adoption Act 1955. The Judge points out that the Act was drafted in a different era, where "stranger" adoptions were the norm, adoption was seen as a "clean break" with no contact with birth parents, and only straight married couples were seen as suitable parents. But society has changed significantly since then, and none of these assumptions are true any more. Today, most adoptions are legal confirmations of existing family relationships (e.g. step-parent adoptions), open adoptions are common, and other forms of relationship are generally on an equal footing. The old Act hasn't just failed to keep pace with the times - it violates fundamental legal norms against discrimination, breaching the BORA, Human Rights Act and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in eleven different ways.

Von Dadelszen calls for the Families Commission to conduct a complete review of the Act to bring it into the new millennium, remove discrimination, and allow same-sex, de facto and wider whanau adoption. Somewhat predictably, the Herald focuses on the same-sex angle, ignoring the real issues raised in the rest of the speech (though they do also talk about Kevin Hague's Adoption (Equity) Amendment Bill which is currently in the ballot). But its a bigger issue than that, and Hague's bill, while necessary, would solve only part of the problem. Von Dadelszen is right that the law needs a complete review. But I'm not sure that the Families Commission, with its recent high-profile bigot appointments, is the best body to do it. Over on Red Alert, Lianne Dalziel argues that the job should go to the Law Commission, who have previously looked at law in this area (giving us the Care of Children Act 2004).In the long-term, I think that is the best way to go. In the short-term, however, the need to end discrimination is pressing. If Hague's bill is drawn from the ballot today, then it should be passed. The attitudes behind the Adoption Act are those of the 50's, and its time we moved into the modern era.

Holding the government to ransom

So, after just nine months, Rodney Hide is holding the government to ransom, threatening to resign as Local Government Minister (undermining their confidence and supply agreement) if Auckland gets its own Maori seats. Which just goes to show that ACT are a) rabid zealots; and b) Do Not Play Well With Others. Like National, they're just not used to the ongoing requirement to work with others and consequent need to compromise under MMP; they see coalition management as a one-round rather than multi-round game, and hence as an exercise in power politics rather than an ongoing relationship where there is give and take. Which makes them very poor partners for any government wanting coalition and policy stability.

But in addition to that, they simply can't count - National also has confidence and supply from the Maori Party, which gives them the freedom to tell Rodney to go take a hike (and they'd probably gain public support by doing so). After all, what is ACT going to do - vote against right-wing policy purely out of spite? Actually, given their poor grasp of MMP so far and their ideological purism, I wouldn't be at all surprised...

But what really worries me is that if ACT are willing to go nuclear over something as minor as Maori seats in Auckland, what are they going to do over an issue they really care about, like the ETS? Will they be threatening to pull the plug on the government over that as well? And if so, will we see climate change policy held hostage by a tiny minority of rabid deniers, against the wishes of the vast majority of New Zealanders?

Auckland privatisation goes down

Tonight Phil Twyford's Local Government (Protection of Auckland Assets) Amendment Bill was defeated, 58 - 64. But while it has been voted down, the bill still succeeded in part by putting the issue of local body privatisation on the agenda and forcing the government to debate it. And given the public response, this issue is not going to go away. as I noted earlier, there are other ways to feed this cat, and we can expect to see it back on the agenda soon.

As for National, their refusal to protect Auckland's assets makes clear their desire to sell those assets to their cronies. Be afraid - be very afraid.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Climate change: Forestry is the key

Two weeks ago the government released a strapped chicken report from the NZIER purporting to show that action on climate change was too expensive. The report was notable for ignoring our biggest source of emissions reductions, forestry, despite noting evidence from MAF that a carbon price of $20 per ton (a fifth of what they were projecting) could induce up to 100,000 hectares per year of new planting.

I was interested in this estimate, so I dug into it with the OIA. It comes from a briefing note from MAF titled New Forest Planting and harvesting Intentions under High Carbon prices [PDF], which summarises the results of two MAF-funded research projects, one by the University of Canterbury School of Forestry and the other by Scion. Both reports reached similar conclusions: that putting a price on carbon enormously increases the profitability of forestry, resulting in more tree planting and longer rotations, even when carbon prices are expected to rise. MAF has found it difficult to predict planting rates in the past (mainly because its an exercise in predicting commodity prices), but a low carbon price of $20 /ton would push forestry rates of return above the 10%, which they expect to push planting rates back to the 90's peak of 100,000 hectares a year (higher carbon prices are unlikely to produce much planting beyond this due to resource constraints). This in turn would have a significant effect on our net position between 2018 and 2030, and an even larger one in 2050, when the government is supposed to meet its lax 50% reduction target.

But there's a sticking point: their past work has led MAF to believe that farmers are not economically rational actors about land-use decisions and that their decisions are "suboptimal". In addition, there are uncertainties around the future value of credits and whether there will be a market for them at all (something which will only have been heightened by the government's wobbling on climate change and its talk of price caps and closed markets), as well as a general lack of information on (and proven examples of) the costs and benefits of carbon trading. Which together adds up to market failure. Solving this market failure is the key to reducing our emissions in the short-term.

So how do we do it? One part - providing information on costs and benefits - is easy enough, and bread and butter for government departments. The core problem is the uncertainty. And that uncertainty is entirely political in nature. If the government wants to reduce it, they need to stop pandering to the deniers and the do-nothings and commit clearly and unequivocally to implementing the ETS and retaining it regardless of whether there is any international agreement. They also need to commit to an open carbon market, so forest-owners can command high prices offshore, rather than trying to keep carbon prices artificially low by locking that credit within New Zealand. But sadly, that might just be too much to expect from National.

A beat-up on smacking

The Herald breathlessly reports that both sides of the anti-smacking debate are flouting the referendum spending-limit by "disowning" their allies:

Larry Baldock, the Kiwi Party leader who initiated the petitions to hold the referendum, said yesterday his $50,000 radio advertising campaign for a "No" vote was not part of the official "Vote No" campaign.

"I haven't been promoting the 'Vote No' site or the 'Vote No' coalition," he said.

And Green MP Sue Bradford, whose bill banning the use of physical force for correction sparked Mr Baldock's petitions, said a party leaflet on "Why we're voting yes" was nothing to do with the "Yes Vote" campaign.

"We are not part of that coalition," she said.

"When we did our recent Green Party leaflet on the topic, we were very careful to keep the 'Yes Vote' off it."

Both sides appear to be deliberately risking the $20,000 maximum fine for breaching the $50,000 limit on each side of the campaign around a citizen-initiated referendum, which covers the full year up to the close of voting on Friday.

The Herald's problem of course is that it insists on framing the issue as being about "sides". But the law does not regulate "sides" in a referendum, for pretty obvious reasons. It regulates persons, which means natural persons (like me) and legal persons (like Family First). And provided everyone sticks a promoter statement on their advertising during the 21-day voting period and submits a return, then they are entitled to spend up to $50,000 each. There's no suggestion that Baldock or the Greens are failing to do this, and so no suggestion they are breaking the law. The Herald's story is simply a beat-up.

Members day

Today is a member's day, with another four bills up for first reading. A local bill - the Eden Park Trust Amendment Bill - may delay things, but only for a little while; they've already agreed to handle it as one debate and it will whizz through. Which leaves the House to get on with the interesting business.

First up is Rahui Katene's Te Rā o Matariki Bill/Matariki Day Bill. This needs the support of either National or ACT to go to select committee, but based on the debate three weeks ago, both oppose it. Looks like crawling into bed with National doesn't get the Maori Party any respect then.

The main event will be Phil Twyford's Local Government (Protection of Auckland Assets) Amendment Bill, which attacks the government on a core area of weakness: privatisation. It will fail, of course - National's donors and cronies are already rubbing their hands together with glee at the thought of stealing Auckland's family silver in corrupt sales - but in the process it will have highlighted the issue (which is one thing a good member's bill does). There's more than one way to skin this cat, and given the desire of Aucklanders to protect their assets from National's fie-sale, we can expect the others to be tried in short order.

Sue Bradford's Social Security (Benefit Review and Appeal Reform) Amendment Bill should also get its first reading, and the House should make a start on Kennedy Graham's International Non-Aggression and the Lawful Use of Force Bill. Which means there will be a ballot for at least two, and probably three bills tomorrow.

Provocation repeal advances

The Crimes (Provocation Repeal) Amendment Bill was up for first reading yesterday, but thanks to the urgent debate on the SAS deployment, I was not expecting it to go through. Turns out I was wrong - the government interrupted its business at around 9 to deal with it, and the bill passed its first reading with unanimous support. It will now go to the Justice and Electoral select committee, who will report it back in October. The bill should become law by the end of the year.

Taking Rodney at his word

Tonight on Campbell Live, John Campbell did a piece on Phil Twyford's Local Government (Protection of Auckland Assets) Amendment Bill, which comes before the House tomorrow. The bill would protect Auckland's estimated $28 billion of public assets from privatisation by requiring any sale to be approved by a referendum. Campbell put the Minister of Local Government, Rodney Hide, on the spot over the bill, his comments on privatisation and his commitment to local democracy. Hide said he objected to the bill "because it only applied to Auckland", rather than across the entire country.

A cynic would say that this was his attempt to weasel out of telling his own voters that they shouldn't be allowed to control the fate of their own assets, but I prefer to take Rodney at his word. It would be a trivial matter to tweak Twyford's bill to apply to all local authorities, rather than just those in Auckland. In fact, if Rodney grants leave, then the select committee can be instructed to amend the bill in the fashion he desires. Otherwise, a new bill can be introduced through the normal ballot process - but having committed so publicly to protecting all local authority assets from privatiastion, I'm sure Hide wouldn't want to wait. Especially when doing so would make him look like a liar...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Goff on Afghanistan

Phil Goff's full speech on Afghanistan has now been posted on Red Alert. The key bit;

The values of the current Afghan Government also reflect religious and cultural beliefs that most of us would find it hard to sacrifice New Zealand lives to defend.

In the last week it was announced that the Afghan Government had made it lawful for a man to starve his wife into submission. Sharia law also allows a person to be executed for changing their religion.

Nor am I keen to sacrifice the lives of New Zealanders for a narco-state that provides 93% of the world’s opium production, enriching warlords and government figures, and a state which suffers from endemic corruption.

Again, its good to see hes been listening.

Debating Afghanistan

Parliament is currently having an urgent debate on the SAS deployment to Afghanistan. From the look of it, the entire National front bench, and most of their back-bench, are absent.

Shows how much they are interested in democracy.

(Oh, and Goff just said outright: he does not think New Zealand should be propping up with combat troops a corrupt narco-state which allows a man to starve his wife to death for refusing to have sex with him, and which jails people for apostasy and blasphemy. Nice of him to join the party, but shouldn't the same argument apply to the Provincial Reconstruction Team as well?)

Update: Sod it - instant liveblog:

(Speakers missed: Keith Locke, Murray McCully)

Hone Harawira: "Afghanistan is not our war, and the SAS should not be going". The US strategy is "based on overwhelming and indiscriminate firepower" which unnecessarily kills civilians. "Why would we want to be part of that"? Fighting in Afghanistant invites retaliation by terrorists. "Again, do we really want to be part of that"? This is a war against innocent people. Supports civil aid and the PRT, but not a combat role.

(ACT don't seem to be there either. Or Peter Dunne. Guess they don't care about the prospect of sending NZ troops overseas to fight and die in an immoral war either)

Jim Anderton: Acknowledges his party's messy history on Afghanistan, and has changed his mind. In 2002 supported combat role "because the situation there presented a clear and present threat to the civilised world". But things have changed; now the combat forces are taking sides in "feudal infighting". Supports continued presence of PRT, as it is effective and consistent with our values. Does not support a combat role.

Wayne Mapp: Waves the flag. Praises the troops. Hides behind the guy with the VC. Key question is what role we should play. Need to remember the reason NZ went to Afghanistan in the first place: to fight Al Qaeda. Need to deal with the sources of terrorism. Claims falsely that operation has UN sanction (but that sanction is specifically for the reconstruction effort, not America's dirty little war). Aim is to "prevent the country reverting to Taliban control" (So, he actually thinks that the US can win where the UK, Russia, and everyone else has lost before). Need to reconstruct country, train police etc to build a stable Afghanistan in the long-term (which is obviously why we are withdrawing the PRT which does these things and replacing them with killers). Actually uses the term "surge". Acknowledges that New Zealnders expect to see an improvement in the next 12 months, but does not say what will happen if there is no improvement. Scaremongers with threat of terrorists in Afghanistan threatening the world. Claims that deployment protects "ourselves and our values".

Pete Hodgson: Attacks government for refusing to give reasons for its decision or set aside time in Parliament for it to be debated (this urgent debate was allowed by the Speaker). McCully claimed deployment "was in the best interests of New Zealand and New Zealanders", highlighting that kiwis "stay in hotels all around the world" and that one had recently been killed in Indonesia. Hodgson thinks this gets things backwards - terrorism has spread from Afghanistan and gone global. Labour decided not to redeploy SAS and focus on reconstruction in response to this fact. Everyone agrees PRT is doing a great job - so why run it down? Attacks process, highlighting that last three deployments (Gulf war I, Timor Leste and Afghanistan) have all been specifically debated in Parliament (and last time they even got to vote on it). National has refused to debate its policy in the House, and Prime Minister will not stand up and say why he is sending kiwi troops into danger. Also concerned about international pressure. Highlights Key's past comments that New Zealand was "missing in action in Iraq". Says no kiwi blood should be spilt in the name of a free trade agreement. Says our foreign policy must be independent and decided here, not overseas. Speech cut short by the bell; debate ends.

And that's it - one hour, no vote, and the Prime Minister refuses to front up to say why he is risking people's lives. One of the most important decisions a country can make, and the government refuses to front up on it. Our democracy should be better than this. Its time we legislated to require all future military deployments to be debated and voted on by Parliament.

New Fisk

Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme

Reported back

The Local Government and Environment Committee has reported back [PDF; large] on the Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Bill. The bill is the first part of the government's plan to gut the RMA and remove local voices from planning decisions. And unfortunately it still does that. While there have been a number of minor amendments, the key provisions of the bill to reduce notifications, massively increase ministerial call-ins, and generally replace elected and accountable local officials with unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Wellington have been retained. One positive note is that the government's plans for a chainsaw massacre of protected trees in urban areas have been delayed by three years. But that's about all we get. Otherwise its developers uber alles and all hands to the bulldozers.

In reviewing the select committee report, I noticed two particularly awful clauses I hadn't noticed before. The new definition of a "project of national significance" includes the following:

(j) relates to a network utility operation that extends or is proposed to extend to more than 1 district or region.
So Transpower gets its own clause to help it bypass local opposition and ram the pylons through. But the definition of network utility operation also includes roads - so the government will get to call in any significant roading project and be judge in its own case. The latter is a fundamental breach of basic principles of justice, which fatally undermines the legitimacy of such decisions from the outset. We can simply have no confidence in a "consent" granted by such a mockery of a process. But it gets worse, because there's also this:
(h) will assist the Crown in fulfilling its public health, welfare, security, or safety obligations or functions
The select committee report is quite clear about what this is intended to apply to: prisons. People quite rightly object to these, and so the government's "solution" is to make the decision around the Cabinet table and impose it by monarchical fiat. This is Muldoonism, pure and simple. And we should not accept it.


Pundit's Tim Watkin on the small-poppy syndrome, "our knee-jerk meanness towards those at the bottom of life's heap".

Why people don't trust the police

Because of incidents like this. Complain about a police assault, get your friend charged as leverage and to undermine the credibility of the complaint. It's another reminder of how power corrupts, and of the need for an pro-active, independent body to investigate complaints and keep the police in line, rather than the underfunded, institutionally compromised one we have at present. But the most disturbing bit is this:

As it turned out, our friend was more than willing to comply with the “usual processing”, such as formal mugshots and fingerprinting, but had refused to dress up and stand particular ways for photographs in her cell, that had been requested by in her words “3 big men threatening me”. She was told she wouldn’t be released from custody unless she complied with the unreasonable requests. When she asked what law they were supposedly doing all this under, one supposedly said “under section… I’ll have to go find out”.
Clearly the spirit of Clint Rickards is alive and well in the Auckland police. And with one of their own now in charge of monitoring them, there is little chance of it being exorcised.

In the ballot XXIX

Another batch of Member's Bills currently in the ballot. Previous batches are indexed here:

Education (Kōhanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa Māori, and Early Childhood Standards) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell): This would amend the Education Act 1989 to recognise Kōhanga Reo in legislation and require the Minister of Education to consult with Te Runanga Nui when designating schools as Kura Kaupapa Māori. It would also weaken regulatory standards around licensed early childhood services to the level of "guidelines" to "better allow innovation", which sounds like a generally bad idea - though without a full copy of the bill, I am unable to judge how bad, or which exact regulations they wish to weaken.

Resource Management (Enhancement of Iwi Management Plans) Amendment Bill (Nanaia Mahuta): This would amend the RMA to give greater weight to iwi management plans. Currently regional councils and territorial authorities must take such documents into account when preparing their regional policy statements and district plans. The bill would strengthen that to "recognise and provide for", a technical change which imposes greater obligations without making consistency an over-riding concern. By front-loading consistency into the planning documents, the bill aims to reduce the overall number of objections to consents.

The bill would also encourage local authorities to include a statement of resource management issues of concern to local iwi in their plans, just as for regional councils. Nothing prevents them from doing this at the moment - its arguably covered by s75(2)(a) and the catchall of 75(2)(h) - but mentioning it explicitly in legislation encourages them to do so, rather than ignoring them.

Te Ture Whenua Maori Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei): The Green Party's response to the Foreshore and Seabed Act review, this bill would repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 in its entirety, and amend the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993/Maori Land Act 1993 to prevent the Maori Land Court from issuing a vesting order (converting Maori customary land to freehold title) over foreshore, seabed, or lake and river beds. The net result is to restore the right of access to the courts removed by the Foreshore and Seabed Act, allowing iwi and hapu ownership to be recognised where appropriate, but preventing subdivision and onselling. It's a far less complicated unravelling than the Maori Party's offering, and I'm not sure if it will be enough. I'm also unsure about the ban on vesting orders; while various Maori groups have said they want their mana recognised and have no intention of onselling any land gained, an actual ban in legislation discriminates on the basis of race, in that Pakeha owners of foreshore - and there are a few - face no such prohibition. While I don't want to see any further privatisation of the foreshore, IMHO this would be better dealt with through a settlement process rather than by enacting another discriminatory law.

As usual, I'll have more bills as I acquire them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Climate change: An illustration

How unfair is the government's plan to cap the price of carbon? Here's an illustration. Holcim has just been granted resource consent to build a major new cement plant in Oamaru. The plant would produce about 900,000 tons of cement a year. In the process, it is estimated to produce about a million tons of CO2 a year. So, for every dollar by which the cap is below the market price of carbon, we'll be giving Holcim's foreign owners about a million dollars a year. According to Treasury, the current price of carbon is around $22/ton. So, if the government caps the price at a sub-market $10 / ton, then Holcim will be getting $12 million a year in pure profit gouged out of kiwi taxpayers as an environmental subsidy.

This exercise can be repeated for every large industrial polluter. Methanex, New Zealand Refining, Contact Energy, Rio Tinto, New Zealand Steel... add it up, and we're looking at around $4 million per dollar for the industrial sector, $6 million per dollar for the manufacturing and construction sector, $1 million per dollar for oil refining, $2 million per dollar for the coal and gas industry's fugitive emissions, and $14 million per dollar for the oil companies. Per dollar. When you start multiplying it by the $10 - $15 per ton subsidy the major polluters want to continue polluting, then you're looking at $250 - $400 million a year - around the cost of running the court system - straight into the pockets of our major polluters' foreign owners.

In other words, we are looking at a major redistribution of wealth from the people of New Zealand to rich foreigners, in the form of a subsidy for pollution. And that simply is not fair. The only fair way of allocating the cost is for polluters to pay the full cost of their activities. And if that drives them out of business, then they were never really profitable in the first place.

(The above assumes a cap lower than current prices, but the same logic applies regardless of where the cap is set. If its needed, then by definition the market price is higher, which means we are artificially subsidising the profits of polluters by whatever the difference is. As carbon prices are expected to rise, any cap is likely to become the same sort of running sore on the government's books that production subsidies to farmers were up until they were done away with in the mid-80's).

Hurricanes are like buses

You wait ages and ages for one, then three come along at once:


(Image stolen from the current map on the NHC; Ana has weakened since last night)

The return of beneficary-bashing

Last year, we elected a National-led government to power. And as surely as night follows day, this has led to a return to the ugly beneficiary-bashing we saw from them during the 90's. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has ordered WINZ to audit the benefits of everyone receiving more than $1,000 a week, taking care of course to insinuate that these people are dishonest:

Ms Bennett said she could not guarantee that all of those getting more than $1000 a week were entitled to all the money. She had no impression that the system was being abused, but said checks were needed.
Bennett's dogwhistle is already having the desired result down in the sewer: the usual outpouring of rage and hate against those at the bottom of the heap. In a recession when the government should be doing everything it can to help those in need, it is instead working hard to stigmatise, denigrate, victimise and other them for its own political gain. But then, I'd expect nothing less from a party which laughs at the disabled.

The Herald and the sewer are highlighting the fact that "many among the top 50 have more than eight children". That's not surprising. Firstly, poking around with table-builder shows that (as of the 2006 census) around 2.6% of New Zealand women had had six or more children. These people are subject to the same vicissitudes of fate as any other family - they can lose their jobs and suffer from relationship breakups - and when they do WINZ assists them, just as it does for anyone else. Secondly, benefits are nominally assigned by need, which means more help (e.g. childcare subsidies, OSCAR subsidies, family tax credits) is available for large families. You would therefore expect such families to predominate in any ranking by income. The sewer sees this as an excuse to take cheap shots at the "feckless poor". But those children exist, and their need is real (TVNZ last night highlighted an IRD study which estimated it cost $250,000 to raise a child in New Zealand). If we want them to have any chance of a decent life (rather than creating or perpetuating multi-generational poverty), they need to be provided for. What exactly are the right proposing here? Denying assistance to those whose need is greatest? Leaving people to starve? That's not a solution acceptable in any decent society, and it would worsen our social problems, not reduce them.

Climate change: Utter madness

That's the only way to describe the government's secret proposal to cap the price of carbon and ban overseas sales of credits. The government's reason for this is twofold: it would align our scheme with Australia's, and it would give polluters certainty about the costs they face. But New Zealand faces different challenges from Australia, and that "certainty" would come at the cost of a massive subsidy for pollution from the taxpayer, either because we are forced to buy credits on the international market to on-sell at much lower prices, or in the form of forgone sales. Either way, taxpayers will be subsidising the profits of polluters by picking up some of their costs. And that is neither right nor fair.

As Jeanette Fitzsimons points out, it is also unlikely to decrease emissions. Report after report after report has told us that the key to reducing our net emissions lies in planting trees. They've also suggested that that will happen without much need for intervention if forest-owners can expect a high price for their carbon. But getting that high price requires no price cap and access to the international market. The government's proposal is a good way to ensure that those trees are never planted, and that our emissions continue to rise. Its a deliberately counterproductive policy. But National's polluting donors and cronies will do very well out of it - and that is all they care about.

What we're fighting for in Afghanistan

So, just after the government announces that it will be sending the SAS to Afghanistan to die for America, we learn that the country's Shia family law - officially suspended after an outcry earlier in the year - has been quietly allowed to come into force. It has been amended, and some of the worst clauses (such as the one allowing spousal rape) have been removed, but it still allows men to withhold "maintenance" if their partner "does not perform her conjugal duties according to Sharia" - in other words, they can coerce consent by starvation.

Aren't you glad that the SAS will be fighting, killing and dying for this?

Reminder: Five days left to vote

There are only five days left to vote in the child-discipline referendum. So, send in those ballot papers today!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Fisk

In praise of tea, the brew that powered Britain for centuries

Friday, August 14, 2009

Espiner: opposition shouldn't oppose, representatives shouldn't represent

Sometimes I really despair at the state of our political journalists. In his weekly blog, TVNZ's Guyon Espiner declares that the opposition is "on the road to nowhere" because - get this - they disagree with the government on Afghanistan and climate change. The reason for this is apparently a "convention" that both major parties stand together on foreign policy - something which even a momentary glance at history would show to be fiction. Labour wasn't afraid to criticise the then-National government's commitment to the Vietnam war, its desire for nuclear ship visits in the Muldoon-era, or its weak climate change policy under Bolger and Shipley. National expressed its longstanding opposition to the anti-nuclear ban from the opposition benches right up until it bowed to public opinion just before the 2008 election, and heavily criticised the Clark government's refusal to toady to George Bush and involve itself in a combat role in Iraq. While there may have been a bipartisan consensus during the early cold war, it has been dead and buried for Espiner's entire life. The two parties do back one another on trade, but that's because they genuinely agree on that issue, not because of any "convention".

Espiner goes on:

Now don't get me wrong. Labour should critique the government - absolutely. Dig, question, wind them up, put them under pressure, criticise, demand answers - that's what makes our democracy strong. But that doesn't mean taking a different position on every issue. If that strategy is followed the public reaction engendered is: "Yeah, well they would say that wouldn't they? They're in Opposition."
I disagree strongly. Labour's positions on both these issues flow from their values as a party and those of the people they represent. While they are not an environmental party like the Greens, Labour has always been more sensitive to environmental issues than big-business-backed National, and they have always pushed for an independent foreign policy rather than being Washington's vassal. Their positions on climate change and Afghanistan follow naturally from that (on the latter, they seem to have realised that what seemed like good tactics in 2001 make little sense now, in the context of a war which cannot be won on the battlefield, if at all). Contrary to Espiner, they are not opposing for the sake of opposition (a behaviour I detest), but genuinely advocating for the interests of their members and supporters. And that is what makes democracy strong - not silencing themselves for the sake of some fictional "convention" being spun around the gallery by a hack and regurgitated uncritically by another.

More generally, at its heart politics is about disagreement (and disagreement about ends, rather than simply means). People have different interests, and not all of those interests can be reconciled. Where they can't be, and there is competition over resources or a decision to be made, politics happens. I would expect a leading political journalist to understand and work to convey the basic facts of what he is reporting on. Instead, by seeking to cast disagreement as fundamentally illegitimate, he is trying to erase those facts (and that disagreement). And that does not make our democracy strong.

Something to go to in Auckland

Global Peace And Justice Auckland will be protesting the SAS's deployment to Afghanistan next Saturday:

When: 12 noon Saturday 22nd August
Where: Papakura Military Camp, Grove Road, Papakura

If you ned transport, a car convoy will be leaving from the Unite offices in Morningside; gather at 11am.

Entitlement in the UK

It's not just New Zealand which has politicians with a massive sense of entitlement - but also the UK. In the preamble to a story on the UK's terrible debt-collection industry (which naturally is doing well in the recession), Johann Hari highlights the disconnection of UK politicians from those they supposedly represent:

Sometimes it takes a casual phrase to really reveal the gap between a slice of our ruling class and the rest of us.

The Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan says that living on £64,000 a year – which puts him in the richest 4 per cent of the population – means a life on "rations", and "no one who's done anything" will want to live on it. Boris Johnson says wages for a second job of £250,000 are "chicken feed", even though they are more than what 99.99 per cent of us earn. (He must have an army of gargantuan chickens). David Cameron doesn't even know how many houses he owns, and his heiress wife says a windfall of up to £250,000 from selling a property is "nothing life-changing".

Yet out in the real Britain, the median wage is £23,000 a year. Half earn more; half earn less. Underneath this figure, there's another: the average personal debt is £29,500. As individuals, we owe more than we earn in a year. This is a relatively recent development, and it happened for an underlying structural reason.

That reason of course is neo-Liberalism, which channelled growth exclusively to those at the top of the heap - just as in New Zealand. Politicians (and those they compare their incomes to) benefited; the vast majority of people did not, and many were made actively worse off for the enrichment of the few.

The UK's politicians are actually worse paid than those in New Zealand. But because the people they compare themselves to - the aristocracy and those pulling down million-pound bonuses in the financial industry - are wealthier, their expectations and sense of entitlement are much higher. And so they fiddle their expenses, dodge their taxes, take second jobs which create massive conflicts of interest for themselves, and see nothing wrong with soliciting cash for questions, cash for amendments, cash for policy. And then they're shocked that people see them as corrupt and self-serving.

In the long-run, the UK probably needs to pay its politicians more, simply to reduce the incentive for corruption (and David Cameron's dark warnings about cutting Ministerial pay is a step in the wrong direction). But that can't happen with the current pool of scum - public resistance will be too great. Westminster needs a cleanout, including real electoral reform, to restore public faith in politicians. And the longer they resist it, the worse it is going to hurt when it comes.

A welcome backdown on special needs education

The government has backed down on special needs education, announcing that the present funding for additional therapy services at 23 schools will be retained. Good. These are some of New Zealand's neediest kids, and they need all the help they can get to give them a chance at a normal life; cutting their funding was a simply evil decision, and I am glad it has been reversed.

OTOH, as National pointed out in its earlier efforts to defend the indefensible, not all schools get this funding. They should. The total cost would be about $30 million, coincidentally the amount they are pumping into private schools to subsidise the snobbery of the rich. Cutting the latter to fund the former should be an absolute no-brainer. The fact that National hasn't done this speaks volumes about their priorities.

An inconvenient truth about electricity prices

One of the basic assumptions around the debate on energy policy in this country is that electricity is too expensive. However, the recent Ministerial Review of Electricity Market Performance has highlighted an inconvenient truth: the opposite is the case. The graph below compares the breakeven costs of various power plants built between 1950 and 1992 with current prices (which are higher than they have been in the past):


(Source: Improving Electricity Market Performance: Volume Two - Appendices [PDF], p. 58)

Basically, a lot of generation we built in the past was simply uneconomic; we've been (and still are) receiving government subsidised electricity. The review points out that this has changed significantly since 1992, and now we build generation that is in fact profitable. But there's still a long tail of generators which will never pay for themselves at current or likely future prices.

Unfortunately, the graph excludes Manapouri. I'd love to see a figure for that - have we been subsidising Rio Tinto's profits as well...?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Climate change: the wheels fall off in Australia

Last year, the Australian government announced plans for their own emissions trading scheme. The plans were timid, the targets were soft, there were copious free credits to polluters, and permit prices were capped to further protect them from paying the full costs of their pollution - in short, it was a cop-out. But even that seems to be too much - after being delayed for a year, the scheme has just been voted down in the Senate. The Greens opposed the bill because it does too little, the opposition because it does too much, and Family First because they do not believe in climate change (but they believe in the invisible sky fairy - go figure). And given the numbers, any compromise is going to shift it even further towards doing too little.

The government can reintroduce the bill in three months time. If it fails a second time, there will be a double dissolution and early elections. The government is less afraid of this than the opposition, and so sometime around the end of the year we will see a game of high-stakes political chicken, with Australia's climate change policy as the prize.

Removing the rort

Offered to whichever MP wants to end the rort of former MP's perks:

Parliamentary Service (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Parliamentary Service (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Amendment Act 2009.

2. Commencement
This Act comes into force on the day after the date on which it received the Royal Assent.

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Parliamentary Service (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Act 2009 to end ongoing benefits for former Members of Parliament.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Parliamentary Service (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Act 2009.

5. Section 4 Amended
Section 4(1) is amended by repealing paragraph (f) and substituting the following paragraph:

“(f) the provision of services for former Members of Parliament for up to three months after the date on which they become a former member.”

(The requirement for three months' provision is to allow transitions post-retirement. Currently former MPs continue to receive their salaries for three months if they retire at an election; they also receive accomodation, administrative support and travel for a limited period to allow them to clean out their offices and return to normal life, which is IMHO entirely justifiable. But after that I see no reason why we should subsidise their travel - they're no longer employed by us, and its not a reasonable and necessary expense).

More on Graham

In the Herald this morning, former Cabinet Minister Doug Graham claimed that he left Parliament with "hardly any money". So what was he entitled to?

Up until 1992, MPs were covered by a special provision of the Government Superannuation Scheme, which rewarded them with two-thirds of an MP's salary after twenty years of service (four times the rate paid to actual public servants). The exact formula is here, and under it, Graham would have been entitled to a pension of 50% of $83,000 - or $41,500 a year, in perpetuity. In 1999, that would have put him in the top quintile of taxpayers; its currently about twice the median income. Not rolling in it, but its certainly not penury; the majority of New Zealanders cope on less. Which makes it a pretty strange definition of "hardly any money", neh? But I guess there's nothing like 15 years as an MP and 9 as a Cabinet Minister to distort your perspective on wealth...