Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In the ballot XXXII

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

Electoral (Disqualification of Sitting Members in By-elections) Amendment Bill (Jim Anderton): This bill would amend the Electoral Act 1993 to stop current Members of Parliament from standing for election in by-elections. The aim is to avoid the absurd situation seen in the recent Mount Albert by-election, where all but one of the main candidates was already an MP, meaning that electors were effectively voting for the next person on the respective party lists, rather than who was actually on the ballot. If the bill passed, sitting MPs would be required to resign their seat to contest a by-election, facing a real risk and giving voters a real choice.

I have said before that I strongly support dual-candidacy, but the arguments for it (avoiding local vetoes, allowing parties to field high-quality candidates in electorate races) apply strongly to general elections but are utterly irrelevant in a by-election. I think this proposal is worth a look, and deserves to be sent to select committee.

Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Amendment Bill (Winnie Laban): Amends the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992 to clarify the rights of families of those seeking or receiving treatment. Currently the Act imposes a duty on clinicians to consult families. The bill expands on this to reflect and incorporate the SF New Zealand Code of Family Rights [PDF], while protecting the privacy rights of patients.

New Zealand Public Health and Disability (Change of Electoral System for District Health Boards) Amendment Bill (Michael Woodhouse): This bill would repeal the existing Single-Transferable Vote system used for DHB elections and replace it with FPP (or technically, the block vote). Ostensibly this is done to prevent voter "confusion", but it misses the target: the problem with DHB elections isn't the voting system, but the use of at-large election. This leads to a large field of candidates (14 for MidCentral, 21 for Capital & Coast, 27 for Auckland, and an astonishing 32 for Counties-Manukau - in each case for seven positions), saturating the decision-space, and reducing the task of making a decision essentially to one of random choice. Changing the voting system won't fix this - it will simply lead to less fair results, giving total control to a very narrow plurality.

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

Climate change: Arse-backwards

Something I skipped in yesterday's overview of the Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill: The government's subsidy scheme is actually two-tier, offering 60% or 90% subsidies respectively to moderately or highly emissions-intensive sectors. So what makes a sector moderately or highly emissions-intensive? According to new section 161A(4),

For the purposes of this section, an eligible industrial activity—

(a) is moderately emissions-intensive if the weighted average emissions-intensity from those carrying out the activity in the years for which data has been provided under section 161B were equal to or greater than 800 whole tonnes of emissions per $1 million of revenue from the activity, but less than 1600 whole tonnes of emissions per $1 million of revenue:

(b) is highly emissions-intensive if the weighted average emissions-intensity from those carrying out the activity in the years for which data has been provided under section 161B were equal to or greater than 1600 whole tonnes of emissions per $1 million of revenue from the activity:

Think about that for a minute: more tons of carbon per dollar earned means less value generated per unit of emissions - in other words, the highly emissions-intensive sectors are in fact the worst value for money. And yet these are exactly the sectors the government wishes to reward. Meanwhile, the low emissions-intensive sectors - the ones that generate the most money per ton of carbon - are left to fend for themselves.

If the goal is to transform our economy and set us on a low-carbon path, this is simply arse-backwards. But the goal isn't economic transformation: it is to support marginal industries whose - and by offering a subsidy the government implicitly admits this - environmental costs outweigh their economic benefits. In other words, industries that make us worse off by destroying our natural wealth.

The government should not be doing this. If it thinks those sectors are essential, it should offer them assistance to clean themselves up (ideally, in exchange for equity - we shouldn't be offering free lunches for private profit). Otherwise, it should let them go bankrupt. Either way, we will be better off. But supporting industries which make us worse off is simply utter madness.

Shitting where you eat

The government's demands for public service pay cuts are about to come back to bite it, with Parliamentary Services workers voting to begin industrial action. The government wants to freeze their pay, de-collectivise them, and reduce redundancy payments (a clear sign of staffing cuts to come).

These are the people who answer the phones, deliver the messages, do the research for MP's speeches, and guard the doors. Without them, life in Parliament will become difficult. MPs will have to handle their own phone calls, run their own errands, learn how to use a library properly, and guard their own backs.

The Minister in charge of the Parliamentary Service is the Speaker, Lockwood Smith. If you support the Parliamentary Service workers, feel free to email him and let him know.

Everything I hate about New Labour

Gordon Brown gave his keynote address to the UK Labour conference today, and with the party now coming third in the polls, he retreated into New Labour's favoured ground: authoritarianism. If Labour wins, he promises a crackdown on anti-social behaviour (again) and compulsory internment of teenage mothers (yes, really). Plus the usual array of soundbite policy props, all so he could fight the election for the "squeezed middle classes". Pardon me, but I didn't think the middle classes (which most UKanians don't identify themselves as anyway) were who a labour party was supposed to fight for.

The good news is that this conference will almost certainly be Brown's last as Prime Minister. And hopefully the wretched New Labour project of authoritarianism, triangulation, and abandoning their base will go with him.

Climate change: Backing out

Back in August the government announced an utterly pathetic climate change target of 10% - 20% by 2020 - less than half the commitment it expected from everybody else. Today we learn that it might not even go that far:

Greenpeace is warning that the New Zealand Government could back out of its 10%-20% emissions reduction target, after New Zealand’s climate change Ambassador Adrian Macey told a journalist attending the climate change talks in Bangkok that New Zealand could offer a target weaker than 10% if it doesn’t get what it wants in the talks.


In an interview with Point Carbon, Ambassador Macey said, “If our conditions are not met we reserve the right to drop (our target) below 10 per cent.”

Greenpeace points out that every other western nation has a unilateral base target - a level of reduction they commit to even if there is no deal. New Zealand doesn't. And our backwardness not only threatens the global climate - it also threatens our "clean and green" image and the export industries (like tourism and dairy) that depend on it.

But then, that's National on the environment, isn't it? No commitment, no action, only massive subsidies to polluters to continue wrecking the planet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Climate change: The bill

I spent some time reviewing the Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill today in preparation to submit on it. The first interesting bit is the regulatory impact statement, which the Herald points out is harshly critical of the level of analysis applied to the scheme. According to Treasury,

the level and quality of analysis presented is not commensurate with the significance of the proposals... the RIS does not provide an adequate basis for informed decision-making.
Reading the statement, its not surprising. For example, there's the list of policy options in response to the "problem" of an ETS which might limit emissions:
  • Option 1—Change implementation dates in existing legislation - essentially, do nothing, other than tweak the law to allow for National's pissing around. Ruled out because imposing real costs on polluters is seen by National as a problem, rather than a solution;
  • Option 2—Abolish the NZ ETS - would cost $1.5 billion and destroy our international reputation, making it a non-starter;
  • Option 3—Replace the NZ ETS with a carbon tax - more delay, and thanks to the international community's preference for emissions trading, not least-cost. Another non-starter;
  • Option 4—Delay the entry dates of all sectors other than forestry until 1 January 2013 - would cost $1.275 billion; see Option 2 above.
  • As you can see, its salmonella all round there; with those 4 options as "alternatives" you can present anything you like and have it look good by comparison. Which is the point of the exercise: present a number of extreme false alternatives so the preferred one (no matter what it is) can look like the safe, middle-of-the-road path. Even if it costs $2 billion a year by 2030...

    As for the bill itself, it does what it says on the label - guts "moderates" the ETS to be more favourable to polluters, by handing out massive and unsustainable production-based subsidies to polluters, while capping the price they will immediately pay for it - a move which will destroy the incentive for forestry, our biggest source of potential reductions. That's all worth opposing, but there's some sneaky stuff in there as well. For example, under the existing law, allocation decisions must be made openly and are subject to extensive consultation - meaning that we get to see how much the government wants to give away and to whom (and object if necessary). Now, allocation decisions are made in secret; there is still a duty to "consult", but that means the usual business of talking with industry insiders rather than an open, transparent public process. The upshot: more room for corruption in allocation decisions. And with billions of dollars at stake, that is not something we can afford.

    I urge everyone to submit on the bill. Even if all you have to say is "this is a dog of a scheme and I object to subsidising polluters out of taxation", it is worth doing. National needs to be put on notice that we will not stand for their polluter welfare. And a tide of submissions against the bill is the way to do it.

    Climate change: Krugman on emissions trading

    Paul Krugman has a nice introduction to the textbook economics of cap and trade. Its well worth a read if you were wondering how an ETS is supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using the market. The key is this graph, showing the connection between the size of the cap and the price of emissions:

    You should read the full article to get the proper explanation, because I want to use it to illustrate the effects of National's policy. Firstly, pretty much everything National has done - the production-based subsidies, which increase the permit supply in line with demand, the ban on overseas sales of non-forestry credit, the 50% obligation and $25 price cap until 2013 - is aimed at lowering the price. All other things being equal, this means more emissions than we would get under Labour's scheme. Secondly, National's massive ongoing subsidies mean that almost all of the blue area labelled "rents" - an amount equal to $1.7 billion over 2010 - 2012, and much more after that - is given away free to polluters. That's money we could be using for schools, hospitals, and trains; instead it goes straight into the pockets of Rio Tinto, Methanex, and Contact Energy - the very climate criminals who caused the problem in the first place.

    Finally, Krugman has some harsh words for "free market" opponents of emissions trading:

    what you should bear in mind is that all I’m doing here is conventional neoclassical economics, quite literally basic textbook material. What does it say when the people who claim to believe in this stuff throw it out the window as soon as it leads to policy conclusions they don’t like?
    What indeed? But I guess people like ACT and the Business Roundtable only believe in market economics when it suits them - i.e. when it benefits the rich.


    Something I hadn't noticed: we now have our own branch of the anti-copyright Pirate Party: Pirate Party New Zealand.

    Dirty and cruel

    According to the Herald this morning, it looks like Crafar Farms, New Zealand's dirtiest dairy farmers, can now add animal cruelty to their list of "achievements":

    New Zealand's biggest privately held dairying operation allowed dozens of calves on one of its massive farms on North Island's central plateau to slowly dehydrate to death earlier this month, triggering a MAF investigation but no prosecution, an investigation by has found

    This video shows dozens of calves starving and near death at Crafar Farms' Benneydale dairy farm between Tokoroa and Te Kuiti earlier this month.

    Poor management and the pressures of massive debts obtained during rapid expansion meant this farm was so poorly managed that none of the staff trained the calves to drink milk, allowing them to die of dehydration in a muddy pen even though their trough was often full.

    MAF was called in - "prompting an impromptu slaughtering of those calves closest to death by workers who bludgeoned them to death with hammers or slit their throats" - and is investigating, but they have described it as "just a management issue" and not worthy of prosecution. Which really makes you wonder what you have to do to get prosecuted around here, if systematically starving animals to death isn't enough? (It also makes you wonder why MAF have only five animal welfare inspectors for the whole country, and why they warn people first before turning up. You'd almost think they didn't care or something...)

    Either way, I am once again glad that the Crafars are going out of business. Dirty, cruel farmers like them shouldn't be allowed to run farms.

    Election funding: Put your money where your mouth is

    Labour rightly attacks National's proposed electoral finance "reforms", arguing for greater transparency and accusing the government of refusing to consult on lower disclosure thresholds. They have a good point - but along the way they also say this:

    Transparency is absolutely essential to achieving integrity in the electoral process, and the correct balance between the principles of equity and freedom of speech,” David Parker said.

    “Unfortunately, the current regime on donations doesn’t promote transparency. Labour included the regime in good faith in the Electoral Finance Act 2007, but it failed to achieve its purpose.

    “This was shown by the low rates of disclosure by both major parties. National disclosed the source of just $130,000 in donations and Labour just $420,000, though both spent more than $2 million each. This is clearly not transparent.”

    (Emphasis added)

    It strikes me that Labour can do something about this right now: it could put its money where its mouth is and disclose donations down to its preferred threshold (which seems to be $1,000). Its not as if they can't - the present law (which restates the provisions of the Electoral Finance Act) effectively requires them to identify all donors giving more than $1,000, and in order to comply with the disclosure limits on aggregated donations, they should have procedures in place to track smaller amounts. The only thing stopping Labour from doing this is itself.

    To paraphrase Napoleon, if you want to claim the moral high ground, claim the moral high ground. Issuing press releases while doing nothing just invites cynicism. If they really care about this issue, they should disclose their donations, and let the public decide whether we prefer a clean party or a dirty one.

    (The same naturally applies to the Greens. You want to push the argument on electoral finance reform? Then put your money where your mouth is)

    Carnival of the Liberals

    The 97th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Broadsnark.

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    Election funding: "Reform" for the rich

    The government has released its proposals for the "reform" of the electoral finance regime in the wake of the Electoral Finance Act. Unfortunately they're very much a backwards step. Reading the proposal document [DOC], the status quo is retained largely intact, with key issues (for example the third party regime and the length of the regulated period) kicked to "further consultation". But there's also some regressive steps. The two most important problems are:

    • No change to the existing transparency regime or donation thresholds; and
    • increased spending limits for parties and candidates.

    This is not good for our democracy. On the first point, I take it as axiomatic that we have a right to know who is trying to buy our politicians. And while parties sneer at such "trivial" sums as $10,000, to anyone outside their tiny elite, that looks like a hell of a lot of money (by way of comparison, its about 40% of the median income). Assurances by parties that donors are not receiving political favours in exchange for their money, or that "$10,000 isn't enough to buy anything" simply don't wash (and the latter shows how out of touch parties are with the general public; to almost all of us, $10,000 buys you a hell of a lot). They need to prove it. And that means a high level of transparency, declaring all but non-trivial donations so we can check to see that everything is above board.

    If you want to be polite, you can call this "trust, but verify". Personally, I don't trust our politicians any further than I can throw them, and I trust the sorts of people who give them $10,000 even less. Entrenched suspicion is our best protection, and the law should reflect that.

    As for spending limits, there's no suggestion that the existing spending limits for parties or candidates are inadequate; the average winning candidate spent just 60% of the limit, while only the two major parties even begin to approach the party limit, with most spending far less. The purpose of spending limits is to level the playing field and prevent money from being a disproportionate advantage. Raising them undermines that purpose, giving the large parties free reign to try and buy victory, and kicking off an arms race of spending and donations. The result will be to transfer even more power to donors.

    This is exactly the sort of "reform" I expected National to make. It serves their interests - and those of their wealthy donors - and no-one else's. And ordinary voters like you or I will be the losers.

    English admits it

    According to the Herald, Bill English hasn't received any housing allowance since July after public concerns over whether he is actually entitled to it.

    Good. But simply giving up rorting the taxpayer is only the start. After all, if he really lives in Wellington - and this is tantamount to an admission - then he has received tens of thousands of dollars since December that he was neither legally nor morally entitled to. And he should repay that money in full.

    Update: And he has. Though he's still denying any wrongdoing, merely claiming that it is a "personal decision" and not a precedent. Yeah, right. He was crooked and he got caught, and an honest man would admit it.

    Talk versus action

    UK Prime Minister Gordon brown used the weekend's Labour party conference - almost certainly his last - to talk tough, promising a war on greed and the toughest action in the world to control banker's bonuses and end the incentives for short-term speculation which have driven the global economy to ruin. That action? Requiring bonuses to be deferred for a while (how long is still undecided). So, bankers will still get their money, they'll just have to wait. And this is what Brown calls "tough"?

    Meanwhile, Slovenia shows us how its really done, imposing a 90% marginal tax rate on large bonuses and managerial salaries in all financial institutions receiving government guarantees or aid. Which means that managers and speculators will pay a personal price for the damage they've caused - unlike in the UK.

    European elections

    Germany and Portugal went to the polls today in Parliamentary elections. In Germany, the insipid Social Democrats leached support both right and left, with centrists defecting to the Christian Democrats (whose right fringe in turn shifted to the NeoLiberal Free Democrats), while lefties shifted to The Left and Greens. The result is that in the midst of the Worst Financial Crisis Since the Great DepressionTM, Germany has elected exactly the wrong solution: a NeoLiberal tax-cutting, small government coalition. I guess they'll get what they voted for, and hopefully it'll be a warning to them not to be so stupid in future.

    In Portugal its a different story. The ruling (NeoLiberal) Socialist party has lost its absolute majority, but the votes seem to have flowed mainly to the Left Bloc. Unfortunately Portuguese coalition politics is complicated, making it unlikely the Socialists will coalesce with their natural allies on the left, instead preferring to crawl into bed with the right-wing Democratic and Social Centre / People´s Party.

    European Tribune has discussions here and here

    Climate change: Submit!

    The Finance and Expenditure Committee has called for submissions on the Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill. Two copies, by Tuesday, 13 October 2009, to:

    Finance and Expenditure Committee Secretariat
    Parliament Buildings
    That's right - something the government is describing as the most important change to our economy since the introduction of GST, and the public have a mere two weeks to submit on it. You'd almost think they didn't care what we thought, and were only doing it because they had to...

    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].

    Will English pay the money back?

    ( / CC BY-SA 2.0)

    (Date edited to keep this at the top for a while)

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    New Fisk

    Israel should pay attention to criticism from its own people

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    The perils of sycophancy

    Since the loss of its empire, the UK has claimed prestige largely on its "special relationship" with the US. But it doesn't seem to be going so well:

    Gordon Brown lurched from being hailed as a global statesman to intense embarrassment tonight, after it emerged US President Barack Obama had turned down no fewer than five requests from Downing Street to hold a bilateral meeting at the United Nations in New York or at the G20 summit starting in Pittsburgh today.


    Brown had not only been seeking a bilateral meeting with Obama, but feelers were also sent out to hold a joint press conference, an event that would have boosted Brown's efforts to offer himself as a linchpin of international diplomacy. Government sources said that Britain even changed its policy on swine flu immunisation in Africa to match that of the Obama administration last week, in an attempt to rebuild relations.

    Ah, the perils of sycophancy. There's nothing so pathetic as a poodle denied a leg to rub urgently against. Meanwhile the UK press goes bananas over the "snub", while completely ignoring the real reason: that despite its pretensions, the UK just isn't that important anymore.

    Reported back

    The Law and Order Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons) Amendment Bill. The bill allows the contracting out of prisons - a core coercive function of the state - to the private sector. In the process, it also effectively contracts the government out of the OIA in regards to these prisons. While the select committee has made some minor amendments in this area - for example private prisons are now bound by the Public Records Act - the core problem of lack of public and Parliamentary oversight is retained. Rather than being constantly scrutinised by and answerable to parliament and the public, prisons will be irregularly "monitored" by the Department of Corrections, and their accountability limited to whether their contract is renewed or not. When we're talking about people's basic liberties - and in some cases, their lives - that's simply not good enough. Without that constant oversight, private prisons will be driven by the profit motive to cut costs, reduce staff numbers, and ultimately compromise the safety of prisoners, staff, and the public. It has happened overseas, and it will happen here.

    This is a terrible bill. But no doubt it'll be rammed through its remaining stages under urgency the moment the House resumes.

    In the ballot XXXI

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

    Code of Airline Consumer Rights Bill (Ashraf Choudhary): Would create a code of consumer rights specifically for users of commercial and civil airlines, to ensure they are kept informed, have access to essential services should flights be delayed or cancelled, and have the ability to receive a fair hearing and settlement of claims against the airline. The code is based on the EU's code on the Rights of Airline Passengers [PDF].

    Employment Relations (Workers’ Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill (Tau Henare): This bill would amend the Employment Relations Act 2000 to require a secret ballot for all votes on strike action. Henare frames this as an attempt to prevent intimidation, but that says more about his actions as an organiser for the now-defunct Clerical Workers Union than it does about modern unions, almost all of which already use the secret ballot (a fundamental right in any democratic organisation). Still, some don't, and so its worth codifying into law. If drawn, I would expect this bill to pass unanimously.

    Fair Trading (Soliciting on Behalf of Charities) Amendment Bill (Amy Adams): This bill would impose a requirement on professional fundraisers (e.g. telemarketers) acting on behalf of charities who retained more than half the money collected in fees to disclose the percentage retained. It's a solid consumer-protection measure, and again I'd expect it to pass with overwhelming support.

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

    Climate change: The results of subsidised pollution

    So, the same day National moves ahead with gutting the ETS, climate criminals Solid Energy and Ravensdown announce plans for a lignite to urea factory in Southland to support our rapacious dairy industry:

    Energy producer, Solid Energy, and agricultural fertiliser supplier, Ravensdown, are jointly investigating the viability of building a US$1 billion plus coal-to-fertiliser plant in Eastern Southland, harnessing the region’s world-scale lignite resource and making New Zealand self sufficient in, and potentially an exporter of, urea fertiliser.

    The study will consider the economics and possible location of a plant producing up to 1.2 million tonnes a year of urea – a nitrogen fertiliser used to enhance grass growth – from up to 2 million tonnes a year of lignite mined from Solid Energy’s extensive lignite resources. At last year’s urea prices – up to US$800/tonne – this plant would have generated the equivalent of about NZ$1.5 billion per annum in export equivalent revenue – through a combination of import replacement and direct exports.

    How bad will this be? Urea is 47% Nitrogen. Most of that nitrogen will end up in our streams and waterways, but about 1% of it will turn into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Doing the maths and applying the appropriate emissions factors, that 1.2 million tons of urea will turn into 8,800 tons of nitrous oxide, which is the equivalent of 2.73 million tons of CO2. By way of comparison, that's about 20% of our 2007 nitrous oxide emissions, and 3.6% of our gross carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions a year. As noted in the story, some of the urea (and hence some of the emissions) will be exported - but the rest will go straight onto our fields, and hence into the atmosphere. While distributed across South Island farms, it will be a noticeable hit.

    Under the ETS, importers or manufacturers of nitrogen-based fertilisers are liable for the emissions they produce. Under the existing scheme, Solid Energy and Ravensdown would have been paying the full cost of this additional environmental impact from the day the plant went into operation. Under National's version, they will get a year's free pollution thanks to the delayed entry of agriculture, and then a production-based pollution subsidy for the next 80 years. In the first year this amounts to 90% of their pollution, which under National's cost assumptions ($50 per ton from 2013) works out to over $120 million a year, straight out of our pockets and into theirs. National argues that this is necessary to "protect jobs", but do the maths - they're paying just under $25,000 for each of the 500 jobs created. If they're willing to pay that much, then I suggest they can do so quite easily without destroying the environment in the process.

    This is what subsidised pollution gets us: we pay, so they can destroy the environment. As I said, this is utter madness. And it will not last. If Solid Energy is planning this project on the basis that they will be insulated from paying the full price of their pollution forever, then they are simply fools, and deserve the resulting loss.

    New Fisk

    Mangling everything in its path, Typhoon Sarah blows in to Asia

    A loss to Parliament

    That is the only way to describe Green MP Sue Bradford's decision to retire. Bradford has been one of the most - if not the most - effective backbenchers in the recent era, having successfully navigated three member's bills - including the highly controversial Child Discipline Act - into law. I cannot think of a single MP since 1987 who has managed that; according to my records (which I will admit are incomplete) only two other - Mark Peck and Nandor Tanczos - have even managed two, and in both cases it was by having one adopted by the government.

    Bradford has left a legacy both the children and young workers of New Zealand can be pleased with. But she's given us ten years in the Parliamentary zoo, and that is more than we have any right to ask of her.

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    Climate change: Astonishing

    I've long wondered which ACT thought was more important: giving money to their rich friends, or climate change denial. Now I know - they just voted for National's "moderated" ETS, which gives massive subsidies to foreign polluters.

    But I guess they have no trouble at all with bankrupting the country in the long term.

    Update: This does give the perfect soundbite: "National's ETS is so bad ACT voted for it".

    Climate change: Rewriting history

    Craig Foss, during the ETS debate, on the original ETS: "we put the politics aside and voted for it".


    Foss should know - he was in Parliament at the time. He even spoke against the bill during the committee stage. So why is he lying to Parliament, and the public, about his and his party's past actions?

    Climate change: Urgency

    The House has just gone into urgency to debate the government's "moderated" ETS. The government's original plan was to reconstitute the ETS Review Committee to consider it. However, that would have meant an unlimited debate, which the opposition was prepared to take advantage of to haul them over the coals on the issue, so the bill will now be sent to the Finance and Expenditure Committee.

    Naturally, the bill was withheld until the last minute to prevent scrutiny. So, MPs will be expected to debate a bill they have no seen. While I think urgency is justified in this case in order to get more time for the select committee, the government has been needlessly shitty over this. Parliament should not be forced to debate blind in this fashion, and the government forcing it to brings the entire Parliamentary process into disrepute.

    I'll do a proper post on the bill when it becomes available.

    Dunne on the republic

    Peter Dunne has long been a supporter of a republic, and last night at the Republican's book launch he argued that we can make this transition within five years and laid out his preferred process:

    He proposed a three-stage process:
    • A binding referendum as early as next year on whether New Zealanders wished to have their own head of state.
    • In the event of a positive outcome, a further binding referendum in 2012 on whether the head of state should be elected or appointed, and to confirm the powers of the head of state.
    • The transition to the republic could then occur during the Parliamentary term commencing in 2014, when the new head of state would be chosen and take office.
    Mr Dunne said this was a realistic and achievable timetable, which allowed for maximum public involvement.
    This is similar to the two-stage process proposed by Keith Locke's Head of state (Referenda) Bill, though with a slightly different arrangement of questions. IMHO, Locke's version - which asks voters first to choose between a republic with an elected head of state, a republic with a head of state appointed by Parliament, or the status quo, then asks them to confirm it - is preferable, for much the same reason as the original MMP referendum process is preferable to National's pig in a poke: it keeps the republic front and centre in each vote, making it crystal clear what we are voting for at every stage. And it gives us the option of saying "not that republic" if the politicians try and sell us something we don't want.

    Its also worth noting that there's no need to wait for a republic to elect our head of state - we could for example move to an elected Governor-General regardless of who they are a figurehead for, a move which would be more likely to preserve the constitutional convention of a powerless figurehead utterly subservient to Parliament, and which would improve our democracy regardless of who we choose as a head of state.

    A toxic influence

    The toxic effects of the Sensible Sentencing Trust's hate-campaign against criminals has been rammed home today with a ruling in a Palmerston North court that the face of a man accused of murdering a child cannot be revealed due to a "lynch-mob mentality" in the city. The man has not applied for bail - a basic right of any accused - due to death threats, but may apply in future. The judge agreed that photographs would place him at risk if this happened, and ordered their suppression, saying

    It's abundantly clear that a lynch-mob mentality is alive and well in Palmerston North.
    And that's where the "hang 'em high" brigade has got us: to a place where open justice is undermined because we have to protect the accused - who remember has not been convicted of anything yet and deserves a fair trial - from their vigilantes.

    But its not just "crims" these thugs are targeting. Death threats have also been made to members of the accused's family, while his parents' house has been vandalised. These are innocent people. But in the eyes of the ordinary "decent" New Zealanders who follow the Sensible Sentencing Trust's creed of vengeance, merely being related to someone accused of a crime makes them deserving of punishment.

    This is not decent. And it certainly isn't justice. But it has become increasingly clear that the Sensible Sentencing Trust and its ilk aren't actually interested in justice. Instead, they're interested in vicious, sadistic revenge. And they're clearly no longer that fussed about whether the person they inflict it on is even guilty.

    Drinking Liberally Dunedin

    Drinking Liberally is happening in Dunedin next Tuesday, with guest speaker Sue Bradford:

    When: 19:00, Tuesday, 29 September
    Where: Circadian Rhythm Vegan Cafe, St Andrew St, Dunedin

    [Hat-tip: The Standard]

    Climate change: $2 billion a year

    That's how much National's ETS will be costing us by 2030:

    Last night’s briefing on the ETS finally revealed the two missing columns from the curious page of numbers tabled in the House on Tuesday by Nick Smith.

    That table, to the extent it was comprehensible at all, showed there would be a $415m cost to the taxpayer from now to 2013; a saving between 2013 and 2017; but numbers for later years were missing.

    The full table occurs on page 33 of the explanatory note to the draft bill. The missing two columns, for 2020 and 2030, show a hefty annual cost to the Crown which by 2030 is estimated to be $2 billion every year.

    [Link added]

    $2 billion is serious money. Even discounting it back into today's money ($1.32 billion assuming 2% inflation), we're talking more money [PDF] than the cost of ACC or the prison system, about a third of the education budget, or the entire cost of the police, given away each year to polluters. And you and I will be paying for it.

    As I said, utter madness.

    This is neither environmentally or fiscally sustainable, and it will have to be rolled back. But polluters like Methanex will be laughing all the way to the bank until it is.


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

    • Resource Management (Enhancement of Iwi Management Plans) Amendment Bill (Nanaia Mahuta)

    The bill has been previously covered in "In the ballot" here.

    There were ten new bills in the ballot this week. ACT resurrected its old Parole abolition and Treaty of Waitangi (Principles) bills (yes again), Kevin Hague put up a sustainable fishing bill while redrafting his Adoption (Equity) Amendment Bill, and Rahui Katene's bill removing GST from food finally made an appearance. Meanwhile, we also saw three new bills each from National and Labour - the latter replacing their (now irrelevant0 Auckland referendum bills. I'll bring you some of the new bills in an "In the ballot" post shortly.

    The full list of bills is on Red Alert here.

    Climate change: The reality of subsidised pollution

    In the debate over the ETS, I've talked about subsidised pollution a lot. What does this mean? Well, to give one example, it means paying Methanex a billion dollars over ten years to increase our emissions by 5%. That's money that could be used to pay for schools, hospitals, and decent public services. And it comes straight out of your pocket and into the pockets of Methanex's foreign shareholders. Except its worse than that, because on the current fiscal pathway, summarised by Bill English as "a decade of deficits", its money we have to borrow. So, under National's scheme, we're not just paying companies to despoil our environment - we're loading ourselves with debt to do so.

    This is simply madness, utter madness.

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Out of business error

    As predicted, Parliament was out of Member's Bills by 18:00. But rather than debate any of the other business in the member's section of the Order Paper - an assortment of reports to the House usually ignored - they've all taken the night off and gone home.

    On the plus side, I guess this means that there'll be plenty of MPs free for the Republican's book launch tonight. But I can't help but feel that they're slacking. What, is fifteen hours a week too much for you?

    Climate change: A step in the right direction

    The UN General Assembly is meeting in New York at the moment, and on the first day, Chinese President Hu Jintao committed to reducing his country's emissions intensity:

    "We will endeavor to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level," Hu told a special summit on climate change.
    There doesn't sound like much, and intensity targets are a false goal - but coming from a country which has until recently rejected any suggestion of curbing its emissions growth, its a definite step in the right direction. While the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities gives a lot of leeway for developing countries, eventually they too will have to commit to binding caps on emissions - and an intensity target is a good interim measure to get them there.

    Climate change: No incentive for forestry

    Forestry is the key to New Zealand climate change policy. While business and farmers wail that they cannot do anything to reduce their emissions without reducing jobs (or, more importantly, their environmentally subsidised profits), forestry offers the possibility of large and deep changes in our net emissions. If planting rates rose to the levels seen in the mid-90's, we would easily meet National's utterly pathetic 2020 target, with plenty of room to spare. But in order for this to happen, we need to start planting now.

    The big question in ETS design then is "will the ETS make this happen"? According to University of Canterbury School of Forestry's Professor Euan Mason, the answer seems to be "no":

    Under the existing ETS, domestic demand for NZUs would likely have exceeded the maximum capacity of existing Kyoto forest (planted since 1989 on grassland) to supply credits by approximately 2013, thereby providing a powerful incentive for investing in new forest plantings.

    Under the proposed ETS, domestic demand for credits would not be likely to exceed the maximum capacity of current Kyoto forest to supply NZUs until the early 2020s.

    No demand means lower prices. Lower prices means less incentive. Less incentive means less planting. So, in addition to committing us to giving billions of dollars to polluters until the end of the century, National's ETS also undermines our most effective means to reduce emissions. Meanwhile, according to its Q&A on the ETS changes, National is assuming a planting rate of 50,000 hectares a year to 2020. Who does Nick Smith think will be planting these forests? Magic pixies?

    This is a bad, bad policy. It sells out forest owners, it sells out the environment, and it sells out New Zealand, all for the benefit of a few, largely foreign-owned, major polluters. Which is National in a nutshell really. As with everything else they do, it is all about looting the state...

    Earning their pay?

    The biggest "justification" for excessive executive pay is that the fat cats earn it. Without these Randian super-heroes, businesses would decline, share-values would tank, and "ordinary share-holders" would lose out.


    Executive pay has defied a fall in company performance, according to a new study published today, which calls on investors to wield their power by exercising their right to vote on remuneration reports.

    The report, which studies the impact of the "say on pay" power handed to investors at annual meetings since 2002, shows an inverse correlation between the cash paid to executives and the performance of the FTSE All-Share index.

    Or, to put that in English, the worse companies do, the more their managers are paid. It's a scam, nothing more.

    The report argues that "ordinary shareholders" should use their votes to curb this greed. The problem is that most shareholders aren't ordinary; hell, most aren't even people. Instead, most shares are owned and voted by corporations and pension funds, and the decisions on how they vote are made by... corporate executives. Who have no interest whatsoever in upsetting their own gravy train. And so the scam goes on and on...

    Member's day

    Today is (finally) a Member's Day. Unfortunately, after a couple of strategic delays, there is little business for the Members to transact. After a local bill (expected to be dealt with quickly), there are the final three speeches on Kennedy Graham's International Non-Aggression and the Lawful Use of Force Bill (which the government will vote against because it wants us to be a rogue nation), and an hour on ACT's VSM Bill. Even allowing for a rowdy question time, there's a real chance they will be out of real business by 18:00.

    This is Gerry Brownlee's fault. His eating Wednesday with urgency for the past two weeks didn't just delay member's day - it also prevented the usual top-up ballot, which would have seen more bills drawn to fill the hole in the Order Paper. I understand that he was asked for leave to hold one last week, and it was denied. After all, the government thinks Parliament is its rubber-stamp; it certainly doesn't want anyone else advancing or highlighting a rival political agenda.

    The good news is that we will see a ballot tomorrow. Hopefully MPs will be ready for it.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    Climate change: An unsustainable pathway

    The cost of National's generous subsidies to business through the ETS seems to be becoming a significant issue, with duelling numbers in Question Time in the House today. According to the government (and the Ministry for the Environment), National's revised ETS will in fact cost substantially less than the status quo, by up to $919 million by 2018 [PDF]. And it will, as the current scheme extends support to 2018, while National's one reduces it by 1.3% a year from 2013 (though note the chicken-strapping: carbon costs $25 a ton until 2013, when most of National's costs are, and $50 a ton after, when their savings occur). But that short-term picture is highly misleading - as can be seen below:


    (Based off the graph in the Summary of ETS Changes [PDF]; the vertical axis is percentage of emissions, though the difference between capped and production-based subsidies makes that difficult as well)

    So, National's scheme costs a little less in the short-term - and massively, massively more in the long-term. Exactly how much depends on our emissions path, and its complicated by the fact that National's subsidies are production-based, a percentage of actual emissions rather than of 2005 emissions - but under any reasonable scenario, we will be paying much, much more under National, and paying it all the way until 2090.

    This is both environmentally and fiscally unsustainable. It is neither moral nor affordable to subsidise dirty polluters for the rest of the century. Labour's first move when it returns to government - and they'll return to government someday - should be to eliminate National's subsidies and let polluters pay their own way. And if they can't, and they go out of business, then we will be better off as a result - because they were never really "profitable" anyway.

    Update: Clarified graph axis. No, they're not quite comparing apples with apples either, but its the government's graph, and it works well enough for this purpose.

    We can't address inequality when it remains hidden

    Over on Red Alert, Phil Twyford highlights Colin James' comments on The Spirit Level. James highlights Wilkinson and Pickett's conclusion that inequality is bad for everyone, not just the poor - and that reducing it benefits us all. And he sees this as a solid building block for a new left-wing programme.

    This is good news, but there's a problem: in order to address inequality, we have to know about it. And New Zealanders don't seem to know very much about it at all. Facts on income distribution are few and far between - the annual table in the Budget is about as good as it gets - and facts on wealth distribution are even rarer. As for facts on how those numbers change with policy, they seem to be practically non-existent. Making those facts public needs to be the first step in that left-wing programme.

    Facts on the consequences of inequality are more available - the Ministries of Education, Health, and Social Development, and the Department of Statistics produce vast screeds of information. In recent years, leading indicators have been summarised in an annual Social Report [2008 version here]. Normally, this has been published in early August. Oddly, there's no sign of it this year. Is National trying to mask the social effects of its policies by burying the most accessible data? I would love to be proved wrong on this.

    Meanwhile, if Labour wants to seriously push inequality as a theme, it could do a lot worse than putting up a member's Bill to legislate for proper annual reporting. In addition, it could push for an Inequality Commission to research the effects of inequality in New Zealand society and act as an advocate for its reduction, in a similar fashion to the existing Children's and Families Commissions. These are small steps, but they can be made from opposition, and have significant benefits in the long run.

    Garner on English

    Three News' Duncan Garner tells it like it is when he says that English shouldn't get a cent:

    Bill English should cut the pretence. He doesn't live in Dipton and hasn't for more than a decade.

    He and his family made a choice to be together in Wellington in the 90s. They made the decision for family and personal reasons. The English's wanted to be together - and they knew their Dad's work was going to have him in Wellington for years to come. They wanted to be a family. It's old fashioned and honourable. Good on you.

    They have a house in the capital, the kids go to the school there, two of them are enrolled to vote in Wellington Central and his wife is a G.P. in the city.


    Because you don't live in Dipton. You live here. And Labour won't stop the attacks until you make another mea culpa.

    English should not just admit that - he should repay the money he has rorted from the taxpayer. Otherwise he can face regular cries of "pay the money back' - remember those? - every day in Question Time.

    Climate change: A false offer

    As the demand for real action on climate change grows, pressure has gone on the airline industry - one of the world's fastest growing emitters, but currently unregulated under the Kyoto Protocol - to cut its emissions. And in just a few years, they'll start being forced to: in 2012, it will be forced into the EU ETS for all internal European travel.

    The industry has responded with a dramatic offer to cut emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2050. It sounds impressive, but its simply a dodge to avoid real action. Why? Firstly, this is far less than the 80 - 95% cuts recommended by the IPCC. And secondly, this would replace a binding legal commitment with a non-binding one. Instead of being brought into the EU ETS or have their emissions counted under Kyoto II (which would in turn result in them being increasingly covered by domestic policy), they simply promise to buy offsets. And if they don't, or they fiddle their numbers? That's just a public relations problem. In other words, its just another attempt at the "self-regulation" scam so popular with industry and so ineffectual in practice.

    The global climate is simply too important to have any patience for such scams. If we want the airline industry to reduce its emissions, it must be brought under Kyoto II and subject to legally binding targets, just like everyone else.

    Fighting a losing war

    Great. Just hours after John Key announces that the SAS are in Afghanistan, the US general in charge of American forces in the area warns that the war is lost:

    The US mission in Afghanistan will "likely result in failure" unless troops are increased within a year, the top general there has said in a report.


    In his latest assessment, Gen McChrystal is quoted by the Washington Post newspaper as saying: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term [next 12 months]... risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

    He warns that "inadequate resources will likely result in failure".

    "Additional resources are required," the general states in the summary of the report.

    The US doesn't want to send more troops, Europe - where the war is increasingly seen as unnecessary and governments face a real risk of falling in consequence - simply won't, meaning that the war is lost already. So why are the SAS going? Do we really think its worth fighting a losing war?

    Monday, September 21, 2009

    Twyford on the republic

    over on Red Alert, Labour MP Phil Twyford comes out in support of a republic:

    While a student at Auckland University I did a WEA night class on republicanism with Bruce. He argued the political culture of settler New Zealand with its colonial trappings tended to inhibit a mature political discussion about what it means to be a New Zealander, and what New Zealand means.

    Sometimes people say why bother with a republic. It is just symbolism. But the symbolism of nationhood is important. Our idea of what this country is all about provides the framing for every major political debate we have, whether it is about protecting the environment, the gap between rich and poor, the place of tangata whenua, or our relationship with the rest of the world.

    I agree with Phil that that symbolism matters. It makes a real difference whether we see ourselves as equal citizens bound together by mutual consent, or as subjects of an unelected monarch with a "divine right" to rule. It makes a real difference whether governments see their power as flowing upwards from popular consent, or downwards from the monarch. The latter can be simply illustrated by comparing New Zealand and the UK. In our de facto republic, the government knows it is accountable to us; in the UK, even after almost a hundred years of universal suffrage, the government still sees the people as something to be controlled and ignored.

    Becoming a republic is about saying who we are: an egalitarian country, without deference, without hierarchy, without privilege. Those have been our values since the colonial era, when "Jack was as good as master"; its high time they were reflected in our constitutional structure.

    Drinking Liberally in Wellington this Thursday

    Drinking Liberally is on in Wellington this Thursday, with drug reform activist Phil Saxby as guest speaker. He'll cover what future progressive New Zealand governments might do, and what is being done overseas.

    When: 17:30, Thursday, 24 September
    Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith St, Wellington.

    Tonga votes against equality

    Radio New Zealand reports that on Thursday the Tongan Legislative Assembly - all but one of them a man - voted 18 - 1 against ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Convention is one of the most widely-accepted UN human rights conventions, even more widely accepted than the Convention Against Torture or the ICCPR; only eight countries (including Iran, Sudan, the US, and of course the Vatican) have refused to sign it. It commits its parties to ending discrimination against women in all its forms and:

    (a) To embody the principle of the equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation if not yet incorporated therein and to ensure, through law and other appropriate means, the practical realization of this principle;

    (b) To adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women;

    (c) To establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination;

    (d) To refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation;

    (e) To take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise;

    (f) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women;

    (g) To repeal all national penal provisions which constitute discrimination against women.

    Specific measures include ending discrimination in political life, education, employment, citizenship, healthcare, and marriage, and to ensure equality under the law.

    I'm left wondering what part of this Tonga's "leaders" objected to. Are they so medieval that they'd vote against simple, basic equality?

    The wooden spoon of Damocles

    It looks like the smacking debate will never end. Last month, in a perfect example of Murphy's Law, ACT MP John Boscawen had his Crimes (Reasonable Parental Control and Correction) Amendment Bill, which would permit child-beating so long as it did not use weapons or cause permanent injury, was drawn from the ballot. John Key responded by quickly ruling out government support for it; now Boscawen has responded by delaying the bill indefinitely. The result: it will hang around on the Order Paper, ready to return at a moment's notice (say, Budget time next year). In other words, the government - and the children of New Zealand - have a wooden spoon of Damocles hanging over their backsides until the next election. And we will no doubt be treated to even more antics from Larry Baldock as a result.

    Meanwhile, another consequence of this is that Member's Day is likely to run out of bills on Wednesday. Darien Fenton is likely to delay her redundancy bill while she gathers signatures on her supporting petition [PDF]. Which will leave only a local bill (likely to be done in half an hour), quarter of an hour on Kennedy Graham's International Non-Aggression and Lawful Use of Force Bill, and an hour on VSM. If Question Time goes quickly, they could be done by dinnertime, but even if it doesn't, its hard to see them going all the way till 10pm. Which means they will likely end up debating Parliamentary papers instead...

    Here's hoping

    The Times reports that Italy's Silvio Berlusconi has threatened to resign if the constitutional court overturns the law he passed last year to shield himself from corruption charges.

    Here's hoping. The law in question is just the latest in a long line of self-serving law changes aimed at assuming impunity for Berlusconi. In 2005, just before he lost office for the second time, he reduced Italy's statute of limitations, allowing murderers, rapists, and other serious violent offenders escape justice in order to protect a crony about to be convicted of corruption. In 2008, facing charges himself, he simply suspended all "non-priority" trials to prevent a case against him from reaching the courts. The man is a corrupt little thug. And the sooner he is evicted from office and prosecuted, the better.

    More urgency this week

    I've just been told that Parliament will be going into urgency for the third week in a row. The good news is that this week they won't be eating Member's Day (though thanks to some strategic delays, there won't be anything much to debate anyway). Instead, they will be moving urgency after Question Time on Thursday so they can sit until midnight and send the government's ETS bill to select committee.

    This actually seems to be a rare case where moving urgency to sidestep the normal rules is justified. Looking at the sitting calendar, the House goes into a three-week recess next week, and does not sit again until mid-October. If they followed normal procedure, the bill would have to be introduced, lie on the Order Paper until next sitting week, then be debated - meaning they wouldn't get a first reading until October 13 at the earliest. Using urgency lets them introduce bills immediately, meaning an extra three weeks for the select committee process, while still meeting their deadline to amend the ETS by the end of the year (though I should note there's still no need to sit till midnight; a first reading debate only takes two hours, and they could normally fit that in before the House rises at 6, unless Question Time is dragged out).

    If the government restricted urgency to these sorts of circumstances, then I would have no problem with it. Instead, it highlights their recent abuse of the Parliamentary process to ram controversial legislation through while limiting debate in Parliament, the media and wider society - the Douglas "blitzkrieg" strategy. It is a strategy made possible by their easy majorities and compliant support parties, and a strong reminder of the necessity to hamstring governments to prevent a return of outright majoritarianism.

    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    New Fisk

    Everyone seems to be agreeing with Bin Laden these days

    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    A welcome change

    Immigration is an area of policy usually dominated by punitive viciousness towards those who "don't belong". But the debate on the Immigration Bill on Thursday saw a sudden bout of sanity when Parliament amended the bill to allow the children of overstayers to go to school.

    This is a welcome change. Children aren't responsible for their parents' immigration status (or lack thereof), and it is grossly unfair to punish them for it - especially in a manner which could have serious effects on their future life-chances. The amendment is a positive step towards a fairer, more humane immigration system.

    Now, if only they'd apply the same humanitarian approach to people's parents and partners, rather than trying to throw them out of the country all the time...

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    More Drinking Liberally in Auckland

    Those Aucklanders really are liberal drinkers - they've got another Drinking Liberally sessions scheduled in Auckland on Tuesday, less than a week after the last one! The guest speaker this time is Kim Workman, director of Rethinking Crime & Punishment, on justice issues and the "three strikes" policy.

    When: 19:00 Tuesday 22 September
    Where: Galatos – 17 Galatos Street, Newton, Auckland.

    [Hat-tip: The Standard]


    It looks like climate change isn't the only area where Japan’s change of government will make a real difference. The new government has appointed Keiko Chiba, a long-standing opponent of the death-penalty, as Justice Minister. While she is being circumspect, it is highly unlikely she will be signing any death warrants any time soon - meaning a de facto moratorium in Japan. Even better, she is now calling for a debate on abolition and replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment - a move which would leave the US isolated as the only industrialised democracy to retain the death penalty.

    Japan isn't the only place where we're seeing progress. Serious moves towards abolition are now underway in Lebanon and Kenya. Hopefully both will be successful.

    Compare and contrast

    New Zealand prides itself on being not just a democracy, but one of the best democracies in the world. When we compare ourselves to the US, the UK, and even Australia, our democratic institutions come out as more representative, more responsive, and hence more democratic. But there is one significant flaw we continue to share with these countries: like the rest of the Anglosphere, we deny the citizenship of prisoners. Those sentenced to long-term imprisonment are denied the vote in New Zealand.

    Compare this with Norway - a country already noted for its humane (and effective) prison system. There, prisoners not only get to vote - politicians hold TV debates in prisons. And that's not all:

    The topic was crime policy and – so far so normal – it featured a panel of politicians discussing the best ways to reduce crime. But the live TV show was set inside a high security prison, the audience consisted exclusively of guards and prisoners, with one inmate, Bjørnar Dahl, taking part in the panel alongside the justice minister and the deputy leader of the main opposition party.
    This was not a stunt - it is a completely normal part of the Norwegian political system. And one benefit is to inject a healthy dose of reality into the debate on crime and punishment, from people who know about it: the criminals:
    Dahl, who is serving a five-year sentence for complicity in smuggling amphetamines, stole the show. When the representative from the populist Progress party, Per Sandberg, argued that there was an increase in criminality in Norway caused by gangs of Eastern Europeans organising beggars in the streets of Oslo, Dahl dismissed him as talking "crap" and asked him whether he had any knowledge of the situations the beggars were coming from.

    When Sandberg tried to argue that the solution to reduce drug abuse in prisons was to increase the level of control on inmates, Dahl shot back: "We're controlled from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. I get strip-searched every time I have a visit and all my phone calls are monitored. You can't have more control than we have now."

    It is, sadly, hard to imagine this happening in New Zealand. Politicians and the public aren't interested in seeing prisoners as part of society, and they certainly aren't interested in hearing about the utter ineffectiveness of their metapolicy of increasing viciousness. This is hugely counterproductive. Cutting people off from society does not help them re-integrate when they are released (quite the opposite, in fact). And sentences being finite, everyone will be released one day.

    The current policy is not only contrary to the democratic imperative to give everyone with an interest in our society a say in how it is run - it is also simply stupid. We should change it. And the first step is I think to give prisoners the vote.

    Binding referenda: Clarity

    Should Citizens Initiated Referenda seeking to repeal or amend a law be binding?
    That's Larry Baldock's latest referendum proposal, currently before the Clerk of the House. I've posted a bit on the issue before, but that was before the exact referendum wording was released. Now that it has been, I've been convinced to have another go at it - and the issue of binding referenda generally.

    On the face of it, the idea of binding referenda is simple: the referendum proposes something, the people vote, and if it passes, the desired changes are made. But that glosses over what has been the key problem with referenda in this country: a lack of clarity about what is actually being demanded. The classic example of this is the referendum run at the 1999 election, on the question of

    Should there be a reform of our justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of the victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?
    Which by chaining together a long list of proposed changes, allowed MPs to claim they had acted on it by acting on some of them. Then there's this, more recent example:
    Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
    Which quite apart from its false premises and unclear meaning (its about smacking parents for the purposes of correction, right?), demanded no specific action at all, let alone a law change (which is a claim Baldock will almost certainly make if his latest referendum passes).

    Then there's this one, which you may find familiar:

    Should Citizens Initiated Referenda seeking to repeal or amend a law be binding?
    The question you should be asking is "how"? What does Baldock actually want? If it passes, does he want Parliament to:
    • Pass a law which establishes referenda (with appropriate turnout limits, checks and balances etc) as an equal source of law with Parliament?
    • Amend the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 to say "and Parliament must act on the result"?
    • Set up an inquiry to investigate how binding referenda could be incorporated into our constitutional structure?
    • Promise to act on the outcome of future referenda?

    Baldock may well have an answer. But as its not in the question, the government has no way of knowing how it is expected to respond. While apparently quite clear, Baldock's latest proposal falls into the same trap as previous efforts.

    As I said, its all about clarity. In order to be binding, a referendum will have to state very clearly what it wants the government to do. And that's not just "clearly" in "understandable by the voter" terms - because as we've seen above, that's not actually that clear - but "clearly" in legal terms. If a referendum proposes amending a law, it has to say exactly how, in the form of an actual legal amendment as you would find in a bill. And if a referendum proposes repealing a law, it will have to say exactly how, and what, if anything, the law will be replaced with - because "repeal" doesn't do what you think it does. In other words, we will have to vote on actual legislation, just like MPs in Parliament.

    That sounds scary, but its not. Legislation isn't actually that hard to understand if you read it yourself, and in the context of a referendum campaign there will always be the media, lobby groups, and experts to help explain the proposed changes. We'd have to judge whether we want it, and tick a box for "yes" or "no". Even in a representative democracy, that seems like an attractive idea. Why shouldn't the people - who are supposedly sovereign and whose consent underlies our whole system - have a lawmaking role if we want one? The onus really is on the opponents of binding referenda to say why not.

    I have no interest in making that argument. Instead, over the next few posts, I'll be looking at the problems of referenda, and hopefully how we could make them work.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Climate change: Slapped down again

    Having been slapped down on benefits, the Maori party last night turned to insulation, claiming that their payoff for support in gutting the ETS would be the government funding insulation refits in 2,000 Maori homes:

    "We've got 2000 houses without them having to pay any money at all because our people are not availing themselves of the opportunity to get their houses insulated because they couldn't afford the $2500," he said.

    Asked to confirm this was for Maori only, Sharples said: "Yeah, these are particularly Maori."

    In Question Time today (transcript out soon here), Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said that that's not true either.

    So, what are the Maori Party getting in exchange for their support? Anything at all? And how come they consistently think they are getting quite specific things, when National thinks they aren't? Is communication between the two parties that bad, or are National again dealing in bad faith?

    Corporate criminals

    In August 2006, an oil tanker hired by oil-trading company Trafigura dumped hundreds of tons of toxic waste around the Ivory Coast port of Abidjan. Seventeen people died, 30,000 were injured, and over a hundred thousand got sick. Ever since, Trafigura has denied any responsibility, and sought to bully and intimidate those seeking justice into silence with threats and legal cases.

    Now, the BBC has published Trafigura's internal emails on the subject [PDF]. They show that Trafigura knew that the waste was dangerous and that it could not be legally disposed of in the European Union, United States, or most other western countries. Having tried to dump it in the Netherlands anyway (and been caught), they then turned to Nigeria, and then eventually to the Ivory Coast, with tragic results.

    Now that the true story has come out, the company is trying to settle with those it made ill. but that's not enough. People died. And the corporate criminals whose conspiracy and depraved indifference resulted in their deaths should be prosecuted for murder.

    Climate change: Counting the cost

    How much will National's proposal to reduce emissions by subsidising polluters to make more cost us? Labour's document dump [PDF] on its negotiations with the government includes a letter from Phil Goff (document 7, p. 14) which tells us. In a section titled "implications of National's proposals", it points out that the current world price of carbon is NZ$28 / ton - $3 above National's proposed $25/ton cap - and that it is expected to double to NZ$50 / ton if a deal is made at Copenhagen (and some estimates that it will go as high as $100 / ton - a number the government was happy to use to scare us about the costs of action). This has unpleasant consequences both for the effectiveness of policy and future budgets:

    My advice is that
    • A $25 price cap will blunt the incentive to forestry to invest. Forestry provides the biggest and lowest cost early opportunity to reduce New Zealand net emissions. The cap will be costly for forestry and plantings will not go ahead, at least for another three years. Some forestry interests say they will hold these credits until the price cap comes off and they can get a better price. Already this season 8 million seedlings are about to be dumped due to uncertainty over the ETS policy and the price signal it will deliver.
    • The $25 cap will shift a huge cost onto taxpayers. The higher the world price goes, the greater the subsidy for heavy emitters and agriculture.
    • A $25 cap in a market with a carbon price of $50 means emitters retain the 90% free credits for emissions above 2005 levels (the level of assistance that they would receive under the scheme we put in place), plus a 50% discount on a $50 carbon price on any additional emission rights they need to purchase.
    • The $25 cap is the equivalent of going to a better than a 95% subsidy level in an industry without any output growth.
    • Agriculture could effectively pay nothing for the next 10 years. Meantime, nitrogen inhibitors and other practices to reduce emissions will be rolled out, providing windfall gains.
    • At present, the 90% subsidies to emitters in the current legislation are reduced by 8% in a straight line beginning four years after a sector enters the scheme. If National harmonises to a reduction rate of 3.6% provided for in the Australian scheme, the cost is about another $1 billion a year - but this doubles if prices are capped at $25 and the world price goes to $50.
    • If the carbon price rises to $50, the cost to Government could rise to $2 billion (the equivalent of two rounds of tax cuts or $20 per household per week).
    At this stage I should point out that rather than "aligning with Australia", National reduced the reduction rate of its subsidies to 1.3% a year. This isn't costed, but its probably on the order of another billion a year. So even if prices don't rise, we're already looking at the worst-case fiscal scenario.

    Goff points out that the proposed scheme continues to subsidise polluters to carry on with business as usual, while removing the incentive from the one sector which has real potential for emissions reductions: forestry. It's no wonder they are refusing to back it.

    National's proposals are a disaster for the climate and this country. And you and I will be paying for it directly, through higher taxes, for years to come.

    Climate change: Negotiations

    Labour has released its correspondence with the government over their negotiations for a bipartisan deal on the ETS [PDF]. The government does not come off well. From the outset, they seem to have had problems deciding what they actually wanted to do, leaving Labour as the only party actually proposing anything. Just two weeks ago, after the release of the select committee report [PDF], their attitude was still "we'll come up with something and let you know about it when we do", while ignoring Labour's concrete proposals (see Nick Smith's letter of 3 September). Contrary to claims made by the Smith in Parliament, they had weekly meetings scheduled, and from the second-to-last document (an email from Chauvel to the Minister's office, document 11) it seems that Labour was still expecting to attend one for further negotiations (on Tuesday) as late as Monday morning - just hours before the government blindsided them with its deal. That deal was unlikely to have been cooked up in the six hours between that email and its release; Smith was just stringing Labour along while negotiating with other parties behind their back, the epitome of bad faith.

    The result isn't just a bad deal for New Zealand and the climate (but a very good one for National's rich polluter mates) - it will leave a toxic legacy which will prevent any future bipartisanship between the two major parties. It's one thing to say "sod off, we don't need you"; its quite another to string people along and then screw them. And it means that when the government can't juggle its opposing support parties and needs Labour's support, it is far less likely to be forthcoming.

    The final document lays out Labour's proposals for an amended ETS. it is clearly still a work-in-progress - the final email talks of having the numbers checked by officials - and it is weaker than the scheme in place at the moment. But its also an effort to meet National's concerns around price volatility and agriculture while still retaining a functional system with incentives for reduction. It is unquestionably superior to the amendments proposed by National, but I guess it just didn't pander to polluters enough. And thanks to National's massive subsidies for pollution, ordinary taxpayers will be the losers.

    Ian Curtis lives

    Last week, in an act of pure cultural vandalism, Wellington City Council painted over the city's famous "Ian Curtis wall".

    Naturally, it didn't stay gone for long, and now it is back from the dead. Hopefully it'll be allowed to remain this time.

    Spell my name with an "h"

    The New Zealand Geographic board has unanimously ruled that "Whanganui" should be spelled with an "h". And their reasoning is pretty compelling:

    Other information the Board considered included evidence of the use of the ‘h’ in early historical records, and the fact that the issue of spelling was one that began from the 1840s. Views of the Human Rights Commission and the Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) were also noted.

    “In the end we could not overlook the fact that Wanganui is not correctly spelt and it is a Māori name that is of significant cultural importance,” Dr Grant said.

    “Historical evidence has shown that early settlers clearly intended the name of the city to be derived from the Māori name for the river, and consistent modern usage of the language showed the spelling should be Whanganui, not Wanganui.”

    History wins over redneckery for once, huzzah!

    The decision will now go to the Minister of Land Information (yes, we have one; he doesn't get out much) for final approval. If accepted, then local authorities and government departments will be required to use the new name in official publications. As for the general public, no-one is going to be stuck in jail for using the old spelling; they'll just increasingly look like rednecks and relics, like those who cling to "Egmont" rather than "Taranaki", or "Rhodesia" instead of "Zimbabwe".

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Refusing to answer II

    The transcript from Question Time today:

    Metiria Turei: When the Minister said in his speech that “… New Zealanders need to know that this country is also well endowed with natural resources.”, is it not the case that Kiwis already know how blessed we are, already know that our magnificent conservation places are like gold to the New Zealand economy, and are aghast at his attempts to plunder those areas for fool’s gold and dirty coal?

    Mr SPEAKER: The Hon Gerry Brownlee.

    Metiria Turei: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister has to at least attempt to answer a question properly put to him by another member of Parliament.

    Mr SPEAKER: Unless the Minister considers it not to be in the public interest, he should answer the question. I call the Hon Gerry Brownlee. The Minister clearly has nothing to say in response to the question.

    This is simply unacceptable behaviour from a Minister. Being held accountable by Parliament is part and parcel of holding a Ministerial warrant. And if Brownlee is unwilling to do that, he should resign.

    Israel committed war crimes in Gaza

    That's the conclusion of the UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission. Israeli forces used disproportionate force, imposed a blockade which amounted to collective punishment, and deliberately targeted the civilian population. Their military operations were

    carefully planned in all their phases as a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.
    The mission's leader, South African judge Richard Goldstone, concluded that these actions amounted to "war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity". The same charge is levelled at Palestinian groups for deliberately attacking civilian targets.

    In both cases, Goldstone recommends that the Security Council require both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to investigate these crimes, and report in six months about their progress. If they do not come up to scratch - if crimes are denied or whitewashed, and if there is no serious investigation and good-faith prosecution - then the relevant parties should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Its a sensible solution. The way to end war crimes is to end impunity for war criminals. If these countries will not enforce international (and their own) law, then the international community will have to do it for them.

    Refusing to answer

    Question time today started with Metiria Turei hauling Gerry Brownlee over the coals over his desire to dig up the conservation estate. She has just asked a detailed question about the relative value of minerals versus conservation. In response, Brownlee said... nothing. He did not even rise to respond, just shrugged his shoulders and refused to answer. He did not hide behind the claim that it would not be in the public interest to answer - he simply did not bother to respond. And the Speaker has allowed him to get away with it.

    I have never seen this happen before, and with good reason. Question Time is the primary means by which Ministers are held to account by Parliament. If they can simply refuse to answer - not claim public interest immunity (which is open to some examination and challenge), not quibble over Ministerial responsibility (another favoured tactic), but simply refuse and stand mute - then that task is made impossible. Both Brownlee and the Speaker have failed our democracy today.