Friday, April 30, 2010

The New Zealand Conservation Authority on mining

The New Zealand Conservation Authority is a statutory body established to advise the Minister of Conservation on the management of our reserves and national parks. Given that role, you'd expect them to have something to say about the government's plans to mine in national parks. And you'd be right. Their briefing to the Minister [PDF] utterly pans the government's plans:

The key concepts in the National Parks Act 1980 are the preservation of certain places "as far as possible in their natural state" in perpetuity, because they are "so beautiful, unique or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest". They are preserved "for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public". Another defining quality of national parks is that they are freely accessible to all: "The public shall have freedom of entry and access to the parks, so that they may receive in full measure the inspiration, enjoyment, recreation, and other benefits that may be derived from mountains, forests, sounds, seacoasts, lakes, rivers, and other natural features."


The key concepts cited in the previous paragraphs are in direct conflict with the imperatives of the mining industry.

The NZCA opposes any mining in national parks on philosophical principles. National parks are a taonga. They should not be mined.

They have little to say about the non-national park areas in the government's proposal, since they're outside their authority. But they do note that despite all its rhetoric about "balancing the economy and the environment",

that balancing exercise does not, on the face of the Paper, appear to have been undertaken for those areas. It appears to be sufficient that they have good mining prospects irrespective of their conservation values.
They also oppose the proposal for "joint approval" (meaning: approval by the Minister of Energy and Resources rather than the Minister of Conservation) for mining in Schedule 4 as
contrary to the scheme of the CM Act but also because inherent in it is a lowering of the bar for undertaking mining activities in all public conservation areas.
The Crown Minerals Act separates the granting of a mining licence (something the government does) from the granting of access to mine (something the landowner does). The Minister of Conservation is the effective landowner in this case, though the land is held in trust for the people of New Zealand. Its entirely appropriate that they get to have the final say, and assess whether mining is compatible with the purpose for which the land is held. But its that assessment - which would almost invariably result in a negative answer - the government wants to avoid.

These are strong words from the NZCA, and the advice is unlikely to be welcomed by the government.


Some excerpts from my submission on mining on schedule 4 land:

Should these areas be removed from Schedule 4?

Land included in Schedule 4 is, by definition, land of the highest conservation value, protected by national park, reserve, or wildlife sanctuary status. In order to be recognised as a national park, an area must contain “scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest” (National Parks Act 1980, s4). In order to be protected as a nature reserve, an area must be home to “indigenous flora or fauna or natural features that are of such rarity, scientific interest or importance, or so unique that their protection and preservation are in the public interest” (Reserves Act 1977, s20). In both cases, the land must be protected in its natural state, and its environmental and scenic values, its flora and fauna protected in perpetuity. Any form of mining is clearly inconsistent with this purpose.

In regards to the specific areas:

  • The Te Ahumata plateau on Great Barrier island is part of the Hauraki Marine Park. The area includes critical habitat for the brown teal, an endangered species. There are estimated to be less than one thousand adult brown teal remaining in the wild, making any removal of habitat a real threat to the species’ continued existence. The area is also home to plants found only on the island such as the Great Barrier Island tree daisy and the Great Barrier Island kanuka.
  • The areas in the Coromandel are home to kiwi, the Hochstetters and Archey’s frogs, and have significant ecological or recreational value.
  • The Otahu Ecological Area is home to kiwi and the Hochstetter’s frog, as well as helping to preserve an intact natural sequence of aquatic habitat from the mountains to the sea. The Parakawai reserve also contributes to this sequence.
  • The areas in Paparoa National Park contain intact podocarp forest and endangered ferns, and provide vital habitat for threatened birds, including Great Spotted kiwi, Kaka and Keruru.

All of these areas have significant ecological and recreational values which would be fatally compromised by mining. They should not be despoiled in this fashion.

Should the government let the Minister of Energy and Resources approve mining in conservation areas?

This is inappropriate. Schedule 4 land is managed by the Department of Conservation for conservation purposes. Joint approval would create a significant risk of those purposes being supplanted by other purposes contrary to those of the Conservation Act (for example, supposed economic benefits). This in turn would create a significant risk of unlawful decision-making, and of access agreements being challenged in court.

In addition, joint approval would muddy Parliamentary accountability for decisions to grant access to high-value conservation land. The two Ministers could point the finger at one another, and accountability could fall through the cracks. That is simply unacceptable, and erodes the principle that Ministers are accountable to Parliament, and through them the people.


I was going to post a final reminder today for people to submit on the government's plans to mine national parks, but the government has just extended the deadline by three weeks. So, if you thought you weren't going to get it done on time, now you have no excuse. If you're not sure what to say, the Greens have a submission guide here; if you just want to make a quick submission, you can do so here.

Also, if you're in Auckland, the March Against Mining is tomorrow. 11am, Lower Queen St. There's already more than 1600 people signed up on Facebook; go along and join them.

Reminder: Protest against the Canterbury dictatorship today!

Today is the elected ECan's last day in office; they will be replaced by National's farmer junta tomorrow. So, people are going to give them a send-off, and show their hate for the dictators.

When: Friday, 30 April, 17:30 - 19:30
Where: ECan, 58 Kilmore St, Christchurch

There are also plans to protest outside National's victory party (AKA the Jenny Shipley lecture on "Canterbury Water - A Collaborative Approach") a short way down the road at around 18:00.

Please show your support for democracy in Canterbury.

Bennett tries to buy the silence of her victim

Last year, in a vile act of political thuggery, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett released the personal and benefit details of two beneficiaries who had publicly criticised the government's plans to cut the training incentive allowance. This gross abuse of power resulted in an investigation by the Privacy Commissioner. And you can see why: as a result of Bennett's unlawful release of personal information, one of the women "has had to have counselling, move house and change her phone number", presumably because of abuse and harassment from the right-wing sewer.

The Privacy Commissioner's findings are due to be released soon, and they're clearly pretty bad for Bennett: she's reportedly been trying to buy the silence of her victim in a desperate attempt to prevent the report becoming public. Bennett is of course denying everything, and trying to bluster and stonewall her way through, but TV3 apparently has documents to prove it (which they should publish. Bennett has had her chance; time to let the evidence speak for itself). So, we have a Minister who abuses her power, then tries to buy her way out of trouble. And no doubt, she's using taxpayer's money to do it.

The Cabinet Manual sets out a very clear standard of behaviour for Ministers:

Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards.
Bennett's behaviour does not meet that standard. Her initial violation of privacy was unlawful, abusive, and unethical. Her subsequent attempt to buy her victim's silence is unethical. She is morally unfit to be a Minister. She should have been sacked long ago.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The government does not trust the Ministry of Justice

A couple of months ago, we learned that the Ministry of Justice had been dumped from advising on the government's three strikes law, after it gave advice the government did not like. An exchange in Question Time today (link coming) today suggests that something similar is happening with Paul Quinn's Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill. Clayton Cosgrove attempted to ask which government agency had been appointed to advice the law and Order select committee on the bill - and when that was ruled out as inquiring into a confidential committee decision, asked whether the Ministry of Justice, the government's lead agency on electoral matters, would be advising. That too was ruled out. But the subtext was clear: they won't be. So, the agency which is primarily responsible for advising on electoral matters, and which has the experts to give the best advice on the bill, will be silenced again - presumably because it would support the Attorney-General's opinion that the bill is inconsistent with the BORA.

This is not a good way to make policy. And it suggests that the committee has already made its mind up about the bill. So much for a fair committee process.

Election funding: The bill

Today the government introduced its Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill, designed to implement its response to their election finance review. The review basically came up with "reform" that isn't - no tighter donation disclosure requirements, no public funding, and no spending limits on parallel campaigns. Its "reform" in the interests of political parties (and rich political parties at that), not the public.

One thing I hadn't noticed is that the government is effectively raising campaign spending limits by stealth. These apply within the regulated period - which used to be the three months before election day. In an effort to stop this being retrospective, the bill has the regulated period start on the day after the day on which the election is called, unless that would be longer than three months. In practice, elections are announced around eight weeks in advance, so the practical effect of the change will mean that the money which used to have to last 12 weeks will now only have to last 8. This amounts to an effective 50% increase in the spending cap. Meanwhile, parties will be free to (like Brash) spend millions outside the cap in election year - turning elections into a contest of money rather than votes. That's not democracy - its plutocracy.

There's also a welcome change: everyone will now be able to advance-vote, as of right, without having to make a statutory declaration on why they need to. This makes it significantly easier to vote, and should boost turnout. It enhances our democracy. Now, if only we could get a finance regime which does the same.

Gutting local democracy

Today the government introduced a new Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill, aimed at re-focusing local government on "core services". Much of the bill is technical and shifts legal obligations around long-term community plans to one place. But it is also aimed at "remov[ing] unnecessary consultation" and "leveling the playing field to better enable the private sector to deliver local authority services". The former limits the community's say in that long-term community plan - basically, we will no longer be allowed to have an annual say in what our councils will do, instead being limited to triennial choices between competing members of an elite (the ACT/Peter Shirtcliffe model of democracy). The latter of course is a licence for the wholesale privatisation of local government services such as water, waste, and libraries. Which, thanks to the removal of consultation requirements, we won't be allowed to have a say on.

The government of course will try and claim that this is "not privatisation", because it is not dictating that councils sell their assets and privatise their services. But that's pretty obviously what it wants them to do. Their wealthy donors are clearly getting a solid return on their investment.

Meanwhile, the government's policy of secrecy around Regulatory Impact Statements has hit a new low. While the bill includes URLs to both Treasury and Internal Affairs, neither actually has the RIS up yet. So much for transparency.

Calling a bigot a bigot

The election news from the UK is all about "bigotgate" - Prime Minister Gordon Brown's "gaffe" in being caught on an open microphone calling a Labour supporter a "bigoted woman" to his aides. Brown was forced to apologise on the radio, and then personally. But looking at what the woman actually said, he shouldn't have. After spouting the usual prejudices about the unemployed, she then went on

"You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're … but all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?"
So, complaining about immigration, and eastern Europeans (in NZ it would be "Asians") "flocking" in. Brown was right - this woman is a bigoted racist. And his only gaffe was in not calling her that to her face.

Government threatens democracy

Agriculture Minister David Carter has finally said it: ECan was sacked because it didn't "co-operate" with farmers and give them all the water they wanted. And other councils had better knuckle down and obey, or they too will be sacked:

Speaking at the Irrigation New Zealand conference in Christchurch yesterday, Carter said the Government had "no option" but to sack the councillors.

"We had to act here in Canterbury because the situation was untenable if we are going to seriously make progress in delivering this irrigation," he said.

"I would have thought what happened recently with Environment Canterbury would be a signal to all regional councils to work a bit more constructively with their farmer stakeholders."

(Emphasis added)

As for other stakeholders, who want clean rivers rather than open sewers full of cowshit, well, we're not important compared to the mighty farmer, I guess. Even if we outnumber and outvote them, as we now do in Christchurch, our views should be ignored and our environment destroyed in order to pander to the greed and archaic views of a tiny but self-important minority (of which Carter happens to be a member).

This turns democracy on its head. But then, the right have never been very keen on that, have they?


Labour is experimenting with crowdsourcing policy development, with a new project called OpenLabour. Policy ideas will be floated on Red Alert, with feedback through the comments. The result will be "a key input for Labour to consider in developing its policy". How seriously it will be taken depends on how good it is. Which points out an obvious vulnerability right there: right-wing trolls engaging in their usual disruption and sabotage could easily make this a waste of time for everyone involved.

The first topic will be open and transparent government. There's already a Law Commission review into the primary vehicle for this, the OIA, but there are other areas that could be discussed (and there's no reason why we should all be slaves to Geoffrey Palmer's views). And its not the sort of topic that energizes the trolls in the way that, say, any discussion of social equality or human rights does.

Despite the risk of failure, this is a worthwhile experiment in engaging people in politics, and more parties should do it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another mining bill

Last week, Metiria Turei's Crown Minerals (Protection of Public Conservation Land Listed in the Fourth Schedule) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot. Today during Question Time, Jacinda Ardern sought leave to introduce a Conservation (Requirement for Special Approval for Changes to Schedule Four) Amendment Bill. So, are the bills the same, and thus potentially subject to Standing order 260(a)?

No. Meyt's bill amends s61(4) of the Crown Minerals Act to prevent the Minister of Conservation from removing land from the protection of Schedule 4 by Order in Council. Jacinda's bill amends s18 of the Conservation Act 1987 to require any revocation of conservation status under that Act to be confirmed by Parliament. It does this because the easiest way for the government to achieve its objectives of allowing mining in these areas is not just to remove areas from schedule 4, but to revoke their underlying conservation status. National parks are already safe - they can only be changed by Act of Parliament - and there are tight restrictions around changes to reserves managed under the Reserves Act. But there are no such limits on conservation areas. The bill would protect the Parakawai and Otahu ecological areas, and some of the land on the Coromandel and Great Barrier. But the protection would not be complete.

Of course, the government could still excise these areas from the protection of Schedule 4 while retaining the underlying conservation status. This would still mean a significant barrier to mining, but not an absolute prohibition. So Meyt's bill is necessary too. But it is also clear that we need a more general bill addressing all of the multiple overlapping protection regimes if we want to properly protect this land from mining in the future.

Taxes for one drug, none for another

Yesterday, the goverment ruled out raising the alcohol excise tax. Today, they've thrown the House into extraordinary urgency (which means they sit as long as it takes until the bill is passed) to immediately raise the excise tax on tobacco. The reasons given are the obvious ones - to make smokers pay the social cost of their actions, and discourage use. But those reasons are equally applicable to alcohol. The hypocrisy is astounding. But this is National we're talking about. And all that matters to them is votes. Thanks to years of campaigning and stigmatisation, few people smoke. But lots of people drink. You can target the small group, but not the bigger one. Its that simple.

Credit where credit is due

In the past I've been highly critical of politicians who prefer to "keep their powder dry" and keep their policies and positions secret until election time to prevent scrutiny and criticism. This is a dishonest strategy, which puts power before principle and treats the electorate like children. As a voter, I want to know what the political choices are. Hiding your policies is a deliberate attempt to thwart my decision-making.

Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. In the past week, Labour has made solid commitments in some rather contentious policy areas. These include:

I like these policies, but more importantly I like the fact that labour is putting them out there, and having the argument with the electorate over what should be done. Its treating us like adults, enabling us to make a political choice. And in a democracy, that is a Good Thing.

Alcohol: Or, the police could do their job...

The papers this morning are full of discussion about the Law Commission's alcohol report [PDF]. The big news is that the government has ruled out the best idea - making alcohol users pay the cost of the social harms they cause. I guess they think liquor industry profits are far more important than public health. Unfortunately for us, this leaves them with options that are far more intrusive on personal liberty than price increases: either a nationwide closing time, or blaming the young by raising the drinking age. And given that there are votes in pandering to the prejudices of the old, then I guess we'll be getting paedophobic wowserism. Oh joy.

Meanwhile, the other practical response is ignored. The police are concerned about public disorder, alcohol-related crime (a staggeringly high percentage of offences are committed while under the influence), and youth drinking. But it is currently a crime to serve an intoxicated person, and to serve alcohol to a minor. Unfortunately, these laws aren't enforced - as part 4 of the report [PDF] points out, there were only 91 prosecutions for supply to a minor last year (resulting in 27 convictions), and only one for supply to an intoxicated person. This is lowered because some offences are handled through the Liquor Licensing Authority, but still, the general picture is one of non-enforcement. Which suggests an obvious solution: the police should do their bloody job, and enforce a zero-tolerance regime on bars which admit minors or sell to drunks. No additional powers would be required (though some of those suggested by the Law Commission would be helpful). But again, that might interfere with liquor industry profits, and the police would rather spend their time arresting harmless dope growers and spying on political protestors.

Protest against the Canterbury Dictatorship this Friday!

Live in Christchurch? Angry at the government taking your vote away? Here's a chance to show it. Friday will be ECan's last day before the dictatorship, and people will be there to say goodbye to democracy and show their anger at the dictators:

When: Friday, 30 April, 17:30 - 19:30
Where: ECan, 58 Kilmore St, Christchurch

There are also plans to protest outside National's victory party (AKA the Jenny Shipley lecture on "Canterbury Water - A Collaborative Approach") a short way down the road at around 18:00.

Meanwhile, Labour has made a concrete promise to restore democracy if elected. So, the most effective form of protest may very well be at the ballot box next year.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More Muldoonism

The government announced a package of measures for the aquaculture industry this afternoon - including a power for Ministers "to amend regional coastal plans in exceptional circumstances where it is in significant regional or national interest". So instead of regional councils deciding which areas are used for aquaculture in accordance with the wishes and interests of local communities, the Minister will. And they will even unilaterally decide what is in a region's interests, irrespective of what the people of that region may say to the contrary.

That piggy little cackle you can hear is the ghost of Robert Muldoon again. He may be dead, but his authoritarian centralising urges are still alive and well in the National Party.


The Attorney-General has just tabled a report in Parliament declaring the government's Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF]. The bill reclassifies ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, precursors used to manufacture P, as controlled drugs. So what's the human rights issue?

The problem is with the presumption of innocence. "Innocent until proven guilty" is a fundamental rule of our court system, affirmed by the BORA. But the Misuse of Drugs Act reverses this. If you have over a certain amount of a controlled drug, you are presumed to possess it for the purposes of supply, and are thus "guilty until proven innocent". This is neither just, nor consistent with the BORA.

The problem has been known for quite some time, ever since the Supreme Court ruling in R v. Hansen in 2007. And since then, every bill reclassifying a drug as a controlled substance with a supply limit has attracted a section 7 report. All of them have been ignored. Parliament seems quite happy to reverse the burden of proof, presume people guilty, and make them prove themselves innocent in order to appear "tough on crime". And no doubt, they'll do it again, sacrificing human rights to grub for votes from people who do not and never have given a shit about justice.

This erodes Parliament's moral authority and brings politicians as a class into contempt. After all, if they won't obey the rules they set for themselves, they're in no moral position to legislate for anyone else.

Climate change: Australia fails again

Last year, the Australian Senate voted down the government's timid, weak, subsidy-ridden Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (an ETS by another name). This year, the government has a chance to fix that - an election means they will have a new Senate, and one more likely to pass the scheme. Instead, they've chickened out completely, delaying it until 2013:

It was once a centrepiece of the Federal Government's election strategy, but now the emissions trading scheme (ETS) has been relegated to the shelf until at least 2013.

Delaying the scheme means the Government could save $2.5 billion from its budget over the next three years, because it would not be paying compensation to households and industries.

Not having to pay subsidies to polluters is good - and the CPRS was a bad policy which deserved to fail. The problem is that any replacement in 2013 is likely to be even weaker, and have even more subsidies. Meanwhile, there will not even be weak controls on Australian emissions for the whole of CP1. As in NZ, a bad ETS is better than no ETS at all, and once it is in place, it can be strengthened later as political conditions permit. Thanks to Kevin Rudd's cowardice, Australia won't be able to do that.

[Hat-tip: Larvatus Prodeo]

The Law Commission on alcohol

Today the Law Commission released its report on reducing harm caused by alcohol. The report [PDF] had already been leaked by DPF last week, so there's no real surprises. As expected, they're suggesting a rise in excise tax, a nationwide closing time, not being able to buy alcohol in supermarkets after 10pm, and (of course) raising the purchase age back to 20.

Of these, the rise in excise tax is the best idea. Alcohol clearly causes social harms, including increased health and policing costs. It is entirely appropriate that its users pay the cost of those harms (just as it is appropriate the users of carbon pay the cost of the harms they are imposing on the environment). While a 50% rise in excise tax sounds enormous, it is expected to result in only a 10% rise in the final price of alcohol. But it will result in an estimated $500 million extra in government revenue to help pay for those costs.

The nationwide closing time is a pretty transparent attempt at social engineering, an attempt to turn the clock back to the days before the 24/7 society and stamp out the late night party culture in our major cities. But, to put it bluntly, it is none of the government's business when people party. Yes, it would undoubtedly make policing easier. So would a dusk till dawn curfew. The reason we laugh at any suggestion of the latter is because of a recognition that people are free to live their lives as they please. Being able to buy a drink at 3am in and of itself does not hurt anyone. Its getting drunk and driving, or smashing windows, or beating people up which does. And those are the behaviours the law should target. Yes, its "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" stuff - but so is arresting people only after they've committed a crime. Both are required by a proper respect for liberty.

(A similar criticism applies to the proposal that supermarkets not be allowed to sell alcohol after 10pm. We know Geoffrey Palmer is old, and grew up in the "good old days" when work happened from 9 to 5 and the shops closed at 5pm and didn't open on the weekend. But society moved on from that quite some time ago, and today the idea of not being able to buy alcohol after 10pm is as ludicrous as the idea of not being able to buy it on good Friday, easter Sunday, christmas day or Anzac day. Its not the government’s business to tell people when to shop, and its certainly not their business to tell us when we can drink in the privacy of our own homes (which is what this measure is aimed at)).

Then there's raising the drinking age again. This is another attempt to turn back the clock, but while it will no doubt be popular with the old (who like to see alcohol as a youth problem and avoid responsibility for their own behaviour), there is a fundamental problem: these people are adults. They can get married or civilised, fight and die for their country, vote - and Palmer thinks they're not adult enough to drink? This is simply paedophobic wowserism. Discrimination on the basis of age is as despicable as discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender. 18 year olds are full citizens (give or take a few old laws which no-one has bothered to fix yet because they're irrelevant in practice), and they should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, there are votes in appealing to the paedophobia of the old, and if the government progresses any of these measures, its likely to be the last one. And with a parliament composed mostly of old people, who grew up ignoring a drinking age of 20, the odds are that they'll probably get away with it.

New Fisk

The luxury resort in the middle of a war zone

No justice in America

In 1990, Charles Hood was convicted of multiple homicide and sentenced to death by a Texas court. Long after the trial ended, it was discovered that the prosecutor and the judge had been in a covert relationship for some time. In most countries (including New Zealand), this would have led to an immediate retrial, on the grounds that it fatally undermined the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But not in the United States. The Texas court of appeal denied Hood's request for a retrial on the procedural grounds that it was too late to appeal the issue, even though Hood did not know about it at the time. And the US Supreme Court, which just last year ruled that a judge who has accepted $3 million in electoral donations from a party appearing before him should have recused himself,has denied leave to appeal without even giving a reason.

This is what passes for "justice" in America. And quite clearly, it isn't. The impartiality of judges is a fundamental requirement for any fair trial. But the United States courts will not enforce it. And as long as they refuse to, as long as they allow biased judges to sit on cases without penalty or remedy, then there is no justice in America.

[Hat-tip: Slate]

Monday, April 26, 2010


Two thousand people turned out in Nelson on Saturday to march against mining. That's an enormous number for a town with a population of 60,000. The equivalent in Wellington would be a protest of more than 10,000 - basically, the hikoi. And this is happening in Nick Smith's own electorate.

Hopefully we'll see an even larger turnout in Auckland this Saturday...

An alternative Auckland

In a major speech today, Labour leader Phil Goff presented his vision for the future of Auckland. In the process, he made some very specific policy promises for the Auckland supercity:

  • real power for local boards;
  • letting Auckland decide its own corporate structure, rather than having it dictated by Rodney Hide;
  • banning the privatisation of Auckland's assets without a referendum;
  • a review of ward boundaries to remove undemocratic multi-member constituencies;
  • a seat in Cabinet committees for Auckland's mayor on Auckland issues.
This is a positive alternative vision for Auckland. Its more democratic and more local than that espoused by Hide, and gives Aucklanders more control over their own city. Which is exactly the opposite of what Hide wants - as with ECan, his "reforms" are aimed squarely at reducing democratic control, and placing essential functions out of the reach of citizens and handing them over to corporate bodies so the "right" (for the right) decisions are made.

The Ministry of Justice on the Canterbury dictatorship

Last week, Minister for the Environment Nick Smith released (censored) cabinet papers on his decision to replace the elected Canterbury Regional Council with a pack of unelected dictators. But while Smith was eager for a coup to distribute Canterbury's water to its rapacious and dirty farmers, others weren't so keen. According to the Cabinet paper (p. 22),

The Ministry of Justice does not agree with the proposals to replace the elected Councillors for all of ECan’s functions, defer local body elections or remove the right of appeal on the NRRP or water conservation orders, except on points of law. The proposals to replace the elected Councillors and defer local body elections are of constitutional significance. The proposals to remove the right of appeal on the NRRP or water conservation orders, except on points of law, present an access to justice issue. The Ministry of Justice is concerned that this is not consistent with the Government's statement on regulation: "better regulation, less regulation" which requires "a particularly strong case [to be] made for any regulatory proposals that are likely to override fundamental common law principles (as referenced in Chapter 3 of the Legislation Advisory Committee guidelines). These common law principles include "the right of citizens to have access to the courts." The Ministry of Justice considers that this is a significant proposal, which combined with the removal of the elected councillors means that parties with a stake in Canterbury's natural resources have significantly less ability to protect their rights and interests than elsewhere in the country."
There is also strong criticism from the Department of Conservation, which saw the replacement as overkill not justified by the report, and the changes to the Water Conservation Order regime as
prevent[ing] achievement of the purpose of the WCO section in the RMA, and lead[ing] to the loss of outstanding water body values.
All of these concerns were of course ignored, and thanks to a gaping hole in the Bill of Rights Act, the dictatorship was certified as consistent with human rights legislation.

Meanwhile, over on FrogBlog, Russel Norman draws attention to another clause in the bill, which allows Nick Smith to suspend application of the RMA in Canterbury. As Norman points out, this is contrary to the rule of law, and reduces the "law" to the arbitrary whim of a Minister.

So, we have a government which replaces an elected council with dictators because they don't like the decisions it makes, makes the decisions of those dictators unreviewable by the courts, and gives itself the power to arbitrarily suspend key environmental and planning laws if they get in the way of its plans - and all under urgency to prevent public debate. Norman is right: this is Muldoonism. ECan is the new Clyde Dam.

How insurers make their profits

The National Post has a disturbing story about the actions of US health insurer, WellPoint, and its policy of dumping anyone diagnosed with breast cancer:

The women paid their premiums on time. Before they fell ill, neither had any problems with their insurance. Initially, they believed their policies had been canceled by mistake.

They had no idea that WellPoint was using a computer algorithm that automatically targeted them and every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software triggered an immediate fraud investigation, as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies, according to government regulators and investigators. Once the women were singled out, they say, the insurer then canceled their policies based on either erroneous or flimsy information.

This is how insurance companies make their money: by denying claims - or, less politely, cheating their customers out of the coverage they have paid for. And National wants to put these people in charge of welfare in New Zealand, through compulsory unemployment insurance? Its utter madness!

[Hat-tip: Kevin Drum]

Hungary votes II

Hungarians went back to the polls today in the second round of Parliamentary elections - and gave the right-wing Fidesz party a landslide victory. There's no question that Fidesz won, but at the same time the result highlights the perversity of the Hungarian electoral system.

Hungary uses a complicated version of Supplementary Member, with two rounds of constituency voting, regional lists determined by a separate party vote, and national "compensation seats" distributed according to the "fragmentary vote" (that is, the votes leftover when regional seats are allocated, combined with those for losing candidates). The result is a highly disproportional system. For example, Fidesz received 53% of the popular vote - and 68% of the seats. The Socialists got 20% of the vote and 15% of the seats, while the Green LMP got 7% of the vote and 4% of the seats.

The two-thirds majority artificially awarded to Fidesz as a result of this perverse system will allow them to change the constitution at will. And they plan to do exactly that, with changes proposed to the election system, media law, and local government. Some of these changes may be good (I don't know yet) - but the fact that they can be made unilaterally by a party with only 50% of the vote granted disproportionate power by an unfair electoral system is simply obscene.

Its a nice warning of the unfairness of SM systems, and a good reason to reject that system in 2011.

The next step for the republic

Over on Public Address, Graeme Edgeler has some trenchent criticism of Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill, which was voted down last week. Graeme doesn't disagree with the aims of the bill, but rather argues that it was grossly legally flawed. And looking at his examples, he's right.

Most of those flaws stem from the bills ambition - it tried to do everything at once. In the process, it missed the enormous amount of finickity detail that needs to be changed if we are to move towards a republic. Some of the larger flaws may very well have been fixed by a select committee - but expecting them to do it all is a bit much (and, had the bill been voted to select committee, it would have been perfectly appropriate for them to say so).

So, what's the way forward then? Graeme suggests a select committee inquiry to do the groundwork, or perhaps a bill to establish a citizen's jury to discuss the issue and come up with a broad model. Another would be a bill for an indicative referendum, with a statutory inquiry to investigate any constitutional changes required to implement the result (and/or engage in further codification - something necessary even if the result is the status quo). Or bills to elect the head of state or codify the reserve powers, or remove the royal assent, allowing those issues to be worked out separately and giving us a more democratic New Zealand regardless.

What the issue really needs of course is a Royal Commission, similar to that used for electoral reform in the mid-80's. But irony aside, that would require positive action by the government, something which successive governments have shown no interest in (while all of course proclaiming that a republic is "inevitable").

New Zealand constitutional change has traditionally been progressed in a piecemeal, evolutionary fashion. And that's now probably the way to a republic. Not as satisfying as a "big bang", and hard work - but much more likely to be successful.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New Fisk

Churchill reckoned the Japanese preferred war-war to jaw-jaw

Friday, April 23, 2010

Backing down on whaling?

Today the International Whaling Commission released its "compromise" of allowing limited commercial whaling. National had previously backed the move, putting itself out of step with world opinion and the New Zealand public. But instead of announcing their support, they've rejected it. So, does this mean National is backing away from its support for whaling?

Not really. They don't object on principle, but on the basis that the deal isn't good enough. In other words, they're just fine with the commercial slaughter of whales. But they've clearly done some polling and realised that, as they say in the press release, "New Zealanders will not accept this". And that we won't accept a government which supports it either.

Humour: Frank Bainimarama approached to head interim ECan regime

From Rapid Fire:

FOREIGN Minister Murray McCully has allegedly approached Fijian strong man Commodore Frank Bainimarama to head up the sacked Ecan regional council in Canterbury, much to the military dictator's bemusement.

An undercover Rabid Fire reporter definitely not rorting Rabid Fire expenses for a tropical holiday followed McCully to Fiji and somewhat unconvincingly disguised as a member of the Fijian military with a boom mike extending suspiciously from his trousers, recorded the following conversation...

Read the rest here.

It's an apt comparison. The government has just taken away Cantabrians' right to vote because they did not trust the democratic process to deliver the "right" outcome. And they're not going to give it back until 2013, by which time they aim to have given away all the water irreversibly to their cronies. They may not have used guns, but its a coup just the same - and we should not accept it.

Privatising ACC

Radio New Zealand reports that the government's "stocktake" committee into ACC - comprised of NeoLiberals and insurance-industry cronies - is pushing privatising the scheme. As in the 90's this won't be done by selling it outright, but rather by "opening it up to competition" - meaning that the insurance industry will cherry pick the profitable parts of the scheme (and then play their usual games of refusing to pay out on claims - i.e. cheating their customers), and leave the public to pick up the tab on the rest.

There is no benefit to the public from this. An independent report from Price Waterhouse [PDF] a few years ago found the ACC scheme was the most efficient in the world, cost half as much as private insurance in Australia while providing broader coverage, and that there would be no benefits to the public from privatisation. But according to the Prime Minister's old firm Merrill Lynch, they and their Australian insurance industry buddies would make $200 million a year if ACC was privatised. That's $200 million a year which will be ripped straight out of our pockets, paid for in denied claims and poorer service - a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich, National's raison d'être.

We can't let this happen. ACC is a core public service, and National plans to gut it to enrich its mates. You don't get a starker illustration of the inherent corruption of the right than that.


The Electoral Legislation Committee has called for submissions on the Electoral Referendum Bill. Two copies, by Thursday, 10 June 2010, to

Electoral Legislation Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
Or you can use the online form above.

The bill establishes the framework for next year's referendum on MMP. The key point of controversy is the advertising regime in part 3, which sets no spending caps, and does not even require large advertisers to disclose how much they are spending to try and buy the outcome. The regime seems designed to produce a repeat of 1993, when Peter Shirtcliffe spent millions in his efforts to keep FPP - and almost succeeded. But rather than take that as a warning sign, the government seems to want it to happen again.

Submitting is easy, and select committees do pay attention. If you're not sure how to make a submission, Parliament has a handy guide in English and Maori here.

The Clegg effect

Nick Clegg's appearance in the UK's first televised election debate hasn't just resulted in a surge in popularity for the LibDems and a real chance of a hung Parliament (and hence consensus policy and electoral reform) - it's also had another benefit: a surge in voter registrations:

The number of people registering to vote has increased markedly, adding a new generation of voters to the electorate and making the outcome of the election even more volatile, according to a survey of marginal constituencies conducted by the Guardian.

Figures collected from more than 20 of the most marginal areas following Tuesday's deadline to register to vote indicate across-the-board increases in the electorate, compared with the last general election, suggesting that turnout could soar on 6 May.

In one area, the increase is as high as 17%, and there are also indications of a dramatic surge in people requesting postal votes.

And you can see why. Previously, people only had something to vote against: either a corrupt, tired, uninspiring government, or a corrupt, nasty, vicious opposition. Both were fatally tainted by the expenses scandal, and the general attitude was "a plague on both your houses". Now Clegg has given them something to vote for: change - with the added bonus of giving the finger to the two main parties. No wonder they're lining up to vote.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Canterbury's dictators

The government has announced its dictators for Canterbury. Besides Margaret Bazley, the list is mostly grey technocrats (including former finance minister David Caygill), though they do have a dairy farmer and a token environmentalist. Apart from Bazley, all are men. "Jobs for the boys" has a literal meaning under National.

The dictators will be paid $900 each a day, with Bazley getting $1,400. The existing councillors get about $52,000 a year, or about $200 / day. Even allowing for the fact that the number of people being paid has halved, the people of Canterbury will be paying more than twice as much for a group of representatives who were not elected by them, not accountable to them, and have no democratic mandate.

The government has also released the terms of reference [PDF] for the dictatorship. These are fairly broad and vague, with much of the detail to come in a letter later (which hopefully people will OIA), but one bit is of immediate concern:

The Commissioners will be responsible for the timely consideration of applications for amendments to water conservation orders and any applications for new water conservation orders in the Canterbury region.
So, their chief job is to gut existing WCOs and give the water away to farmers. A public asset - water - will be effectively privatised, the farmers will get money, and the people of Canterbury will get cowshit and poisoned drinking water.

The people of Canterbury should not put up with this. It's their water, their environment, and the decisions about it should be made by representatives elected by and accountable to them - not appointed and instructed by the government in Wellington. They should demand elections - and if they are not granted, take their revenge on National at the ballot box in 2011.

Correction: Nope, no token environmentalist. Oh, one of them is involved in the "Water Rights Trust", but they support irrigation projects rather than opposing them.

Climate change: Not enough

Last year, at the disastrous Copenhagen climate change conference, world leaders desperate to save face agreed the "Copenhagen Accord". While it set a goal of limiting climate change to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the Accord included no mechanism to achieve that goal, setting only weak, voluntary emissions reduction targets.

Today, scientists have exposed just how ineffective the Accord is likely to be, with an article in Nature revealing that those targets commit us to at least three degrees of warming. Worse, they're slower than the emissions reductions countries are already achieving. In other words, its a commitment not to lower emissions, but increase them.

This is not good enough. The world wants action, the world needs action. If our so-called "leaders" are not going to deliver that action, it is time we de-elected them and got new ones.

No election in Canterbury

Environment Canterbury is holding its last meeting today, complete with a coffin and black-clad mourners. As I noted last week, they had a chance to throw a final spanner in the government's works, by calling a special election for later this year (an act which would result in the automatic expiry of the dictatorship). Unfortunately they failed. Oh, the council passed the required resolution, 7-3 (who were those 3 dissenters who hate democracy? They must be named and shamed) - but it was ruled out of order by the chair. And so Canterbury's democracy dies with a whimper, replaced by a team of government-appointed dictators who are neither answerable or accountable to the people of Canterbury.

Such governance arrangements have no legitimacy, and the decrees of the Canterbury dictators cannot be regarded as either lawful or binding, any more than those of Fiji's dictator can be. Every decision the dictators make should be reviewed when democracy is restored, and those not confirmed should be overturned immediately. Those who benefit from the dictators' corrupt looting of public water should be put on notice that those benefits will not last, and that any consents purportedly granted will be reviewed and possibly revoked at the first opportunity. The acts of tyrants should not be allowed to stand.

But the task now must be to ensure a swift return to democracy. And the quickest way of doing that is to change the government at the next election. National voted to strip Cantabrians of their local democracy? Vote them out! Otherwise, you'll be waiting until 2013.

Update: According to The Press, the election motion was ruled out "because legislation suspending elections had already been passed". I think Alec Neill needed to read the law. And while they're correct that ECan couldn't enforce it, and that the government could simply legislate to overturn it, they would at least have to go to the bother (and take the PR hit). But it seems Neill would rather surrender to make life easy for his National Party mates than obey his constituents and stand up for democracy.


A ballot for three member's bill was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Tariff Act Repeal Bill (Roger Douglas)
  • Crown Minerals (Protection of Public Conservation Land Listed in the Fourth Schedule) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei)
  • Goods and Services Tax (Exemption of Healthy Food) Amendment Bill (Rahui Katene)

So, it looks like the government is going to have to debate mining in national parks after all.

All the bills have been previously covered in "in the ballot", Douglas's one here, Turei's one here, and Katene's one here. There were four new bills this week, the most interesting of which looks to be Hone Harawira's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Treaty of Waitangi Bill (which I assume establishes an office like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to be an independent reporter on Treaty issues - a very good idea). Hopefully I'll be able to cover it (and some other bills) in an "In the ballot" post later today.

Voting down the republic

Tonight, the New Zealand Parliament debated a republic for the first time, in the form of Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill. The bill would have established a process by which the people of New Zealand could have their say on our constitutional future, through a two-stage referendum process. Unfortunately, Parliament voted it down, 68 - 53.

The debate is up on In the House. There are some good speeches there, on how a republic would better reflect our national identity as a diverse, egalitarian, democratic nation, on how the monarchy is discriminatory and does not accord with New Zealand values, and on how the people should be allowed to have their say. And then there are the speeches from National MPs, who were whipped into opposing the bill, and whose best argument against it was that a debate on the republic would be a distraction from the issues they wanted to talk about. But to put it bluntly, that is not their decision to make. The constitution belongs to the people, not to MPs, and they should be enabling us to discuss it. By standing in the way of such a discussion, the National party has marked itself as opposed to democracy. But then, we already knew that, didn't we?

While the bill was defeated tonight, the issue is not going to go away. Its an issue of identity, about who we are as a nation, and thus a generational issue. Pretty much every young MP who entered the House last election was a republican, and that trend is only going to get stronger. Its been a long time since New Zealanders were raised on imperialism, longer still since we thought of Britain as "home" or ourselves as British. The generations who believe those things are withering and dying by the day, and their toxic memes are dying with them. The only question is how long their dead hands will maintain a death grip on our future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The Attorney-General has just tabled a report in parliament declaring Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act.

I have not seen the report itself yet, but I have been told that the problem is with s32 of the bill, which requires that

The referendum roll used for the second referendum must be the same as that used for the first referendum, without any updating or modification.
This is clearly inconsistent with the right to vote affirmed in the BORA, and I'm surprised Locke put it in. At the same time, its also easily fixable - just delete the clause. And if the bill makes it to select committee, I'd expect them to do just that.

Update: The report is up here [PDF]. I was wrong - it doesn't focus on the right to vote (which, as I should have remembered, is narrowly focused on general elections), but instead on the right to be free of discrimination. By requiring that the rolls be identical, the bill discriminates against those who turn 18 between the two referenda on the basis of their age. Interestingly, the report highlights Article 25 of the ICCPR in stressing the disadvantage caused - which is odd given that the Attorney-General completely ignored it in the case of ECan.


Milena Popova on Why Content Is a Public Good. The basic analysis - that technology has made digital content, such as music, TV, and movies, both non-rival and non-excludable, and hence a classic example of what economists term a public good - is blindingly obvious when you think about it, and I'm surprised no-one has said it earlier. But what it means is that the content industry as we know it is dead, their business model deprecated.

The problem then is how we get that content in future. As the Wiki article points out, there are other ways (subscription and government funding being the two obvious ones). But neither is consistent with the survival of the present content industry. All those leeching music industry middlemen are going to be looking for new jobs in the long term.

All about the water

The Press this morning has an important story about the government's abolition of democracy in Canterbury. Papers released to Forest & Bird under the OIA show that Agriculture Minister David Carter was scheming to steal Canterbury's water for his farmer mates long before ECan was reviewed:

A briefing paper to Carter in December last year said the Rakaia WCO set minimum flow and abstraction limits "that restrict the range of options available to resource management decision-makers and water users".

Three "key blockages to achieving the Government's objective" were the uncertain planning framework, the Rakaia WCO and the conditions on resource consents.

"An approach to unlocking irrigation's potential contribution to economic growth in Mid-Canterbury will need to address all three key blockages," the briefing said. Ad Feedback

A December 4 memo to Carter provided "an update on our progress in developing robust advice about how the Rakaia water-conservation order could be varied in order to facilitate irrigation development in Mid-Canterbury".

A December 21 briefing said the Rakaia River was less well-developed than the Rangitata River and "presents an opportunity for enhanced irrigation development".

The briefing said the irrigation storage capacity of Lake Coleridge [which is subject to a Water Conservation Order - I/S] was "key to unlocking the potential contribution of irrigation to economic growth within central Canterbury".

The Canterbury dictatorship not only removes a democratic roadblock to this plan, it has also granted the Minister for the Environment new powers to amend WCOs when the effect is "minor". What counts as "minor" of course will depend on how much money farmers make out of it. And so we will have Water Conservation Orders which do not conserve, but rather enable the further destruction of rivers by Canterbury's rapacious farmers.

This is clear evidence that the government has acted in bad faith. The removal of ECan's elected members was never about governance; it was always about finding a way to steal Canterbury's water and give it to National's donors. If this happened in the third world, we'd call it what it is: a corrupt looting of the state.

Justice for disappearance

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina's military junta waged a campaign of violence against dissidents, students, and unionists known as the "Dirty War". Thousands were disappeared, tortured and murdered by government death squads, their bodies flung from the backs of planes over the Atlantic Ocean to prevent any evidence from coming to light. Today, former dictator Reynaldo Bignone and six accomplices were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment on 56 charges of murder, torture, and kidnapping. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the crimes against humanity committed during that era - estimates of the death toll range from ten to thirty thousand - but one provable case is all it takes. These human rights abusers will now be in jail for the rest of their natural lives, condemned by the apparatus of the democratic state they tried to strangle. It may have been slow in coming, but there is finally some justice for the disappeared.

(The reason for the delay? Because the first post-junta government granted the military an amnesty for their crimes. It took until 2003 for the laws to be repealed, and 2005 for the courts to declare that they had absolutely no effect and that prosecutions could begin. Voreqe Bainimarama take note!)

Member's Day?

Today is a member's Day, assuming the government doesn't pull urgency to squash it. And thanks to the new sessional order expanding the ballot, it looks like there's some real business to debate.

First up is Paul Quinn's execrable Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill, which would strip anyone in jail of the vote (currently only those serving a sentence of three or more years - i.e. those whose jail term means they will miss an election if it was served in full - are denied the vote). The Attorney-General has declared that this bill violates the Bill of Rights Act, so it will be interesting to see whether he, and the rest of National, vote for it or give it the shredding it deserves.

Second there is Tau Henare's bill on requiring a secret ballot for strikes. The unions all support this (since they do it anyway), and I expect it to go to committee without any controversy.

Thirdly, there is Roger Douglas' futile tilt at the windmill of restoring youth rates. National have already said they'll vote against this, so if they keep their word, it is going down. Meanwhile, I'm struck by the inconsistency between ACT's forceful "one law for all" rhetoric on the topic of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the House yesterday, and this bill. "One law for all - except for young people"? Just another example of ACT's deep hypocrisy on human rights, I think.

Finally, if all goes well, we might finally get to start debating the most important member's bill of the term: Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill. This will be the first time the New Zealand Parliament has formally debated republicanism, and it will not be the last. Now the discussion has been opened, the topic is not going to go away. The bill is highly unlikely to be voted on tonight, but Keith will probably get his opening speech in. Tune in around 9:45 to see.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Candle ICT: Racists

The Human Rights Act absolutely prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in employment. It is illegal to refuse to offer someone a job on the basis of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origins. It is illegal to even ask an applicant for details which might indicate an intention to do so. Because of this, all newspapers now carry prominent notices in their employment sections warning that they will not accept advertisements which appear to seek to employ people only of a certain race or gender.

So I was quite surprised to be pointed at this ad from Candle ICT on TradeMe, which clearly and repeatedly states that the position is open only to Maori:

As part of an initiative to kick-start the IT careers of Maori graduates, we are seeking up to 30 graduates to take part in an internship project which will see you learning the in's and out's of being a successful business analyst.


These internships are open to all Maori graduates nationwide with training being held in Wellington and Auckland...

(Image here in case they take it down).

This indicates a clear intent to discriminate on the basis of race. It would not be acceptable to advertise a position as open only to Pakeha, and it is not acceptable to advertise a position as open only to Maori. Any racial requirement in employment is unlawful discrimination.

This isn't an inadvertent mistake; Candle is an established agency and has been around more than long enough to understand the law. They have clearly chosen to ignore it. its time for the Human Rights Commission to step in and inform them that racial discrimination is not acceptable in New Zealand.

Update: Several readers have pointed me at s73 of the Human Rights Act, which permits measures "in good faith for the purpose of assisting or advancing persons or groups of persons" who are victims of discrimination. So, the ad might not be illegal. But in the absence of a specific statement in the ad or from Candle, I don't think we can give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This morning, the government announced its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Good. As a country which supposedly supports indigenous rights, and which thinks of itself as having got its relationship with Māori right, we should have been supporting it all along. Labour's 2007 refusal to support it was utterly shameful, and a black mark on that party's history.

Some think the Declaration is a racist document which grants special rights to people on the basis of their ethnicity. This is bullshit. The rights affirmed in the Declaration - rights to life, non-discrimination, self-determination, language, culture etc - are primarily reaffirmations of rights already affirmed in other international legal instruments such as the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR. In most cases, these rights are clarified to give guidance on their implementation in the specific context of indigenous peoples, particularly in light of their past treatment. Even the "new" collective rights against genocide, dispossession, assimilation, forced integration and relocation fall into this category - they already exist in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In other words, what the Declaration affirms is the same damn rights everyone else has. And like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, its necessary precisely because those rights have been ignored and violated so often in the past.

Even the "controversial" Article 26, which affirms the right of indigenous peoples to retain their land, falls into this category, in that Article 17 of the UDHR affirms a right to own property and not to be arbitrarily deprived of it. But beyond that, this article is what the entire Treaty process has been about: coming to terms with the fact that we stole this country from its rightful owners, and doing what we can to make recompense for it. That has been a core principle of Treaty policy for 30 years now, and we should be upholding and promoting it on the international stage - not denying it.

(As an aside, anyone else find it ironic that ACT - the party of propertarians - thinks affirming the right of Māori to their property is wrong? I guess they really just are the party of Pakeha racists then...)

What should be controversial about the Declaration is not that we are supporting it, but the manner in which National has gone about it: flying a Minister to New York in the dead of night, making no mention of the fact in their media briefings, expunging it from the Minister's official diary (which, BTW, probably violates the Public Records Act, not to mention the spirit of the OIA. Someone should be prosecuted there). This extraordinary secrecy seems to have been aimed at one of the government's own support parties, who went nuclear in the House today and accused them of breaking their coalition agreement. It was disrespectful and dishonest.

Also dishonest are John Key's statements about what the declaration commits us to. As a small country with a mana-based foreign policy, we pride ourselves on our support for international law and on keeping our word. We make a point of not signing up to things unless we plan to implement them. But despite having his Minister of Māori Affairs announce our support for the Declaration, Key was today trying to argue that it was purely aspirational and that it meant nothing as it was non-binding. This is technically correct - its only a declaration, not a treaty, and even the latter have no effect unless implemented in New Zealand law - but at the same time it is grossly dishonest and two faced to say you support something in the morning and effectively denounce it that same afternoon.

Our government should stand by its public statements. If it did not intend to uphold the Declaration, then it should not have announced its support for it. It is that simple. Yes, such two-faced dishonesty is par for the course in the UN, as any student of UN human rights treaties would know. But we're meant to be better than that. Sinking to the level of dishonesty of China and Libya degrades us as a nation, and undermines the mana on which our entire foreign policy is based. And that is hugely damaging to our country in the long run.

This looks bad

Nick Smith has five brothers in the construction industry. One of them was being prosecuted by Environment Canterbury for repeated and consistent violations of the RMA. And now Smith is sacking ECan. Looks bad, doesn't it?

Compensation for stop and search

In 2007, UK comedian Mark Thomas was stopped and searched outside an arms fair under anti-terrorist law. The reason for the search? He looked "over-confident" at a demonstration. He was "believed to be an influential individual" who had addressed the crowd and "appeared to know what [he was] talking about". These characteristics clearly marked him out as a potentially dangerous terrorist who could be carrying weapons, and as a result he was detained and searched.

Today, Thomas won compensation of £1,200 - £100 per minute - for false imprisonment and violation of his right to be free of arbitrary search and seizure. Its good news, but its worth remembering that over 100,000 people were subjected to such searches in 2008, almost all on similarly tenuous grounds. Those people's rights have also been violated, and the government should compensate them too. But beyond that, it should repeal the law which provides for such unreasonable searches, because it is clear that they are a widespread and systematic violation of people's rights.


The Herald and Stuff both have stories this morning about TradeMe entrepreneur Sam Morgan complaining about the unfairness of the tax system. The absence of a capital gains tax means he was not taxed on the sale of his company, while his "lack of a proper job" and donations to his charitable trust mean that he pays no income tax. Morgan calls this unfair, and he's right (what's even more unfair is that the government plans to reward people like him with big tax cuts). But having said that its not right, he then says "but what am I supposed to do?"

Here's a suggestion: he could stop dodging his taxes. Because contrary to Morgan's implication, that situation where he pays no tax has not arisen naturally. It is the result of deliberate measures taken by his accountant(s) - such as those charitable donations he mentions - to ensure that he pays nothing to the state on his income. If he thinks that's wrong, he should put his money where his mouth is, and instruct his accountant(s) to ensure he pays his fair share. It's that simple.

Keep the MacKenzie brown!

The government is at it again. Having promised no privatisation,1 they're planning to give away thousands of hectares of land in the MacKenzie Country so it can be irrigated - in the process threatening rare plant and lizard species as well as the MacKenzie's unique landscape.

The land is being given away under the tenure review process, which sees holders of high country leases given freehold title in exchange for surrendering the lease on part of the land. This highly contentious process has seen vast swathes of crown land in the South Island privatised, then the farmers make out like bandits from subdivision, particularly around lakes and rivers. The latter has been so contentious that the previous Labour government suspended tenure review in such areas - but National has restarting it, and in this case is planning to give away thousands of hectares of land along the shores of Lake Pukaki. The leaseholders promise they will not subdivide - but such promises cannot be trusted, and elsewhere they have inevitably led to the same result of subdivision, development, and the restriction of public access (meanwhile, the farmers laugh all the way to the Gold Coast at having suckered us again).

But in addition to the threat of development, there's also the threat of irrigation. The lease-holders are planning to do this, calling the area a "desert" which needs to be irrigated if anything is to be done with it. But where they see a desert, I see one of New Zealand's most unique landscapes, home to its own unique dryland ecosystem. Irrigation will destroy that landscape, and destroy that ecosystem, forever. It will be replaced with a monoculture of cows, and Lake Pukaki - one of our purest lakes - will fill up with fertiliser runoff and cowshit. Farmers will get rich - but at the cost of the government, the environment, and the rest of New Zealand, who will no longer be able to visit and enjoy the emptiness and aridness of the Mackenzie country.

We cannot let this happen. The MacKenzie country is a unique landscape which should be protected for the use and enjoyment of all New Zealanders, both now and in the future. Rather than carving it up, the government should halt the tenure review process, and instead use its land in the area to create a drylands park. We should keep the Mackenzie brown, not green.

1 Does not include all privatisation; promise does not apply after first term in office.

"Reform" that isn't

When is a democracy not a democracy? When its the UK, of course! In addition to having an unfair electoral system, the UK also suffers from having the House of Lords. A relic of feudalism, the Lords consists of a bunch of unelected peers, and handful of hereditary landowners, and a clique of Anglican Bishops appointed because of their religion. None of its members are elected. But despite this total lack of any democratic mandate, it has acted as a consistent roadblock to the policies of the government of the day. Sometimes, this has been for the better - but it is unacceptable on principle to any democrat. Laws should be made by elected representatives - not unelected cronies accountable to no-one.

Since 1997, the UK Labour Party has been promising reform, but they have never delivered. Since they're in the middle of an election campaign, they're promising it again - and have leaked their plans. But those plans are somewhat underwhelming. The centrepiece of their "bold" plan? Cutting the number of unelected Bishops from 24 to 12. So, there will still be unelected bigots in the House. Meanwhile, just two-thirds of the House would be elected - and those for such a long term (15 years) that they might as well be appointed anyway. This is "reform" so token as to not be worthy of the name. It doesn't promise change, but simply more of the same.

The UK is a unitary (as opposed to federal) state. There are no separate regional interests that need to be represented. It does not need an upper house. The only reform the House of Lords needs is abolition.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Gambling with their passengers lives

Iceland's revenge has been smothering Europe for almost a week now, and the airline industry is reportedly losing $280 million a day. Naturally, they're keen to stop losing money, so today saw some carefully staged test flights, followed by stock declarations that the planes were not damaged and everything was fine. The message is clear: the European airline industry wants to be rid of "silly" flight restrictions.

But this is a real problem - take a look at these photos of what the ash did to the innards of a Finnish airforce jet's engines. If they start flying again, the risks of an accident will significantly increase. The airlines don't care about that, because they're insured - insured for the cost of replacing the plane, and insured for the cost of compensating the relatives of dead passengers. And so they're willing to gamble with their passenger's lives in order to avoid going out of business.

Preventing this sort of corporate sociopathy is exactly why we have government.

The UK's unfair electoral system

A YouGov poll today has put the LibDems in the lead in the UK election race, 1% ahead of the Tories. But plugging these numbers into the Swingometer gives absolutely absurd results:

Party% VoteSeats% Seats
Liberal Democrats3313220.3
Others & NI9324.9

That's right: the LibDems win a hundred fewer seats than the Tories, despite leading them by 1%. Meanwhile, Labour gets the most seats, despite trailing well behind in third place.

This is utterly perverse, and should be unacceptable in a real democracy. No government elected by such a system can have any legitimacy. If the election result is anything like this poll, then the only fair outcome is a temporary coalition to implement electoral reform, followed by a second election under a new, fair system.

No three strikes in ACTA?

According to Computerworld this morning, a three strikes regime leading to disconnection has been removed from the ACTA treaty. This is good news if its true, but it raises the question: why is New Zealand implementing one then? The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill currently before the House includes just such a regime, partially justified by the need to have a domestic legal regime consistent with ACTA (see the Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF], p. 7). But if ACTA isn't going to include such a regime, then that "justification" disappears.

Given that the bill doesn't do anything other than create a three strikes regime, then if Computerworld's report is true, it should be withdrawn. And if the government wants to come up with a replacement, it should ensure that it is actually proportionate to the harm done (unlike their current proposal), and that it considers the very serious human rights implications of limiting internet access in modern society (something our pre-computer-age Attorney General does not seem to understand).

This stinks

The Sunday Star-Times yesterday had a disturbing story about EECA's Renewable Heating for Schools project. The project replaces dirty coal-fired school boilers with clean wood-pellet ones, in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the person administering the scheme had a substantial shareholding in a company which installed such boilers - which just happened 6 of the 7 contracts [Link to PressDisplay because the story isn't on Stuff yet]:

Maharaj was also a director and 10% shareholder of Living Energy, a company he co-founded in 2003 to provide wood-fired heating systems to the private and public sectors. Although he resigned his directorship in January 2007, Maharaj maintained his shareholding in the company.

According to its website, Living Energy has since installed six of the seven new wood-chip boilers funded under the EECA scheme – contracts worth about $2m.

EECA chief executive Mike Underhill told the Star-Times Maharaj had disclosed his interest in Living Energy at the time of his appointment, but was nevertheless allowed to lead the team administering the grants and to review proposals from rival firms.

This seems to have been the result of a screwup, and when EECA noticed, they ended his involvement and investigated his past deals - which found "no evidence to indicate that appointment of the contractors and the allocation of the schools to the appointed contractors was influenced by the identified conflict of interest". That may in fact have been the case, but the problem is that no-one will believe it (after all, "independent" business consultants say whatever you pay them to say, and everyone knows it). It is not enough for everything to be above-board - everything must be seen to be above-board. And EECA has failed spectacularly on that measure.

But they're not the only ones. It ought to be obvious to anyone with any understanding of the above principle that in a case like this, mere disclosure of a conflict is not enough. An ethical person in Maharaj's position should have either taken positive steps to eliminate the conflict, or said "I can not do this". He did neither. I for one expect higher standards from our public service.

New Fisk

'I listen as a lost people tell of their woes in a kind of trance'

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No justice in China

In 2008, Lin Xiuying's daughter died after being gang-raped. The police swiftly closed the investigation, saying "nothing to see here, move along". So she turned to the internet, posting videos to try and pressure the police to re-open the case. Today, three people who had helped her do that were jailed:

Three men have been jailed in China's Fujian province after posting material online on behalf of a woman trying to investigate her daughter's death.

Fan Yanqiong, Wu Huaying and You Jingyou were found guilty of slander and harming state interests, in a trial which attracted protests outside court.

They had posted videos online in which the woman said her daughter died after being raped by thugs linked to police.

The police had said the woman died due to complications with a pregnancy.

This is absolutely appalling, and one thing is clear: there is no justice in China.

Nick Clegg's Peter Dunne moment?

During the 2002 election campaign, United Future leader Peter Dunne was allowed to participate in a televised leaders debate for the first time - and came across as a nice, reasonable guy (no-one then knew about his fundie Christian friends). The result was a boost in United Future's support from almost nothing to 6.7%, giving the party a strong position in Parliament and making it Labour's preferred support partner when the time came to negotiate confidence and supply.

Something similar just seems to have happened to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the UK. That country has just had its first ever televised election debate (yes, they're in the democratic stone age. But then, we knew that). Clegg was invited to appear alongside Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron - and came across as a nice, reasonable guy. "I agree with Nick" was the phrase of the evening. The polls have spiked as a result, with one showing a 14% gain for the LibDems among debate viewers. Only a quarter of voters watched the debate, but the result has been a significant boost in support for the LibDems, and it may increase further with subsequent debate coverage.

Unfortunately, the LibDems have a significant barrier to overcome: the UK's unfair electoral system. In the last election, they won less than half the seats they were entitled to (9.6% of the seats for 22% of the vote) - and that was a good result; in the past they've won as few as 3.5% of the seats for over 25% of the vote. Still, with their polling on the rise, and a high likelihood of a hung Parliament, perhaps they might be able to do something about that...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Climate change: The latest inventory and the net position

The Ministry for the Environment released its latest inventory report [PDF] today. The headline data is shown in the graph below (stolen from p. 19) :


Gross emissions fell for the second year in a row, from 75.55 to 74.66 MTCO2-e, mostly as a result of lower agricultural emissions due to drought (though energy-sector emissions rose by a million tons due to a dry winter that year, which counteracted the drop). As for the net figure, that 10 million ton drop can be attributed to one thing: the cessation of deforestation due to the introduction of the ETS. Figure 10.3.6 on p2091 shows how damaging the government's delay was to our emissions position: the failure to make forest-owners pay for deforestation sparked a chainsaw massacre and caused about 30 million tons worth of emissions. That's about 600 million dollars worth at today's prices, and it can be laid squarely at the feet of Peter Dunne and the National Party, who were then in full denialist mode and opposed any action on climate change.

The government also released its annual net position report, in which they predict a surplus of 11.4 million tons over the Kyoto period. That "surplus" is partly an artefact of methodological changes to the way we calculate net removals from forests, which have effectively scammed us an extra 5 million tons a year. But its also a result of the ETS, which (from the press release) saves us an estimated 33 million tons over CP1 (and most of that comes from limiting deforestation).

What this reinforces is how central forestry is to NZ's climate change policy. Make the electricity sector and industrial polluters pay for their carbon, and you'll restrict growth, maybe even shave a few percent. Hiking petrol prices to record highs might save a few more. But if you stop people from cutting down trees, you get real change. Now, if only we can get people planting them as well...

1 Yes, it's labelled "grasslands". This includes forests converted to grasslands.