Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Not impressed

When I file an OIA request, I expect to get an answer "as soon as reasonably practicable, and in any case not later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is received". What I don't expect is a phone call from a Ministerial staffer getting shitty because I've reminded them that they are past the deadline. Needless to say, I am not impressed. I am even less impressed that they got shittier when I told them that I'd already complained to the Ombudsmen over their effective refusal. From their attitude, you'd think I was the one behaving unlawfully...

Julia Gillard: Bigot

New Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has gone on the record as opposing same-sex marriage:

Labor policy on gay marriage will remain the same under her prime ministership, Ms Gillard told Austereo show today.

"We believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman, but we have as a government taken steps to equalise treatment for gay couples," Ms Gillard said.

So there you have it - the fundamental equality of all Australians is not important to Gillard. Instead, she's just another dirty bigot, just like her predecessor.

It would be nice, sometime, to see the Australian Labor Party actually stand for its principles. But I guess those principles don't apply to gays.

National's autocratic style

I've commented frequently on National's autocratic style in government - their systematic abuse of urgency, reduction in member's days, silencing of government advice to select committees, and silencing of minority views on those committees. The overall picture is of a government which has an agenda and does not want to give anybody else any opportunity to contest it or present an alternative.

Today we have two more examples of this autocratic style. Firstly, there's Anne Tolley's censorship of a Parliamentary Library research paper on national standards. The Parliamentary Library produces these research papers as an independent, neutral assessment of policy and legislation. They point out both the benefits and flaws of the policy or bill, and the censored paper [PDF] is no exception. But pointing out the flaws in government policy is apparently too much for Tolley, so she has ordered the paper to be withdrawn. Oddly, the Parliamentary Library, which does not work for the government, but for Parliament, has cravenly agreed.

Secondly, there's Sandra Goudie's appalling chairing of the Law and Order Committee, which today led to a walkout of Labour and Green MPs after she refused to allow the Clerk of the House to be consulted on a procedural point during a briefing by the Corrections Department on the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill. This is part of a longstanding pattern of behaviour by Goudie, who has systematically abused her position to silence the minority on the committee and prevent them from doing their job of holding the government to account (once even going so far as to vote down a minority report on a bill, preventing it from being published, an absolutely unprecedented move). This isn't just one person; its part of a wider pattern of autocracy from National's leadership.

This is not how Parliament is meant to operate under MMP. But National's leaders still have an FPP mindset, where the government gets to behave as an absolute, elected dictatorship for three years at a time (others, such as Judith Collins, are just naturally autocratic). And they regard democracy and consultation as impediments, rather than the sole source of legitimacy.

If this is the sort of government you want, then good luck to you. As for me, I expect higher standards.

Rolling back transparency

So, National has responded to Chris Finlayson's contemptuous refusal to fully disclose his pecuniary interests by calling for the rules to be reviewed to allow more opportunities for MPs to hide their interests. In other words, change the rules to make it legal. Why am I not surprised? National's pretext is that the rules are "confusing". I think not. Here for example is the clause Finlayson fell afoul of:

1) Every return of pecuniary interests must contain the following information as at the effective date of the return:

(a) the name of each company of which the member is a director or holds or controls more than 5 percent of the voting rights and a description of the main business activities of each of those companies, and...

As I noted earlier, only a lawyer with a desire to hide things could convince themselves to ignore the plain reading of the words for a perverse, self-serving interpretation that it allowed some directorships to not be declared. And only a lawyer with a desire to hide things would think that the appropriate way of resolving such "confusion" was to pay another lawyer to say what you wanted them to say give an "independent" opinion, rather than ask the registrar directly.

The agenda here is clearly more secrecy around MP's business interests. And that runs directly counter to clean government and open democracy. These rules are the first line of defence against corruption. The fact that MPs must declare their interests helps prevent them from attempting to enrich themselves while in office. If anything, the rules need to be strengthened (by e.g. busting trusts and forcing MPs to declare everything), not weakened. But National has always opposed this sort of transparency, and they are taking the opportunity to roll it back. And we will all be the losers if we allow them to get away with it.

Something to go to in Auckland

The Campaign for MMP is holding a public meeting in Auckland tomorrow on The case for MMP.

When: 18:30, Thursday, 1 July
Where: Functions Room, Student Union Quad (underneath Shadows Bar), University of Auckland
Who: Dr Sandra Grey

You can sign up for it on FaceSpy here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

No justice in Australia

Last year, I blogged about the case of an Aboriginal man who was cooked to death in the back of a security van while being driven 250 miles across the desert in 47C heat. Today, I read that the Western Australia Director of Public Prosecutions has decided that no charges will be laid in the case. Apparently, the fact that so many parties were involved means that no-one can be prosecuted - not even the security guards who could see and hear (and likely smell) what was happening to the victim, but callously did nothing and allowed him to die.

Like In A Strange Land, I'm appalled. This is racism, pure and simple. It is impossible to imagine no-one being held to account in a clear case of depraved indifference if it was a white man who was the victim. Hell, its impossible to imagine no-one being held to account if it was a dog. But that's Australia for you: where Aboriginals are regarded as lower than dogs, and having white skin lets you get away with manslaughter.

Doing nothing

The government's plans to ban smoking in prisons and to help prisoners give up smoking has focused attention on the more general issue of prisoners and addiction. A staggering proportion of prisoners have drug and alcohol problems - over 80% according to this Herald article - and this plays a large role in their reoffending. Pretty obviously, treating these addictions would help reduce reoffending in the long-term. But strangely, the government does nothing. Currently, they fund about 500 places in treatment programs per year, which is SFA compared to the scale of the problem. And then they make it impossible for prisoners to actually get into those programmes.

When questioned about this today, the Government proudly declared that it was doubling the number of places, from 500 to 1,000. Which sounds impressive, until you realise that's over three years, and given the low base, it still amounts to doing squat. Double nothing is still nothing.

This is something the government needs to act on. But rather than making a long-term investment in reducing recidivism, they'd rather penny-pinch and think short-term. And so prisoners will continue to reoffend, prison numbers will rise, and we will continue to needlessly pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep these people in boxes.

Taxing the Governor-General

As a former British colony, our law is littered with relics of feudalism. One of these is the tax-free status of the Governor-General. Back in feudal times, tax was levied by the monarch and treated as their personal income. While power gradually shifted to Parliament, this mindset remained - the government was the monarch's, not the people's; Parliament was merely spending the monarch's money on their behalf; and so it made no sense for the monarch to pay money to themselves in taxes. As a foreign agent of the foreign monarch, the Governor-General inherited this exemption.

But times have changed. Our Governors-General are now New Zealanders, rather than foreign aristocrats. And we expect them to pay their share. In the UK, the Queen has "voluntarily" paid income tax since 1993. The Governor-General's tax-free status is now an anomaly.

Fortunately, its about to change. The government has just introduced a Governor-General Bill implementing the recommendations of the Law Commission on reforming the structure for funding the Governor-General. One of these reforms is removing their exemption from tax. The changes will take effect once the incumbent leaves office.

And so another relic of feudalism is sent to the dustbin of history. And hopefully the monarchy will soon be sent there as well.

Getting the respect they deserve

The annual "most trusted professions" survey is out again, showing that politicians once again rank at the bottom of the list, alongside used-car salesmen, real-estate agents, telemarketers and prostitutes. And its entirely unsurprising. After all, they've worked so very hard to earn that poor reputation, with housing rorts, travel perks, contempt for the electorate, the systematic abuse of expenses, continued secrecy around political donations, childish behaviour in the House, and to cap it all off, a conspiracy of silence around it all. The Speaker makes excuses up for abusive MPs, the Prime Minister gives them more money with less transparency, and they collectively refuse to extend the OIA to Parliament to allow for proper scrutiny. Rather than being treated unfairly, our politicians are getting the respect they deserve.

MPs can change this, but they would need to lose the arrogance and sense of entitlement, and commit to ethical behaviour and full transparency so we can keep an eye on them. And it speaks volumes that no MP or party is willing to do this. Until they do, they will not earn our trust; instead, they will continue to earn our contempt.

Monday, June 28, 2010

PNG sacrifices freedom for mining

Mining has been a hot topic in New Zealand recently, with government plans to dig up our national parks. Its also been a hot topic in Papua New Guinea. There, a bunch of Chinese investors want to start a nickel mine. Because they can't be arsed running it cleanly, they want to dump the contaminated tailings in the sea. Local landowners and fishermen don't like that plan, and so they've exercised their legal right to challenge the plan in court. No problem, says the government - we'll just pass a law to forbid lawsuits over environmental damage for projects we like.

The law is hugely controversial, and has already led to one MP quitting the government. It is itself being challenged in court. And it has led to public criticism and protests. No problem, says the government - we'll just ban all that too:

Papua New Guinea’s justice minister, Ano Pala, has issued an extraordinary decree imposing a media blackout on debate over controversial legal amendments to environmental laws surrounding a Chinese-run mine.

The minister, who is also the Attorney-General, has also ordered police commanders to stop any planned protests against the laws.

Mr Pala says there is to be no more discussion, comment or reference in the media to the Environment Act amendments.

This is of course blatantly unconstitutional - the PNG Constitution affirms the freedoms of speech and assembly, just like every other modern constitutional document. But apparently all of that must be thrown away to fulfil the whims of foreign investors (who may take PNG to the cleaners if the project doesn't proceed - another example of poor countries stupidly/helplessly signing profit guarantees in an effort to attract investment). PNG is nominally a democracy - but its not looking that way at the moment. Instead its looking like a tawdry crony capitalist dictatorship, right in our backyard.

The criminalization of dissent

As we know, the UK is currently hip-deep in the "war on terror". parts of its response involves monitoring "domestic extremists", assembling dossiers on them, and tracking their every move with spies, cameras, and ANPR. So, what gets you on the database? This:

For John Catt, protest has never been about chaining himself to a railing or blocking a road in an act of civil disobedience. The 85-year-old peace campaigner's far milder form of dissent typically involves turning up at a demonstration with his daughter, Linda, taking out his sketch pad and drawing the scene.

However this, it seems, has been enough for police to classify Catt and his 50-year-old daughter "domestic extremists", put their personal information on a clandestine national database and record their political activities in minute detail.

The fact that the UK police are spying on thousands of people like this, with no criminal record or involvement in violence, makes you wonder whether they don't have real policing work to do. Like, say, catching actual criminals?

The NZ police do this too, wasting their time spying on protestors rather than doing their job and hunting down burglars. Cops are the same the world over. Both here and in the UK, they regard anyone who speaks out and protests as dangerous, a threat to the status quo. They're still mired in a nineteenth century mode of thinking, in which their role was to prevent democracy rather than protect it. Its long past time they were dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world.

Something to go to in Auckland

The University of Auckland is hosting a winter lecture series on "The end(s) of journalism":

When: every Tuesday at 13:00, from 20 July - 24 August
Where: Maidment Theatre, 8 Alfred Street, Auckland
How much: Free!

The series kicks off on 20 July with the Department of Political Studies' Dr Geoff Kemp on "The beginning and ends of journalism". Subsequent lectures will look at media standards, balance, citizen journalism, the Daily Show, and how to pay for journalists to do their vital job.

Time to reform adoption law

Last week, in a landmark ruling, the High Court ruled that the Adoption Act's limit on joint adoption to "spouses" also applied to opposite-sex de facto couples. Its good news, which unravels some of the bigotry in our 50's era adoption law, but it has led to an oddity: When Parliament passed the Civil Union Act back in 2004, it specifically did not allow partners in a civil union to jointly adopt - meaning that there is clear Parliamentary intent that civil union partners aren't "spouses". The result is that while married and de facto opposite-sex couples can be "spouses", those in a Civil Union, who have made exactly the same legal commitment to each other as those who are married, and who enjoy exactly the same legal rights in every other respect, can't be. As for same-sex couples, they may be "spouses" if they're de facto, but cannot be if they are civilised (the ruling speculates, but confines its judgement to the actual case at hand, which is what judges are supposed to do).

This is simply perverse. Not to mention discriminatory. But that's what overblown fears of a bigot backlash gets you: a law which was intended to place all relationships on an equal legal footing has had exactly the opposite effect.

The result is disastrous for families. As pointed out a while ago, the 50's model of "stranger adoption" (on which both the Act and the bigots' fear of gay adoption is predicated) is no longer the norm. Instead, most adoptions are recognising and confirming existing family relationships - step-parents adopting their partner's kids to make it legal. But thanks to an outdated law, those in civil unions and possibly those in same-sex relationships cannot do this.

This has to change. While there's obviously scope for a test-case to explore the rights of same-sex de facto couples, the exclusion of those in civil unions is discriminatory and unjustifiable, and makes those people (gay or straight) second-class citizens. And that is unacceptable. The Greens had a bill to correct the situation; its time they hauled it out again and put it up for a vote.

In the longer term, the Act, rooted in the 1950's and an outdated model of adoption and family relationships, needs a complete rewrite. National has said this is "not a priority" for them. So someone else will have to step up and do it.

[Hat-tip: Pundit, Laws179.

New Fisk

The US film that confronts the truth about Afghanistan

Friday, June 25, 2010

Overwhelming opposition

Earlier in the month, I made a submission on Paul Quinn's Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill, which would strip every prisoner of the right to vote. I've just spent some time browsing the submissions on this bill, and the result is astounding. 53 submissions have been released so far. Of those, two, from the Electoral Enrolment Centre and Privacy Commissioner, were neutral (they were concerned with the notification process, and made no comment on the bill itself). Of the rest, only two were in favour - those of National MP Paul Quinn, who sponsored the bill, and National-party stooge DPF. The rest were opposed on democratic grounds, with many arguing that instead the law should be amended to allow all prisoners to vote. So much for Quinn's claim that

I can advise I have received overwhelming support since news of my Bill became public knowledge.

There may be more submissions which have not yet been heard by the Committee. But if this is it, then the message is clear: the people overwhelmingly oppose this bill. The Committee would be wise to take heed.

MMP means diversity

The hearings on the Electoral Referendum Bill have got off to a good start, with political scientist Jon Johansson reminding everyone that MMP means diversity:

Dr Johansson said MMP was a fairer system than first past the post, and it had brought more ethnic minorities and female politicians into Parliament.

"The dramatic increase in ethnic representation in the House is one of the most vibrant, progressive changes. MMP is an excellent fit, not just for our current demographics, but more importantly, the dramatically changing nature of our demographics.

The result is a Parliament that looks like New Zealand and represents us all - rather than just representing dead white males.

But don't just take it from him - the government’s own statistics show this. Here's their statistics on Women in Parliament from the 2009 Social Report, and here's the same graph for Māori, Asian and Pacific MPs. The difference between the two electoral regimes is striking. If we regress to a less democratic system, then much of that representation will be lost. And with it will go the legitimacy of our Parliament and our government.

OIA performance stats: First responses

Over the past couple of months I've been running a little project aimed at learning how government agencies track OIA requests, with the ultimate goal of generating performance statistics to allow non-compliant departments and Ministers to be publicly named and shamed for their failure to obey the law. The first round of responses is back, and have yielded some interesting information: almost all agencies and Ministerial offices track, usually electronically. But hardly anyone bothers to monitor their performance. When its so trivial to get a database or spreadsheet to automatically report, this can only be deliberate blindness to what should be a key performance indicator across the public service.

Unlike the Canadian practice, most agencies don't have the inbuilt capacity to mark requests as politically sensitive to differentiate their handling. Neither do they differentiate them by requestor type - e.g. media, political, academic, random citizen. In Canada, these practices led to significant differences in handling times, in gross violation of the law. The absence of this practice in New Zealand is reassuring.

(An exception to this is Corrections, who do tag things as "sensitive". I'll be exploring what that means, and whether it leads to delays, in future).

What's disturbing is that some agencies don't keep proper records. The police, for example, have no centralised system for tracking OIAs (which probably explains why they "lose" them so often). Instead, its handled at the district level - and at least one of those districts doesn't keep any records whatsoever. They apparently have a system in the works to enable centralised tracking, but it'll probably go the way of all large software projects and fail. As for Ministers, David Carter's office keeps no records, while Chris Finlayson's uses an archaic system involving compressed wood-pulp and sticks of graphite (yes, paper. How quaint). And Tony Ryall's staff are just incompetent.

Unfortunately, not everyone responded within the statutory 20-day timeframe, even allowing a few extra days for postage. Departments were generally good about this - the only one which hasn't responded yet is Te Puni Kōkiri. Ministers are a different story, with 5 of 28 being non-responsive. These are:

  • Gerry Brownlee
  • Pita Sharples
  • Tariana Turia
  • Peter Dunne
  • Phil Heatley

These slacktards need to get their act together. Compliance with the OIA is not optional, but a core duty of Ministers. And hopefully we'll soon have the performance data to make them comply.

Killing 20 hours free

National has always hated Labour's 20 hours free ECE scheme, seeing it as a cost, rather than an investment, and unfair competition for commercial ECE centres. So, in the Budget, they slashed its funding by $400 million over the next four years. And this is now having the natural effect: as centres in the scheme can't charge top-up fees to cover their increased costs, many centres are dropping out completely:

Many early childhood centres are considering leaving the "20 hours free" scheme because of cash cuts announced in the Budget.

A survey of 526 centres shows more than a quarter are looking at leaving the scheme - which allows children aged 3 to 5 20 hours of free care each week - or have decided to do so.

This I think was the government's primary goal: by cutting funding, they get ECE centres to drop out, which reduces costs even more - freeing up more money for them to give to their rich mates (and themselves) as tax cuts. But the effect on people and our society will be horrific. Affordable, low-cost childcare is a key enabler of women entering the workforce. Without it, some will be forced to drop out, stay home and care for the kids - or stay on those benefits the government is so keen to get them off. But its also a key driver of equality in our society: ECE smooths out the gaps in children's circumstances, giving everyone a good start in life. And the effects of this in the long term is higher incomes and less crime. But why would the rich, who already have theirs, care about that?

If John Key was really "ambitious for New Zealand", he'd be boosting ECE funding as a long-term investment in our future. The fact that he is cutting it speaks volumes about his "ambition" - and his total lack of concern for the sort of lives led by the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tainted from the start

So, Julia Gillard has become Australia's first woman Prime Minister after a sudden coup against Kevin Rudd. Sure, it's a progressive step - but immediately tainted by her first action as PM: signalling that she will roll over for the mining companies and back away from charging them a fair price for the resources they dig up and sell. Which tells you right there who was behind this coup and what they hoped to gain from it. And it makes you wonder what other regressive policies she'll be forced to adopt to keep her right-wing factional backers happy.

Fishing for DNA IV

Another day, another story of police abusing their powers to coerce "voluntary" DNA samples from people:

Yesterday a 24-year-old Pacific Island woman, who did not want to be named, told the Herald she had been pressured into giving a sample at Auckland Central police station earlier this month.

She was driving in Grey Lynn without a licence and was stopped by police, and then taken to the station.

"An officer wanted me to give a DNA sample. I told him I didn't want to do it, but he told me if I wanted to go home quickly, then I would have to give the DNA," she said.

"He said all the officers were doing it and were trying to get everyone to do it in case I was raped or murdered, so they could identify my body. I felt violated and like I had no rights, like I was forced to do it and they could have done anything to me if I didn't do it."

Merilyn McAuslin told the Herald her son was under duress when he gave a DNA sample in 2005, when he was 17 and in high school.

He was out with friends, one of whom graffitied a building, and their car number plate was reported.

When he went to the Newmarket police station with his mother, he was intimidated by an officer to identify the person who had done the graffiti.

He started to have a panic attack and was taken outside for some air and water. Mrs McAuslin said within a couple of minutes, a female police officer said a driving charge against her son would be dropped if he gave a DNA sample. "She got the DNA in a real moment of weakness for us."

Both of these people are going to the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and so they should. In both cases, police have used false pretences and the threat of prolonged detention to coerce "consent". And that makes it no consent at all.

I'd also point out that people can withdraw their consent after a sample is taken. Unless they've been convicted of a relevant offence, or are currently a suspect in a relevant crime, their sample and all records of it must be destroyed immediately. I strongly suggest that anyone who has been coerced into giving a sample in this way exercise this right, and have it destroyed.

Meanwhile, we clearly need sanctions to prevent police from abusing their powers in this way. There's a bill here which does exactly that (a properly formatted version is available on request). Any MP want to take a stand?

The cost of prison slave labour

Stuff today reports on the cost of the government's expansion of the use of prison slave labour: people being forced out of business:

Of particular concern was the Corrections Department supplying re-vegetation - native plants used in large-scale planting - at prices the [horticulture] industry could not compete with, Nursery and Garden Industry Association president Peter Fraser told the Otago Daily Times.

Several growers had already gone out of business and more could follow unless the department stopped undercutting those in the sector, Mr Fraser said.

"Margins are already low. We can't compete with them on labour," he said.

Of course they can't compete. Corrections pays its workers 40 cents an hour. They have no labour rights, no safety standards, and if they don't work hard enough, Corrections can beat them in the head with a stick. Legitimate business cannot compete with that. And the result is people out of work, their real jobs displaced by prisoners.

Prison slave labour destroys jobs. It violates international law. Above all, it is fundamentally immoral. The government should end the practice now. Prisoners should be offered work for training or rehabilitation, but it should be at real pay rates, with full labour rights, and the full protection of the law.

New Fisk

Ghosts from the past: Syria's 30 years of fear

Chris Finlayson is in contempt of Parliament

The Registrar of Pecuniary Interests, Margaret Bazley, has ruled that Chris Finlayson broke the rules when he repeatedly failed to declare his directorship of a company in his annual return of pecuniary interests. Which is pretty obvious. The rules are crystal clear, stating:

(1) Every return of pecuniary interests must contain the following information as at the effective date of the return:

(a) the name of each company of which the member is a director or holds or controls more than 5 percent of the voting rights and a description of the main business activities of each of those companies, and...

Note: "each company of which the member is a director" - not "each company of which the member is a director which makes money". Only a lawyer could convince themselves to ignore the plain reading of the words for a perverse, self-serving interpretation.

So, what happens next? At this stage its worth remembering Standing order 401(h):

Without limiting the generality of Standing Order 400, the House may treat as a contempt any of the following:


(h) as a member, knowingly providing false or misleading information in a return of pecuniary interests

There's no question the information was false, and Finlayson has admitted he did it knowingly. He has therefore committed a clear contempt of Parliament (and, I might add, the public, who the pecuniary interest rules are designed to protect). This is unacceptable for an MP; it is even more unacceptable in a Minister, who must, in the words of the Cabinet Manual, "act lawfully and... behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards". And the Attorney-General needs to be held to an even higher standard than that - the lawfulness of their behaviour must be beyond any doubt.

The question is whether Parliament will act on this, or whether Lockwood will find a way (again) to ignore a clear breach of the rules by one of his mates.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Police, local elections, and urgency

One of the core principles of our constitution is the separation of powers. The people that make the laws shouldn't also be responsible for implementing them. That's why we forbid state servants from serving as Members of Parliament, and require those seeking election to take leave and resign immediately if elected.

The government today is using urgency to ram through a bill which undermines that principle. The Policing (Involvement in Local Authority Elections) Amendment Bill, currently going through all stages under urgency, will reverse a ban in the Policing Act on police officers contesting local body elections as e.g. city councillors, and applies the same rules as would apply to general elections (i.e. leave and resignation if successful). It was imposed because the police are responsible for enforcing local authority by-laws, meaning that they would be both law-maker and law-enforcer if elected. This isn't just a basic conflict of interest - a quick perusal of this blog will show that local body policies around gang patches, boy racers and ASBOs have been some of the most contentious policing and human rights issues of recent years.

The Police Association thinks that the ban is unjustified. They're wrong. But worse is the way the bill is being progressed. As Dean Knight points out, this is a fundamental constitutional issue with potential to lead to significant abuse of power. It is inappropriate that it be rammed through under all-stages urgency without proper scrutiny or a chance for the public to have their say.

Ideally, the government should can the bill. But at the least, they should not pass it under urgency, and instead send it to select committee so the issue can be thoroughly investigated (and in particular, the police and local authorities can explain how they intend to prevent conflicts of interest and abuses of power from arising). But this is National, who seem to take a perverse pride in shitting all over our constitutional procedures so they can appear "firm" and "decisive". So I expect it'll be law by the end of the week.

Changing our name

Submitted to Parliament this week: the Petition of Anton Michael Hyman,

That the House recognise "Aotearoa" as a name of this country (New Zealand), and declare and record this.
It will be interesting to see what the Government Administration Committee makes of it. This is a matter of fundamental national identity, which has changed significantly in the last two generations. For old people, any change is unthinkable; for the young, "Aotearoa" is as much our name as "New Zealand", a recognition of this place's unique Maori heritage which deserves recognition. A petition signed by only 1,200 people isn't any mandate for change - but its a start, and nothing is stopping the committee from seeking public submissions to get a wider picture. They should. This is an issue which deserves proper consideration, rather than the usual "no matters to bring to the attention of the House" dismissal. And we should all be able to have a say in it.

Police resisting change

On Tuesday, the Auditor-General presented their Second monitoring report on the response of the New Zealand Police to the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct [PDF] to the House. The media coverage, informed by the police's and the Minister's spin, has been generally positive: the police are making progress, but are still facing challenges.

Reading the actual report shows a rather harsher assessment. The Auditor-General (or rather, Deputy Auditor-General; the actual Auditor-General is a former senior member of the police whose management style is implicitly under review, and so has rightly recused herself completely to avoid any suggestion of a conflict of interest. Politicians and judges take note!) uses mild language, just like the Ombudsmen. But their criticism is damning. Firstly, the police themselves claim they have already implemented all the Commission of Inquiry's recommendations - something the Auditor-General strongly disagrees with. Secondly, they're pleading poverty on further reform, arguing that the recession and the government's law and order program mean they lack the resources for further reform. But as the Auditor-General points out, this is a matter of priorities, and

we would be surprised if it were not among the Police’s highest priorities to ensure that adult sexual assault complaints and complaints against the Police are investigated properly, and that the Police are behaving appropriately.
They may be surprised, but I am not. The police have an insular culture, which is resistant to outside criticism and control. This is a problem the report identifies, when it recommends that the police pay more attention to outside voices by appointing civilians to ethics committees and learning more from complaints. Related to this is the finding that there are significant pockets of resistance to change, and a real danger that the police will simply turn implementing the recommendations as a compliance exercise rather than a real cultural shift (something the claim to have already made all the necessary changes suggests). If they do, it will hurt all of us. As the report notes,
integrity and the public’s perception of integrity are the cornerstone of providing unbiased and effective policing.
We need to be able to trust the police to investigate all crimes fairly and impartially - including crimes committed by police officers. If we can't, then the police are just a gang with a flasher uniform, unworthy of our respect or our trust. It is that simple.

Fishing for DNA III

It looks like Hone Harawira's allegations about the police unlawfully taking DNA from minors will be investigated by the Independent Police Conduct Authority. Good. The police must be seen to follow the law, and any unlawful behaviour by them needs to be stepped on hard. Anything less undermines the public confidence they rely on to be able to do their job.

Meanwhile, media reports on this issue keep saying things like this:

Voluntary DNA samples for 14- to 17-year-olds can be taken only with the consent of the suspect and a parent.
I think someone needs to read the law. Those are the rules for taking DNA from minors suspected of a criminal offence (see sections 6 and 8). But what is clearly being complained about here is the taking of DNA from people who are not suspected of any offence. And the rules for that - sections 30 and 32 - make it quite clear that samples may not be taken from people under 17, as they are incapable of giving consent.

The issue will also receive an airing in Parliament today, with Hone Harawira asking

How many DNA samples have the New Zealand Police taken from young people seventeen years old and under, over the last year; and what type of charges, if any, were laid against the young people who had DNA samples taken from them?
The response should be interesting.


Tonga is in economic trouble. Government revenue is down 20% this year due to a recession and the ongoing effects of cyclones and tsunamis. And so government services are being cut (though health and education have been exempted).

Meanwhile, despite this push for austerity, funding for the king has been tripled. So much for sharing the pain; instead he's going to live it up on the backs of his people while they're being driven into poverty.

This is the sort of obscene greed which used to lead to peasant revolts, and monarchs being dragged from their thrones and murdered. But Tonga has a better option. In November, there will be elections, under a new system which will finally give power to the people. And the first thing the new Parliament should do is cut the king's funding, and make him pay his own way.

Bennett on the block

The privacy complaint against Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett for her appalling abuse of power in releasing the personal information on two beneficiaries has been referred to the Office of Human Rights Proceedings. They will assess it again and decide whether to bring a case before the Human Rights Review Tribunal, which will be able to make binding orders and award compensation.

This is serious - its the closest thing there is in this country to criminal prosecution for breach of privacy. And it looks like its going to happen to Bennett. Which is what happens if you abuse your powers and then are too pig-headed to apologise and settle.

A finding against Bennett should end her Ministerial career. The Cabinet Manual is very clear: "Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards". Being found to have unlawfully abused her Ministerial position to victimise an ordinary citizen who dared to criticise her clearly fails the first test (and arguably, the fact that she's even in this mess fails the second. If John Key had any decency, he would have sacked this deeply unethical Minister long ago. But clearly, he doesn't. So much for his "higher standards").

The downside is that the HRRT has been stacked with unqualified National Party cronies. These members cannot be seen to be neutral in the case, having been appointed primarily on the basis of their political affiliation, and so the case may hinge on the makeup of the panel, and whether they do the right thing and recuse themselves or not.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fishing for DNA II

it seems that Hone Harawira isn't the only one with concerns about the police's tactics in building the DNA database. In the wake of his allegations yesterday, a South Auckland lawyer has come forward with stories of clients pressured and coerced into giving a "voluntary" DNA sample:

Lawyer Shane Tait mostly works at the District Court in Manukau and said he knew of three cases where clients had been pressured into giving DNA samples.

"If they had reported late then the Constable would say: Look, give me a sample of your blood and I won't arrest you for the bail breach," Mr Tait said.

This is unacceptable, and a violation of the clear intent of Parliament that voluntary samples actually be voluntary. Unfortunately, there's no specific offence in the Act for this either. There are offences for refusing to give a sample when required, for providing false information to the databank or falsifying information stored in it, and using a sample without proper authority - but nothing for obtaining a sample by false pretences or coercion.

This is something that should be rectified. ProgBills has a bill to do it here. Instead of calling criticism "unhelpful", Judith Collins should be passing it. After all, if the police are actually obeying the law, they have absolutely nothing to fear from it.

A conspiracy against democracy

What is it with local chambers of commerce hating democracy? First, we had the Auckland business community pushing for at-large election in the Auckland SuperCity to ensure that the right sort of people were elected and the voices of the poor were shut out. And now, the Manawatu Chamber of Commerce is pushing for the same in Palmerston North, claiming that the ward system is a "handbrake" on growth and that at-large election would lead to "a better calibre of councillor" (you can hear their snobbery from here).

Oddly, the plan has the full backing of the Australian-owned Manawatu Standard, which on Saturday gave us a front-page editorial (not online) claiming that the ward system was "ludicrous" and that

Democratic processes should be as inclusive and accessible as possible, but that must be balanced with the need for strong, effective governance.
No, it doesn't. Democracy is not intended to produce "good" decisions (by whoever's criteria), but our decisions. A city council consisting entirely of dead white males from Victoria Avenue elected by dint of a narrow plurality in a gerrymandered system is neither representative nor democratic. We have enough problems with that already by using the undemocratic block vote system within wards; we do not need to magnify those problems by expanding it to the city as a whole.

Unfortunately, the councillors - who can see the advantage to incumbents in such a system - look likely to support it, at least to the level of providing for a non-binding referendum on the issue. Oddly, they're not willing to grant one on STV, though. That might be democratic.

Meanwhile, both the council and Chamber of Commerce seem to have very short memories. PNCC pushed this sort of undemocratic electoral arrangement on us back in 2006 - and was over-ruled by the Local Government Commission. Their decision [PDF] makes interesting reading; it found that there are definite communities of interest within Palmerston North, that wards ensured representation regardless of socioeconomic disparities, and that disputes within the council were the problem of the mayor and councillors, not the electoral system. The arguments for and against at-large voting have not changed since that decision was made, and it is difficult to see the LGC changing their mind.

Oh dear

So, it turns out that Attorney-General Chris Finalyson has been lying to Parliament for four years, having filed repeated false pecuniary interest declarations, which omitted to state his position as a director of a company named Te Puhi Trustee (2) Limited. This is unlikely to be a matter of oversight - Finlayson established the company in 2006, after he became an MP.

This is unacceptable. The register of pecuniary interests is a vital defence against political corruption. We can not tolerate any MP evading its (and our) scrutiny. Oversights happen, but where the omission appears to be deliberate, it cannot be taken as anything other than a declaration of intent to behave corruptly. And that is something we should not accept.

Labour is drawing comparisons with the case of David Parker, who resigned as Attorney-General after being accused of filing false company declarations (a charge on which he was later completely exonerated). Given the nature of the position, it was widely regarded as the honourable thing to do. Finlayson can do no less. Parker's crime was inadvertent; Finlayson has knowingly lied to Parliament four times in a matter which strikes at the heart of his integrity. And that makes him unsuitable to be Attorney-General.

As with Parker, this is a shame; Finlayson is a competent Minister who has done an excellent job. But the position of Attorney-General requires someone of unblemished integrity. People who repeatedly lie to Parliament simply do not make the grade.

Hunting for witches

So, rather than running a proper, transparent tender process over Pacific economic development funding to ensure we get the best deal, the government has instead started a witch-hunt to find out who leaked information on their shonky, corrupt process. It's classic National - image-driven control freakery, focused solely on the perception, and ignoring the substance. The fact is that the government is handing out money to its mates in what seems to be a politically partisan manner, without any of the normal controls and safeguards used to ensure accountability - and they knew they were doing it. Whoever leaked the evidence of the latter is a hero, not a villain, and deserves our praise, not our condemnation.

The true face of the right

Columnists from both the Dominion-Post and New Zealand Herald are united: free trade is more important than free speech, and diplomacy more important than democracy. Speech which risks upsetting rich, powerful neighbours should be suppressed so that a few farmers can make money.

It's an appallingly undemocratic attitude, but par for the course for the right in New Zealand (see also: John Key and Murray McCully). While they cloak themselves in the language of democracy and freedom, their actions are classicly authoritarian. Democracy is dismantled the moment it becomes inconvenient. Freedom of speech is suppressed in the name of money. The only freedom they really care about is the "freedom" of the rich not to pay taxes.

As for Long and Armstrong, the thought that this threatens their own freedom of speech, and that under such a regime their columns could be suppressed in the name of good diplomatic relations never seems to cross their mind. But that's because both Richard Long and John Armstrong are united in their desire to never write anything which might upset the rich and powerful. In which case they are not journalists, but courtiers, who have no business writing for a newspaper at all.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fishing for DNA

Over the past decade, DNA profiling has emerged as a potent crimefighting tool. If DNA left at a crime scene can be matched with that of a suspect, then it is strong evidence that they were present, and a powerful argument for conviction. As a result, police forces around the world have been building databases of DNA taken from those convicted of crimes, with an eye to either solving other crimes committed by these people, or gaining an easy conviction should they ever reoffend.

But there's a problem: not everyone is in these databases. And so police have been trying to expand them. In New Zealand, they've recently gained the power to forcibly take DNA from anyone arrested, even if they are subsequently acquitted. But even that isn't enough - and so our police have gone fishing. A few years ago they were harassing teenagers in routine traffic stops, demanding DNA swabs in exchange for letting them go. Now they're intimidating Maori kids, using fear and lies to extract samples:

"I've heard of a few cases where young Maori have been conned by police into giving DNA samples even when they haven't committed a crime. One young Maori told me the police wanted the sample because one of their relatives might be known to police.

"Another told me the police wanted the sample in case the rangatahi got killed and the police needed to identify them."

Harawira argues that approaching children to give DNA without their parent's consent is outside police guidelines. its worse than that - it's flat-out illegal. The law is very clear on this: section 30 of the Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Act 1995 says that
Nothing in section 30 of this Act [which specifies the administrative procedure for gaining samples by consent - I/S] applies in respect of a person who is under the age of 17 years, and no such person shall be capable of consenting to the taking of a bodily sample in response to a request made under that section.
If Harawira is correct, the police have been systematically breaking the law. And every officer who has taken such a sample is guilty of contravention of statute and liable for imprisonment for one year.

More deadlock in Nauru

Nauru went to the polls over the weekend in the second election in three months, called in an effort to break a Parliamentary deadlock. But from preliminary results, it seems it hasn't. While one new MP was elected, the overall numbers are the same, meaning the Parliament is still tied 9-all and unable to grant support to a government.

The temptation for the caretaker regime will be to call another election, and make people vote until they get it right. But the people have clearly spoken, and elected a hung Parliament twice in succession. The obligation is now on the politicians to play the hand they've been dealt, come to some arrangement, and make it work.

Kowtowing to China

On Friday, Chinese security goons attacked and assaulted a New Zealand MP in the heart of our democracy. In these circumstances, where they have clearly broken the law and infringed upon the right to free speech (not to mention parliamentary privilege), you'd expect the Chinese government to say they're sorry. Instead, John Key is calling them to apologise.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was critical of Dr Norman's action and last night told The New Zealand Herald that Mr Key had telephoned the most senior minister in the visiting Chinese delegation to apologise on Friday night.

He "conveyed his regret that there had been this encounter and expressed the hope that it had not unduly affected what has been a very positive visit," Mr McCully said.

"I understand that the fact that the Prime Minister picked up the phone was appreciated."

A spokesman for Mr Key, who is in South Africa, confirmed that Mr Key had made the call.

"He apologised for the incident," the spokesman said, but Mr Key had not spoken to the vice-president directly because of translation problems.

The craven, snivelling little rat. But I guess he doesn't want "little things" like democracy and freedom of speech to get in the way of farmers selling milk to China, right?

As for McCully's idea that

"Of course we have freedom of speech in New Zealand, but that doesn't mean we have to use that freedom of speech to cause offence to people, particularly to overseas visitors"
Freedom of speech means precisely the right to cause offence. If it does not, then it is no freedom at all. And if we must tiptoe around the sensitivities of murderous dictatorships in the name of trade, then we might as well live under one already.

New Fisk

Fighting talk: The new propaganda

Something to go to in Invercargill

2 Precious 2 Mine is holding a protest in Invercargill against the government's plans to mine national parks:

When: 14:00, Sunday, 26 June
Where: corner of Forth and Nith Streets (opposite Escape Glass), Invercargill Bring: Your friends, and your anger

If you use FaceSpy, you can sign up for the event here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

New Fisk

German captains, U-boats and other lies about Ireland

Friday, June 18, 2010

Against cooperation with judicial murder

Stuff reports that due to the lack of an extradition treaty between New Zealand and China, the Chinese will try the man accused of the murder of Auckland tax driver Hiren Mohini. The New Zealand Police will reportedly cooperate with the trial and provide evidence. Some people might thing this is a good outcome, but there's a big problem: China has the death penalty for murder. So our police may very well be providing the evidence that sees a man taken out into a field and shot in the back of the head, and his organs recycled for transplant.

This is contrary to New Zealand policy and arguably contrary to New Zealand law as well. Internationally, New Zealand opposes the death penalty. We have been a major advocate of abolition. And like most of the civilised world, we will not extradite in death penalty cases. We should not cooperate in them either. The UK and Canada already have policies of refusing to providence evidence in death penalty cases, and we should follow their lead. Though arguably, the police must already do that - section 8 of the BORA says that

No one shall be deprived of life except on such grounds as are established by law and are consistent with the principles of fundamental justice
While section 3 makes it clear that the BORA binds the government without geographical restriction. The police are part of the government, therefore they are bound to obey the BORA, even in China. And that means not doing any action which would lead to a person's execution.

The death penalty is judicial murder, and agents of the New Zealand government should have nothing to do with it. The New Zealand Police should insist that the death penalty is taken off the table before offering any evidence in this case. Otherwise, they are no better than murderers themselves.

Britain's racist surveillance state

Two scary stories from the UK today which illustrate the dark path they're on. The UK is already a surveillance state, with more CCTV cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world. Ostensibly, these are supposed to stop crime (though in fact they have little effect). But in Birmingham, the city council and police have installed a system which monitors predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods explicitly as a "counterterrorism measure". The actions of a few apparently mean that entire communities must be placed under suspicion, treated as criminals, spied on for every minute of every day, and tracked where-ever they go. The good news is that public pressure has resulted in the plan being put on hold - the cameras have been installed, but they've stuck bags over the cameras for the moment pending a decision on whether to proceed. OTOH, the system apparently includes 40 covert cameras hidden in trees and walls, and these are likely to still be active (they can hardly bag them without giving away their location). So the racist surveillance will continue regardless.

Meanwhile, there's also more statistics out on the racist use of stop and search powers, showing that the number of black and Asian people stopped and searched has increased by 70% in five years - double the rise for whites. It goes on:

The annual statistics on race and the criminal justice system reveal that black people are now seven times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people. This is a higher stop and search ratio than that recorded before the publication in 1999 of the inquiry report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The report concluded that the overuse of stop and search had created significant mistrust in minority ethnic communities.
While the police minister has said that it is unacceptable for police to target people because of their race, that is exactly what is happening. And it is long past time it stopped.

Chinese bodyguards attack NZ MP in Parliament grounds

From Stuff:

Green MP Russel Norman had a Tibetan flag torn from his hands by a member of Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping's entourage when he arrived at Parliament today.

Dr Norman said he believed it was one of the vice president's security guards.

Arriving in a convoy or around six vehicles with a police escort, the guards initially tried to shield the flag with their bodies and umbrellas before it was torn from Dr Norman's hand with a member of the vice president's entourage standing on it as the VIP was rushed through the front entrance of Parliament.

This is absolutely outrageous - not just that it is a blatant suppression of freedom of speech by an undemocratic visitor, but that they feel they can do it to an MP in the heart of our democracy. Protests are just something the Chinese have to put up with when they visit New Zealand - and if they don't want to, then they shouldn't come here.

Those bodyguards almost certainly have diplomatic immunity, so they can't be prosecuted for assault, or for contempt of Parliament (which they have shown in abundance). But we can at the least declare them persona non grata and eject them. They've committed a crime in this country and they need to go, now.

But I expect John Key is "relaxed" about the whole thing, right?


Below is my submisison on the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill. It was a rush job, and it shows, but I'd rather put in something than stay silent on a very important bill which will shape our elections (and potentially their outcomes) for years to come:

  1. I support the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill in part, and oppose it in part. I ask that it be passed with amendments.
  2. I support the move to allow greater access to advance voting. This will make it easier and more convenient to vote, in the process enhancing our democracy.

    Regulated period

  3. I oppose the change to the regulated period. Until the passage of the Electoral Finance Act 2007, the regulated period was usually retrospective. This potentially caused problems, but in practice parties seem to have had no difficulty coping with them.
  4. The move to end retrospectivity by having the regulated period start on the day the election is called has an unfortunate side effect: as election campaigns traditionally last between 6 and 8 weeks, it effectively increases the amount of money that can be spent by 50 – 100%, in that the spending cap which used to have to last three months will now apply for a shorter period of time.
  5. The shift will also mean that the governing party will be free to program large amounts of electoral spending outside the cap. The opposition cannot do this as it runs the risk of being caught within the cap if an election is suddenly called. This both increases the government’s advantage, and increases the role of money in politics. It will create further pressure for an arms race between parties for donations, and consequent increase in the already disproportionate influence of large donors. This is undemocratic. Democracy is about “one person, one vote”, not “one dollar, one vote”.

    Third parties

  6. I oppose the lack of restrictions on third parties and parallel campaigns. While parallel campaigns spending in excess of $12,000 will be required to register, they will not be subject to any spending cap, or even required to disclose how much they have spent.
  7. This threatens our democracy. Spending caps are essential to ensure the fairness of electoral outcomes. They are designed to ensure a rough “equality of arms” between contestants. Without them, elections run the risk of being a contest of money, not votes. New Zealand recognizes this, and imposes spending limits and tough disclosure laws on parties contesting the vote at elections. But as the Royal Commission on the Electoral System noted, spending limits on political parties necessitate spending limits on third parties as well. Without them, parties will circumvent their spending cap and attempt to gain an unfair advantage by establishing front groups or colluding with existing groups – as graphically illustrated by National and the Exclusive Brethren during the 2005 election campaign.
  8. I therefore ask that the bill be amended to impose a spending cap on third parties. The Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 imposes a spending cap of $50,000, and this seems to be an appropriate level.
  9. The lack of disclosure is also disturbing. Parties are required to disclose their campaign spending; third parties should be too. If someone is attempting to buy our democracy, at the very least we should be able to find out how much they are spending to do so.
  10. I therefore ask that the bill be amended to require registered third parties as well as political parties to submit a return of their election expenses.


  11. Section 21 of the bill inserts new section 210(6A) into the Act, requiring parties to report their aggregated donations in three bands of (up to $1,000, split by anonymous, overseas, and other; $1,000 - $5,000; and %5,000 - $10,000). This is a welcome improvement in the disclosure regime which will provide greater scrutiny of parties, however it does not go far enough. I ask that the bill be amended to require reporting the number of donations as well as the amounts. I also ask that reporting be done in bands of $1,000, so that the public can see for example whether there is a spike of donations just below the $10,000 disclosure limit. As parties are already required to track donations in order to comply with aggregation rules (and are likely to track them for their own fundraising purposes), this is unlikely to impose any significant compliance costs on them. Assuming they use database software, then it is simply a matter of adding an extra report, a small, one-off cost.
  12. I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.

Right there in black and white

Bill English has hit on a new strategy for dealing with the government's at-best utterly slack and at-worst corrupt dealings with the Pacific Economic Development Agency: claim that the money is not earmarked for them, but instead is for general Pacific economic development. Unfortunately, that's not what the Budget says. The full information for Vote: Pacific Island Affairs [PDF] makes it quite clear who the money is going to:


It's right there in black and white: English is lying, and the money has been specifically allocated to his mates. The question is how English thought he could get away with this. Did he think that people just wouldn't check?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Iceland becomes a media haven

Iceland's Althingi has unanimously passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative:

Created with the involvement of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, it increases protection for anonymous sources, creates new protections from so-called "libel tourism" and makes it much harder to censor stories before they are published.

"It will be the strongest law of its kind anywhere," said Birgitta Jonsdottir, MP for The Movement party and member of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which first made the proposals. "We're taking the best laws from around the world and putting them into one comprehensive package that will deal with the fact that information doesn't have borders any more."

The law also prevents foreign judgements which violate freedom of speech from being enforced in Iceland, effectively turning the state into a haven for media organisations. ABC and Der Spiegel are apparently already looking at shifting some of their investigate journalism operations there to take advantage of this.

This is a good law. It protects the interests of the people against those of governments and corporations. So, anyone want to put up a member's bill to do the same thing here?

In the Ballot XXXVIII

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

Ethnic Broadcasting Commission Bill (Ashraf Choudhary): creates a commission to investigate the need for an SBS-style multilingual Ethnic Broadcasting Service in New Zealand.

Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell): amends the Gambling Act 2003 to massively overhaul the regulatory regime for pokies. It allows local authorities after consultation to reduce the number of pokie machines in specific suburbs; eliminates the corrupt "pokie trusts" which see money from the poor used to pay kickbacks to bar operators or fund the hobbies of the rich, and instead requires gambling money to spent in the areas from which it is taken; prohibits the use of gambling proceeds to fund racing and racing stakes (i.e. more gambling); and requires pokie operators to install player tracking technology allowing users to monitor how much money they have lost.

As a liberal, I see gambling as a private vice, and I don't support its elimination. I would not want to see that power to reduce machines used to effectively create local bans, any more than I support the use of the RMA by wowsers to create local bans on prostitution. At the same time, there is a definite trend of exploiting the poor, and this needs to be countered. The information requirement will help reduce this, by showing people the consequences of their actions (gambling is a tax on people who can't do maths; doing the maths for them will show them that the house always wins). meanwhile, the changes to the trusts will eliminate corruption, while ensuring that gambling losses at least benefit the communities they are taken from, rather than used to pave the driveways of the rich. This is a worthy bill, and it deserves serious consideration by a select committee.

Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (1080 Poison Prohibition) Amendment Bill (Rahui Katene): amends the HSNO Act to ban the import, manufacture, and use of 1080 poison in New Zealand. I don't know enough about this issue to judge whether its a good idea or not; no-one likes poison in their town water supply (as happened in Ross yesterday as the result of a DoC airdrop), or dead native birds, but no-one really likes possums either.

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

Smelling worse

The government's dealings with the Pacific Economic Development Agency, a private company run by a National Party supporter which was awarded $4.8 million in a no-bid contract in the Budget, were smelling pretty bad already. But now they're smelling worse. It turns out that the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs warned its Minister against the deal, advising that PEDA was "untested, unproven, and a significant failure risk":

It said the proposal for funding, which was uncontested, by Peda to the Finance Minister briefly outlined five projects and was scant on detail about how money would be spent.
But from yesterday's answers in the House, it seems they were warning the wrong person. The decision to allocate the money seems not to have been taken by the Minister of Pacific Island Affairs, Georgina te Heuheu, but by the Minister of Finance, Bill English, who met with a cabal of PEDA representatives and National Party supporters shortly after the 2008 election. So English sidelined a Minister in her own portfolio in order to hand out money to National's mates.

This is not the way things are done in New Zealand. If the government wants to contract a private agency to improve outcomes for Pacific Peoples, it should run a transparent and competitive tender process. That way we get value for money and we can see that the contract is assigned on merit. The failure to follow this process makes the contract look like a shabby deal by National to enrich its mates and pay them back for their support. And that is simply corrupt.


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

  • Education (Board of Trustee Freedom) Amendment Bill (Roger Douglas)
  • Military Manoeuvres Act Repeal Bill (Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi)
  • Employment Relations (Probationary Period Repeal) Amendment Bill (Carmel Sepuloni)

Two of these bills have previously been covered in "In the Ballot", Douglas' here and Sepuloni's here. Judging from the title, Bakshi's bill repeals the obsolete Military Manoeuvres Act 1915, and is likely harmless.

There were six new bills, including Bakshi's. I'll try and put together an "In the ballot" post covering some of the newcomers later this afternoon.

The full list of bills is on Red Alert.

New Fisk

The innocent became the guilty, the guilty innocent

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not cost-effective

Earlier in the week, the government announced plans to weaken air quality standards - a move that will result in the deaths of hundreds of New Zealanders and amounts to a cold-blooded policy of murder of the old, the sick, and the very young. The policy is currently subject to public consultation, and I've been browsing through the supporting documentation. In the process, I've discovered something quite interesting: the government's policy fails its own strapped-chicken cost-benefit analysis.

When the government first looked at reducing air quality standards, it commissioned a cost-benefit analysis from the NZIER [PDF]. The results of that were crystal clear: the standards as written would save 635 lives and 505 hospitalisations, as well as over one million "reduced activity days" when people are too sick to work. Even allowing for costs to business, the result was strongly positive: the NPV of costs minus benefits was $955 million. Extending the compliance timeline to 2020 reduced costs, but also significantly reduced benefits (to the tune of 500 corpses); the NPV on that was $159 million. The choice should therefore be a no-brainer: implement the standards, and save lives and health costs while doing so.

This wasn't good enough for Nick Smith, as it undermined what he wanted to do (gut standards), so he had the Ministry for the Environment perform their own cost-benefit analysis [PDF]. To meet the Minister's expectations, they strapped the chicken, assuming that the regulations would not be complied with until 2017 (resulting in a significant reduction in benefits), while adding arbitrary costs (which they admit they have no real basis for) for polluters going out of business. The result undermines the case for the current regulations, as an extension past 2017 will not significantly reduce benefits, while significantly reducing costs. But in the process, they also investigated alternative policies, including those that strengthened the regulations and enhanced compliance (options 2 and 3). Embarrassingly for Nick Smith, these turned out to have even greater net benefits than his preferred option to gut the standards (see p20 of the RIS linked above; Smith's preferred option is 4). These alternatives were included in the public discussion document, Proposed Amendments to the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality, but oddly, that full cost-benefit data was not presented. Instead, CBA analysis was only performed between MfE's strapped chicken "status quo B" and the Minister's two preferred options (showing, unsurprisingly, that they were positive). Meanwhile, costs and benefits for the other options were hidden away in an appendix, and never compared to give a net figure. I've compiled the information in the table below:

Status Quo B685438247
Option 1 (TAG recommendations)38393290
Option 2987268719
Option 3987193794
Option 4a (preferred)534126408
Option 4b (preferred)534125409

(All figures in 2008 $million)

So, why is Nick Smith condemning hundreds of extra people to death to choose a less cost-effective option for managing air quality? Maybe the media should be asking him that.


The Attorney-General has just tabled a report in Parliament declaring that Te Ururoa Flavell's Local Electoral (Māori Representation) Amendment Bill discriminates against non-Māori and so is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF]. But not because it creates Māori seats on local councils. Instead, the problem is the flaw I'd identified - that it would systematically over-represent Māori and so give greater weight to their votes.

As the Attorney-General notes,

the change proposed appears to be based on the incorrect assumption that the current formula uses the number of registered electors rather than the total population. The MEP [Māori Electoral Population] and GEP [General Electoral Population] are not restricted to those registered to vote, but also take account of those under the age of 18 or otherwise not registered to vote.
He also notes that the resulting disparity in representation is unnecessary. The bill can easily be fixed, and I'd like to see a select committee given the opportunity to do so.

But will there be prosecutions?

So, the Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre has finally reported back after 12 years, and told us what we all already knew: that the shooting of unarmed civilians was absolutely unjustifiable, that none of them was carrying a gun, and that there was no threat posed to the soldiers. While the report backs away from such language, that makes it murder.

The question is now whether there will be prosecutions. People have been murdered. Their killers must be held to account, and it is the government's duty to do so. The report has been passed to a QC to assess whether charges can be laid, but this being the UK, the suspicion is that the establishment will once again attempt to sweep things under the rug in order to protect the reputation of the British Army. That cannot be allowed to happen. The truth has been uncovered; now there needs to be justice.

Member's Day

Today is (finally!) a Member's Day, and while there is some local kibble to get out of the way, there are also some real bills to debate.

First up is Chris Hipkins' Electricity (Renewable Preference) Amendment Bill, which would supplement the ETS by restoring the ban on new thermal generation which National repealed back in 2008. Its an important measure, aimed at directing our electricity sector down a green (rather than brown) path, and preventing the development of large new sources of greenhouse gases which would then be locked in for 50 years. So naturally, the government will be voting against it.

Secondly, there is Te Ururoa Flavell's Local Electoral (Māori Representation) Amendment Bill, aimed at creating Maori seats for local councils. I support the goal, but the bill is seriously flawed; still, its nothing a select committee can't work out, and I'd like to see the issue debated. It will be interesting to see whether National will act in good faith and send its coalition partner's bill to committee, or whether they'll pander to the rednecks and reject it out of hand. But given their recent disgusting behaviour around the Tuhoe settlement, my money is on the latter.

If they get through both of these today (or even start on the second), there'll be a ballot for two bills tomorrow morning. It'll be interesting to see what MPs have come up with over the recess.

Equality comes to Iceland

Iceland's Althingi has unanimously passed a same-sex marriage law. The bill has yet to be signed by the country's President, but that is regarded as a formality; unlike the US, Iceland is completely relaxed about the issue, and doesn't see it as a big deal.

So, again, when is New Zealand going to join the civilized world? The bill is drafted; all we need is an MP brave enough to take it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Madness II

The King of Tonga wants his country to go nuclear, with dreams of installing a 30MW nuclear plant to provide electricity and water desalination. Yes, really.

I can't think of a better example of the absurdity and insanity of monarchy.

Madness I

Solid Energy wants to set up a pilot plant for underground coal gasification in the Waikato. For those who don't know, underground coal gasification" is a fancy name for starting a coal seam fire. When these occur naturally or as a result of mining accidents, we recognise them for what they are: ongoing environmental disasters which pollute the air and the local water table. But stick a pipe down so you can tap the resulting gas, and it becomes the latest in clean energy technology.

The coal industry really is the pits. Not content with digging great holes in the landscape, they're now planning to cut costs by just lighting up the coal in situ and leaving it to burn. Once started, these fires are basically inextinguishable. But Solid Energy doesn’t care about that - all they care about is next quarter's profits.

This plan is madness. There are mines on the West Coast which have been burning for decades, and Solid Energy wants to light another one up? No thanks.

Tolley loses her luggage

First interesting bit from Stuff's crowdsourcing of Ministerial expenses: another case of lost luggage. In June last year, Anne Tolley [PDF; pg 10, 17-19] went on a long trip to attend an informal OECD Minister's Conference in Oslo, an export education fair in Bangkok, and the Commonwealth Education Ministers conference in Kuala Lumpur. While on this trip, both she and her accompanying staff member managed to lose their luggage, requiring $994 and $153 respectively to be spent on replacement clothing. If that sort of thing happens, its a legitimate expense - you can't have the Minister attending a conference in their travel clothes. OTOH, its amazing how often it seems to happen to Ministers. maybe the baggage handling staff have it in for them.

Also on that trip, Tolley was paying 21 bhat Ringgit (~$9.50) a copy to have the Dominion-Post airfreighted to her room every morning. naturally, her staff member needed their own copy as well. And this, from a government which is supposedly cracking down on "waste". can't they just use the internet like everybody else?

Correction: Corrected currency.

Go wild!

Following the example of The Guardian, Stuff has launched a crowdsourcing app for Ministerial expenses. Start here, click to get a random Minister's file, page back and forth within it (or just download the whole thing), then when you're done, mark it as not interesting or worthy of further investigation.

(Note: if you're not sure what's allowable or not, check out schedule 2 of the Travel, Accommodation, Attendance, and Communication Services Available to Members of the Executive).

Almost all of the receipts will be utterly banal - Ministers eating and staying in hotels when they are travelling. But there might still be some stuff that hasn't turned up yet. We won't know until we've looked, so go wild.

Keeping the bastards honest

John Key has taken a real step towards ensuring Ministers do not abuse their expenses, by announcing that their credit card receipts will be proactively released every three months. Good. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and public scrutiny will deter most Ministers from abuse. And if it doesn't, at least we'll know whose head to put on a spike.

At the same time, he's also refusing to follow Labour's lead and punish Ministers found to be rorting the system. And he's actively making excuses for the worst offender, Tim Groser, who spent thousands of dollars of taxpayer's money on booze from hotel minibars:

Trade Minister Tim Groser has been criticised for mini-bar bills, but Mr Key said ministers should be able to have the odd drink on the taxpayer.

"Obviously ministers have the right to have a drink from their mini-bar..."

Actually, they don't - and its right there in black and white in the rules on Travel, Accommodation, Attendance, and Communication Services Available to Members of the Executive:
2. Examples of goods and services that will generally not be paid for:


(i) Alcohol unless it relates to a portfolio/ministerial function

That's pretty clear. If Ministers are entertaining, that's one thing. But like Shane Jones' porn, sad, lonely drinking in your hotel room does not relate in any way to a ministerial function, and it is not something that we should be paying for.

Note that as Minister in charge of Ministerial Services, John Key signed off on those rules, so you'd expect him to have a vague idea of what is in them. The fact that he does not calls his own competence as a Minister into question.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Give dictatorship a chance? Yeah, right


Yesterday, 3,000 people rallied in Christchurch against the government's sacking of the elected ECan and its replacement with unelected dictators. The government's response? "Give dictatorship a chance". Seriously. I wonder if they'll next be promoting dictatorship as the answer to the national debt?

Smith says that "If regional elections were the answer, Canterbury would not have a water problem". But this misses the key point: Canterbury's water problems are Canterbury's to resolve. This is not a technocratic question, it is a question of what people want. And that means it is the exclusive domain of elected representatives to resolve.

Smith's junta has no democratic mandate. Its decisions are therefore illegitimate. And it should be the first task of any future elected regional council to review those decisions and reverse them if they are not in accordance with the wishes of the people. What ECan can do, ECan can also undo. Those hoping to profit by dictatorship should remember that.

On Ministerial credit cards

There's a kneejerk reaction in the media and society (most recently repeated by Phil Goff) in response to the exposure of systematic misuse of Ministerial credit cards: asking why they have them at all. The response to this is simple: because Ministers accrue expenses in the course of performing their public duties. They need to travel, and when travelling, they need to eat and sleep somewhere. These expenses are not covered by their Ministerial salaries, and nor should they be; it is entirely appropriate that we pay for them.

The question then is how. We could simply give Ministers a wodge of cash whenever they had to go anywhere, but that is obviously open to abuse, and lacks transparency. Credit cards OTOH, allow spending to be checked to ensure that it is within the rules, in turn allowing abuse to be identified and (ideally) punished. They're a good solution to the problem, not a poor one.

The problem then isn't in the means we use to pay for ministers' expenses, but in the character of the ministers and their tendency to rort the system to line their own pockets. And the solution to that is in our hands. If parties tolerate thieves, we should not tolerate them - and we should send a clear signal of our expectations through the ballot box.