Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Against impunity

So, can the NZ SAS soldiers apparently responsible for killing two civilians in a botched raid in Kabul on Friday be prosecuted? Not by the Afghans, they can't. The SAS in Afghanistan are working as part of the "International Security Assistance Force", and their presence there is covered by a one-sided Military Technical Agreement [DOC] imposed on the provisional government of Afghanistan by their occupiers. This states that all ISAF personnel will be immune from arrest and detention and will

under all circumstances and at all times be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of their respective national elements in respect of any criminal or disciplinary offences which may be committed by them on the territory of Afghanistan.
Or, in English, "Afghan law does not apply to them". They'll also be immune to any claims for damages to property caused by their actions. So, they can kick in your door, shoot your employees, smash up your factory, and there is nothing anyone in Afghanistan can legally do about it (which is why they join the Taliban - when the law fails, people seek extra-legal solutions).

However, those soldiers are subject to New Zealand law. And we have an obligation to ensure they follow it. They've killed people in circumstances which suggest a prima facie case for manslaughter on behalf of the people pulling the triggers and the people planning the operation. That case must be investigated, and if evidentially supportable, must be prosecuted. We cannot allow New Zealand soldiers to just kill civilians and then walk away as if nothing has happened. If we do, we are not just looking the other way on a crime, we're also inviting our army to start behaving like Americans. And that is something we cannot allow to happen.

What the SAS is doing in Afghanistan

Killing civilians, apparently:

New Zealand Special Air Force soldiers led a botched raid on a Kabul factory on Friday that left two Afghan workers dead and two with life threatening injuries, the Times newspaper reports.

The soldiers are identified in the report as the commander "Sean" and his deputy "James".

The raid has outraged the Afghan Government because it was done without their approval.

This incident needs to be thoroughly investigated, and if there is any suggestion of negligence, the soldiers responsible must be held to account. While they're there, our soldiers owe a duty of care to the people of Afghanistan; they cannot be allowed to murder them by incompetence and then just walk away as if nothing had happened.

But what really bites about this is that we have to hear about it from the foreign media, rather than our own. And it makes the government's policy of secrecy around the deployment seem more than a little self-interested, a blatant attempt to limit public debate and insulate themselves from the consequences of their decision, rather than accepting responsibility for their actions.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Unsuppressed: Urewera 18 to be denied jury trial

Two weeks ago, I vented my spleen about a suppression order in a major upcoming criminal case of significant public interest. The suppression order has now been varied, so I am allowed to report on the outcome of the judgement: that the accused in the Urewera "terrorism" case will be denied a jury trial, and tried before a judge alone.

Yes, I'm serious. The defendants in a hugely controversial and political case will be tried by a judge, rather than a jury. No matter what you think of the case, this should be deeply troubling. Juries aren't just a fundamental protection for the accused, the ultimate check on abuses of state power - they are also the primary signifier of a fair trial in this country. Yes, judges say that a judge alone trial is as fair as a jury trial (but they would, wouldn't they). The problem is that the public just doesn't believe that. Which means that if the trial continues in its current mode, the verdict simply will not be accepted. Any conviction can be blamed on the unfair process rather than the evidence. And even if you think the accused are guilty, that's not a Good Thing.

The blunt fact is that without a jury, there can be no public confidence in the outcome of a trial such as this. Only with the bullshit detector of 12 random people scrutinising the case can the rest of us believe that justice was done. But I guess a fair process we can have confidence in is just too risky for the police.

That pay rise

So, MPs have been given a pay-rise for xmas - $4,000, nice money if you can get it. But while I want our elected representatives to be well-paid, there are two things about this which stink.

Firstly, its backdated. There's a a huge level of hypocrisy here, as the government has decreed that no public service pay rise shall be backdated. So, its one rule for politicians, and another for the people who work for them. Colour me unsurprised.

Secondly, $2,000 of that increase is "compensation" for MPs reduced usage of their international travel perk, a pure rort they should never have been given in the first place. So, they steal from us, then get a pay rise to "compensate" them for stopping. Of course, they can point the finger at the remuneration commission, who is obliged to set their salaries on a "total compensation" basis, but who made them do that? MP's did, of course, as a way of grabbing more money for the removal of perks some years ago. And then they wonder why the public regards them as grasping, greedy little fucks. They have no-one but themselves to blame.

(This is unfair to newer MPs, who are not responsible for the greedy, self-interested decisions of the past. But if they want to avoid being tarred with the same brush as Pansy Wong and Lockwood Smith, they could always speak out about it. And if they don't, then we can regard them as complicit).

Funding his mates

Back in the Budget in May, the government handed out $4.8 million to the Pacific Economic Development Agency to "boost enterprise" in Auckland's Pacific community. Questions were raised at the time over why an unknown company with no track record in the area was being given so much money without any tender process - especially when it emerged that it was run by a National Party supporter with close ties to an expected National candidate. And now we know why: because Bill English said so:

A trail of documents show a lack of communication, an absence of Cabinet papers and the lone hand of Finance Minister Bill English in approving $4.8 million in public money for an agency that was ultimately left out in the cold.


The trail of emails suggest Mr English approved the money without telling the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs or the Treasury.

His office told the Treasury on March 17 that the minister had approved the appropriation so officials could include it in the Budget in May.

The following morning, a Treasury official emailed the ministry: "We don't know a great deal more about this initiative. However, ministers have made the decision to fund this - presume someone in [Pacific Island Affairs] must know about it?"

A ministry official replied: "The information we have over here on this is very sketchy. Are you able to send us or point us in the direction of the Cabinet papers so we can proceed? [Ministry chief executive Colin Tukuitonga] said that he was involved in discussions back in Nov 09 but had heard nothing since."

So, the Ministry, from whom any Budget bid should have originated, knew nothing. Treasury knew nothing. It was all Bill English, who was pretty transparently rewarding his mates (and trying to boost National's 2011 electoral chances) with public money.

It doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum you're on: this is just wrong. It is corrupt. And preventing this sort of looting of the state is precisely why we have tender requirements and transparency. English abused his power as Finance Minister to sidestep all of those safeguards. And he should be held accountable for it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Proroguing criticism

New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally has a problem. Her government is involved in a dubious and controversial plan to privatise the state's electricity assets. But opposition legislators, who control the state's upper house, are not impressed with the idea of selling key state assets for half of what they are worth (and then throwing in A$2.3 billion of "inducements" into the bargain). So they've launched a select committee inquiry into the deal, which could result in criticism of the government.

Keneally has responded by proroguing Parliament, effectively killing off the inquiry by suspending all select committee business until the state elections next year.

As with the proroguings in Canada in 2008 and the Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea this year, this is an affront to democracy. Unlike the previous cases, there's no real question of Keneally's democratic mandate to rule - she still has a majority where it counts, in the lower house. But in some ways, that makes it worse: New South Wales democracy is being overturned, not to ensure the survival of a government, but simply to prevent ordinary, everyday criticism. Which makes you wonder what she would do if her majority was under threat...

This is a fundamental flaw in the Westminster system, but we know how to solve it. In the seventeenth century, the English Parliament responded to a monarch who suspended and dissolved them for his political convenience by deciding for themselves when they would meet, effectively repealing the power of prorogation (and, in their case, of dissolution - not a democratic move). The New Zealand Parliament has effectively done the same, setting its sitting calendar by motion. While the power to prorogue technically remains, our Parliament is now in practice an independent entity, rather than one which exists and meets at the whim of the monarch or the Prime Minister. New South Wales (and Canada, the Cook Islands and PNG) should follow our example.

In force

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, an international treaty aimed at outlawing disappearance, entered into force today. Sadly, it has done so without the support of New Zealand. Just another example of how we've gone from being a leader on human rights, to a craven follower of the United States, afraid to stand up and speak out against abuses because it would cast our "very very very good friends" in a bad light.

More Catholic misogyny

Are you a woman facing a dangerous pregnancy which could result in your death? According to the Catholic Church, you should just die:

The head of the Catholic church in Phoenix has stripped Arizona's largest hospital of its Catholic affiliation after he ruled that a decision to save the life of a mother by terminating her 11-week pregnancy was morally wrong.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted announced yesterday that St Joseph's hospital can no longer be considered to be Catholic. The ruling breaks a relationship that stretches back to the hospital's founding by Catholic nuns 115 years ago.

He has also excommunicated the member of the hospital's ethics committee that permitted the abortion to go ahead.

Save a woman's life, get excommunicated. It's a parody of morality, utterly deranged. But then, that's what you get when you make an imaginary heaven more important than earth.

Climate change: Look who's reviewing our ETS

When the then-Labour government passed the Emissions Trading Scheme back in 2008, it included a requirement for five-yearly reviews to investigate allocation and recommend any changes. The first of those reviews is due by the end of next year, and the government has just appointed the review panel. So who have they appointed? A bunch of farmers and forestry representatives. So much for a review we can have confidence in.

Browsing the terms of reference [PDF], a key question is:

whether the NZ ETS should continue to scale up to a full obligation and whether new sectors should incur surrender obligations on current legislated timetables after 2012, taking into account the domestic actions of key competitors, or what conditions should be met before proceeding with further sectors entering into the ETS
So the government wants their strapped-chicken review to "independently" recommend the retention of the current 50% pollution subsidy and the continued exclusion of our biggest source of pollution, agriculture. The latter amounts to an effective subsidy of $870 million a year at present (using National's estimated carbon price of NZ$25 / ton), and twice that from 2013 (using their estimated post-2012 price of NZ$50 per ton). And that is not something New Zealand, or the environment, can afford.


Since the exposure of ACT leader Rodney Hide's taxpayer-subsidised holiday last year, MPs have been on notice that their use of their unjustifiable (and now abolished) travel perk was going to come under close public scrutiny. So the only thing surprising about Chris Carter's public exposure and shaming for having booked himself a $14,000 xmas holiday on the taxpayer is that he is surprised. He booked himself a last hurrah using a rort the public hates and which even his fellow MPs have been forced to admit is unjustifiable. What did he think would happen?

Naturally, of course, he's blaming the media, and hinting that it is all because he's gay. But the only person at fault here is Carter, and his arrogance and sense of entitlement. He thought he could screw the taxpayer again and get away with it. And he's just been reminded (again) that we are just not going to put up with that anymore, regardless of who you are, and regardless of your sexuality.

And that said, he does raise an interesting point: other MPs may also have taken the opportunity to book themselves a last hurrah on the taxpayer. We deserve to know who these thieves are, so they can be named and shamed. They can either tell us now, or we can learn in three months' time when the quarterly expenses are published. But either way, we are going to find out, and they are going to pay the electoral price.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kiwileaks and "national security"

Ever since Wikileaks leaked the US diplomatic cables, Americans have been demanding that they stop, on the basis of "national security". Now, over in Dim Post's comments, that disease has come to New Zealand:

These documents are classified for a reason. Sure they might be widely available now, but stop helping to spread them further. I don’t care if they’re compromising do individuals, they’re also compromising to national security.
Apart from the obvious response of calling bullshit, we should also ask "whose?" Whose "national security" should we censor ourselves to protect?

New Zealand's? These aren't our government's secrets. And while they have embarrassed the powerful and exposed their double-dealing and hypocrisy, that isn't "national security". Which leaves America's. But to point out the obvious, I'm not an American. I find the claim that democratic citizens own loyalty to their governments dubious enough as is (it gets the relationship between citizen and state precisely backwards); the idea that I somehow owe loyalty to someone else's government is even more absurd. Unless people are going to die directly as a result, I have no reason to keep America's secrets (and then, I'm caring about the risk to people's lives, not the risk to some other state's "national security").

Climate change: Locking in high emissions

In 2008, as part of its emissions trading scheme, the then-Labour government imposed a ten-year moratorium on new thermal electricity generation. One of National's first acts on gaining power was to repeal it. And today we're seeing the consequences of that repeal, with Todd Energy's announcement of a new 100 MW gas-fuelled power plant in Taranaki. Unlike Contact Energy's 200MW plant under construction at Stratford, the plant is not aimed at peaking, but at baseload generation - meaning it will run 24/7, spewing out carbon dioxide and damaging the climate. And it will do so for the next 25 - 30 years, meaning those emissions will be locked in as part of our emissions profile until 2040.

This is exactly what the thermal ban was supposed to prevent. But National's repeal has enabled this polluting behaviour, and made it that much harder to meet their target of 90% renewable generation by 2025. But then, with no policy to achieve it, Nationals' target was just hot air - and this proves it.

A good idea

The Law Commission has released its report into Mental Impairment Decision-Making and the Insanity Defence [PDF], and recommended a significant change to the way people found mentally unfit to standing trial or not guilty by reason of insanity are treated. Currently, a judge decides whether these people need to be indefinitely committed. But subsequent decisions on their temporary or permanent release are made not by medical professionals, but by the Minister of Health. There is obvious potential for such decisions to be politicised (especially with the "hang 'em high" brigade waging public campaigns against the release of any prisoner, ever), which is not good for justice. So the Law Commission has recommended the decision be taken away from the Minister and put in the hands of a specialist tribunal, who can make the decision based on the needs of the patient and of justice, rather than any personal need for votes.

Its a good idea, and I hope the government enacts it. But with justice policy ATM seemingly being made by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, I don't think its likely.


Both Helen Clark and Phil Goff have denied the US embassy's claim that they traded blood for butter over Iraq, calling it "ridiculous" and "preposterous". Which is what you'd expect them to say. But if they want to prove it, then they have an obvious avenue to do so: request and release all the advice they received on the issue, unredacted, so we can see that they are telling the truth. Anything less, and we can only conclude that they have something to hide.

(This is the problem with secrecy: by its nature, it invites suspicion. Only total transparency allows us to see that our politicians are in fact doing what they have said they will do, rather than betraying us behind our backs).

Meanwhile, if Clark and Goff are telling the truth, and the dairy trade had nothing to do with their decision, we also have to ask why "senior MoD officials" thought that it did. Are they that far out of the loop, or is the culture within the MoD really that toxic?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More privatisation

More controversial policy dumped just before xmas so it can be buried in the holiday "silly season": the government is planning to privatise ACC by opening the workforce market to competition from foreign insurance companies. A 2008 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (since sanitised from ACC's website, but you can read it here) found that there would be absolutely no benefit to New Zealanders from this move. But Australian insurers (including John Key's old firm, Merrill Lynch) will benefit by an estimated $200 million. That's $200 million in pure wealth transfer, in the form of higher premiums, denied claims and worse service, that we will pay for the benefit of John Key's rich mates. And people wonder why I regard privatisations as inherently corrupt...

Last time National did this, in the 90's, Labour reversed it the moment they got into government. I expect them to do the same this time. The evidence shows that ACC is best left to the state, rather than the private insurance industry. And if Aussie insurers think differently, they can expect to lose their money.

Peter Jackson: Liar

Back in October, LOTR producer Peter Jackson led a public campaign against the local actors union, claiming that an international boycott of The Hobbit in support of better employment conditions would force the film overseas. It turns out he was lying to us. An email he sent to the Minister of Economic Development, released under the OIA, shows what he really thought:

Sir Peter Jackson told the Government he did not believe an international actors' boycott would force The Hobbit overseas, emails show.

The message, sent to the office of Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee on October 18, is in stark contrast to comments the film-maker made earlier in the month.


"There is no connection between the blacklist (and it's eventual retraction) and the choice of production base for The Hobbit," he wrote.

"What Warners requires for The Hobbit is the certainty of a stable employment environment and the ability to conduct its business in such as way that it feels its $500 million investment is as secure as possible."

The October 18 email also suggests Sir Peter thought the boycott had been lifted, even though he said in television interviews three days later he was unsure if it had been officially ditched.

Jackson continued to lie about the "threat" posed by the boycott, even though he did not believe there was one, in order to shake down the government for millions in additional subsidies for his project. And the government continued to repeat his lie - despite being told by Jackson that he did not think it was an issue - in order to "justify" its corrupt and repressive Hobbit Enabling Act, which reduced actors to peonage. The problem is that neither had thought about the Official Information Act, which makes all of their correspondence on the issue public. The question for us is now that their lies have been exposed, what are we going to do about it?

Democracy fails in Tonga

Tongan MPs have finally met to elect a Prime Minister, and elected Siale'ataonga Tu'ivakano by 14 votes to 12. This is a bad outcome. In order to be regarded as legitimate, Tonga's Prime Minister needed the support of a majority of people's representatives. Instead, he has the support of only a third (and almost all from the outer islands, so the 70% of Tongans who live on the main island of Tongatapu have no say in their own government). So why is he Prime Minister? Because he has the support of the nine noble representatives, who voted for one of their own rather than a "dirt eater". Those nine nobles, representing a mere 33 corrupt inbreds, get to overturn the wishes of the Tongan people and appoint one of their own as Prime Minister.

The result: Tonga's democracy is shown from its outset to be a sham, which will not result in the change people desire. And the consequences of that could be very unpleasant indeed.

New Fisk

The tragedy of Algeria's 'disappeared'

Cablegate: Protected sources

This morning we learned that "Senior MOD officials" were secretly briefing the US Embassy about what was happening in our Cabinet. We know it was secretly, rather than at the behest of the New Zealand government, because the relevant cable marked them "strictly protect" - meaning the Americans didn't want anyone else (and especially anyone from New Zealand) to know about it. Over on Dim Post, Danyl asks an interesting question:

Can someone explain to me the difference between a senior defence official named as a protected source by a foreign embassy who briefs them on confidential cabinet decisions, and a spy?
Like him, I don't really see one. The information may be political rather than defence-related, but at its root, these people are working for a foreign government, rather than us. And that means they really shouldn't be working in our public service.

Meanwhile, Bryce Edwards has posted the New Zealand Herald's complete archive of 243 cables [PDF] (if you want to read them individually, Danyl has a split-up version here). So here's a list of everyone marked in it as a protected source, someone the Americans don't want us to know is briefing them:

  • Gabrielle Rush, "an adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's legal division" (05WELLINGTON160);
  • Bill Peoples, "crime policy and projects officer for the New Zealand Police" (05WELLINGTON160);
  • "MFAT officials" (05WELLINGTON294);
  • Robert Stevens, "chief executive of Education New Zealand" (05WELLINGTON569);
  • Peter Keenan, "National Party strategist" (05WELLINGTON642);
  • Matthew Palmer, "son of former Labour PM Sir Geoffrey Palmer" (05WELLINGTON650);
  • Annelies McClure, "manager of the Overseas Investment Office" (05WELLINGTON891)
Not all of these people are public servants. Those who aren't owe the government no loyalty, though its still interesting to know that they are US sources. As for the public servants, the briefings may have been authorised - though if they were its a bit odd that the Americans treated them as some sort of deep dark secret. But that ultimately is a matter between them and their employers.

Monday, December 20, 2010

National: Raising our emissions through privatisation

Six years ago, the government opened a 155MW backup power station at Whirinaki. Running on diesel, the station was intended to be used as dry-year backup, to prevent any repeat of the previous year's drought-induced power shortages. Now, National is planning to sell it.

There are several aspects to this. Firstly, of course, the government is proposing to sell a significant public asset, with no mandate from the electorate, and despite having promised that they would not privatise anything "in their first term". They're breaking that promise. Which is why Gerry Brownlee dumped the news right before xmas, after the House had risen - to ensure it was buried in the holiday "silly season".

(And in case anyone suggests it, no, this is not a "surplus" asset. Gerry Brownlee's "reforms" - basically rearranging ownership among some SOEs - has not reduced our vulnerability to dry-year shortages. That's a question of the climate, not of regulatory structures or who owns what. So Brownlee isn't just selling a public asset - he's selling a vital one, the one which protects Auckland from going dark if we have a dry summer down south followed by a cold winter. Which BTW is a pattern expected to increase as climate change takes hold).

Secondly, there's the question of what this will do to our greenhouse gas emissions. Whirinaki is a dirty, inefficient generator, but in its dry-year backup role, it doesn't run that often, so its not so much of a problem. And its so expensive to run that a private buyer would not be able to use it as baseload generation in its current configuration. From their press release, the government thinks it is likely that the powerplant will be taken offshore, but there's another option: it could be converted to run on gas. This would significantly reduce running costs, and put it in the same league as any other gas-fired plant. Which would mean that it could be used as baseload. While the ETS has raised the price of using gas for electricity generation, it hasn't yet made it uneconomic (unlike coal) - so it won't deter this. The result will be that by privatising Whirinaki, National may be giving us another dirty baseload gas-fired power plant, which would both raise our emissions and crowd out investments in cleaner generation such as wind.

This is the wrong choice, both for our energy system and the environment. And if National gets its way, we'll all regret it later.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Parliamentary secrecy in Tonga

Last month Tonga held (mostly) democratic elections, which saw its people elect a majority of Parliamentary seats for the first time in their history. Today sees the final act of that process, with the newly elected Parliament meeting to choose a Prime Minister. Two names have been put forward: democracy campaigner 'Akilisi Pohiva and former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Siale'ataonga Tu'ivakano. The 17 people's and 9 noble's representatives will debate the nomination, and then choose between the candidates... by secret ballot.

The use of a secret ballot in this decision is an appalling abuse of democracy. Voters need the secret ballot to protect them from intimidation and to ensure they are free to choose whoever they prefer. But elected legislators aren't voters, but representatives. Every vote cast by them in Parliament is by definition a public act, and one for which they should be able to be held accountable. A secret ballot prevents that. It allows MPs to lie to their voters about what they did in office, to promise one thing, and do another. And that makes a mockery of democracy.

Blood for butter

Back in World War I the New Zealand government made a cynical decision to sacrifice kiwi lives on the altar of empire for the sake of trade - a decision referred to by critics as "blood for butter". Now it seems Helen Clark (of all people) made exactly the same cynical decision over Iraq - literally:

One of nearly 1500 secret US cables obtained from WikiLeaks details Cabinet decisions in which Helen Clark's government did an about turn on sending troops to Iraq because of fears Fonterra would miss out on lucrative Oil for Food contracts.


"Senior MOD officials (strictly protect) tell us it was not until Finance Minister Michael Cullen pointed out in a subsequent Cabinet meeting that New Zealand's absence from Iraq might cost NZ dairy conglomerate Fonterra the lucrative dairy supply contract it enjoyed under the United Nations Oil for Food program, that the prime minister found a face-saving compromise and sent combat engineers in a non-combat role to Basra, where they were embedded with British forces.

Fortunately Clark's decision worked out rather better than Massey's. But the mere idea that we would risk lives for the profit of a few farmers is utterly abhorrent, and Labour should be deeply ashamed of itself for doing so.

Meanwhile, the fact that senior MOD officials were secretly briefing the Americans on the inner workings of our Cabinet is deeply disturbing. And when you combine it with all the other secret briefings mentioned in the cables, you have to ask: is there anyone in our public service who actually works for us, as opposed to a foreign power?

New Fisk

Stay out of trouble by not speaking to Western spies

Repealing bigotry

The US Senate has voted to end the US's homophobic "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has seen thousands of men and women kicked out of the military solely because of their sexual orientation. Good. The policy had been found to be unconstitutional, and while the bigots (backed by President Obama) were fighting a desperate rearguard to retain it, it was doomed. Legislative repeal is quicker, and strips them of any claim to be the victims of "judicial activism" (AKA "judges enforcing the constitution").

But while the Senate has done a good job in removing this minor form of bigotry, a greater one remains, in that most of America still prohibits same-sex marriage, or even civil unions. Isn't it time the US Congress acted to remove that bigotry too? And isn't it time New Zealand removed our ban on same-sex marriage as well?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cablegate: New Zealand edition

Last weekend, the Sunday Star-Times began releasing cablegate cables relating to New Zealand. This weekend, the Sunday Herald is in on the act. Today's revelations:

But the big revelation is the news from the Sunday Star-Times that MFAT does not actually think a free-trade deal with the United States is worth it:
New Zealand's chief trade negotiator Mark Sinclair privately told a visiting US State Department official that New Zealand had little to gain from a free-trade agreement. This view – recorded in a confidential US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks – differs from the one the public has been given.

When the US joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks in November last year, Prime Minister John Key said it could be worth "billions and billions" to New Zealand, and that a deal would "position New Zealand brilliantly for growth".

But in a meeting in February, Sinclair told US Deputy Assistant Frankie Reed "there is a public perception that getting into the US will be an `El Dorado' for New Zealand's commercial sector. However, the reality is different".

He said New Zealand would need to "manage" public expectations about the benefits of a US free-trade agreement.

(Link added) This isn't surprising. An Australian analysis of their FTA with the US has shown that it actually cost them money. And with the US making similar demands around intellectual property, GM and pharmaceutical policy from us, an agreement with them will likely have the same result here. The question then is why politicians keep pursuing such deals.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cablegate: India a torture state

Today's big Wikileaks story: India is engaged in systematic torture in Kashmir. A cable - 05NEWDELHI2606 - reports on a conversation between a US diplomat and a representative of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors prisoners. The horrifying statistics:

ICRC staff made 177 visits to detention centers in [Jammu and Kashmir] and elsewhere (primarily the Northeast) between 2002-2004, meeting with 1491 detainees, 1296 of which were private interviews. XXXXXXXXXXXX considered this group a representative sample of detainees in Kashmir, but stressed that they had not been allowed access to all detainees. In 852 cases, detainees reported what ICRC refers to as "IT" (ill-treatment): 171 persons were beaten, the remaining 681 subjected to one or more of six forms of torture: electricity (498 cases), suspension from ceiling (381), "roller" (a round metal object put on the thighs of sitting person, which prison personnel then sit on, crushing muscles -- 294); stretching (legs split 180 degrees -- 181), water (various forms -- 234), or sexual (302). Numbers add up to more than 681, as many detainees were subjected to more than one form of IT. ICRC stressed that all the branches of the security forces used these forms of IT and torture.
And we're negotiating a free trade deal with them. Clearly, our government doesn't regard the systematic use of torture as any sort of barrier to good diplomatic relations or free trade. Makes you proud to be a kiwi, doesn't it?

A police state

A schoolkid sees something in his society he doesn't like. So he gets together with some friends over Facebook and organises a protest against it outside the office of his local representative. When they hear about the plan, the police turn up at his school, drag him out of class, and threaten him with arrest.

It sounds like the sort of thing which happens in China. In fact, it happened in the UK, over a protest against the closure of a local youth centre. The British police, it seems, regard even protests organised by children as a seditious rebellion, which must be stopped lest it offend the sensibilities of those in power.

Its just the latest example (and by no means the worst) of how the UK has turned into a police state. Writing in the Independent, Johann Hari reports that people are now telling him they are too frightened to protest, for fear of police violence. As he notes, this suits those in power very well. But its very bad for the rest of us:

There is a cost to this chilling of protest. Every British citizen is the beneficiary of a long line of protesters stretching back through the centuries. Every woman reading this can vote and open her own bank account and choose her own husband and have a career because protesters demanded it. Every worker gets at least £5.93 an hour, and paid holidays, and paid sick leave, because protesters demanded it. Every pensioner gets enough to survive because protesters demand it. What [would] your life would be like if all those protesters through all those years had been frightened into inactivity? If you block the right to protest, you block the path to progress. You are left instead at the whim of an elite, whose priority is tax cuts for themselves, paid for with spending cuts for the poor.
This is not something UKanians should tolerate. The problem of course is that doing so requires protest - the very thing being stomped upon. I am hoping they find the courage to do so. Otherwise the UK will grow ever more authoritarian and totalitarian, and grassroots democracy will be crushed under police boots.

How the US treats leakers

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was finally granted bail in the UK last night, but also seems certain to be extradited to Sweden to face rape charges. Meanwhile, the US are reportedly planning to extradite him from there on conspiracy charges, alleging that he solicited the leaked cables, making him a party to their leaking (a theory which would also criminalise most investigative journalism). So how would he be treated if extradited? The treatment of the alleged leaker, Bradley Manning, provides a clue:

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day -- for seven straight months and counting -- he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he's barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.
Its reasonable to assume that the punitive United States "justice" system would apply the same conditions to Assange if extradited, if not in remand (and remember, Manning is a remand prisoner who has not yet faced trial, let alone been convicted), then certainly if he is convicted. And this is a problem for the US - because the European Court of Human Rights has already halted extraditions on the grounds that this sort of "supermax" confinement is torture. The reason? Prolonged solitary confinement drives you mad, meaning it qualifies as "severe [mental] pain or suffering" under the Convention Against Torture.

No civilised country extradites people to torture. Which means even if Assange is sent to Sweden to face justice there, he shouldn't go any further. At least, not legally. Its worth remembering that one of the first renditions publicised was from Sweden. And that's the real risk Assange is facing: not lawful extradition, but Sweden's "informal" obedience to the US.


Back in 2009, when Labour was (rightly) attacking Bill English over his housing rort, it was revealed that many other MPs were also abusing their expenses, claiming an accommodation allowance while renting out homes they owned in Wellington (a trick which allowed them to claim more - full rent rather than just the interest on the mortgage). Among them was Labour leader Phil Goff. To sterilise the issue, Goff promised to sell the apartment.

Unfortunately, he didn't. 18 months later, he's still renting it out, while pocketing $28,000 a year to live in rented accommodation. As Goff notes, its "within the rules". But given that he is one of the people who gets to write those rules, that doesn't mean much. Its just not acceptable to the public for MPs to be maximising their expenses, especially when we're being told to tighten our belts. And the fact that he had promised to correct the situation makes things worse. As a result, Goff doesn't just look like a rorter, but a liar as well.

This is disappointing to say the least, and it shows a serious lack of judgement on Goff's part. Did he really think he wouldn't get caught, that people wouldn't check to see whether he kept his word? Or are the bad habits of the 80's, when Goff hung around with Roger Douglas and lied repeatedly to the public about his government's policies, too hard to break?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Police: Racists with tasers

A press release has pointed me at a study in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry on Use of Tasers on people with mental illness: A New Zealand database study [log in for PDF]. Using the publicly published data from the police's one-year taser trial, a team from the University of Auckland investigated the police's use of tasers, with a specific eye on people suffering from mental illness. The results were disturbing. People suffering from mental illness were twice as likely to be tasered than criminals. Police have also used tasers inside mental health facilities, explicitly threatening to torture patients in order to "induce compliance". Neither is acceptable.

But that wasn't the only disturbing thing the study found.

Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) and Pacific (people with Pacific Island ethnicities) were over-represented among subjects where ethnicity was recorded (127 of 141: missing data=14). Twenty-eight percent of the sample was Maori and 25% Pacific compared with 14.6% Maori and 6.9% Pacific in the national population (Statistics New Zealand, 2007). Europeans were underrepresented with 31% of all subjects compared to the New Zealand European population of 67.6%.
So, if you're brown, the police will pull a taser on you. If you're white, they won't. It looks like racism is alive and well in our police force.

Mackenzie District votes to hide corruption

One of the basic assumptions of our democracy is that elected representatives will not be corrupt. They will represent their voters, rather than themselves, and they will not line their own pockets at the public’s expense. One of the ways we enforce this is by requiring Members of Parliament to declare their pecuniary interests.

Unfortunately the same does not apply to local government. There is no blanket requirement for local body representatives to declare their interests. Some councils (e.g. the pre-SuperCity Manukau Council) do. Others don't. And the Mackenzie District Council has just joined the latter, with newly elected councillors voting down a proposed interest register:

At yesterday's meeting, the council voted against the proposal by four to two. Councillors Peter Maxwell and Annette Money voted in favour, while councillors John Bishop, Evan Williams and deputy mayor Graham Smith voted against it.

Mayor Claire Barlow did not have a casting vote but expressed a preference in favour of a members' interest, as it was good practice, and she was in favour of openness.

(The other councillor to vote against was Graeme Page)

Let's be clear: interest registers are a vital means of ensuring public confidence in our democracy. They allow is to see that our representatives are not corrupt. Anyone voting against one is voting for corruption. And we should not accept that from any elected representative. The councillors who voted down this proposal should be hounded from office, and replaced with representatives who are willing to show they are clean.

Meanwhile, this simply reinforces the need for legislation on the issue. Local councils have shown they will not act to ensure transparency and integrity. So Parliament will have to do it instead.

Cablegate: Spying for the Americans

Over the weekend the Sunday Star-Times released a selection of leaked US diplomatic cables relating to New Zealand. Attention so far has focused on the (accurate but sometimes unflattering) assessments of our politicians, and the government's snuggling up to the Americans while demanding it be kept secret to avoid being held accountable by the electorate (who would not approve of such arrangements). But Fairfax's Michael Field has noticed a more interesting story: we've been using Waihopai to spy on Fiji for the Americans:

A leaked cable reports on meetings that then United States assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, Randall Fort, had in October 2008 with the then External Assessments Bureau, the GCSB, the Prime Minister's Department and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

US deputy secretary Margaret McKean wrote a cable summing up the meeting. "New Zealand views the situation in Fiji as `acute', and appreciates USG [US Government] support for the Pacific Island Forum position on Fiji. Fort commented that GNZ sigint [ New Zealand government signals intelligence] had been critical to USG understanding of the 2006 coup."

(Emphasis added)

The original cable - 08WELLINGTON356 - is here.

Field has also connected the dots between that cable and an earlier one on Helen Clark's 2007 trip to Washington (07WELLINGTON194), which noted that Clark had "been willing to address targets of marginal benefit to New Zealand that could do her political harm if made public":

Mr Fort was briefed on Chinese activities in the Pacific by Maarten Wevers, chief executive of the Prime Minister's Department, and on Venezuela and Cuba, whose interest in the Pacific he likened to "that of the Russians in the past".
So there you have it: not only are we spying on our neighbours and supposed friends, we're also spying on Venezuela and Cuba for the Americans - countries we have no interest in whatsoever. Again, I have to wonder whether the people of New Zealand would approve of that.

Targets without policy equal failure

Back in July, the government released its Draft New Zealand Energy Strategy [PDF] for consultation. The strategy retained Labour's target of 90% renewable electricity by 2025, but without any policies to make it happen. National was basically leaving it to the market. Gerry Brownlee (who won't be in office in 2025, and so will never be held accountable for his lack of policy) doesn't see this as a problem; however, the Ministry of Economic Development's latest Energy Outlook, released yesterday, shows it is.

The Energy Outlook is a regular publication which models energy supply, demand and prices in New Zealand. The core of this modelling is a "reference scenario", the Ministry's picture of what is likely to happen under current policy settings. This has been updated in the latest edition, to reflect the passage of the ETS, and it shows that we will fail to meet the 2025 renewable energy target. According to their model of electricity generation and capacity [XLS], only 78% of our electricity will be generated renewably in 2025 - only 2% more than last year. As for the 90% target, we don't meet it any time in the forecast, which extends all the way to 2040.

(We might make the target - just - if carbon prices average $100 / ton rather than the expected $25 / ton. The government's gutting of the ETS and imposition of a below-market price cap tells us that they will not let that happen. In other words, having set a target, they are going to actively work against achieving it).

The culprit? Gas. While the government expects coal generation to be phased out (and no new coal or lignite to be built) under present policy settings, it expects (and allows) further gas-fired power plants to be built. This sees the amount of electricity generated by gas increase 25% from present, unsustainable, levels. But even banning new gas-fired power plants (as Labour did) isn't enough if we want to make the target - we need to reduce them, relegate them to peaking plants and dry-year backup. In other words, we need policy settings which not only require all new electricity generation to be renewable, but also to force the replacement of those unsustainable gas plants with new renewable generation. That simply isn't going to happen under this government. The question is whether it will happen under a different one.

Cablegate: Another government betrays its own people

The cablegate leaks haven't just exposed America's secrets - they've also exposed several governments (including our own) who have been betraying their own people by making secret deals with the USA against the wishes of their populations. The latest is Sweden, whose government cut an information-sharing deal with the Americans, then conspired to keep it from Parliamentary oversight:

The [Swedish] MOJ team expressed their appreciation for the flexibility of the U.S. side in regards to memorializing any agreement. They expressed a strong degree of satisfaction with current informal information sharing arrangements with the U.S., and wondered whether the putative advantages of an HSPD-6 agreement for Sweden would be offset by the risk that these existing informal channels, which cover a wide range of law enforcement and anti-terrorism cooperation, would be scrutinized more intensely by Parliament and perhaps jeopardized. Dr. Svensson reiterated MFA concerns about the current political atmosphere in Sweden. She believed that, given Swedish constitutional requirements to present matters of national concern to Parliament and in light of the ongoing controversy over Sweden's recently passed surveillance law, it would be politically impossible for the Minister of Justice to avoid presenting any formal data sharing agreement with the United States to Parliament for review. In her opinion, the effect of this public spotlight could also place other existing informal information sharing arrangements at jeopardy.

As an alternative, Dr. Svensson asked the HSPD-6 team to inquire with Washington whether or not continued participation in the Visa Waiver Program was fundamentally contingent on signing a formal data sharing agreement or non-binding arrangement along the lines of the model shared with Sweden, or could the currently strong but informal arrangements satisfy DHS's requirements.

Or, in short, "Parliament won't agree to a formal deal, so we'll make an informal one which we can keep secret".

The only reason our governments can get away with this is because such deals are made behind closed doors. Ending secrecy will allow us to take back control and ensure our governments work in the expressed interests of the people they represent, rather than those of foreign powers.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Standing up for New Zealand values

New Zealanders love whales. New Zealanders hate whaling. So you'd expect the New Zealand government to be joining the Australian government's case to prevent Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary before the International Court of Justice, right?

Wrong. Instead, we're just standing on the sidelines:

New Zealand won't join in Australian court action over Japanese whaling but will have input into the case.

The Government has decided not to file as a party to Australia's legal action in the International Court of Justice, the United Nations' highest court, against Japanese 'scientific whaling' in the Southern Ocean.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a government which stood up for New Zealand values for once, rather than ignoring them in the hope of selling more milk? A government which represented all of us, rather than just a few greedy farmers?

National is not such a government. We should vote them out and get a government which will properly represent us on the world stage.

Parliament wraps up

Parliament is sitting for the last time this year today. The general debate has been cancelled, and permission granted for the House to sit beyond 18:00 (meaning into the normal dinner break) to let them get through the electoral and MMP referendum bills and a motion setting a sitting program for the year. And after that, they all go home, and the holiday "silly season" (in which there is no real news) begins.

Unlike MPs, I won't be taking a holiday. At the same time, the fact that our political structure is off enjoying the sun means I won't have as much to blog about. So, things will get a bit quieter around here for a while. I'll keep trying to make my five post a day quota, but if there's less than that happening, I won't be resorting to cat-blogging just to fill the space.

Kosovo votes - for an organlegger

Over the weekend Kosovars went to the polls in the country's first elections since independence, and re-elected incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. But it turns out that they may have made a very poor choice. Why? Because Thaci is an organ-legging gangster:

Kosovo's prime minister is the head of a "mafia-like" Albanian group responsible for smuggling weapons, drugs and human organs through eastern Europe, according to a Council of Europe inquiry report on organised crime.

Hashim Thaçi is identified as the boss of a network that began operating criminal rackets in the runup to the 1999 Kosovo war, and has held powerful sway over the country's government since.

The report of the two-year inquiry, which cites FBI and other intelligence sources, has been obtained by the Guardian. It names Thaçi as having over the last decade exerted "violent control" over the heroin trade. Figures from Thaçi's inner circle are also accused of taking captives across the border into Albania after the war, where a number of Serbs are said to have been murdered for their kidneys, which were sold on the black market.


[The] inquiry was commissioned after the former chief prosecutor for war crimes at the Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said she had been prevented from investigating senior KLA officials. Her most shocking claim, which she said required further investigation, was that the KLA smuggled captive Serbs across the border into Albania, where their organs were harvested.

These are serious charges, and they need to be properly investigated by a court. Given that crimes were allegedly carried out against prisoners of war, the Hague Tribunal would seem to be the natural venue. The question is whether the west will allow that to happen, or continue to place "stability" before justice and human rights.

Is free trade worth it?

For the past few decades, since the NeoLiberal revolution, our government has aggressively pursued a policy of free trade. Since 2000 we have signed bilateral free trade agreements with Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, and China, and we are currently negotiatign with the US, Japan, South Korea, the Gulf Cooperation Council, India, Peru, Vietnam, Russia, Kazhakstan and Belarus (yes, Europe's last dictatorship). We are told that these deals will deliver enormous economic benefits to New Zealand. But the evidence from Australia shows that that may not be true, and that these agreements may in fact cost us money:

A YEAR-long investigation of Australia's free trade agreements has found they are often nothing of the kind.

The Productivity Commission has told the government there is little evidence to suggest Australia's six free-trade agreements have produced "substantial commercial benefits".

Some may have actually reduced trade by introducing complex rules that make it difficult to sell goods made with products imported from countries not in the agreements. Advertisement: Story continues below

The extra cost imposed by these "rules of origin" could amount to 8 per cent of the value of each export shipment.

As an example, the US-Australia FTA meant a 25% increase in copyright royalties - effectively a "Hollywood tax" - and enshrined anti-competitive rules such as DVD regionalisation. And it means more expensive drugs due to restrictions on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (Australia's equivalent of Pharmac). These seem to outweigh the benefits of the deal, and result in a net loss for Australia.

The report also criticises the Australian government for assessing FTAs in secret, and "oversell[ing] the likely benefits". It suggests that future deals be subjected to an independent public assessment to avoid this problem. New Zealand could benefit from the same approach. But given how entrenched the dogma of free trade is in political and business circles, I don't see that happening anytime soon. No-one in power wants to find out if the emperor is in fact wearing clothes.

The full report is here.

Cablegate: Thai queen supported coup

The Guardian has started a "you ask, we search" project for the cablegate archive, effectively crowdsourcing the task of looking for interesting stories. Today's result: the Queen of Thailand encouraged the 2006 coup against the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra:

Queen Sirikit was indirectly "responsible for the 2006 coup d'etat", according to Samak Sundaravej, one of Thaksin's successors as prime minister from January to September 2008, according to US diplomats. Samak also claimed, the cable writers add, that Sirikit had a hand in the "ongoing turmoil generated by PAD protests", a reference to the mass protests by the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy which have contributed to the downfall of several Thaksin-associated governments since 2006.

Sirikit is the wife of King Bhumibol, the world's longest-serving current monarch. As a member of the royal family she is in theory expected to be politically neutral.

So, the Thai royal family are officially opposed to democracy. That's good to know. And it means that if democracy is to take root in Thailand in the long-term, they're going to have to either evict their monarchy or castrate it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


So, once again there is a serious assault on a police officer, and once again the police use it as an excuse to give themselves greater access to guns, despite everyone admitting that, just as in the last case, such access wouldn't have helped one bit. But the police's pride is injured, and they have apparently only one response to that: stick a gun in our faces and demand "respect".

Meanwhile John Key washes his hands of the matter and declares it "inevitable", despite the fact that he has the power to stop it. But he professes concern while doing nothing, of course:

Mr Key said he would be cautious about the wholesale arming of police, "where every police officer in New Zealand walks round with a gun on their hip".

"I don't believe that's a step in the right direction and I think it would fundamentally change the relationship between police and the New Zealand public," he said

No shit. An unarmed police force polices by consent; they have no option but to seek the active cooperation of the citizenry. An armed police force polices by fear, using the omnipresent threat of lethal force to "induce compliance". Oh, they might not be sticking the gun in your face right this second, but its visible presence means the threat is always there - a fact that Key himself acknowledges when he calls armed police "intimidating".

This is not a good move for our police force, and it is not a good move for our society. And our Prime Minister should be doing something more about it than just wringing his hands and calling it "inevitable". He has a Parliamentary majority, and if necessary, he should use it to bring the police to heel.

A hate crime

Two men go to a party. They see something there which makes them think that two other men are gay. So they kidnap them, terrorise them, and order them to leave town.

Did this happen in Texas? Alabama? No - it happened right here in New Zealand last week.

This is a hate crime, pure and simple. The good news is that the perpetrators are being prosecuted. The bad news is that these backward, bigoted attitudes still persist in rural parts of New Zealand.

Is this really who we want to run our prisons?

The government has selected UK company Serco to run its first private prison. The immediate reaction is that it could have been worse - it could have been G4S. But Serco is pretty bad. The dirt:

And that's just what I found from a quick Google. Imagine what a journalist - or maybe even a government researcher investigating their bid - could have found?

So, a question: is this violent, brutal corrupt company really who we want running our prisons? And doesn't it speak volumes about Judith Collins that she thinks they're suitable for the job?

The insanity of blasphemy laws

I've previously criticised Pakistan's outdated blasphemy law as a tool of religious persecution. But its worse than that. In addition to punishing those who fail to adhere to the prevailing religious orthodoxy, it can also be used to punish trivial behaviour with no religious component whatsoever - such as throwing away a pushy salesman's business card:

A doctor has been arrested on suspicion of violating Pakistan's contentious blasphemy law by discarding a business card of a man who shared the name of Islam's prophet, Muhammad, police say.


The case began when Muhammad Faizan, a pharmaceutical company representative, visited Dr Valiyani's clinic and handed out his business card. He said when the doctor threw the card away, he went to police and filed a complaint that noted his name was the same as the prophet's. Mr Shah said police were investigating whether the doctor should be charged with blasphemy.

"Buy my drugs or I'll have you arrested!" It would be funny, if someone wasn't facing a potential death penalty (whether legal, or extrajudicial) for it. But its also a perfect example of how blasphemy laws are abused by self-interested believers, and why countries should not have such laws.

Good riddance

Pansy Wong will resign from Parliament. Good riddance. She stole from us, then lied to the inquiry to cover up further thefts. And that is not something we should accept from any elected representative. In the real world, Wong would have been sacked and likely faced criminal charges for her theft; her resignation will likely allow the government to sweep the whole affair under the carpet - another example of how its one law for politicians, and one for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, by resigning Wong gets to walk away with her perks intact. And so her partner will be getting a 75% discount on his international trips for "genealogical research" and "doing favours for friends" for the rest of his life. They're a perfect example of why we must end former MPs' unjustifiable travel perks. But with Speaker Lockwood Smith lined up to get 90% off his overseas holidays as "compensation" for a pay rise which was deferred more than a decade before he was even elected, that doesn't look very likely.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The government must obey the law

The Dominion-Post today reports that a prison inmate is taking the Department of Corrections to court because they destroyed his copy of Cosmopolitan:

Convicted murderer Stephen Hudson says the Cosmopolitan magazine - featuring an article with photographs comparing natural and artificial breasts - should not have been taken or destroyed.

The Crown has conceded some of what happened did not follow the proper procedure - for instance Hudson, 40, did not witness the destruction of his magazine, as the rules allowed.

But a judge in the High Court at Wellington today questioned whether simple photographs of women's breasts could be objectionable or pornographic so that it could be seized in the first place.

The usual suspects down in the sewer will no doubt be screaming that murderers shouldn't be allowed to have magazines, or shouldn't be allowed to challenge the decisions of their jailers in court - but in doing so they'll be missing the point. Because this isn't about whether a prisoner should be allowed to have a particular magazine, or really whether that magazine is objectionable or pornographic. Instead, its about a fundamental rule of our society: that the government too must obey the law. That is what distinguishes us from a despotism, and it is not something we should give any ground on, even where murderers are concerned.

Secrecy enables betrayal

Over the weekend, the Sunday Star-Times reported on some of the 1500 US diplomatic cables relating to New Zealand in the Wikileaks cablegate archive, revealing that

Of these, the latter is the most interesting. Both Phil Goff (on Radio New Zealand) and John Key have spoken up to defend the secrecy, both hiding behind the usual line that "the Government does not comment on national security". Bullshit. The cooperation goes well beyond intelligence matters, and the secrecy was demanded by us ("New Zealand is eager to avoid any publicity about this new approach, [and] will only say anything under 'extreme duress'"). And there's a very obvious reason for this: because the public of New Zealand would not have approved had we been told. After all, who wants to cooperate more closely with a psychopathic gang of torturers, who just want to send your kids off to fight their pointless imperial wars?

This is a perfect example of why we need openness around foreign policy: because under cover of secrecy, our government has run amok, making deals which would never be approved if debated openly and entangling us in unnecessary wars the majority of the public want no part of. What these leaks show is that our politicians from both major parties betrayed us and put the interests of a foreign power before those of their voters. We should remember that at the ballot box next year.

Clutching at straws

Back in July, Labour pressed National hard on its goal of "closing the gap" with Australia, demanding to know if there were any targets or milestones by which progress towards this goal could be assessed. In response, Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee replied that there were, but he refused to say what they were. Later, he claimed that his "milestones" were

to remove the millstones from around the neck of the New Zealand economy placed on it by the previous Labour Government... to assist the Government’s programme to undertake comprehensive economic reform of the New Zealand economy [and] is to rebalance the economy towards export-led growth.
Which no doubt sounded great to whatever spindoctor dreamed it up, but doesn't sound anything like the sort of thing governments agree on in Cabinet papers, let alone a milestone against which progress can be measured.

So, for the past four months I've been trying to unearth where these "milestones" came from. At first, Brownlee claimed that his argument was so powerful that it was not necessary to talk about it (or rather, those three "milestones" were based on so many Important Policy Documents that providing them to me would bury me in paper and be "substantial collation and research"). Then, in response to a more specific request, he handed over a Cabinet Paper which made no mention at all of his "milestones" (but did contain a lot of other useful information about the government's plans for growth, including its total reliance on polluting dairy and some evidence that the policy analysts in MED are thinking outside of the NeoLiberal box). But it was clear that Brownlee was playing semantics with that request too, so I asked him an even narrower request, for the specific advice document (if any) that the specific targets he gave to the House on August 5 were based on. In response, I have another deliberately obtuse "answer", misinterpreting the request as asking about the broad policy goal rather than the specific claimed milestones, and offering the National-ACT confidence and supply agreement [PDF] as its basis.

After three deliberate and calculated misinterpretations, I think its pretty clear that Brownlee doesn't want to answer this question. And the reason for that is twofold: firstly, because he made it all up - there were never any milestones or targets. And the second is that he did so to hide the fact that he lied to Parliament in his original answer. Brownlee may believe that is acceptable. I do not.


I was planning to post today about a procedural ruling in a major upcoming criminal case of significant public interest. But I can't. I can't tell you what case it is. I can't tell you what the ruling is about. And I certainly can't tell you what I think of it. That's because the entire ruling and any commentary on it is suppressed:

This judgement is not to be published (including any commentary, summary or description of it) in news media or on internet or other publicly accessible database or otherwise disseminated to the public until final disposition of trial or further order of the court. Publication in law report or law digest is permitted.
I think I am on safe ground however in telling you what I think of the suppression order itself: it stinks. I agree that there is a place for suppression orders, where they serve the interests of justice - for example, to avoid contaminating the jury pool with public discussion of inadmissible evidence, or to protect the identities of minors or vulnerable victims. This suppression decision does not fall into that category. No reason for it is given. But its most obvious purpose is to protect the judge and the trial from the public outrage and condemnation both would suffer were the substance of the ruling made public. And that makes it stink even more.

Courts are open, and judicial decisions published, so that everyone can see that they are fair. Secrecy, in and of itself, undermines public confidence in the judicial process. It requires a very strong justification. I do not believe such a justification exists in the case of this ruling. It should be published, so the media can report on the decision, the public see what is happening, and judge for ourselves whether it is "justice".

New Fisk

Why can't a Palestinian woman tell her own story?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

This stinks

After the 2005 election, public outrage over the National Party's habit of laundering their donations through a secret trust boiled over. The result was the Electoral Finance Act, which (among other things) broke the veil of secrecy around trusts, forcing those who transmit donations to political parties and candidates to identify who they are transmitting them for. While the Act has been repealed, this rule was retained, politicians accepting that the higher degree of transparency was required to retain public confidence in the political system.

Except it wasn't just national-level politicians playing these games. There have also been problems with trusts in local body politics. In Christchurch, Mayor Bob Parker laundered his donations through a trust, granting secrecy to his donors. Given the secretive way he has run the council, and the dodgy property deals it has engaged in under his watch, we cannot be sure that they are not getting payback. Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast and Hamilton mayor Bob Simcock did likewise. In Palmerston North, Mayor Jono Naylor tried to do the same, but was thwarted when someone leaked his secret donor list. It turned out that his primary donor was a wealthy property developer, and that he had already received his payback in the form of a significant planning change, without the conflict of interest being declared. Preventing that sort of corruption is exactly why we require donations to be disclosed in the first place.

And now, Auckland Supermayor Len Brown has joined the club, laundering almost half a million - 80% of his total - through a trust to hide the identity of his donors. The result is that we do not know who he his beholden to, and what council decisions he should be stepping aside from to avoid the perception of corruption. And this is simply not acceptable.

(John Banks did the same, BTW, so we'd be having this conversation regardless of who had won).

Politicians have accepted that the age of laundered donations is over. Its time we applied the same rules to local body politics. We have a right to know that our local government decisions are above board and free of corruption. And we cannot do that as long as there are large secret donors, their identities protected by trusts.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Foreshore & seabed: Premature

I do not like the government's Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. It discriminates against Māori, limiting their access to the courts and the redress they can win from them. And it sets too high a test for proving customary rights. Iwi after iwi have gone before the select committee to tell them this. The conclusion: the bill does not have the support of Māori in its present form. And that means that it is not acceptable as a de facto settlement. It should not pass in its present form.

But all that said, I think Labour's withdrawal of support for the bill and promise to repeal it if enacted is premature. The basic structure of the bill - cribbed from the original Foreshore and Seabed Act - is sound; as I've noted before, it is roughly where we would have ended up anyway had the government negotiated in good faith and reached a settlement. What's wrong is the details. And those can be amended. Given the importance of this bill, and the need for a lasting settlement, I think it would have been better to wait and see whether the select committee would make the necessary changes before withdrawing support.

But now its done, and this means the law is effectively doomed. Oh, it will probably pass - Tariana Turia has too much invested in it now to let it fail, and she will be judged on that by her voters next year. But its not going to be the lasting settlement Chris Finlayson had hoped for. Instead, it will be relitigated at the next election, and the one after that, until Māori get the deal they want.

As for Labour's preferred solution - preserving access and providing a framework for customary rights while throwing the real questions of thresholds back to the courts to depoliticise them - this is going to look almost identical the existing bill, with a few tweaks. If so, it raises the question: why repeal? Why not simply amend? It also invites the question of why they're objecting to Pita Sharples wanting to revisit the bill if it is passed, since its largely what he wants as well. And if it is what the Māori Party really wants, but couldn't get out of National, then it suggests that there's a Parliamentary majority right there, if Labour (or the Greens) put up the necessary amendments. They should try that first, before committing to repeal.

A hate crime

And on Human Rights Day (and one devoted to ending discrimination to boot), we have news of a racially motivated hate-crime in Christchurch. A gang of skinheads beat and stabbed a 15 year old Maori boy for being brown. What a lovely country we live in.

Human Rights Day

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. On this day we celebrate human rights, and the enactment in 1949 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, the UN's focus is on discrimination, and the people who speak up to oppose it. That's less of a problem in New Zealand than it is elsewhere, but still an issue. Our laws guarantee formal equality, and overt discrimination is no longer socially acceptable, but there is still pervasive racism against some groups, a lot of hidden discrimination (for example, on womens' pay, or the glass ceiling), and serious cases of discrimination in government policy. Our government is currently passing a law which would continue to deny Maori (but not Pakeha) access to the courts or the right to own a beach. Students are still subjected to age discrimination over allowances to save the government money. Same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt. Young people are whipping boys for the fears of the old. These are all black marks on our record, and things we have to change.

The Alternative Welfare Working Group

Yesterday, the Alternative Welfare Working Group released their report. One of their core recommendations was that benefits be immediately raised to their pre-1991 levels, and then pegged to the average wage. The reason? Because they are currently insufficient to cover basic needs.

This is quite deliberate. As explained in Alister Barry's In a Land of Plenty [part 5, from 10 mins, to part 6] experts worked out minimum food budgets for beneficiaries based on nutritional needs and different expectations of diet. Ruth Richardson took the lowest level - which was inadequate to meet basic nutritional needs - and cut it by 20% to provide an "incentive". While the amounts have been inflation adjusted since the cuts, they "temporary belt-tightening" has never been relaxed. And the result, as anyone who has ever been on a benefit knows, is that there just is not enough money to cover the essentials. If something breaks, or you need new clothes, or there is an unexpected bill, you're screwed. This is why we have people slowly starving on benefits. And its why beneficiaries owe WINZ half a billion dollars in emergency support loans.

Restoring benefit levels to an adequate level is about simple, basic decency. We live in a rich society. No-one in New Zealand should be living in poverty, let alone starving. No-one should be forced to send their kids to school without breakfast, or without shoes, or not participate in society, or forgo basic medical care, or live in a garage. Preventing these indignities is why we have a welfare system.

Unfortunately, decency is in short supply on the right. They're quite happy to look the other way on other people's suffering, and they lack the basic imagination (or in Paula Bennett's case, the recollection) to ever consider that they could end up in such circumstances, or that their privileged lives could have turned out differently. For them, there's a second argument, and that is that tolerating poverty imposes a very high cost on society. Children who grow up in poverty - and most children whose parents are on benefits do - have higher lifetime health and social services costs and worse educational and employment outcomes. This is estimated to cost us 4% of GDP, or around $6 billion a year. A rational person would invest to reduce that cost. The question is, are our local right rational? Or merely vicious, selfish and stupid?

There's a lot of other good recommendations in the report [PDF]: simplifying the benefit system to a single rate with additional allowances, focusing on providing full employment, more training and education opportunities for those temporarily out of work, and greater recognition of the value of unpaid work (e.g. parenting) done by beneficiaries. In the longer term, they want to see work done on a Universal Basic Income, which would effectively make the entire welfare system redundant. I'd like to see all of these proposals adopted. The question is whether the government will listen, or continue to pursue failed policies which drive people deeper into hardship.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New Fisk

Qatar's the star – and Washington is worried

Parliament fails

Last night, after a farcical debate, Parliament passed Paul Quinn's Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill, which will strip anyone in prison at the time of an election of the vote. The bill is a shameless abuse of power which was overwhelmingly opposed by submitters. It violates basic democratic principles. It violates our Bill of Rights Act. It violates international law. Despite this, National passed it anyway, just so it could claim Labour was "pro-criminal" for opposing it. Fundamental rights were stripped, just so National could engage in wedge politics and posture on law and order. Those who call themselves "liberals" within the party - and that means you, DPF - ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves and their party.

(But then, DPF isn't a liberal. He doesn't believe in fundamental human rights. Instead, he believes in wedge politics and spin, a classic hollow man...)

But its not just National whose mana has been destroyed by this. The mana of our Parliament has also been destroyed. When the select committee reported back on the bill, Andrew Geddis argued that

This proposal is downright wrong in its intent, outright stupid in its design and (if finally enacted) would be such an indelible stain on the parliamentary lawmaking process as to call into question that institution's legitimacy to act as supreme lawmaker for our society.
I think Hilary Calvert's speech last night ("This bill is not my favourite thing. However we are supporting the National Party on this bill" - and that's pretty much it) more than proved his point.

By passing this bill, Parliament has shown that it will not guard our human rights (worse: it will shit all over them if it thinks there are a few votes in it). Its time we took the job off them and gave it to the courts by entrenching the BORA as supreme law. Politicians have shown they can't be trusted. Judges can be. And at the very least, they have to give reasons for their decisions. Unlike Hilary Calvert.