Monday, January 31, 2011

Statistical murder

Nick Smith just killed 635 people.

That's the cost in human lives of his cowardly decision to extend the deadline to meet air-quality standards to 2020: 635 completely avoidable deaths - the very thing air quality standards are supposed to prevent. But to Smith, protecting the ability of polluters to make money by externalising their costs onto society takes precedence over protecting human life, and so he's backed the polluters and condemned those people to death. I wonder how he lives with himself. But he'll never know who has killed, never see their faces. It's anonymous murder by statistics - but murder just the same.

Air pollution kills 1,100 people a year. It is the government's job to prevent that. If Smith is unwilling to do that job, then he should resign. It is that simple.

Climate change: A meaningless target

The government is proposing to gazette a formal climate change target of "50 by 50": a 50% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. So what does it actually mean? What practical effect does it have?

Virtually none. While the government is legally obliged to set a target, the only impact it has is that the regular reviews of the ETS - the first of which has just begun - must consider it. It will have no impact on the current review, because the law specifically states that reviews must only consider "any targets that are in effect... at the time the review is initiated". As for future reviews, the government's target is only one factor to be considered among many, and will be balanced against international obligations, economic impacts, and trade effects. In other words, what we're looking at is a meaningless aspirational statement. It has the appearance of a formal commitment, but in practice it means nothing.

That's National's climate change policy in a nutshell, really. Pretend to do something while really doing nothing.

But the thing which really undermines it and makes it utterly meaningless is the generous subsidies for polluters in the ETS. These decay exponentially at a rate of 1.3% a year, so in 2050 those polluters covered - farmers (if they are included at all) and eligible industrial emitters (which includes just about everybody) will still being subsidised for 53% of their 2050 emissions. This is estimated to amount to more than 40 million units a year in 2050 (see graph; source here [PDF]) - which is just over 70% of 1990 emissions levels.

So, the government's "plan" is to set a target of a 50% reduction, while legally committing to fail to meet it. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?


It would be nice if we could have serious climate change policy for once. Policy wasn't self-undermining and designed to fail from the outset. But that's just too much to expect from National.

New Fisk

Egypt: Death throes of a dictatorship

Courting the wife-beater vote

Remember Tony Veitch? In 2008, we learned that he'd thrown his partner down the stairs, kicked the shit out of her, broken her back in four places, and stuck her in a wheelchair for months. But because he was rich and white rather than poor and brown, he was sentenced to community service, and now he's back doing his old job, acting as if it never happened.

Someone else who's acting as if it never happened is John Key, who over the weekend sat down with Veitch for a blokey interview about who he'd like to fuck. Quite apart from the content of the interview, the mere fact that he gave it sends a message: that John Key is relaxed about what Veitch did. That he thinks its OK.

At the moment the government is spending millions a year on a public campaign to reinforce the social unacceptability of domestic violence, to make sure everyone knows its not OK. John Key has just undermined that work. But hey, there are bloke votes to get, and women to demean. And if it means snuggling up to a domestic abuser, well, that's the price he's willing to pay.

It's despicable behaviour from a person with no moral centre. But then, Key used to be a money-trader, so its hardly surprising.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Fisk

A people defies its dictator, and a nation's future is in the balance
Egypt's day of reckoning
A man's life seen through his remarkable possessions

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ugandan homophobia claims a life

David Kato was a Ugandan gay-rights activist. Three weeks ago, he won a court case against a Ugandan tabloid magazine which had published his photo, outed him as a homosexual, and called for him to be executed. On Wednesday, he was beaten to death in his own home.

Uganda is one of the most virulently homophobic countries in Africa, and in 2009 almost passed a law imposing the death penalty for homosexuality. This is what that culture of public homophobia leads to: murder. The politicians who have whipped it up have blood on their hands and ought to be deeply ashamed of their actions. But sadly, they won't be.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the government is trying to deport a lesbian woman to Uganda, where an MP is threatening to have her arrested if she returns. That alone should be reason to grant her refugee status - but the UK government has whipped up hatred of its own, this time against immigrants and refugees, and has an eviction quota to meet. And so they're intent on deporting her, on the pretext that she's not "really" gay, a panel of immigration judges apparently knowing her sexuality better than she does. This too is homophobia, and it has to change, otherwise it will claim another life.

Mondayising public holidays

Labour is putting its money where its mouth is on public holidays, and is putting up a bill to Mondayize Anzac Day and Waitangi Day. While it will be too late to help us this year (when we are robbed of both), it will at least future-proof us for the two years in seven where we lose one of those holidays to a weekend.

National is on record as opposing any change. Hopefully that will come back to bite them. This is a popular measure, and it taps into our national identity ("holidays in the sun" is an important part of who we think we are); its difficult to see how Labour loses by promoting it.

Our incompetent spies

The inquiry into the employment of Stephen Wilce (who bluffed his way into a top job as director of the Defence Technology Agency with a fake CV) has uncovered what we already knew: that the SIS are a pack of incompetent fools:

Officials had not checked with their counterparts in overseas agencies to see what they knew about Wilce and they had not followed up on Wilce's failure to disclose convictions once the police check had revealed that he had convictions. Officials had also failed to act on information about Wilce after he was appointed.

"The failure by NZSIS staff to record critical information about Mr Wilce's character, and pass it through to the vetting file, at this early juncture of Mr Wilce's employment with NZDF was significant," the report said.

Contrary to the PM's assertion, security vetting is one of the SIS's basic functions. But I guess they were just too busy looking under Keith Locke's bed for "communists", going through Sue Bradford's underwear drawer again, burgling peaceful protestors, spying on lobby groups, or chasing phantom "terrorists" to do that job properly. And if they're unable to do that job, I think its time we asked whether we should really be spending $36 million a year on these clowns, or whether we're better off without them.

Auckland council wants to ban prostitution

The Auckland SuperCouncil has voted to support the Manukau City Council (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill. While the bill originally applied only to Manukau, the creation of the Auckland supercity means its scope has been expanded to cover the whole of Auckland - effectively exempting our largest city (and a quarter of the population) from the scope of the Prostitution Reform Act. If passed, it means that that area will go back to the dark ages, with prostitution being illegal in "specified areas" (which will likely mean "almost everywhere", as it does in Wanganui with gang patches), and prostitutes subject to police harassment and arrest which will effectively place them outside the protection of the law. It will also mean the creation of a de-facto federal state, with separate laws in Auckland from the rest of the country.

The Stuff article has a list of the guilty parties: Len Brown, Cameron Brewer, Sandra Coney, Chris Fletcher, Mike Lee, Des Morrison, Calum Penrose, Noelene Raffills, Sharon Stewart, John Walker, and George Wood. These councillors hate women, they hate civil liberties, and they hate the idea that the state has no business in people's sex lives. Remember that at the next local government election.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Control orders lite

During the UK election campaign last year, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ran on a platform of restoring civil liberties undermined by Labour, and promised to scrap the control order system. And now, in government, they've done the opposite and retained it. Oh, sure, the conditions are weaker, with victims subject to only 10 hours per day of electronically tagged house arrest rather than 24, but it is still, at its heart, a system of punishment without trial imposed on secret "evidence" at the whim of the Home Secretary. And that is something which ought to be absolutely unacceptable in a democracy.

The good news is that the UK is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and has written it into domestic law through the Human Rights Act. The existing control order regime has been declared unlawful by judges as a result, and the same will hopefully happen to the new one.

Privatisation is theft

So, why is the right so keen on privatisation anyway? After all, we already own these assets. Through the government, each and every New Zealander has a 4.4 millionth (roughly) share in the ownership of our state assets. We all benefit from them, through lower taxes and better schools and hospitals. The only way that that share can be increased is at the expense of our fellow New Zealanders. The only way I can benefit more is by stealing from someone else.

And that is privatisation in a nutshell: the few stealing from the many. Something we all own is stolen from us, and distributed to a tiny clique of rich pricks and wealthy foreigners. They gain, we lose.

If this happened in a place like Tonga, or Saudi Arabia, or Nigeria, we'd have no illusions that it was theft, the action of a self-interested kleptocratic government. So why do we tolerate it here?

The UK's archaic constitution

Gerry Adams is an Irish member of the UK Parliament. He wants to stand in the upcoming Irish election, so he has sent a letter to the Speaker of the House resigning his seat. The problem is, he can't. Back in 1624, Parliament - then a very different institution - passed a motion that being an MP was a sacred trust which could not be voluntarily given up. And so Adams cannot simply resign, and may be forced to keep his position as an MP, even if he doesn't want to and never turns up.

There's a way around it, of course: in addition to the usual exits of bankruptcy, insanity, serious criminal offending or death, MPs are automatically disqualified if they accept an "office of profit" under the crown. So traditionally MPs have circumvented the ban by being appointed to a royal sinecure. But Adams is an Irish republican, who has refused to swear allegiance to a foreign monarch to enter Parliament, and who will not do so in order to leave. An attempt by Downing Street to automatically appoint him met with a refusal and the government was forced to apologise. And so Adams is trapped by the UK's archaic constitution in a job he does not want and will no longer be able to perform.

It is utterly bizarre that a supposedly modern democracy continues to operate in this way, and it highlights the desperate need for the UK to modernize its constitution. But given that they're still struggling with concepts such as equal-size electorates, and are still using an unfair electoral system, that doesn't seem very likely.

Asset sales don't add up

Over on, Bernard Hickey analyses the government's plans for asset sales. His conclusion? They just don't add up:

The theory is that for the sale to make immediate sense then the dividends given up would have to be less than the interest costs of the debt not incurred by selling the asset.


In total, the four SOEs potentially up for sale generated total dividends last financial year of NZ$732.5 million and shareholder (government) equity stood at NZ$9.642 billion. This implies a combined (and very raw) dividend yield of 7.6% last year.

Yet the government is currently having to pay around 5.5% for the new debt it is selling, mostly offshore.

So on the face of it the government is a net loser by selling half of these state assets and avoiding having to raise new debt.

So, quite apart from any ideological opposition to the government parting with strategic assets and privatising monopolies, its a bad financial decision for New Zealand. Despite all Key's scaremongering about debt - a threat he was dismissing only six months ago - privatising these assets will see it increase, not decrease. But then, its not about doing what's good for New Zealand, or what makes sense financially for the government - its about doing what's good for National's donors and cronies. And they want those monopoly rents to line their own pockets, and they're going to get their government to give them to them.

During the 90's privatisations were conducted corruptly, to the detriment of New Zealand and for the enrichment of a greedy few. This is just more of the same. We should not tolerate it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Fisk

A new truth dawns on the Arab world


For the past 12 years, Keith Locke has been a constant and principled voice for peace and human rights in our Parliament. Now, he's planning to retire. Like Nandor and Sue before him, he's given more to us than we have any right to expect. But his departure will still be a tremendous loss, both to the Greens and to our politics as a whole.

It also means the torch will have well and truly passed to a new generation in the Greens. Locke and Sue Kedgley are currently the only two Green MPs remaining from their 1999 intake - and Kedgley is also retiring. The turnover has been so complete that Metiria Turei will be their only MP dating from before 2008. While parties need to renew, this has been an enormous and quite sudden loss of Parliamentary experience and likely institutional memory; hopefully they'll avoid similar bloc-retirements in the future.

Asset stripping the country

John Key has finally revealed National's plans for privatisation, "asking" Treasury to "advise on the merits" (rubber stamp) of selling up to 49% of Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy, Genesis and Solid Energy, as well as most of its stake in Air New Zealand.

These are our core energy and tourism assets, and they deliver nice returns to the government - $700 million last year from the electricity companies alone. Currently, that money is used for the benefit of all New Zealanders, resulting in lower taxes and better schools and hospitals. Key wants to privatise that revenue stream, so it flows straight into the pockets of his rich mates and foreign investors. As for the one-off gain, he's already given it away in tax-cuts to the rich. Meanwhile, he's also planning to run a Richardson-style hyper-austerity programme, cutting the new spending allowance in future budgets from $1.1 billion to only $800 million. Given that health alone requires that much extra a year just to cover inflation, the result will be a progressive running down of our health and education systems, with lower wages for doctors and teachers, and schools and hospitals falling down due to deferred maintenance. But Key and his mates will be sitting pretty, because they'll have low taxes (which they cheat on anyway), and our power companies.

This is what National does: asset-strip the country for the benefit of the rich. They're planning to do to New Zealand what Fay and Richwhite did to NZ Rail. But they can only do it if they have an easy majority after the next election. So, if we want to protect New Zealand from these financial predators, we need to stop that from happening.

The trivialization of our media

Yesterday, Phil Goff gave a major speech setting out some of Labour's core election policies. So what's leading on the front page of the Dominion-Post this morning? A piece about whether or not he dyes his hair.

And so the Dom-Post's descent into a trivial rag full of celebrity fluff continues. With an editorial policy like this, its fit only as a cat-food wrapper.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

This should not happen in New Zealand

A pair of men kidnapped and beaten because they were believed to be gay. A gay couple driven from their business by a campaign of vandalism and harassment. And now we have another gay couple forced to close their business after it was firebombed. This isn't Alabama, or even Iran - its happening right here in New Zealand.

This should not happen here. It shouldn't happen in those other places either, but we pride ourselves on being better than them. It looks like we're not. It also looks like the police have a lot to answer for, showing a complete disinterest in the graffiti which preceded this hate-crime. I don't know if they're homophobic, or just dumb, but I doubt they'd have responded the same way to anti-Semitic graffiti on a Jewish person's house, or Islamophobic messages on a mosque. They recognise those crimes as warnings of worse to come, but apparently they don't when it comes to gays. That has to change.

But the real thing that has to change is public attitudes towards homophobia. This sort of shit happens because people think that homophobia is acceptable, that its OK to hate someone (and beat and abuse and firebomb them) because they're gay. Its not. And we must make sure that no-one is left with any illusions about that. We have to challenge this hatred every time it occurs. Because if we don't, we get stuff like this.

"Free" should mean free

The Education Act is pretty clear: every New Zealand child has a right to a free education through state schools. So why then does the government only fund 75% of those schools running costs?

"Free" should mean free. Not "75% free", not "mostly free, with the rest made up from pokie money", not "free, apart from a 'voluntary' donation", but free. By underfunding our schools, the government is welching on a core commitment. And its effectively breaking the law, by forcing the schools it should be paying for to charge fees.

Both major political parties have collaborated in this deception. Both are guilty. But it has to stop. Otherwise we are going to see our free state education system - one of the best in the world - gradually transformed into a fee-charging private one by simple underfunding. Just like our universities.

A good policy ruined by magical thinking

Phil Goff gave his "state of the nation" speech today, aimed at launching Labour during election year. Last year, he targeted inequality, focusing on the need to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Today he gave some details about how Labour plans to do that. Their first step? A $5,000 tax-free bracket, to be paid for by cracking down on tax avoidance and restoring the top tax bracket. It's good, redistributive, left-wing policy. The problem is that Goff's numbers on how to do it don't add up.

According to Treasury's 2010 tax model data, a $5,000 tax-free bracket would cost $1.58 billion (10.5% of all income in the zero - $5,000 range). Reintroducing a 39% top tax-bracket on "incomes comfortably into six figures" would claw back only $290 million if the threshold is $150,000, or $558 million if it is $100,000. Which means that 60 - 80% of the threshold will be paid for by reducing avoidance. Goff's statement that

No one knows exactly how much is lost by people dodging their tax - but it’s been estimated in the billions.
is carrying an awful lot of weight here.

Like Goff, I want to see those loopholes closed and that avoidance stopped. People should pay their fair share, and those who don't are cheats and parasites. It speaks volumes about National that in a recession when the government needs all the money it can get, they're not doing this. But the core problem here is that we just don't know how successful those efforts will be, and how much money they'll yield. Which makes relying on them to fund over a billion dollars in low-income tax cuts an exercise in magical thinking, about as intellectually defensible as right-wing promises to fund tax-cuts for the rich by "cutting waste". And when you've just promised that you "won’t make any promise that I can’t keep or that the country can’t afford" and to "be more fiscally responsible than National", you've just handed them a stick to beat you with (and that's without getting into the risk that some Labour MP, somewhere, will be cheating in exactly the same way).

And all of that said: this is a good, principled position taken by Labour, and one which clearly puts them on the side of the many against the few. Its also good politics - in a recession, the idea that some people are not paying their fair share attracts even more moral outrage than usual; if National dismisses it with their usual claim of the "politics of envy", then they're on the side of the cheats, if not cheats themselves. I just wish Labour had presented it more carefully, as something that would take them a few years to implement after they found out how much more revenue a crackdown would yield, rather than exposing themselves in this manner. Overpromising and relying on magical thinking benefits no-one; it just leads to disappointment and adds to the public's cynicism about politicians. And that's something Labour should be trying to avoid.

New Fisk

Tombs that bear witness to Algeria's Jewish tragedy

Conservation Minister backs pollution

Lake Ellesmere / Te Waihora is New Zealand's fourth largest lake. Its also our second most polluted, with dairy runoff from adjacent farms turning it into a giant effluent pond unsafe for swimming or fishing. The Department of Conservation, which is responsible for managing the lake under the Conservation Act 1987 and Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, has been trying to clean it up. One of their methods of doing so is by reducing direct pollution by refusing to renew grazing licences on conservation land adjacent to the lake.

Unfortunately, their Minister won't let them. Documents released under the Official Information Act to The Press show that Minister of Conservation Kate Wilkinson overruled her department last year to force the renewal of the last adjacent grazing licence - in other words, to allow pollution to continue:

[Barry] Clark, whose family had grazed the land for more than a century, said he was advised early in 2010 by DOC that his lease would expire in June and he was asked to reapply – which gave him the impression that a "renewal was available". DOC's decision not to renew the licence was overturned at a meeting in August involving Canterbury-based ministers Wilkinson and Carter, Clark and Mahaanui area manager Bryan Jensen, and a five-year extension was approved.

Extending the lease contravened DOC's policy of removing grazing from the lake edge to protect the environment and upset some DOC staff.

It also contradicted what Clark was told by the department in 2004 – that the next five-year term of his lease would be his last.

Wilkinson's reason? Given the amount of pollution, another five years wouldn't matter. It's an extraordinary approach to take on the issue, and one which directly contravenes the conservation values she is supposed to be an advocate for. It also contravenes the consultation requirements of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act. But National clearly views the government keeping its word on a Treaty settlement as less important than allowing a wealthy constituent to continue to make money by expropriating and polluting public space.

This also shows that Wilkinson is totally unsuitable for her portfolio. Here's a hint: the Minister of Conservation's job is to conserve. If Wilkinson is unwilling to do that, she should resign and give the job to someone who is. But how many of them are there in the National Party anymore?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Places to go, people to be

No posts today (or yesterday), as I am attending New Zealand's largest roleplaying convention. Normal bloggage will resume Tuesday.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tyranny in the courtroom

The Dominion Post reports that a Gisborne judge jailed a man for 28 days for swearing at him in court. While judges clearly need the power to keep order in their courtrooms, this is also clearly grossly disproportionate. There's also this:

Judge Adeane said James Kennedy Grant's abuse came at the end of a week of "bad manners" in Gisborne District Court last week. "At least one defendant having been denied bail chose to make a thoroughly obscene outburst ... one individual walked across the back of the seats [in the public gallery], a phone rang in the pocket of one individual twice."
So the victim isn't just being punished for their own outburst, but those of others - something which goes against the core principles of justice.

This judge's actions have brought the court into disrepute, cast doubt upon the fairness of sentencing in general, and highlighted the need for checks on judicial power. Currently that power to hold people in contempt is not subject to any real checks or proper scrutiny. Judges can jail people for a month on a whim, or simply because they are in a bad mood (as has also clearly happened in this case). And that makes every single one of them a tyrant in their own courtroom.

Tyranny cannot be tolerated. We are a society of laws, not men. Our judges are the last exception to that, each exercising the lawless and arbitrary powers of a C17th absolute monarch. That has to change. We've emasculated and tamed our politicians and made them subject to the law; its time we did the same to our judges.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Maori Party's cold war goes hot

Its been apparent for a while that there has been discontent building within the Maori party's base over its relationship with National and support of National's Marine and Coastal Areas bill. Over the weekend, Hone Harawira took that discontent public, with a Sunday Star-Times column and subsequent interview in which he argued that the party should return to its roots and take a more independent line. This seems to have been too much for the rest of his party to bear, and so they are taking disciplinary action against him.

This will be amusing. Unlike Chris Carter, Harawira has the advantage of being both right and popular. If the Maori Party turfs him out, he has a good chance of standing against them in Te Tai Tokerau and winning (or at the minimum, making them lose). And if they merely try and discipline him without evicting him, he can walk and do the same. Either way, the Parliamentary Maori Party, the faction committed to working with National, loses. On a pragmatic level, then, attempting to rein in Harawira is a dumb move - he is a rebel who will not be tamed. But this isn't about electoral calculation; its about injured pride, anger at being called on their own bullshit, and an authoritarian demand for "loyalty". And that's quite informative about the Maori Party leadership.

The ultimate judgement on whether Harawira is right or wrong will not be made by some Maori party disciplinary process - it will be made by their voters at election-time. Persecuting Harawira won't change that. But it will harden attitudes on each side, and increase the chances of a split or of the party being abandoned by its base. The direct electoral winner from that will be Labour and the Greens. But in the longer term it may remove the Maori Party from its expected position as kingmaker.

Deporting domestic abuse victims

Yesterday's Southland Times has a disturbing story about our immigration system. An unnamed Kenyan migrant was being abused by her husband. She did the right thing and reported him. He was convicted, and they separated. And for her pains, she and her children are now going to be deported.

Think about the incentive that sets. Think about the power that gives abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence. Think about how other victims of domestic violence will respond. If the government wants to eliminate domestic violence in migrant communities, then this cruel decision is exactly the wrong way of doing it. But Immigration don't care about any of that - all they seem to care about is throwing as many people out of the country as possible.

Cleaning out the police

Yesterday, the State Services Commission released its third annual report [PDF] into changes in the police in response to the Bazley report on police rape. The report found that the changes to police culture recommended by Bazley had stalled. The key finding:

Senior management lacks the confidence and adeptness to make bold, circuit-breaking, and symbolic moves that will change the DNA of the organisation, signal to staff at all levels that poor performance and behaviour will not be tolerated, and that a new type of leader in Police will be fostered and advanced. Management has tolerated the continuation and even appointment of some of the wrong people in high places. Managers have sometimes failed to act decisively on high-profile incidents when a strong gesture has been required.
Or in English, shorn of its management-speak: Police management is incompetent, promotes crooked cops rather than sacking them, and continues to let police cover up for their mates - exactly the same attitudes that let Clint Rickards get away with rape.

This morning, Police Commissioner Howard Broad proved the SSC's point when he clubbed together with Greg O'Connor to push a mix of more foot dragging and outright denial:

[Broad] told Radio New Zealand the report did not go into as much detail about those who spoke well of the police as it did about those who had something negative to say.

"I am worried that this will set the organisation back rather than take us forward, because it looks like a huge big slapping and I think it's intended to actually propel us into greater energy and move us forward.

"You are not going to change the absolute core bones of the organisation overnight, it's going to take relentless and long term commitment to do that."


O'Connor said he feared the report could leave police staff feeling disgruntled and disaffected, therefore undermining their effectiveness.

"We have major problems with organised crime and methamphetamine in this country and that requires dedicated and focussed police officers in that area," he said.

"This kind of thing can undermine the efficiency of police if they say 'what's the point, we're just going to get a beating anyway no matter what we do.'"

O'Connor said he thought it would be better if further reports of this nature were not made public.

Yeah, more secrecy, to preserve public respect. We can see where that approach got us with Clint Rickards and his mates, whose crimes were swept under the carpet for twenty years before exploding messily in everyone's faces. But O'Connor's response would no doubt be that the secrets weren't buried deep enough.

Lets be clear: Broad and O'Connor and people like them are the problem. And we will not have a police force we can respect - a clean force which does not abuse its power, behave as if they are above the law, or cover up for their mates - until they are gone. Broad is already out; he goes in a few months. And this morning he was followed by his chief deputy, Rob Pope, who was implicated in the promotion of dirty cops linked to above. Good riddance to both of them. They've clearly done all they can do, and its time to move on and let someone who is willing to make the necessary changes take over. Unfortunately, though, we're still stuck with O'Connor. And pretty clearly he does not accept the need for change and is going to do everything in his power to impede it to protect his refusenik members. The result will be a continued decline in respect for the police. And they'll have no-one to blame for it but themselves.

New Fisk

Names of Hariri killing suspects handed to judge

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Conspiracy to torture in the UK

Over the past decade we've seen the UK government colluding in the torture of its own citizens, arranging for them to be detained by the US or Pakistan, providing lists of questions to be asked, and turning a blind eye while those dirty regimes tortured the information out of their victims. Now they've been caught at it again - this time in Bangladesh:

UK authorities passed information about British nationals to notorious Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and police units, then pressed for information while the men were being held at a secret interrogation centre where inmates are known to have died under torture.


Meetings and exchanges of information took place between British and Bangladeshi officials in an effort to protect the UK from attacks that might be fomented in Bangladesh, according to sources in both countries.

The likelihood that a number of suspects would be tortured as a result of the meetings went unmentioned, according to the sources. Subsequently, more than a dozen men of dual British-Bangladeshi nationality were placed under investigation, and at least some suffered horrific abuse from the Bangladeshi authorities.

Any ordinary person would see this for what it is: a conspiracy to torture by the UK government, using the Bangladeshis as proxies. It is contrary to UK and international law, and should result in severe criminal penalties for those involved . And former UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is directly on the hook: she flew to Dhaka to personally meet with the Bangaldeshi intelligence services, and demanded they investigate certain people. At least two of these people were later tortured:
Faisal Mostafa, from Manchester, was taken to the TFI after Smith's visit to Dhaka and is alleged to have been forced to stand upright for the first six days of his incarceration, with his wrists shackled to bars above his head. He is then alleged to have then been beaten and subjected to electric shocks while being questioned about Bangladeshi associates. At the point at which he was to be questioned about his associates and activities in the UK, he is said to have been blindfolded and strapped to a chair while a drill was slowly driven into his right shoulder and hip.


A second man, Gulam Mustafa, from Birmingham, was being held in Bangladesh during Smith's visit, and was released before being held a second time last April. He says he was tortured on both occasions while being questioned about associates in the UK, with his interrogators beating him, subjecting him to electric shocks and crushing his knees. He was eventually transferred to a prison hospital, where he was treated for injuries suffered he suffered during interrogation. Bangladeshi police officers who arrested him the second time say his first arrest had been at the request of MI6. "When we received the file from his first arrest from RAB, it was marked 'MI6 File'," said one senior detective. He added that when this man was arrested for the second time, officials from the British high commission in Dhaka contacted police and asked to be debriefed on the results of his interrogation. "They wanted maximum information." he said.

So, the British government asks for information on certain people, who are arrested and tortured, and the Foreign Office asks for the results. It doesn't take much to connect those dots, does it?

Meanwhile, the Foreign Office is still spouting its line that they "do not condone the use of torture". That's bullshit, and anyone can see it. Instead, they seem to have criminally and callously solicited the torture of UK nationals in order to obtain information. They and their Ministers need to be held to account for that policy, not merely politically, but criminally.

Extending paid parental leave

Labour has announced it will extend paid parental leave if they become government. Good. A study by the Families Commission in 2007 found that we have one of the lowest paid parental leave entitlements in the developed world, with only two countries below us. One of them, Australia, has just leapfrogged us, with a scheme providing for 18 weeks leave (and to a wider pool of people). Which leaves us right at the bottom, just above the US.

National will no doubt say that we can't afford it - money spent on paid parental leave is money that could be spent on tax cuts, and they'd rather benefit their rich mates than ordinary New Zealanders. But I think we can't afford not to. Paid parental leave isn't just a basic dignity offered by decent societies - its also a fundamental child welfare measure, which helps ensure that children get a good start in life. The evidence is pretty clear that investing in children early pays off massively later in terms of better health, education, and ultimately income, and lower rates of criminal offending; along with ECE this is part of that investment. But beyond that, business keeps reminding us that we live in a global labour market in which we must compete for talent. And you don't win that competition by offering worse pay and conditions than your nearest neighbour. The fact that Australia has a paid parental leave scheme combined with the high level of mobility and easy access to jobs across the Tasman means that we need to match it - or watch as it becomes just another reason for young kiwis to work in Sydney rather than Wellington.

The same applies to Labour's plans to increase Working For Families for under 2's - its an investment, and one which will pay off in the long term.

Labour is vague at the moment about how far they will extend the scheme (other than using Australia as an obvious benchmark), but I hope they will include some component of "daddy leave". This is both in line with the Families Commission's recommendations, and it has been shown to lead to greater sexual equality by levelling expectations around parental leave. And that is something that needs doing.

Quite apart from the merits, this is a perfect election-year policy for Labour. It wedges National against women, and shows that National's natural instincts run in the opposite direction from those of ordinary New Zealanders. National can only escape the trap if it announces its own extension - which is a victory for the left regardless of who is implementing it.

Honours for sale?

In the 2010 Queen's Birthday honours list, businessman Graeme Douglas was given one of National's revived knighthoods "for services to philanthropy and athletics". Later, in November last year, he made a donation of $25,000 to the National Party.

It may be coincidence. But it looks like a payoff. And the mere fact it was made brings Mr Douglas, the National Party, and our honours system into disrepute. Parties should not accept donations from people they have recently granted honours to. Otherwise, people may draw the natural conclusion: that those honours are effectively for sale, and used as a fundraising tool by the government of the day.

(Also of questionable wisdom: National's acceptance of $200,000 from Susan Chou, who is affiliated with Natural Dairy. Offering a large donation to the governing party while they are deciding whether to accept your overseas investment application looks like offering a bribe. Accepting that donation looks like you are prepared to accept one. In this case, Natural Dairy didn't get what it wanted - but it didn't look like that at the time the donation was made, and the transaction makes both parties look bad. If parties want to avoid the perception that they are selling policy (or honours), they need to be very, very careful about who they accept money from).

New Fisk

The brutal truth about Tunisia

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fines for the rich, jail for the poor

So, hot on the heels of "three strikes", car crushing, the erosion of legal aid and the elimination of jury trials comes the latest step in the government's assault on our civil liberties: jailing people for unpaid fines. While there's clearly a problem in this area, it is hard to see how jail will solve it. The government already has the power to seize assets and order deductions from wages to ensure that fines are paid. The major problem isn't people who won't pay their fines (against whom existing powers are more than sufficient), but people who can't. And jailing them does no good whatsoever, while costing us far more than is owed.

Money that can't be repaid won't be repaid. It is that simple. You can't squeeze blood out of a stone, no matter how long you stick it in jail. But the purpose of the policy isn't to get people to repay money, its to get the government "tough on crime" headlines in an election year, and suck up further to the "hang 'em high" brigade.

But quite apart from being ineffective, this creates a two-tier justice system, with fines for the rich and jail for the poor, even where there is no penalty of imprisonment in law. National is obviously quite comfortable with that. The rest of us should not be.

Labour, eager for "tough on crime" headlines of its own, naturally supports the proposal. What a pack of useless twatcocks. It would be nice to have a real opposition, and one which gave a damn about people's civil liberties.

No judicial independence in Venezuela

María Lourdes Afiuni is a Venezuelan judge. Back in 2009, she granted bail to a banker accused of evading currency controls. It was an ordinary legal decision, and a straight application of the law - he had been in jail for three years without trial, which exceeded the 2-year statutory limit, so he was bailed. Unfortunately, Hugo Chavez didn't like it:

Chávez, who had taken a close interest in the case, was furious. He went on TV the day after the release and said Afiuni was a "bandit" who took a bribe. "This judge should get the maximum penalty … 30 years in prison! That judge has to pay for what she has done."

He told the head of the supreme court that the case should be treated with "firmness". Afiuni was charged with corruption and abuse of power. In May prosecutors said they had found no evidence of illicit payments but accused the judge of "spiritual corruption". There is no trial date.

Afiuni has now been in jail for a year for making a lawful decision the Venezuelan President didn't like. And assuming she ever gets a trial, the presiding judge will be under no illusions that they could suffer the same fate if they do not find her guilty. And so the law is perverted from what is on the statute book to whatever Chavez decrees it to be, and guilt and innocence are decided not by the evidence, but by the president's whim.


So, it seems that the newly-elected Mayor of Whakatane overspent in the recent local body elections by at least $1,000.

This is absolutely unacceptable. The Local Electoral Act sets strict limits on electoral expenses to ensure a level playing field and prevent rich candidates from buying elections. In Mr Bonne's case, this was $20,000. But he spent $20,928 - and that's not including the use of a specially decorated vehicle loaned to him for the duration of the campaign (which, if not declared as a donation, is an expense).

Bonne's excuse is that he didn't realise that the spending limit included GST. Pull the other one, it calls Don Brash. Bonne has been a District Councillor for 18 years and has previous contested and won the Whakatane mayoralty. A "defence" of ignorance is simply not believable.

The penalty if the spending is round to be deliberate is a $10,000 fine and up to two years in jail. Contrary to the Herald story, that wouldn't cause Bonne to lose his office - he's only disqualified if convicted of an offence punishable by two years or more. So even if the court finds that he deliberately flouted the law in an attempt to buy victory, the people of Whakatane will still have to live with him as Mayor.

That's a serious flaw in the law. The Electoral Act gets around it by using the concept of a "corrupt practice", and disqualifying any MP convicted of one (or found to have behaved corruptly by an electoral petition). Its time that concept was extended to local government.

Correction: I've misinterpreted the Local Government Act; conviction for intentionally violating spending restrictions is enough to see Bonne disqualified. Guss I should check more carefully.

New Fisk

Some people will do anything to avoid blame
Lebanon in limbo: a nation haunted by the murder of Rafiq Hariri

Friday, January 14, 2011

Good riddance to Goudie

National MP Sandra Goudie has announced she will retire from politics at the next election. Good. As a backbencher, she was basically a waste of space, her sole claim to fame being the desecration of a protected area of native wetland (for which oddly she was never prosecuted). As chair of the Law and Order Select Committee, she's gained a reputation as a nasty little autocrat, censoring minority reports and preventing the normal practice of committee members from asking for advice from government departments. Her chairing has been so bad that she provoked an unprecedented walkout of Labour and Green MPs last year. Parliament will be well rid of her.

Changing the succession?

The Republican Movement has done some detective work (well, keeping an eye on overseas media) and discovered that the New Zealand Government is apparently chairing talks on changing the UK's sexist, bigoted and discriminatory Act of Settlement. The Act enshrines not only male primogeniture, but also C17th anti-Catholicism, banning Catholics or anyone married to a Catholic from ascending to the British throne, and requiring the monarch to be a member of the Church of England (a gross violation of freedom of religion). The UK government has been looking at changing it for a number of years, and gave a status report in the UK House of Lords the other day (scroll to 3:09 pm):

As is known, the previous Administration initiated discussions among Commonwealth countries. Those discussions are proceeding under the chairmanship of the New Zealand Government and we will continue to keep the matter under consideration.
Interestingly, despite this official statement from the UK government, I've been told that the NZ government is denying any such involvement. So, someone is lying to us here. The question is who.

As a republican, I don't really give a rat's arse about succession laws, because they're just another part of an irrelevant institution I want to do away with. But as a liberal, the current laws are simply unacceptable, and need to be changed to bring them into the modern world regardless of whether we remain a monarchy or not.

A gross abuse of power

The US, like all governments, has the power to (and does) impose economic sanctions against countries or organisations who pose a threat to the international community. It currently has sanctions regimes in place against various Sudan (for genocide), Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe (for human rights abuse), Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria (to prevent them from gaining access to nuclear weapons), and Cuba (for embarrassing them in the 60's - spot the odd one out). It also has programmes aimed at drug-smugglers, terrorists, and arms-dealers. Part of these regimes is the Specially Designated Nationals List,

a list of individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries. It also lists individuals, groups, and entities, such as terrorists and narcotics traffickers designated under programs that are not country-specific
Now a Republican congressman wants them to add WikiLeaks and Julian Assange to that list.

Think about that for a moment: a congressman thinks its appropriate to block all economic transactions with Wikileaks and affiliated individuals simply because it has embarrassed the US government. It's a gross abuse of state power, an action you'd expect from a totalitarian dictator than a supposed democracy. What next? They'll be demanding an economic embargo against international human rights organisations who criticise the US's use of torture and the death penalty? Or other media organisations who publish stories critical of US policy?

The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in the former, embarrassing the government is not a crime. The attempts to criminalise and punish Wikileaks risk turning the United States into a very different country from the one it is now. Hopefully saner voices will prevail.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Except for gays" unconstitutional in Canada

Last year, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench upheld a ruling from the Human Rights Commission that civil marriage commissioners (what we would call a celebrant) could not discriminate against gay people by refusing to perform same-sex marriages. As public servants, performing a public function, they were obliged to marry any eligible couple who went to them with the right paperwork. The provincial government immediately announced they would legislate to overturn the ruling, and submitted two draft bills to the provincial Court of Appeal for constitutional scrutiny. That court has now ruled that any "conscientious objection" is unconstitutional:

"Either of them, if enacted, would violate the equality rights of gay and lesbian individuals. This violation would not be reasonable and justifiable within the meaning of s. 1 of the Charter. As a result, if put in place, either option would be unconstitutional and of no force or effect."

In its decision, the court notes that marriage commissioners offer the only option for any individuals who want to marry in a non-religious ceremony.

"Many gay and lesbian couples will not have access to the institution of marriage unless they are able to call on a marriage commissioner to perform the required ceremony," the decision stated.

As a reference case, the ruling isn't legally binding - the provincial government can pass the law. But if they did, then the court has signalled that it would be immediately overturned. The case will also likely be a strong influence should any similar cases arise in Canada - or in countries which pay attention to Canadian human rights jurisprudence, such as New Zealand.

The full ruling is here [PDF]. One of the bits that stood out:

Marriage commissioners do not act as private citizens when they discharge their official duties. Rather, they serve as agents of the Province and act on its behalf and its behalf only. Accordingly, a system that would make marriage services available according to the personal religious beliefs of commissioners is highly problematic. It would undercut the basic principle that governmental services must be provided on an impartial and non-discriminatory basis.
"Conscientious objection" is at its heart about forcing the state to work for god, and perverting it from a neutral arbiter into an instrument of Christian bigotry. And that is not something the citizens of any liberal society can permit.

Cautious optimism on MMP

The Herald has published the results of its pre-xmas poll, which showed that almost 51% of respondents support MMP. This is a massive increase on a year ago, and it caps off a year in which support for the current electoral system has consistently been above 50%. I think that gives us reason to be optimistic that kiwis will vote to retain democracy later this year.

But that optimism should be cautious. In 1993, MMP had a far greater lead than this, and almost lost after a $1.5 million campaign from big business to retain the old undemocratic system. We'll no doubt see a similar campaign again this year, complete with crying babies and faceless list MPs, though fortunately this time round the amount of money the rich can spend in an effort to buy the outcome will be limited to $300,000. So, if we want to keep MMP, then we are still going to have to fight for it.

Subsidised discrimination

According to a report in the Herald, the Exclusive Brethren have set up their own KiwiSaver scheme. That's not particularly interesting, but what caught my attention is that the scheme will only be offered to members of the cult:

In its prospectus, released just before Christmas, the BCF scheme made it clear that membership would be - no surprises here - exclusive: sorry Richard, this one's for the bros only.
This is, of course, illegal. Religious belief is a prohibited form of discrimination, and no institution is allowed to discriminate on those grounds in the provision of goods and services. While there are some exceptions for insurance and retirement benefits, these apply exclusively to sex, disability and age, not to religion (something irrelevant to any actuarial decision). And while there is an exception for religion, it applies only to employment, not to the provision of services (it allows religious schools to hire religious staff). There is no generalised exception for religion, allowing them to discriminate against non-members or on the basis of their faith. If you provide services in the marketplace, then you must provide them to all comers, regardless of their religious beliefs.

The Brethren are collecting government subsidies to engage in this discriminatory behaviour (in fact, that's the point - using KiwiSaver subsidies as a line of easy credit to boost their businesses). That should not be permitted. Taxpayer's money should not be used to subsidise discrimination.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

People OK with murder

The assassination attempt against Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has highlighted the violent rhetoric used by the right in US politics, and the fact that a disturbing number of them are perfectly OK with murdering their political enemies. But they don't just incite violence against their domestic opponents - another example is the violent rhetoric directed at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. So, in the interests of making these people own their own shit, some of his friends have set up a website: People OK with murdering Assange.

These people need to be held to account for their incitement. And the best way of doing it is naming and shaming them.

More disgraceful homophobia

Last month I blogged about a hate crime in the South Island, where two men in Moeraki were kidnapped and threatened because they were believed to be gay. But it looks like its not just rural areas where such homophobia persists. The Press this morning reports that a gay couple in Christchurch were forced to close their bakery after a campaign of vandalism and harassment from local residents.

This is simply appalling, and it is not something we should tolerate in New Zealand. We're meant to be a better society than that. But if we want to be that society, we need to challenge this sort of bigotry whenever it occurs. If we just ignore it out of fear of "making a fuss", then the bigots think it is acceptable. We need to make sure that they know that it is not.

Time to Mondayize our public holidays

Its less than a month to Waitangi Day, and people are again noticing that for the second year in a row it falls on a weekend, meaning that we are robbed of a public holiday. We get robbed over Anzac Day too - this year it coincides with Easter Monday, so no holiday there either. This has led to both Labour and the EPMU calling for all public holidays to be "Mondayized", ensuring that we always get a holiday regardless of what day of the week it happens to fall on.

This is standard practice overseas, and its just a good idea. And its not as if we can't afford it. As Phil Goff points out, if employers can afford it five years out of seven, they can afford it for the other two. Opposing it is just penny-pinching. Sadly, that's exactly what John Key and his business mates are doing - stealing our holidays to make greater profits for themselves.

Sadly, it is already too late to do anything about it this year - Parliament would need to pass a law (which takes at least six months if done properly), and it won't sit until after Waitangi Day. So this year, if we want a Mondayized holiday, we'll simply have to take it ourselves.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Something to be proud of

Apparently we have the best freedom of information regime in the world:

A new study ranks Canada dead last in an international comparison of freedom-of-information laws — a hard fall after many years being judged a global model in openness.

The study by a pair of British academics looked at the effectiveness of freedom-of-information laws in five parliamentary democracies: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada.

New Zealand placed first and Canada last.

Ironically, that's despite us not having the official statistics on request and complaint numbers and request outcomes of comparator countries; the study thinks those are important, but also looks at political support for the law. And here, that's pretty much universal. Unlike overseas, our politicians were not allowed to respond to the inevitable political discomfort induced by greater transparency by introducing filing fees for requests or narrowing the scope of the law. And while they're fighting a desperate rearguard action to keep Parliament outside the scope of the OIA, in the face of mass public support for the idea, that's one they will inevitably lose.

The same problems everywhere

In 2008, we learned that our police had engaged in extensive spying on left-wing groups using a bribed undercover informer. They had spied on unions, on political parties, on court cases against them, on people whose sole "crime" was to raise a placard and engage in lawful and peaceful protest. Now it seems the UK police have been doing exactly the same thing:

A police officer who for seven years lived deep undercover at the heart of the environmental protest movement, travelling to 22 countries gleaning information and playing a frontline role in some of the most high-profile confrontations, has quit the Met, telling his friends that what he did was wrong.

PC Mark Kennedy, a Metropolitan police officer, infiltrated dozens of protest groups including anti-racist campaigners and anarchists, a Guardian investigation reveals.

The operation reportedly cost £250,000 a year. And Kennedy wasn't the only spy - he's named a second one. So the UK police were spending half a million pounds a year to spy on peaceful activists.

Except it wasn't just spying. Kennedy and his fellow spy seem to have also worked as agent provocateurs, actively inciting peaceful protestors into criminal actions so they could be prosecuted. This has led to the collapse of at least one criminal case, and likely more in the future.

Again, this shows a deeply disturbing mindset in the police, which sees peaceful public protest as sedition which must be crushed. Quite apart from being wrong - the police should not be spying on citizens engaged in lawful activities - this anti-democratic agenda is also stupid. It undermines public confidence in the police as neutral enforcers of the law, making it harder for them to do their jobs. Even if you disagree with the politics of those targeted, respect for human rights and the rule of law means that the police's attitudes to protest need to change.

90 days, unions, and the public service

Yesterday we learned that unions have responded to the government's expansion of the 90-day law by doing their job, and negotiating collective agreements which bar its application. This doesn't just benefit their members; the common practice of passing-on union terms and conditions means non-members will be protected from the law too. And that ultimately comes back to benefit union members by creating a culture of secure employment for all.

Unfortunately the government has directed that public service agencies refuse to negotiate such agreements. This is odd, as there is very little need for the 90-day trial period in the public service. Its ostensible purpose is to allow employers to hire more people - something the government doesn't want the public service to do. It is also supposed to allow employers to "take risks" in hiring decisions - something unlikely to apply in a sector which requires high qualifications or police background checks for entry, and in which trust is key. Left to themselves, public sector managers would happily have contracted out of the 90-day provision, simply because they don't need or want it - it would have been an easy point of agreement in contract negotiations.

The problem for the government is that this would then have set the baseline for the rest of the employment market and created a large "safe haven" from the law which employers would have to compete with to gain workers. This would have undermined the bills real purpose: driving wages down by creating widespread employment insecurity. So instead we have public service managers ordered to impose unfair contractual conditions which they neither want to need, and which actively poison relations with their own workforce, in order to create worse employment standards for everyone else.

This is what National does: use government to fuck over the many for the benefit of the few. If you don't like it, you need to vote them out. And this year we'll have an opportunity to do just that.

The UK gets tough on expenses fraud

In New Zealand, if you're an MP who steals from the taxpayer, everyone looks the other way, then the Prime Minister changes the rules to make it legal.

In the UK, you go to jail:

The former Labour MP David Chaytor behind bars tonight beginning an 18-month jail sentence after admitting claiming false parliamentary expenses.

Chaytor, who as MP for Bury North tried to cheat taxpayers out of more than £22,000, looked gaunt but impassive as Mr Justice Saunders at Southwark crown court told him the expenses scandal had "shaken public confidence in our legislature" and had "angered the public".

Its time we took a similarly hard line. Its not enough for MPs who steal from us to simply pay the money back and pretend it never happened (not that Bill English has even bothered doing that); they belong in a jail cell, not our Parliament.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Fisk

The forgotten martyrdom of Algeria's reporters

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The tea party in charge

Last week, the tea party-dominated Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives. Today, a Democratic congresswoman was shot in the head at point-blank range during a public meeting in Arizona. She had previously appeared on a "target list" circulated by tea party Queen Sarah Palin, which carried the chilling headline "we've diagnosed the problem... Help us prescribe the solution" and marked target candidates with crosshairs:


Now that map is looking like a literal hit-list, an incitement to murder.

The tea party was all about inciting the whackos. Now that has reached its natural conclusion, with somebody being shot. The question is whether this will cause them to stop and think - or to pursue such tactics even harder.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Foreshore & seabed: Myth busted

The debate around the government's Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill has been pretty toxic, with Pakeha rednecks claiming that the law will mean ordinary kiwis will be barred from using the beaches by Maori. So, in the interests of introducing some facts into the debate, the Herald today looks at who is really stopping people from using the beaches. Their finding? The problem isn't Maori, but millionaires. The people putting up gates and shutting the public out are farmers and the residents of exclusive gated communities, both of whom effectively privatise public space by restricting access.

If we think this is a problem - and I agree, it is - then the answer is not to restrict justice to Maori, but instead to legislate for free access regardless of who owns the adjacent land. But a solution where Pakeha are allowed to privatise public space while Maori are denied justice and have lesser property rights is not acceptable, and can only be regarded as racist.


Stuff reports today that at least some of the Urewera 18 are appealing against the decision to deny them a jury trial. Good. The right to a jury trial in serious cases is fundamental in New Zealand, and affirmed by the Bill of Rights Act. While there has been a limited exception to that right since 2008, we were told it would apply only in cases of complex fraud, not ordinary criminal cases. Any use of that exception needs to be carefully examined to ensure it does not undermine justice, or the justice system.

(Unfortunately I cannot say more as all details of the judge's reasoning are suppressed. This does not benefit justice. But it does benefit the judge, who gets to prevent public scrutiny and criticism of a highly controversial decision).

The appeal will almost certainly lead to a further delay in the trial, currently tentatively scheduled for May 2011, three and a half years after the raids were conducted. That seems to be part of the government's strategy. As in the case of Ahmed Zaoui, they are engaging in unconscionable conduct, and then blaming the defendants for standing up for their fundamental right to a fair trial. This too calls the justice system into disrepute. And if it goes on long enough, there's a real chance that the passage of time will make a fair trial impossible. And we all lose if that happens.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Why control orders must go

The UK government is currently considering whether to repeal the current system of control orders, which allows suspected terrorists to be subjected to house arrest, electronic monitoring and travel restrictions on the basis of secret "evidence". Meanwhile, the Independent has a perfect example of why the regime must be repealed, in the person of Cerie Bullivant:

Mr Bullivant, a Muslim convert, was required to wear an electronic tag, observe a curfew, report daily to police and to expect his home to be raided at any time.

The regime forced him to drop out of college, made it impossible for him to find a job, caused the collapse of his marriage and led to him being shunned by friends and family.

He said he still faces abuse and suspicion to this day – despite having his control order quashed by the High Court almost three years ago.

All of this happened because he was friends with someone whose brother was convicted of terrorism. In other words, guilt by (distant) association. Because the "evidence" was secret, it could not be effectively challenged; in the end he had to abscond from the control order and be prosecuted for it in order to force the government to show their hand and reveal that they had ruined his life for nothing.

It is fundamental to any fair society that the state should not engage in arbitrary punishment or restrictions on freedom. But that is what control orders do. And they encourage lazy policing. Rather than gather evidence to actually prosecute and convict someone suspected of terrorism, the police can just stick the person on a control order. But the lack of procedural safeguards means that the innocent get punished along with the guilty. And that in turn provides exactly the sort of injustice which encourages acts of terrorism.

The Herald wakes up

Two weeks after the news broke that the Urewera 18 have been denied a jury trial, our self-described "newspaper of record", the New Zealand Herald, has deigned to mention it:

Most of the 18 people charged after the Urewera "terror" raids have been denied a jury trial.

Fifteen of the group, who are facing firearms charges stemming from police raids in 2007, will be tried before a judge alone when their case goes ahead in August.

Suppression has been lifted on the decision, after the Crown argued that it was in the public interest to know the sort of trial the 18 defendants would go through.

Human rights activists have decried the ruling, saying the high-profile, controversial case should be decided by a jury of peers.

The news was unsuppressed on December 21, and has been blogged by various people (including me) over the holiday break. But the Herald's lawyers were all on holiday, so they didn't dare say anything about it until they were sure about the exact limits placed by the suppression order.

Now its out there in the media, the debate can begin: do you think it is right that people in a hugely political case are being denied the right to a jury trial? And do you think this will result in the public accepting the verdict? Send your answers to the Herald's letters page.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Israeli McCarthyism

Some of the strongest critics of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza are Israeli human rights organisations. So the Israeli government has decided to crack down, holding an inquiry into them and their source of funding. The aim is clear: to equate support for universal human rights and the rule of law with anti-Semitism and "disloyalty", and opposition to government policy with treason. Just another sign that Israel's occupation and state of constant war is destroying not just the Palestinians, but also its democracy.

Funding his mates II

The Herald today continues to excavate the saga of Bill English and the Pacifc Economic Development Agency, pointing out the sheer shonkiness of the process used. Not only did English try to allocate $4.8 million to his mates with no tender and without informing the relevant Ministry, he also didn't bother with a formal Budget initiative, or indeed any documentation at all.

If a new Minister had done this in their first ever Budget round, they might be able to argue that it was a mistake. But English is an experienced Minister, who has been around more than long enough to know that that is not the way things are done in this country, that public money must be properly accounted for, and that we have tenders and formal processes to ensure that it is. He chose to ignore those rules, so he could dole out public money under the table to his mates in an effort to boost the profile in the pacific Community of a National party candidate. That's an appalling attempt to misuse public funds, and not acceptable from any Minister.

Also unacceptable is his claim in the House that the allegation that "he, rather than Mrs te Heuheu, negotiated this deal, and that it was done without the normal standards of transparency, accountability and due diligence that should have been followed" was "not correct". That's known as "lying to Parliament", and while procedural rules mean that he cannot be properly held to account for it, it speaks volumes about both his honesty and his contempt for our democracy that he would stand up in the House and tell such a bald-faced lie.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The police kill already

Last year, our police killed sixteen people in chases, victims of a policy which allowed them to chase on suspicion without regard to the danger such chases posed to the public. This year, they've killed already, with a teenager dying in a police chase in Auckland last night. Like the other victims of police chases, the victim was not suspected of a serious crime and did not pose any serious danger to the public. He was a car thief, not a psycho running amok with a gun. But the police chased him at high speed, encouraging dangerous driving, and ultimately caused his death.

(I am now waiting for the inevitable press release from the Police Association claiming that the fact people flee from police means they should have greater access to firearms. It makes about as much sense as their other claims on the topic).

The Independent Police Conduct Authority have repeatedly told the police to change their pursuit policy to prevent dangerous chases on suspicion or for minor crimes. The police have refused, defying their oversight body, and effectively our parliament, in doing so. What we are looking at here is a police force out of control, and killing people. That situation should not be allowed to continue.

Sadly, the police have the full support of their Minister in doing this. Rather than reining them in and telling them to use only proportionate and necessary force to enforce the law, Judith Collins has written them a blank cheque, abusing anyone who criticises their behaviour. Now she's demanding that anyone who flees from police be jailed, regardless of the severity of the original offending. The idea is mad on multiple levels - it won't deter, because scared young kids don't do a rational cost benefit-analysis before fleeing police, and it won't make said kids (who are at best guilty of minor crimes, and sometimes of no crime at all before being chased) better people or prevent further criminal behaviour. If anything, it is likely to do the opposite, imposing further costs on society. But hey, the Minister gets "tough on crime" headlines and stupid redneck votes, which is all she cares about. Rational policymaking? You won't see any of that in Collins' office...

Collins' support means that she is as guilty as the police in this young mans' death. Someone should carve his name - and that of every other person killed by the police on her watch - on her office door to remind her that such posturing has consequences.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Australian corruption

New Zealanders and Australians like to think that we're very similar in outlook - and to some extent, they're right. We share a practical, egalitarian culture, and have a strong social interest in fairness. But there are also differences. And today, we've just been handed a great, steaming reminder of those differences, with the news that former New South Wales Ports Minister Joe Tripodi handed a half-billion dollar contract to his brother's construction company. His defence? "It was within the rules" - New South Wales' Cabinet guidelines being so loosely drafted that they only prohibit conflicts of interest involving partners and children. Again, I'm reminded that whenever a politician says "it was within the rules", what they're really saying is "screw you, suckers!"

(It is apparently unproblematic that the company in question is also one of the state Labor Party's largest donors - again something which would cause eyebrows to be raised and serious questions to be asked in New Zealand).

I don't think I'd want to risk saying that this sort of thing never happens here. But I think it is fair to say that the public regard it absolutely unacceptable, that our politicians know this, and so it is a very rare occurrence. Whereas in Australia, it seems to be a regular one. We've had one MP prosecuted for corruption in office. Five Ministers have been jailed for corruption in Queensland alone, and more in New South Wales and Western Australia. And yet their politicians still don't seem to have got the message that their way of doing business with business is illegal, and that in office they must serve the public, not themselves.

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