Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Civil unions in Queensland

Last month, while we were gearing up for the election, the Australian state of Queensland took a step towards equality when a member's bill for civil Unions was introduced to the House. The bill is now back from committee, and will be going through its second reading tonight. As usual, the Christians are mobilising to protect bigotry, and the vote is expected to be tight:

A bill to allow same-sex civil unions is likely to come down to the wire when it's voted on in Queensland Parliament this week.

The push will fail if just seven Labor MPs vote with the Liberal National Party and crossbenchers against the bill, assuming all eligible members attend the vote.

Two Labor MPs have so far confirmed they will oppose Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser's private member's bill, while a third MP said she was more likely to vote against it than for it.


The LNP's 31 MPs are set to vote together as a bloc against the bill, while most of the minor party and independent parliamentarians have signalled they will also oppose it.

The vote will apparently be early tomorrow morning, New Zealand time. While its only the second reading, a majority here will signal strongly that the bill will pass. Unlike other Australian states, Queensland doesn't have a Senate, so there'll be nothing to stop it from becoming law.

New Fisk

Sanctions are only a small part of the history that makes Iranians hate the UK

Broken promises on mining

Last year, in the wake of massive public protests, National backed down on its plans to dig up our national parks. As part of that backdown, they signalled changes to the Crown Minerals Act, including to the management of the wider conservation estate:

The government has agreed in principle that significant applications to mine on public land should be publicly notified – currently no notification is required. This proposal was not raised in the discussion paper as an issue for discussion, but the government has noted public feedback on this matter and is responding accordingly.

The proposal will ensure that mining-related applications are treated in the same way as other applications for access to conservation land. The change will provide an opportunity for affected people and businesses to have their views taken into account when decisions are made about mining applications of significance.

(Emphasis added. Cabinet Paper here [PDF])

Of course, they lied:

The Government has broken a promise over mining on its first working day after the election, Forest & Bird says.


In the lead-up to Saturday's general election, Forest & Bird attempted in meetings and letters to get Wilkinson to commit to public consultation on Australian-owned coalminer Bathurst Resource's plans for an opencast mine on the West Coast's Denniston Plateau.

But in a letter sent on Monday – the first working day after Saturday's election – Wilkinson told Forest & Bird general manager Mike Britton that access for mining on conservation land was considered under the Crown Minerals Act, which did not provide for public consultation.

Therefore, public consultation would "not be appropriate", she said.

Not even a day back, and they're breaking promises already. This doesn't bode well for the rest of the term. And it suggests an absolute contempt for democracy and the people of New Zealand on National's part. But then, we knew that already, didn't we?

No same-sex marriage this term

In addition to asset sales, rising inequality, and lower wages, there's another cost to National's victory on Saturday night: we won't be seeing same-sex marriage in New Zealand for at least another three years. We already know its not a priority for the government (which apparently is incapable of walking and chewing gum - or pursuing its economic agenda while promoting human rights - at the same time), but it could still be advanced by a Member's Bill. Unfortunately, the numbers just aren't there.

A bill for same-sex marriage would primarily rely on the backing of the Labour and Green parties. Labour has 34 MPs, of whom only 30 are reliable (sadly, Clayton Cosgrove, Damien O'Connor, and Ross Robertson, all of whom voted against civil unions, are still with us). The Greens have 13, all of whom would support change. Hone Harawira's vote cannot be relied upon. No votes can be expected from NZ First, ACT, or United Future. So, the base support is 43 votes. You need 61 votes to pass legislation in this Parliament, so that means at least 18 (and more ideally, 20 - 25) votes will need to come from National.

Very few National MPs have explicitly stated their position on this issue. But we know that 29 of their current MPs voted explicitly to ban same-sex marriage in 2005. And they got a whole lot more bigots in in 2008 and 2011. It is highly unlikely that a third of their caucus will be progressive on this issue, let alone willing to stand against the party's default policy on it.

So, what can we do? We can not shut up about it. 60% of Kiwis support same-sex marriage. And if we can increase that number further, National's position on this issue will become untenable (at least if it wants to be seen as a serious, mainstream political party rather than some fringe bigot-cult). We might not be getting same-sex marriage this term, but its a long game, and we can try and lay the groundwork for change in three years time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Fisk

A glimpse of real democracy – but it may prove too good to be true

A plea to the Labour Party

So, Phil Goff has done the inevitable and announced his resignation as Labour party leader. Good riddance. From the beginning he was a hapless leader, tainted by his Rogernome past, limited to empty managerialism. Except he wasn't even competent; when push came to shove, he displayed consistently poor judgement, demonstrating a total lack of virtù (not to mention ethics). Rather than oppose the government, his default position was just to echo John Key, with a pathetic "and my wife too" tacked on the end. Suddenly finding his mojo during the election campaign wasn't enough to make up for two and a half years of that.

So, who's next? Conventional wisdom says its one of the two Davids - Parker or Cunliffe - though some of the media pack seem to be pushing Shearer instead (in the same way they pushed Jones). But in some ways, I'm not really that interested: its not my party, and I'm not a member (and even if I was, I wouldn't get a say anyway, Labour not believing in democracy where it counts). Except I have to be - because this decision is going to be important in determining whether Labour is electable in three years time.

So Labour, please don't fuck this up. Yes, if you do, there'll be a positive side: the Greens will keep eating you from the left, in the process swinging the makeup of any future Labour-led government further in the direction I want. But in order for there to be a future Labour led government, you have to do your bit. Starting with picking an effective, competent leader capable of articulating an alternative vision for New Zealand and inspiring people to actually turn up and vote for you. I don't know if any of the candidates meet that criteria (Cunliffe would probably be closest from what I've seen) - but I hope you'll bother to at least look and see whether they do, rather than picking some hack who promises to preserve your high list ranking.

(Sadly, in this as in almost everything else involving the Labour Party, I expect to be disappointed. But I live in hope...)

Eating ACT from the inside

So, having cuckooed his way into the ACT Party, in the process reducing it to a rump of 1%, John Banks is now looking at merging it with the Conservatives:

ACT's lone MP John Banks says he is in favour of talks with Conservative Party leader Colin Craig – as speculation mounts behind the scenes about a merger.


After an hour-long meeting with Mr Key yesterday, Mr Banks said: "Given our result on Saturday, we need to talk to as many people as we can about our future, because I want to make sure we are alive and well in 2014.

"Colin Craig is a class New Zealander. His youthful enthusiasm is what the ACT Party needs going forward."

So much for ACT's old slogan of "the liberal party" then. The Conservatives are almost diametrically opposed to ACT's values, opposing both social and economic liberalism (they oppose asset sales and support economic intervention). And while ACT's Parliamentary wing has been socially conservative for the last decade or so (from Steven Franks to David Garrett), this sort of merger would make that difference in values obvious even to the young ACT on Campus drones who now make up the party's core support.

The good news for ACT is that Craig isn't having a bar of it. The bad news for ACT is that this leaves them with John Banks. Unless he just jumps ship by himself and leaves them behind.

(Not that I actually care about ACT or its future; I just find it amusing that they're reaping what they've sown in spades)

No-one to blame but themselves

The Vote For Change Campaign is blaming the lack of public debate for the public's (apparent) decision to keep MMP. But whose fault is that? To point out the obvious, a debate requires more than one participant. And Vote For Change were mostly silent. Nationwide, their "campaign" seems to have been limited to a few newspaper ads in Auckland. In Palmerston North, we never saw them. They had no activists, no flyers, no billboards, and when the local media went looking for a spokesperson to quote in an article on the referendum, they couldn't find one.

People don't become aware of your cause by magic. You need to speak up for it. Vote For Change effectively abandoned the field. That was great for our democracy, but it seems a little sad of them to whine about it afterwards.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Gallagher Index

The Gallagher Index is a basic measure of disproportionality of electoral outcomes, and therefore of their fairness. As someone interested in the fairness of our electoral system, I thought I'd calculate it for the 2011 election, based on the preliminary results:

Party% VoteSeats% seatsDifferenceDiff2
NZ First6.8186.61-0.200.04
Māori Party1.3532.481.131.28
United Future0.6110.830.220.05
Democrats for Social Credit0.0700.00-0.070.00
Gallagher Index2.53

(All figures rounded to 2 d.p.)

This is slightly below the average for NZ elections under MMP (time series here). 2008 had a Gallagher Index of 3.84; 2005 had 1.13 (FPP's average since 1946 was 11.10, with the last two FPP elections being 17.24 and 18.19 - which explains why people wanted MMP so badly).

2.53 is low internationally, but we can clearly do better. And the obvious way of doing that is by removing the threshold and giving people the freedom to vote how they please.

Democracy 101

So, John Key thinks MMP is "weird":

Prime Minister John Key says MMP is a "weird" system when National can win a large majority but Parliament remains tightly balanced.


"But it's a funny system when you can poll this massive number and still theoretically be wondering whether you've got a government.

"If this was First Past the Post and there were 100 MPs, there would be roughly 65 National seats and 35 Labour, so it would be this massive majority.

"Yet under MMP you sit there and go, 'you've got this huge result and yet it still feels tight'."

What's weird about it? National won 48% of the vote. While 48% is huge for a single party in New Zealand, its not 50%. And if its not 50%, you need someone else's help to govern.

This is democracy 101: in order to govern, you need a majority. What's weird is that 75 years after its formation, the National Party still doesn't understand this. But I guess that's what you get in a party which calls itself "the natural party of government": disdain for democracy.

(As for why things are so tight, look at it this way: in the last Parliament, National and its friends controlled 69 seats. Now they control 65, which is likely drop to 64 on the special votes. And in practice, on controversial legislation, its going to be either 62 or 61 seats, depending on whether they pitch to the Maori Party or Banks and Dunne. That is indeed tight, but that's the will of the voters, not some flaw introduced by the electoral system).

New Fisk

Why torturers film their handiwork

Picking the bones

So, the election is over, the votes have been counted (bar the specials), and John Key is still Prime Minister. He didn't get the outright majority all the polls were predicting, but will have no real trouble with confidence and supply, and with multiple majorities available should be able to pass whatever he wants. Hopes of saddling National with an uncooperative coalition partner (or the not always slavishly obedient Maori Party) have been dashed.

While National will probably lose a seat on the specials, that basic situation is unlikely to change. Yes, they'll need either the Maori Party or ACT plus United Future, but it isn't that hard to get the latter two to agree on economic issues (Dunne was after all first elected as part of the Fourth Labour Government, and has never repudiated its NeoLiberalism).

The Greens did well. MMP did well. Given its demographics, the advance vote was likely to favour change. The fact that it came out for retaining MMP means we should have the referendum in the bag. And what does it say when blank ballots beat all of the alternatives? There was never any grassroots push for change, and hopefully the right will now accept that and move on (winning a second election under MMP should help with that).

As for Labour, two months of solid left-wing policy couldn't make up for three years of doing nothing in opposition. And thanks to a list focused on protecting long-serving incumbent hacks, they've thrown the future of the party overboard, sacrificing people like Carmel Sepuloni, Stuart Nash and Brendan Burns in order to retain such stellar performers as Sue Moroney, Maryan Street and Rajen Prasad. Heckuva job, guys. You've got no-one but yourselves to blame for this one. Not that that will stop you.

(Actually, its Labour's long-serving electorate MPs like Trevor Mallard, Annette King and Ross Robertson who really need to move on. But that's not something the party list can really help with)

Finally, the graphs. First, the "wasted vote":


Disenfranchisement halved this election, from 137,500 to 68500. But that's still too many. We need to ditch the threshold. Fortunately, the MMP review will give us the opportunity to do just that.

Secondly, relative party vote shares for Labour, National and small parties:


Finally, left (Labour / Greens / Mana, and historically the Alliance and Progressives) vs right (National / ACT):


As can be seen, the tide is against the left at the moment, primarily because of the failure of the Labour Party. Assuming they get around 50,000 specials, they will have lost 200,000 votes since the last election. 50,000 of them have gone to the Greens, and 50,000 to NZFirst. As for the rest, they stayed home, unwilling to turn out for a Labour Party so uninspiring. Labour will blame them, of course, and make a lot of noise about "apathy" and evil polls, but that's just excuse-making. If parties want our votes, the onus is on them to make us care enough to spend ten minutes to tick a box. Labour didn't do that. And their desire to blame us rather than accept responsibility for their own failure is a big part of the reason why.

Friday, November 25, 2011

New Fisk

Exile dreams of a bloodless return after a life spent opposing Assad regime


And while I can still legally say it: remember to vote. Yes, no matter who you vote for, a politician is going to win. But who those politicians are can make a dramatic difference to your life.

Who wins tomorrow will determine whether we keep our assets, whether we fight child poverty, whether we throw the poor to the dogs or not. It will determine how clean our lakes and rivers are and whether we have clean or dirty energy. It will determine whether Auckland gets more roads, or the rail system it has needed for over fifty years. And it will determine whether we fight in more US-sponsored wars in faraway countries and keep being complicit in US torture and war crimes.

While your vote is one among many, it will make a difference. So use it. Its a diffuse weapon, but its one of the best ones we've got.

(And the biggest argument for voting? Just look at who doesn't want you to...)

Final thoughts on the election

Its almost all over. campaigning ends at midnight, and then we get to vote. And then we get to party, either commiserating or celebrating depending.

(Those of us interested in the referendum will have to wait until December 10, though if the advance votes show a clear victory for MMP, then I think it will be in the bag).

Labour has run the most left-wing campaign that I can remember, repudiating core aspects of NeoLiberalism previously deemed sacred. Unfortunately, from the polls, it hasn't been enough. We will in all likelihood be looking at a National-led government on Sunday morning. The question is whether it will be hamstrung by an anti-asset sales coalition partner or not.

But even if they lose, Labour's campaign will still have changed things. Assuming, of course, they don't respond to a loss by blaming the policies rather than the people (which will probably be tempting for the high-list dead wood). But if they avoid that mistake, then these policies will be here to stay. We'll have a clear alternative direction (rather than just a bunch of people promising to do the same things, only better) and a prospect of real change for the future. It may take until 2014, but we'll get that Capital Gains Tax, we'll get those fairer employment laws, we'll get those policies to eliminate child poverty.

And while it may be too early, the clear winners of this campaign seem to be the Greens. On current polling, they've almost doubled their vote, and even if they suffer the usual election-day underperformance, they're still looking at 10% and becoming a real third force in New Zealand politics. The question will be whether they can retain and build on that success. And that I think is going to depend entirely on whether they're forced into coalition with National...

MMP on the streets

As my Twitter followers will know, for the last five weeks or so I've been helping out with the Campaign For MMP, hitting the Square and the weekend markets to raise awareness of the referendum and support for MMP.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Most people know about the referendum and the options, which is great no matter which system you support. Lots of people have been expressing their support, and there have only been a few negative responses (one person today told me to "piss off"; last weekend I had someone say that any system which allowed Hone Harawira to be elected was corrupt. Harawira is of course an electorate MP...) There has been a strong age divide apparent, with younger people more likely to be supportive, and older Pakeha more likely to be opposed. And there's been a lot of interest from young people, even those that can't vote (we don't care; its de facto civics education, and they can give the flyer to their parents or older friends).

Also apparent in the past two weeks has been the growing popularity of advance voting. I'd read that over 150,000 people - 5% of the electorate - have voted already. And there were an awful lot of them about today (though thinking about it, one in twenty seems about right).

(Update: And now I see its over 250,000 advance votes, which is heading for 10%. Freeing up advance voting has clearly been a success.)

We never saw anyone from the opposing "Vote For Change" campaign. Apparently they rely on money rather than volunteers, and media buys rather than signs and leaflets. This has meant that in Palmerston North, at least, we've basically been campaigning unopposed.

Today was the last day. we had sign wavers, a sign driving round on a trailer, and a bunch of people doing leaflets. We used up all the ones we had, and then went. And now, its a nervous wait until December 10, when the final results will be announced (the referendum only gets the advance voting results on election night, which might not be an accurate reflection of the electorate as a whole).

Overall, its been a very positive experience, and I recommend it. Get involved, have some fun, and help your cause. Though hopefully, I won't have to help this cause again.

Radio silence?

Uninspired this morning, and I have last-minute campaigning to do. If I don't get anything posted until later this afternoon, its because I'm frantically handing out flyers for the MMP campaign.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How it should be done

I've ranted before about democracy and foreign policy and the way governments (including our own) use secrecy around trade negotiations to lie to us about what they are putting on the table, sell us out, and advance deals which we would never let them agree to if they had to do it openly. New Zealand has particular problems here because of a constitutional tradition which explicitly excludes any democratic input into foreign policy. It is the queen government who makes treaties and wages war, not Parliament. In a supposed democracy, the people are excluded from some of the most important decisions it can make.

(That "correction" there BTW is to show how the process evolved, with a simple devolution from the monarch to her Ministers. Which may have made sense in the eighteenth century, but does not sit well in a 21st-century democracy with an MMP Parliament which can and should act as a check and balance on the executive).

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, they're showing us how it ought to be done. Their government is currently considering whether to join the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, the US-driven treaty designed to inflict American-style intellectual property laws (such as the hated s92A) on the rest of the world. But to do so, they require the permission of their Parliament. Which has just said that it will not even consider the matter unless all negotiation texts and advice on them are published:

A few weeks ago, the Dutch House of Representatives’ committee of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation requested the ACTA negotiation texts (the earlier versions of ACTA). The minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, Maxime Verhagen, sent the texts to parliament, adding a non disclosure obligation. In debates, Members of Parliament may not refer to the documents, nor quote from them.

Sunday, Bits of Freedom sent a letter to the committee, asking the committee not to accept the secrecy.

Committee member Kees Verhoeven (D66) proposed a message from the committee to the minister that no substantive treatment of any ACTA document can be made without publication of all relevant documents and above all that the committee can discus all documents in public. According to experts, the treaty has major implications for Dutch legislation (eg on copyright and Internet freedoms) and the House can’t at the moment consult experts nor can it inform the public about ACTA’s consequences, since ACTA is partly confidential. For this reason, the committee also requests the minister not to take irreversible steps, neither in Europe and nor in the Netherlands, in terms of ACTA. And towards the commission itself, the proposal to temporarily withdraw all ACTA related documents from the agenda until the minister discloses all documents.

Bits of Freedom reports a majority in the Dutch House of Representatives (D66, PVV, GroenLinks, SP and PvdA) adopted the proposal.

As a result, the Dutch Parliament will be able to have a real debate about whether this treaty is in their interests. And the Dutch people will be able to read the relevant documents, make up their minds for themselves, and punish their politicians if they get it wrong.

That's how a real democracy does foreign policy. We could do a lot worse than adopt the Dutch model.

The OIA, "confidential advice", and democracy

One of the more contentious clauses of the Official Information Act is s9(2)(f)(iv), the "confidential advice" clause allowing information to be withheld to

maintain the constitutional conventions for the time being which protect[s]... the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers of the Crown and officials
This is supposedly necessary to protect the decision-making process, but the underlying thinking is that it is supposedly impossible for the government to make a decision when us dirty peasants are looking over their shoulder and demanding justifications. As that choice of language indicates, I think this is a deeply, deeply undemocratic idea.

Sadly, its exactly this undemocratic thinking which underlies the Ombudsman's decision [PDF] supporting continued secrecy for Treasury's privatisation advice:

I have viewed the information at issue. It comprises early advice on two of the many aspects under consideration: encouraging New Zealand participation and limiting foreign ownership. It is in the nature of possible options for consideration, rather than detailed advice and recommendations as to action. Any detailed advice and recommendations as to action will come after the election, once the preparatory work, including detailed scoping studies, is complete. Seen in this context, the information at issue may be characterised as limited in scope, as well as partial and incomplete. Treasury submitted that release would create pressure to design and structure a sales programme based on one or two narrow aspects, rather than what would be the best design and structure for the Crown and investors taking into account all relevant aspects.
(Emphasis added)

Or, to put it another way, if they told us what the options were, the government might have to do what we wanted, rather than what they wanted. This would, apparently, be a Bad Thing in a democracy.

The purpose of the OIA is to allow us greater participation in government. But not, apparently, too much. When push comes to shove, we're back to feudalism, with rulers making the decisions, and everyone else shut out of the process and presented with a fait accompli. This isn't good enough. We need to reform the Act and repeal these undemocratic clauses. If the government can't make its case for action in public, then that case clearly isn't good enough. The only thing secrecy protects is poor policy and the undemocratic impulses of our politicians.


Since their invasion of Iraq in 2003, former US President George W Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been dogged by allegations of war crimes. Sadly, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have refused to act on complaints, so in their absence former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad established the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission, modelled on the Russel Tribunal which investigated the Vietnam war. Today, that Tribunal handed down its verdicts: guilty:

Former US president George W Bush and British ex-prime minister Tony Blair were Tuesday found guilty at a mock tribunal in Malaysia for committing "crimes against peace" during the Iraq war.


"The Tribunal deliberated over the case and decided unanimously that the first accused George Bush and second accused Blair have been found guilty of crimes against peace," the tribunal said in a statement.

"Unlawful use of force threatens the world to return to a state of lawlessness. The acts of the accused were unlawful."

This isn't a formal body, so Bush and Blair won't face any formal punishment. But it highlights their crime and the fact that they have not been punished, and adds to the verdict of history. And hopefully, one day, we'll see that verdict made official in the ICC, rather than having to do it ourselves.

Listen to us

This has been doing the rounds this morning: "Listen to us", by Home Brew Crew:

Keeping the MacKenzie brown

Last year, plans to destroy the MacKenzie country with industrial dairying were thwarted when the government called in effluent consents, resulting in the applicants withdrawing their applications. But it didn't end there. The farmers shifted their plans, and reapplied to irrigate over 5,000 hectares of one of our most iconic landscapes.

Now, those applications have been denied:

Controversial dairying developments in the Upper Waitaki valley have failed to get irrigation consents.

Environment Canterbury-appointed independent hearings commissioner Paul Rogers announced yesterday that the applications of three companies – Southdown Holdings, Williamson Holdings and Five Rivers – to collectively irrigate more than 5300 hectares of land have been turned down. Their land use consents have been granted. Southdown Holdings director Richard Peacocke – on behalf of all three companies – declined to comment.

And they weren't the only ones. Four other applicants also had their irrigation consents denied yesterday. But the prime driver of this isn't a desire to protect the MacKenzie's natural landscape; it's water quality. ECan has to work with the rules its got, but it is appalling that there is no legislated protection for this landscape, no way of preventing it being colonised piece by piece by a rapacious and dirty dairy industry. If we want to preserve this landscape, if we want to keep the MacKenzie brown, then we need to change that. And the quicker, the better.

Guest column: MMP: Just better

By John Parkinson

It has been 18 years since New Zealanders last voted in a First-past-the-post election. Not an eternity, but a long enough time for memories to have faded of why the country changed system in the first place.

The reasons were simple. The first was nine years of Muldoon governments that became seen as increasingly authoritarian, increasingly out of touch, yet which won two elections with a minority of the votes (possible under FPP, not possible under MMP so long as coalition plans are reasonably well-signalled in advance). That was followed by six years of Labour governments that were seen to betray everything that Labour governments were supposed to stand for.

In that environment, New Zealanders wanted two things: a system that put strict limits on the ability of politicians to do what they like; and one that ensures that parliament is broadly representative of the range of their views and experiences.

Proportional systems achieve the first thing by means of the second. Because parliament represents a broader range of views and experiences, it is much harder for a single set of view - a single party - to dominate the others. They have to reach out; they have to form alliances and coalitions; they have to argue for their points of view.

That worries some people. Those who value stable government made all sorts of dire predictions about the ghastly fate that awaited, pointing to Italy with its cavalcade of Prime Ministers. Has that happened in New Zealand? No. Not one government has failed to serve out its term, not even the Shipley minority government. Is first-past-the-post a guarantee that stable government emerges? No. Just look at Britain, with its present coalition of the unwilling.

Did the new system magically take the politics out of politics? No, of course not. Did it stop governments from upsetting some of the people all of the time? No, nor could it. But it did introduce dramatically more diversity into the House; and it thus forced politicians to build more coalitions of support in order to get their ideas through, and forced them to change ideas that could not attract enough support.

Check almost every claim about MMP made in 1992 and 1993 and you will find similar patterns. The world did not end. But nor did we enter some parliamentary Wonderland, strewn with rose petals and the sweet scent of reason. What New Zealand did get is a system that on all objective measures is fairer, more accountable, more deliberative. Not perfect, just better.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let 'em swing

with the election getting closer, the right is panicking about the prospect of not gaining an outright majority or getting ACT in in Epsom, and having to depend on Winston Peters for confidence and supply. And the pressure is already going on the Greens to step in and "save New Zealand from Winston" should National's nightmare scenario occur:

All eyes would turn to the Greens. The possibility of them backing National by either supporting Key on confidence and supply votes or, more likely, through abstention on such motions would be the obvious solution.

So obvious that it is possible to envisage the Greens coming under huge pressure to reach some kind of accommodation with National which shut out Peters.

Armstrong's column is part of that pressure. But to raise the obvious question, what would be in it from the Greens? Its one thing to make a deal if you're the only credible option, but quite another when its just a matter of "saving" a party from a partner they don't like. The Greens have nothing invested in hating Winston. Meanwhile, National is not a natural partner for them (lets be honest: their core platforms are almost diametrically opposed), and any arrangement would have severe costs for them and could even destroy their party. Absent National surrendering its entire policy platform, any deal is likely to be a bad one for them.

In such circumstances, it would be better for the Greens to simply stand back and let National swing. A National government hamstrung with Winston achieves some of their policy aims (e.g. stopping asset sales) without their having to lift a finger. Meanwhile, they can pursue an MOU and cooperate on areas they feel comfortable with, while helping to block any legislation they don't. Not as effective as being in government, but a lot safer, and with a hefty dose of schadenfreude into the bargain.

This is why we have the OIA

So, it turns out that the government lied about asset sales, claiming that Treasury had advised it that privatised assets would remain in New Zealand hands when it had said nothing of the sort. Instead, it was getting this advice from Ministerial Advisors - party hacks on public salaries - and "informal discussions with market contacts" - John Key's rich mates. Neither of these groups is independent or disinterested, but their "advice" was misrepresented as being the product of the independent, professional, politically neutral, public service in order to lend it greater credibility with the public.

Again, this is another example of MP's earning their reputation. But it also speaks volumes about the weakness of National's privatisation policy. To point out the obvious, if there was a robust and convincing case for asset sales, they would have presented it to the New Zealand public and let it win on the merits. Instead, they chose to lie to us, to try and fool us into backing them. What does that tell us about their case?

The government is now trying to keep its advice secret. It shouldn't. Instead, it should release it all, and let us make up our minds. Anything less is simply undemocratic.

New Fisk

Egyptian crisis gives Syria time to talk about democracy

The dead hand of past censorship

A story about a banned book being seized from a Wellington bookshop has exposed an unpleasant flaw in our censorship laws: once banned, material is banned forever, with review only on application (which requires that you send in a copy, which makes you guilty of possession and distribution). With our current censorship regime, which is bound by the Bill of Rights Act's affirmation of freedom of expression and has a fairly tight (but not uncontested) definition of "objectionable", that's perhaps not so much of a problem. But in the past, our censors have not been so constrained, and could ban basically anything they liked. With the result that Bloody Mama, a fictionalisation of the life of Depression-era gangster Ma Barker, can be seized even though modern eyes would likely find it totally innocuous.

The good news is that this particular book will be automatically resubmitted. But what about the rest? I've spent some time browsing the Office of Film & Literature Classifications NZ Censorship Decisions Database for books banned by the old Indecent Publications Tribunal. The list is pretty bizarre. Here's a few examples:

  • Lesbiansim and the Single Girl (banned 1968)
  • Love Positions (banned 1970)
  • The Coming of a God (banned 1970)
  • Transvestism (banned 1970)
  • The Bisexual Woman (banned 1970)
  • The Kama Sutra Illustrated (banned 1971)
  • Sex, Pornography, and the Law, vol. 1 and 2 (banned 1971)
Judging by the titles, the IPT seems to have used the censorship regime as an excuse to indulge their homophobia and bigotry, protect their preferred religion, keep people in ignorance about sexuality, and of course protect their own power by preventing discussion of censorship (other titles suggest they may also have promoted racial purity by banning books about interracial relationships). And I think it is highly doubtful that any of these bans would be upheld today.

Given the difficulty of the review process, I think its clear that the OFLC needs its own internal review procedure, to reinvestigate pre-BORA decisions and unban those works which would not meet modern criteria.

Secrecy in South Africa

Two months ago, South Africa became a founding member of the Open Government Partnership, a world body aimed at promoting transparency, accountability and participation on government. Today, after one too many stories linking top government officials to corruption, the lower house of their Parliament passed a secrecy law, allowing the government to declare any information secret in the "national interest" and imposing a 25-year jail term for possession or publication, with no public interest defence. The net result: journalists and whistleblowers will be treated like spies, and corruption will continue unabated.

The bill still has to pass the upper house, and will almost certainly be challenged in the constitutional court. But this is still a tremendous backwards step for South Africa, and one which shows that its government is intent on lining its own pockets and protecting its own rather than eliminating corruption.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


A couple of months ago, the Greens highlighted the persistent gender pay gap, and pushed for a law change to help close it by giving employees greater access to pay information. The government claimed that this wasn't necessary, as employees suspecting gender discrimination could simply ask for a labour inspector to investigate the issue on their behalf (and therefore any discrimination is the fault of women, for not acting to enforce their rights in this way). So, the Greens took them at their word, and got 261 workers in 18 workplaces across the country to ask for exactly such an investigation into their local workplace. You'll never guess what the result was:

Kelly says some 261 workers in 18 workplaces nationwide wrote to the labour inspectors, as the minister had suggested, seeking an investigation into their pay. They were told they need evidence that a pay gap exists before the inspectors can investigate.
So, in order to get evidence that a gender pay gap exists, you need evidence that a gender pay gap exists. Its a classic catch-22. Meanwhile, discrimination continues, and sexist employers laugh all the way to the bank.

Someone really needs to ask Kate Wilkinson if she's happy with this situation, and what (if anything) she's going to do about it. But I expect that as with Paula Bennett and 150 dead children a year from child poverty, she'll be "unavailable for comment".

Who I'm voting for

Last week, Morgue posted urging people to post about who they would be voting for and why:

Social psychology tells us that the biggest influence on our behaviour is the behaviour of people we know.

Our day-to-day social groups usually share our opinions on political matters, but Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, other social media tools) connects many of us to people beyond this.

So here’s a simple thing you can do before the election: announce on social media how you’re going to vote. Perhaps also say why if you can sum it up in a sentence. No big song and dance required, no need to engage in arguments if people reply. Just speak up.

Since then, I've been inundated by members of Morgue's vast social network posting about their political preferences. So I thought I'd join the party.

On election day, I will be giving my party vote to the Greens, just like I have for every election they've been running. And the reason is the same: they're the strongest voice for a cleaner, more sustainable, more equal, and more free society. While Labour has made a welcome return to left-wing policy with its focus on child poverty and their push for more paid parental leave, their poor human rights record (and in particular, their disgraceful support of blank-cheque video surveillance powers for police) mean they are unworthy of my support.

I will be giving my electorate vote to Iain Lees-Galloway. While he's Labour, and has voted the party line on all of their objectionable stuff, he's a good guy and I'd like to see him back. And yes, he supports same-sex marriage.

In the referendum, I will of course be voting to keep MMP. It is fairer, it gives us a Parliament that looks like New Zealand, and it means governments need majority support for their policies. These are all Good Things, and anyone who disagrees is not any kind of democrat.

In the second question of the referendum, I will be voting for FPP. This is purely a tactical decision. I don't want there to be a second referendum, but if there is, I want MMP to go up against a system it can beat hands-down, which doesn't have much in the way of virtues, which can't be spun as a "middle road" and whose supporters are slowly dying off. And that system is FPP (STV would be my distant second choice after MMP, but it has a very high effective threshold, leading to a disproportionate outcome, so I'm not really that keen on it). I hear some people are leaving this part of the ballot blank, because they don't want anything other than MMP, but this abdicates power to people who don't (which will likely be MMP's opponents). Either vote your preference, or vote tactically, but either way, vote.

Dictators don't consult

The Timaru Herald has a piece this morning about ECan's budget woes, with the council facing an $8 million deficit due to the cost of the earthquake. But amongst the boring-but-necessary details of local body accountability, there's this little bit:

However, "commissioner engagement" – formerly known as "democratic process" – was expected to be one of the few portfolios to post a major surplus. The paper's summary explained that the portfolio's projected $345,00 surplus was due to "staff not being required to budgeted levels" and "council and committee meetings being shorter and fewer in number than was previously the case".
Or, to put it another way, ECan's dictators spent less money on democratic engagement by not doing any. So much for the government's claims that their appointed flunkies would consult the public...

The Greens, abstention, and cooperation

When the Greens announced that they were "highly unlikely" to support a National government post-election, based on their expected policies, the paranoids and tribalists leapt on an ambiguity: it applied to supporting a government. What about abstention to allow a government to be formed? Cue much frothing about "slippery" Greens "selling out" Labour (to whom they supposedly owe fealty) and their own members (who decided this negotiating framework in the first place, and will decide on any deal through an SGM).

This morning on Nine To Noon [audio], co-leader Russel Norman cleared that up, explicitly stating [12:53] that it applied to abstention and that any agreement, even one to abstain, would depend on policy. They also made it clear that they intend to use any leverage they have not just to push for their own policies around clean rivers and child poverty, but also to roadblock National's core policies of asset sales and welfare "reform", which they "vehemently oppose". So, if fate conspires to deal us a Parliament where a National government propped up by Green abstention or support is the only credible option, no-one is going to be particularly happy.

In the more likely case that National ends up in government, Norman said the Greens would be willing to pursue a Memorandum of Understanding on areas where they had common ground, even if they were voting against them on confidence and supply. Which is exactly what a party of policy should do: work to advance its policies with anyone willing to cooperate.

As predicted

Last week, Australia finally passed its cigarette plain-packaging law. And, as predicted, Big Tobacco is suing them:

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing the Australian government over a new law making plain packaging mandatory for cigarettes from December 2012.

Australia's parliament has passed legislation that means all tobacco will need to be sold in plain olive-brown packets with graphic health warnings.


But Philip Morris Asia said the move breached a bilateral investment treaty.

It said it had served a notice of arbitration under Australia's Bilateral Investment Treaty with Hong Kong.

Philip Morris' argument is that the law destroys their investment in marketing cancer, and they're demanding billions of dollars in compensation for their "loss". Its a stark warning of the dangers of investment clauses in free trade agreements, and how they can be abused to intimidate governments into not regulating in the public interest. And its a warning we need to take to heart; the National government is currently negotiating just such a clause as an additional protocol to the New Zealand-Hong Kong, China Closer Economic Partnership. Which would enable Philip Morris to immediately sue us over our anti-powerwall legislation.

Such clauses are explicitly anti-democratic. They remove the power of a society to govern itself and hand that power over to multinational corporations. And all to protect the power and wealth of the few against the interests of the many. That is not something we should sign up to, and any government which does is selling out its own people.

Monday, November 21, 2011

No reasons

One of the more odious changes introduced by the Immigration Act 2009 was the massive expansion of what the Act terms "absolute discretion" - the ability to make a decision without having to give reasons. Previously this applied only to decisions made about people outside New Zealand, but the new Act expanded it to cover a host of decisions about people inside New Zealand as well (notably, "last ditch" appeals to the Minister from people unlawfully in New Zealand). The purpose of this change was to make it easier to kick people out, by stripping them of any grounds for review. However, these decisions can still be reviewed, by the Ombudsman. So, Immigration has come up with a simple solution: don't keep records. Their latest circular on handling such appeals - Internal Administration Circular 11-10 [PDF], issued just last week - contains a new section, instructing staff refusing to consider a request to:

not record any reasons or rationale for refusing to consider the request in either AMS notes or in the communication with the client.
There's a similar section for staff who have considered a request and made a decision:
The rationale and reasons for the decision should not be recorded, either on the template, in the notes or in communication with the client.
These clauses were not present in the circular's immediate predecessor, Internal Administration Circular 10-21 [PDF], and their net effect is to thwart any Ombudsman's review, by destroying the evidence.

But this isn't just an attack on the right to justice and the ultimate right of recourse to the Ombudsman. Its also a contravention of the Public Records Act, which requires all public bodies (including Immigration New Zealand) to

create and maintain full and accurate records of its affairs, in accordance with normal, prudent business practice, including the records of any matter that is contracted out to an independent contractor
(The reason for this is in the Act's purpose clause: "to enable the Government to be held accountable by ensuring that full and accurate records of the affairs of central and local government are created and maintained". But accountability is exactly what Immigration doesn't want...)

While the Immigration Act allows Immigration staff to refuse to give reasons for a decision made in their absolute discretion, it does not require it, it does not require that those decisions have no reasons (that would make them, by definition, irrational and arbitrary), and it certainly does not require that no record of those reasons be kept. Failure to properly maintain public records is a crime, punishable by a $5,000 fine. And every Immigration officer who obeys this circular is putting themselves on the hook for that for every decision they make.

Government departments should obey the law. Government departments should certainly not be demanding that their staff commit crimes in order to do their everyday jobs. But that's exactly what Immigration is doing. I'm not sure whether the changes were demanded by the Minister, or are just another example of their arbitrary control-freakery, but either way, they should be reversed.

New Fisk

Ukraine, 1942. What are we seeing?

The cost of child poverty

In their material on child poverty, anti-poverty campaigners have stressed its long-term costs: lower incomes, worse health, more crime. But it has an appalling direct cost as well: around 150 dead children every year:

Last year, more than 25,000 children were admitted to hospital for respiratory infections. Doctors routinely treat cases of rheumatic fever and scabies – diseases now rare in Europe.

The reason behind these preventable diseases were appalling rates of child poverty that New Zealand could not afford to ignore, Mr Bruce said.

In the two years he spent researching the topic, he visited schools, doctors and low-income families in eastern Porirua. Cross-referencing world development indicators with mortality data, he found that 150 children who died in New Zealand last year would probably have survived had they lived in Japan, Sweden or the Czech Republic. New Zealand is second to last in child health and safety rankings of 30 OECD countries, with only Turkey worse.

As with low air quality standards, this is a diffuse sort of murder. But it is murder just the same. These children die because of a conscious policy choice. They die because successive governments have decided that we need this sort of poverty to provide a "work incentive" to force people to take minimum wage jobs.

To their credit, Labour has now recanted from this position (the Greens of course opposed it from the beginning, and have strong policies to deal with it). As for National, well, they don't want to talk about it:

Health Minister Tony Ryall could not be contacted yesterday, and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett did not respond to a request to comment.
One hundred and fifty dead children a year, and the government doesn't want to talk about it. They'll bang the law and order drum about a handful of serious child abuse cases every year, promising harsher sentences and attacking the right to silence, but they're dead silent on this. I think that speaks volumes about their commitment to dealing with the problem and saving these lives.

The right wins in Spain

Spain went to the polls yesterday, and gave the right-wing People's Party an absolute majority. The reason? Because the alternative, the Spanish Socialist Worker's Party (PSOE), had betrayed its base by inflicting ECB-driven austerity without regard for the consequences. As a result, one and a half million more voters stayed home, while millions more abandoned PSOE to vote for parties further to the left, where their votes were discounted by the unfair Spanish electoral system. Spain uses proportional representation, but over absurdly small regions, with the result that the outcome is not in fact proportional. As an example, the People's Party got 44.6% of the votes, but 53.1% of the seats, while the Union, Progress and Democracy Party got 4.7% of the votes, and 1.4% of the seats. If Spain's electoral system was fair, they'd be looking at a coalition, not a majority government.

All of which is a nice demonstration of how electoral systems matter. A fair electoral system gives us power, and allows us to register our discontent with the major parties, and thus force them to change. An unfair system doesn't. You might want to think about that on Saturday.

Voting until we get it right

John Key's response to the re-emergence of New Zealand First in the polls? Threatening to call another election:

Prime Minister John Key has warned an election result that delivers Winston Peters the balance of power will see the country go back to the polls within weeks.


"How can New Zealand govern itself over the next three years - which is likely to be a volatile period in the world economy - when at any stage the whole government can be brought down by Winston Peters"

This isn't how democracy is done in New Zealand. We don't vote until we get it right and deliver one party absolute power. The people speak, and the politicians have to lump it. And if that means that Key has to cope with a Parliament with Peters in it, or even negotiate with him for support for his policies, then he'll just have to learn to behave like an adult and find a way to get along, just as Labour had to in 2005 - 2008.

(At this stage I should also point out that the ability to call elections is bound by the caretaker convention. So Key can't force us back to the polls until he has confidence and supply, at which stage we get to wallop him for calling an election of convenience and making us go through all of this all over again).

Friday, November 18, 2011

Testing freedom of information worldwide

The Associated Press has just published the results of an ambitious global test of freedom of information laws. They asked 105 countries with FOI laws for basic information regarding arrests and convictions for terrorism. The results were disappointing:

Only 14 countries answered in full within their legal deadline. Another 38 countries eventually answered most questions.

Newer democracies were in general more responsive than some developed ones. Guatemala sent all documents in 10 days, and Turkey in seven. By comparison, Canada asked for a 200-day extension, and the FBI in the United States responded six months late with a single sheet with four dates, two words and a large blanked section.

More than half the countries did not release anything, and three out of 10 [35 in total - I/S] did not even acknowledge the request.

The survey's methodology, results, and individual responses are all available online. new Zealand's response - one of the 14 which responded fully and on time - is here.

The result about new democracies mirrors that of the Six Question Campaign a few months back. And what it shows us is that the established democracies can't take this for granted. As can be seen from the above, a combination of weak laws, poor enforcement, and official contempt allows governments to deny or frustrate even routine requests for information. If we want them to be accountable to us, that's not something we can let them get away with.

No mandate for asset sales

National's big push for asset sales this election is based on a simple idea: if they win, they'll have a mandate to do it. But as a survey released by Massey University today shows, that's simply wrong:

Two major policy planks of the election campaign are a turnoff to voters, new Massey University research shows.

Asset sales are proving far less popular than the party promoting them – National – but people are also unenthusiastic about Labour's plan to raise the retirement age.

While two new polls last night had National polling above 50 per cent, preliminary results from a Massey survey showed three-quarters of Kiwis were against asset sales.

The New Zealand Study of Values Survey 2011 showed 75.9 per cent of respondents were against "the Government selling off major assets".


Full results were: 47.4 per cent of respondents were strongly against asset sales, 28.5 per cent were more or less against, 14.6 per cent were neutral, 8.1 per cent were more or less in favour and 1.4 per cent were strongly in favour.

The people may be willing to give National a mandate to hold power. But its also pretty clear that that mandate does not extend to selling our stuff. The problem is that if National gains an outright majority, they won't have to listen to us any longer. The threat of de-election in three years time just isn't enough to force them to behave themselves. Which is why we need to ensure that any government is saddled with a non-compliant coalition partner and has to constantly seek support for its policies: so they don't go beyond the power we are willing to give them.

(The same obviously applies to Labour on the retirement age)

New Fisk

The Arab Spring has given Turkey a voice. Don't mess with it

Labour on open government

Labour has released its open government policy [PDF]. It's short, but sweet: proactive release of all Cabinet papers, an "Open Government" charter based on transparency, open licensing, and interaction, and a push to improve the transparency of Parliament and reduce the use of urgency. The big criticism? It doesn't go far enough, especially in the latter. For example, there's no suggestion of bringing Parliament under the OIA, to allow proper transparency around MPs expenses (or indeed, a public right to access its proceedings and oversee its administration). Despite the high degree of public input, this is still an open government policy written by and in the interests of politicians, who benefit from secrecy in these areas. Still, it is much better than anything else on offer in this area, and deserves our support (while of course demanding more).

Joining the top 1%

Yesterday's news that MPs were getting a $7,000 pay rise, most of it as "compensation" for no longer being allowed to rip us off on travel, got me thinking. Where do MPs sit on the income distribution, and how has that changed over the years? It looks to be a very interesting story, but its conclusion is hampered by a lack of accessible data.


Above is a graph showing a backbench MP's salary (taken from their annual salary determinations as shown on and Knowledge Basket) and the average incomes of two income groups in NZ: the 90th - 95th and 95th - 99th percentiles, as taken from the World Top Incomes Database. Unfortunately, the data series for the latter ends in 2002. But the story it tells is clear: while being firmly in the second 5% of our society back in the 80's (something I think will be confirmed if I go offline and start looking at physical records), MPs' pay rises have pushed them higher, into the top 5%. And now, they seem to be well on their way to joining the top 1% of our society.

(If anyone wants to do that physical search for me, and go back through NZ Yearbooks getting the ordinary backbench MP's salary between 1980 and 1988 (July years), I'd be most grateful. Also, if anyone has more recent average income data for those percentiles, but that's less likely).

This is one of the reasons for the increasing alienation of ordinary kiwis from politics: our MPs have elevated themselves above us. We need to talk about whether we want this to happen, whether we really want our MPs to be part of the top 1%, part of the problem rather than a possible solution.

Want a reason to support MMP?

To use the immortal words of Wal Footrot, look at the people who are telling you not to:

A majority of CEOs - 65 per cent - want New Zealand to scrap the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system.

MMP does not aid the election of a decisive government capable of making tough decisions because "the senior party has to agree to too many compromises to attain power," says Martin Simons, chief executive New Zealand Media for Herald publisher APN.

Others noted New Zealand was unlikely to see the major reform of any policy that might be unpopular at the time - but best for New Zealand in the long run - because MMP tends to result in coalition governments.

Or, to put it another way, according to NZ businessmen (and it is mostly men), MMP is bad because it forces the government to listen to the people rather than them. Its quite revealing of their attitude to democracy.

Meanwhile, Bill English recognises that this is in fact a strong point: MMP requires governments to win the argument and take us with them. It ensures that policy has democratic legitimacy. Again, it speaks volumes that our business leaders don't think this is necessary.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ending homophobia in Belize

Back in September I blogged about the Human Dignity Trust, a group whose aim was to decriminalise homosexuality, one country at a time, by pursuing test cases in local courts. Today, the Guardian reports that they're starting their first case, in Belize:

Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, will be among the team of lawyers fighting to overturn section 53 of Belize's criminal code, which enacts that: "Every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years."

The hearing, scheduled to begin on 5 December, has been brought by the gay Belizean activist Caleb Orozco. It is shaping up to be a constitutional legal clash with international political dimensions.

Belize's evangelical, Anglican and Catholic churches have united to oppose the application. They are expected to set out their objections in a pre-hearing review on Friday and seek to introduce evidence that homosexuality can be "cured".

In a joint statement earlier this summer, the churches in Belize declared: "In every country that has granted a new 'right' to homosexual behaviour, activists have promoted and steadily expanded this 'right' to trump universally recognised rights to religious freedom and expression."

And they wonder why they're increasingly identified with hate and bigotry...

Belize is only the first step. Cases will be lodged in Northern Cyprus and Jamaica by christmas, and there'll be more next year. It'll be a long struggle, but it'll do some good, and hopefully turn the tide against international homophobia.

Earning that reputation X

Last year, the Speaker ended MP's international travel rort, which had seen us paying up to 90% of the cost of senior MP's international holidays. Today, they rorted us again, pocketing a $5,000 a year pay rise as "compensation" for the removal of this unearned, unjustifiable perk:

The Remuneration Authority this morning gave MPs an increase of 1.5 percent, as well as a $5,000 payment to compensate for the international which was scrapped in January.

The changes will see the next Prime Minister's salary rise from $400,500 to $411,510, while his deputy will get $291,800, up from $282,500.

The Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker will both get $257,200, up from $249,100.

Backbenchers will receive $141,800, up from $134,800.

And MPs wonder why we think they are dogshit? This is why. The travel rort was never justifiable; it was always a rort. Receiving "compensation" for its loss simply adds insult to injury, and cements the reputation of MPs as thieving parasites. And they have no-one to blame for it but themselves.

Going nuclear

When it was revealed that John Key's "cup of tea" conversation with John Banks had been inadvertently recorded, it looked like a bad tea pun, a distraction from the real campaign. There was a tape, it was apparently interesting, but the Herald on Sunday couldn't publish it, and weren't going to without permission. Since then, speculation over the tape's contents, Key's refusal to answer questions, his increasingly transparent lies about what he said and his complaint to the police have made it a real political issue. And now, its become even more of one, with the police threatening to kick in the doors of some of our key media institutions in an effort to gain their interview notes on the subject.

This is the nuclear option, and it exposes both the Prime Minister and the Police to serious allegations of political policing. This is not a narrow investigation designed to recover the recording and prosecute the person responsible for it. It is a campaign of intimidation, designed to stifle criticism, not by fear but by legal advice. Its the sort of thing you'd expect from Muldoon, not in modern New Zealand.

The case for MMP

Last night I went to a public meeting at the Palmerston North Central Library to hear Dr Sandra Grey of Keep MMP make the case for MMP. She started off by debunking a series of common myths around MMP:

  • A perfect voting system: No voting system is perfect. They all require various democratic goods to be traded off against one another. MMP trades off single-party government to gain fairness, legitimacy, equal voting power, a more diverse Parliament, and a stronger Parliament. Whether you think these tradeoffs are worth it will depend on how much you value the latter over the former.
  • Confused voters: Apparently, people don't know about the referendum, and therefore won't be making an informed choice (Peter Dunne is one of the latest to propagate this myth). But from talking to people while campaigning, Dr Grey has found that people are talking about the referendum, and about what they like and dislike about MMP and how to fix it (IMHO this is just a comforting myth put about by the anti-MMP faction so they can take solace in denouncing the ignorance of the peasants when they lose).
  • More MPs: While MMP gave us more MPs, it doesn't have to be that way; there's no magic number that it requires. Wales makes MMP work (kindof) with only 60 MPs. But the issue has been wisely separated out from this referendum into the constitutional review.
  • Instability: One of the biggies, but history has shown it to be untrue. The system has not led to sudden mid-term collapses of confidence and changes of government; five out of six MMP governments have gone full term (and the one that didn't - Labour in 1999 - 2002 - went early voluntarily in a failed effort to seize an absolute majority).
  • "The tail wags the dog": Again, another biggie, and equally untrue if you look at the historical record. The major party in government has clearly set the agenda. While they have had to compromise in order to gain the support of coalition partners, these compromises have been modest. When minor parties have been seen as being too greedy - e.g. Winston Peters in 1996 - 1999 - they have been punished by the electorate.
She talked a lot about the statutory review if MP wins, and the parallel constitutional review, and encouraged people to submit on both if they wanted to tweak the system. As for the second question, she pointed to polls showing FPP well in the lead, with STV a distant second (and SM even further behind that). And as a result, she thinks a second referendum would be fairly pointless - a straight rematch of 1993, pitting MMP against FPP, the result of which would be a foregone conclusion.

Her overall conclusion: MMP is on all objective measures a fairer, more accountable and more deliberative system than the alternatives on offer. And we should vote to keep it.

There was a brief Q&A session afterwards, including the inevitable question on which voting system to support on the second part of the ballot paper. She would support STV as a distant second, but noted that many people she had talked to said they would leave that part blank (IMHO these people are fools, voluntarily surrendering that battle to the anti-MMP brigade). In response to a question about Supplementary member, she pointed out that contrary to National's spin, it is not "FPP-lite"; rather it is FPP on steroids, giving major parties all the FPP electorates, plus a big bonus from the party vote. The system undervalues some votes, overvalues others, and will lead to single party majority governments (which is one of the problems we were trying to avoid).

As a final note, 70% of OECD nations use proportional representation (those that don't are predictably the Anglosphere - the US, UK, Canada and Australia). Its pretty obvious which way democracy lies.

Italy's new dictatorship

The jubilation over the demise of Silvio Berlusconi has given way to the cold light of dawn: Italy now has an unelected government, ready to impose harsh austerity without any popular mandate. Its unelected Prime Minister, Mario Monti, was made a Senator-for-life solely so he could take over. Its new Cabinet contains no elected politicians, and instead has a bunch of bankers: the very people responsible for the crisis in the first place.

This is possible for two reasons. Firstly, of course, because the Italian Constitution unbelievably allows it. There's no requirement for the Prime Minister or Ministers to be MPs or Senators. The PM must merely hold the confidence of both houses of the Italian Parliament (but even then is not obliged to resign if it does not hold them). Secondly, there's the total abdication of responsibility from Italy's elected politicians. They can't be arsed governing their country or doing anything to solve its problems, so they're just going to turn over power to a pack of unelected "experts" and watch (meanwhile, of course, they will continue to collect their salaries regardless). And so Italy's democracy dies, not with a bang, but a whimper...

Supposedly, this "technocratic" regime will make "non-political" decisions. Bullshit. Austerity is political. Privatisation is political. Who pays is political. These decisions need to be made by people who are elected, and can be democratically held to account for their decisions. If they are not, then they will be made in the interests of the rich, or the Germans, not ordinary Italians. But then, that's the point, isn't it? To make decisions which are not in the expressed interests of ordinary Italians, to ram NeoLiberalism down their throats for the benefit of foreign bankers (who must have their pound of flesh, plus usury on top of that).

The only light at the end of the tunnel is that some parties are already positioning themselves to pull the plug and force elections when they think they can get away with it. They don't want to govern, but they want to save Italy from the results of their abdication (using the technocrats as scapegoats to take the blame for any unpleasant policy decisions, which they of course will not reverse). Its a stunning display of political cowardice and cynicism. But I guess that's what you get from Italian politicians these days.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

New Fisk

Assad will only go if his own tanks turn against him

Politicians as spammers

Three News has video of John Key's toy-throwing exit from his own press conference here.

And on a related note, this is also a perfect display of one of the core problems with modern politics: the use of media management techniques by politicians. You'll notice that it doesn't matter what question Key is asked; he just repeats the same script on wanting to talk about the economy. This is something they all do, drilled into them by their minders in an effort to control the message, but it means that their communications are fundamentally inauthentic. You're not talking to a human being; you're talking to a pre-programmed spambot wearing a meat-puppet.

The result isn't just that "interviews" are a farce, either as transparently fake as a late-night infomercial, or an exercise in frustration over who gives in first; it also helps turn people off politics (because people know a spammer when they see one, and no-one wants to listen to them). This probably suits the politicians very well. But its not good for our democracy.

Another result is that politicians are only ever interesting when they go off-script and reveal an authentic reaction. What we saw today was Key giving in to frustration, cutting his losses, and going somewhere where he could spam more effectively. Time is money and all that - but its not what we expect from our Prime Minister. And hopefully he'll pay a price for it.

Under pressure

It looks like John Key doesn't respond well when the media goes off-script and starts actually asking questions:

Prime Minister John Key has this morning refused to answer any questions about the 'tea cup' tape and, when pressed, walked out of a media stand-up.

He repeatedly said, in response to questions around the tape, that he and New Zealanders were interested in issues such as the economy.

In an extraordinary response, when journalists continued to ask him about the tape, he stormed off.

Normally, of course, Key just doesn't appear in any venue (such as Morning Report) which might seriously challenge him. But during an election campaign, he has to. And as a result, we've just gained a valuable insight into the character of our Prime Minister and how he responds when things don't go his own way.

(As for the merits, I think Key and Banks have a right to privacy and not to have their conversations bugged, accidentally or otherwise. At the same time, now that we all know that the recording exists, I think he's stupid not to allow it to be released. As we're seeing here, people are going to keep asking about it, and the longer he stonewalls, the shiftier he looks)

Selling out?

So, Sue Bradford thinks the Greens are "selling out" by condemning Jolyon White's co-ordinated, nationwide subversion of the National Party's signage. Hardly. Instead, they're sticking to their principles of clean politics, which necessarily involves not using or endorsing such tactics. As for those who approve of it, I think they are not just unprincipled, but stupid and shortsighted.

Election campaigns are supposed to be about the battle for public opinion. And that means everyone needs to be able to have their say, free of violence and intimidation. While sign vandalism is part and parcel of election campaigning, and everyone likes a good adbust, this is on a different scale from the usual random individual actions, and as a result, downright dangerous. To point out the obvious, other parties or their activists can do this too. And that sort of battle can only favour the larger parties, who have more thugs and more money.

Sue Bradford might want to live in a New Zealand where small parties cannot effectively contest elections because their messages are systematically destroyed by thuggery. I do not.

The eviction of Occupy Wall Street

So, it finally happened: New York's billionaire banker mayor sent in his goons to shut down Occupy wall Street, the protest against the power of billionaire bankers. But rather than do it in broad daylight, when the world could see, he did it in the dead of night, and made sure to arrest the media in the process. That almost looks like shame...

Rather than responding with violence, the protestors responded with law, and got a restraining order against their eviction. Its currently being argued over in court, and a ruling is due soon. Which means we'll see whether the US's vaunted First Amendment actually means anything, or whether free speech has a time limit. And we'll get to see whether the billionaires and their thugs obey the law, or end their charade and ignore it. Either way, I don't expect the protestors to shut up and go away.

Update: The NY State Supreme Court has ruled that the eviction is legal and that the protestors cannot continue to camp at Zuccotti Park. I guess they'll be finding another park then.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Punishment without trial

National has released more welfare policy today, making the usual promises to crack down on beneficiaries and beat them with bigger sticks. Most of it is just the usual beneficiary bashing, wanking about fraud (which makes up 0.01% of the total welfare budget) and denying benefits to people who fail drug tests (alternatively: push people off benefits and into crime). But there's also this bit:

Those beneficiaries evading a Police warrant will also have their benefit cancelled.

“Taxpayers should not be paying criminals to evade the law,” says Mr Key. “We believe in a welfare system which is fair for to those who use it, but is also fair on taxpayers who fund it.

So, if the police accuse you of a crime, you get your benefit cancelled, with no chance to defend yourself or contest matters. I guess guilt on accusation isn't just for downloaders anymore.

Obviously, this is a prima facie breach of the right to justice affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. But National will probably take that as a badge of honour, rather than a reason not to do it. Which is another reminder that we need an enforceable BORA, to keep authoritarian government in check.


The Campaign for MMP is holding a public meeting in Palmerston North tomorrow night on "the case for MMP":

When: 17:00 - 19:00, Wednesday 16 November
Where: Sound and Vision Zone, Palmerston North Central Library
Who: Dr Sandra Grey

Be there, and show your support for a fair voting system.

Edwards on MMP

John Key's cup of tea with John Banks has got some people up in arms, with Phil Goff promising to unilaterally amend the Electoral Act to prevent such deals by removing the electorate lifeboat. But as Bryce Edwards points out in the Herald this morning, its not the electorate lifeboat which is at fault here, but the undemocratic 5% threshold:

The threshold acts as an antidemocratic element in the system because for many supporters of minor parties their vote simply doesn't count - in 2008 about 6.5 per cent had their party vote "wasted" because they voted for parties that didn't meet the arbitrary 5 per cent threshold. In 1996, 4.4 per cent of voters chose the Christian Coalition, the Alliance gained 1.3 per cent in 2002, New Zealand First won 4.1 per cent in 2008, and so forth. All these parties were kept out of Parliament by the threshold, and their voters marginalised.
If we abolished the threshold, there would be no need for such deals. There would be no all-or-nothing barrier, and no incentive for parties to gift seats to one another, or try and deliberately disenfranchise others. Instead, every party would gain representation in proportion to its party vote. Fair and simple.

New Fisk

Arab League's 'roar' at Syria shows how tiny Qatar is starting to flex its muscle

The growth of inequality in NZ

Via Paul Krugman, I hear that there is a World Top Incomes Database, which collects data on inequality. The dataset for NZ is complete from 1962 - 2002, and has some data up to 2005. Which means we can see who has really benefited from NeoLiberal "reform":


Its not as extreme a case as the US, but its a similar picture: NeoLiberalism stole money from ordinary kiwis and gave it to the richest of the rich. And now they're back in power and wanting to steal more.


So, the people responsible for the co-ordinated, nationwide subversion of the National Party's signage have been exposed after one of them gave a radio interview [audio]. Which just goes to show where ego gets you. Surely he knows that when you're doing something dubious, with a high chance of political blowback (say, by forcing the leader of the party you are affiliated with to apologise to your victims), you do not talk about it? What a dumbarse.

(As for the merits: while on one level billboard vandalism is to be expected, and sometimes appreciated by this innocent bystander when its amusing, a co-ordinated nationwide attack is downright dangerous. Elections should be about winning over public opinion, not thuggery. But this precedent invites the thugs to do the same, and that is something the rest of us can only lose from).

Monday, November 14, 2011

National on energy

National has released its energy policy [PDF]. The short version? "Drill it, mine it, sell it". Yes, seriously:

Our petroleum estate is under-explored. An independent valuation has put a value of $8 billion to $12 billion on potential future royalties from oil and gas production.

Making New Zealand a destination for more exploration has the potential to contribute billions to our economy, and create higher-value jobs. Our new approach will focus on areas of greatest potential, emphasise safety, and allow more transparent engagement with local communities, industry, and iwi.

No mention of course of the environmental impacts of this proposed massive expansion in drilling and mining, or of its consequences for other policy areas such as climate change (or indeed, that 90% renewable target they've supposedly committed to). Just a bright, shiny future, funded by magic money put in the ground by Leprechauns. Which we haven't discovered yet. Its like basing your household budget on winning the lottery - laughable in an individual, downright scary in a country.

As for the rest of the policy, there's nothing there. They're talking up home insulation, but not promising to do any more of it (their 50,000 new homes is part of their deal with the Greens, not new homes). There's the usual empty promises of making the electricity market "more competitive", as if that will somehow stop its new foreign owners from raising prices and bleeding us dry like the Aussie banks do. And of course National Grid upgrades - which is something they've already agreed to do. As for moving us to a more sustainable energy path, or dealing with peak oil when it comes, National just doesn't want to know.