Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Craig Foss lied to Parliament

Two weeks ago, Labour's Clare Curran asked Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss whether he had received any advice or reports about Stephen McElrea’s potential conflict of interest between his role as John Key's electorate chair and his role as a board member of New Zealand on Air. Foss replied with a single word: "None". Today, we find out that that was incorrect, when Tony Ryall was forced to admit on Foss's behalf that he had received an email on 18 January from the chair of the New Zealand On Air board, Neil Walter,

which devote[d] several paragraphs to addressing conflict of interest matters of “one particular member of the board”
Foss's original denial was in answer to a primary question, on notice. That is "a situation of some formality". Lying in response is misleading the House, a serious Contempt. The question now is whether he will be dragged before the Privileges Committee, or whether the Speaker will allow Ministers to lie with impunity to primary questions in Question Time.

Climate change: Occam's razor vs denial

Going around the internet today:

Not reassuring

When National announced plans to privatise our state-owned assets, they tried to be reassuring. They'd only be selling half of those companies, and keeping a majority share. So we wouldn't see the sort of asset-stripping fire-sale which marked previous privatisations.

It turns out that they lied:

Treasury advised the Finance and Expenditure Committee today that partially privatised state-owned energy companies should be managed in a strictly commercial way and wouldn’t rule out the possibility that individual assets could fall into foreign ownership.

“Shareholding Ministers will manage their 51 percent shareholding according to ‘best commercial practice’ rather than what is in the best public interest. If it makes commercial sense to sell a dam or two — they’re gone,” said Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman.

“Holding 51 percent of an energy company will not, by itself, guarantee that individual assets remain in New Zealand control.

The boards of those companies would be legally required to maximise short-term profit for their shareholders. If it maximises short-term profit to have a fire-sale, or defer maintenance and run the company into the ground a-la Telecom or TranzRail, then they will be legally required to do it. And it doesn't matter how big the government's stake is; once there are any private shareholders, our assets - vital infrastructure that keeps the lights on - are in danger.

Previous privatisations were a disaster. The current government looks set to repeat that disaster. Don't let it happen again.


Charlie White used to be Indiana Secretary of State. While in that office, he led a crusade against "voter fraud", imposing photo I.D. requirements to vote as part of a widespread Republican attempt to reduce turnout and discourage the "wrong" sort of people from voting. So why is he no longer in office? Because he's just been convicted of voter fraud, having registered at a false address and voted in an electoral district he was not entitled to vote in. Oh, the irony...

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, the first of the new Parliament (Gerry Brownlee having stolen one already by dragging out the Address in Reply debate). Unfortunately, the Order Paper is stacked with private and local bills, so there is unlikely to be any Member's business. But we are finally likely to see the end of the Royal Society of New Zealand Amendment Bill, which became collateral damage in Labour's attempts to filibuster VSM last year. We may also see the first reading of the Hutt City Council (Graffiti Removal) Bill, which would allow that council to enter private property to remove "graffiti" - a term left deliberately undefined, and therefore meaning whatever the council wants it to mean - subject to notification and an opt-out by the property owner. While graffiti is sometimes an eyesore, when we're talking about warrentless entry and seizure (with complete legal immunity if they accidentally burn your house down in the process), then I think you need a better justification (and a better legal schema) than that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Daily cronyism

Back when he was in Parliament, Wayne Mapp didn't exactly come across as the sharpest tool in the shed. He was a second-rate MP, and a second-rate Minister, notable only for taking on the "portfolio" of "political correctness eradication" for Don Brash.

So naturally, National has just appointed him to the Law Commission, a collection of our best legal brains tasked with the ongoing review and reform of New Zealand law.

This is cronyism, pure and simple. But it's not just a blatant case of "jobs for the boys", it also politicises the Commission, turning it from a reform body into a National-stacked stooge. Mapp will be able to influence the shape of New Zealand law for the next decade from this - and through him, national will be able to, whether they're in power or not.

This will end well

German-imposed austerity and wage cuts have led to growing anti-German feeling on the streets of Greece. Germans are being portrayed as Nazis, flags are being burned, and memories of their previous stint running Greece - during which 300,000 Greeks starved to death - are being stoked up. Meanwhile, the German Finance Ministry is planning to "help" the Greek government by sending them 160 German tax-collectors...

So, foreign tax collectors from a hated occupying power squeezing an impoverished population for the benefit of foreign banks. This is going to end really well...

In the ballot XLIV

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

Income Tax (Universalisation of In-work Tax Credit) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei): does what it says on the label: universalises the "in-work" tax credit. This would have a significant effect in reducing child poverty, as well as removing discrimination from the law-books.

Land Transport (Safer Alcohol Limits for Driving) Amendment Bill (Iain Lees-Galloway): would lower breath- and blood-alcohol limits to levels consistent with international best-practice. The breath-alcohol limit would be reduced from 400 to 250 micrograms per lie of breath, and the blood-alcohol limit from 80 to 50 milligrams per 100mls. This is expected to significantly reduce drink-driving fatalities, perhaps by as much as two-thirds.

Prohibition of Gang Insignia in Government Premises Bill (Todd McClay): Another "tough on crime" signalling exercise, which would ban the wearing of gang patches or other insignia in any government premises (including government departments, local bodies, crown entities, schools, and hospitals - but not courts or police stations). It will be interesting to see if this attracts a section 7 report under the BORA.

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

A call for change

Earlier in the month, we learned that Parliament was not enabling Green MP Mojo Mathers (who is profoundly deaf) to do her job properly. There was widespread public outrage at this, and it has crystallised in a formal petition to Parliament calling for live closed captioning of Question Time. The petition was submitted to the House at the beginning of Question Time today, with 5,379 signatures. Another 500 have signed it since it was submitted

Hopefully this will be enough to prompt change. Though it seems that the Speaker is still dragging his feet, refusing to bring forward a meeting of the Parliamentary Services Commission. The government is only getting around to appointing the additional members required by law, and doesn't seem to be in any hurry to do so, with the appointment motion well down the Order Paper (today its at number 14). Faced with a fundamental issue of discrimination, which is impeding an MP in the exercise of her constitutional duties, National is sitting on its hands. I wonder if that counts as Contempt of the House?

Bringing the law into disrepute

Over the weekend, seven Greenpeace activists, including actor Lucy Lawless, occupied a Shell drilling ship in an effort to delay its departure for the Arctic. The occupation has now ended, and the activists have been arrested and charged - with burglary.

This is simply overkill. While the crime (defined as "[entering] any building or ship, or part of a building or ship, without authority and with intent to commit a crime in the building or ship") technically applies, applying it where the crime intended to be committed is mere trespass makes a mockery of the law and brings it into disrepute. It also suggests that the police are playing politics, intervening in support of the polluters rather than acting as neutral keepers of the peace. But we knew that already, didn't we?

It will be interesting to see if this bullshit gets past a judge. If it does, then fortunately those accused of such serious offences are still entitled to a jury trial. It will be interesting to see if twelve random citizens really think that political protest is deserving of ten years imprisonment.

The rich really are different

They're more likely to lie, cheat, and steal than the rest of us:

A raft of studies into unethical behaviour across the social classes has delivered a withering verdict on the upper echelons of society.

Privileged people behaved consistently worse than others in a range of situations, with a greater tendency to lie, cheat, take things meant for others, cut up other road users, not stop for pedestrians on crossings, and endorse unethical behaviour, researchers found.

Psychologists at the University of California in Berkeley drew their unflattering conclusions after covertly observing people's behaviour in the open and in a series of follow-up studies in the laboratory.

Describing their work in the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, social psychologist Paul Piff and his colleagues at the Institute of Personality and Social Research claim that self-interest may be a "more fundamental motive among society's elite" that leads to more wrongdoing. They say selfishness may be "a shared cultural norm".

In interpersonal relations, that shared cultural norm of selfishness is largely an irritant (except when it crosses into outright criminality e.g. finance companies, fraud, and Enron-style scams). On a social level, it is devastating. The unequal political influence of the rich means that they can distort society into a tool for their further enrichment, at the expense of everyone else. Which is why we have welfare "reforms" in a recession, employment relations "changes" which strip workers of their rights and allow them to be fired at will, and privatisations whose sole purpose seems to be transferring a monopoly dividend-stream from the people of New Zealand into the pockets of the wealthy few.

Monday, February 27, 2012

But where will the jobs come from?

National has revealed its latest welfare "reforms". The headline change? Cracking down on solo parents, forcing them to work part time when their youngest child is five, or one if it was born while they were receiving a benefit. The former is a return to the policy of the 90's, which was abandoned when the government realised that parenting is work, and that with all the other disadvantages heaped on them, robbing the children of solo parents of their parents' time didn't help. The latter is a new exercise in cruelty, which will see single parents forced to abandon their children at a crucial stage for minimum-wage jobs. Because the big question everyone is asking right now is "where will the jobs come from"? Treasury doesn't think there will be any - they're projecting that unemployment will not decrease below 5% until 2015. Meanwhile solo parents will be expected to find these non-existent jobs from July (a timeline which almost-certainly means Parliamentary urgency, BTW).

Trying to get people off welfare into work makes sense (for non solo-parents) in good times, when jobs are plentiful. In a recession, its just an exercise in pointless sadism. But National doesn't care if this policy works. They don't care if its effective in improving the lot of solo parents, or beneficiaries generally. They certainly don't care about the long-term social effects. Instead, its all about further stigmatising those on benefits, and getting headlines for kicking them. Plus, of course, increasing competition in the labour market, and lowering wages even further for the benefit of their rich mates. This isn't a welfare policy, its a spin exercise and labour-market policy. And we will all lose if it is enacted.

Another lockout

Last year, CMP Rangitikei locked out its workforce in an effort to force casualisation and extort a 20% cut in wages. Now, Affco is following suit:

Hundreds of Affco meat workers will be locked out of work from Wednesday morning unless they agree to company's latest employment offer, ONE News understands.

The Meat Workers Union and Affco have been at loggerheads over the past 18 months over a collective employment agreement dispute.

The two parties have been negotiating a new agreement for the past three months. But yesterday the union was sent a lock-out notice and in it it named 762 workers who will be locked out of five Affco plants indefinitely across the North Island.

This seems to be a trend: under National employers such as CMP, Affco and Ports of Auckland are explicitly trying to smash unions, to force casualisation, and to lower wages. All with the collusion of an anti-worker National government. But the result is to impoverish ordinary New Zealanders and further widen the wage gap with Australia - while lining the pockets of the rich.

Hopefully the Dairy Workers Union or CTU will have information on how to donate to a support fund up soon. In the meantime, you can show your support by boycotting Affco products, and those of their owners, the virulently anti-union (and sexist) Talley brothers. Unfortunately, most Affco produce is exported, and most supermarkets don't label where their meat comes from anyway, but the latter are easily identifiable and can be targeted. We need to send a message to these corporate bandits: if they hurt their workforce, we will not buy their products; no-one likes dealing with an arsehole.

Missing in action

Where's Murray McCully? As one of our government's most important Ministers, you'd think the Prime Minister would know. But apparently not:

"I have absolutely no clue where he is, being the foreign minister he travels all the time and I haven't had a need to speak to him in the last few days," he told Newstalk ZB.
Is he in Washington receiving his latest orders? On a secret peace mission to Syria? Sulking alone in his room? Key just doesn't know (or, apparently, care). Which is no way to run a government. But one place McCully definitely isn't is here, being accountable to us for his decisions and mistakes. Which is no way to run a democracy.

New Fisk

The new Cold War has already started – in Syria

Friday, February 24, 2012

Labour's "do nothing" leader

David Shearer responds to criticism that he has done nothing so far as Labour leader:

Labour leader David Shearer has attempted to counter criticism his leadership style has been too laid back, saying he doesn't believe in bickering and partisanship.

In a speech to Grey Power in Auckland this afternoon, Shearer said he was not the kind of leader who believed in ''rival tribes playing gotcha''.

''Of course that's what a lot of people look for. They want to score the game, give points for the best smart remark in Parliament. But that's not what most New Zealanders want.''

There was no excuse for not being constructive.

Sure, but he hasn't done an awful lot of that, either. Insofar as Labour has advocated policy over the last three months, it has been done by other MPs. As for the leader, he's been conspicuous by his absence. Which makes you wonder why he's got the job (and is getting the salary) at all.

A change in tone is one thing (possibly not the wisest course against this National government, but that's an argument for another day); abdication is another. But hey, if Shearer doesn't actually want to lead the left in NZ, there's another party eager to take his job. And if he keeps on staying silent, he'll have no-one to blame but himself.

Equality comes to Maryland

A same-sex marriage bill has been passed by the Maryland state Senate, and is expected to be signed into law within days. When that happens, Maryland will become the eighth US state to permit same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: if Maryland can do this, why can't we? Kiwis support same-sex marriage; shouldn't our law finally reflect that? Or will we be held hostage by the bigotry of National's rural backbench?

Stross on the US Republican primary

Charles Stross sums up how this year's US Republican primary looks to outsiders:

I understand the basic point of the Republican presidential primary: get the party members out to pick a candidate from the shortlist of folks with a budget to run for president. And I understand that the candidates therefore need to appeal to the base. And I get that Romney is utterly unacceptable to one sub-group (due to not being a Real Christian) and to another sub-group (due to being the policy equivalent of silly putty), and that Gingrich is in there to deliver a big fat Fuck Off to the RNC over his past treatment (not to mention the narcissistic personality disorder). Rick Santorum I'm at a loss to explain unless he turns out to be Sasha Baron Cohen's greatest ever and longest running parody act: I'm waiting for him to either call for the reintroduction of the ducking stool for witches, or to be caught in an airport toilet cubicle with an underage [male] page and a couple of lines of cocaine.

But what's with the whole race to the bottom over racism and sexism?

I mean, these guys seem to be competing to shit all over the latin-American vote. And the whole ludicrous insanity of their anti-abortion and anti-contraception stance looks like they're actively trying to get every female of child-bearing age to vote against them. (It's like they've read "The Handmaid's Tale" and think it's a road map, not a warning.)

But what's really scary is the thought that one of these crazies might actually get elected. George W Bush was bad enough, but this year's crop are a whole level of crazy beyond him, thanks to the utter dominance of fringe fundamentalist Christians. And the thought of Rick "man on dog" Santorum with his finger on the nuclear button is truly frightening. If he doesn't decide that its just time for the Rapture now, he may simply decide that there are too many gays in country X (or California) and decide to purge it with cleansing fire.

Good riddance

Former Ministers Doug Graham and Bill Jeffries, and two other board members of Lombard Finance, have been convicted of deceiving their investors. They face up to five years imprisonment, or a fine of up to $300,000. Good riddance. We don't get many victories against corporate malfeasance in New Zealand, so its something to be celebrated.

Also to be celebrated: neither of these two will be leaching free travel off the taxpayer any more. As a five-term MP, he was entitled (as a consequence of MP's self-interested feather-bedding) to a 90% rebate on private domestic and international travel. Jeffries was entitled to 60%. But thanks to amendments passed to the Speaker's Directions [PDF] two years ago, those entitlements are automatically stripped on conviction for serious crime. Its one way of cleaning up the tail of undeserving former Parliamentary parasites, I suppose.

As for the question of Graham's knighthood, of course it should be stripped - not for criminality, but simply as a matter of course. Feudal titles have no place in modern, democratic New Zealand, and they should all be revoked.

Protest Media Transphobia

Yesterday, the Dominion-Post published an openly transphobic column by resident curmudgeon Rosemary Macleod (no, I'm not going to link to it). Today, Wellington's trans community and their friends will be turning out to protest about it. If you don't like transphobia, if you think that whipping up hate against a gender minority is bad, if you'd just like to show your support for your trans friends, then please go along and join them.

When: 12:30 - 13:30, Friday 24 February (today)
Where: Dominion Post, 40 Boulcott St

More details on FaceSpy, here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


From Stuff:

The teenager charged with seriously assaulting a female police officer in West Auckland last night is also recovering in hospital this morning.

The 18-year-old is in the same hospital as the officer, but it is not known how he got hurt.

There's an obvious explanation for this, but its also a very disturbing one. While the police are allowed to use reasonable and necessary force in arresting a suspect, normal arrests, even of violent offenders, do not usually result in hospitalisation. If there's any suggestion that the officers involved used excessive force to extrajudicially and unlawfully punish this man for assaulting their colleague, they should all be immediately sacked. The police are supposed to defend us from thuggery, not engage in it.

Update: The police has fronted up and explained; the suspect was apparently bitten by a police dog.

Winning hearts and minds again

Last week, some redneck American soldier in Afghanistan decided that prisoners at Bagram were using the Koran to "send messages". So he confiscated all copies and had them incinerated. The remains were thrown out with the trash, where they were discovered by Afghan labourers. And today, predictably, Afghanistan is in flames. Six people are dead already, and more are likely to follow.

This is how the US wins hearts and minds in Afghanistan. This is how it "stabilises" the country: by setting off riots. Heckuva job, guys.

Meanwhile, this stupidity hasn't just endangered the Americans, but everyone associated with them. While the SAS are returning home any day now, we still have a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan. And thanks to the clueless, bigoted Americans, their lives are now in danger. With friends like these, we don't really need enemies - because they'll create them for us.

The problem with privatised welfare

At the moment the government is considering privatising welfare provision by outsourcing youth employment services to its providers in the private sector. Surprisingly, Treasury is opposed. Why? Because it exposes the government to a high risk of fraud:

However, Treasury advise that there is significant risk of private providers gaming the system, for example by classifying young people at a higher risk of long term unemployment than might actually be the case. Treasury also advises the complexity of case management will make it very difficult for the Ministry of Social Development to audit the private contracts and compare their outcomes with the Ministry’s own service delivery.
Contrary to Paula Bennett's view, this isn't just a theoretical risk. They did this a few years ago in the UK - and just yesterday, UK police arrested four staff from welfare-to-work provider A4e on fraud charges for falsely claiming that people had been placed in employment. And this isn't an isolated incident. This company alone has been investigated nine times since 2005, and been forced to repay money five times for fraud including falsifying "confirmation of work" forms and forging employers' signatures. They've lost private data of their "clients" by transporting it on unsecured laptops. And its been found to be abusing work-for-dole provisions to extract slave-labour from the very people it should be finding real jobs for. None of these risks exist if the work is done by public servants rather than the private sector.

So who actually benefits from this sort of outsourcing? Not unemployed young people, who either get help they didn't need, or get thrown in the "too hard" basket by profit-seeking businesses. And not the taxpayer, who gets overcharged and defrauded by private providers. The only people who benefit are the donors and cronies who get the contracts. To continue the example of A4e, its five shareholders netted themselves £11m in dividends last year. That's £11m the government could have spent on helping young people, which has instead gone to line the pockets of the rich.

A backdown or a fudge?

The government has announced that it will retain a Treaty clause in its planned privatisation legislation:

"Cabinet is yet to decide the exact details of the new legislation, but in the interests of working towards a satisfactory solution we've indicated to the Waitangi Tribunal and the Iwi Leaders Group the direction of our thinking.

"Subject to Cabinet decisions, the Government intends to include a provision in the new legislation reflecting the concepts of the existing section 9 of the SOEs Act. This preference was clearly expressed to us at the consultation hui."

Its hard to tell if this is a backdown or a fudge. A provision is not the same as the provision, and given John Key's reported comment that the obligations would not apply to the private shareholders, the replacement will be weaker. The current section 9 applies to all actions under the Act, including the actions of the SOE. From Key's comment, it seems that the new clause would apply only to the crown in an ownership capacity, making it much weaker. Hell, unless it overrides the legal rights of other shareholders, it will mean precisely squat.

Until we see the actual legislation, we can't know whether the government has actually listened, or is simply trying to pull the wool over our eyes. But given their past practice, I think it is more likely to be the latter. The question now is whether the Maori Party will fall for it, or whether they will stand firm and insist that all obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi are protected in the new law.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New Fisk

'If only Hague and Clinton would listen to Yusuf Islam'

The problem with work-for-dole

When the UK government introduced a work-for-dole scheme, it looked like a win-win. Those lazy shiftless unemployed people (and the disabled and mentally ill) would be forced to go out and do something in exchange for the assistance they were receiving. And major high street retailers such as Tescos and Argos would receive a source of free labour, subsidising their profits in a recession. Fortunately, it hasn't worked out that way:

The government's back-to-work scheme appears to be in disarray after Tesco announced it would immediately offer a wage to all benefits claimants working unpaid in its stores, and several big chains reported they were suspending involvement in the programme.

Tesco said that although it was sticking with the coalition's work experience scheme, it would now offer jobseekers a choice of remaining on benefits or taking up paid work with a guarantee of a staff job at the end of the four-week placement if the trial was successful.

Meanwhile, Argos and Superdrug said they were suspending their involvement pending talks with ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the scheme, which has been personally championed by senior coalition figures, is voluntary and that jobseekers would no longer fear having their benefits removed if they pulled out of placements after the first week.

Other major participants are reviewing their participation in the scheme. And the reason is simple: reputational risk. "Employing" people on work-for-dole looks like slave labour, not a look any image-conscious retailer wants to have. Not to mention that it pretty obviously removes any pressure to create real jobs. Campaigners in the UK have exploited this perfectly, hitting these parasitic multinationals where it hurts, and forcing them to provide real jobs rather than exploiting the unemployed.

The Dotcom bail decision II

Kim Dotcom has finally been granted bail. While the full decision doesn't seem to be available, the Herald has the reasoning:

The prosecution had argued that because Dotcom was "a wealthy man" he must have significant resources available to him and would be able to fund an escape from New Zealand.

However, a North Shore District Court Judge Nevin Dawson has found that there had been no new significant asset seizures since his mansion was raided and he was arrested.

"The disposition that he is wealthy and must have more assets is not evidence.

"It would seem that he has every reason to stay (in New Zealand) to be with his family and to fight to keep his significant assets," Judge Dawson said.

In other words, the police's secret flight fantasies aren't enough. There must be a real and substantial risk to justify continued pre-trial imprisonment. Absent such a risk, he must be released. It is that simple.

Unfortunately, a condition of bail is that Dotcom not use the internet, effectively denying him quick and easy access to his overseas lawyers and impeding his defence. While the (elderly) judge would no doubt say that he could use telephone and post, to modern eyes that's like telling someone they can use carrier pigeons. The Bill of Rights Act requires release on "reasonable" terms and conditions - and in the modern era, banning people from using the fastest, most efficient and pervasive communication mechanism is simply no longer reasonable. Unfortunately, we'll probably have to wait for a generation of pre-internet dinosaur judges to die or retire for our legal system to recognise that.

There is no escape from the OIA

In the wake of the leaking of Murray McCully's emails, several people have speculated as to why McCully was having his emails forwarded to an insecure xtra account. Was it an attempt to avoid the Official Information Act? While McCully may very well have believed that, if he did, he'd be mistaken. Because there is no legal way of avoiding the OIA.

The interpretation section of the Act is pretty clear: if its held by a Minister in their official capacity, then its official information and covered by the Act. This is regardless of format and regardless of location. The Ombudsman's Practice Guidelines [PDF] take a very broad view on this. For example:

The Ombudsmen consider that the definition of official information also includes knowledge of a particular fact or state of affairs held by officers in such organisations or departments in their official capacity. The fact that such information has not yet been reduced to writing does not mean that it does not exist and is not “held” for the purposes of the Act.
That's right: information in Minister's heads is official information, and they can be forced to write it down for you. Given this, official emails stashed in a "private" xtra account are certainly covered.

Of course, private accounts give you deniability, in that you can pretend that the documents therein don't exist. But that only works as long as no-one knows about them. And following this, I expect that Ministers are already being inundated with a flood of OIA requests asking whether they ever send or receive official emails on other accounts, and if so, why, how often and what are the addresses of those accounts. Of course, the Minister could lie, but if you can show that - and I think its the moral duty of the public servants doing the forwarding to do so - then its head on a spike time. Sadly, consciously attempting to evade the OIA doesn't carry a penalty of jail-time sufficient to disqualify a Minister from sitting in Parliament - but it damn well should.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Citizens' Select Committee in Ohariu

The government is currently planning to privatise our three state-owned electricity generators, plus Air New Zealand and Solid Energy. But in order to do so, they need a majority in Parliament. United Future leader Peter Dunne's vote is crucial to that majority. But voters in his electorate aren't too happy about him supporting that - so they're setting up their own Citizens' Select Committee to investigate it:

On the 1st of March a public meeting at the Johnsonville Community Centre, at 7:45pm. NZ Council of Trade Unions economist Bill Rosenberg will be making a presentation on the sale of state assets and the implications of free trade and investment agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Peter Dunne will be invited to attend the public meeting. This public meeting will appoint the committee members, who will then be calling for public submissions on asset sales and the TPPA. Last year the Government refused a request to hold a Parliamentary Select Committee on the TPPA.

Written submissions will be invited, and oral submissions will be heard at the Johnsonville Community Centre on Thursday 22 March.

The initial meeting is at 19:45 on 1 March at the Johnsonville Community Centre, on the corner of Frankmoore Ave and Moorefield Road. Submissions to the committee can be sent to:
The Ohariu Citizens’ Select Committee
P O Box 13 367
Wellington 6037
If our MPs won't do this sort of community consultation, then other people will have to do it for them. And if they vote against the expressed wishes of the community, they deserve to pay a heavy price at the next election.

New Fisk

Poisoned spring: revolution brings Tunisia more fear than freedom

All for nothing II

Eurozone Ministers are currently debating over the next stage of the Greek "bailout" in Brussels. Meanwhile, their own advice shows that its all for nothing, and that the austerity they are inflicting on Greeks as the price of bailing out their own banks has made the entire exercise pointless:

"There is a fundamental tension between the program objectives of reducing debt and improving competitiveness, in that the internal devaluation needed to restore Greece competitiveness will inevitably lead to a higher debt to GDP ratio in the near term," the report said.

"In this context, a scenario of particular concern involves internal devaluation through deeper recession (due to continued delays with structural reforms and with fiscal policy and privatisation implementation)," it said.

"This would result in a much higher debt trajectory, leaving debt as high as 160 percent of GDP in 2020. Given the risks, the Greek program may thus remain accident-prone, with questions about sustainability hanging over it," it said.

Which means we'll be going through this again in another two years, and the Germans will be demanding even harsher austerity (because obviously, that worked so well the first time).

Which is why Greece should just default. Debts that can't be repaid won't be repaid, and there is no point pretending otherwise. The EU's "debt relief" is an scam, targeted at shoring up their own banks and protecting themselves from "contagion" rather than actually helping the Greek people. It will simply mean that Greece is reduced to debt-slavery within the Euro. Default will remove all that in an instant. Yes, it will mean austerity - but at least it will end someday, and at least that pain from balancing their government budget will eventually benefit Greece, rather than foreign bankers.

The real opposition?

Over on The Standard, Eddie argues that the Greens have become the new opposition leaders, fronting on "Labour issues" such as mine safety, the minimum wage and asset sales, and speaking up while Labour remains silent (or worse, mired in self-inflicted scandal):

A hungry Green Party is leading issues while Labour appears immobilised. The Greens have maintained their small party litheness while benefiting from greatly increased resources. Meanwhile, Labour is still trying to do things in the bureaucratic manner of a government with greatly reduced staff and no strategy. Indeed, I understand they have been struck by a wave of resignations and still haven’t re-appointed any of their staffers beyond the managers.

Naturally, the media are turning to the Greens – they’re the only ones getting their voice inside the newscycle, they have momentum behind them which Labour doesn’t, and they are now seen as far more relevant by the media than they were when they were a 7% party.

But this shift has been going on for a while now. Back before the 2008 election I noted that the Greens were the policy innovators on the left, and in the 2011 campaign, Labour adopted Green policy wholesale. Many of Labour's core policies in the campaign - notably the capital gains tax and $15/hour minimum wage, both of which they had previously opposed - were lifted straight from the Greens. And that's a Good Thing; to mature parties like the Greens, its not "stealing", but winning the argument, and its a Good Thing because it means that those policies are more likely to be implemented.

What's changed now is that the Greens are larger, and now around 50% of Labour's size. And they're willing to be more assertive about pushing their values.

This is obviously going to raise some hackles in Labour, particularly among the apparatchiks who see their jobs and status under threat. But if you want to lead, you actually have to step up and do it. And absent a brief election campaign, the message of which looks likely to be dumped as quickly as it was adopted, Labour hasn't done that. All we've seen from them in opposition has been weakness and indecision, a craven reliance on focus groups rather than their party's values. They have basically vacated their political niche. They can hardly blame others for stepping in to fill it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

More on Immigration's secrecy

Last year, I raised some questions about the Department of Labour's Internal Administration Circular 11-10 [PDF], which requires immigration officials not to record reasons for their decisions, in violation of both the right to justice and the Public Records Act. An OIA on the subject was absolutely damning, revealing that the decision had been made explicitly to thwart oversight from both the courts and the Ombudsman.

Last week, these issues were raised during the department's annual financial review before the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee. The good news is that the department is currently discussing the issue with the Ombudsman, which may see some change:

The Department of Labour's general counsel George Mason said yesterday the Law Society's immigration group had raised concerns about the decision to remove rationale.

''It's a matter the department is currently discussing with the Ombudsman.,'' he told Parliament's transport and industrial relations select committee.

The bad news is that the Minister doesn't think its a problem at all:
Immigration Minister Nathan Guy said hiding rationale was not inappropriate for an agency charged with protecting New Zealand's borders.

''Persons who are unlawfully in New Zealand can't expect to be treated in the same way as those who lodge proper immigration applications.''

The problem for the Minister is that the law says they have to be. The right to natural justice applies to "every person" dealing with the government, not just to citizens. As for the Public Records Act, it imposes clear duties around public records, regardless of who the records are about. Immigration can't just ignore it simply because they think non-citizens are untermenschen.

As Darien Fenton points out, there's a problem of accountability here. With no records, we can't tell whether Immigration is making the right decisions. And when people's lives and futures are at stake (not to mention the integrity of New Zealand law and immigration policy), we need to be able to tell that. But thanks to Immigration's convenient information black hole, we have no way of telling this - and thus no way of confirming that they are, in fact, doing their job properly.

Unaccountable immigration officials are probably perfectly happy with that. As one of the people paying their salaries, I am not. I want to be able to tell if our public servants are in fact applying the law as it is written. To do that, we need transparency. And we absolutely cannot trust them otherwise.

The cost of cuts

Stuff reports that infectious disease rates have risen in NZ in the last twenty years - the exact opposite of what has been happening in the rest of the developed world.

The study, published in international medical journal The Lancet, reveals that infectious diseases increased by 51 per cent in New Zealand between 1989 and 2008.


The study is the first ever of serious infectious diseases across an entire country and over an extended period. It was based on analysis of 5 million overnight admissions to New Zealand hospitals over a 20 year period.

It found that most categories of infectious disease have risen, with the main contributions coming from increases in respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal infections. Infectious diseases included illnesses such as acute rheumatic fever, childhood pneumonia and meningococcal disease.

These are all diseases of poverty, which makes the cause pretty obvious: in the 90's we cut benefits and state housing during a recession, creating a permanent underclass which remains with us to this day. People were economically forced into unsanitary, overcrowded conditions. Meanwhile, we cut health entitlements and introduced prescription charges. Its no wonder that diseases of poverty exploded. And that now costs us 17,000 extra hospital admissions and tens of millions of dollars a year.

Just another example of how cuts don't actually save money, but just mean that we pay for things in different ways.

Capitalism at its finest

Last week, ANZ bank, one of the Aussie banks sucking the lifeblood out of our economy, sacked a thousand of its workers to "cut costs". Then, they announced a A$1.48 billion quarterly profit, and decided to blow $2 million on an exclusive cruise for their top executives:

ANZ boss Mike Smith is taking his top staff on a $1.75 million cruise just weeks after axing 1000 workers to save money.

The exclusive Silver Shadow cruise of Malaysia's Langkawi islands boasts gourmet food, drinks and luxury suites.

Each of the 200 passengers - 100 staff and their guests - will have a personal butler.


Details of the Silver Shadow cruise are posted on the bank's internal website, rubbing dirt into the faces of backroom staff whose jobs are being shipped to India and the Philippines.

Its a perfect example of everything that is wrong with our modern economy. Real people get sacked, and the corporate psychopaths celebrate. Marie Antoinette would be proud.

New Fisk

I've lost a good, brave, honourable friend

Another nail in the coffin

Another nail has gone into the coffin of the government's case for selling state assets, with the Herald reporting that they are considering an incentive scheme to prevent "stagging" (selling those shares at a profit on the first day):

One market source said Treasury officials had travelled to Queensland to quiz officials over the state's privatisation process last year.


The Queensland Government, which was keen on QR National retaining local ownership, got around the stagging problem by introducing a loyalty scheme, which encouraged investors to stay on the share register for at least a year.

In 2010 the Queensland government sold a 60 per cent stake for A$4.6 billion. The price to institutions was A$2.55 a share while retail investors paid A$2.45 a share.

The scheme rewarded Queensland residents, who received one QR National bonus share for every 15 QR National shares held continuously since the IPO.

But to point out the obvious, investors can only make a first-day profit if the government has ripped off the public by setting the offer price too low. Meanwhile, these "solutions" cost even more money. For example, a 4% discount for retail investors would cost the public $240 million, while a one-in-fifteen loyalty scheme would cost up to another $400 million. That's means we'll get more than half a billion dollars less than the government is telling us.

The economics of selling these assets is already a losing proposition. Even according to Bill English, the savings on reduced borrowing will be less than the lost dividends. This makes that equation even worse. And it makes it clear that the government's purpose here isn't "reducing debt" as it claims, but simply to loot the state for the benefit of their rich mates.

(I see that The Standard is thinking the same thoughts here...)

Friday, February 17, 2012

And so its come to this...

Having screwed years of austerity out of the Greek government, the Germans are now openly discussing removing its democracy:

There were signs a group of triple A-rated governments, including Germany, Finland and the Netherlands, were hardening their stance towards Athens. During a conference call among eurozone finance ministers, the three countries suggested they may want additional letters from other smaller Greek parties and openly discussed the possibility of postponing Greek elections.

Ahead of the call, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, said in a radio interview Greece might delay its polls and install a technocratic government that does not include politicians like Mr Venizelos and Mr Samaras, similar to the model currently in place in Italy.

And so the EU reaches its ultimate perversion. Once it was an organisation which established democracy across Europe. Now its advocating its removal, so that a people can be squeezed even harder in order to repay unpayable debts to German banks.

But while they call them "technocrats", unelected rulers imposed for the purpose of plunder have another name: tyrants. Or, more provacatively, Gauleiters. If they are lucky, they end up fleeing into exile. If they are unlucky, they end up swinging from lamp-posts.


Last week, the Guardian revealed that senior UK civil servants were having their salaries laundered through corporate fronts in order to dodge their taxes. This has caused outrage in the UK, and so now their Treasury is reviewing 4,000 postings, with an eye to finding and ending any such arrangements.

Good. These people aren't freelancers or outside consultants, but senior cvil servants in permanent positions. And civil servants, of all people, should pay their taxes. And their employer, the government, certainly shouldn't collude with them to effectively rob itself.

Meanwhile, I'm still wondering whether this is happening here. I'd like to think not, because our public service are deeply committed to their code of ethics, and not nearly as infected by the sociopathy of the 1%. But I guess we won't know unless we look.

In the ballot XLIII

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

Energy Efficiency Conservation (Warm Healthy Rentals) Amendment Bill (Gareth Hughes): would require the government to set minimum energy performance standards for residential rental accommodation. It does not actually include the standards, but instead establishes a framework for them to be set and transitional arrangements giving landlords time to comply. As we've already seen from the home insulation programme, this will have significant health benefits for the poorest New Zealanders, and is worth doing.

Land Transport (Admissibility of Evidential Breath Tests) Amendment Bill (Scott Simpson): would amend s77 of the Land Transport Act 1988 to allow evidential breath test results to be used as evidence where an accused drunk driver elected to take a blood test, but blood was unable to be drawn. This doesn't seem unreasonable, and it corrects a hole in the law. But shouldn't it be included in a government bill?

Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Shopping Centre Opening Hours) Amendment Bill (Trevor Mallard): would require that shopping centre default opening hours be set by a secret ballot of a centre's tenants, rather than by its owner. Again, this doesn't seem unreasonable, and it protects small businesses from being forced to open at unreasonable times by mall owners.

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

Strapping the chicken

This year, the government is planning to open up ACC to private-sector competition. The problem? ACC is already hyper-efficient, and so the ideologically more efficient private sector wouldn't be able to compete. Fortunately, Nick Smith has a solution: force ACC to hike levies, to give an advantage to private competitors:

The Government is considering raising Accident Compensation Corporation levies just months after it decreased them, Cabinet papers released to a claimants lobby group show.


ACC Futures Coalition spokeswoman Hazel Armstrong said today papers obtained under the Official Information Act showed former ACC minister Nick Smith was looking at making the corporation charge a ''top up'' on its premiums so private insurers could compete on a level playing field.

So, National's plan is to make ordinary kiwis pay more for their accident insurance, to their mates in the bloodsucking Aussie insurance industry can make bigger profits. So much for a government that works for us. But its gets worse, because Smith isn't just planning to hobble ACC, he's planning to raid their piggy-bank as well:
ACC would also be required to pay built up reserves to the Government to ''avoid a build-up of excess reserves that could reduce financial disciplines or be used by ACC to reduce its prices (which would make it difficult for insurers to compete)''.
Those reserves exist for a reason: to fund the lifetime cost of claims, both past and future. ACC is required to hold them by law (as should any insurance company). Raiding the piggy-bank will mean ACC is not able to fund those claims (well, not unless it hikes levies even further). But it will give the government access to a pile of cash, which they can use to mask the terrible effect on government revenue of their tax cuts for the rich.

Numbers out of their arse

How much will we get if the government goes ahead with its plans to flog off 50% of our state-owned monopoly energy companies, plus Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, to foreign buyers? $6 billion. But according to Finance Minister Bill English, that's just a guess:

"I just want to emphasise that it is not our best guess; it's just a guess. It's just to put some numbers in that look like they might be roughly right for forecasting purposes.

"That's an honest answer."

So, on a core policy (hell, the core policy, because they've got nothing else this term), National is pulling numbers out of their arse. And they claim to be better economic managers? Bullshit. If they pulled this from opposition, they'd be deservedly laughed out of the room; when they do it from government, with the benefit of advice from Treasury and a pile of overpaid ticket-clipping consultants, its simply not credible.

(Speaking of Treasury, we're paying them $75 million a year for this bullshit. If all they're going to be producing is guesses, then I think we can get the job done a lot cheaper - say, by a dartboard in the Minister's office).

But the kicker is that if we accept this guess, the sales are a losing proposition:

The books forecast that the profits the Government will lose as a result of partially selling the SOEs will exceed the savings from the resulting reduction in debt.
Yes, Bill English's core policy for the term is to make us actively worse off, for the benefit of a few rich pricks and foreign buyers. It makes no sense whatsoever. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

An interesting question

How many of our top public servants are cheating on their taxes?

Its worth asking, because Freedom of Information Act requests in the UK have revealed exactly that:

The Department of Health has apologised after documents sent to the Guardian showed that contrary to assurances given to parliament, more than 25 senior staff employed by the department are paid salaries direct to limited companies, with the likely effect of reducing their tax bills.

In some cases, the documents show the named individuals are being paid more than £250,000 a year, as well as additional expenses.

The department claimed the 25 were not civil servants, or technically even staff, although a large number have been employed by the department for many years and hold very senior positions. It said the arrangements will be subject to review by the Treasury.

One Whitehall source said: "We cannot defend these arrangements, but it may be it is very common in Whitehall and this is just the tip of an iceberg."

It also seems that the Department in question misled their Minister about this, causing him to lie to Parliament.

This obviously isn't acceptable. The question is whether it is happening here. I've asked SSC today for information about this (including whether they have any guidance for the public service on the practice), and I'm looking forward to their answer. But in order to gain reassurance, I'll need to OIA every single public service department.

So much for TABOR

Last year, as part of its coalition agreement with ACT, the government introduced the Spending Cap (People's Veto) Bill. The bill was a perfect example of cargo-cult politics, a straight importation of the US Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which has devastated public services and education in Colorado. Enacting it here would likely have had the same effect on our public services, effectively drowning our government in the bathtub.

Fortunately, it looks like we won't be passing this Libertarian wackiness. The Finance and Expenditure Committee has reported back on the bill [PDF], and recommended that it not be passed. Instead,

the Government now plans to introduce other legislation to limit the growth in core Crown operating spending, making the Spending Cap (People’s Veto) Bill redundant.
Which is still worrying.

Also worrying is the process here. The select committee was quite open about dumping the bill because it was no longer in a coalition agreement. Worse, they admit that they did not even examine it in detail. While the outcome in this case is one I agree with, parliamentary select committees returning to their former role as rubber-stamps for the executive is a real backwards step in our democracy. The bill was sent to committee by Parliament, and the committee should have examined it. Their failure to do so is an abdication of their role as legislators, and one they should be ashamed of.

Starving the watchdog

The Ombudsman appeared before a select committee yesterday as part of its annual financial review, and complained that it was sinking under the weight of complaints:

Ms Wakem said the office's baseline funding had been established on the basis it would be actively working on 800 to 1000 cases at any one time.

However, actual case numbers had been far higher than that for some time and been close to 2000 at one point last year. It was currently handling about 1854.

The office had about 300 cases it was unable to work on because of a lack of available investigators.

The office's workload had also been increased by about 270 complaints stemming from quake victims' dealings with the Earthquake Commission and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

And its going to get worse, because when government departments cut "back-office" functions, they cut complaint handling and OIA processing. Which means more shit loaded on the Ombudsman, whose staff are quitting or suffering from ill-health due to overwork.

The Ombudsman is after an extra million dollars a year to fund the increased workload. They deserve it. This is a vital watchdog function, both for ensuring people are treated fairly by government, and for ensuring government meets its duties around transparency. The cost of skimping on it will be paid in injustice and bad policy.

Update: Chief Ombudsman Beverely Wakem is interviewed on RadioNZ about the issue here.

National's New Zealand

A stagnant economy. 150,000 unemployed. Record high inflation. And now, solo mothers forced to sell their bodies as prostitutes because government benefits are inadequate:

A solo mum who wants to study so she can get off welfare says she has had to turn to prostitution to pay for childcare and transport to the course.

Tania Wysocki, a 38-year-old mother of two preschoolers at Paerata near Pukekohe, advertised herself on a website two weeks ago in a last-ditch effort to raise the money she needs for childcare when she starts a veterinary nursing course at Unitec in Mt Albert next week.

The good news is that now that she's gone public, WINZ has suddenly found that she's entitled to a lot more childcare than they'd told her. The bad news is that there will be a lot more people out there too ashamed to go public, who will be forced into choices they'd rather not make by a National-driven WINZ policy of obfuscation about entitlements (in order to save money, of course).

Its a perfect sign of the social damage National have inflicted with their austerity and penny-pinching. Sex work is legal, but its not something people should be forced into like this. The welfare state is there to protect people from having to make those sorts of choices, so that people can lead a dignified life even when they're down. But under National, its been eroded and cut or simply not paid so that that dignity is fast disappearing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Yesterday, Labour got the goods on John Key and his illegal "PM's hour" election broadcast, showing that Key's office had its grubby paws all over it. They had arranged the guests, they had instructed RadioLive on the brief for the show, and they'd even written RadioLive's inquiry to the Electoral Commission. Key's response to this was to say that he had no knowledge of any of this, and in followup questions today he claimed that he had first learned of it in Question Time yesterday.

This is simply unbelievable.

Firstly, there's the sheer implausibility that Key would not have been briefed on the arrangements being made for his appearance and the concerns around it. Are we really supposed to believe that he didn't know who his guests were until he stepped into the studio? Or that his staff didn't tell him about the legal concerns, and reassure him that everything was OK?

But secondly, and more importantly, the documents Labour tabled were obtained via an OIA request to Key's office. Given past practice, the request would likely have been handled by his Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson, but it is unthinkable that Key would not have been briefed about a request on a politically sensitive topic, both to decide what to withhold and to manage any fallout. To believe that, we'd have to think that Eagleson was utterly inept. And I know that he is not. It speaks volumes about Key's character that he is trying to defend himself by effectively slandering his Chief of Staff as an incompetent. But I guess that's just one of the management tricks bankers learn...

Overseas investment must benefit New Zealand

The High Court has ruled in the Crafar Farms case, found that the Ministers of Finance and Land Information erred in their decision to let foreign buyers buy the farms, and told them to go back and do it again. This won't necessarily stop the sale - the Ministers new decision may be the same as the old one, with better reasoning - but it delays it somewhat. More importantly, it has nailed down the interpretation of the Overseas Investment Act, requiring Ministers to assess the benefits of proposed investment against what would happen were it not made, not the status quo. In this case, where most of the "benefits" would happen regardless of who bought the farms, it significantly undermines the case for overseas purchase.

The message is clear: overseas investment must actually benefit New Zealand. Where an overseas buyer simply wants to act as a foreign absentee landlord, sucking profits out of our economy while contributing nothing, they can and should be told to take a hike.

The full judgement is here [PDF].

Delayed again

This week, the Local Government and Environment Committee produced an interim report [PDF] on the Manukau City Council (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill.. Originally limited to South Auckland, the new Auckland Council wants to extend it over the whole of Auckland - allowing them to effectively recriminalise prostitution and place sex-workers outside the protection of the law in an area containing one-third of our total population. This is a pretty big change to a bill people weren't that keen on in the first place, so its been opened up for public submissions again. Unfortunately, the Parliamentary website doesn't have any details on when you can submit, but it means that the committee's final report on the bill has now been pushed back until the end of July.

So, we won't be seeing a vote on this any time soon. Which in turn means even more time before Auckland's wowsers can waste more ratepayer's money on another futile attempt at turning back the clock.

Update: Information on submitting on the bill and Auckland Council's SOP is here.

All for nothing

Over the weekend, Greek politicians voted to sell out their people, burn their capital city, and drive their country even further into recession with another crippling round of austerity, all in an effort to get another "bailout" (for German banks, not Greeks) from the European Union. And now the latter has turned around and said "no". The reason?

Juncker said he was still awaiting written undertakings from Greek party leaders on pushing through the austerity package of pay, pension and job cuts which parliament passed on Sunday as rioters torched dozens of buildings in central Athens.

"I did not yet receive the required political assurances from the leaders of the Greek coalition parties on the implementation of the programme," he said.

Those "political assurances" are that Greek leaders will continue this austerity, regardless of what happens in the elections in April. In other words, the EU has a problem with Greek democracy. Which is what the rioters have been trying to tell them.

Meanwhile, the sheer pointlessness of this theatre is appalling. From Australia's MacroBusiness blog:

What makes the situation completely surreal are the numbers. Greek debt in 2008 was approximately 260bn Euro. The first bailout was 110bn, the current one, that appears to be tearing the country apart, is 130bn. Add in the PSI+ haircut of approximately 100bn ( after sweetener deduction ) and you realized that Europe could have simply paid the entire bill in 2008 and saved itself 80bn Euro. Ok, that is an oversimplification of the problem but you can see my point.

However now, after 340bn Euros, Greece is still has an unmanageable debt, is in a far worse position than it was 3 years ago and it appears the country itself is coming apart at the seams.

If modern economics was in any way reality based, this would be added to the long list of cautionary tales (including New Zealand in the 90's) about why austerity in a recession is a Bad Thing. Sadly, those running the EuroZone are still mired in NeoLiberal theology, in which economies must be destroyed and people impoverished in order to save them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The nuclear option

So, what to do if Lockwood Smith continues to sit on his arse and refuse to allow an elected MP to perform their constitutional duties? This:

Clerk of the House of Representatives (Non-discrimination) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Clerk of the House of Representatives (Non-discrimination) Amendment Act 2012.

2. Commencement
This Act comes into force on the day after the date on which it received the Royal Assent.

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Clerk of the House of Representatives Act to ensure that all Members of Parliament are fully enabled to carry out their constitutional duties.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Clerk of the House of Representatives Act 1988.

5. Section 3 Amended
Section 3 is amended by inserting the following paragraph after paragraph (a):

“(aa) to ensure that all Members of Parliament are enabled to carry out their constitutional duties, regardless of any disability:”

Arguably the Clerk already has to do this, as it is a duty required by law (specifically the Human Rights Act) under section 3(b). But if Smith continues to deny this, then I think MPs should seek leave to introduce and pass this bill and make it very clear that it is the Clerk's responsibility. Seeking leave to do so each and every time Smith takes the chair would be a good way of getting the message across.


Lockwood Smith's excuse for his outrageous refusal to ensure that Mojo Mathers is enabled to perform her constitutional duties as an MP? "Its not within the appropriation", and he needs the permission of the Parliamentary Services Commission to approve it. Both of these excuses are pure bullshit.

The detailed appropriation for the Office of the Clerk - the body responsible for providing secretarial services to the House, Hansard, and in-House translation services - is here [PDF]. The relevant appropriation is "Secretariat Services for the House of Representatives", and its scope is defined as:

This appropriation is limited to the provision to the House of Representatives of professional advice and services designed to assist the House in the fulfilment of its constitutional functions, and enabling participation in, and understanding of, parliamentary proceedings.
(Emphasis added).

Making sure that a deaf MP can participate fully and fulfil her constitutional duties would seem to be covered by that. Maori MPs are - the official interpreter is funded out of that appropriation.

So what about the Parliamentary Services Commission? That's to advice the Speaker on the provision of services to Members (such as communications services, offices, that sort of thing) under the Parliamentary Services Act. But this isn't a private service to an MP, its a public service to our country, and required by law. But even if you accept that this is a private service, it still doesn't wash - because a) the Parliamentary Services Commission currently consists of only three people (the Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition, and the Speaker himself); and b) they've known about this problem for three months. If Lockwood couldn't organise a meeting of only three people in that time to sort this out, then it is his priorities at fault, not "bureaucracy".

Finally, there's the obvious counterfactual: would this be happening if Mathers was a National MP? And I think we all know that the answer would be "no". If it was one of his colleagues, Smith would have prioritised handling it and ensured there was a solution in place to ensure participation on the first day (and issued a press release crowing about Parliament's new accessibility). But because she's a Green, its just not a priority. The fault is entirely Lockwood's, and he deserves every bit of stick he is getting for it.

In defence of juries

And while we're on the topic of outrageous, the Law Commission wants to get rid of juries entirely and replace them with trained evidence assessors. You know, like they have in Fiji:

In a consultation paper on alternative trial systems, the commission sets out a range of proposals for change, especially in sexual offending cases.

They include replacing a full jury with a judge alone or a judge with two full-time jurors who would be trained in criminal procedure.

The paper said trials heard by either a judge alone or a judge with two trained jurors would allow many of the rules of evidence to be dispensed with, because a smaller pool of fixed-term jurors could be trained in criminal trial procedures in a way normal jurors could not.

Unmentioned: it would also be cheaper to have only two people per case instead of twelve, and much more efficient when they just turn up for work every day rather than having to be randomly selected from the electoral roll, then herded into showing up. Also unmentioned: it would utterly destroy the credibility of criminal trials in the eyes of the public were the case to be decided entirely by employees of the state, who could face employment sanctions should they make the "wrong" decision.

That's the problem if you look at the justice system from a purely technocratic perspective. Justice isn't just about finding the truth, its also about convincing the public that you've done so, and that its not a stitch-up. Twelve random people does that. It gives independence, a variety of views (rather than the closed worldview of well-paid civil servants), and a healthy dose of reluctance and scepticism. Its a vital bullshit-detector which gives democratic legitimacy to the system. Take it away, and we no longer have any reason to trust verdicts, believe in justice, or cooperate in any way with the law.

Unfortunately, with Judith Collins as Minister of Justice, then that's probably just what we'll get.

New Fisk

Homs bloodshed spills over into Lebanon


Last year, we elected our first profoundly deaf MP, Mojo Mathers. Obviously, her disability poses some problems to participating in the House. Equally obviously, there are solutions which enable that participation, which the Greens have been ironing the bugs out of. And as a democratic institution, committed to respecting the democratic choices of the electorate and representing all New Zealanders, you'd expect the House to pay for them.

But apparently not:

Speaker Lockwood Smith has told deaf MP Mojo Mathers she must pay for the $30,000 technology to speak in Parliament out of her own budget.


She will give her maiden speech in the House tomorrow, which will be translated by sign-language interpreters.

But Smith has told the Green Party that Parliamentary Services will not pay for the electronic note-taking equipment which Mathers needs to take part in debates.

In other words, Mojo is not going to be allowed to represent her constituents effectively. Either she speaks in the House, or forgoes an office, PA, communications, or something else we expect our elected representatives to have to do an effective job.

This is pretty obviously unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act. Disability is a prohibited grounds of discrimination. While there are exceptions for employers, access to public places, and provision of goods and serves allowing discrimination where it would not be reasonable to accomodate disability requirements, in this case it bloody well is reasonable to expect an elected representative to be allowed to do her job, and in any case those exceptions do not apply. Mathers is not an employee. Speaking in Parliament is not a public place or a service provided to the public. With this decision, the Speaker is in breach of the law. And when Parliament is telling people that they must accomodate disability, that makes him a hypocrite of the highest order.

But its not just about unlawfulness and hypocrisy, but also about democracy. Parliament proclaims itself to be "our House". They've just shown clearly that they're not, that they are not there to represent everyone, but only those who can hear. The message to the public is clear: deaf people do not belong to our community, and should not be represented in Parliament. And that is not a message the New Zealand Parliament should be sending.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Urewera trial

Over four years ago, on October 15 2007, police arrested 17 people on terrorism charges after a series of raids in Auckland, Wellington, Ruatoki, and various other locations. The terrorism charges were quickly dropped, as, last year, were all charges against 13 of the defendants. Today, the remaining four defendants - Tame Iti, Emily Bailey, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara and Urs Signer - are going on trial for participation in a criminal group and firearms charges.

The most obvious point is that after more than four years of government-induced delay (caused by the prosecution's insistence on using dubious evidence and trying all defendants together and without a jury), the defendant's right to a speedy trial has almost certainly been breached. That right exists for good reason: memories fade, witnesses move on, evidence goes stale. In New Zealand, cases have been tossed after delays of "only" two years. Here, we're looking at twice that. Can you remember the precise details of things you did or conversations you had four years ago? And yet, we're expected to believe that the police can - and that the defendants can in order to challenge any inaccuracies. And that's not really credible.

Secondly, that delay provides an obvious avenue of appeal should a conviction be entered. So this could go on longer even than the three months they are expecting, and finally be settled by the Supreme Court.

Thirdly, the government needs convictions in order to not look like dicks who have wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer's money chasing fantasies. It will (fortunately, finally) be up to a jury whether to get them. If they don't, we should be demanding heads on spikes from the police, from the SIS, and from the politicians responsible.

Athens burns

Greek MPs have just voted to sell out their country to the Germans, slashing pensions and the minimum wage and abrogating collective employment agreements so foreign banks can get their money. And Athens is burning as a result. And its no wonder. Austerity from past "bailouts" (for banks, not Greeks) has pushed Greek unemployment to over 20%. The average Greek family's income has halved in the last year. Greeks are being forced into poverty, and their democracy is being taken from them by foreigners; as a result the country is on the verge of a social explosion. MPs apparently no longer feel safe walking the streets, and it is probably only a matter of time before one of them gets lynched by an angry mob (which almost happened last year, and now people are even angrier).

This is not a good state for a democracy to be in. But Greece is no longer a democracy in any credible sense. Its policies are dictated by foreigners and imposed by force, against the wishes of voters. Its quisling politicians have betrayed those they purport to represent. There are apparently elections due in a couple of months, but with both major parties forced as a condition of the bailout to sign up for no policy change regardless of what the electorate says, they're meaningless.

What do you do when democracy fails like this, when an entire political class betrays its people? I think Greece is about to find out. And it is unlikely to be pretty - either for Greece, or for Europe as a whole.

New Fisk

John McCarthy knows the value of history
Could there be some bad guys among the rebels too?

MMP review: Submit!

The Electoral Commission has launched its review of MMP, with a special purpose website, The site outlines the issues under review, and you can submit online - either a quick 750 character submission on a particular issue, or you can upload a longer submission. You can also submit by mail; details are in the submission form [PDF].

I encourage everyone to have their say, no matter what they think of MMP. Our electoral system belongs to us, not the politicians. If you're not sure what to say, I've done some posts on the issues here. Read them, think about it, and let the Electoral Commission know what you think.

Schools and the OIA

Back in June last year, St Patrick's College in Wellington violated the Human Rights Act by refusing to permit a gay student to bring another boy as his date to the school formal. At the time, I suggested that someone could use the OIA to find out how many of our schools were bigots, by asking them for their policies in this area.

Matthew Taylor, a Christchurch high school student, actually did it.

The first result: as expected, schools are not used to dealing with the OIA, are unfamiliar with their statutory duties, and respond extremely poorly to requests for information. Many refused to answer unless Taylor told them who he was and who he was working for. This is of course illegal, and the schools concerned need to be reminded of that by the Ombudsman. One school - Auckland's Elim Christian College - attempted to refuse the request on the basis of improper gain or advantage. Because obviously, its "improper" if they are accountable in any way to the taxpayers who fund them.

Overall, the responses are a litany of bureaucratic hostility and suspicion - exactly what the OIA was supposed to eliminate. There's an obvious need for education here. Unfortunately, since the demise of the Information Authority, its no longer anyone's job to do that. Instead, its left to individual departments - which, if you're a cash-strapped agency which hardly receives any requests, means it doesn't get done, and people get this sort of response. At the least, someone (the Ombudsman?) needs to send them a pamphlet explaining their obligations.

As for the meat of the responses - which schools are bigots and which are not - that will apparently be the subject of another post. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Iwi, water, and privatisation

So, what's the reason for the iwi objections to the government's plans to part-privatise state-owned enterprises? It comes down to one thing: water. While John Key is technically correct in saying that no-one owns water, people do own rights to extract and use it, which is the same thing in practical terms. Those rights are crucial to various industries (hydro-electricity generation and dairy farming are two obvious examples), and therefore very valuable.

They are also stolen property. On this, Māori have a cast-iron case. They used the rivers in 1840, establishing at the minimum usufructory rights, if not outright ownership (depending on what Māori custom said at the time). Unless extinguished, those rights persist under the doctrine of aboriginal title, in the same way that your ownership of your house survives a change of government. If extinguished - which is almost certainly the case given the large amount of legislation dealing with water use over the years - then that is a breach of Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi, which guaranteed Māori tino rangtiratanga over their lands, villages, and other treasures.

The Treaty having been breached, redress is due. The problem is that part-privatisation will remove the most effective means of that redress - the transfer of crown-owned water rights vested for the time being in energy companies - and therefore prevent any effective compensation.

(Arguably, the same happened in 1999 when some South Island hydro assets were sold as part of Contact Energy - but that affected a single river, not the entire country).

There's a clear parallel here to the New Zealand Māori Council v. Attorney-General (1987). In that case, the crown was going to transfer land which was potentially the subject of Treaty claims to the newly-created SOEs, which might then be sold. The courts rightly said that that wasn't on unless the crown took steps to preserve its ability to meet claims. I have no doubt that if a case is taken, the courts will follow that precedent and deliver the same ruling (backed, if the legislation takes the expected form, and is passed in time, by an order prohibiting any asset transfers). Which puts the Māori Council in a good position to negotiate a settlement. The only question is what that settlement will be.

One option is a part share in the SOEs. Which of course blows the government's case for sale out of the water. Another is the enactment of similar clauses to the existing sections 27 - 27D, which protect Māori interests in transferred land, and allow for the Waitangi Tribunal to order its return. That too would blow the government's case for sale out of the water; either it would have to accept lower prices to reflect its uncertain title, or it would have to indemnify purchasers against "Treaty risk" (or both). Either way, suddenly privatisation looks like an even worse deal...

I should add that this issue was bound to come up. The pressures over water use in some areas (particularly the South Island) have been pushing the government towards new legislation in that area, and the favoured mechanism, advocated by the natural resources ministries (DoC, MfE, MAF, TPK, MED and LINZ), the Land and Water Forum, and just about anybody else who has looked at the issue, is for a system of tradeable water rights. Which would raise exactly the same issues as are being raised now (which is why all of those agencies are clear on the need to sort matters with iwi first). National's enthusiasm for privatisation has meant that we're facing the issue earlier than expected - and without the easy settlement option such tradeable rights would provide.

Something to go to in Wellington

The Fabian Society is hosting a public lecture by Paul Barber of the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services on income inequality and what we can do about it:

When: 17:30, Tuesday 28 February 2012
Where: Connolly Hall, Guildford Terrace, Wellington
Register: here.

The problem

Stuff reports that Australian banks took $3 billion in profits overseas in the last financial year. To put that in perspective, its roughly 1.5% of GDP, or about a third of our balance of payments deficit. And these profits aren't particularly exceptional; they do this every year.

This isn't just a matter of poor economic statistics - it has real effects. That's $3 billion which will be spent or invested in Australia, rather than New Zealand. Its $3 billion which will be funding startups, boosting innovation and raising productivity there rather than here. Which means that its $3 billion which is boosting their long-term living standards, rather than ours.

The big problem with New Zealand's economy has always been a shortage of domestic capital for reinvestment in economic growth. And this is why. We have a permanent shunt wired into our economic veins, sucking out the capital we need to develop and taking it overseas.

This is why we need to control our own economy. And its why we shouldn't sell state assets, even partly - because it will just make this problem worse.