Friday, March 30, 2012

Extending flexibility

National is actually doing something positive for ordinary people for once, with plans to extend flexible working hours provisions - which currently apply only to caregivers - to all workers. Its a good move. The Department of Labour's review of the provisions found that there had been no problems with their implementation (contrary to the wailing from employers when the law was passed), and that it produced significant benefits for employers (such as reduced turnover and improved productivity):

At a minimum, the research shows that flexible working is cost neutral for the large majority of employers, but may in fact result in considerable cost savings and productivity improvements for many employers. Overseas evidence shows that the experience of employers with flexible working provisions has been largely unproblematic, and few employers have encountered the costs, increased litigation, or flood of requests anticipated prior to the introduction of flexible working legislation (Hegewisch, 2009). The Department’s surveys found that this also appears to be the case in New Zealand.
They also found that there was a widespread informal practice of employee-driven flexibility extending beyond the statutory right of caregivers, but that some groups (particularly low-income and low-skill workers) were missing out. Cementing this practice in statute, by creating a clear right to request flexibility and obligation to grant it unless certain conditions were met will remove that problem and extend the benefits to everyone.

Even Business New Zealand now admits this is "common sense legislation". And its good to see that National can in fact be convinced by the evidence, rather than reflexively supporting the sort of "Master-Servant" model promoted by the likes of Talleys and Ports of Auckland.

The laws still mean nothing

The police have announced that they will not be laying charges over John Key's pre-election radio show. Their reason? "Insufficient evidence". Because obviously, merely having recordings of the thing, and the paper trail showing that the Prime Minister had his grubby paws all over it isn't enough.

(The police might credibly have been able to argue that the law wasn't clear, due to the disagreement between the BSA and Electoral Commission - but they didn't)

Its a highly convenient decision for John Key - and highly convenient for the police, who won't end up offside with the people making their budget decisions. But it again shows the flaws in our electoral law. Once again the police have been handed clear evidence of a breach, and once again they have failed to act. They've also failed to act on any of the dozen other cases handed to them last election cycle, and its hard to escape the conclusion that they just don't see it as a "real" crime. Unlike, say, recording politicians in a public place at a media event they called...

Again, it has to be pointed out: this is a real crime, and it threatens the integrity of our democracy. If the police are unwilling or incapable of dealing with that crime, then its time we gave the job to a body which can. And that body is the Electoral Commission.

A good idea

I've made some noise over the past few weeks about the crisis at the Ombudsman's Office, where funding has failed to keep pace with workload to the extent that staff are quitting and the organisation can't even afford to publish its casenotes. Over on Frogblog, MikeM suggests a solution:

There’s an obvious incentive for controversial governments to make life hard for the Ombudsman’s Office, and it makes me wonder if there could be benefit in another layer of abstraction, whereby rather than being entirely funded directly, the Ombudsman’s Office charges the cost of investigations back to the department or other government entity that it’s investigating.

The Ombudsman would then be shielded from direct political interference through manipulation of funding, whilst Ministers and and government entities would also gain an incentive to provoke fewer investigations by doing things correctly the first time around.

This seems like a damn good idea. Investigations would be funded, and departments would have a direct financial incentive to obey the law. So the police, to pick one example, wouldn't be able to treat the OIA with utter contempt and fail to respond to requests, without facing scrutiny from Parliament over the reasons for their sudden budget blowout. Meanwhile, because agencies would have to budget for these costs, we’d also be able to see what they felt was an acceptable level of error, and apply political pressure to reduce that waste.

The office would still require some direct funding for own-motion investigations and statutory monitoring roles, and for investigations where it decides to waive charges. But recovering costs from agencies seems to be a no-brainer.

Justice for rendition in Poland

Between 2002 and 2005, the US operated a Black Site in Poland at the Stare Kiejkuty military base. An unknown number of prisoners were secretly rendered there and subjected to brutal interrogation. One of them was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded approximately one hundred times to force a confession. The facility was established with the full support and collaboration of the Polish intelligence services, who were eager to please their US "allies". Now the Polish government is holding them to account for those crimes:

The former head of Poland’s intelligence service has been charged with aiding the Central Intelligence Agency in setting up a secret prison to detain suspected members of Al Qaeda, a leading newspaper here reported on Tuesday, the first high-profile case in which a former senior official of any government has been prosecuted in connection with the agency’s program.

The daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the former intelligence chief, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, told the paper that he faced charges of violating international law by “unlawfully depriving prisoners of their liberty,” in connection with the secret C.I.A. prison where Qaeda suspects were subjected to brutal interrogation methods.

And he's not the only one. Former Prime Minister Leszek Miller could end up in the dock as well.

Compare this to the US, where the new political leadership has quietly collaborated in sweeping the crimes of the old under the table. The contrast couldn't be greater. The Poles see this as a crucial test of the rule of law. What happened at the prison was clearly criminal. Those responsible need to be held to account for it, regardless of their position. That's what a nation ruled by laws, not men, does. The US is clearly no longer such a nation. As for Poland, they're at least making the effort.

One down, five to go

Former unionist Rob Campbell has quit the Ports of Auckland board over "differences in views on board strategy". I guess he realised the company was going to lose and urged them to cut their losses.

So, that's one down. Only five more to go...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Draw your own conclusions

Today in Question Time, ACC Minister Judith Collins was asked the following:

When was the email she received between 12 March 2012 and 18 March 2012 from Michelle Boag concerning Bronwyn Pullar and the involvement of both in a meeting over a mass privacy breach first printed by her or a staff member in her office?
Collins refused to answer on the basis that it was "not in the public interest" for her to do so. Similarly she refused to answer the following:
In whose custody and control was the copy or copies of the email that was made in her office placed?

What instructions did she give to any staff in her office, or any ACC staff member, in relation to the Michelle Boag email or any copy of it?

What inquiries has she made about how the email or a copy of it made it into the hands of the media, including social media?

These are all questions which go to the heart of the leak and Collins' reaction to it. A Minister who had nothing to hide in this matter would answer them, openly and honestly. Collins did not. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

Starving the watchdog III

Last week we learned just how dire the crisis at the Ombudsman's Office was, with overall staff salaries stagnant since 2007, an exodus of trained staff for better paid positions, and so little money that it cannot even publish its case notes. So, what has the Officers of Parliament Committee decided to do about it?

Nothing. Their draft budget [PDF] recommends a small $300,000 a year increase to funding to allow for higher salaries - which will be clawed back over the next three years. Their proposed 2015/16 total funding is $8.937 million - just $170,000 higher than it is at present. In other words, a subinflation increase, or a cut in real terms. As for the workload, they propose to allow the Ombudsman to manage it by refusing complaints. Because that will work out so well in a time of budgetry pressure...

So basically, the government's response to a starving watchdog is to starve it further. Heckuva job, guys, heckuva job.

New Fisk

Living on the edge of Syria's bloody war

Nothing to do with her

Last month, when John Banks purported to appoint ACT crony Catherine Isaac to head the government's new charter school implementation committee, I fired off an OIA request. It was rejected, on the grounds that the appointment hadn't actually been made, but in doing so Banks outlined the process that would be followed:

Cabinet will approve the establishment of this Working Group in the normal way. The Minister of Education and I will identify our nominees for membership of the Working Group. These nominations will be approved by Cabinet via Appointments and Honours (APH) Committee. Once they are approved, the Minister of Education will make the appointments.
(Emphasis added).

Yesterday, Isaac was (finally) formally appointed. Following Banks' advice, I sent off an OIA to the Minister of Education Hekia Parata. She has responded by immediately transferring it to Banks. Translation? The appointment is entirely Banks' doing. Its nothing to do with her.

(And now I guess we get to see if Banks can run a credible appointments process, having been effectively warned that he will be under scrutiny)

The million dollar mouse campaign and public squalor

Last night I caught the tail end of Gareth Morgan on Close Up promoting his Million Dollar Mouse campaign: an effort to raise $1 million to eradicate pests from the Antipodes Islands. Its a worthy cause, and I've already flicked them some money; eradicating these mice will make the islands completely pest-free, and significantly improve the survival chances of the rare species they host.

At the same time, I have some misgivings. The actual eradication will be carried out by the Department of Conservation, who administer the islands as a nature reserve. Pest-eradication is something they should be doing there as a matter of course. But here, the public is expected to donate to enable them to do it. A government department is being forced to rely on private charity to fund their core business.

That's not their fault - the blame lies squarely with the politicians who have systematically refused to fund this vital work (preferring to pay themselves higher salaries and then cut the taxes they would pay on them). And its not as if its an unusual situation: universities send their alumni begging letters to fund courses, and barely a week goes by without some kids banging on my door asking me to buy substandard, overpriced chocolate to make up for the government underfunding their school. But its a sign of what our public services have been reduced to by almost three decades of cuts: begging to the public for funds so they can do their jobs properly. The right's ideology of cuts, cuts, and more cuts has reduced us to a state of public squalor. What next? The Human Rights Commission forced to put out the begging bowl to fund their mediation work? Housing New Zealand funding its next state housing project on kickstarter?


From today's Questions for oral answer:

ANDREW LITTLE to the Minister for ACC: When was the email she received between 12 March 2012 and 18 March 2012 from Michelle Boag concerning Bronwyn Pullar and the involvement of both in a meeting over a mass privacy breach first printed by her or a staff member in her office?
Of course, thanks to the lawsuit she has initiated, Collins won't have to answer this. As I said, how convenient.

The Collins defamation suit

The big news this morning is that Judith Collins is suing two Labour MPs - apparently Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little - and Radio New Zealand for defamation for suggesting that she is the ACC leaker. Its difficult to see this as anything but an attempt at intimidation. Lange v. Atkinson firmly established that there is a very strong defence of qualified opinion when it comes to politicians, and its hard to see how such claims wouldn’t fall under it if they looked reasonable at the time. But there's also the other problem: Collins is a politician. Pretending that she has some reputation for honesty which has been "damaged" by the suggestion that she engaged in information thuggery is a bit rich. There's simply no reputation there to destroy.

Meanwhile, the fact that proceedings have been filed effectively insulates Collins from having to answer any further questions in the House about the issue. How convenient...

Also, there's now the interesting question of whether Collins will be able to use taxpayer's money to intimidate and suppress the opposition. There's provision for this: the Cabinet Manual allows Ministers to be indemnified as plaintiffs in private suits, and specifically gives defamation as an example. The process is that Collins asks the Prime Minister and Attorney-General, who assess the case and seek Cabinet approval if they believe it to be in the public interest. This would of course be spending public money on the private political interests of Ministers - but do we really believe that National won't do that?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The cost of the Ports of Auckland dispute

So, how much has the Ports of Auckland dispute cost the Auckland Council? They don't know, and neither do the suits they pay big money to monitor their investment for them. But Robert Winter has a stab at calculating it:

2011 Operational revenue $175.4 million

divided by 365 days

= approx. $480,000 daily operational revenue

Let's assume (generously) that the port is working at 15% of capacity as a result of the dispute:

= approx. $408,000 daily operational revenue loss

Additional costs as an effect of the dispute (legal fees, consultancy advice, extra security, research charges, PR costs), guessed at $20,000 daily:

= immediate losses about $430,000 daily (lost operational revenues plus extra costs). The real figure is probably higher.

So, let's assume that the dispute will go on at least until May 16th (unless the management strtaegy folds, which is likely):

49 days (from today) at $430,000 daily = $21.1 million losses

As he notes, the port being idle also means lower costs. But its certainly been a significant hit to revenue, which will have a significant impact on the port's bottom line and the dividend it pays to the people of Auckland. And you'd think the Council, of all people, would be concerned about that.

The risks of drilling

The government is currently planning for a massive expansion in oil and gas exploration in the Exclusive Economic Zone, as part of their "find oil" plan for economic recovery (yes, that's their plan: find oil. They might as well "plan" to win the lottery). Meanwhile, from the UK, there's another warning of the dangers of this sort of activity, with a blowout at the Elgin gas platform in the North Sea. Currently the rig is spewing gas into the atmosphere, creating a risk of an explosion which has forced the evacuation of several nearby platforms. If not plugged, the leak could persist for 10-12 years, and spew half a billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. This is by any assessment an environmental disaster demanding urgent action. So what's the company's solution? Dither, of course:

It could take another six months for oil engineers to drill a relief well to the leaking gas field beneath the offshore platform in the North Sea that was evacuated over the weekend when highly inflammable and toxic gas reached dangerous levels.


Total, the oil company that operates the platform, said it will drill the relief well to the leaking well head, which could then be blocked with a concrete plug similar to the plugging technique used to stem the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are other options - the article mentions plugging the well from the rig itself - but they might endanger its precious asset. And so the environment gets sacrificed instead.

Meanwhile, our government presses on with its plans. And its new EEZ bill has no requirements that drilling platforms be fitted with blowout preventers to limit the damage from this sort of accident. Its an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Sadly, like Total, our government is thinking about the money rather than the environmental risks.

Pure cronyism III

Last month, ACT's John Banks claimed to have appointed ACT-crony Catherine Isaac to head the charter schools implementation committee. Then, when questioned about it, he was quick to say that the appointment was "not confirmed" and that no appointment had officially been made. Today, the government finally made those formal appointments - and you'd never guess who heads the list. That's right - ACT-crony Catherine Isaac...

Again, this is a shabby exercise in cronyism, made worse by the attempt to cover it up. Isaac has no relevant expertise to justify this appointment. She has been given the position (and a generous public salary) solely on the basis of ideology and party affiliation. That is not how our public service is supposed to work.

Asleep at the wheel

How much has the Ports of Auckland dispute cost Auckland's ratepayers? As the ultimate owners of the port, you'd expect the Auckland Council to take a strong interest in this. However, you'd be wrong. According to an OIA request lodged through the website,

Auckland Council and Auckland Council Investments Limited do not hold any information in connection with the cost of the dispute.
Think about that for a moment. Auckland Council is relying on the dividend stream from a profitable port to help pay for Auckland's rail network. And yet they claim to have no idea of the cost of this dispute, and therefore how it will affect their plans. Its even worse in the case of ACIL; they're paid big bucks for governance and oversight of the Auckland Council's investments, including the port. But apparently they don't have any idea either. Which invites the question: what exactly are they doing to earn that money? Because it sure as hell isn't "taking an active interest so as to maximise their shareholder's profits".

This is an appalling revelation. It shows both the Auckland Council and ACIL are asleep at the wheel and failing to exercise the degree of oversight and governance we would expect. The people of Auckland deserve better than this. And they should demand it at the ballot box.

( is an excellent resource, BTW, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to ask the government what they know. And the more people who use it, the better a resource it will become)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Death with dignity back for another round

Euthanasia is a perennial topic of member's bills. In 1995, then-National MP Michael Laws proposed the Death With Dignity Bill. It was voted down 61 to 29. In 2003, NZ First's Peter Brown had another go, losing 60 - 57. The bill was in the ballot again for the subsequent Parliamentary term, but was never drawn. And now the issue is back for another go, this time led by Labour's Maryan Street:

Labour list MP Maryan Street, who is working on a private member's bill that would legalise some end-of-life options, told TV ONE's Breakfast that the public attitude about euthanasia has changed.


Street said her bill was "about autonomy, it's about dignity and most of all it's about compassion".

"More and more people are looking to have the kind of control at the end of their life that they like to have during their life," she said.

There's more details about the bill here.

As I've said before, I support death with dignity. It is a matter of fundamental personal autonomy. Our lives belong to us, not to some imaginary sky fairy. We should not have to starve ourselves to death if we wish to end them, or have to ask our friends to risk prosecution if we are incapable even of that. The law should provide for it (with appropriate safeguards, of course).

This is also I think an issue which could succeed this term. The margin of defeat has been narrowing over the years, as religious people have died off and social acceptance of euthanasia has grown. And with a strong generational shift in National, I think support will have increased enough to get it over the line. The question now is whether it will be drawn from the ballot...

Bad timing

The government is embroiled in a major privacy scandal at the moment, with repeated careless leaks from ACC of private information about clients, and repeated malicious leaks from Ministers of private information about critics. So naturally, now is the perfect time for them to announce that they plan to overhaul the Privacy Act...

Fortunately, this is just a case of bad timing. The overhaul is in response to the Law Commission's 2011 Review of the Privacy Act, and will update the Act to deal with the internet (which was a geek curiosity 20 years ago when the present Act was passed). From the government's response to the Law Commission, its non-threatening, being mostly about streamlining complaints processes and plugging loopholes. There's also the possibility of tighter restrictions on international transfer of personal information - something which is best practice overseas, and which we should be pushing for here. From the sound of it, they'll be consulting on the changes later this year, and introducing the bill next year. I'll be paying attention, just in case they try and slip anything dubious in...

So much for an independent police force

Yesterday, the police announced that they would not be laying charges against freelance journalist Bradley Ambrose over the "teapot tape". The decision, with its public assertion of guilt, seemed to be aimed primarily at saving face for the police (who it turns out didn't even have enough evidence to satisfy themselves that Ambrose was guilty), and the Prime Minister, whose complaint had sparked the whole thing. And now it turns out that the entire thing was timed for the Prime Minister's convenience, released when he was overseas and could not be questioned about it:

Lawyers for freelance cameraman Bradley Ambrose, Prime Minister John Key, and the police struck a deal over the so-called "teapot tape" affair more than a week ago.

However, news of the deal, which involved Mr Key and Act's Epsom MP, John Banks, accepting a "letter of regret" from Ambrose in return for the complaint against him being dropped, emerged only yesterday with Mr Key in South Korea.

So, a prosecutorial decision was influenced by the Prime Minister, and timed for his media convenience. So much for our supposedly independent police force. But it gets worse. Here's Ambrose's version of events:
The letter was sent to Mr Key's lawyers last Monday after Crown prosecutors had telephoned him to say there was a prima facie case against Ambrose, but he said he "wanted to make it go away".
Which looks quite interesting in light of DPF's post yesterday about how influence is never in writing.

Of course, both the Prime Minister and Police are denying any influence. Well, they would, wouldn't they? But more importantly, it doesn't matter. There's the appearance of influence, of the police kicking in doors at the command of the Prime Minister, then dropping everything when it becomes politically inconvenient. The damage has already been done.

Guarding the rivers

For the last eighteen months, Millan Ruka has been patrolling Northland's rivers, photographing dirty dairying and forwarding the evidence to the local council, Fonterra, and the media in an effort to protect the environment. Now, the idea has gone national, with 40 people gathering last night in Wellington to form a nationwide group to hold farmers to account for their pollution:

Farmers who graze animals beside rivers and streams are the target of a new group formed to patrol New Zealand's waterways.

The inaugural meeting of the group, which has yet to be named, attracted 40 supporters in Wellington at the weekend.

They heard from Northland river paddler Millan Ruka, who has formed Environmental River Patrol Aotearoa, and Wairarapa small block holder Grant Muir.

Further meetings will be held around the country to form regional groups to adopt and patrol rivers.

This is a good idea. Farmers get away with this shit because its not documented, and so Fonterra - which buys their milk - and councils - which should prosecute them - can look the other way. But putting hard evidence before them makes it their problem, and will hopefully encourage them to take action to prevent and punish it. Obviously, preventing is better; I'd like to see all waterways fenced and planted to prevent them being fouled by wandering livestock. But we've already seen that farmers are reluctant to do this voluntarily (or even when required by Fonterra; they simply lie instead), so it may require a few prosecutions pour encourager les autres.

Something to go to in Auckland

The Save Our Port campaign is doing a fundraiser for Ports of Auckland workers, with a special screeing of "The Muppets" next week:

When: 18:00 - 20:30, Tuesday 3 April
Where: Sylvia Park Hoyts Cinemas, Sylvia Park Shopping Centre, 286 Mt Wellington Highway, Mt Wellington
How much: $20 for adults, $10 for children. Or a $20 solidarity ticket - to shout a wharfie or one of their whanau.

To book, email, with "MOVIE" in the subject line.

Further details on the FaceSpy event here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The teapot decision

The police have decided not to charge freelance journalist Bradley Ambrose over the "teapot tape". Despite that, they're still claiming that his actions were unlawful. Which raises the questions: if his actions were so unlawful, why have they decided not to charge him?

Its hard to see this as anything other than a PR job from the police. Having gone in with both feet, executing search warrants and interrogating journalists at the Prime Minister's request, it would look kindof stupid if they then had to admit that there had been no crime after all. So we end up with this: claims of illegality (which are really for a judge and jury to decide), but no charges. Effectively, an exercise in defamation to protect the reputation of the police.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: How much has this whole saga cost us? Hours of police time, multiple search warrants, legal advice, plus of course three months to think about it. Sadly, the police don't keep records on the costs of individual cases, precisely to avoid embarrassing revelations about this sort of waste. But we're probably looking at over ten grand on Key's private wild goose chase. Will he pay the money back? Or will the taxpayer be left holding the bag for his attempts to shut down media criticism during the election?

Queensland elections

The Australian state of Queensland went to the polls over the weekend, and delivered a landslide against the incumbent Labor government. But in addition to being a lesson of what happens to parties of corrupt privatisers, the results are also another reminder of the unfairness of the Australian electoral system:

Party% VoteSeats% Seats

Fifty percent of the vote, ninety percent of the seats. Yeah, that's fair. Not. Again, Australia needs proportional representation, and the sooner, the better.

New Fisk

When did we stop caring about meaning?

Not in this together

It is, we are told, an age of austerity, where belts must be tightened "for the good of the nation". Public sector pay rates are stagnant, and the public service is being "capped" to force layoffs. Meanwhile, its CEOs are making out like bandits:

Public organisations have paid about $90 million to their chief executives in a year - with some receiving rises of more than 20 per cent, and one getting a 55 per cent increase.

Public bosses received an average $340,000 each in the last financial year - up $14,000 (4.3 per cent) on the previous year. The median income in New Zealand from wages and salaries during the same period increased $1600 (4 per cent) to $41,600.

The big culprits here are our energy SOEs, who are now paying their CEOs more than a million dollars each (plus bonuses) for their "skill" in collecting monopoly rents, but its a problem across the whole state sector. And it absolutely undermines the government's austerity push. People will sacrifice when it is shared and when they can see its necessity. But when its not shared, when its just used as an excuse to cut wages while those at the top continue the champagne lifestyle, then there is no buy-in and it will just be seen as another exercise in class-warfare by the rich against the rest.

But its not just state sector CEOs we should be looking at. Ministerial pay has increased by $8,700 in the last year. Isn't it time Cabinet practiced what it preached?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Treasury overoptimistic again

Last month, Treasury released its Budget Policy Statement, basically the fiscal assumptions which will underlie this years budget. In that statement, they made some projections about unemployment:


Now, the Department of Labour has just released its model of Short-term employment prospects: 2012-14, in which they make some projections about unemployment:

The unemployment rate is expected to trend down slowly over the entire period, to below 6.0% by March 2013 and to 5.4% by March 2014.
(That difference looks small, but its an extra 7,000 people without work, in poverty, having to scrape to get by)

So, basically we're looking at a longer, slower "recovery", with more unemployment, than the golden-eyed optimists at Treasury had projected. Who'd have thunk it? (And meanwhile, the government is planning to throw thousands of solo parents into the workforce to compete for nonexistent jobs. The millions spent policing that is simply wasted money).

Looking back through old Budgets, Treasury has consistently underestimated unemployment for the past three years. Their 2010 Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update, for example, projected 6.1% in 2011, 5.2% this year, 4.9% in 2013, and 4.6% in 2014. Its almost as if Treasury simply goes "the recession is over", and projects the same curve forwards, regardless of actual reality. Meanwhile, out in the real world beyond their well-remunerated ivory tower, jobs remain scarce, the dole queues remain long, and people continue to wonder why the government doesn't act.

Unacceptable inequalities

Last month, Stuff reported on an upcoming article in The Lancet, the medical journal, which showed that infectious disease rates had doubled in New Zealand over the past twenty years, with significant etnic inequalities, while they had been falling every where else. Now the article has finally made it into print [summary] - alongside a piece from The Lancet's editors calling on the government to solve the problem:

The apparent widening of long-standing health disparities based on economic position and ethnicity in a country that has repeatedly tried to narrow differences is disappointing and prompts questions about the effectiveness of current policies for health equity.


Disparities have changed little for either the Māori or for Pacific peoples (who together constitute a fifth of the population in New Zealand) in the past two decades. More effective solutions are needed.

What might those solutions look like? The authors of the article have a few ideas:
These findings support the need for stronger prevention efforts for infectious diseases, and reinforce the need to reduce ethnic and social inequalities and to address disparities in broad social determinants such as income levels, housing conditions, and access to health services.
Unfortunately, the government is moving in the opposite direction, cutting access to social housing, cutting health funding, and cementing inequality with tax cuts for the rich and crack-downs on wages and benefits - the exact opposite of what is needed. As a result, these inequalities (and that appallingly high infectious disease rate) will persist and grow, and continue to cost us tens of millions of dollars a year.


Back in 2000, when George W Bush needed a Vice-Presidential candidate for his run for the Presidency, he appointed his friend Dick Cheney to find him one. Cheney obligingly reported back that the best candidate was... Dick Cheney.

Something similar seems to be going on in ACC's selection of vocational rehabilitation providers:

Tauranga-based Maureen Bray is the managing director of vocational rehabilitation service Alpha Consultants and is also the director of VocHealth NZ, which she set up last October. Ms Bray was part of an external reference group which ACC used during the design phase of the new model.

ACC awarded VocHealth a contract in January to provide rehabilitation services in much of the North Island outside of Auckland.

So, design the programme, get the contract. It certainly smells bad. ACC of course says that everything is above board, but are hiding behind the usual wall of secrecy. Fortunately, that's exactly why we have the Official Information Act. ACC will of course try and hide behind "commercial sensitivity", but in a case where we've had an allegation of corruption and conflict of interest, the public interest in release is very high indeed.

The cost of bad management

So, how much has Ports of Auckland's psychopathic management's attempt at union-busting cost Auckland ratepayers? At least $37 million this year, according to the Herald:

The port company has put the one-off revenue loss from the strikes and the looming month-long mediation period at $12.7 million, plus about $25 million annually from the loss of the Maersk and Fonterra business which has been taken to other ports.
As a result, it is unlikely that their shareholder, the Auckland Council, will see much of their expected $18 million dividend this year. From their point of view, the entire exercise has been a disaster which has cost them money and undermined the long-term value of their asset. The loss from those contracts alone is more than the savings they hope to make by casualisation.

As for Ports of Auckland's management, I'm appalled that they still have their jobs. This pack of inept clowns have wiped millions of dollars from the value of a public asset, and robbed the Auckland Council of the revenue it needs to support its citizens. And they should be sacked for it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Starving the watchdog II

The Government Administration Committee released its financial review of the Office of the Ombudsmen [PDF] today, highlighting the systematic underfunding of this crucial watchdog. But in addition to the previously reported comments about caseload, they also have further revelations of the effects of this underfunding:

Because of a lack of resources the office cannot at present publish its case notes or the Ombudsmen Quarterly Review.
...which means that there is no recent guidance for requestors or agencies on requests, meaning the same issues get litigated again and again. But there's also this:
We were also concerned to hear that there had been no movement in staff salaries since 2007. The committee was advised that the current staff turnover was high for the office, which is losing staff to agencies that offer better salaries.
No pay rise for five years for ordinary staff (but comparing the 2007 and 2011 annual reports, the number of staff paid more than $100,000 has doubled). Meanwhile, Backbench MPs have seen their salaries rise by 12.3% in that period, and the Ministers the Ombudsman's Office is supposed to scrutinise by 10.6%. It speaks volumes about what politicians care about.

The Ombudsman's budget will apparently be considered today at a meeting of the Officers of Parliament Committee. Hopefully they'll push strongly for an increase to cope with that workload. If not, I think we can only take it as politicians deliberately undermine this crucial watchdog.

More information thuggery

Today in Parliament, Labour MP Lianne Dalziel asked some questions about the fairness of the government's bailout for red zone property-owners. Gerry Brownlee's response? To dump the details of her earthquake claim into the Parliamentary record.

Again, this is an appalling act of information thuggery, involving deeply personal information. This is purely operational information, which should never have been in the Minister's hands. And yet, when its needed for a political smear, its available to him. This suggests misconduct on the party of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, as well as a gross abuse of power by the Minister.

This isn't the first time a Minister of this government has behaved like this. Paula Bennett is off to the Human Rights Review Tribunal for breaching the privacy of beneficiaries who had stuck their heads up and complained about their treatment, in a case which looks to cost the government tens of thousands of dollars. Sadly, Brownlee's comments are covered by Parliamentary Privilege, so there seems to be no scope for holding him to account. The government department which gave him the information, OTOH, could be in a different boat. There is no reason for Ministers to know the private information of individuals dealing with CERA, it was not collected for the purpose of enabling bullying, and so passing it on to him was a violation of privacy principles. CERA needs to be held to account for that. And in future, government departments faced with such requests from Ministers should not only refuse them - but publicise the fact that the request was made, so the public can hold abusive Ministers to account.

Value for money?

In the wake of the Urewera 4 verdict, attention is turning to how much the case has cost. The latest estimate? Over $6 million:

Legal aid costs for the Urewera trial are nearing $3 million, with final invoices still to be filed.

When Crown costs are added, the taxpayer will have paid out well over $6m on an unresolved case the New Zealand Law Society describes as the costliest criminal trial in this country's history.


Not included are police costs for extended surveillance and raids across the country in October 2007.

And those costs will be several million more.

$6 million for a handful of convictions on firearms charges? Doesn't seem like value for money to me.

Gone rogue

Yesterday, Ports of Auckland workers won an important victory, with a judicial settlement forcing Ports of Auckland back to the negotiating table and barring the port from sacking them. The port's response? Lock everybody out. So, the management hired by Auckland Council to manage their asset are instead shutting it down and depriving their shareholders of revenue, solely in an attempt to show that they have bigger dicks than the union.

I don't think there's any question of it now: Ports of Auckland's management has gone rogue. They are no longer managing in the interests of their shareholders, but in the interests of themselves. And its time they were sacked for it.

Election expenses

Returns of party expenses for the 2011 election have been released. The big story? The Conservatives, who spent nearly $1.9 million [PDF], $100,000 more than Labour, in an effort to buy their way into Parliament. There were unsuccessful - there just aren't enough crazy, child-beating fundies out there - but its indicative of Colin Craig's mindset that he thinks he just needs to throw money at the problem. But that's exactly why we have spending limits: to prevent wealthy individuals like him from turning elections into money-mediated shouting matches.

In other news, the Alliance spent less than the ALCP (they ran fewer candidates too). Another example of their decline.

Psychopathic management in action

You're a psychopathic manager. You're well-paid, but not enough for your narcissistic ego. So you come up with a plan: provoke an industrial dispute at the company you manage, so you can sack the entire workforce and replace them with a new workforce run by a company you own. The shareholders who you work for will lose big - tens of millions of dollars - but you'll get ahead, and your new workforce will be compliant and docile and fulfil your desire for dominance, unlike those uppity union workers.

Something like that appears to have happened at Ports of Auckland. A manager employed to manage the business on behalf of its shareholders, the people of Auckland, appears to have been selling them out for his own financial advantage:

A Ports of Auckland manager who was at the bargaining table with the Maritime Union has been linked to a company hiring non-union wharfies.

The man has allegedly been recruiting staff for a new company, Pacific Crew Holdings Ltd, which was registered with the Companies Office on February 27.

The timing of the new company - nine days before Ports of Auckland announced it would replace 235 striking union members with non-union wharfies - has raised concerns at the Auckland Council, which owns the port company.

Obviously, this manager needs to be suspended immediately, and a full investigation begun into his conflict of interest, the effect it has had on negotiations, and how much the other managers knew about it. And if it is found that they have colluded in this ripoff of their own shareholders, they should all be sacked.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Faith-based restructuring

Last week, John Key announced that he was merging the Ministries of Economic Development, Building and Housing, Labour, and Science and Innovation into a new "super-ministry". So, how much will this cost? Labour's David Cunliffe asked super-minister Steven Joyce that question in Parliament today. The answer?

The specific costings for the items sought by the member are not available at this time.
Yes, that's right: the government embarked on a major, costly restructuring process, with no idea of how much it will cost. And yet they claim it will produce net savings. Obviously, its hard to take that claim seriously.

This is simply faith-based policy. The business-geniuses of National wouldn't be allowed to run a business this shoddily - their shareholders wouldn't let them. So why do we let them run our government in this way?

A conflict of interest?

So, why is Gerry Brownlee so keen on leaving homeless Christchurch residents to the mercy of the market? Today he was questioned about it in Parliament, and responded with utter denial. Then, I checked his entry in Parliament's Register of Pecuniary Interests [PDF] and discovered this:

Property, Ilam, Christchurch
Property, Bryndwr, Christchurch
Property, Fendalton, Christchurch
Yes, that's right: Brownlee is a landlord. I wonder whether he's benefiting from these exorbitant rents he doesn't want to do anything about?

Good riddance

Nick Smith has resigned all of his portfolios. Good riddance. He had attempted to interfere in the operational decisions of ACC in order to aid a crony while being Minister for that portfolio. His behaviour verges on corrupt, and shows that he lacks the judgement required to be a Minister. We are better off without that sort of person in our Cabinet.

The question now is what this means for his portfolios. The news there is probably bad: climate change denial and destroying the environment are tribal shibboleths of the right, and so these portfolios will almost certainly go to someone with no commitment to them. On the other hand, a change in Ministers may disrupt Smith's plans for Wellington to take over local government, just as his loss of the ACC portfolio disrupted his plans for privatisation.

Shearer and "Gotcha" politics

Back in February, Labour leader David Shearer made a lot of noise about how he was going to be different and not engage in "gotcha" politics:

"I'm not the kind of leader who believes in rival tribes playing 'gotcha', where bickering and partisanship are prized. 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," Mr Shearer told an Auckland Grey Power meeting yesterday.
So what was he doing in Question Time yesterday? Engaging in "gotcha" politics:
DAVID SHEARER (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does he stand by all his statements with regard to asset sales?
Its not the only incident. Every single question he has asked since the House resumed in February has asked the Prime Minister whether he stood by some statement or another - classic "gotcha" politics. In fact, he was doing this just three days after that interview was published. I guess he thought no-one would notice (or that the media, desperate for access, wouldn't call him on it).

But in addition to being a hypocrite, Shearer is also incompetent. Because yesterday, his efforts to trip the Prime Minister up over asset sales saw him comprehensively schooled about their use in his favourite country: Finland. Whoops.

Wouldn't it be nice if Labour had an honest and competent leader?

The cost of austerity

In May last year, Portugal reached a deal for a bailout from the IMF and European Central Bank. The bailout of course came with conditions: cuts, austerity, and privatisation. Now the cost of those cuts is becoming apparent: dead people.

There is a chart on the wall beside a machine that accepts credit cards. It shows the charges for seeing a doctor in one of western Europe's poorest countries, where opposition politicians blame budget cuts for a thousand extra deaths in February, 20% more than usual.

"They hiked the fees in January," said the receptionist, pointing to the new charges for everything from jabs and ear washes to having stitches removed. "Now a visit to the emergency room costs €20 instead of €9. A consultant costs €7.50. People are angry."

The health service is just one victim of sweeping cuts and increased charges for public services across Portugal.

Its a similar story in Greece, where German-imposed austerity has seen a resurgance in HIV and malaria (because needle-exchange programmes and hospitals were cut), and is expected to lead to a significant rise in infant mortality. Which is what happens when you cut healthcare and price it out of the reach of ordinary people.

It will take years before we have the proper numbers on this from an excess death study. But there's little doubt that these cuts will lead to tens of thousands of deaths in each country. And every one of those deaths can be laid at the feet of the foreign bankers demanding their pound of flesh. What they are doing to Greece and Portugal constitutes mass-murder on a vast scale. And they need to be held to account for it.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and we might actually see some Member's business for once. While there are two local bills at the top of the Order Paper, they will at most occupy only three hours of the four allotted - meaning that the House will finally be able to move on to the Committee Stage of Tau Henare's Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill. That bill is likely to be controversial - not because it requires ballots (this is merely a formalisation of current practice), but because it will allow employers to challenge the internal decision-making processes of unions and thereby undermine strike action (no such rules will apply to employers and shareholders about lockouts, of course). In a time of increasing employer militancy, its another tipping of the scales in their direction, and another erosion of employment rights in New Zealand.

There's four more Second Readings on the Order Paper, which will take a while to get through. So we're not likely to see a ballot for new bills any time soon.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The verdict

Four and a half years after the initial raids, the jury has finally reached a verdict in the trial or the Urewera Four, finding them guilty of some of the firearms charges, but failing to reach a verdict on the core charge of "participation in a criminal group". On the former, its worth noting that this crime has a reverse onus of proof; once its alleged, and possession is proven, the defendants have to prove themselves innocent. Clearly, they didn't do that to the satisfaction of the jury in all cases, and its not hard to see why. "Bushcraft" is one thing, but training to use guns against people looks very dubious indeed, and something which is hard to see as "lawful or proper" under any circumstances in a peaceful society. Likewise, on at least one of the charges in question - possession of a Molotov cocktail - there seems to be very little scope for there to even be a "lawful and proper" purpose for having one. If you want to do that sort of thing, stick to paintball.

(On the plus side, we can now all look forward to the Police mounting a year-long operation to bust the local Neo-Nazis for their camo-wearing, gun-toting training camps, right? Or is it OK if you're white and have an actual history of murdering people?)

On the organised criminal group charge, its good to see that the government's fantasies of armed rebellion were not believed by the jury. OTOH, their failure to resoundingly reject them means that (fairly or unfairly) Iti, Kemara, Bailey and Signer will be tainted for the rest of their lives. While the government could push for a retrial, that's unlikely to happen; another four and a half year delay will push this well into "undue delay" territory, and see the charges dismissed by the court. So, that's the best resolution we have: the government clearly didn't prove its case. Whether this was worth spending four and a half years and millions of dollars on is left as an exercise for the reader.

We now have a two month wait for sentencing. The maximum sentence for these offences is four years or a $5,000 fine, and the government will be pushing for a harsh sentence on the basis of those unsubstantiated fantasies. We'll just have to see whether the judge buys that, or sentences them for the crimes actually proven, rather than the police's fantasies.

Enabling council takeovers

Something I missed: National's local government reforms will allow big councils to take over little ones without their consent:

Rules for triggering an amalgamation vote would be changed, and the requirement for a majority in each of the areas considering a merger would be dumped, in favour of a majority across the whole area.
Which means that large population areas can push for a merger, and just outvote their smaller neighbours. Oh, there'll be a requirement for "significant community support" in the vassal area - but that still means that its fate will be decided by a minority of its residents. Which simply isn't democratic. But given their past actions in Auckland and Canterbury, that's just par for the course for National.

How hard is it really?

Over on A Bee of a Certain Age, Deborah highlights the real problem with Nick Smith's "personal reference" on Ministerial letterhead for a friend in conflict with his Ministry:

Yes, we know Ministers of the Crown have friends. I’ve got friends too. And I know damned well that if one of my friends turns up in my classes, then I make a careful separation between my friend and my student. I ensure that I don’t give her extra assistance over and above the assistance I would give to any of my students, and I get all her work marked by someone else, and I keep everything as open and above board as possible. That’s what an ethical person does. And it’s not at all difficult to work out.
As she said, its not difficult, and a basic part of ethics. Sadly, National Party Ministers seem to have that part of their brain surgically removed on taking office. Instead of trying to be fair and be seen to be fair, it's "how can I use this to advantage myself and my mates?"

We should not allow such unethical people to hold government office in our country.


Genesis Energy has been granted resource consent for its proposed Castle Hill wind farm. At a potential 858 MW, Castle Hill would be the biggest wind farm in the country, and our second-largest power station; if constructed, it would double our total wind generation in one hit, and put us 5% closer to our "90% renewables by 2030" target.

Unfortunately, they're not planning to actually build the thing for a few more years. But its good to have in the pipeline.

Nick Smith's personal cronyism

Cronyism is an emerging theme of this government, with favoured friends of the National Party being appointed to cushy, well-remunerated sinecures or crucial positions with a total absence of process. That's bad enough, but Nick Smith seems to have gone further, attempting to secure an ACC payout for a friend by writing her a "personal reference" on Ministerial letterhead, while Minister for ACC. The "reference" [PDF] said:

I can confirm, however, that in my many contacts with [X] prior to the accident she was well and a dynamic, capable person who worked hard and achieved a lot. To the best of my knowledge she did not have any health or other conditions that would have compromised her capacity to work.
Or, in other words, "this person has no pre-existing conditions, so give her money". Its a serious intervention into ACC's operational affairs, and a clear attempt to influence their decision. And when you're a Minister, that's absolutely unacceptable.

So, what does John Key think of all this? He's relaxed about it of course, and won't be demanding Smith's resignation. Just another example of his "higher standards" in government.

"Leave it to the market"

Christchurch has a homelessness problem. The earthquake has destroyed or damaged housing, and the resulting shortage has pushed up rents. As a result, people at the bottom of the heap can't find anywhere to live.

The government's response? Leave it to the market:

The Government appears to have ruled out further intervention in Christchurch's worsening rental housing crisis.

The solution is best left to the market, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee says.

This would of course be the same market which has demonstrably already failed, and which will continue to fail in future unless the bottleneck around insurance can be resolved. Continuing to leave it to the market means continuing to leave people homeless. Which, over a cold southern winter, means illness and possibly death. But hey, that's obviously better than Brownlee having to admit there's a problem, and getting off his arse to solve it, right?

This isn't good enough. This is precisely the sort of problem we expect government to solve. We should demand that they meet their obligations, or be de-elected.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A recipe for public squalor

The government has announced "reforms" for local government. The key one? Restricting rates rises to inflation plus population growth.

This policy has a name: TABOR, short for "Taxpayer Bill of Rights". Its widespread in America, and its a key reason why their public infrastructure is so decrepit. ACT has been pushing this piece of American wingnuttery at us for the last decade or so; now it sounds as if they've succeeded.

Contra Nick Smith, local body rate rises are not being driven by councils being "distracted" by social obligations. According to the Department of Internal Affairs, they're being driven by rising infrastructure costs, which are themselves the product of past underinvestment. The problem isn't that our councils are doing too much - but that they've done too little in the past (largely in an effort to keep rates low). Capping rises won't solve this problem. Instead, it will mean councils forced to underinvest, and therefore forced to fail to provide the public services and infrastructure we expect of them.

National's ACT-driven policy isn't a recipe for better councils, its a recipe for worse ones. And its a recipe for decaying infrastructure, leaky sewage pipes, dirty water, and potholed roads. But those problems will happen on someone else's watch, so therefore don't exist to National. Once more, they're mining our future, "saving" money today (for their rich mates, naturally) by piling up costs for tomorrow.

Ports and transparency III: The solution

Over the last two posts on this topic, I've pushed for more transparency in our ports. We own them, so we should be able to see what they're doing. We accept this principle for other businesses majority-owned by local government, and there seems to be no justification for ports to be an exception.

So how do we achieve that? Simple: we amend the definition of Council Controlled Organisation to remove the exclusion (and make a consequential amendment to the Port Companies Act). I've included a simple bill to do this below:

Local Government (Council Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Local Government (Council Controlled Organisations) Amendment Act 2012.

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

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Local Government Act 2002 to remove the exclusion of port companies and their subsidiaries from the definition of Council Controlled Organisation.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Local Government Act 2002.

5. Section 6 Amended
Sections 6(c) and 6(ca) are repealed.

6. Consequential Amendments to Port Companies Act 1988
Section 6(4) of the Port Companies Act 1988 is repealed.

The question now is whether any politicians are willing to stand up and advocate for more transparency over publicly owned assets.

Goodbye Jim

Via DPF, it seems that Jim Anderton's Progressive party is no more, having been deregistered at its own request [PDF, p. 1009]. The party was only ever a vehicle for Anderton after he left the Alliance, but its demise marks the end of a chapter in our political history.

It also means there are now only five extra-Parliamentary registered parties. While these parties never get elected (thanks in part to the undemocratic 5% threshold), their number is a rough measure of the health of our democracy, of how involved and willing to participate people are. In the past year we've seen four deregistrations - the Worker's Party, Kiwi Party, New Citizen Party and Progressives - and only one new party (the Conservatives) gain registration. And with the Alliance and Democrats likely to disappear soon, that number will probably shrink further.

Creating a market

So, having signed contracts for a private prison in Auckland, the government is now busy creating a guaranteed market for it, by closing down regional prisons. This way, they can shuffle those prisoners off to Auckland, pay their crony-contractor Serco to handle them, and wait for the corrupt political donations to roll in.

Labour's response? It will cost jobs in those regional communities. This is deeply misguided; prison jobs are not jobs we actually want as a society. The real problem is that it will actively harm our efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce reoffending. We have regional prisons because we've learned the hard way that putting prisoners near their families makes them less likely to reoffend on release. Closing (rather than replacing) these prisons and shuffling prisoners round will increase average travel times for visits, and this will flow through into an increase in reoffending rates in a few years' time. But that'll be after National leaves office, so its Not Their Problem. In the meantime, they have cronies to feed...

New Fisk

Madness is not the reason for this massacre


Thanks to the current banker-induced recession, the UK is broke. So broke that it is slashing benefits for the unemployed, the sick, and the disabled. So broke it has hiked student fees to £9,000 a year. So broke it is gutting the NHS.

So naturally, the Conservative government there is planning to cut taxes on the rich. Because obviously, the best possible time to do this is in the middle of a recession when you have no money.

Its the government equivalent of a CEO who pays himself a massive bonus when the company he runs is going bankrupt - and just as repugnant. In the depths of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the wealthy are feathering their own nests at the direct expense of everybody else. No wonder people are rioting over there...

Friday, March 16, 2012

How to deal with dirty dairying

A pair of Northland farmers have been fined almost $70,000 for dirty dairying:

Mark Allen Stanaway and his wife Kylie Wendy Stanaway were sentenced recently in Whangarei after they had earlier pleaded guilty to a combined total of 16 charges.

Each had faced eight separate charges relating to dairy effluent discharges, a silage leachate discharge and breaching an abatement notice.


The offending took place between 22 August and 28 September 2009 and had been “deliberate, or if not deliberate, occasioned by a real want of care, associated with large plural discharges, and exposing a disregard for effects on the environment”.

This wasn't a minor breach; as a result of these polluters' overstocking and failure to manage their waste, they polluted the local streams and the Kaipara Harbour with cowshit. Then, when confronted with it, they tried to blame their farm manager instead. Now, they're pleading poverty over the fines - but if it means they go bankrupt and have to get out of the dairying business, then it will be a win for the environment.

Ports and transparency II

Following up on Wednesday's comments about ports and transparency, I've done some digging into the history and ownership of port companies in New Zealand. When the Fourth Labour Government passed the Port Companies Act in 1988, it was directed at privatisation. Initially, port companies would be required to be at least 51% council-owned (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). As for transparency, they were never added to the schedule of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, and the Port Companies Act explicitly excludes them from the coverage of that Act.

Despite allowing up to 49% private ownership, councils tended not to sell their ports. Even when the National government removed that protection and pushed for a wholesale selloff of local authority assets, they failed. A report on Port Performance and Ownership [PDF] from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research notes that

Since reform in the 1980s, all commercial ports have remained majority controlled by one or more local authorities. The Port of Tauranga has the largest percentage of private ownership with just under 55% of shares held by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council through Quayside Holdings Ltd. Most of the minor ports have remained 100% local government-controlled since they were established.
Running the stats, eight port companies are 100% public owned. One (Lyttelton) is 93% publicly owned, two more (SouthPort and Tmaru) are more than 70%, NorthPort works out to ~65% once you do the maths, and Tauranga is 55%. Every single one of them would meet the definition of a Council Controlled Organisation if they were not specifically excluded.

So why are they excluded? The law is otherwise happy to impose LGOIMA requirements on companies with private shareholders, provided they are majority public owned. There seems to be absolutely no case for it. We own them. We should be able to tell what they are doing. It is that simple.

Monitoring America's Freedom of Information Act

Over the past couple of years I've taken it upon myself to monitor agencies' compliance with the Official Information Act here in New Zealand. In many jurisdictions, this is a legal requirement, and the Law Commission raised that prospect in its issues paper on the OIA [PDF] back in 2010 (their final report should be due out in a few months).

One of the countries which requires monitoring is the US. Unfortunately, its not working so well. An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has found that eleven of 17 Cabinet-level agencies are failing to keep proper request logs, required for monitoring:

The report does not probe how often agencies grant or deny Freedom of Information Act requests, but instead focuses on a key facet of FOIA law requiring agencies to track every request made by people or organizations for public information. The committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), asked 100 large and small federal agencies to provide information on their FOIA tracking systems. Each agency received a letter grade based on a seven-point criteria, including whether agencies produced digitized records that included the date of a request, the name of the requester and a description of the information requested.

“A number of agencies demonstrated that they are able to track basic information about requests, while others either would not or could not provide such information as requested,” the report said. The fact that several agencies “struggle to demonstrate transparency about very basic information is troubling and necessitates greater scrutiny.”

In its report [PDF], the Committee comments:
One can imagine the difficulty journalists or ordinary citizens face in submitting requests to FOIA offices that cannot or will not even provide basic information to a Congressional Committee that exercises jurisdiction over FOIA about its efforts to manage and track requests.
I think this shows the value of outside monitoring. its not enough simply to require agencies to keep logs; someone has to actually look at them regularly to check compliance with the law (both on keeping logs, and on handling requests). Hopefully, we'll get such a body in New Zealand in the near future.

And now we wait...

Abortion was back in court on Tuesday, with the Supreme Court hearing Right To Life's appeal against the Abortion Supervisor Committee on whether it had the power to second-guess the clinical decisions of medical professionals in certifying abortions. The decision has been reserved, and is expected sometime in the next three months, but the Supreme Court is very clear about what's at stake:

Should the Supreme Court accept the submission of Right to Life and find that the Abortion Supervisory Committee has a statutory duty and the powers to hold certifying consultants accountable for the abortions that they authorise, it should result in certifying consultants being required to justify to the Committee the authorisation of the 98 per cent of abortions on mental health grounds.
Which in turn would mean reduced access. Its going to be a very nervous wait.

Is Labour giving up on inequality?

Inequality is a hot topic at the moment, thanks to The Spirit Level, the Occupy Movement, and the banks. So naturally, Labour is thinking of abandoning its policies to reduce it:

The Labour Party is understood to be considering ditching its pre-election policy of a tax on incomes over $150,000 and scrapping its proposal to expand Working For Families entitlements to include beneficiaries, as the party looks to reposition itself towards the centre.
I guess they have to get those rich ACT-donors on-side somehow.

Its another example of the sucking ideological void at the heart of the party. If a party of the left stands for anything, you'd expect it to be reducing inequality. And its not exactly difficult to make a case for: people intuitively grasp that inequality is both unfair and damaging, a pressing social problem we need to do something about. Fighting it is therefore both right and popular. But Labour doesn't make cases for its policies anymore; they follow rather than shape public opinion. And then they wonder why the Greens are eating them alive...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Saving ACC?

The Herald reports that the government may be abandoning its plans to privatise ACC, after it realised that Nick Smith's proposed solution of crippling it to guarantee the profits of parasitic Aussie insurance companies would cost serious money:

The Government is backing away from plans to rejig the Accident Compensation Corporation to allow competition from private insurers because of concerns it will drive up costs for small and medium businesses and the taxpayer.


"The political bottom line is it wasn't going to be possible to introduce competition on a basis that was level playing field between private sector and public without substantial increases in premiums or levies, particularly for small and medium employers," a well-placed source told the Herald.

Instead, they're apparently looking at extending the accedited employer scheme to small and medium businesses, allowing them to reduce costs by managing their own claims. Its better than giving away the entire scheme to foreign, for-profit parasites, but it still poses risks, in that employers can underprovide (and are backstopped by the public health system in doing so). Any extension needs to be tightly regulated to ensure that the cover it provides is at least as good as that provided by ACC.

Equality comes to Denmark

Denmark is to legalise same-sex marriage, making it the eleventh country (and the sixth in Europe) to do so. Unlike the UK, where plans to do the same have met with hostility from organised religion, Denmark's churches seem to be on-side with it. The big question is how difficult it will be for those already in a Civil Union to transition should they want to.

Again, I have to ask: isn't it time we acted, and legislated for equality? Or are we going to continue to enshrine homophobia in law?

A tale of two speeches

David Shearer gave a big speech this morning, which supposed to set out his agenda as Labour leader. Sadly, it was the usual vague waffle - aspirational, positive, but completely empty of detail, designed to make the listener feel good but communicating nothing. Oh, there's some pointers - Shearer wants to "make that [100% Pure] branding a reality" and grow the economy by building a smarter New Zealand - but its all kittens and apple pie, and there are no specifics. Even his comment about keeping the capital gains tax is non-committal and caveated. Which I guess is what happens when you throw away all your policies after every election loss and start again with a blank sheet of paper.

What I want to know from politicians is what they plan to do in office. Shearer fails that test. Verdict: come back in a year or two, when you actually have something real to say.

Meanwhile, on the proverbial other side of town, John Key is telling us what he plans to do, announcing a reshuffling of public service deckchairs, and promising to add 2,500 more people to the dole queue. The former just seems to be an exercise in change for the sake of it, and its hard to see how glomming together such disparate ministries as Economic Development and Immigration is really going to help (and creates problems with the agenda of the absorbed ministries being driven by economic development - which isn't such a good idea, and why we separate things in the first place). The latter will mean a further erosion of public service capability, compensated by a rise in expensive consultants, and will contribute to the current austerity-induced recession. If this is the government's plan for the next three years, then I hope its over soon.

Earning that reputation XI

Another day, another MP caught rorting the system, this time Labour MP Louisa Wall, who is renting her electorate office off her partner, which was purchased specially for the purpose. It is of course within the rules, as they love to say. At the same time, its transparently self-serving, an attempt to maximise capture of Parliamentary allowances and get the taxpayer to fund their property speculation. Clearly, Wall feels that the generous salary we pay her as an MP - $141,800 a year, plus expenses - is not enough to keep her in the lifestyle to which she wishes to become accustomed. And MP's wonder why we think they're all greedy, grasping pricks...

As for a solution, over in the UK they have altered Parliamentary allowance rules to require MPs to surrender capital gains in properties paid for through the allowance system. That sounds like a damn good idea to me. MPs need to have electorate offices, and they need to have them paid for. But they should not be allowed to use that to rort the system to their own advantage. They should be primarily thinking of how to represent their constituents, not how to enrich themselves at the public's expense.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ports and transparency

In anticipation of a question: does what I said about Council-Controlled Organisations below mean we can use the OIA (technically LGOIMA) to oversee Ports of Auckland and find out e.g. how much its attempt at deunionisation has cost ratepayers, whether they have been leaking information to sewerbloggers, whether they are using private investigators to spy on protestors and striking workers, and how ratepayer's money much they have wasted on their advertising campaign (all questions I would love to know the answer to)? Sadly, no - because the definition of "Council-Controlled Organisation" in the Local Government Act specifically excludes port companies:

(4) The following entities are not council-controlled organisations: ...

(c) a port company or subsidiary of a port company within the meaning of the Port Companies Act 1988

Why is this the case? The provision seems to have originally been introduced into the Local Government Act 1974 by the Local Government Amendment Act (No 2) 1989 [PDF, large], which introduced new provisions about "Local Authority Trading Enterprises (LATES)", which specifically excluded port companies. The reason for that? Because the then-Labour government of Roger Douglas David Lange wanted local bodies to sell their ports. Again, privatisation was used to undermine the accountability of publicly-owned assets.

This is something that should be corrected. Again, the principle is simple: we own it, we should be able to see what its doing and how it is managing our money.

But beyond principle, there's also a strong pragmatic argument for treating ports like any other CCO. Firstly, most of them (e.g. Auckland, Wellington, Otago) are still wholly council-owned, meaning that the only effect of the provision is to reduce accountability over a publicly-owned asset. Secondly, councils have been managing part-owned companies subject to LGOIMA for two decades now, without any ill-effects. There just seems no reason to continue the exclusion. It should be repealed.

Privatisation should not be allowed to undermine transparency

There's a fascinating interview [Audio] on Nine To Noon this morning with former Ombudsman Mel Smith on privatisation and the OIA and Ombudsman Acts. Under the government's plans, companies the government plans to privatise would be immediately removed from the coverage of these Acts. Smith sees no reason for this:

My view is very clear. They should continue to be subject to both of those Acts... Acts such as those are very significant in terms of providing New Zealand citizens with an opportunity to pursue concerns that they have in respect of the organisations that are subject to the Acts. And I just can't see any argument at all to remove them.
Neither can I. If it was a local body - the Auckland Council, say - doing this, we would still retain those rights. Any company or organisation which is council-controlled is subject to both Acts. As a result, we can keep an eye on what they're doing with our money in our name.

And we need to. The OIA has been used to uncover wrongdoing by SOEs in the past - e.g. to investigate their use of PR companies to lobby government (their owners) to change policy, or the use of private investigators to spy on protestors and undermine democratic rights. Removing them from the jurisdiction of the OIA will remove that scrutiny.

The principle is simple: we own them, we should be able to see what they are doing. We apply that principle at a local government level. We should apply it to all crown-controlled companies as well.

Too many cows

Its been apparent for a while that New Zealand's biggest environmental problem is too many cows drinking our water, shitting in our rivers, and destroying the climate. And now, farmers are beginning to agree. Here's Jon Morgan, the Dominion-Post's farming editor, this morning:

I'm coming to the conclusion we have too many dairy cows in parts of New Zealand.

I know, many of you in the towns reached that point years ago, but be gentle with me. It's quite a step for me, long a believer in dairy farmers' untrammelled right to produce as much milk as they like.

It seems obvious to me that we have too many cows in the most sensitive parts of the country – sandy, shingly, free-draining areas laced with streams, close to groundwater and big recreational rivers.

And I think there's no doubt that these cows are the main source of the excessive nutrients that are polluting rivers and lakes in these regions.

Morgan's solution? Fencing waterways has failed, due to farmer cheating and the pollution already dumped into the ground and water table. So he is advocating "a reduction in cow numbers", at least in sensitive areas. This is heresy to farmers (who seem to believe they have an absolute right to destroy our environment for private profit). But its what we're going to have to do if we want clean rivers and streams. He concludes:
It is clear the pollution will only worsen if something is not done now. We should be thinking of the generations to come.

Let's face it, we are a selfish lot. Compared with previous generations we have it easy. We are guilty of endangering the future. It is our turn to feel a little pain so we don't leave future generations with a bigger mess to clean up.

When even farmers are agreeing that we've gone too far, we've gone too far. Its time government acted to solve this problem, by legislating for fewer cows near our rivers and on sensitive soils.

Institutionalised misogyny in the UK

On 28 November 2009, a UK woman was savagely raped by her husband. She called the police, and they arrested him. But before he was tried, she withdrew the allegation, after a sustained campaign of intimidation from her rapist and his family. And so the police prosecuted her - but not those intimidating her - for perverting the course of justice. She was convicted and sentenced to eight month's imprisonment.

This week, she was back in court to appeal her conviction. The court refused:

Despite accepting that the 29-year-old woman – known as Sarah – was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder at the time she retracted her allegations of rape, the court said he could not "quash a conviction on a broad, somewhat nebulous basis of unfairness where the conviction, following due process, is in every respect safe" because the woman was "undoubtedly guilty of a serious crime".
Their reasoning? The same old bullshit:
Lord Judge said: "The contemporaneous evidence available to the appellant's legal advisers, once she had decided to tell the truth, provided a great deal of mitigation, but no viable defence of duress.

"If she had been threatened by him with violence if she did not withdraw the complaint, as it seems to us, it is inconceivable that she would not have said so at the time [that she retracted her allegation of rape]. If she was asserting that he forced a retraction by raping her or threatening to rape her, there was no reason why she should not also have explained her retraction of the rapes by reference to any such threats."

"She didn't speak up at the time, therefore it must all be lies". Which number is that on the victim-blaming bingo card?

And then British police wonder why so many rapes go unreported. What's surprising is that any woman at all will have anything to do with a criminal justice system so institutionally misogynist that they regard prosecuting a rape victim as just.

Information thuggery

That's the only way to describe Ports of Auckland's leaking of an employee's personal information to a sewerblogger:

Personal details about Cecil Walker and the number of days he took off work in 2007 and 2008 while his late wife was terminally ill have been published by the right-wing blogger Cameron Slater on his website Whale Oil.

Walker says no one had the information - which includes specific details about how many days he took off in sick, compassionate and bereavement leave - except the port company.

Whale Oil also published details about Walker's new marriage and baby, saying the port company sent his new wife a gift basket after the baby was born.

This is par for the course for Slater, who specialises in such thuggery. But its a new low for a company in an industrial dispute. OTOH, they're simply taking the lead from Government Ministers, who have previously used this tactic to undermine and deter people from criticising them over cuts to benefits and health services. In that case, its likely to cost the government (though sadly not Bennett herself) a large amount of money. And the same is likely to happen to Ports of Auckland. The people of Auckland deserve better form those they trust to manage their assets.