Monday, April 30, 2012

Channeling Howard

John Key has been beating the xenophobia drum for the past few years, talking up fears of a "mass-arrival" of boat people. Now, in response to the recent case of the Darwin 10, he's seen his opportunity to introduce Howard-style mandatory detention.

(At this stage its worth noting that six months ago Key was claiming that New Zealand was ready and the law was sufficient to cope with this eventuality. Was he being dishonest then, or dishonest now?)

The bill is here. The new powers are appalling. Members of a "mass arrival group" (10 or more people who arrive at once on an unscheduled craft) can be initially detained for up to six months, which can then be extended indefinitely, one month at a time, until their status is determined. Reading the Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF], its very clear that this is being driven by one thing and one thing only: to spare the government the "burden" of having to show a court that detention is necessary in each individual case. Because obviously, that's not something they should have to prove before throwing someone in a prison cell and depriving them of their liberty.

But that's not all. The bill also has a nasty little power grab by Immigration, allowing the Minister to suspend refugee processing (totally, or for specified groups of classes of applicants) by regulation. The interplay between this and detention until status is determined is unexplored, but the power is explicitly intended to be used in the event of a mass-arrival, and the result will be indefinite detention, effectively by order of the Minister.

I accept that the current system is not designed to cope with a mass arrival of the size used to justify this law (they are working on the basis of 500 people, something which has never happened). Some changes may be necessary to allow immigration officials to cope with very large groups, especially when identities cannot be established. At the same time, I would expect those officials to adopt a thorough triage system, and use detention only when necessary, and only for as long as is strictly necessary to establish those facts. Allowing a blanket six months (indefinitely renewable) is simply allowing them to be lazy. And that is not something we should permit when people's liberty is at stake.

ACC lied

When news of ACC's massive privacy breach hit the media, ACC hit back hard, accusing the recipient of the data of attempted extortion, and referring the matter to police. But it turns out that they lied:

A recording of a critical meeting between senior ACC managers and the whistleblower who exposed a massive privacy breach reveals the corporation misled its minister and the public.


a recording of a key meeting in December between Pullar, her support person Michelle Boag – a senior National Party figure – and two ACC managers is at odds with the corporation's claims that were included in a report ordered by ACC Minister Judith Collins.

The ACC was given a transcript of the meeting more than three weeks ago, but has refused to correct its report.

Pullar said it was outrageous that, having been provided with the recording, the corporation was refusing to correct a "blatant lie" on a public report.

I think its a sign of the decline of ACC that they behave like a private company, bullying and smearing their critics, rather than a public service corporation. But while the Minister may tolerate that, lying to her is not something that can be accepted. Heads are going to have to roll for this. The question is whether that will be enough to fix the rot.

New Fisk

After the Arab Spring, an Islamic Awakening?

Time to reform local electoral law

So, apparently the disclosure rules in the Local Electoral Act allow a candidate to solicit a large donation, instruct how it is to be paid, phone the donor up to thank them after it has been received, and then claim the donation is "anonymous". To call this "unsatisfactory" is an understatement. The purpose of the law is transparency, to allow the public to know who a politician is beholden to. If it allows this, then the law is simply not fit for purpose.

We used to have this problem on a national level. Labour fixed it with the Electoral Finance Act, and National carried over those changes when it repealed the law. Clearly, we need to do the same for the Local Electoral Act. Tighten disclosure rules. Bust the trusts. Increase penalties. And above all, make it clear to politicians that they cannot get away with this sort of shady backroom dealing. We deserve clean politics, at the local level as well as the national one. And if after this the government sits on its hands and does nothing about the obvious problem, they can only be regarded as complicit.

As for Banks, regardless of whether he is found to have been acting within the law or not, he has marked himself as a dishonest man, who set out to deliberately hide his finances and thwart the law. That's not acceptable, and a decent Prime Minister would refuse to have him in his Cabinet. Key of course is not a decent Prime Minister, and is making excuses for him. Another example of his "higher standards of government", I guess.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Catherine Isaac's crony appointment

Last month, John Banks appointed former ACT candidate and party president Catherine Isaac to head the Charter School Working Group. It looked like a crony appointment - Isaac has no relevant expertise - so I submitted the usual OIA request, seeking information on whether the appointment process had followed the SSC guidelines [PDF]. I received the response back today, and its pretty shocking.

Two documents were released. The first of these was an (incomplete) Cabinet Paper [PDF] formally appointing Isaac and other members of the Working Group. As part of this paper, Banks certified to Cabinet (as required by Cabinet guidelines) that

I can confirm that an appropriate process has been followed in considering the proposed nominees in terms of the SSC Appointments Guidelines. Nominated agencies such as Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs were invited to submit names of suitable candidates.
That may very well have been true of the ordinary group members. It was not true of Ms Isaac. The other document - a report on the establishment of the Working Group [PDF] - paints a blunt picture of the "process":
The decision has already been made to nominate Catherine Isaac as the Chair of the Group.
And that's it. No person specification, no call for nominations, no interviews, no assessment. The Minister simply shoulder-tapped someone - who just happened to be a member of his party, a former candidate, and former party president - and that was that. That's not consistent with the SSC guidelines, and claiming that it is is simply a lie. The appointment was cronyism, pure and simple.

Another interesting feature: appointment papers are required to specify how much the appointees will be paid. This one did not, saying only that

The Group is classified as a Group 4 Level 2 Working Group under the Cabinet-approved fees framework. Appropriate fees will be determined with reference to the framework.
(Link added)

There's a bit of wiggle room there, so I'll be doing a followup OIA to determine exactly how much Isaac is being paid and whether Banks sought an exemption from the framework for her.

Appointments to government positions are supposed to be on merit. Sometimes, a former MP or party affiliate is the best person for the job - in which case you'd expect that to be apparent from the appointment papers and the process followed. But when such a person is appointed with no competitive process, based on apparently no more than their personal links with the Minister, then it is cronyism. And we should not tolerate it in our public service.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Keep our assets!

Back in March, a coalition of Grey Power, Labour and the Greens started the process for a Citizens Initiated Referendum on privatisation. Today, the wording of their proposed referendum question was approved, with a straightforward:

Do you support the Government selling up to 49 per cent of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?
Now all we need to do is collect 307,000 valid signatures...

The campaign will officially launch on May 10 in Wellington. If you'd like to be part of it, you can sign up on the Not Yours to Sell website. You can also download a copy of the petition and start collecting signatures from your friends and family. Every signature counts, so please start today.

A victory for international justice

Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone was wracked by civil war. Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, was a major player in that war, first as a warlord in neighbouring Liberia, and then as its president. Taylor created and backed the Revolutionary United Front, which terrorised the civilian population, most notoriously through a policy of amputating the limbs of those who backed opposing factions. They also engaged in slavery and the use of child soldiers.

Today, after a five year trial, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of international humanitarian law in relation to those crimes. He has not yet ben sentenced, but he is likely to spend a substantial period (and possibly the rest of his life) behind bars.

This is a victory for international justice, and it sends a message to other warlords and despots that they too will be punished. At the same time, it also highlights how incomplete our system of international justice is. There is justice for Sierra Leone - but not for Iraq. Charles Taylor has been held to account for his crimes - but Bush and Blair have not been held to account for theirs. Until they are, then all we have is a partial system of justice, not a universal one.

Why we don't vote

Last election saw the worst ever voter turnout, at a mere 73.8% of enrolled voters. No matter how you look at it, this is a failure of our democracy, so the Electoral Commission has been looking into it as part of their usual post-election voting process survey:

The survey showed that the reasons for not voting were similar to the 2008 election. Non-voters said they had other commitments (14 percent), work (9 percent), could not be bothered (14 percent), could not decide who to vote for (11 percent), or felt their vote would not make a difference (8 percent).

The biggest influence on New Zealanders who did not vote was a distrust of politicians. A third of all non-voters said this was their reason for failing to turn up on election day.

A large proportion of non-voters cited the polls predicting the National Party's victory, and decided the election was a foregone conclusion. The percentage of non-voters who said this was a factor was far higher in 2011 than in 2008.

Two-thirds [see below - I/S] of non-voters said they were unaware of the option to vote in advance, and would have voted if they had known about it.

With the relaxation of the rules around advance voting, there's pretty obviously something the Electoral Commission can do about the latter. And they could also do more to highlight the law which gives employees paid time off to vote. As for the political side of things - making people feel that their vote makes a difference, giving people something to vote for rather than just a general feeling of resigned disgust at the whole show - that's really up to politicians.

Radio New Zealand's Insight will be discussing the survey on Sunday morning. It might be worth listening to or downloading.

Correction: I've just been notified that the Herald messed up, and got the proportion of non-voters who knew about advance voting round the wrong way. Two-thirds knew, and one-third did not. Thanks to the Electoral Commission for the correction.

The failure of private prisons

When national introduced the Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons) Bill back in 2009, it claimed that contracting out prison management to foreign multinationals would improve performance. The reality is a little different:

The private company running Mount Eden Prison has been found to have fallen short in several areas during its first eight months of management.

A Corrections Department report on Serco says two prisoners were wrongfully released and the company was fined $150,000 after a prisoner escaped.

Targets for random drug testing and prisoner management plans were not reached.

Serco achieved 30% for prisoner management plans when the target was 90%. However, random drug testing which returned a positive result, was only 3%.

Corrections blames "teething problems". The reality is that these areas cost money, and are therefore simply not a priority for a prison operator intent on maximising profit. The result is that we're paying top dollar for a worse prison service than we had previously.

But hey, some of National's cronies are getting rich as a result. I'm sure that's got to count for something, right?

New Fisk

The Children of Fallujah - families fight back


Last week, Whangarei police chased a man who had been driving while disqualified. He was eventually captured and arrested, but sometime during the arrest - apparently when police were trying to force him over a fence while handcuffed - he suffered a broken neck and is now paralysed.

While not the result of deliberate police brutality, this is deeply disturbing all the same. At the least, the police have been negligent and failed in their duty of care towards a man in custody. Alternatively, they have shown a complete disregard for his safety, and likely violated the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (which requires both employers and employees - meaning the individual police officers concerned - to take "all practicable steps" to ensure that no action or inaction in the workplace harms any other person). Either way, it is not acceptable, and they need to be held to account for it.

Sadly, that seems unlikely to happen. The "Independent" Police Conduct Authority is investigating. And they are simply useless and compromised. In six months to a year, they'll issue the usual whitewash report, and to the extent it makes any recommendations at all, the police will simply ignore them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

National's New Zealand

One of the big themes of National's New Zealand is the lack of jobs. There's another example of this in the Manawatu Standard today:

Applications have been coming in from as far as Ireland for jobs at the yet to be completed Countdown supermarket in the Palmerston North suburb of Kelvin Grove.

The store is set to open toward the end of June and store manager Wayne Law, who will move from The Plaza location to the new site, said he had received more than 600 job applications.

"People were handing in applications six months in advance at the other stores, before we had even turned the dirt at the new store," he said.

This is not exactly desirable work, and yet it has six times as many applications as there are positions. And yet National still slanders the unemployed as lazy. I guess it beats accepting responsibility for their own economic mismanagement...

Why we need plain packaging

Last week, the government announced that it would be moving towards plain packaging for tobacco products. Meanwhile, from the UK (which is having a similar debate) we have a knockout reason for requiring it: because the tobacco industry is using its packaging to market to children:

Tobacco companies are designing cigarette packs to resemble bottles of perfume or with lids that flip open like a lighter to lure young people into smoking.

Research published yesterday reveals the lengths to which the industry has gone to make its packs attractive to new generations of smokers as opportunities for promoting its products have been progressively reduced.


The research shows children aged from six to 11 are drawn to the slickly presented packs, responding with remarks such as, "It makes you feel you're in a wonderland of happiness", "It reminds me of a Ferrari" and "Yeah, pink, pink, pink." Jean King, director of tobacco control for the charity, said: "Children are drawn to the colourful and slick designs without having a full understanding of how deadly the product is inside the pack. It is time to end the packet racket."

The range of designs has proliferated over the last decade, since print and billboard advertising of tobacco was banned 10 years ago. Long, slender cigarettes contained in pastel coloured packs indicating femininity, style and sophistication are targeted at young women. Packs of 14 cigarettes are designed to look like packs of 20 but sell at a lower price.

Its is of course illegal in the UK to sell tobacco to anyone under 18, just as it is here. But that doesn't stop the tobacco industry from trying. Their marketing machine is all about soliciting people to break the law. And due to the advertising ban, packaging is their chief vehicle for doing this. And they admit this:
Tobacco companies have admitted that packaging is key to promoting their products. An internal memo from Philip Morris obtained by researchers read: "When you don't have anything else packaging is our marketing."
(Emphasis added)

To them, packaging is simply a means of circumventing advertising restrictions and of marketing to people they shouldn't be marketing to. And the only way to stop it is to require plain packaging.

New Fisk

The Children of Fallujah - Sayef's story
The Children of Fallujah - the hospital of horrors

More cuts

So, it looks like the government will no longer meet its arbitrary target of surplus by 2014/15. Their answer? More cuts! So not only are we looking at a zero-budget this year, but next year as well.

The UK has followed similar austerity policies, and the effects of this madness can clearly be seen there: a double-dip recession, which looks worse than the early stages of the Great Depression. Why? Because cuts to government spending suck demand out of the economy; no-one has any money to spend, so no-one can buy anything, so businesses go under... its a death spiral. And National is marching us right down it, in pursuit of a completely arbitrary target which has been set solely so they can announce success in election year. But the way they're headed, the cost of that "success" will be even more economic pain and suffering for the rest of us, with a side-order of crippled government services to boot.

Len Brown's true colours

Today, Auckland City Councillor Cathy Casey tabled a motion calling on the council to oppose legislation allowing SkyCity more pokies in exchange for building a convention centre. It failed by 12 votes to 9. Among those opposing the motion was mayor Len Brown.

In the past, Brown had fronted ads for the Problem Gambling Foundation, and had promised before the 2010 election that he would introduce a sinking lid policy on pokie machines. But he'd also taken $15,000 of SkyCity's dirty money. We saw today what that money gets.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Too little, too late

Gerry Brownlee has finally woken up to the housing crisis in Christchurch, and moved to release funding to the Christchurch City Council so it can repair quake-damaged social housing. He's also got Housing New Zealand to move to repair state houses in the region. But while this is better than his previous stance of denying the problem and doing nothing (while calling critics "hysterical", of course), it is now too little, too late. Winter is coming, and that actually means something in the South Island. But the first of those repaired state houses won't be ready until June.

Brownlee's inaction and denial means we are going to see a spike in cold-related deaths in Christchurch this winter. People will die needlessly, largely of flu and respiratory diseases, because he did nothing. And that makes him nothing more than a murderer.

Update: It looks like someone doesn't like this blunt assessment. Well, fuck him. Policy has consequences. In this case, the consequence is that (statistically speaking) people will die. And not for the everyday reasons of lack of resources or unfavourable cost-benefit analysis, but because Gerry Brownlee reacted to reports of a housing crisis in Christchurch with his knee-jerk response to criticism rather than action. That's depraved indifference, and he needs to be held accountable for it.

New Fisk

Iraq's road back from oblivion

Cruel, inhuman and degrading

Sleep-deprivation is cruel, inhuman, and degrading. Its use is prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture and by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. So why are we using it in New Zealand prisons?

sleep deprivation is a deliberate and daily practice in New Zealand prisons. What’s worse, it’s reserved primarily for those who are least able to cope with it – prisoners who are suicidal and psychologically vulnerable. The Corrections Department even has special cells for suicidal prisoners with camera surveillance 24/7 so the prisoner can be observed at all times – including on the toilet. Anything the prisoner might use to commit suicide is taken away; they’re not allowed underwear, clothes, sheets or blankets – in case they rip them up to use as a rope. All they get to wear is a canvas tunic. It’s so tough it can’t be ripped – and it’s very uncomfortable.

Throughout the night, the lights come on automatically every 30 minutes, so staff can see if the prisoner is doing anything – other than sleeping. Euphemistically, the Department calls these ‘at risk’ cells. In reality, they’re sleep deprivation cells and Corrections has 160 of them.

That's not the only cruel, inhuman, and degrading thing Corrections does. One of the salient features of US torture is their use of nudity and searches to shame and humiliate prisoners. We do that here, too:
Sleep deprivation is not the only breach of UN Rule 31. Another is ‘the naked squat’. I heard about this from a prisoner who spent a weekend in these so-called ‘at risk’ cells. Immediately after being sentenced, he was taken to the receiving office at Rimutaka Prison. There he was told to strip naked in front of four officers, and crouch down so the cheeks of his bum spread apart. Two officers got down and looked up his anus – to see whether he had a cell phone, drugs or other contraband hidden up there. Then he had to stand and hold up his penis and scrotum so they could see if he was hiding anything under his genitals. Finally they looked under his armpits and into his mouth.


In the morning, he was taken to the shower block – where pretty much everything he did could be observed. Once brought back to his cell, he had to do the squat again. Then he was taken to a different cell to have breakfast. He asked why? No one seemed to know. After breakfast, he was brought back and once again, the officers examined his anus and genitals. The same thing happened after lunch and after dinner. He was required to perform ‘the naked squat’ every time he came back to his cell. In the course of one weekend, he had to spread his cheeks 11 times.

I understand that there is sometimes a need for strip searches for security reasons. But this is utterly gratuitous, and seems designed to humiliate and degrade prisoners simply for the joy of it. And it's all legal; section 98 of the Corrections Act 2004 gives prison officers wide scope to conduct strip searches, to the extent that the only way this humiliation can be avoided is to remain in your cell 24/7 (and then they'd probably consider that to be a disciplinary infraction, and strip search you).

The Bill of Rights Act affirms that everyone has the right not to be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, and requires that everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person. Corrections are violating those principles. They need to stop, now, and bring their practice back into line with international human rights norms.

National doesn't want to hear from us

One of the good things about our Parliamentary model is the select committee process. If the government wants to pass a law, then it has to send the bill to select committee. The select committee almost always asks for submissions from the public, which means that we get to tell the government exactly what we think of their plans.

Except under National. Quite apart from their habit of using urgency to bypass select committees entirely on controversial legislation, they've developed a new habit: perverting the select committee process so that nobody can have effective input:

Parliamentary hearings into legislation paving the way for the Government's partial privatisation plan for state owned power companies have been described as a sham.

The Finance and Expenditure Committee started hearing submissions today and is scheduled to hear 45 today alone, leaving little time for each one.

MPs from both sides of the debate used the hearing as a platform for their views and the tight schedule prompted an outburst from Labour's Trevor Mallard when he turned up to learn most submitters would receive just five minutes each to have their say.

If I was making an oral submission on this bill, I'd be feeling pretty pissed off right now. And with good reason: five minutes isn't enough time to say anything, especially with the committee members using your time to snipe at one another and inject their spin. And its pretty obvious why they're doing it: because almost all submitters oppose the bill. Limiting time is a way of shutting that down, of undermining the public's right to have their say.

Just another example of how National undermines our democracy. The sooner we're done with them, the better.

More cronyism?

The government has appointed former National Party MP Georgina te Heuheu to the board of the Māori Television Service, and she will replace the chair when his term expires at the end of the month. She's at least competent, but at the same time the appointment of yet another former National MP to a government board looks like cronyism (especially in the context of their political appointments to the NZ On Air board and their interference in media content). The usual OIA has been dispatched, and we'll get to find out whether Pita Sharples can run a credible appointments process, or whether he did the usual trick of pulling her name out of thin air and appointing her with no interviews, no shortlist, and no competition.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wasting our money

FYI, the New Zealand OIA site, is really coming into its own. Its already been used to reveal that Auckland Council and its investment arm have been asleep at the wheel over the Ports of Auckland dispute. Now there seems to be some interesting revelations about extravagance in our state-owned enterprises as well.

Someone requested the personal expenses (including supporting documentation) for the CEOs of the four SOEs the government wants to privatise. Because the SOEs are still subject to the OIA, they were forced to respond. Expenses for Meridian, Mighty River and Solid Energy were fairly innocuous. Those for Albert Brantley, the CEO of Genesis Energy, are another story.

The full data is here. And the short version is that Brantley likes to spend Genesis' money on big dinners. And I mean big - $1000, $2000, even a $3100 feast at Gusto Italiano in Auckland. Those that have detailed receipts show that he gets our company to pick up the tab for $95 Wagyu steaks, $90 crayfish, and $100+ bottles of wine.

He's also a very generous tipper, throwing around $200+ at each of these meals, just to make himself look big.

Its a whole level of extravagance beyond that which saw Ministers crucified a few years ago.

Now, this sort of spending may be entirely normal in the private sector. Private companies may be perfectly happy to see their CEOs feast like kings, and use corporate money to build their own egos. But Genesis isn't a private company - its a state-owned enterprise. Quite apart from questions of how we want those companies managed, every dollar Brantley wastes in this way is a dollar we don't get in dividends, a dollar we can't spend on schools and hospitals. He is, in a real sense, stealing from all of us with his extravagance.

The expenses from other energy companies show that this is not normal behaviour for SOEs. Genesis's board needs to exercise some oversight, and pull its extravagant CEO into line. if they won't, then the Minister should sack them. Because that's our money he's wasting.

A clear moral duty

Sometime next year, New Zealand will likely follow Australia and pull out of Afghanistan for good. But when we do, we will be leaving behind the interpreters who have assisted kiwi soldiers. Their lives are now in danger because of that assistance, and they are asking for asylum in New Zealand:

Afghans working with Kiwi troops in Afghanistan have asked the Defence Minister for help in seeking asylum to New Zealand, fearing they will be killed once international forces pull out of the country, according to a report.

The workers spoke to One News in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province after a meeting between an Afghan commander and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman.

The Afghan interpreter said as soon as international forces left his future would be "very dark".

"Our faces are very familiar to most of the people. As soon as international forces leave, our future will be very, very dark and it's most likely we are going to be killed," the man said.

No matter what you think of the Afghan war or the morality of our participation in it, New Zealand has a clear moral duty here. These people's lives are in danger because of us. We have a responsibility to correct that. And the best way of doing that is by granting them asylum here in New Zealand.

Blatant discrimination

Another report of a Wellington business engaging in homophobic discrimination - this time the "Public" bar on Courtney Place:

A popular Wellington hotspot has come under fire online after a lesbian couple were allegedly asked to leave the bar after a staff member spotted them kissing.

Rebekah Galbraith wrote an open letter to the management of Public yesterday expressing her disgust at the actions of Public staff, stating that she is taking her story to the press and the Human Rights Commission.

In her letter, Rebekah says she and her partner were leaving Public on early Sunday morning, when she leaned over to “briefly kiss” her girlfriend; that’s when trouble started.

“A man abruptly tapped me on the shoulder and informed both of us to leave, immediately,” she says. “Considering I had seen this man constantly by the bar the entire evening, and given the speed at which he obviously moved to interrupt us and kick us out, I have no doubt he was watching us for the entire time we were at Public.

To point out the obvious, this is a violation of the Human Rights Act. Sexual orientation is a prohibited grounds of discrimination, and businesses cannot refuse access or to provide goods and services on that basis. That's been the law for almost twenty years now, and you'd expect it to have sunk in by now. Sadly, it hasn't. Which makes you wonder whether the current conciliation system is effective, or whether we should move to some actual criminal penalties for HRA violations, just to make it clear that its not acceptable.

New Fisk

This is politics not sport. If drivers can't see that, they are the pits
Counter-revolution – the next deadly chapter


One of the positive things about the internet is that it has enabled the rise of grassroots, progressive, campaigning organisations, which harness support from across a country or across the world to push for change. Globally, we have Avaaz, which frequently gets multi-million signature petitions. In the US, there is MoveOn. Australia has GetUp!. Now, someone wants to establish this sort of organisation in New Zealand:

StandUp, an independent, citizen-led platform for online activism, will begin campaigning in New Zealand next month.

Modelled on organisations such as Avaaz, which mobilises people to address global issues through petitions, emails and other actions, StandUp aims to become a rallying point for New Zealanders concerned about local issues relating to politics, business, society and the environment.

The first campaigns will potentially target asset sales, paid parental leave, coal mining in conservation areas and a sustainable rebuild in Christchurch. However direct member input will decide which areas become the focus of this organisation.

They're currently in the setup phase, but they need money. So they're trying to crowdsource it through NZ crowdfunding site PledgeMe. I've put my money where my mouth is, and signed up to be a founding member. If you want to see this sort of grassroots, democratic campaigning organisation in New Zealand, then please do the same.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Protecting their own again

In September 2008, Police Superintendent Bill Harrison got a parking ticket in Wellington for not displaying a current registration label. He didn't like that, so he used police letterhead to ask for the ticket to be waived (and apparently lied about the vehicle's registration status).

That's a clear case of misconduct, and to be fair, when the police eventually got round to investigating it two years later, that is exactly what they found. But they didn't want the public to know:

The Dominion Post is able to reveal the outcome of the investigation after it fought to make the details public. Police initially refused to release information, saying Mr Harrison's "strong" privacy interests outweighed the public interest, among other reasons.

However, following a complaint by the paper to Ombudsman David McGee, police were this week forced to release the outcome.

Slow action, then a desperate fight to prevent public oversight. Its a classic case of the police protecting their own. And then they wonder why the public doesn't trust them...

One rule for us, another for them

What happens if you swear at and physically assault another staff member in the workplace? Normally, you'd be immediately dismissed for gross misconduct. But the rules are apparently different if you are a public sector Chief Executive:

In findings released today State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie said Department of Building and Housing CEO Katrina Bach had received a warning.

Bach had breached the Department's code of conduct, Rennie said.

This is absolutely disgusting. As the PSA points out, this is a serious incident, and any other staff member would have been sacked. To let a Chief Executive get away with this sets a double standard - as well as a disturbing precedent allowing CEOs to assault their employees in future.

The SSC is supposed to establish and enforce standards in the public service. They have failed utterly to do that. And if they're not going to do that job, you really have to wonder why we are paying them at all.

Plain packaging

The government has announced it will be moving towards plain packaging for cigarettes. Good. While we've banned advertising for this addictive and harmful product, the tobacco industry has been able to evade the bans by using the packaging of the product itself. Using plain packaging will prevent that. They'll still be able to sell, but they won't be able to present their product as anything other than what it is: cancer in a box.

Over in Australia, the tobacco companies are challenging a similar law, arguing that it is an unconstitutional taking of property. Given that product labelling standards are widely accepted, that's unlikely to succeed. They won't be able to mount such a challenge here, because we don't protect property rights in that way. A challenge on free speech grounds is likely to result in a finding that it is a justified limitation. But the real worry isn't domestic law, but the various free trade agreements both countries have signed, which contain clauses protecting foreign companies against "expropriation". In the Americas, such clauses have been used to overturn basic environmental and health standards for the benefit of polluting corporations. And there is every chance that we will similarly face an international veto on this basic public health measure, so a foreign corporation can profit by selling us cancer.

Its a stark reminder that we should not sign up to such agreements, ever. Free trade with appropriate protections for human rights, workers rights, and the environment, is fine. A foreign veto on domestic law is not.

"A careful eye"

SkyCity runs a casino. It is in one of the most socially harmful businesses in the country, and as a result it is tightly regulated. Under the terms of its licence, it is required to provide reports to the Gambling Commission every six months on its host responsibility programme, and the Gambling Commission is supposed to formally review that programme every two years to ensure it is doing its job of minimising problem gambling.

Except they're not. The programme has never been reviewed, and the Gambling Commission has quietly put the review on the back-burner because they're "too busy". So much for Steven Joyce's promise that they would be "keep[ing] a careful eye on SkyCity".

But this isn't just Joyce's fault. SkyCity was operating - and not being reviewed - long before he came to Parliament. And the problem is not one of underfunding - browsing back through past annual reports, it seems that the Commission consistently underspends its budget, in one case by 35%. The problem is either one of governance, or the interface with the Department of Internal Affairs, which is legally obliged to service them. Either way, its unacceptable, and needs to be sorted out.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: are any New Zealand casinos being properly monitored? There's only one way to find out...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Collins on same-sex marriage

When Judith Collins was appointed Justice Minister, lobby group Rainbow Wellington wrote to her asking her position on various issues, including same-sex marriage. Her response? She's just not interested:

The Government has no plans to introduce same-sex marriage in the current Parliamentary term. As you are aware, there is considerable diversity of opinion on same-sex marriage.
Or, translated, "there are bigots and National wishes to pander to them".

Not that this is any real surprise. Collins is a bigot, and a dishonest one at that. She voted against civil unions and the Relationships (Statutory References) Act in 2004 and 2005 - supposedly on the grounds that we should be having a debate on same-sex marriage instead. She then turned around and voted to ban same-sex marriage later that year. I think that record speaks for itself. And sadly, the National Party is full of people like her, too cowardly even to state their real position, but blocking progress and impeding the full realisation of human rights. Which means that progress just isn't going to happen under a National government.

Shearer on inequality and the living wage

David Shearer gave a speech in Nelson today, in which he took aim at what should be the big theme of his leadership: inequality. He highlighted the fact that we have become a more unequal society, and that kiwis have not been rewarded for our increased economic productivity (instead, that money has been stolen by employers and exported by foreign corporations). And he suggested a solution: a living wage:

One emerging idea I’m interested in is the Living Wage.

It’s the amount a person needs to earn to provide for themselves and a family.

It’s started to catch on London since 2004 when the London mayor set up a unit that works out the Living Wage level each year.

Over time, as finances allowed, Council gradually began to pay the Living Wage level.

Now some businesses that contract with the Council have agreed to pay it too, whether they hire direct employees, contractors, or temporary staff.

The results have been encouraging.

More than four out of five employers believe the Living Wage enhanced the quality of the work of their staff.

Absenteeism fell by a quarter.

Two-thirds of employers said recruitment and retention improved.

The attraction of the Living Wage is that it’s a voluntary pathway, not enforced by law, to incomes above just the minimum wage.

A lot of businesses have found it’s a good way to show they’re actually good employers.

Even some of the giant global banks in London are signing up - like HSBC and Goldman Sachs.

Accountancy firm KPMG said that after they adopted the living wage, staff turnover dropped dramatically.

The idea now has cross-party support in the UK.

(As an aside, can someone teach Shearer to use paragraphs like normal people?)

Currently they're merely "looking at it". But this should be a core part of Labour's platform. National's policy of screwing down wages has left ordinary kiwis in poverty, struggling to make ends meet. OTOH, the fact that its voluntary means that in our business environment, with a business leadership hostile to workers and interested primarily in preserving their own position, progress is going to be very slow. It could be sped up by making paying a living wage a requirement for all public sector organisations, and for all government contracts. But even then, we're looking at a slow process for ensuring basic living standards. Simply raising the minimum wage would be faster, and reinforces the principle that the minimum wage should be a living wage.

Key's crony capitalism

Labour has been doing some digging into the paper-trail around the SkyCity deal, and it looks like John key's dirty fingerprints are all over it. The National Convention Centre was supposed to be a competitive bid. But early on in the process, Key instructed officials to stop all work on it while he talked to SkyCity [PDF] (during which he offered to change the law for them, effectively prostituting his powers as a legislator). Once Key had cut the deal, the bid process was continued [PDF] to provide an illusion of process and fairness - despite the fact that the Prime Minister had already picked one of his cronies as the winner.

There are reasons we insist on fair and open processes to allocate government contracts. One of course is to make sure that we get the best deal. But another is precisely to prevent this sort of corrupt, backroom deal, where a Minister picks a winner in exchange for who knows what. Key hasn't just potentially ripped off the people of New Zealand - he's directly invited corruption. As a former businessman, he probably doesn't see that as a problem (after all, this is just how business operates - cronies and backrooms and handshakes under the table). But as an ordinary citizen, who wants public money spent effectively, contracts assigned on merit, and above all, government that is clean and seen to be so, I think it is absolutely unacceptable.

At the least, Key's dirty dealing has just invited all the defeated bidders to challenge the decision through judicial review. But worse, he's set a precedent, from the very top, that this sort of shit is acceptable. If this is his idea of "higher standards of government", then I'd hate to see what he thinks is corrupt.


Auckland Now's Richard Boock calls this the most brazenly deceitful government for the past 50 years:

Credit where credit's due. This might not be the most deceitful New Zealand Government of the past 50 years but it's certainly the most brazenly deceitful. If there were to be awards for sneering-in-your-face dishonesty; for being deliberately misleading and for sweeping inconvenient truths under the carpet, the Class of 2012 would already be assured of the silverware. Seldom, in the field of shameless chicanery, has one Government achieved so much.


These guys aren't even bullsh*t artists; they could never be accused of being that cunning. To call them Machiavellian would be to spit on Niccolò Machiavelli's grave. That's why, if there were to be a prize for saying one thing, doing another, and thinking no-one had noticed, they'd have to win it hands down. New Zealand's most openly dishonest Government? The Shifty would have to go to them. No-one else would come close.

I don't think its quite brazen deceit; I think the problem is one of total shamelessness. Public shame is an important check on the actions of politicians. Most would stop and think and be concerned about how it would look if they prostituted New Zealand law, turned part of the country into a dictatorship, or started selling our assets at bargain-basement rates to their rich mates (most would also be ashamed to be publicly labelled the most openly dishonest government in 50 years). Not National. They just don't care what we think. Either they've forgotten that they live in a democracy and are up for re-election in 2.5 years, or they've already decided that this will be their last term. Either way, the constraint has broken down, and we are at their utter mercy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Crony capitalism

John Key's excuse for prostituting New Zealand law to SkyCity over its convention centre proposal?

you can’t expect [SkyCity's] shareholders to invest for six years without certainty of their investment
Really? But I thought capitalism justified profits because investors took risk. Here, Key seems to be saying the opposite: SkyCity's investors should be guaranteed profits regardless (and at the expense of Auckland's poor, no less). But I guess the rules are just different when it comes to national's cronies...

Britain's dirty colonial laundry

Fifty years ago, as Britain was being kicked out of its former Empire, colonial officials grew worried. They had, naturally, documented the crimes they had committed in order to keep their "subject peoples" subjugated. But now they would be leaving, those documents could fall into the "wrong" hands, and lead to embarrassment, or even calls for prosecution. So they fired up the shredders:

Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded.

Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.

The documents which survived the purge are damning enough, detailing assassinations, torture, murder, and ethnic cleansing, all as a matter of formal British government policy. But the Foreign Office's secrecy - itself a violation of the law - has meant that those responsible have been protected, allowed to retire and die in peace rather than in a jail cell where they belong. The criminals protected their own - and got away with it.

Meanwhile its a nice riposte to those who claim that freedom of information laws lead to officials shredding and burying documents. You don't need FOI for that - you just need a guilty conscience.

Unlawful detention

This is absolutely appalling: a woman was detained unlawfully in a secure dementia unit for over a year, without any legal authority, right here in New Zealand. The reason? Basically it seems to be slackness. The paperwork - an application for a court order - was prepared, but never filed, and nobody ever checked. Even when they discovered they had no legal authority for detention, it still took two months to release her.

The disability service providers in question - Taikura Trust and Oak Park rest home - will apparently be paying a large amount of compensation. But what's more important is making sure that it never happens again. Magna Carta is clear:

NO freeman shall be taken or imprisoned... but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.
That applies to detention for health treatment as well as criminal punishment. Our health providers need to be aware of that, and ensure that they have proper authority for everyone in their care. And there needs to be stronger auditing by DHBs to ensure that those providers don't get it wrong. This sort of private, arbitrary detention is not something we can tolerate in a free and democratic society.

Key's casino

So, it turns out that the shady deal which saw SkyCity offered a law change and new pokies machines in exchange for building a new convention centre in Auckland was all John Key's idea. They didn't ask him to prostitute New Zealand law - he approached them. "For tourism", of course, but we all know its about National helping out its mates, regardless of the level of social harm it will cause.

And in this case, that social harm is serious. Pokies are the crack cocaine of gambling. They are specifically designed to be addictive, to allow people to be fleeced of their money. Those addicts destroy their lives and those of their families, commit fraud and other crimes to keep feeding their addiction. Simple consumer protection justifies stringent regulation of a product like this (just as it does for pyramid scams), as well as making pokie providers pay for the social harm they cause. John Key would throw those protections out the window, so his rich mates can make money by exploiting the poor.

If Auckland needs a new convention centre (and the tourism industry thinks it does), then it should stand or fall on its own merits, not be built on the backs of the poor. This dodgy deal needs to be cancelled, and SkyCity told to take a hike.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to let John Key know what you think of his prostituting New Zealand law, Labour has set up a website here. Just remember to unclick the "spam me" box.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Will ECan rape the Rangitata?

Last week, the ECan dictatorship released its plans for water management in the Orari-Opihi-Pareora zone, in which they identified more than 40,000 hectares of land as "available for irrigation". The problem? There isn't actually any water to do it. Water supplies in the area are already overallocated. And, to be fair, ECan admits this:

Mr Caygill acknowledged many of the region's rivers were over-allocated.

"However, that's a statement referring to the existing water resources," he said.

"The exercise we're engaged in is looking for supplementary sources of allocation. Where this will come from is yet to be determined."

So what are these "supplementary sources of allocation"? The report identifies two: the Waitaki and the Rangitata. The Waitaki is too far away, and subject to intense competition for usage already, so its probably a non-starter. As for the Rangitata, it is subject to a Water Conservation Order, and the water which may be taken from it is over-allocated. But the ECan dictatorship has the power to vary that order, with no ability to appeal the decision to the Environment Court (instead, appeals are allowed only to the High Court and only on matters of law - so factual questions, such as whether a decision is reality-based - are not appealable).

Will the ECan dictators vary or revoke the WCO and rape the Rangitata for the benefit of farmers? I think its looking likely. The question is what we can do to stop it.

Only himself to blame

Yesterday, Stuff reported that the Overseas Investment Office was failing to monitor whether conditions on overseas land purchases were being met. Today, the Minister has issued a "clarification", claiming that the information was "dangerous and misleading" and that

OIO monitoring of cases is robust and numbers have remained fairly consistent over the past three years.

The kicker? The information Williamson is complaining about and "clarifying" came from his own office, in response to Parliamentary written questions. Which suggests firstly that he was somewhat less than forthcoming in those answers, and secondly that he really has no-one but himself to blame for this. After all, if the Minister doesn't want stories based on information he describes as "dangerous and misleading", he could not answer questions in that manner, and instead give a straight answer in the first place. The fact that he didn't speaks volumes about his (lack of) commitment to transparency and democratic accountability.

Good news on transparency

John Key has indicated that National will likely support Holly Walker's Lobbying Disclosure Bill to select committee. Good. This is an area where more transparency is needed, so we can see whether or not our government is subject to undue influence, and ultimately whether or not they are trustworthy. And while the bill may need to be tweaked, that can be done at select committee, after a national conversation about how much transparency we expect and who should be covered. National's support will make that conversation possible.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith is once again showing us that he is no friend of transparency, by refusing to name the 16 lobbyists given privileged access to Parliament. Which naturally invites the question: what is he trying to hide? If the access was defensible, he would tell us. The fact that he doesn't speaks volumes.

Juking the stats

Last month, the government promised that its actions would be assessed against 10 key outcomes, including "a reduction in the number of assaults on children", and "a reduction in the crime rate". Now we learn how the Police are going to deliver those outcomes: by dropping domestic violence from the annual crime statistics:

Women's Refuge is meeting with police today over a decision to drop family violence figures from crime stats.

Police have told the refuge they're shifting focus to realign themselves with Australia and that family violence incidences will still be recorded - just not publicly.

Domestic violence is a significant area of crime which is growing (partly due to better awareness and reporting, and partly due to the government's recession). Not recording it publicly will mean a drop in recorded crime and in assaults on children, and voila!, target achieved. Of course, its fundamentally dishonest, not to mention sending a clear message that this sort of crime - which used to be a priority - "doesn't count". But pretty obviously, the police don't care about that. What they care about is keeping the Minister happy and their budget secure. And that means showing that crime is falling, regardless of the facts.

And then they wonder why so many people don't trust them...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Climate change: The latest inventory and the net position

The Ministry for the Environment has quietly released its latest inventory report [PDF]. The headline data is shown in the graph below (stolen from page vi):


Gross emissions have remained fairly static. Meanwhile, removals have dropped substantially, meaning a rise in net emissions. We're still well under our Kyoto cap, but its troubling.

Meanwhile, the government also admits that it has basically been fiddling the numbers and engaging in creative accounting in these reports:

New Zealand’s initial assigned amount under the Kyoto Protocol is recorded as 309,564,733 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent (309,565 Gg CO2-e). The initial assigned amount is five times the total 1990 emissions reported in the inventory submitted as part of New Zealand’s Initial Report under the Kyoto Protocol. The initial assigned amount does not change during the first commitment period (2008–2012) of the Kyoto Protocol. In contrast, the time series of emissions reported in each inventory submission are subject to continuous improvement. Consequently, the total emissions in 1990 as reported in this submission are 3.5 per cent lower than the 1990 level of 61,912.9 Gg CO2-e, which was estimated in 2006 and used in the initial assigned amount calculation.
Yes, "methodological improvements" made after the amount was fixed has allowed the government to bank a free 3.5% reduction in reported emissions, without actually doing anything in reality. But while such accounting tricks may allow them to reduce our liability, you can't fool the atmosphere like this, and so they don't do anything to actually solve the problem. Only real emissions reductions will do that.

The government also released its annual net position report, which shows a 10% improvement in our expected Kyoto surplus, again due to methodological changes:

Removals from afforestation, reforestation and deforestation under the Kyoto Protocol are now projected to be 85.8 Mt CO2-e over 2008–2012. This is 3.0 Mt CO2-e higher than projected last year. This increase is primarily due to improvements to our estimates of the rates at which forests sequester carbon.
Looking back through my past analysis of previous Net Position Reports, every significant shift in our position is due to such changes. Actual policy doesn't seem relevant; what matters is accountancy. Again, I have no doubt that these changes will withstand the scrutiny of international peer review. At the same time, the fact that none of them affect the 1990 baseline makes the whole thing a giant fiddle, an exercise in Enron accounting. We - and the environment - deserve better form our politicians than that.

No freedom of speech in the UK II

In October 2011, UK Tweeter Olly Cromwell posted this tweet:

Which cunt lives in a house like this. Answers on a postcard to #bexleycouncil
For posting that, he had his house raided by police, and his computers, mobile phones, and digital cameras seized. He was charged with sending "grossly offensive malicious communications", and has been convicted. The government is asking for a sentence of 6 months imprisonment.

There's no question that that tweet contains offensive language. But 45 days per letter of the word in question? He wouldn't get that if he'd said it in the street (he is unlikely to even have been prosecuted). But apparently bad language is so much worse on the internet.

This isn't an isolated case. Teenager Azhar Ahmed is facing similar charges, not for bad language, but for questioning the UK's war in Afghanistan (a topic deemed "grossly offensive" by the British establishment, especially when raised by a Muslim). Its all made possible by a telecommunications law which extended provisions originally designed to outlaw obscene phone calls to any digital communication. According to the relevant prosecution guidelines, the question of offensiveness isn't up to contemporary community standards, but "whether the message would cause gross offence to those to whom it relates... who need not be the recipients". So it doesn't just outlaw using the internet or other networks for harassment (which is well-covered by other law anyway), or to directly insult people, but saying anything which might potentially offend anybody. Which, as we've already seen, includes speaking out on controversial political topics which the government would rather not hear about. Basically that one tiny definitional shift - telephone to telecommunications network - has effectively abolished freedom of speech in the digital public square.

(For the curious: no, this can't happen here. Our relevant law applies strictly to telephones, and our definition of offensiveness is based on community standards which include a respect for freedom of speech. Let's make sure it stays that way).

New Fisk

The Baghdad street of books that refuses to die

Friday, April 13, 2012

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today; I'm off to Wainuiomata to participate in Wellington's inaurgural larp convention.

Normal service will resume Monday.

One state at a time

Connecticut has abolished the death penalty, making it the seventeenth US state to do so. Which means there's only another thirty-three states,a nd the US will be a civilised country.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

No money for paid parental leave; $650 million a year for farmers

The government has released its consultation paper on proposed changes to the ETS. The short version: a three-year extension of the current "two for one" "transition" measure to 2015, and a three year extension of the agricultural exemption, to 2018. The latter alone costs us ~$650 million a year at Treasury's nominal $20 / ton carbon price (or $260 million a year at the current artificially-low-because-of-overallocation-and-bullshit-Chinese-CERs $8/ton), in addition to the longer-term environmental effects of not having any incentive to reduce pollution.

And meanwhile, the government is crying poverty over Paid Parental Leave. Yeah, right. As always, its a matter of priorities. And as always, National is willing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies at its farmer cronies, while leaving ordinary kiwis to go begging.

Some good news

Back in February, UKanians learned that their public service was enabling tax-cheating by senior public servants. I was curious about whether such dubious arrangements were used here, so I did a quick survey of major government departments (SSC, Treasury, MSD, MED, MFAT, IRD, Justice, Health, Crown law, and CERA), asking them how many employees they had who were paid over $100,000, and whether any of them were paid by any means other than personal salary (e.g. through a company or trust). So far I've received responses from half of those departments, and the news is good: none of them use such arrangements. I wasn't expecting to find any, but its good that I can ask and confirm that our public service is as clean and professional as I expect it to be.

Ports of Auckland comes clean

Ports of Auckland has admitted leaking an employee's personal information to a sewerblogger:

The Council of Trade Unions says the Ports of Auckland has admitted leaking personal details about an employee who spoke out against the port.


President of the Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly told Radio New Zealand a letter from chief executive Tony Gibson to the Maritime Union acknowledged the port was behind the leak.

Ms Kelly said the letter does not name who was responsible for the leak, but it did state the leak was a response to Mr Walker speaking out publicly against the port.

"They acknowledge they released it. They explain, in their terms, why they released it, and regardless of the fact they clearly agree that it probably breached the Privacy Act, that's implied in the letter. But they don't go on to say that they change, in fact they go on to say that they reserve the right to do it again."

This is absolutely appalling, a gross abuse of power by the company, and they need to be held accountable for it. Some of that accountability will come from the Privacy Commissioner. But there needs to be more. These clowns have just cost Auckland ratepayers tens of thousands of dollars, as well as pissed all over the law. They need to lose their jobs for it. Sadly, given the way Ports of Auckland is run, they'll probably get a bonus instead for their "good work".

If all you have is a hammer...

What's National's answer to child abuse? Public sector reform, of course!

The Government is planning to amend the State Sector Act and the Public Finance Act later this year to introduce statutory boards overseeing a multitude of agencies.

Mr English said: "That group of social ministers are going to be tested, I think, by the focus we have got on children because that's an area where inter-department co-operation is the least developed ...

"These are big organisations used to getting their own cash for their own programmes and keeping off each other's territory. Well, if that worked we wouldn't have as many children suffering serious assault."

The Government is in the process of drawing up a white paper to tackle the problems that face vulnerable children such as child abuse.

Mr English said this was "the positive side" of public service restructuring.

"If we can demonstrate to department structures [that] working in a different way will actually save the lives of our children, or improve miserable lives, I think they will probably make the change.

Because obviously more cuts and another layer of National-appointed cronies will improve outcomes. What happened to actual policy? Instead we have a universal solution, imposed on utterly spurious grounds, in the belief that reshuffling the deckchairs at the top while not doing anything else differently will somehow magically produce remarkably different results.

What next? National will announce plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by appointing Jenny Shipley to oversee the Ministry for the Environment? They'll save Maui's Dolphin by getting Wayne Mapp to oversee DoC? That's the sort of logic they're using, and the link between their planned actions and the desired outcomes is tenuous to say the least.

But hey, it will mean a bunch of National cronies get well-paid sinecures, while further corrupting and politicising the public service. So that's a win in National's books.

Voting on austerity in Greece

Greece's unelected Prime Minister has called elections for May 6th. So, after five months of foreign-imposed "technocratic" (meaning "NeoLiberal") government, Greeks will finally get to vote on the policies being imposed on them, and on the politicians who abdicated their responsibility in the middle of a crisis.

It doesn't look good for either. European Tribune has irregularly been tracking the Greek polls, and their last update (from last month) shows the New Democrats at a record low 25%, and PASOK at 11% (down from 44% in the last election). Meanwhile, anti-austerity parties are rising. Unfortunately, Greece has an unfair electoral system, which hands 16% of Parliament to the single largest party as a "winner's bonus". So we may see a situation where anti-austerity parties win a majority of the vote, but are unable to form a government thanks to this gerrymander.

The results of this will be fascinating - as will the response from the EU's unelected technocrats if the Greek people tell them to shove their austerity. Will the EU try and overturn a democratic election in a member-state because it doesn't like the economic direction they want to take? Just a few years ago, the question would have been absurd; the fact that it can now be asked seriously shows how much this crisis has damaged the EU, and destroyed its democratic legitimacy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is shocked, shocked, he tells us, to learn that Britain’s wealthy are tax cheats. And if you believe that, I have a war in Afghanistan to sell you. Osborne's father is a Baronet. He was educated at public schools, and (along with David Cameron) was a member of the infamous Bullingdom Club at Oxford. And he has a net worth of over £4 million. He knows exactly what Britain's rich do, because he is one of them.

As for his solution, he recently cut the top tax rate from 50% to 45%, in the belief that this would increase revenue. That, I think, speaks volumes about what Osborne's "shock" is worth.

The Ombudsman on privatisation and transparency

Last month, former Ombudsman Mel Smith criticised the government's plans to remove part-privatised SOE's from the OIA, saying that there he "can't see any argument at all to remove them". Today, Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem has weighed in in agreement:

The Government's plan to block public scrutiny of partially privatised power companies is unjustified on commercial grounds and will see a valuable part of the democratic process lost, Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem has warned.


Ms Wakem - whose office investigates public complaints against the Government - said the fact that the Crown was maintaining controlling stakes in the companies on behalf of the public demonstrated their importance to New Zealand's interests.

The sale of a minority shareholding in them did not affect the reasoning for them being subject to the independent oversight and accountability provided through the Ombudsman Act and the Official Information Act (OIA).

I agree. There is a clear principle, established in the Local Government Act, that majority public ownership equals transparency. If its good enough for majority council-owned bus companies, forests and airports, its good enough for majority government-owned electricity companies and airlines. We own them; we should be able to see what they are doing. It is that simple.

New Fisk

Shot in the heart - the journalist Assad made into a martyr

The financial veto and the constitution

The prospect of Labour passing its Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months Paid Leave) Amendment Bill over the top of the government has raised the threat of a Crown Financial Veto, of the government disallowing a bill even though there is a Parliamentary majority supporting it. So what is this veto, and where does it come from?

The answer, of course, is Britain. Our Parliament descends from the English Parliament, which began not as an independent, elected, representative body, but as the King's Parliament. It existed basically for one purpose: to approve taxes to pay for the monarch's hobbies (such as drinking, buying palaces, and waging war against his fellow monarchs).

Of course, it grew into something a little different from that. But the underlying feudal mindset remained (and remains to this day in the UK). So when the British drafted our first constitution in 1852, they included a clause saying that Parliament (or the Legislative Assembly as it was then called) could not appropriate money except as recommended by the Governor. When we took control of our constitution in 1986, this clause was re-enacted:

The House of Representatives shall not pass any Bill providing for the appropriation of public money or for the imposition of any charge upon the public revenue unless the making of that appropriation or the imposition of that charge has been recommended to the House of Representatives by the Crown.
In other words, Parliament was (still) simply the financial rubber-stamp of the executive.

But our Parliament grew again, with MMP shifting power from the executive to the legislature. In recognition of this - and the fact that the government no longer had an inbuilt majority to vote down spending - the Standing Orders were changed, introducing the "financial veto". This reflected the law at the time. But then, in 2005, the law was repealed. So now we have a financial veto with no underlying statutory authority.

How does this fit with a country where supreme power is vested in a democratically elected, sovereign Parliament? The short answer is that it doesn't. In modern New Zealand, it is Parliament which rules, not the executive. Oh, Ministers make the day-to-day decisions, and generally shape the laws, but it is Parliament which has the final say. And if Parliament refuses their legislation, or passes something they don't like, the government just has to lump it. We accept that principle for ordinary laws, and we should accept it for financial matters too. The financial veto should be abolished.

But wouldn't this make it difficult for the government to govern? Firstly, arguably if the government has lost control of its spending, then they have lost the confidence of the House (confidence and supply being all about who controls the money). But this also points at the solution: the government, by definition, has a majority on confidence issues. If it really doesn't like Parliament appropriating money for something, it can make it a matter of confidence, and stand or fall on the result. That would be the democratic solution. Sadly, I don't expect autocratic National to take it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

No freedom of speech in the UK

On March 8, British teenager Azhar Ahmed posted the following to his Facebook account:

People gassin about the deaths of soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmless familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soliders grave & wish him hell because that where he is going..
For posting this, he was arrested and charged with a "racially aggravated public order offence". That charge was dropped when he appeared in court - perhaps because even the Yorkshire police could understand that "British soldiers" are not a racial group - and instead substituted with one of using a telecommunications network to send a grossly offensive message. He will face trial in July, and it is unclear what sentence he may face.

The British government considers Ahmed's message to be offensive. But it is also clearly political, objecting against his country's continued presence in Afghanistan and the civilian casualties it is causing. That is something people should be able to say, and say strongly, in a democracy. But thanks to the UK's participation in America's "war on terror", those doing so now face the risk of arrest and prosecution. So much for the myth that those soldiers are "defending freedom"...

Good news on paid parental leave

Last week Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months Paid Leave) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot. Now, it looks like the bill will pass its first reading, despite government opposition:

A Labour proposal to extend paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks looks set to pass its first hurdle in Parliament after initial backing by United Future.


However, the Government's support partner United Future campaigned in last year's election on extending paid parental leave to 13 months and could give Labour the numbers it needs to send the bill to a select committee for consideration.

Leader and sole MP Peter Dunne said today Labour's bill was a "step in the right direction".

"I haven't read bill and only had brief discussion with Labour but my inclination is to support its introduction."

Dunne is on the right side on this. The Families Commission recommended an increase way back in 2007, and while Moroney's bill falls short of their recommendation, it is a positive step. And by spreading the cost out, its also affordable.

Unfortunately, while the bill will go to Select Committee, it is highly unlikely to become law. Even if National fails to gather a majority to defeat it, Parliament's Standing orders allow a government to veto on financial grounds any law which would have "more than a minor impact" on the government's books. What constitutes "more than a minor impact" is entirely up to the government, and in the past (particularly in the 93 - 96 term) National has shown a willingness to veto any bill which didn't come from them (often on the spurious grounds of administrative costs). They'll be even more willing to do so when it costs real money which could instead be given to their cronies as tax cuts. So we may very well see a bill with majority Parliamentary backing vetoed by Ministerial fiat. People might want to start thinking about whether that is really appropriate - or democratic.

Going backwards in Wisconsin

Equal pay laws are one of the core protections of a civilised state. Prohibiting discriminatory pay-rates on the basis of gender frees women to pursue a career and frees families to choose their own social arrangements. And while they have not been as effective as we'd want - the stubborn persistence of gender-pay gaps shows that - they're still a vital safeguard against overt discrimination.

Except in Wisconsin. There, the State government, which has been at the vanguard of Republican madness in the US, has just repealed the state's Equal Pay Enforcement Act. Why? Because in the words of one state Senator, "money is more important for men". So therefore obviously his state should treat women worse, to make men feel better.

Just another example of how the US right is hell-bent on driving their country backwards and rolling back the last hundred years of social progress.

New Fisk

Under siege but vicar of Baghdad is still spreading the word

Who is buying our politicians?

On Thursday the Electoral Commission released details of electorate candidates' donations and expenses. On Saturday morning I spent some time going through them. Highlights include:

  • Pita Sharples brought in the big bucks from the construction industry, collecting $20,000 from Fletcher's Construction and $10,000 from MainZeal director Richard Yan. He also scored $25,000 from MainFreight chairman Bruce Plested.
  • Labour's Andrew Little was partly funded by two Australian unions (to a total of $2,975). He also received a $5,000 donation from Todd Corporation, the movers and shakers in the electorate he was contesting.
  • Tech entrepreneur Selwyn Pellett contributed openly to Labour MPs David Cunliffe ($2,000), David Parker ($1,999), then gave them another $2,000 each through his company Storm Distributors as well. He also donated $4007.75 to the unsuccessful campaign of Stuart Nash.
  • Clayton Cosgrove was given $17,500 by Independent Fisheries. Shane Jones was given $10,000 from Sealord.
  • Slave-fishers United Fisheries also got in on the act, donating $3,000 to Labour's Megan Woods and $2,800 to National's Nicky Wagner. That's dirty money, and they should return it.
  • Nick Smith's campaign was wholly funded by Nelson Pine Industries Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sumitomo Forestry Limited. There's an obvious payoff there as he was climate change Minister.
  • The Road Transport Trust went on an influence-buying spree, donating $5,000 each to Ruth Dyson, Bill English, Judith Collins, Joanne Goodhew, Todd McClay, and Phil Heatley. They also reportedly offered money to Clare Curran, but she turned them down.
  • Talleys - who are in the news ATM over their poor employment practices - also went on a buying spree, contributing $5,000 each to Eric Roy, Colin King, Chris Tremain, Joanne Goodhew, Todd McClay, Lindsay Tisch, Chris Auchinvole, and Chester Borrows. That's a lot of National backbenchers in their pocket.
  • Only one Green candidate, Jan Logie, declared any donations (and it was beneath the threshold) - presumably because they were running a campaign focused on the party vote.
Of course, this isn't the whole story; candidate donations of less than $1,500 are now invisible to us. But its a troubling picture nonetheless. Companies don't give out money out of the goodness of their hearts - they expect a return. Its pretty obvious what Talley's wants: a bunch of loyal backbenchers to advocate against any improvement in worker's rights. Likewise the Road Transport Trust: advocates for more roads. But what does the building industry want from Pita Sharples, and a pack of slave fishers from Megan Woods and Nicky Wagner?

Party donation returns are due at the end of this month. Unfortunately, the politicians raised the disclosure threshold to $15,000 - because obviously anything less than that is just pocket change - and so we will have far less information about who is trying to buy influence from them next time round.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Justice for Katrina

On September 4, 2005, six days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, members of the New Orleans Police Department opened fire with assault rifles and a shotgun on an unarmed family on the Danziger Bridge. Two people were killed and four injured. The police officers then attempted to cover up their crime, claiming that they had been fired on and were forced to return fire. Today, five of the police officers involved were held accountable for their crimes:

Five former New Orleans police officers who shot six unarmed civilians, two fatally, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have been jailed.

The prison terms range from six to 65 years for the shootings on the Danziger Bridge in September 2005.

Four of the officers were found guilty of firearms offences and the fifth was jailed for helping the cover-up.

The officers planted a gun and fabricated witnesses and false reports to make the shootings appear justified.

Another five officers had already plead guilty, receiving sentences of between three and eight years (the judge in the case criticised the generosity of their plea-bargains, which smack of law enforcement looking out for their own). One more is yet to stand trial.

Its some justice, but not enough. Real justice will only be seen when the New Orleans Police Department rids itself of the racist attitudes behind the killings, and the code of silence which allowed them to be covered up.