Friday, September 28, 2012

International Right to Know Day

As mentioned in my previous post, today is International Right to Know Day, when we celebrate freedom of information and promote the right of public access to our government information. To celebrate, the Freedom of Information Advocates Network has released a Statement on the Achievements, Challenges and Goals on the 10th Anniversary of the Freedom of Information Advocates Network [PDF]. There's a lot of good news in this: the right to information is being increasingly recognised as a human right protected by international law, more countries are getting FOI legislation, and it is being used more by media and civil society groups. At the same time, fewer than half of all countries have FOI laws, and implementation is often poor in those that do (including in countries we think of as being highly democratic, such as Canada). And there is a growing trend of governments trying to reinstate secrecy, by trying to exclude bodies or categories of information from coverage.

These trends are echoed locally. The Ombudsman's Office released its annual report [PDF] yesterday, which strongly criticised the government for its attitude to the law:

The Ombudsman's Office has warned of "highly dangerous" moves by the Government to keep information secret by drafting laws to avoid the Official Information Act.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem says she is concerned at the increasing number of officials in government agencies who fail to understand the constitutional importance of the legislation.

She pointed to several "reprehensible" attempts in the past year by officials to disallow Official Information Act requests for drafts of legislation, in particular on partial state asset sales, charter schools and changes to mining permits.

"I think it's the beginning of something that's highly dangerous," she told the

This is extremely strong language for an Ombudsman, and it suggests that the problem is serious. After thirty years of growing transparency, the government is trying to roll back the Act - and officials are taking their lead. Its not something we should let them get away with.

Laws spits on the law

Today is International Right to Know Day, when we celebrate freedom of information and promote the right of public access to our government information. So naturally, its when I hear that Whanganui District councillor Michael Laws is pissing all over the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act:

Wanganui District councillor Michael Laws says he will not release any private emails he had sent to other councillors about serial sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson.

All councillors have been asked to provide that information to the council's legal officer, Paul Drake.


But Mr Laws said he had "no intention" of providing that correspondence.

"I regard all emails between myself and any person - councillor or constituent - to be private and to have it open to an LGOIA request sets a dangerous precedent. What next? Text messages?," Mr Laws said yesterday.

The LGOIMA is very clear: information held by a member of a local authority in their official capacity is deemed to be held by that authority. Laws' correspondence as a councillor, whether to other councillors or constituents, is therefore official information and is subject to LGOIMA. It must therefore be provided, unless there is good reason for withholding it. And if Laws doesn't want to obey the law, well, I'm sure the Ombudsman will be willing to educate him about his responsibilities as a local authority member.

And yes, exactly the same principles apply to text messages. If its held in an official capacity, it is official information. Its that simple.

Bigotry wins in Tasmania

Tasmania's upper house has voted down the state's proposed marriage equality law, 8 - 6:

The Tasmanian Premier and gay rights campaigners have vowed not to give up on same-sex marriage despite a historic bill being defeated in the state's Upper House.

After two days of impassioned debate, the bill was voted down on Thursday night eight votes to six after every member of the Legislative Council spoke at length on the issue.

Premier Lara Giddings said it was a disappointing result but the Government would not give up on the reform.

"We will continue this. It's not the end. It's the beginning," Ms Giddings said.

So much for kicking their reputation as being the most backward Australian state. Meanwhile, the struggle continues in South Australia, New South Wales and the ACT.

Time to hold the GCSB to account

Since the Prime Minister announced that the GCSB had been unlawfully spying on Kim Dotcom, there have been two questions: how did this happen, and will anyone be held accountable for it? The Neazor report has given us a barebones answer to the first question: GCSB are too illiterate to read their own legislation, and too stupid to hire lawyers to do it for them. And the Greens have just made a start on the second, laying a complaint with the police accusing the GCSB of unlawfully intercepting private communications

The relevant section of the law is here. Politicla geeks may recognise it as the same section the Prime Minister invoked in an effort to hide his conversation with John Banks. But as Graeme Edgeler points out:

The factual scenario surrounding the conversation between John Banks and John Key that raised so many thorny questions, seems unlikely to arise here. It was not clear whether Bradley Ambrose intended to record the conversation; nor was it clear whether the conversation was a private communication. I am having some difficulty constructing a scenario in which either of these questions is likely to arise here.

Why? Because all the law requires for an offence is that someone "intentionally intercepts any private communication by means of an interception device". Defences of authorisation are covered in another subsection, and phrased in such a way that they simply do not apply here (as any interception has been admitted as being unlawful). There's no doubt about intention, so there's only the factual question of whether the GCSB's unlawful surveillance involved the interception of private communications (the definition of "interception device" being tautologous, its unnecessary to quibble about that).

But that may not be the law applying here. GCSB may instead have accessed a computer system without authorisation. And here, Graeme thinks things are murkier:
can quite easily construct scenarios in which the requirement for knowledge or recklessness as to the lack of authorisation may be difficult to establish beyond reasonable doubt.

The problem is that because of the secrecy surrounding GCSB, we don't know what they did (other than that it was a Section 16 interception because there was no Ministerial warrant), and therefore we don't know what law they may have broken. Plus of course there will be the general reluctance of the police to hold their own, or their allies, to account. But if they fail to do so, they will prove that our legal system is basically dysfunctional, that the law does not apply to all, and that they are nothing but a criminal gang in fancy dress.

Why we need marriage equality

The Campaign for Marriage Equality has put together a neat little video about why we need it:

You can donate to them on RocketHub here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Another unlawful detention

A couple of weeks ago, the police got some positive media coverage for this witty (if plagiarised) response to a question about police harassment. Meanwhile, in the real world, they're unlawfully arresting teenagers and denying them their basic rights:

Two Upper Hutt teenagers have told of their humiliating and traumatising ordeal at the hands of police, who arrested and strip-searched the pair before locking them up for 36 hours.

Apart from making shocking allegations about the incident itself - one of the girls having to express breast milk into a sink after being separated from her baby, not getting toilet paper for the weekend and being denied contact with their parents and lawyers - their experience has also triggered longer-term effects, their families say.

Neither girl is now attending school - one after being kicked out for becoming aggressive and unruly after the arrest, the other for fearing her baby would be taken away by Child, Youth and Family after fellow pupils taunted her for being "a criminal".


Earlier this week Youth Court judge Mary O'Dwyer gave permission to report her findings, in which she ruled the arrests unlawful and dismissed the charges.

She criticised the police's decision not to free the girls on bail, to keep them in custody for more than 24 hours and to not consult a senior social worker before doing so, which is required by law.

This is a basic denial of the rights affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act, including the right to bail, the right to consult a lawyer, the right to be treated with humanity and respect, and the right not to be arbitrarily arrested or detained. Its also a violation of the rights of young people and the basic standards we expect of government agencies in dealing with them. These violations are not just wrong - they also look set to cost us tens of thousands of dollars in compensation - and all because police do not take our fundamental rights seriously.

Remember that next time police make light of harassment. Its real, its wrong, and it costs us all. And the police need to clean their fucking act up and purge those officers who think this sort of shit is acceptable.

The Neazor report

The Neazor report into the GCSB's unlawful spying on Kim Dotcom has been released. You can read it here [PDF]. The short version? The GCSB are illiterate morons who can't read their own Act (in particular, the definition of "permanent resident"). The GCSB have apologised [PDF] and are committed to stopping it from happening again by

Establish new approval processes in the support of Police and other law enforcement agencies. This type of operation is halted meanwhile.

Agree with Police and other law enforcement agencies how to confirm immigration status before operations in support of law enforcement activity are undertaken within New Zealand.

There is no suggestion in the report of who in GCSB is responsible or whether they will face criminal charges for their unlawful interceptions. There's also no mention of when GCSB realised they had acted unlawfully or when they informed the Minister. In fact, there's nothing in there about accountability at all. As for the recommendations, they are pathetically weak - it would be "useful" for agencies to advise GCSB of immigration status. Its left for the GCSB's director to take the solid action necessary.

Overall, if this is the quality of the "watchdog" we have on GCSB, I think its time we got a new one - one with actual teeth.

A conflicted dictatorship

One of the tools of the Canterbury dictatorship in giving away water to farmers are the "zone committees". These unelected bodies are responsible for recommending nutrient and minimum flow limits for particular waterways. But there's a problem: they're completely riven with conflicts of interest:

outgoing North Canterbury Fish & Game officer Tony Hawker was concerned some zone committee members either held irrigation consents or interests in irrigation development - and did not have to declare them.


A cursory search by the Herald revealed that on the Upper Waitaki committee, chairman Barry Shepherd was involved in the Benmore Irrigation Company, while Simon Cameron is a shareholder in the Mackenzie Irrigation Company.

In the Lower Waitaki committee, Matthew Ross is a board member of Irrigation New Zealand, while member Robin Murphy also chairs the Morven Glenavy Ikawai Irrigation Company. Many other committees also featured members with irrigation interests.

"Technically, if these committees had to declare their conflicts of interest, they would never reach a quorum to hold a meeting," Mr Hawker said. "ECan seem to place quite a strong emphasis on the work of the committees to set limits in plans rather than the science presented from their own staff," he said.

Astoundingly, ECan is happy with this situation. They shouldn't be. Quite apart from being a fundamental ethical breach, these conflicts of interest expose ECan to litigation on basic administrative law grounds - bias - and allow the decisions of the zone committees to be overturned. Which is exactly what the new, "efficient" ECan was supposed to avoid.

But I suppose that rather than avoiding that problem by removing these members and appointing unconflicted ones, they'll simply get National to pass a law saying that such conflicts are OK and cannot be challenged in court. That is, after all, how this government operates: removing fundamental rights to support thieves and steal from the rest of us.


The Local Government and Environment Committee has called for submissions on the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Amendment Bill. Two copies, by Tuesday, 23 October 2012, to

Local Government and Environment Committee Secretariat

Parliament Buildings


Or you can submit online using the form above.

The bill will cancel the 2013 ECan elections, and extend Canterbury's dictatorship until 2016, in the name of farmer profits economic growth. It is an affront to our democracy, and one we need to speak up about. Otherwise, National may try and apply the same thinking on a national, rather than merely regional, level.

Graeme nails it

Public Address's Graeme Edgeler has updated his forensic legal examination of the GCSB - Dotcom spying scandal - and in the process nailed the core issue: why were the GCSB involved at all? As he points out, the police can already get interception warrants for serious crime. But what Dotcom is alleged to have done does not fall into that category.

[so] Why did police try to get the GCSB to do this? Because we don't let the police do it (foreign person or not).


short of someone in the GCSB acting as some sort of rogue agent, how that breach happened is not actually our biggest problem. The actions of the Police in using the GCSB as an end-run around laws we have put in place deliberately limiting police powers are of much greater concern.

It will be interesting to see if this issue is actually addressed by the Neazor inquiry, or whether it is quietly swept under the rug. But it is something that we need to look at. Restrictions on police surveillance exist for good reason. We should not allow the police to bypass them simply by laundering their unlawful interception through other agencies. Parliament needs to take a hard look at the police to see how often this occurs, who purports to authorise it, and what cases it has tainted. And then they need to hold those responsible in the police to account.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Did the police lie under oath in the Dotcom case?

Radio New Zealand reports that there are now concerns that the police lied under oath in the Dotcom case:

Detective Inspector Grant Wormald gave evidence at an earlier hearing, saying apart from surveillance carried out by the police, there was no other surveillance of Mr Dotcom to his knowledge.

Defence lawyer Paul Davison, QC, told the court on Wednesday that is inconsistent with what has now been released about the involvement of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

Outside court Mr Davison said that is an issue of real concern, which he wants to get to the bottom of.

(Context: Inspector Wormald works for OFCANZ, which asked the GCSB for assistance. It would be odd if the person overseeing the case was unaware of this, especially as they relied on information from GCSB in planning the raid)

It is unacceptable for any New Zealand police officer to lie in court. If Wormald is found to have committed perjury, then he should be fired. There is no place for perjurers in our police force.

Does the GCSB tell their Minister anything?

One of the basic conventions of our public service is the "no surprises" policy. If a department is about to release a steaming pile of shit into the public arena, for which the Minister may face questions in Parliament, they let the Minister know. This both preserves the Minister's confidence in the department and allows them to do their job of being accountable to Parliament for it. But according to Question Time today, that policy apparently does not apply to the GCSB.

The transcript isn't online yet (it will be here, in today's Question 10), but John Key was asked why Bill English didn't tell him that he had signed a ministerial certificate stating that release of further information in court would not be in the public interest. Key's answer was that English assumed that GCSB would tell him. Given the "no surprises" policy and the general level of ministerial oversight over departments, that wasn't an unreasonable assumption on English's part. But GCSB didn't tell Key until a month later, when they admitted behaving unlawfully. Its a gross violation of the "no surprises" policy, and it raises the question: does GCSB tell their Minister anything? Or are they essentially a rogue agency? And if so, why the hell are we giving them money?

This raises basic questions about the accountability of GCSB to its Minister, to Parliament, and ultimately the New Zealand public. Hopefully the Neazor report will give us some answers.

Only in Britain

The core rule of the Westminster system is that "the Queen reigns, but Parliament rules". A corollary of this is that the monarch stays out of politics. They do not comment on policy, either publicly or privately. They do not lobby, they do not agitate, they stick to the corgis and entertaining the tabloids. The need to avoid a perception of improper influence trumps any right they have to a view.

So, when the Queen pressures the government on something, and on a criminal matter at that, you'd expect such a gross violation of core constitutional principles to be big news. but instead, the BBC has been forced to apologise for reporting on it:

The BBC has apologised for revealing the Queen raised concerns with the government about why radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri had not been arrested.

The apology comes after security correspondent Frank Gardner told BBC Radio 4 of a private conversation he had with the Queen some years ago.

The BBC said it and Gardner were sorry for the "breach of confidence", which both "deeply regret".

So, the Queen pushes for someone to be thrown in jail despite a judicial process saying they should remain at liberty - raising echoes of the worst abuses of her ancestors which saw one of them lose his head. And the BBC gets in trouble for reporting it.

Only in Britain does deference trump the constitution.

A worthy cause

Want to do something about child poverty? For the last few weeks, Campbell Live has been campaigning on this issue, exposing the depths of the problem and ramming home the point that whoever is at fault, it isn't the kids. They've also pushed for an obvious solution: school lunches. While many (including myself) would prefer to see this done by the government, the fact is that the Prime Minister is away playing golf on Planet Key and doesn't give a shit. Its not his kids who are hungry, and he is totally insulated from the problem at the expensive snob-schools he sends them to. To John Key, child poverty is just an abstract statistic, not a pressing social problem.

So it falls to charity to fill the gap. KidsCan is one such charity. They already provide food in schools, and they estimate they can provide a targeted programme aimed at every hungry kid in decile 1 to 4 schools for just another $1.8 million. Campbell Live is going to help them get there by holding a "lunchbox day" to raise money this Friday. Or, you can just donate directly:

If you'd rather just raise some money and stay out of the limelight, the bank account details are as follows:

KidsCan Charitable Trust: ASB BANK 12 3026 0348180 03

And you will also be able to text Lunch to 8595 from next Thursday September 27, for an automatic $3 donation to "shout a child lunch".

This is a worthy cause, and one which deserves our support. Child poverty is a blight on our society, and reducing it is an investment in our future. If the government won't make that investment, we will have to do it ourselves. And who knows? Maybe if we stand up and be counted on this, we'll shame the government into actually doing something about it. If not, well, at least we will have helped.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A pattern of fraudulent behaviour

Last week construction began on a new private prison in Auckland. The theory behind private prisons is that contractual obligations will deliver better outcomes than the normal public service methods. But these depend crucially on contractors telling the truth about their own performance. And the major contractor on the prison project - Serco - has just been caught falsifying its performance data in the UK:

Serco, the leading private contractor to the government, has admitted that it presented false data to the NHS 252 times on the performance of its out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall.

The NHS Cornwall primary care trust (PCT) asked the company to audit itself following an investigation by the Guardian in May, in which several whistleblowers alleged the company was repeatedly so understaffed as to be unsafe and claimed that managers manipulated results when it failed to meet targets.

Serco and the PCT revealed the admission in separate statements on Thursday when a report for the PCT board published online highlighted this and a raft of other concerns about the privatised contract and how it was being run.

As the chair of the UK's health select committee drily notes, "to falsify returns once is once too many – to falsify 252 times represents a pattern of behaviour". The question we need to start asking is whether they are continuing this pattern of behaviour in their New Zealand operations. Serco already runs the Mt Eden Remand Facility, and after an appalling start its performance is reportedly improving (though its worth remembering that the targets are deliberately lowballed so the government can announce success). In the wake of the UK revelations, I think we need to check whether that improvement is real, or the result of fraud. And we need to make sure that there is proper auditing of their "results" in the future.

Must read

Today's must-read: The drugs don't work: a modern medical scandal, by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian, about the systematic corruption of science by the pharmaceutical industry. Reading it, I'm left with the unpleasant feeling that our system for approving drugs is utterly dysfunctional and is routinely manipulated by companies to make money. It also seems that Big Pharma is below even social science in the credibility stakes. Yes, we joke that a 95% confidence interval means one social science result in twenty is crap (happened by chance alone) - but at least social scientists regard this as a flaw. Meanwhile, Big Pharma goes actively looking for that one-in-twenty crap correlation, then publishes it while suppressing the other nineteen results, because they can use it to sell something and make some money. In doing so, they're little different from snake oil merchants.

Fixing this is going to mean some radical changes to the pharmaceutical industry. If we want honest results, then we need to take the job of testing drugs away from the industry, and give it to independent regulators. Until we do, we are going to see more and more problems with drugs that don't work, or are actively harmful, because money will continue to corrupt the scientific process.

It was the police's fault

Court records have revealed that the GCSB's illegal spying seems to have been the police's fault:

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) sought assurances from police that Kim Dotcom and his co-accused were foreign nationals, court documents reveal.


Organised and Financial Crime Agency New Zealand (OFCANZ) wrongly told GCSB agents the pair were foreigners.

OFCANZ asked the GCSB to glean information relevant to ''location, awareness on the part of the wanted person of law enforcement interest in them, or any information indicating risk factors in effecting any arrest.''

The documents state "GCSB sought assurance that all the persons of interest were foreign nationals. OFCANZ gave that assurance".

The advice on the immigration status of Dotcom and Van der Volk was ''incorrect.''

So, at the least we have serious incompetence on the part of both the police and the GCSB - the police for not knowing Dotcom's immigration status (that $500,000 fireworks display should have given it away), and the GCSB for not checking. More worringly is the possibility that the police deliberately lied to get the intelligence they wanted. Neither is acceptable.

And again, we should all be very curious about how often the police ask GCSB for help - because it seems that at least one of these things (location) is something the police would normally need a warrant for, and that the use of GCSB allowed them to bypass that safeguard.

I guess they're not privatising ACC

Over the past few years, ACC has relentlessly hiked its levies, both as a response to temporary fluctuations in interest rates (which caused a blowout in the projected cost of claims, allowing the government to manufacture a crisis to justify cutting services) and to make it less competitive when they open up the market to private competition. But now, they're looking at significantly reducing them, with a proposal for a ~12% cut in employer's and earner's levies. Which suggests strongly that they've finally seen sense and given up on their privatisation plans for the next few years at least.

Now, if only we can get them to do the same over SOEs...

How often do our spies do police work?

Back in August, when the possibility that the GCSB were working for the copyright mafia first arose, I drew attention to section 8(2)(c) of the GCSB Act, which allows them to perform their function (tapping phones and hacking computers) "in support of the prevention or detection of serious crime". As it turned out, "serious crime" wasn't so serious - it meant "anything in the Crimes Act" - including burglary, bigamy, and blasphemous libel. The SIS has a similar dodge, allowing them to retain information and pass it on to police "for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime" - which has a similarly broad meaning. Which raises the question: how often do our spies do this, and use their powers effectively to aid the police? What restrictions are there on it? Is there a threshold of seriousness before they will (ab)use their powers in this way, or do they just help out whenever the police ask?

These are important questions. Our police are rightly subject to tight restrictions on their use of surveillance. Our spies are not (and have lax Ministerial oversight to boot). If the police are systematically circumventing the restrictions Parliament has placed on them by going to the spies, we need to know, so we can decide if its really what we had in mind. And if they're going beyond what Parliament envisioned, then some emasculation may be necessary.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Another dumb idea

Hot on the heels of the US's brilliant idea that we should play host to US troops in exchange for them dragging us into more of their wars comes another dumb idea: the UK thinks we should share diplomatic missions overseas. Again, I have to ask: what's in this for us? And again, it seems like a shit deal. To point out the obvious, our diplomatic interests are dramatically different from those of the UK. We want peace. They want American wars. We want human rights. They collaborate in American torture. We want a robust system of international law. They don't want Tony Blair to go to jail for war crimes. So why the hell do they think they'd make good representatives of our interests? And why the hell do they think we would want to be publicly identified - with all the danger that implies for us when we travel overseas - with America's chief toady?

Its a dumb idea. But I guess that's what happens when you have a senile nation obsessed with its past imperial glory and with annoying its European neighbours.

The GCSB were working for the copyright mafia

So, it turns out that the GCSB were involved in the Dotcom raid - and that they were acting unlawfully in the process. An inquiry has been ordered, and the matter is now before the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. But given that its the Prime Minister's own department, there is also going to be political accountability through Parliament. Here's a few obvious questions the opposition might want to ask tomorrow:

  • Did the Prime Minister sign a warrant to intercept Kim Dotcom's domestic communications? The announcement of an inquiry says that the interceptions were conducted "without statutory authority". It is unclear whether that is because it was done without a warrant - making it a crime punishable by two years imprisonment - or whether it was because there was a warrant but it was invalid.
  • If there was a warrant, did it state that it would involve the interception of the domestic communications of a New Zealand resident? If so, then that raises a host of questions. As noted above, the GCSB are specifically barred from spying on kiwis. Key should not have signed such a warrant, and the Director of the GCSB should not have offered it.
  • If there was a warrant, and it did not state that it would involve the interception of the domestic communications of a New Zealand resident, did the Director of the GCSB mislead the Prime Minister, or did GCSB staff mislead the Director? Its possible the spies lied to the Prime Minister to get their warrant. If so, we need to know at what level it occurred, and whether it is a common practice.
  • Will the report of the inquiry be made public? This is vital for public confidence. Serious crimes have apparently been committed. it is vital that the public can see that there has been proper accountability and that proper steps will be taken to prevent them from happening again.
  • When the inquiry reports back, will the Prime Minister read the report? Pretty important to get him on the record about this, given his behaviour over John Banks.

Meanwhile, this just adds strength to the argument that spies should not be involved in any way in law enforcement. They simply have the wrong mindset for it, and the existence of these powers encourages the police to try and use them as a way of bypassing the restrictions we apply (with good reason!) to them. Its time we amended the law to ensure that powers are separate, and police and spies do not try and do each other's jobs.

Morgan on beneficiary-bashing

Writing in the Herald Gareth Morgan delivers a stinging attack on the government's social welfare distractions:

Anyone would think these politicians and the bureaucracy implementing the latest raft of tests for benefit eligibility haven't a clue what they're doing, While it's irrelevant in terms of achieving anything apart from political populism, sadly it is very damaging for anyone in need of a Winz benefit.

Among other things, the bill replaces the current policy of cutting the benefit by 50 per cent for four weeks if a beneficiary turns down 'suitable work' to a complete forfeit for 13 weeks for some beneficiaries. And benefits will be cut for parents who fail to enrol their children in early childcare for a minimum number of hours a week or fail to register their children with a GP.

Forcing people into any job won't contribute to reducing our working age populations' reliance on income support. Those working on low paid incomes get benefits nowadays anyway, that's how absurdly disjointed benefits have become from the market value of low skilled labour.

The numbers on benefits move in line with business cycles. When the economy is growing and employers are short-staffed beneficiaries go to work - even those most maligned of beneficiaries, sole parents. National is conducting a witch hunt and it is not just disappointing in terms of the intellectual vacuum that underlies its social policy, it's a despicable display of victimising the less fortunate.

(Emphasis added)

Its the last bit that's the real meat. If the government wants to get people off welfare, it needs to create jobs. Anything else is simply rearranging deckchairs at best, and sadism at worst.

New Fisk

The Long View: Beyond the Alexandria Quartet: a 'lost' Lawrence Durrell novel reveals the author's Israel bias

Against US troops in NZ

So, US Defence Secretary (and war criminal) Leon Panetta wants to station US troops in New Zealand. I have just one question to ask in response: what's in it for us? Because there doesn't actually seem to be any benefit in it for New Zealand. We get to be marked as US "territory", possibly used as a remote venue for torture or other US war crimes, and we get to have our people killed and raped by American soldiers (as happens in e.g. Okinawa). And in exchange, we get to be dragged into their wars. That sounds like a shit deal, and one no proper representative of New Zealand's interests should want any part of.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Prising open our National Parks

Back in 2010, National decided that it wanted to dig up our National Parks. The public didn't buy it. but now, they're back for another go, with the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill. The bill will do a positive thing, by ensuring that all land classified as a National park, Nature Reserve etc in future is automatically included in Schedule 4. But it also weakens the protection on that land, in order to allow mining.

At present, decisions on whether to permit mining on Schedule 4 land are made by the Minister of Conservation, and strictly on conservation grounds. The bill would change that, inserting the Minister of Energy as a joint decision-maker, and adding an economic benefits test. So, the question of whether to dig up a National Park will be a question of "balancing" conserving the area with the projected economic benefits of destroying it. And under National, we know which side will win that test: it will be all mining, all the way, and conservation values will be ignored.

These are both terrible ideas, which will weaken conservation protections on our most valuable natural taonga. They should not be enacted. National Parks, Reserves and Wilderness Areas are for conservation, not mining, and the law should reflect that.

Why we need the thermal ban

Charles Chauvel's Electricity (Renewable Preference) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot today. The bill seeks to restore Labour's 10-year moratorium on the construction of new thermal electricity generation. its an old bill, which has been before the house (and been voted down) before. But with its revival, its worth looking again at why we need it.

The biggest and most important reason - and the reason why the ban was imposed in the first place - is climate change. Thermal generation - coal and gas - was responsible for 23% of our total electricity generation last year (figures from the latest New Zealand Energy Quarterly), and is responsible for roughly 5.5 MTCO2-e of emissions - 7 to 7.5% of our total. And that's in a good year. Most of those emissions are locked in for the foreseeable future: power plants last 40 - 50 years, and we had a spurt of construction of gas-powered generation in the 1990's. So, if we want to eventually reduce those emissions, the first task is to make sure they don't get any worse, while ensuring that there is enough clean generation to take up the slack.

The second reason is the energy strategy [PDF]. Labour committed to, and National retained, a goal of 90% renewable generation by 2025. But National has no actual policies to achieve that goal - it thinks the market will do it magically all by itself. Meanwhile, current projections show that we will miss that target, thanks mainly to the continued construction of new thermal generation.

Meanwhile, we have wind and geothermal industries which are competitive, and which are already providing most of the new generation being constructed each year. But those industries face the risk of being monstered by a new gas plant, which would flood the market while locking in high emissions.

The answer to the problem then is pretty obvious: stop people from building new thermal generation. This won't result in a shortage of supply, because we have plenty of wind and geothermal on tap (we have over 2.5GW of wind projects already consented; all we need to do is build them). And it won't result in higher retail electricity prices (to the contrary - wind lowers prices to consumers because it displaces expensive thermal generation from the top of the dispatch curve). But it will ensure that we cap, then reduce our thermal electricity emissions, while moving to a much more sustainable electricity system. And in the current environment, with dwindling fossil fuels and climate change rocketing out of control, that looks like a damn good idea.


A ballot for two member's bills was held today and the following bills were drawn:

  • Electricity (Renewable Preference) Amendment Bill (Charles Chauvel)
  • Conservation Natural Heritage Protection Bill (Jacqui Dean)

Both bills were previously covered in "In the ballot", here and here. Chauvel's bill has been before the House before, in 2010, and was voted down. its difficult to see it gettign a different result now, but as the Greens have shown, you need to keep making the argument in order to win it. And in this case, its an argument that definitely needs to be made.

The full list is on Red Alert, here.

National opposes transparency

I have a particular interest in freedom of information and public accountability, so I spent some time this evening watching the debate on Darien Fenton's Local Government (Council-Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill. The bill would remove the exclusion of port companies from the definition of council-controlled organisations, thus making them subject to the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act and Ombudsmen Act, as well as applying various requirements around being a good employer, exhibiting a sense of social responsibility, and following sound business practice. These rules apply to every other company which is majority- or wholly-owned by a local authority - bus companies, airport companies, street-cleaning companies etc - on the basic principle of "we own it, so we can see how it spends our money". As I've noted before, there seems to be no good reason for excluding port companies from this regime.

During the debate, it quickly became apparent that National opposed the bill. Their reason? That wasn't so clear. Here for example is Jacqui Dean's speech on the issue, in full:

Mr Speaker, this bill is arrant nonsense, and I do not support it.
Yes, really [video, from 7:15]. And we're paying her $140,000 a year plus perks for this thoughtless arrogance.

Unlike Dean, former Local Government Minister Nick Smith [video] did give some reasons: that the bill was supported by unions, that Labour was left-wing, and that greater transparency over publicly-owned companies was somehow incompatible with sound business practice. Meanwhile, in the real world, our SOEs, who have been subject to exactly this regime on the same principles for the past twenty-five years, continue to make profits. Nicky Wagner [video] meanwhile seems to think that greater transparency and oversight reduces efficiency rather than ensuring it.

These are not the arguments of people interested in democratic, accountable government. They are the arguments of secretive authoritarians. And watching the debate tonight, I get the impression that if the OIA were introduced into the House today, the National Party would oppose it. We can only hope that Peter Dunne disagrees with them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bigotry wins in Australia

Australia's House of Representatives has just voted down a marriage equality bill, 42 - 98. 62% of Australians support marriage equality, but only 30% of their MPs do. Talk about being out-of-touch...

But this hasn't ended the issue. Instead, its going state-by-state. Tasmania, South Australia and the ACT are legislating or have announced plans to legislate, and New South Wales has just announced that they will too. If Australia's federal Parliament won't listen to their people and do the right thing, the states will do it for them.

An attack on the rule of law

If you're convicted of a criminal offence, and you serve your sentence, that's it, right? You've done your time, paid your debt to society, and they can't punish you any more. That's what the longstanding protections against retroactive penalties and double jeopardy - now encoded in our Bill of Rights Act - mean, right?

Not when National is in power. Faced with a deeply unpopular (and unpleasant) man being released from prison at the end of his sentence, they're legislating to allow him to be detained indefinitely.

The full bill is here. It allows people convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence to be detained in a "residence" on prison grounds under effective house arrest, their mail censored, their phone calls bugged, forced to obey every petty whim of the guards, on pain of random strip searches, solitary confinement or restraint. Which sounds a lot like prison, except the prisoners are kept in houses rather than cells. Though if the government decides that it can't be bothered with the semantic pretence, it can simply detain these people in prison instead. And this despite people having completed their sentence and served their time.

Its an explicit breach of the Bill of Rights Act, of Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and of long-established legal principles. And the government admits this. The Regulatory Impact Statement on the bill [PDF] repeatedly notes that the legislation "is likely to be inconsistent with the BORA and... international obligations" and that it is likely to be found (by both NZ courts and the Un Human Rights Council) to be a retroactive punishment, double jeopardy, and arbitrary imprisonment. The Attorney-General's BORA-vet is as-yet unavailable, but its hard to imagine him disagreeing with that assessment. Despite that, National will ram it through anyway. Which is just another reminder that Parliament does not take its obligations under the BORA seriously, and that we should take the job off them and give it to the courts.

Suffrage day

Today, September 19, is Suffrage Day. On this day in 1893, women got the vote. It was a hard-fought battle, and one we are justifiably proud of as a nation. Which is why its all the more outrageous that today, women (and men) in Canterbury cannot vote for their regional government, thanks to a National-imposed dictatorship explicitly predicated on the belief that the people will make the "wrong" (for farmers and other National cronies) decisions.

We pride ourselves on being a democratic nation. Overturning democracy because you don't trust the voters fundamentally undermines that, and should shame us all.

So, if you're in Christchurch, and value our shared right to vote, go to the Bridge of Remembrance at 17:30 this evening, and speak out for our democracy.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and one with a couple of interesting transparency-related bills on the Order paper. First up there is the third reading of the Hutt City Council (Graffiti Removal) Bill, which should whizz through. Following that, there is David Clark's Minimum Wage Amendment Bill, which while worthy will be voted down by National because it will help the poor not the rich. Following that, there's Shane Jones' Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Amendment Bill and Darien Fenton's Local Government (Council-Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill, both of which might make it to select committee for consideration, unless Peter Dunne adopts a specifically anti-transparency position. Finally, if things go well, the house should be able to make a start on Winston Peters' Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Amending Primary Function of Bank) Amendment Bill, which National will vote down because it is heretical to their outdated NeoLiberal economic orthodoxy.

There should be a ballot for three bills tomorrow morning. As always, I'm looking forward to see what will be drawn.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Let them play golf"

Today, in Question Time, we were introduced to a new place: "Planet Key", where John Banks complied with the law. Confronted with this, John Key offered his own description:

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I do not know so much about “Planet Key”, but my expectations are it would be a lovely place to live, it would be beautifully governed, golf courses would be plentiful, people would have plenty of holidays to enjoy their time, and what a wonderful place it would be.
"Golf courses would be plentiful". And that, readers, is John Key's vision for New Zealand. Sounds a lot like a modern "let them eat cake".

Defend Canterbury's democracy tomorrow!

Last week, the government announced plans to extend its dictatorship in Canterbury for another three years. This hasn't gone down well with Cantabrians, and they have organised a protest tomorrow - Suffrage Day - to demand their democracy back:

When: 17:30, Wednesday 19 September
Where: Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch

FaceSpy event here.

Will National support transparency?

New Zealand has one of the best freedom of information regimes in the world, which applies to almost every government agency - including government and local government-owned companies. But there is a gap in that regime: port companies. While every single one of them is wholly- or majority-owned by local government, a clause in the Local Government Act excludes them from the coverage of our official information legislation. This is significant; these companies control hundreds of millions of dollars of public money. But thanks to the exclusion, there is no effective oversight of how that money is spent.

Labour has a bill which will plug that gap, and bring port companies back under the reach of LGOIMA. It will come before the House tomorrow. So, the big question is, will National support it? Do they support transparency over public entities and public money? Or will they try and ensure that those bodies and their handling of public money continues to be shrouded in a veil of secrecy? I guess we'll have an answer tomorrow evening.

(Some) justice for Ian Tomlinson

In 2009, UK police officer Simon Harwood beat newspaper-seller Ian Tomlinson from behind during a protest. Tomlinson, whose hands were in his pockets and who posed no threat to police, died shortly afterwards, his insides pulped by the blow. Harwood, a serial offender who had repeatedly been accused of using excessive force against members of the public, was eventually acquitted by a jury. But now, finally, he's been punished in a minor way: he's been sacked for gross misconduct:

The Metropolitan policeman who struck and pushed Ian Tomlinson as he walked away from riot officers on the fringe of the G20 protests in London has been sacked with immediate effect after a disciplinary hearing found he had committed gross misconduct.

It was "inconceivable" that Simon Harwood, who was cleared of Tomlinson's manslaughter in July following one of the most high-profile cases of police misconduct in recent years, could ever work as a police officer again, the three-strong panel ruled.

Commander Julian Bennett, who chaired the panel, said: "PC Harwood's use of force in this case cannot be justified. His actions have discredited the police service and undermined public confidence in it.

Its not enough, but its some justice, and it will at least make sure harwood is not able to abuse his position to beat and kill anyone else. As for real justice, that will have to come from the civil case Tomlinson's family will be pursuing.

Bennett claims not to have settled with Natasha Fuller

Last month, Paula Bennett raised eyebrows when she "settled" her case over abusing Natasha Fuller's privacy with an utterly unrepentant "apology". Someone was curious about whether the taxpayer had paid for Bennett's stupidity, so they used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask for the details. The result is rather surprising:

I made no private settlement with Ms Fuller as I do not accept that I breached her privacy.

As there was no settlement there was no settlement cost. There was a cost relating to the legal advice which I received from the Crown Law Office and from a Queen's Counsel. This legal advice was paid for by the Ministry of Social Development.

Assuming Bennett is not playing word games here - something that cannot be ruled out from this Minister - this is absolutely appalling. But it does explain why Bennett is so absolutely unrepentant: she got away with a serious abuse of her Ministerial office, without having to pay any personal or professional cost at all. And having been allowed to go unpunished, it makes it even more likely that she will abuse her position in a similar fashion in the future.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Charter schools in the UK

As everyone knows by now, thanks to ACT, our government is experimenting with charter schools, using the children of Christchurch and South Auckland as guinea pigs in their ideological experiment. That's bad, but it could be worse - at least they're only experimenting. In the UK, the government jumped in on this ideologically-driven policy with both feet - and the result has been a disaster. The good news is that there are very few of the new "free" schools. The bad news is that tens of millions has been wasted on failed projects already, while the successful ones have increased social and religious segregation. As in the US and Sweden, there are two primary groups wanting to establish "free' schools: rich parents wanting to exclude the poor, and religious quacks wanting a government handout to teach creationism, bigotry, and anti-vaccination quackery (and we're seeing the same trend here). Neither has any sort of place in a state-funded education system.

Colluding in the coverup

On Thursday, we learned that the South Yorkshire police had engaged in an extensive coverup and victim-blaming operation in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. Now we learn that the British Crown Prosecution Service have been aware of this for fourteen years, but have done nothing:

Senior lawyers at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were handed detailed analysis of the police cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster 14 years ago but decided to take no action against any officers involved, the senior lawyer who led a private prosecution on behalf of the families says today.

In a withering attack on the criminal-justice system in The Independent, Alun Jones, QC says the Director of Public Prosecutions needs to explain why his office did "absolutely nothing" in 1998 after considering a line-by-line analysis of tampered reports by South Yorkshire police.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Cabinet office also refused to disclose information it held on the disaster, claiming that it was contrary to the public interest. We now know that that information was also deeply critical of the South Yorkshire police. But right up until the moment the Hillsborough Independent Panel released its report, the top level of the British government was colluding in the coverup.

The entire British legal and political establishment is rotten to the core. Whether it is from upper-class solidarity or a medieval conception of government which sees the people as subjects to be ruled rather than citizens who rule, the result is the same: faced with evidence of wrongdoing, they stand with each other rather than the public, and lie and smear and cover-up, all in the name of "preserving public faith". In the process, those responsible are not held to account, lessons are not learned, and wrongdoing continues. Then, when the coverup is inevitably exposed, causing an even greater loss of public faith - the establishment having been proven once again to be liars - they do not learn the fucking lesson. It is secrecy and unaccountability which destroys public faith in government - and openness, transparency, and accountability which enhances it.

"A higher standard of conduct"

When John Key became Prime Minister in 2008, he promised to hold his Ministers to a higher standard than Labour had done. He lied:

Prime Minister John Key says he does not need to read a police report into John Banks' mayoral campaign donations, as he continues to stand by his minister.

The police documents, reported on Thursday by the Herald, revealed that internet tycoon Kim Dotcom told police Mr Banks had asked him for two $25,000 donations for Mr Banks' 2010 Auckland mayoral campaign.

Dotcom said Mr Banks asked him to split his donation into two cheques of that amount so he would not have to declare where the money came from.

The police investigation found Mr Banks had filed a false election return but had not done so deliberately, because he did not read it before putting his signature to it. No charges were laid.

So, we have a Minister who has been found to have behaved corruptly in a local body election, but avoided prosecution because of the time limit on the strict liability offence. And all the Prime Minister can do is cover his eyes and say "la la la I'm not looking".

A higher standard of conduct? I think not.

New Fisk

Al-Qa'ida cashes in as the scorpion gets in among the good guys
The forgotten massacre

So much for good faith II

on Thursday, Maoridom gathered at Turangawaewae to discuss a joint negotiating position over water and asset sales. The result was a call for a national settlement to resovle the issue. The next day john Key gave his response, rejecting any prospect of such a settlement - and today he's threatening to nationalise water, foreshore and seabed-style, so he can sell it to his rich mates.

Which I think ends any pretence of good faith on the government's part. Unilaterally rejecting the other party's position before negotiations even start is not good faith. Nor are threats of confiscation. And good faith is important here, not just because it is decent, but also because it is required by law. New Zealand Maori Council v. Attorney-General (1987) (the "lands" case), in identifying the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi on which the case was based, found that one of them was a duty of partnership, which required the government to act reasonably and with the "utmost good faith". Those same principles are in play here. The government, in carrying out powers under the Mixed Ownership Model (such as, oh, deciding to sell stuff which is subject to a Treaty claim), is not permitted to act in a manner inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty. If the government refuses to obey that law (a law of its own making), then the courts will force them to, by enjoining any sale until a settlement is reached. it is that simple.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A war criminal comes to visit

According to the ODT, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta will be visiting New Zealand next week. I have one question about the visit: are we going to arrest him?

As director of the CIA, Panetta was responsible for the US's drone campaign in Pakistan, which has indiscriminately attacked the civilian population in pursuit of a handful of terrorists. As Phillip Crawford and David Henderson point out,

Under the Geneva Conventions and other international laws, it is a war crime to launch indiscriminate attacks affecting the civilian population or civilian objects with the knowledge that such attacks will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects. This distinction between combatants and noncombatants is fundamental to all humanitarian law.
And that distinction is completely ignored by the indiscriminate policy Panetta developed and oversaw.

(There's also the matter of his organising the cover-up of the CIA's torture programme, which makes him part of a joint criminal enterprise, along with most of the Bush Administration, under international legal doctrines the US was instrumental in establishing)

New Zealand, like all civilised nations, claims universal jurisdiction for war crimes. War criminals can be arrested and prosecuted under the Geneva Conventions Act 1958. And that is exactly what should happen to Panetta the moment he steps off the plane.

Ending arbitrary searches in the UK

In 2010, following an ECHR ruling that they were arbitrary and unlawful, the British government suspended its reviled anti-terrorism "stop and search" powers. Now they look set to do the same to anti-terrorist border searches.

The searches in question allow people at ports or airports to be stopped, searched, and detained by police for up to nine hours - during which they may be DNA tested and must answer questions on pain of criminal prosecution. Like "stop and search", they do not require any suspicion or reasonable cause. And like "stop and search", they have been turned into an exercise in racism, being used overwhelmingly against the UK's Muslim population. Which in turn has eroded public trust from the communities concerned (grabbing people, detaining them, then threatening them with torture abroad unless they become your informants tends to do that).

Its one thing to search people at airports. Its quite another to do so on a completely arbitrary basis, with no safeguards, under conditions reminiscent of a police state. The UK should get rid of these powers - and the sooner, the better.

Banks lied

Since the evidence of his dodgy donations started emerging, John Banks' strategy has been to try and lie his way out of trouble. He lied that he was not aware of the donation. He lied that he hadn't called Dotcom to thank him for the money. He lied that he "hardly knew" the man. And now, it appears that he lied in his crucial statement to police that he had not read his election donation return before signing it:

Mr Banks is likely to face further questions after his press secretary removed his line of defence against the accusations.

Police said they could not prove that he knew the content of the form was false because it was filled out by the campaign treasurer, who assured Mr Banks it was "true and correct". Mr Banks then signed it.

[Press secretary Shelley] Mackey yesterday challenged descriptions of this as saying Mr Banks signed the form without reading it. In an email, she said: "But John Banks did read the document."

Police had already established Mr Banks knew who some anonymous donors were. Ms Mackey's statement meant he would have known the donation form did not include donors of whom he was personally aware.

She then back-pedalled, saying the treasurer had "gone over" the form with Mr Banks.

...which is enough to cast significant doubt on Banks' "I knew nothing!" defence, and invites the case to be re-opened.

Meanwhile, Banks also seems to be lying about whether he gave the police permission to release his statement. Though now that he's said publicly that he gave permission, hopefully they'll be good enough to take him at his word and release it.

And regardless: a man who solicits donations with an explicit offer of influence, then systematically lies in an effort to cover it up, is unfit to be a Minister. As the Cabinet Manual points out, Ministers are required at all times to "act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards". Banks hasn't. He violated electoral law and got away with it due to time limits. He lied systemically to cover it up. he has, at all times, behaved as a deeply unethical person. And a decent Prime Minister would sack him for it.

So much for "divide and conquer"

The government's response to the Waitangi Tribunal's ruling on water ownership and asset sales was pure "divide and conquer": ignore the wider issue and negotiate iwi by iwi with those directly affected by the sale, in an effort to play them off against one another and get the vertical wealth transfer of asset sales back on track. Now, in the wake of yesterday's national hui at Turangawaewae, that strategy looks to be in ruins:

The meeting resolved that:
* Proprietary rights in water must be settled before the sale of shares in Mighty River Power
* A group should be set up to choose negotiators to deal with the Crown
* If those negotiations fail iwi support a New Zealand Maori Council court challenge.

"The A list of Maoridom were here, the whose who of Maoridom were here - they are part of the decision and they are bound by the decision," said one of the summit chairs, Tuku Morgan, yesterday.

In other words, stand together to get a better deal, rather than letting the government isolate people and pick them off one by one. And that deal will cover not just asset sales, but the broader resource management issues raised by the Land and Water Forum.

The ball is now in the government's court. The representatives of Maoridom have shown what they want. If the government wants to demonstrate good faith, and be a real Treaty partner, it needs to engage with them. And if they don't, then the courts will injunct them until they do. The choice is theirs.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

They lie reflexively

Twenty-three years ago, in April 1989, 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in a crush at Hillsborough stadium. In the wake of the disaster, the police blamed the victims, claiming they were drunk and criminals. They lied:

A fresh inquest into the Hillsborough disaster is likely to be ordered after the full scale of the establishment cover-up over the 1989 disaster was revealed for the first time.

Criminal prosecutions of key figures are also possible after the Hillsborough Independent Panel – which was chaired by the bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, and had unrestricted access to 450,000 documents over three years – revealed the depth of a police cover-up that swung into action the morning after the disaster.

It confirmed Lord Justice Taylor's key finding in August 1989 that the main reason for the disaster was a "failure in police control".

According to other reports, police gave false evidence, had the dead tested for blood-alcohol, and dug up criminal records in an attempt to smear the victims and deflect blame for themselves. Those officers too should face charges. Sadly, they're unlikely to. Instead, the establishment of the time has effectively protected itself, and left others to carry the can for their misdeeds.

Just another example of how the British establishment lies reflexively and systematically to protect themselves and their reputation. Given their established track record of deceit, its no wonder that people no longer believe anything they say.

Dutch elections

The Netherlands went to the polls today in the fifth election in ten years - and the result is a mess. The good news is that the racist "Freedom Party" was massacred, its support shrinking from 15% to 10%. Given the toxic influence this party has had on Dutch politics over the last five years, with its attacks on tolerance and attempts to victimise Dutch Muslims and other immigrants, that can only be a Good Thing. But the bad news is that there's no clear government. The old coalition is kaput, but most of the new possible governing arrangements require a "grand coalition", which is unlikely to produce policy change or work in practice. Which likely means another few years of austerity - exactly the opposite of what is needed.

There are full results here, and there's some commentary on European Tribune here.

New Fisk

The provocateurs know politics and religion don't mix

Banks' corrupt intent

The police file on the investigation of John banks for electoral fraud has been released under the OIA. I haven't had time to trawl the whole thing yet, but from media reports, it looks like Banks explicitly linked donations to influence:

Mr Banks asked mutli-millionaire Kim Dotcom for two payments of that exact amount so that he would not have to declare where they came from, the internet tycoon told police.

Dotcom said Mr Banks told him: "I want to help you, Kim, and I can help you more effectively if no one knows about this donation."

This isn't just evidence that Banks solicited the donations - it is evidence of corrupt intent. "Cash for favours" has no place in our political system, and any politician who promises it must be driven out. Banks should be sacked from Cabinet and disowned by the ACT Party. If either refuses to do so, then it should be taken as support for this sort of corruption.

National's economic death spiral

The Reserve Bank made its usual OCR announcement today - and in the process told us what we already know: that National's austerity is strangling growth:

The New Zealand government's drive for fiscal austerity will hold back growth and keep interest rates lower for longer, the Reserve Bank says.

The central bank cited the government's clamp down on spending in a bid to get back to an operating surplus by 2015 as a constraint on economic growth and a reason behind New Zealand's historically low interest rate environment.

The bank says the government's efforts to build its revenue base through spending cuts and raising indirect taxes will slice four percentage points from nominal gross domestic product over the next four fiscal years.

That in turn slices roughly $2.7 billion from government revenue in 2015 [PDF, p. 9]. So austerity and cuts become a self-fulfilling prophecies: you must cut because there is no growth, and there is no growth because you cut. And National is totally committed to this policy, driving us further and further into an economic death spiral - just like they did in the 90's.

And this is the party which sells itself as "better economic managers". Pretty obviously, they're not.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


The Government Administration Committee has called for submissions on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. Two copies, by Friday, 26 October 2012, to:

Government Administration Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
Alternatively, you can use the form linked above. Or you can use the Marriage Equality Campaign's online submission tool here.

This is an important bill, which will remove one of the last pieces of formal bigotry from our statute books. The bigots will be turning out in force to oppose it. So its important that kiwis who care about equality speak up too.

National's dual themes: authoritarianism and cronyism


(Morph courtesy of Rowan Crawford)

What are the big themes of the National government? Sadly, its authoritarianism and cronyism. On the first, we have ECan, "tough on crime", CERA, more "tough on crime", ECan again, and now National's war memorial farce. On the latter, there were tax cuts for the rich, ETS subsidies, gutting the RMA, ECan, PPP prisons, "Roads of National Significance", privatisation, charter schools - the list just goes on. And they're themes which have been developed even more strongly since the last election. As of last week, the government had passed just thirteen non-money, non-Treaty settlement bills since the election. Four of these - the Crown Pastoral Land (Rent for Pastoral Leases) Amendment Bill, Dairy Industry Restructuring Amendment Bill, Mixed Ownership Model Bill and Road User Charges Bill - were pure cronyism. Another four - Customs and Excise (Joint Border Management Information Sharing and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, Prisoners’ and Victims’ Claims (2012 Expiry and Application Dates) Amendment Bill, Search and Surveillance Bill, and Social Security (Youth Support and Work Focus) Amendment Bill - were explicitly authoritarian. The remaining five are mostly tinkering around the edges and patching up old legislation. Basically, there's not a lot to their policy other than "cracking down" on people, and handing great wodges of cash to their mates. And there seems to be little prospect that this is going to change anytime soon (though this could be taken as a new emerging theme of "vicious stupidity", I suppose ).

Update: Credited morph-creator. Which I should have done yesterday.

Pure Muldoonism

Last month, the government announced that it would be building a National War Memorial Park in Wellington for the centenary of Gallipoli. Militaristic wank triggers my mental spam-filter, so I missed the interesting bit: authorising legislation, passed in a very short timeframe with limited public input, granting the government all the consents and property rights required, with no appeal rights. Plus a blanket power to grant more (with a similar restriction on appeals) if required.

There is a name for this sort of assault on the democratic process and rule of law: Muldoonism. And the fact that its being done for a war memorial rather than a dam doesn't make it any less objectionable. In this case, though, its not even being done because the courts have said no - but because the Ministry of Culture and Heritage has pissed around on a project it has had a hundred years prior warning of, and now "doesn't have time" to follow due process. So, we're pissing all over our constitution, because a bunch of public servants were lazy and/or incompetent. That's a piss-poor reason, and heads should roll for it.

Climate change: A financial drain

The Green party are highlighting a key problem of National's proposed changes to the ETS: their support for subsidies doesn't just undermine their environmental goal of a 20% reduction by 2020 - but also their financial goal of a surplus by 2015:

The National Government’s aim of returning to surplus by 2015 will be put at risk by on-going and indefinite subsidies of major polluters if planned changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme go ahead, Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman said today.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has estimated the additional costs to the taxpayer for indefinite subsidies under the emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) could range from $330 million to $1 billion over the next four years.

“The National Government’s putting one of its flagship economic policies – the return to surplus – at risk by proposing to subsidise the cost of major carbon polluters indefinitely,” said Dr Norman.

“The additional subsidies will cost the Government up to $1 billion over the next four years pushing the surplus out by a year.

But hey, anything to keep the farmers and polluters happy, right?

National's pollution subsidies are an ongoing risk to the government's books. And they're pure wealth transfer: money taken from ordinary taxpayers (or worse, kiwi families in need via cuts) to be given to rich farmers and polluters. Its not sensible, its not rational, and above all, its not fair. And it is inevitable that a future government will have to reverse it, simply to remove this ongoing financial drain.

Cleaning up local body election funding

The government has announced reforms to local electoral finance disclosure rules, which will bring them into alignment with the regime of the Electoral Act. Good. As we've seen this year with the furore over John Banks, the law is an ass which allows unscrupulous politicians to hide donations (and therefore influence) from voters. But the problems go beyond just anonyminity; we've also seen widespread abuses around trusts, which in Palmerston North have resulted in outright corrupt behaviour. Its long past time these loopholes were plugged, and I'm glad to see that National is acting to do it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Climate change: A farce

That's the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's view of the government's proposed changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme:

Dr Wright says she is particularly concerned with subsidies to polluters being locked in.

“Right now we’re subsidising ninety-five percent of big polluters’ emissions. That was due to be phased out, albeit too slowly, but the Bill will leave those subsidies in place indefinitely.

“I am very concerned that the review process that would address these subsidies along with other ETS issues will no longer be compulsory but will occur only if the Minister wants it to.

“Heavily subsidised polluters have no incentive whatsoever to reduce their emissions when the tab for them is being picked up by the taxpayer.

The actual submission [PDF] uses harsher language, and opposes all of the significant proposed amendments. Extending pollution subsidies will mean we have no chance of reaching the goals the government has set. Removing statutory review provisions will reduce transparency and accountability. Permanently excluding agriculture will mean there is simply no incentive to clean up our most polluting industry. And failing to limit the use of overseas credits both removes any incentive for domestic emissions reductions, and prevents linking with overseas ETSs. These are terrible policies, and they are all going to have to be unravelled (if only to protect the financial situation of the government). But National is more interested in protecting its farmer-cronies than in protecting the country from climate change.

Weekly distraction

The government is doing badly in the polls, so Paula Bennett is back again to announce a new crackdown on the poor, threatening to cut benefits if parents don't send their kids to ECE:

Parents face having their benefits slashed in half if they don't send their children to school or early childhood education centres and enrol them with a doctor.

They must also complete basic health checks.

Social development minister Paula Bennett has just announced new 'social obligations' which she says will give kids a better start in life.

Of course, ECE isn't universally available, and homeless, starving kids are even less likely to go to school - but that doesn't matter to Bennett. There is a sadism bloc to appeal to, and "tough on welfare" headlines to get. Meanwhile, the key question - what will happen to the people whose benefits Bennett cuts? - goes unanswered. And we deserve an answer to it. Because its not clear how leaving people to starve and be kicked out of their homes is going to solve any problems, while being likely to create some fairly significant new ones.

A good settlement

The government has reached a deal with Tuhoe to settle their outstanding historical claims. A key part of the deal is the transfer of Te Urewera from crown hands:

Under a deal announced today, the Crown will no longer own the National Park, which will be vested in a new legal identify created by legislation.

An establishment board will initially comprise equal numbers of Crown and Tuhoe nominees. Over time Tuhoe representation is expected to grow.

Ngai Tuhoe will also receive redress valued at about $170 million, putting their settlement on a par with two of the country's biggest iwi, Ngai Tahu and Tainui.

This looks to be a good compromise. Te Urewera is Tuhoe land, and it was stolen from them. The fact that it is now a National Park makes a straight return politically difficult, but thanks to the generousity of Tuhoe it looks like we've got a deal which protects the area (including public access) while recognising Tuhoe's mana. And looking at the press release, they're planning on greater protection:
Both parties are keen to seek higher international recognition for Te Urewera such as a UNESCO biosphere reserve to promote the areas’ unique values. The legislation will include key provisions from the National Parks Act such as the protection of natural and historic heritage, public input into management and public access into the future.
I don't think we have anything to fear from this model at all.

So, I wonder whether John Key will scupper this deal for a second time?

The consequences of public service cuts

Since coming to office in 2008, National has slashed and burned its way across the public sector, and "capped" (meaning sacked) thousands of public servants. The result? More consultants, of course:

Increased use of consultants in the public sector is likely to continue for some time, Finance Minister Bill English says.

But Labour leader David Shearer said the trend was costing taxpayers.

Lists of the top 10 spends on redundancies and consultants in the public sector reveal the highest redundancy spends by government departments in the past five years, totalling just over $114m.

Many of the same agencies spent a total of $910.5m on outside help from 2008-09 to 2010-11.

The problem is that sacking public servants doesn't reduce the work a department has to do; it simply means they have fewer people to do it. So they have to hire someone. And frequently, this is the same person they just sacked, who now gets to charge consultant rates to compensate for their lower job-security. A saving? Not really. you just inflict a lot of pain, for no real gain (but the government gets to issue press releases that they are Doing Something, and surely that's worth $910 million, right?)

There's a second part to this problem, which hasn't bitten yet: erosion of capacity. Public servants are a reservoir of institutional and specialist knowledge; sacking them loses that knowledge. And usually, you don't know what's been lost until its too late. In the 90's we found that public service cuts meant that we had problems running elections, because we'd sacked too many of the people who know how to do it properly. This time round, it could be epidemic control, or managing an energy shortage, or properly archiving government records. We just won't know, until we wake up one morning with a mess on our hands, and a big bill to fix it. But I guess National doesn't expect to be in office long enough to have to deal with the consequences of its stupidity.