Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Jack's back!

Its Halloween! So naturally, there must be a grinning pumpkin to lure chocolate-seekers to their doom:


Is ANPR legal?

Thanks to an inquiry sent through FYI, the Privacy Commissioner is now investigating the legality of the Police's use of Automatic Number-Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology:

Police software that automatically collects numberplates to nab offenders could be illegal, the privacy commissioner says.

The tracking technology, known as automatic numberplate recognition, has already been condemned overseas, where critics have likened it to Big Brother-style surveillance.

The New York Police Department used it to spy on mosques and track worshippers through their numberplates.

In New Zealand, it is still being tested by police, but the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has questioned whether even a trial is legal.

There are particular concerns about police gathering information without people's knowledge, which could then be retained and possibly used for other purposes.

These are serious issues. In the UK, ANPR is pervasive, and the data is retained for years, allowing police to effectively track the movements of large numbers of people over an extended period. Initially, New Zealand police were retaining data from their trials for months - but this was stopped after people started asking questions (and looking at the paper trail (doc 13), the trigger was... that FYI request). Sadly, the police still seem to be in total denial about the privacy issues, relying on crude analogies to argue for a total surveillance state. Hopefully the Privacy Commissioner will succeed in limiting that desire, and ensure that all surveillance is limited, reasonable, and lawful.

Halfway there

So, just days after bemoaning the lack of a big, deep-pocketed developer to build affordable housing, the government has announced that Housing New Zealand will be going into the property development business in Christchurch:

The Government will build affordable homes for private sale for the first time in response to the Christchurch housing shortage.

Housing New Zealand plans to link with a private developer to build a mix of social housing and affordable homes for sale on five Christchurch sites.


Housing New Zealand plans to build between 200 and 350 houses in Christchurch over the next 18 months at a cost of between $60m and $90m.

Booker said 100 of those homes might not be owned by Housing New Zealand.

Socialism wins! But the government isn't all the way there yet - there's no guarantee that Housing New Zealand's new affordable homes won't just be snapped up by greedy landlords and parasitic Boomers and used to further keep young New Zealanders in rent-bondage while farming tax-free capital gains. As the Greens point out, it needs to be combined with positive measures to make sure these homes go to people in need: rent-to-by schemes, cheap loans for first home-buyers, and limiting sales to first home-buyers and social housing providers. Otherwise we're just subsidising the same people who are causing this crisis.

Still, they're halfway there, and that's a positive move.

The price of rotten cops III

The police's decision to run a false prosecution of one of their undercover agents in order to boost his credibility just keeps on giving:

The fake prosecution of an undercover police officer has led to charges against a senior Auckland Hells Angels member being thrown out.

Phillip Schubert was charged with offering to supply methamphetamine after Operation Explorer, which involved undercover officer Michael Wiremu Wilson infiltrating the Nelson Red Devils gang.

Wilson was the subject of a fake prosecution in which police deceived the courts and served a fake search warrant on a member of the public.

So that's now at least 50 charges against 30 people dismissed because of this abuse. Hopefully that will be a lesson to the police not to do it again. Though judging by Greg O'Connor's reaction, it seems to have had absolutely no effect on the underlying mindset.

Meanwhile, there's also this bit:
Leary rejected going to the Independent Police Conduct Authority as it was "like talking to a brick wall"

When even lawyers have no faith in the supposedly independent institutions set up to provide oversight of the police, in a case where there has been clear-cut malfeasance, you know that something is deeply, deeply wrong. The IPCA needs to be reformed, and turned into a real, independent watchdog which regularly prosecutes or fires police for their misbehaviour. Until that happens - until there are consequences for police abusing the law - such abuse will continue.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Perfect timing

50 years ago today, Parliament abolished capital punishment for murder. So naturally, its the perfect day for former Labour MP Stuart Nash to crawl back into the dark ages again:

That guy who killed toddler JJ Lawrence should be shot. Would happily pull the trigger.!

Having announced his desire to personally commit murder, this sadist proceeded to just keep on digging. I guess Trevor Mallard must be on holiday or something...

The Labour Party has a long and proud tradition of opposing the death penalty - they abolished it back in 1941, only to see the Nats reinstate it in 1948. They voted unanimously to abolish it in 1961. And they finally expunged it from the statute books in 1989. They also have a not-as-long but equally proud history of supporting gay rights. Stuart Nash is on the wrong side of that argument as well. I'm really, really glad that this sadistic arsehole is no longer in Parliament. Because if he was a Labour candidate, I'd regard them as electorally toxic, and not worthy of anyone's vote.

The real solution to the housing crisis

Yesterday the government announced its "solution" to the housing crisis - which to the extent it contained any concrete measures at all, seemed to be mostly about making it easier to build shopping malls. Meanwhile, the core problem - developers building high-end rather than affordable homes - remains completely unaddressed (and is simply going to be worsened by giving them mor eland to build more unaffordable homes on).

Over on The Standard, James Henderson points out the obvious: English has a solution right in front of him, but is too ideologically blinkered to see it:

Get the bloody government to do it, Bill. You own plenty of land, you’ve got the capital, and the State isn’t (or shouldn’t be) out to make a quick buck so it can do low-return affordable housing. Just do what the State used to do – come up with a few dozen (energy-efficient, eco-friendly) modular designs and get building.

With efficiencies of scale, you can get the homes built for around $200,000 each (that’s what a basic eco-home from Lockwood costs). Think of the number of houses that a billion a year could build – and that’s chump change to a government that has spent $280 billion in four years. And how many jobs would that create?

Its obvious, its sensible, if run properly its revenue-neutral (in that the government will be selling the houses it builds to first home-buyers and social housing providers). But National's "do nothing, leave the market to sort it out" ideology means English just can't even imagine it - even to address a clear case of market failure.

We need a government which will actually act to address our social problems. National is not and never can be such a government. Time for a change.

Here we go again...

The big news today is Hurricane Sandy hitting the US (and apparently flooding the New York Stock Exchange. Nature shows global capitalism who's boss). So naturally, the Nats have used this as cover to wheel out their latest attack on workers' rights. While the announcement focuses on the issue of part 6A of the ERA, which protects vulnerable workers from contracting out (and the race to the bottom model it implies), the really serious changes are hidden away at the end:

  • A return to the original position in the Employment Relations Act where the duty of good faith does not require the parties to conclude a collective agreement.
  • Empowering the Employment Relations Authority to declare in certain circumstances that collective bargaining has ended.
  • Allowing employers to opt out of multi-employer bargaining.

Basically, this means a return to the Employment Contracts Act regime, when employers could simply refuse to deal with unions and refuse to allow a collective agreement. its not phrased like that, but its what it means in practice. And the impact will be felt by all of us - because unions get their members pay rises, which are then passed on through the economy. It will mean a more unequal society, and further upwards redistribution from the poor to the rich. That's what the National Party stands for, of course - making the rich richer by stealing from everybody else. But I don't think its really what most New Zealanders, who are made poorer and more insecure by such policies, want.

Whose side are they on?

One of the prime causes of Greece's economic woes is tax evasion. An estimated 27.5% of the Greek economy is black, leading to a loss of 19 billion Euros of revenue a year. And a big part of this is Greece's wealthy, who seem to regard taxes as something peasants pay.

So, when a Greek journalist leaks a list of 2,000 wealthy Greeks (including politicians) with Swiss bank accounts who are suspected of evading taxes, what does the government do? Does it finally act on the list it has had in its possession for the past two years? Does it announce that it is investigating these cases and that prosecutions will be brought in due course. No, it arrests him. He now faces up to three years in jail for breach of privacy, despite the obvious public interest in the leak.

Its pretty clear whose side the Greek government is on - and it isn't that of its people.

A loss for austerity and a constitutional crisis in Lithuania

Lithuanians went to the polls in the second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday - and decisively gave their NeoLiberal government the boot. The Social Democrats look set to take power, with the support of the Labour and Order and Justice parties. They've promised to raise the minimum wage, tax the rich, and delay entry to the Euro to avoid Greek-style crucifixion. But there's a problem: the President is threatening to veto the government before it even begins:

Lithuania's president has threatened to block the new coalition being formed by three parties after a general election.

President Dalia Grybauskaite said she could not accept a government that included the Labour party, which came third in Sunday's poll but faces allegations of vote buying.

Labour was in advanced coalition talks with the first-placed Social Democrats, and the smaller Order and Justice.

The ruling conservatives looked certain to be ousted until the president spoke.

Details of the alleged vote-buying are here. They are currently being investigated, and the Labour party has made it clear that anyone involved will be expelled (of course, they would say that). So, there are definite questions about whether such a party is a fit partner for government. At the same time, the Lithuanian Constitution is crystal clear: it is not the President's place to say. Her job is simply to appoint as Prime Minister the person with the confidence of the Seimas, and she has no discretion in this. If the Seimas' choice for Prime Minister has the backing of the labour party, she has to accept that. If they then want Labour MPs appointed as Ministers, she has to appoint them. If she doesn't want to, she can resign. In this respect, Lithuania's president is an administrator, not a political actor, and certainly not a judge or prosecutor.

But then, this is all about being a political actor. Lithuania's president is a member of the formerly-ruling conservatives, and its hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to keep her friends in power and thwart the will of the people. It will be interesting to see whether she gets away with it.

(Meanwhile, the report of the OSCE's election monitors should eventually go up here)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Our anti-democratic monarchy

A member of Britain's royal family is visiting here next month - which means the police are cracking down on those who peacefully advocate change:

Police have started keeping tabs on anti-royals who might disrupt Prince Charles' visit here next month - but the group openly saying they would like to flour-bomb him haven't heard a peep.

The leader of a moderate republican group, Lewis Holden, says he's been put on a threat-assessment list - and thinks police have him confused with someone else.

No shit. The Republican Movement of New Zealand advocates for democratic change to the monarchy. For the police to be contact them and treating them as if they're some sort of violent terrorist group simply highlights the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the monarchy, and its incompatibility with basic human rights such as freedom of speech.

National's tyranny

So, its out there in the open: National explicitly suspended Canterbury's democracy because they feared voters would vote to protect the environment from rapacious farmers:

The Government suspended democracy and restricted legal action in Canterbury to protect an agriculture boom potentially worth more than $5 billion to the national economy, documents reveal. It feared the economic boom promised by Canterbury irrigation could be in jeopardy unless Environment Canterbury (ECan) was "stable, effective and efficient", says a Government report on August 27.


A separate Government document, disclosed to The Press under the Official Information Act, says the protection of Canterbury's economic contribution and its future growth were a "key consideration" for suspending democracy.

Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis said irrigation and the environment would have been threatened if the commissioners' terms had not been extended. The Canterbury Water Management Strategy has an end target of 850,000ha within the next 50 years.


A Government document, disclosed to The Press under the Official Information Act, reveals that this needs to be continued because there is a "strong risk" people could revert to appealing to the Environment Court.

In case its not clear enough: the cost of that irrigation boom is poisoning Canterbury's rivers. Canterbury voters don't want this; in the 2007 ECan elections they elected four councillors specifically on an anti-irrigation ticket, and this trend looked likely to continue. And that is why the government acted. Likewise, the persistence of the community in standing up for their environment and challenging dubious irrigation decisions was the reason National removed those rights.

Suppressing democracy and suspending the rule of law because you don't like the outcome is the action of a tyrant. It is exactly what happened in Algeria in 1991 and Burma in 1990 and what is likely to happen in Fiji in 2014. And if National is willing to do this to local government, what's to stop them from wheeling out the same arguments to suspend Parliamentary elections to prevent "socialists" from wrecking their "economic recovery" (you know, the one with no jobs, but half million dollar bonuses to CEOs)?

National's actions in Canterbury call their commitment to democracy into question. They can no longer be trusted to be responsible players in a democratic system. They must be voted out, and kept out of power until it is clear that they accept democracy.

New Fisk

Whichever of Obama or Romney wins, US dealings with the Arab world will change

A good idea

Dunedin City Council has started a disclosure log of its LGOIMA requests, putting them all up on the web for people to see. Its a good idea, which should both reduce repeat requests, and also allow public checking of their decision-making, and I'm surprised more agencies aren't doing it. Its not as if it costs a lot, and it just seems to be a residual sense of secrecy which is the barrier.

Censoring the environment

One of the things we've learned about National is that they really don't like the government publishing information they don't want to hear. In 2011 they shitcanned MSD's Social Report - an annual compilation of key social statistics - because it was about to start showing the effects of their policies on the poor. And now they seem to have done the same to MfE's five-yearly State of the Environment:

The Government is stopping the five-yearly State of the Environment report.

Put together by the Ministry of the Environment, the report is the largest stock-take of trends relating to land, water, air, plants and animals.

The next report was expected in December, but the Government has decided instead to look at the basic data for each area.

No reason has been given, but its hard not to see a connection with a recent report using State of the Environment data, showing that 52% of our rivers were toxic, and only 20% of them clean - reminding everyone of National's failure to protect our environment.

And the irony here is that one of National's big ideas in the 2008 and 2011 election campaigns (e.g. here, p. 5) was for annual independent environmental reporting. Strangely in their four years in power they've taken very few steps to actually doing it, despite Nick Smith having had the legislation drafted (and repeatedly put up as a member's bill) since 2007. And I guess with this move it really won't be happening now.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The purpose of freedom of information

What's the purpose of freedom of information? Our Official Information Act talks about "promot[ing] accountability" and "enhanc[ing] respect for the law", but at its core, freedom of information is about one thing: stopping governments from lying to us. Its a lesson being brutally illustrated in Scotland right now, where an FOIA request has caught the government lying over something vitally important: whether it would be able to join the European Union after independence:

The first minister has repeatedly said that Scotland would be an automatic member of the EU, be free to adopt sterling as its currency and would inherit all the UK's opt-outs on EU immigration and border controls. He has asserted that this position was supported by his government's legal advice.

But Salmond was forced to make a statement to the Scottish parliament late on Tuesday after opposition leaders accused him of "lying" and "covering-up" following an admission from his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, that no specific legal advice had been given by Scottish law officers on EU membership.

He's now facing allegations he breached the Scottish Ministerial Code - their equivalent of the Cabinet Manual. And of course having been caught lying over something so important is not going to strengthen the cause of Scottish independence. Salmond's deceit has probably just cost him any chance of winning his referendum. The sheer stupidity of it simply beggars belief.

Politicians lie and mislead in order to get their way and convince a sceptical public. Freedom of information lets us catch them at it. Which hopefully will mean a reduction in such deceitful behaviour in future.


Campbell Live had a disturbing piece last night on the Ministry of Education's secrecy around the Christchurch school closures. OIA requests by local communities for information necessary to inform their submissions in the "consultation" process are rejected out of hand. Worse, the Ministry appears to have instructed the Christchurch City Council - which is also a target of OIAs on the matter - to lie and claim that they did not hold information in order to thwart requests. while OIA expert Steven Price did suggest an innocent interpretation of that - that they were really trying to claim that CCC held the information on their behalf - I think that explanation can be discounted. Why? Because when Campbell Live asked the Secretary of Education about it, she didn't use that explanation, and instead resorted to blanket denials.

This is deeply disturbing, and it does not add to confidence in the process the Ministry is following. If they were running a real consultation process, they'd release this information, so the community can have their say and make their own judgement about whether the closures were necessary. The secrecy simply makes it seem like they've already made their minds up - on highly questionable grounds in some cases - and that the "consultation" is a total sham aimed simply at ticking the box before imposing a predetermined outcome. Which is simply not acceptable in a democracy.

The Ministry and Education and their Minister owe us some serious answers about what is going on here and why they are not being straight with the public. Sadly, I think that is the last thing on their minds.

Doing the right thing

The government has finally done the right thing and offered the NZ PRT's Afghan interpreters a safe haven in New Zealand. But its not all good news: the offer only applies to current employees. Previous interpreters, who are in just as much danger and some of whom have already been forced to flee due to death threats to them and their families, are excluded:

Diamond Kazimi, another former interpreter who now lives in Christchurch, said the news was "heartbreaking" for those who had worked for the Kiwi soldiers in the past.

His brother and cousin, who had both served as interpreters, were excluded from the offer.

"I am really angry that the Government doesn't really care about those who have worked for them before.

"For these people, it's their life.

"They will get killed if they don't come to New Zealand."

Again, we owe these people. Their lives are in danger because they worked for us. We should do right by them as well as by those currently employed. And its appalling that National refuses to recognise this, and puts penny-pinching ahead of doing the right thing.

New Fisk

Rached Ghannouchi says he doesn’t want an Islamic state in Tunisia. Can he prove his critics wrong?


I've ignored the fraud trial of Loizos Michaels because its crime news and I'm really not that interested in that shit. But its suddenly gone political with the involvement of National Party president Peter Goodfellow and of Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee. Goodfellow apparently loans his friends $114,000, no questions asked. And Brownlee will apparently sign up to sit on a company board - accepting significant legal duties in the process - without doing any research at all. The overall picture is of a pair of total muppets. And one of them, remember, is now absolute dictator of Canterbury. I wonder if he applies the same level of due diligence to the work he does for us in that role?

But what is also gives us is another insight into National's patronage network. This was first exposed in the ACC / Bronwyn Pullar saga, where Michelle Boag and other National party figures were deployed in an effort to gain a payout from ACC. And now we're seeing more of it: a tight little oligarchy which sorts out board positions for its mates, no matter how questionable the business. In this case, its blown up in their faces. But you really have to wonder how many of our business decisions are made like this, on patronage, not merit - and whether its a factor in the overall poor performance of our business community.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


My draft submission on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. Submissions close tomorrow, so if you haven't done yours, get it in fast. you don't need to say much - I was seriously considering leaving this at the first three paragraphs - and if you're in an even bigger hurry you can submit via the Marriage Equality campaign here:

  1. I support the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill and ask that it be passed.

  2. Decisions over who you spend your life with are deeply personal, and lie at the heart of human liberty. They are not decisions the state should interfere in. The present Marriage Act interferes in these decisions, by legally discriminating against same-sex partnerships.

  3. The bill would remove this discrimination, bringing the Marriage Act into consistency with the Bill of Rights Act and Human Rights Act and ensuring that New Zealanders are equal under the law in this important respect.

  4. Some people object to this change on religious grounds. But in New Zealand, marriage has nothing to do with religion. It has nothing to do with churches and nothing to do with priests. Many people choose to celebrate their marriage in that way, and the law accommodates them - but legally, marriage in New Zealand is secular, a matter of a civil official administering a statutory declaration.

  5. Likewise, marriage in New Zealand has nothing to do with families, nothing to do with children, and nothing to do with procreation. Individuals of course care deeply about such things, but our law does not, and nor should it. Arguments against this change on the basis of one of those values are therefore irrelevant.

  6. As a final note, the Bill of Rights Act limits discrimination to that which "can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". This has been consistently interpreted to mean that such discrimination must serve an important public purpose, be rationally connected with that purpose, be proportionate to that purpose and by the least drastic means. The discrimination in the Marriage Act fails at the first hurdle. While religious extremists may feel differently, demonstrating some sort of social disapproval of gays would not be an "important public purpose", even if it was widely felt (which thankfully, it no longer is).

  7. This bill is an important chance for Parliament to demonstrate that it supports the rights of all New Zealanders. I urge that it be passed.

  8. I do not wish to make an oral submission to the committee.

Robin Hood wins in Europe

One of the proposed solutions for the Great Financial Crisis is a "Robin Hood tax" on financial transactions. This would raise revenue, while discouraging the financial churn and speculation which has led to so much instability. Now such a tax has gained the approval of the European Commission:

The European Commission has backed plans from 10 countries to launch a financial transactions tax to help raise funds to tackle the debt crisis.

The 10 countries include France, Germany, Italy and Spain.


The remaining countries that have signed up to the tax are Austria, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Britain - slave to the banks - of course stayed out, as did noted tax havens Luxembourg and the Netherlands. But with the core of Europe participating, it will likely spread. And as the Guardian points out, we will effectively have a large controlled experiment in such taxes (though one that the banks can undermine by altering the pattern of their transactions). And hopefully it will provide backing for the calls by the Mana Party for such a tax here.

Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it

In the past, Israel has reacted badly to suggestions that it is practising apartheid against its Arab citizens. But a poll from Israeli newspaper Haaretz reveals the dirty truth: most Israelis support apartheid and believe they already practice it:

The majority of the Jewish public, 59 percent, wants preference for Jews over Arabs in admission to jobs in government ministries. Almost half the Jews, 49 percent, want the state to treat Jewish citizens better than Arab ones; 42 percent don't want to live in the same building with Arabs and 42 percent don't want their children in the same class with Arab children.

A third of the Jewish public wants a law barring Israeli Arabs from voting for the Knesset and a large majority of 69 percent objects to giving 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank.

A sweeping 74 percent majority is in favor of separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. A quarter - 24 percent - believe separate roads are "a good situation" and 50 percent believe they are "a necessary situation."


Although the territories have not been annexed, most of the Jewish public (58 percent ) already believes Israel practices apartheid against Arabs. Only 31 percent think such a system is not in force here. Over a third (38 percent ) of the Jewish public wants Israel to annex the territories with settlements on them, while 48 percent object.

And then there's this bit:
Almost half - 47 percent - want part of Israel's Arab population to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority and 36 percent support transferring some of the Arab towns from Israel to the PA, in exchange for keeping some of the West Bank settlements.

In other words, almost half of Israel's population supports ethnic cleansing. I guess they feel differently about it when the shoe is on the other foot.

Both apartheid and ethnic cleansing are crimes under international law. Israel stands condemned by its own citizens as a criminal state; it is time the international community treated it as one.

Good riddance

Silvio Berlusconi has announced he will not be running again for Prime Minister. Good riddance. Berlusconi has been a toxic influence on Italian politics, repeatedly undermining the rule of law to keep himself and his friends out of jail. The sooner he is off the political stage, the better.


The World Economic Forum has released its annual Global Gender Gap Index , and the news is again bad. After years of steady progress under Labour, our score first stagnated, and has now actually dropped slightly. The reason? National's sexist candidate selection practices, which saw the number of women in Parliament actually decrease last election.

This is what happens when get government of, by, and for rich white males: everyone else gets shafted to pay for the greed of the over-privileged.

The price of rotten cops II

The police have just had a second case in two days thrown out because they abused their powers:

In a second case involving the Red Devils another judge was so concerned about a raid on club premises that he threw out charges against 28 people. Many are among the accused whose charges were dismissed yesterday.

The swoop on a barbecue at the Red Devils Motorcycle Club in Nelson was part of a two-year bid to snare gang members. About 50 people were at the August 2010 function and police suspected liquor laws were being broken.

However, in July this year Judge Chris Tuohy ruled out evidence because it was "improperly obtained" through "a series of breaches of the defendants' rights, some of which were significant infringements".

Officers had obtained search warrants to search the property but not individuals. After finding a small amount of drugs, they searched the party guests. Judge Tuohy said entry was "unlawful and unreasonable" as police chainsawed through fences despite being let through the front gate.

Judge Tuohy also said there was "no lawful basis" for the seizure of cash from guests. Some of those at the party were left with no money to get home, he said.

They were not adequately informed of their rights and were detained for a "unjustified length of time" in a cold yard in the early hours of a winter morning.

All 28 faced a charge of being on an unlicensed premises.

Having one case thrown out could be dismissed as a one-off failing. Having a second kicked suggests that something is seriously wrong. Particularly when its the same agency - OFCANZ - involved in both incidents.

There are a number of obvious questions which need to be asked: why were OFCANZ investigating such minor offending? And why did they use such excessive and disproportionate force for such a minor crime? Its hard to see this as anything other than a power trip gone wrong, a childish attempt to show a gang who was boss. And we'll all be paying for it when the compensation claims hit the courts.

An embarrassment

So, Business NZ are sexists. Who'd have thunk it? Its not as if we haven't had plenty of other examples of the rich dead white males they represent expressing similar views. But apart from being morally odious, and a poor commentary on the views of their members, it also tells us something else: that they have no idea about employment law. New Zealand women have had the right to take a year's maternity leave for the past 25 years; all Sue Moroney's bill changes is who pays for some of it.

But then, that's Business NZ in a nutshell: permanently 25 years out of date. And an embarrassment because of it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Climate change: Good news on the ETS

One of the first things National did on coming to power was to gut the Emissions Trading Scheme, increasing and extending subsidies to polluters. And for the last tow years, they've bene trying to gut it even more, appointing a strapped-chicken review panel of farmers to make patsy recommendations for even more subsidies. But now that its finally at the crunch stage of passing legislation through the House, the wheels have fallen off, with both United Future and the Maori party apparently withdrawing support.

The reason for this is pretty obvious: National's extended pollution subsidy programme was simply too much. Meanwhile, their refusal to prohibit the use of foreign "hot air" credits was looking to undermine the very forestry industry we rely on to meet our targets. Neither is sensible, and even Peter Dunne could see it.

The failure of the bill is good news for our environment, in that it will prevent things from becoming actively worse. But we need a real ETS, not one that subsidises pollution. We need one with a sharp legislated decrease in credits, to drive innovation and emissions reductions. And we need one with allocation by auction, rather than free permits, so that the revenue flows to the public rather than polluters. With low carbon prices, we could do all of those things now, without causing the threatened economic devastation, and set in place a strong framework for the future. But somehow, I don't think that that's what National is thinking of.

Update: Looks like Labour spoke too soon - Peter Dunne has announced he will support the bill. So, his vote will be instrumental in undermining our environment and handing further billions to polluters. Thanks, Peter!

Parliament of thieves redux

Over the past few years, the UK's Parliament has been rocked by an expenses scandal, which exposed widespread fraud and abuse by MPs. Six Cabinet Ministers resigned, a dozen MPs announced they would not stand for re-election, and four were prosecuted and jailed. Following the scandal, the UK Parliament reformed its expenses rules, outlawing taxpayer-funded property speculation, and limiting claims in other ways. People thought the mess had been cleaned up. Instead, MPs just found new ways to rort the system. And in typical fashion, they are now blocking release of the evidence:

John Bercow has written to the expenses regulator warning him not to disclose official documents that show the identities of MPs’ landlords for “security” reasons.

Publication of the names, which was supposed to take place today, would expose the extent to which MPs are exploiting a loophole in the rules that allows politicians to rent their homes to one another. The loophole means that MPs can still effectively build up property nest eggs at taxpayers’ expense, despite official attempts to stop the practice following the expenses scandal.

Its amazing how anything which would make MPs look bad and allow people to identify the thieves and hold them accountable is a "security" matter. And its amazing how once again MPs stand together in a conspiracy of silence against the people.

But naturally, this has simply resulted in the information being leaked:
Members of the House of Commons, including former ministers, are claiming expenses of up to £20,000 a year each for rent as well as receiving rent from properties that were often purchased and refurbished with taxpayer assistance.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority confirmed that at least eight MPs are either letting properties to, or renting from, another MP, a loophole in the rules that effectively allows them to continue building up property nest-eggs at taxpayers’ expense.

Research by this newspaper using official parliamentary records shows that the 27 MPs who are renting London homes while claiming rental income for other flats include Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, Chris Bryant, the shadow immigration minister, and former defence ministers Peter Luff and Nick Harvey, as well as David Amess, a Tory MP

So what has the attempted cover-up achieved? It has simply brought the UK's Parliament further into disrepute. They've learned nothing from the expenses scandal. Time for the entire rotten institution to be purged.

WINZ doesn't care

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to deal with WINZ knows they have a shitty attitude towards their "clients". So, its not really that surprising that they're using people's sensitive personal information as scrap paper around the office:

Work and Income New Zealand has been embroiled in another privacy breach after paperwork with clients' personal details were given to a Masterton woman.

Sensitive papers containing the personal details of clients were used as scrap paper, including a hand-written note between staff.

This is the sort of fundamental breach of privacy which can only come about by an attitude of just plain not giving a shit, not seeing the people involved as people. Sadly, that attitude is all too common at WINZ. And its simply not acceptable.

(I leave it as an exercise for the reader how much of that attitude is led by the current Minister, who publicly treats beneficiaries as subhuman and denigrates and abuses them at every opportunity...)

And if you're stupid enough to think that WINZ's problems don't affect you, because you're not currently a beneficiary, remember that even if you escape misfortune (or a student loan), one day you'll turn 65 and get NZ super. At which stage, you'll have to deal with WINZ. Its in all our interests that this organisation is functional and treats people decently.

The price of rotten cops

So, it turns out that the DotCom farce isn't the only dodgy case Detective Inspector Grant Wormald has been involved in. In 2010, he headed an investigation into gang members, which involved the false "prosecution" on fictitious charges of an undercover police officer in order to enhance his credibility. But today, that abuse of the court had its inevitable result" the charges against 21 gang members accused of drug, firearms, and criminal conspiracy offences were thrown out:

Justice France has today agreed it was an abuse of court process.

He said: ''I see the actions of the police in this case as involving serious misuse of the court, and a troubling misunderstanding of its functions.

''Anything other than a significant response runs the risk of being seen as rhetoric. In the end I consider it comes down to how serious one sees the conduct as being, and what price the system is being asked to pay in order to preserve its integrity.

Justice France also said it is expected police will act because of the ruling. ''I doubt a false information about a fictional offence will again be sworn,'' he said.

This is how rotten cops fuck everything up: people walk free. And if the defendants were remanded in custody awaiting trial, the police (and taxpayer) have likely been exposed to the risk of a substantial compensation payout.

There is no place for rotten cops in our police force. If they lie to the courts, if they can't follow the law, then they have to go. It is as simple as that.

Challenging complicity

The US's drone war in Pakistan is an indiscriminate, disproportionate attack on a civilian population - a war crime. The UK is complicit in this crime, with spy-agency GCHQ reported as using telephone intercepts to provide targeting information for US strikes. Now, the family of one of their victims is challenging that complicity, seeking a declaration from UK courts that such assistance is unlawful:

Chamberlain said, any GCHQ official who passed locational intelligence to the CIA knowing or believing that it could be used to facilitate a drone strike would be committing a serious criminal offence.

"The participation of a UK intelligence official in US drone strikes, by passing intelligence, may amount to the offence of encouraging or assisting murder," he said. Alternatively, it could amount to a war crime or a crime against humanity, he added.

Chamberlain said that no GCHQ official would be able to mount a defence of combat immunity, but added that there was no wish in this case to convict any individual of a criminal offence. Rather, Khan was seeking a declaration by the civil courts that such intelligence-sharing is unlawful.

Hopefully they'll succeed - and hopefully GCHQ will obey the courts.

Meanwhile, its worth noting that our own GCSB is in the same business as GCHQ, and part of the same global spy network funnelling information to the US. Nicky Hagar's Other People's Wars suggested that they were providing intelligence to the US for use in drone strikes. If this is the case, they too are complicit and potentially open to criminal liability in New Zealand and international courts. John Key, displaying his typical lazy attitude on security and intelligence oversight, said that looking into that was "not a high priority". If he won't, then its time Parliament did. We cannot allow our intelligence agencies to assist in US war crimes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reform section 5

Freedom of speech is a precious thing. But in the UK, it is being chilled by an outdated, overborad law. Section 5 of the UK's Public Order Act criminalises speech which is "threatening, abusive or insulting". That's right - "insulting". Who decides whether someone is "insulted"? The police.

As can be expected, this has led to a large number of abusive prosecutions. People have been threatened with prosecution or actually arrested, charged and tried for calling Scientology a cult (an obvious statement of truth), barking back at a dog, standing up for gay rights, opposing gay rights, debating religion, displaying "culled" toy seals with red food colouring on them, and saying that religions are fairy stories for adults. You can think a lot of things about those statements, but one thing is clear: none of them should be a criminal matter. None of them reach the level of threats or incitement which would justify restricting speech in a free and open society.

There is a campaign now to Reform Section 5, backed by everyone from the Christian Institute to the National Secular Society. These groups may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing they do agree on is that hurting people's feelings shouldn't be a crime. They have the backing of a pile of MPs, and hopefully this means the law will be changed soon.

Meanwhile, I'm left wondering: like our BORA, the UK Human Rights Act has an interpretation clause, requiring the law to be read in a way so as to give effect to the rights - including freedom of speech - enshrined in the ECHR. So why is it so ineffective? A ban on "insulting" language is exactly the sort of law you'd expect to be read down, if not by a judge, then by police legal staff when they're writing arrest guidelines to avoid cases being tossed. Or is the UK's state apparatus simply not on board with their own human rights law?


3 News had a fascinating piece over the weekend comparing the penalties handed out for tax evasion and welfare fraud. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the courts show serious bias against the latter:

The numbers tell the story. For tax evaders, the average offending is $270,000, and those found guilty have only a 22 percent, or one-in-five chance, of being jailed.

For welfare fraudsters, the average offending is $70,000, and those found guilty have a 60 percent chance of being jailed.

And the reason for this is pretty obvious: judges are rich. Tax cheats are also rich. Judges therefore find it easier to empathise with them and accept their excuses when it comes to sentencing (especially if they are also playing similar games with their own taxes). Welfare fraudsters OTOH tend to be poor, and judges have a lot less in common with them. Its the same bias towards the rich observed elsewhere in the justice system - and it undermines public confidence in the entire system.

Obviously, this needs to change. Justice is not justice if it is not applied equally to all.

But the courts aren't the only thing that needs to change. Tax fraud costs us between $1 and $6 billion a year, compared with a mere $39 million for welfare fraud. Guess which one the government spends millions stigmatising and encouraging people to report? And again, the problem is that MPs are rich, and so tax fraud is a crime committed by them, their friends and families, rather than people who are alien to them. But it causes far more social harm, especially in a time of austerity. That $1 - $6 billion a year? That's why our schools and hospitals are falling down. It's why Auckland is still choked with traffic rather than having a decent commuter rail system. Its why our police aren't trained properly to deal with sex cases or young people. And its why our public servants are being sacked, why we underfund scientific research, and why we don't have decent paid parental leave. tax cheats cost us all of those things. Its time we made them obey the law, and pay what they owe.

On hold

The government has decided not to issue an Order-in-Council removing Mighty River Power from the State-Owned Enterprises Act until legal action is resolved. Good. At the same time its worth noting that this is really just a recognition of the inevitable. Given the threat such a transfer posed to the interests of the claimants, they would have had no difficulty gaining an interim injunction preventing it for the duration of the case. So doing it voluntarily is just a spin tactic, to prevent headlines today suggesting an initial legal defeat for the government.

As for the substance of the case, it looks like that will be dealt with at the end of next month. The government apparently wants the process to go faster - I guess those donors want their payoff before the wheels really fall off - but that is entirely up to the courts. Trying to hurry them along, as the government did to the Waitangi Tribunal, is a breach of judicial independence.

New Fisk

The ordinary victims lost in the noise of Beirut's latest big story
The legacy of imperialism still haunts every street in Rome
Photograph links Germans to 1915 Armenia genocide

Police violating youth rights

A report out today from the Human Rights Commission and "Independent" Police Conduct Authority criticises the police for systematic (if unintentional) violations of youth rights, with young people held for prolonged periods, in inadequate conditions, denied basic needs such as food and showers, and denied access to lawyers:

Last year, 213 young people were remanded in custody for an average of 1.9 days. Of those, 148 were initially arrested on Friday, Saturday or Sunday and were generally held until Monday.

The report said most youths were held because of no suitable alternatives, no availability to transport, or because of the day of the week they were arrested.

Police cells were never intended for the detention of young people, and there were practices which violated, or were at risk of violating, accepted human rights standards, it said.

Some youths had cell lights on 24 hours a day to allow suicide monitoring, a lack of ventilation and natural light, inadequate food, or no access to shower facilities.

Young people also reported being treated as adults, with the use of force, or feeling discriminated against.

The HRC / IPCA make recommendations, including better facilities in police stations and greater training for police to ensure that young people are not treated like other suspects, but are instead treated in accordance with their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Which is good, but in a time when budget cuts mean that police are being denied basic investigation or firearms training, seems unlikely to actually happen. The HRC needs to continue to monitor this issue, to make sure the police actually implement these recommendations. Otherwise, we may see basic human rights of young people sacrifice don the altar of National's austerity.

Friday, October 19, 2012

"Not the kiwi way"

The Nazis are apparently holding their "flag day" this weekend, and by pure coincidence (yeah, right) a bunch of Jewish gravestones have been painted with swastikas in Auckland. I can't think of a better response than the one by Rabbi Samuel Altschul: "It's not the Kiwi way".

Meanwhile, if you'd like to show the Nazis what you think of them, turn up to Parliament tomorrow. Let the world know that ordinary kiwis do not condone their racist ideology or their hateful behaviour.

Gareth Morgan on dirty farmers

Gareth Morgan takes a blast today at polluting farmers - and at Federated Farmers for protecting them. Talking about the recent Environment Court victory over the Horizons Regional Council One Plan, he notes:

The vast majority of farmers are environmentally responsible and many are passionate about not despoiling waterways in any way. This is a victory for them and round condemnation of the ignorant rump in that fraternity who arrogantly think they have some sort of birthright to generate wealth for themselves off the back of environmental destruction.

The requirement to restrict excessive runoff of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous is no different to requiring a manufacturer to limit the polluting consequences of any process. Nature has an amazing ability to absorb what we throw at her but it certainly isn’t infinite.

Further, the natural injustice that arises when one person’s economic advantage is secured at the expense of damaging the property of others, is one too often government’s turn a blind eye to.

All of which makes the indignant reaction of Federated Farmers to the Environment Court decision disappointing, reminiscent of the dark days when the outfit was led by ACT myopic, Don Nicholson. I thought this lobby group had grown up a bit under Bruce Wills. It needs to.

He goes on to call Federated Farmers "chief apologist for... a retarded attitude", and call for progressive farmers to leave and form their own lobby group to avoid "being tarred with the brush of environmental retards". And he's right. If farmers are as clean as they say, let them prove it. Until then, they'll continue to be judged by the words of their elected spokesmen.


The Defense of Marriage Act is one of the more shameful laws the US Congress has passed. Not only does it define marriage in exclusively heterosexist terms, it also outlaws any federal recognition of same-sex couples. Which means that if, for example, a same-sex couple hops the border to get married in Canada, not only will that marriage not be recognised by the US government; the surviving partner will have to pay estate duties if one of them dies, simply because of their sexual orientation. And its that latter point which has just resulted in the law being found to be unconstitutional by a federal appeals court

An appeals court in New York has ruled that a United States law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said the law denies federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples.


Windsor's attorneys argued that the act violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

A federal court in New York agreed, and the ruling by the 2nd Circuit on Thursday upheld the lower court decision.

The full ruling is here [PDF], but its a pretty obvious one. Of course the law is discriminatory - that is what it is explicitly designed to do! But such laws are not permissible under the US Constitution; the only surprising thing is that it has taken so long for the courts to say so.

The next stage is presumably the Supreme Court. It will be interesting to watch the Republican judges contort themselves to avoid the obvious conclusion that bigot-laws are a denial of equal protection and therefore unconstitutional. Sadly, I suspect they'll manage somehow.

And so it begins...

The Maori Council are off to court in an effort to stop asset sales:

That sent a "pretty clear signal" to those considering legal action, he said.

Maori Council lawyer Donna Hall confirmed this morning they would be issuing proceedings today.

It was a unanimous decision following several meetings this week.

"We are issuing the proceedings today.... there's not many options left."

The claimants believed the Government's actions in going ahead with the sale without resolving Maori claims was illegal, she said.

As for their chances, they should have no trouble getting a preliminary injunction preventing the government from selling (or possibly even transferring assets from the State owned Enterprises Act) until the case is resolved. Beyond that, I think the views of the Waitangi Tribunal - statutorily the interpreter of what the Treaty means - on the unavailability of other redress will carry significant weight. So, the odds are against the government here. Which should push them towards making a proper settlement, except that they're clearly trying to use this to whip up the racist vote again (witness their dog-whistling in Parliament about the position of other parties on the issue). I guess despite all their talk, National never changes: they're still racists at heart, just as they were under Brash.

The problem

Yesterday, the Auditor-General released their third monitoring report on the Response of the New Zealand Police to the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct, showing that police were still dragging their feet on making the changes necessary to prevent a recurrence of the police rape scandal. This morning, Police Association President Greg O'Connor called the report "a ritual humiliation for police".

And that right there is the problem: a generation of senior police officers who simply refuse to accept that anything needs to change, and who regard the push for a better-behaved police force as an attack on their manhood. These people, and their toxic beer-swilling authoritarian culture are why Rickards and his rape-gang got away with it for as long as they did. And they need to go.

As for O'Connor, police officers may want to consider the effects such statements from their elected representative have on their reputation. If they want to signal that things really are changing, and that they will no longer tolerate crime by their own, then sacking him would be a good way to start.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The problems of irrigation

Normally, we see irrigation as farmers externalising their costs onto the rest of us as dirty rivers and reduced recreation. But a report into a proposed Tekapo irrigation scheme shows us that pollution isn't the only way farmers externalise their costs:

Opuha Water outlined a $185 million proposal to take water from Lake Tekapo and irrigate 25,000 hectares to the Canterbury water management strategy's Upper Waitaki committee in June.

However, a report to be presented to the committee in Twizel tomorrow suggests the negative impacts raised many "red flags".

"The proposal would negatively impact on the ability to meet the energy security and efficiency targets in the Upper Waitaki, due to the lost generation. Lake Tekapo is the highest and most valuable of all the hydro lakes and is critical for regional and national economies.

"Moreover, the costings in the proposal use average cost for lost generation - the peak price could be 400 per cent higher," the document said.

That right - in this case, higher profits for farmers will be paid for by higher electricity prices for the rest of us. Sadly, the dictatorship's water zone committees are so riven with conflicts of interest that they'll probably approve it anyway.

Still dragging their feet

When the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct reported back in 2007, one of the key recommendations was for the Auditor-General to monitor the police for the next ten years on their implementation of the Inquiry's recommendations. The Auditor-General has just published their third monitoring report on the issue, and the conclusion seems to be that the police are still dragging their feet:

Overall, since our second monitoring report in 2010, there has been:
  • mixed progress with activities relating to complaints against the Police;
  • mixed but relatively poor progress to improve services for adult sexual assault complainants;
  • elements of good progress for organisational change; and
  • some progress to improve police behaviour.
What progress there has been has been painfully slow. Police still fail to deal with complaints form the public properly, and still feel that they cannot complain about their fellow officers without fear of repercussions. So the toxic internal culture which allowed Rickards and others to get away with it survives. They're also making far less progress than expected in their handling of complaints of sexual assault. And despite efforts to change it, their internal culture still tolerates sexual harassment and "sexually inappropriate behaviour". The positive signs are mostly unrelated. For example,
a staff member reporting that increased use of cell phones and the fear of being photographed by cell phone users has seen "fewer tickle ups [use of unnecessary physical force] at the end of the chase"
And then there's this:
Most of what we heard from staff about early intervention conveyed distrust of the approach. The strongest indication of this was concern that its existence could be motivating some risk-averse behaviours, such as officers avoiding use of physical tactics to avoid having too many such actions registered against their name because this would trigger an early intervention.

In both cases, a feeling by police that their actions are under scrutiny has led to a decrease in the use of violence against the public. And as a member of the public, I welcome that. Now, if only we can get them to recognise that sort of logic when it comes to the actions of their fellow police officers...

Justice for Kim Dotcom?

It looks like Hugh Wolfensohn - the GCSB legal "expert" who supposedly failed to understand the law he'd helped write - is for the chop:

A top spook has been placed on "gardening leave" over the Kim Dotcom illegal spying debacle.

Hugh Wolfensohn - also known as agent CX - has more than 15 years experience with the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Director Ian Fletcher would not comment "on staff or employment matters" yesterday. But it is understood Mr Wolfensohn, a former GCSB acting director and legal adviser, has been sent home while an internal review takes place at the under-fire bureau.

Good riddance. This guy's unbelievable "mistake" has led to the government behaving illegally, exposing his subordinates to criminal charges and the taxpayer to a substantial BORA settlement for unlawful search and seizure. And he needs to pay for it with his job.

National hates transparency

Last night, the National-led government voted down Darien Fenton's Local Government (Council-Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill. The bill would have removed a longstanding anomaly from our official information laws, which allows council-owned port companies to escape the scrutiny faced by every other council-controlled organisation. It would have led to better oversight of these companies, and hence better governance and greater accountability for public money. But National, it appears, opposes all those things. They want ports - and other agencies, such as charter schools, and private prisons - to be able to operate in secret, and to be unaccountable to the New Zealand public.

In short, National hates transparency. That is not a position which should be acceptable in the government of a free and democratic society. The sooner this pack of secretive would-be autocrats are out of office, the better.


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

  • Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 (Application to Casinos) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei)
  • Employment Relations Protection of Young Workers Amendment Bill (Rino Tirikatene)
The latter was covered in "In the ballot" here. No-one has posted the full list today, but it should be available online here shortly. Thanks to @CTrevettNZH for tweeting the results.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vetoing transparency to protect hypocrisy

One of the ground rules underlying the UK's constitution (and our own) is that the monarchy is "politically neutral". They don't get involved in politics, and Parliament doesn't cut their heads off. The UK's Freedom of Information Act has already exposed that as something of a sham, revealing extensive lobbying by Prince Charles on everything from architecture to education policy - but the actual "black spider memos" he writes to Ministers have been kept secret. That looked like it would change last month, when the Guardian finally won a seven-year battle in the Information Tribunal for their release. But now, the release has been vetoed by the Attorney-General. His reason?

"Much of the correspondence does indeed reflect the Prince of Wales's most deeply held personal views and beliefs. The letters in this case are in many cases particularly frank.

"They also contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality."

In other words, by exposing the fact that he was not behaving neutrally, people might think he wasn't neutral. And so transparency is vetoed to protect hypocrisy, to allow a member of the royal family to deny in public what he is doing in private.

Only in Britain would such deference to an unelected inbred trump basic constitutional principles. Bring on the republic!

20% Pure New Zealand

A couple of years ago, Tourism New Zealand started the 100% Pure New Zealand campaign, marketing the country to tourists on the basis of our environmental record. Meanwhile, a report on our beaches and rivers has found that only 20% of our rivers are safe to swim at:

The Ministry for the Environment's latest report card - issued weeks before summer weather sends Kiwis flocking to the water - has left opposition parties questioning New Zealand's 100 per cent pure brand.

The results showed water quality was poor or very poor at 52 per cent of monitored river sites.

A further 28 per cent were graded "fair" - with a risk of illness for those swimming there.

Only 20 per cent of monitored river recreation sites were graded good or very good.

Beaches did better, with 60% rated as "good" or "very good". But its still an appalling indictment on our environmental record, and on the government which has allowed this deterioration to happen. And it naturally damages our tourism, as well as our health.

As for the cause, the fact that the problem is with rivers and not beaches points the finger firmly at farmers. They're destroying the country - and our tourism industry - for their own profits, externalising their costs in the form of pollution. Its long past time they were forced to clean their act up.

National's agenda: unaccountability and secrecy

Last month, in their annual report, the Ombudsman strongly criticised the government for "highly dangerous" attempts to remove public bodies from the coverage of the Official Information Act. And now National is at it again, this time over charter schools. The proposed s158X of the new Education Amendment Bill gives charter schools a blanket exemption from government oversight:

The Ombudsmen Act 1975 and Official Information Act 1982 do not apply to a sponsor of a partnership school kura hourua when the sponsor is performing functions under this Act or a partnership school contract.

Which doesn't just mean that the media, politicians and members of the public won't be able to scrutinise charter school policies and decision-making - it also means that if your kid goes to such a school, and they are treated unfairly, then you will have no right to demand answers, or to fair treatment, unless of course you are rich enough to be able to bring a High Court judicial review under the BORA - because that thankfully will still apply. If you're poor, however, you can kiss justice and fairness goodbye.

National's agenda here is clear: unaccountability and secrecy. Yes, they really do think that bodies receiving public money perform better if they do so in total secrecy, with no independent oversight. Yes, these schools will have a contract with the Minister. But the incentives of such an arrangement are to set low performance standards so as to ensure "success" while looking the other way even on blatant failure so as to avoid political embarrassment. We have only to look at the debacle of our private prisons to see that.

There is a simple principle at stake here: if an agency receives public money to do public work, then we should be able to see what they are doing. That principle should apply to charter schools. It is that simple.

Not just any illiterate moron

More revelations in the GCSB spying scandal today. Firstly, the GCSB were told of Dotcom's residency in February, but "failed to understand the implications" and didn't click to them until they were pointed out by Dotcom's lawyer. As the Herald points out, this means they knew when they briefed John Key on February 29.

Secondly, the person who "failed to understand the implications"? He is now GCSB's chief legal officer:

Hugh Wolfensohn held pivotal roles during and after the bureau's spying operation, having oversight of operations, the legal office and the entire agency.

He has emerged as working at the bureau 16 years ago in Nicky Hager's book Secret Power as "CX" - the designation used to describe the agency's legal officer.

Mr Wolfensohn has used three titles at the agency in the past 12 months. Herald inquiries established he held the title of "operations director" since the GCSB and police were briefed about Megaupload in August.

Then, on December 19, Mr Wolfensohn assumed the role of "acting director", three days after the GCSB began spying on Mr Dotcom.

He held the position until January 29, when incoming director Ian Fletcher became the fifth person in just 18 months to lead the agency. Mr Wolfensohn was signing letters in May this year using the title "chief legal adviser".

So, when I quipped about the GCSB being illiterate morons who couldn't read their own Act, it turns out that the illiterate moron in question was in fact the moron who would be expected to be most knowledgeable about such details. Which is simply unbelievable. Either GCSB are lying to us, and have knowingly conducted unlawful surveillance - or their chief legal adviser is a complete incompetent. Either way, he shouldn't be drawing a public service salary.

Update: And it gets better: Wolfensohn apparently helped draft the Act he does not understand. And we're supposed to believe he didn't realise the spying was unlawful? Yeah, right.

Member's day

Today is a Member's Day, and assuming there is no filibuster, a potentially very interesting one, with bills on both child poverty and the high dollar before the House. But first, there's two private and local bills to get out of the way. These are the usual sorts of things - repealing some old local body empowering legislation, and altering the trust for Riccarton Bush - and they should whizz through. Alternatively, if the government decides that it doesn't want to talk about its economic agenda and its effects, then filibustering them could eat the entire day.

Next there is the vote on Darien Fenton's Local Government (Council-Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill, which was delayed at the end of last Member's Day due to NZ First filibustering their own bill (I guess Winston was still down on Courtney Place). The fate of the bill depends entirely on the vote of Peter Dunne, and I guess we'll get to see today whether he supports transparency or secrecy in the governance of council-owned assets.

After that, there is Winston Peters' Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Amending Primary Function of Bank) Amendment Bill and Metiria Turei's Income Tax (Universalisation of In-work Tax Credit) Amendment Bill. These are both likely to be highly contentious, given that they basically address pressing issues the government is refusing point-blank to act on. And again, it will be interesting to see whether Peter Dunne stands on child poverty.

Finally, there's Te Ururoa Flavell's Oaths and Declarations (Upholding the Treaty of Waitangi) Amendment Bill, which might end up before a select committee.

If the House does well, it will make a start on Darien Fenton's other bill, the Local Government (Public Libraries) Amendment Bill, which protects free basic library services. I expect National to vote against that too.

If there is no filibuster, there will be a ballot tomorrow for three bills.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Nothing to fear, nothing to hide"

Throughout his recent political donation scandal, ACT MP John Banks has repeatedly claimed he has "nothing to fear, nothing to hide". The implication is that he is being upfront and transparent about things. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth:

ACT leader John Banks did ask police not to publicly release his statement on the Kim Dotcom donations and opposed the publication of the entire file, documents reveal.

Banks' lawyer David Jones QC told police it would be used by his ''political adversaries'' and for ''irresponsible commentary.''

Banks has always insisted he had "nothing to fear, nothing to hide,'' over the donations scandal.

His statement was censored when police released their file on the investigation last month. Other statements, including that of Dotcom and his lawyer Greg Towers, were made public.

Which raises the question: what was Banks hiding? What is he so frightened of us seeing? And shouldn't John Key be sacking him about now, given that he has lied to the public about this?

Good news on ANPR

When the police first started deploying automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology, I and others raised concerns about its use and potential abuse. Even at the limited trial stage, it seemed to raise significant privacy issues - police were basically databasing the movements of innocent people with no probable cause, and had declared that they had no intention of consulting the Privacy Commissioner about it. The good news is that according to Tech Liberty the police have now reversed this position, and will no longer be retaining ANPR data.

And it gets better: they have also apparently reversed their position on whether a warrant is required to track people using ANPR:

Police considers that with so few cameras, the technology cannot be used to "track" vehicles. In any event, Police cannot track vehicles other than in accordance with the Search & Surveillance Act 2012.

(The Search & Surveillance Act requires a search warrant for any use of a "tracking device", which is defined tautologically as "a device that may be used to help ascertain, by electronic or other means ... the location of a thing or a person". Which would seem on the face of it to include ANPR).

Of course, the police have given out contradictory information on this topic before, so there's some reason for suspicion. But at face value, this is excellent news, and a step away from a British-style surveillance state.

FFS again!

The WINZ privacy scandal just gets worse: it seems they were previously alerted to the security flaw not just by members of the public, but by their own security consultants:

The New Zealand ministry at the centre of the kiosk breach scandal has admitted it was warned of a potential security hole more than a year ago by systems integrator Dimension Data.

It was revealed yesterday that members of the public could access confidential documents from kiosks installed at the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development (MSD) welfare department, leaving data from multiple agencies, corporations and citizens wide open.

Despite yesterday claiming no hole had been found in DiData’s security testing, MSD today confirmed to CRN a report in April 2011 had identified flaws in its system, which the department ignored.

“Since yesterday afternoon I have received further information that means I am not confident that we took the right actions in response to Dimension Data’s recommendations on security,” CEO Brendan Boyle said in a statement.

I can understand WINZ ignoring warnings from members of the public, who they regard as the enemy. But their own security auditors? This takes muppetry to a totally new level, and heads need to roll for it.

Starbucks: Tax cheats

In addition to making crap coffee, it turns out that Starbucks are also tax cheats:

Starbucks has used accounting tricks to pay almost no UK tax on the millions of coffees, sandwiches and cakes bought by the British public for the past decade, it was revealed yesterday.

An investigation showed the coffee company has paid only £8m in corporation tax to HMRC in the 14 years since it arrived on British high streets, despite generating sales of £3bn.

Starbucks UK's accounts show that it has minimised its tax burden by officially recording losses of tens of millions of pounds year after year.

Yet in its briefings to stock market investors and analysts over the past 12 years, the Seattle-based firm has consistently stated that its UK unit is "profitable" – and three years ago even promoted its UK head, Cliff Burrows, to run its much larger US operation. According to an investigation by Reuters, the anomaly can be explained by the use of legal accounting techniques which leave the coffee company paying HMRC proportionately less tax than other food and drink firms such as McDonald's and KFC.

All perfectly legal, of course - but deeply, deeply immoral. And again, it makes you wonder whether their New Zealand branch is using the same tricks.

National doesn't care about rape victims

Back in August, funding cuts led to Wellington Rape Crisis having to limit its services. Fortunately, the public stepped up and filled the funding gap, but it left a bitter taste. This is a vital public service. As such, it should be funded by taxes, not private charity.

Fast forward two months, and this time its Auckland rape and sexual abuse victims who are looking at having their service cut. why? Because the government reneged on a promise to fund them:

News of the shortfall came despite a commitment from the Government to work closely with HELP to establish a sustainable telephone service for the future in December 2011.

There is information on how to donate in the article, and here. I'm sure the public will step up again, but in this post I'm primarily concerned about the politics of the thing. And its unpleasant. There's an obvious pattern that emerges from these two incidents: the government doesn't care about rape victims. These services cost a pittance, and yet there is no money for them. Why? Because unlike tax cuts, inflated CEO salaries, there's no obvious benefit to rich white men like themselves. They've got a billion dollars a year in ETS subsidies to benefit their farmer-cronies, but nothing for rape victims.

Just another example of the public squalor National's meanness is driving us towards.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Injunction time

When the government paused its asset-sales programme for "consultation" a few months ago, we all knew that it was a box-ticking exercise which would change nothing. And as expected, it hasn't - they've announced that they will move immediately to remove Mighty River Power from the State-Owned Enterprises Act, so they can flick it off next year.

So, its injunction time. As with New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney-General (1987), the government is attempting to sell Treaty redress, in violation of clear law saying that it must act consistently with the principles of the Treaty. In 1987, the courts were clear that that was not acceptable, and enjoined any asset-transfer. The question is whether the government's bad-faith "consultation" will fool them into changing their minds. Given the direction of Treaty jurisprudence over the last 25 years, I doubt it.

Lithuania votes

Lithuanians went to the polls today in the first round of parliamentary elections - and have voted resoundingly against their neoLiberal, pro-austerity government which had plunged them into a Greek-style austerity-induced recession. But there's a catch: Lithuania uses Supplementary Member, with the party and constituency votes held on different days. So, their unfair electoral system could still produce a perverse result due to the electorate vote.

The second round of voting will be held on October 28.

A call for sanity in the UK

Six years ago, the UK government established the UK Drug Policy Commission to "provide independent and objective analysis of UK drug policy". Six years on, it has reported back - and recommended some radical changes:

The report by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC), an independent advisory body, says possession of small amounts of controlled drugs should no longer be a criminal offence and concludes the move will not lead to a significant increase in use.

The experts say the criminal sanctions imposed on the 42,000 people sentenced each year for possession of all drugs – and the 160,000 given cannabis warnings – should be replaced with simple civil penalties such as a fine, attendance at a drug awareness session or a referral to a drug treatment programme.

They also say that imposing minimal or no sanctions on those growing cannabis for personal use could go some way to undermining the burgeoning illicit cannabis factories controlled by organised crime.

There are obvious parallels with the recommendations of the Law Commission here in New Zealand - and for good reason: both reports are driven by a recognition that the war on drugs has failed, and has resulted in enormous resources being wasted on prosecuting people for no purpose. An evidence-based, public-health focused regime would produce much better outcomes, while saving vast amounts of money.

Sadly, the UK government won't listen: the Home Secretary Theresa May has already rule dout any changes. Which means they will continue wasting money and lives on this pointless exercise on "looking tough" for years to come.

A worthy bill

Back in 2009, Acting Principal Family Court Judge Paul von Dadelszen called for a complete overhaul of the Adoption Act, arguing that it was outdated and discriminatory. Predictably, the government did nothing. But now Green MP Kevin Hague will be fronting a bill to totally rewrite the law:

The Member’s Bill places adoption in the Care of Children Act, as originally intended by the Law Commission, and makes the best interests of the child the fundamental principle underpinning the law. The Bill also:
  • Ensures that all adoptions will be “open” unless exceptional circumstances mean there is a need to extinguish links with the child’s biological parents. While this has become common practice, the current law does not provide for it at all.

  • Removes unnecessary restrictions on the kinds of people who may be considered to adopt, ensuring that adoptive parents can be selected from all the options, in the best interests of the child.

  • Acknowledges, but does not regulate whāngai arrangements, which are instead controlled by traditional Iwi practice.

  • Provides for the adoption of children conceived and born through altruistic surrogacy arrangements.

Its worth noting that this isn't just a Green effort; there's been a cross-party working group on it for some time, and National's Nikki Kaye has also contributed strongly to it.

This is a bill whose time has come. And it speaks volumes about the government's priorities that they are leaving it as a member's bill rather than progressing it themselves. But I guess ensuring fundamental rights for kids and adoptive parents just doesn't benefit National's rich backers enough.