Friday, November 30, 2012

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Auckland to play dress-ups and hit things.

Normal bloggage will resume Tuesday.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Taking on our local tax cheats

Overseas, governments and media are asking increasingly annoyed questions about tax cheating by multinational companies such as Starbucks, Apple, and Facebook. Now Labour joined the campaign, and has taken up the cry locally:

Facebook New Zealand paid just $14,500 tax - give or take a few dollars - last year, making a mockery of Peter Dunne’s refusal to consider closing tax loopholes for multinationals, says Labour’s Revenue spokesperson David Clark.

“The New Zealand arm of the world’s most used online search tool, Facebook, paid only $14,497 in tax last year.

“In 2010 its tax bill was a mere $5,238. For a company that has 2.2 million users in New Zealand and makes billions worldwide, that’s barely believable.

“It appears Facebook is using the ‘double Irish’ tax technique. That’s where it uses Irish Facebook, which pays just 12.5% tax, to determine revenue and expenses. This ensures the company can put most of its revenue through countries with low-tax systems.

“Peter Dunne calls that ‘legitimate tax avoidance’. I call it a rort.

Clark is right - it is a rort. And it is not one we should accept. Across the Tasman, the Australian government is planning to close the loophole which allows these companies to export these profits tax-free. But Peter Dunne has no plans for us to follow suit, and his past public statements suggest he supports tax evasion.

Tax cheats steal from us all. Every dollar they save in tax from these tricks is a dollar we have to pay, borrow, or cut - a dollar we don't get to spend on schools, hospitals and state houses. The government should make these companies pay their fair share. And if the present government refuses to do so, because they are on the side of the tax cheats, we should elect one that will.

Whose side are we on?

Palestine goes to the UN today in an effort to gain recognition as a "non-member observer state" - a step up from its current status, and one which will grant it greater rights under international law (including, potentially, the right to take Israel to the ICC for its war crimes). The move will of course increase pressure on Israel to end its unlawful occupation of the West Bank, and so it is likely to be hotly contested by Israel's proxies, including the US. But it will pass by a wide margin, as those proxies are outnumbered and the US can't (ab)use its veto.

So where does our government stand? Sadly, they won't tell us, and deny even having made a decision. The suspicion is that they will take their lead from the UK and abstain, but that's just a cop-out. This is a serious matter of justice and international law. As a supposed supporter of both, the only credible position we can take is to recognise Palestine. Failing to do so will be inconsistent with our values and undermine our standing in the world, as well as our mana-based foreign policy. But then, National has been doing a lot of that recently...

New Fisk

Did Israel murder Yasser Arafat with Polonium-210? Some questions about his death won't go away

A rotten civil service

The UK is about to publish its energy bill, widely expected to contain whopping subsidies for nuclear energy. It will be a deeply unpopular move - nuclear power is about as popular as cancer, and subsidising it even worse - so the government will have to work hard to convince the public that this really is the best policy and not, for example, the result of some corrupt jack-up to support an uneconomic industry. But that's exactly what it appears to be:

Senior civil servants responsible for ensuring the building of the UK's new fleet of nuclear power stations have been extensively wined and dined by nuclear industry lobbyists, documents released under freedom of information reveal.

A hospitality register (.zip) released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) show that the three most senior officials at the Office for Nuclear Development (OND) have received hospitality from nuclear industry representatives on dozens of occasions since the office's formation in September 2009. Many of the meetings have taken place at some of London's most luxurious restaurants, hotels and private members' clubs.


Asked why so many of the meetings take place at such luxurious venues, the Decc spokesman said: "Industry meetings are hosted at our offices as well as at external events. The choice of location for external events is a matter for the hosting organisations." He added that such meetings are considered to be "informal" and that, as a result, minutes of conversations are not kept by the department. Ministers are not routinely informed of the meetings, he said, as all hospitality is recorded in accordance with Cabinet Office policy.

Yes, its just a coincidence that all of those meetings involved expensive dinners in luxurious surroundings rather than, say, coffee at someone's office. I guess the technical details of policy just flow so much better over lobster and champagne than they do over a desk. And its not as if the Minister needs to be told that their key policy staff are being bribed in this way - if he wants to know, he can just look it up in the register! (which is of course hidden in a locked filing cabinet in the dark basement of a disused building with a "beware of the leopard" sign on the door).

But this is just modern Britain: Parliament is rotten, and its no wonder that the civil servants are too.

But apart from being odious in and of itself, this sort of corruption undermines belief in government, and undermines the policies purchased by it. Pretty obviously, it is going to be a lot more difficult for Ministers to sell this policy, with the stench hanging around it, than if it hadn't been so obviously produced by corrupt lobbying. If the UK was democratic, that would be a strong practical reason to outlaw such practices. But with an unfair voting system which limits the ability of the public to hold governments accountable, Ministers have no real incentive to do anything.

Climate change: Another fossil

Its day three of the climate talks in Doha, and new Zealand has picked up its second "fossil of the day" award over our pathetic climate change policy:

The Second Place Fossil of the Day goes to New Zealand, again, because not only did Wellington deliberately decide not to put its target into the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, but today proposed that access to the CDM should be open to all and should not depend on whether a country is signing up to a second commitment period. To make it clear, New Zealand pointed out that otherwise the Adaptation Fund will not have enough money to keep functioning. Come on Kiwis, forget about the hobbits and think about your neighbors! You have to be serious… if you want to feast on carbon markets you have to work up your targets first!

I'm wondering if collecting these awards is some new target National has set for itself: get as many fossils as possible to prove their anti-environment cred to their anti-environment rump. But they're bad for our international reputation, and for a country which runs a mana-based foreign policy relying on the goodwill and esteem of other nations, disastrous.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Penny-pinching costs lives

Today's other appalling news: a leaked Defence Force report blames the 2010 Anzac Day helicopter crash on penny-pinching:

Three airmen killed in an Anzac Day helicopter crash were on a one-hour flight in pre-dawn darkness partly because it was considered too expensive to accommodate them in a hotel the previous night, says a leaked report.

The doomed flight on the morning of April 25, 2010, would not have taken place if the crew had flown to Wellington, for dawn services, the day before.

Instead, the air force Iroquois helicopter, one of three flying in formation, took off from Manawatu early on Anzac Day, with the crew using night vision goggles - something for which they were later found to have been inadequately trained.

The helicopter crashed at 5.49am, 36 minutes into the flight, killing three men and seriously injuring another.

The air force's internal accident analysis report says: "The need to minimise accommodation costs incurred by 3 Squadron due to pressure on the accommodation budget was recognised and contributed to the ... decision (not to fly the day before)."

The Defence Force uses the Amora Hotel in Wellington, which last night had rooms available for $149 each.

Twelve helicopter crew, two per room - NZDF killed three people and crippled another to save a mere $900. Great job there guys. So at that rate, we could get the NZDF brass to kill their entire command for less than a thousandth of their budget.

But it gets worse. Inadequate equipment, untrained crew, no instruction manuals. And the problems were systematic across the entire RNZAF, to the extent that it was unable to "adequately and reliably ensure safe and effective military air operations". And then there's this:
The report found knowledge of problems went to the top of the command chain.

The Chief of Air Force at the time of the accident, Air Vice-Marshal Graham Lintott, was last year promoted to be New Zealand's defence attache in Washington.

So much for accountability.

Climate change: Thawing

Permafrost is permanently frozen soil. 24% of the land in the northern hemisphere is covered in it, including most of Siberia and northern Canada. And now, thanks to climate change, it is thawing out - with potentially devastating consequences for the climate:

THE world is on the cusp of a "tipping point" into dangerous climate change, according to new data gathered by scientists measuring methane leaking from the Arctic permafrost and a report presented to the United Nations on Tuesday.

"The permafrost carbon feedback is irreversible on human time scales," says the report, Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost. "Overall, these observations indicate that large-scale thawing of permafrost may already have started."

While countries the size of Australia tally up their greenhouse emissions in hundreds of millions of tonnes, the Arctic's stores are measured in tens of billions.

Human-induced emissions now appear to have warmed the Arctic enough to unlock this vast carbon bank, with stark implications for international efforts to hold global warming to a safe level. Ancient forests locked under ice tens of thousands of years ago are beginning to melt and rot, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.

The report estimates the greenhouse gases leaking from the thawing Arctic will eventually add more to emissions than last year's combined carbon output of the US and Europe – a statistic which means present global plans to hold climate change to an average 2degree temperature rise this century are now likely to be much more difficult.

"Much more difficult" is an understatement. Estimates are that thawing permafrost could add 40% to global emissions - which means we have to cut our emissions by a lot more if we want to keep climate change under control. Though one of the problems is that none of the models used by the IPCC account for permafrost carbon release, and so systematically underestimate the effect on the climate. If we rely on those models when setting emissions reduction targets (and we have to - they're our best estimates), we are likely to set them too high.

But the fundamental problem is that the climate may already have tipped. This is happening now, and it is irreversible on human timescales. A two degree average rise was simply too high.

(The full UNEP report Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost can be read here)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The fracking report

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has just released the first part [PDF] of a major report on fracking. "First part" because the preliminary conclusion - that fracking can be safe if done properly - demands closer examination of our regulatory environment to see if frackers in New Zealand are doing it properly. At the moment, that's simply not clear - thanks to the way responsibility is split across multiple agencies, and to the NeoLiberal cult of "light-handed" regulation which has dominated in New Zealand for the last thirty years, we seem to be essentially leaving it to the industry to regulate itself, which is just asking for trouble.

So, there will be no immediate ban on fracking - its simply not justified without more evidence that it is actually causing a problem. But I think we can expect the PCE to recommend a more prescriptive regulatory approach in the second part of their report, likely including greater guidance to local authorities about consenting, and greater oversight from central government. So the question will be whether National will implement those recommendations, or keep letting the foreign oil industry walk all over us and potentially endanger our environment. Sadly, I think we all know which one option they'll choose...

Climate change: Easy if you try

The New Zealand government is currently trying to convince us that we can't do anything about climate change, and we certainly shouldn't try and do anything ambitious which might result in farmers havign to make slightly less money. Meanwhile, in Europe, the EU has met is 20% by 2020 reduction target eight years ahead of schedule:

The European Union will enter crucial global climate talks that begin next week with a weakened bargaining position because it has already met its targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions eight years ahead of time and has no plans to put more ambitious cuts on the table.

Europe's longstanding goal has been to cut emissions by 20% by 2020, compared to a 1990 baseline. But emissions are already below that level, according to analyses verified by the European Environment Agency, the bloc's green watchdog. That gives countries and companies little incentive to opt for further efforts to cut greenhouse gases.

Of course, they had policy. We had denial and foot-dragging. But as a result, Europe not only has a better environment - its also positioned itself as a technological leader able to profit from other country's decarbonisation. Meanwhile, we're still doing the same dirty old shit we always did. And I don't think anyone can argue that Europe has seen any appreciable decrease in living standards to achieve their goal.

Europe's success shows what we could have done if we had tried. We should hold our politicians to account for their failure to do so.

(Meanwhile, I love how this is seen as a terrible thing in the European press because it weakens their post-Kyoto bargaining position. But the obvious solution is to set a more ambitious target. As the article notes, they're already on track for a 25% cut by 2020 without doing anything more than they're doing at present; stretching that isn't going to be too hard, while setting an example for others to follow).

Climate change: That didn't take long

Climate change talks are starting in Doha, and New Zelaand has already won a "Fossil of the Day" award on the first day:

The First Place Fossil is awarded to USA, Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand for running away from a legally binding, multilateral rules based regime...

The Second Place Fossil is awarded to New Zealand. Unlike its neighbor to the west, New Zealand decided not to put its target into the second commitment period, citing spurious grounds when the reality is that it is just a massive display of irresponsibility. It's island partners in the Pacific should think again before ever trusting NZ again.

First-equal and second. Heckuva job you're doing there, National. Way to go with upholding our international reputation and our "100% pure" branding.

Why we need to protect Maori water rights

The Maori Council's court challenge to the government's asset sales programme went to court yesterday - where it was immediately challenged by the judge whoi (quite rightly) wanted to know why an injunction was necessary:

Justice Young said ownership of Mighty River Power would not affect the Government's ability to recognise Maori rights to fresh water.

"The obvious point is they can amend the Resource Management Act whether Mighty River Power is partly or wholly owned by the Government because Parliament can do anything - that's Parliament's right."

Indeed it is - on paper. But if Justice Young seriously thinks that Parliament would sell something, then legislate effectively to take half of it back, then he has a very odd idea of how government operates in this country.

The fact of the matter is that Parliament's power to grant redress after a sale is constrained, practically by its desire to be reasonably consistent in its dealings and uphold the rule of law, and legally by the investment clauses of the various FTAs we have been foolish enough to sign. It would never dream of acting as Justice Young suggests, and if it did, Mighty River's new foreign owners would immediately sue it for "expropriation" (and, given that such cases are decided by foreign businessmen with no knowledge of or interest in the Treaty of Waitangi, almost certainly lose).

Which is precisely why we need to sort the issue of water ownership out before any sale: because our ability to do so afterwards is very much constrained. And because the government is flat-out refusing to negotiate - another breach of the Treaty - then the only option is to go to court.

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Zealand: Tax haven

The Guardian this week is taking a look at the money-laundering industry, exposing the shadowy networks used by tax cheats to hide their income and avoid paying their fair share. And their first article, looking at sham "nominee directors" used to hide company ownership from tax authorities, turns up an interesting link: New Zealand:

At the age of 38, Bradford-born Sarah Petre-Mears is running one of the biggest business empires on earth. Or so it would appear.

Official records show her controlling more than 1,200 companies across the Caribbean, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and the UK itself. Her business partner, Edward Petre-Mears, is listed as a director of at least a further 1,000 international firms.

(Emphasis added)

Fairfax's Michael Field ran a quick Companies Office search and found dozens of companies "run by" Petre-Mears registered in New Zealand. Thanks to our lax regulatory environment, we're now on the list of places to register a sham corporate front to launder your cash and hide your dirty deals. And some of those deals are very dirty indeed. For example:
The ICIJ report, which has a front page splash in the Guardian and a documentary on the BBC’s Panorama, has identified and plans to name all 28 nominees they say play a key role in keeping hundreds of thousands of commercial transactions secret.


Those names include Geoffrey Taylor and his son Ian who have acted as directors many companies in New Zealand, the British Virgin Islands, Britain and Vanuatu.

They were behind SP Trading Ltd, a Queen Street based shell company, which was used in 2009 by a Kazakh businessman to fly arms from North Korea to Iran. They were instead seized in Thailand.

Its a nice example of the convergance of the financial practices of the wealthy and of international criminals - and of why we need to regulate to outlaw both. The easiest move would be to require NZ companies to have NZ directors who live here and are accountable under NZ law. But National is dragging their feet on that. Which tells us exactly whose side they're on - and it isn't ours.

Catalonia votes

Catalonians went to the polls today in provincial elections seen as a prelude to independence - and re-elected a secessionist majority. The right-wing Convergence and Union traded seats with the Republican left, largely due to the former's austerity programme - but the overall balance of power remained in favour of pro-independence parties. The provincial government is now planning an independence referendum, which is likely to be hotly opposed by Spain's central government.

Its a headache for Spain, but also a headache for the European Union. Catalonians seem to want independence from Spain, but to remain part of Europe. But the EU's rules don't contemplate such internal splits, and its unclear whether that's possible, or whether Catalonia would have to reapply for membership (and potentially have it blocked by its former owners). The EU needs to fix this. In this era, the idea that countries should be able to keep hold of minorities who no longer want to be part of them should be an anathema. Democracy entails self-determination, and the EU should support that by providing a framework for peaceful splits. Otherwise they run the risk of discrediting themselves, by being just another stick to keep national minorities in line.

More public squalor

Another week, another sexual abuse service in crisis due to funding cuts from the government - this time in Manawatu. Manawatu's Abuse and Rape Crisis support group has had to cut hours and staff due to uncertainty about government funding. And as the Greens point out, this is part of a nationwide trend, where such services are systematically de-funded by the government and so being forced to cut services or even shut down.

Its an appalling example of the public squalor that has emerged under National. Emergency services which make a real difference to people's lives are being cut. Meanwhile, the government wastes billions on tax cuts for the rich and pollution subsidies to dirty industries. But I guess rich white men benefit from them. Who benefits from rape crisis centres? Clearly no-one who matters to National.

New Fisk

The suffering of Sderot: how its true inhabitants were wiped from Israel's maps and memories
The latest war with Hamas over Gaza proves Benjamin Netanyahu is leading Israel into isolation
One of Israel's great leftist warriors wants peace with Hamas and Gaza - but does the Knesset?


Back in the 90's, the government privatised Telecom. The new owners immediately ramped up dividends while underinvesting in new technology. The result was a second-rate phone network. It was a similar story with Tranz Rail: high dividends, deferred maintenance, and an enormous bill to repair the rail network once the foreign owners had run it into the ground.

Now Mighty River Power is signalling that its new foreign owners can do the same to our electricity system, raising its dividends to 110% of profits to provide them a quick buck for stealing a public asset. Its a political decision of course, to make the sale a "success" (for the buyers). And the result will be the same as that seen in earlier cases: the company will be asset-stripped and run into the ground, while the thieves laugh all the way to the Cayman Islands.

The New Zealand government should not be encouraging this behaviour with regards to our electricity infrastructure. But with National, its all about quick profits for their mates. Whether we have a functioning electricity system in ten or twenty years time simply doesn't come into it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Why did it take so long?

After standing on the sidelines for two years, the New Zealand government has finally joined Australia's case against Japanese whaling at the International Court of Justice. Good. Kiwis love whales and hate whaling, and our government should represent that view on the world stage. And while its taken them a long time to get round to it, they are at last doing the right thing.

At the same time, we should be asking why it took so long. Why didn't the government join in immediately? What was Murray McCully doing for the past two years? Its difficult to see it as anything other than an example of National's knee-jerk anti-environmentalism and subservience to power. A different government would have acted more quickly, and been a better representative of New Zealand values.

Something to go to in Wellington

Nicky Hager and Steven Price will be giving a talk in Wellington on Monday on "The Official Information Act 30 years on", looking at both the practical experience of the Act, and the Law Commisison's proposals for "reform":

When: 17:30 - 19:00, Monday 26 November
Where: Guildford Terrace, Connolly Hall, Thorndon, Wellington

You can register for it here.

Britain's rotten house

First, they were rorting their expenses. Now it appears britain's MPs are outright taking bribes, accepting expensive overseas "fact-finding" trips from lobbyists, and repaying them with speeches in the House:

Backbench MPs have gone on more than £1.5m of trips with all expenses paid by foreign governments, pressure groups and companies in little over two years, The Independent can reveal. Several MPs have spent months out of the country on foreign trips, sometimes while Parliament is sitting, while many of those funding the visits have a vested interest in lobbying MPs.

After the trips, a significant number of MPs have made speeches in the House of Commons supporting the political positions of the governments and countries they have visited.

And I was under the impression that MPs were supposed to represent their constituents, not foreign powers and tax-dodging multinationals. Silly me.

UK MPs wonder why their people have so little trust in them? Its because of shit like this. They give every impression of being for sale to the highest bidder. And by doing so, they undermine not only their own legitimacy, but the UK's democracy.

New Fisk

What was it all for? The murder of Palestinians and Israelis is just a prelude to the next Gaza war

Rewarding incompetence

EQC has done a pretty shit job this year, with delays in payouts, engineers who systematically refuse claims, and people stuck in limbo while EQC negotiates with reinsurers. So naturally, its CEO has been given a whopping 20% pay rise:

Earthquake Commission chief executive Ian Simpson has received a pay rise of about $70,000 in the past year, despite the commission failing to meet its customer satisfaction targets.

Simpson's salary rose from a band of $330,000 to $339,999 in the June 2011 year to $400,000 to $409,999 in the June 2012 year, State Services Commission records show.

so who carried the can for non-performance? Not the chief executive, apparently. So much for the New Public Management's ideas of CEO-accountability...

Deeply worrying

After submissions from Family First, the Baptists and other anti-gay groups, the select committee considering the marriage equality bill is considering adding a conscience clause to protect the freedom of church celebrants to be bigots. This is deeply worrying. Firstly, because marriage celebrants in New Zealand are effectively agents of the state when performing their powers, so any discrimination by them is effectively state discrimination. What next? Allowing WINZ staff to refuse to process applications from divorcees? It's no different.

And its not helped by people like VUW's Bill Atkin, who propose a completely incoherent distinction:

He recommended a narrowly defined exemption for mainstream churches from anti-discrimination legislation.

Independent marriage celebrants, on the other hand, should not be exempt and should be bound by anti-discrimination law.

So, one group - presumably those nominated by specified bodies and approved organisations - will have the right to be bigots, while others - presumably those enrolled independently - won't. The latter is a very explicit acknowledgement of the state function of marriage celebrants - but if discrimination isn't permissible for independent ones, why should it be for the religious? They're performing the same state function, and they should have to obey the same rules. If they're unwilling to do that, then they shouldn't be state functionaries. Its that simple.

(And no, this isn't taking anything off them. Contra their wishful thinking, religious organisations in New Zealand have no inherent legal power to conduct marriages. We enrol their ministers because it was convenient to do so in the 1950's, when most people were still married in churches. But now that's no longer true, perhaps its time we ended their special privileges in this area, and made them do the paperwork like everybody else).

The second cause for concern is how such "conscience clauses" have been handled overseas. The US model - as seen in New York - doesn't just allow religious bigots to refuse to marry people who their religion hates, but also allows them to refuse them housing and services in general. and it didn't just apply to gays, but was a generic exemption from anti-discrimination law (so, yes, in New York, the Catholic Church can tell divorcees, unmarried parents, and of course members of other religions to fuck off, while religions of the racist creativity movement can now say "no niggers allowed"). Obviously we don't want to see anything like that here.

In 1990, Parliament legislated for non-discrimination by its agents. In 1993 it legislated for non-discrimination in wider society. It should stand by the promise of that legislation, not give in to religious special pleading.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Climate change: The cost of delay

Governments will meet in Qatar next week for the next stage of climate change negotiations, which will no doubt see the usual deadlock between a rich world unwilling to accept responsibility and a poor world unwilling to be denied growth. Meanwhile, the UN reports a growing gap between what we're doing and what we need to do to solve the problem:

The gap between what world governments have committed to by way of cuts in greenhouse gases and the cuts that scientists say are necessary has widened, but in order to stave off dangerous levels of global warming, it should have narrowed. There is now one-fifth more carbon in the atmosphere than there was in 2000, and there are few signs of global emissions falling, according to the new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).


According to the United Nations report, drawing on research from more than 50 scientists, the widening gap between countries' plans and scientific estimates means that governments must step up their ambitions as a matter of urgency to avoid even worse effects from warming. "The transition to a low-carbon, inclusive green economy is happening far too slowly and the opportunity for meeting [scientific advice on emissions targets] is narrowing annually," said Achim Steiner, executive director of Unep.

The explicit goal of international policy is to prevent global warming of more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say is the limit of safety beyond which climate change is likely to become irreversible and catastrophic. That goal that has been roughly translated as a concentration of carbon in the atmosphere of no more than 450 parts per million. To meet this, governments would have to ensure that no more than 44 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is emitted per year by 2020. The UN's latest research, published on Wednesday as the Emissions Gap Report 2012, shows that on current trends, emissions by 2020 will be 58 Gt CO2e.

This is basically the cost of delay: we've pissed around for two decades now, dragging our feet and avoiding taking real action while continuing to pollute. Which means we not only need to take the original action to reduce emissions, but extra to compensate for all the pollution we've spewed in the meantime. And this will of course be more expensive and disruptive. The do-nothings will no doubt use that expense and disruption as an excuse to keep on doing nothing - but the alternative is the expense and disruption of storms, famine, species extinction and sea-level rise - which is neither practically nor morally acceptable.

The good news is that we can still do it. We can solve this problem with the technology we have now, without a tremendous drop in living standards. It will be bad for a bunch of rich people at the top whose wealth is based on pollution - but we cannot destroy the world to protect their greed and selfishness.

More dictatorship from Brownlee

This morning, the Christchurch City Council voted to save its town hall from the bulldozer. it was a unanimous vote, reflecting the value Christchurch sets on its iconic building. So naturally, Gerry Brownlee is threatening to overturn it:

But Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the decision could put plans on hold for a performing arts centre, which is in the Government's blueprint for the central city.

Mr Brownlee said it's unlikely the city can have both.

He said it's disappointing the council has committed so much money, given there is no certainty the entire facility can be repaired.

However, Mr Brownlee admits the council may have information that he does not about repair options.

Brownlee should butt out. What Christchurch ultimately looks like is a decision for the people who live there. And as a democratically elected body, the Christchurch City Council is the body best placed to decide that - not some Minister who spends most of his time in Wellington.

The education "market" is not a computer game

Earlier in the week, we saw Teritary Education Minister Steven Joyce trying to dictate who studies what at Auckland University. His aim was to correct the "market failure" by which employers can't find enough IT and engineering staff (by which they mean enough experienced IT and engineering staff willing to work for the pittance they are willing to pay). But his solution fundamentally misunderstands the role of education in the employment market.

Firstly, there are the obvious issues raised by Peter Fenwick: that there is a serious time lag involved:

If he gives an immediate instruction, with appropriate funding, it will take probably two years for institutions to plan and acquire staff and other resources for the increased intake, a further four years until they graduate and then a year or two until they acquire the practical work-place experience. Add another year if they do an industrially desirable conjoint or advanced degree. Thus it will be at least six years before we see any increased supply, certainly not next year.

Unstated: by the end of those six years, employers may have decided they want something else (or "persuaded" Joyce to grant special visa privileges to some favoured group of staff trained overseas, flooding the market and dropping wages through the floor). So there's significant uncertainty faced by students looking at studying such specialised degrees.

But more fundamentally, Joyce seems to think that getting enough engineers is simply a matter of funding university places. While its part of the solution (in that it obviously sets a cap), it assumes that the employment market is between universities (who churn out graduates) and employers (who hire them). This is a fundamental mistake. Universities are simply intermediaries; the real participants in the market are the students. And they are not simply substitutable raw lumps of intellectual labour who can be specialised into whatever the Minister believes the market desires by manipulating course numbers. Quite apart from having their own opinion on what they want to do with their lives, they also have different talents. And they are not all suited to engineering and IT.

Bluntly, the reason so few people do these courses is that they are hard. Engineering is at the crunchy end of science, requiring serious mathematical ability. IT, whether programming or plumbing, requires a confidence with technology and the ability to wrap your brain around stuff that causes SAN-loss in most people. If you are an 18-year-old with middling grades at maths who views computers primarily as an appliance for using Facebook, then these courses are not the way to get good grades and therefore (so the logic goes) a good job. Oh, you might be able to learn, but its a risk, and at the end of it who wants to hire the B student? Better to do that BA or BCom instead.

Which takes us back to Fenwick: if the government seriously wants to increase the number of engineering and IT graduates, it needs to start in schools, and get people interested and confident with maths and science. And that's a much more complicated and longer-term project than Steven Joyce simply dictating graduate numbers as if its some sort of computer game.


The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has called for submissions on the Minimum Wage (Starting-out Wage) Amendment Bill. Two copies, by Tuesday, 27 November 2012, to:

Transport and Industrial Relations Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings

Or use the form on the link above.

The bill would effectively restore youth rates, setting a lower minimum wage for those under 20. Please take the time to tell the government that you believe this is unfair and that they should not be endorsing discrimination.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

While we're on the topic

Peter Lilley is a UK MP for the Conservative Party. He sits on the Commons select committee on energy and climate change and was one of only three MPs to vote against that country's Climate Change Act. Which isn't surprising, given that he's been given more than US$400,000 in oil company share options:

Since 2006, Lilley has been a non-executive board member of Tethys Petroleum, a Cayman Islands-based oil and gas company with drilling operations in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the register of MPs' financial interests, Lilley has routinely declared that he receives a quarterly payment from Tethys for "attending meetings and advising on business developments". The latest quarterly payment registered by Lilley on 1 October was £11,750 for 30 hours' work, meaning he has received £47,000 over the past year.

But the Guardian has discovered Lilley has also been granted share options valued by the company at the time they were granted at $428,399, in addition to other share options that have not been given a clear financial valuation. Under parliament's code of conduct, he is not required to disclose details about the precise value or volume of any shareholding.

Tethys' financial public filing reports show that Lilley was granted $107,290 worth of share options in 2011, $194,350 in 2010, $57,040 in 2009, and $69,719 in 2008. In 2007, Lilley was granted 150,000 share options, but a financial valuation was not expressed in the documents.

This is a clear conflict of interest with his select committee duties, and all the more so because he has tried to keep most of it secret. But apparently Britain's rotten Parliament tolerates that sort of corruption. And they wonder why people think they are lower than dogshit...

(And for those interested: the NZ Parliament's register of pecuniary interests requires MPs to declare the name of any company or entity in which the member has a pecuniary interest, meaning a matter or activity of financial benefit. Stock options should be covered by that, though I'm not aware of anyone actually declaring any. Of course, most of our MPs hide their interests in trusts, which makes a bit of a mockery of the process...)


A sharp-eyed Twitter user spotted this in parliament's Register of Pecunairy Interests [PDF, p. 7]:


Yes, that company second from the bottom is the Australian numpties responsible for the Novopay clusterfuck. And Banks, BTW, is Associate Education Minister.

Banks only re-entered Parliament in 2011, and the Novopay disaster goes back a lot further than that. At the same time, this is a serious conflict of interest and someone should be conducting some pretty heavy scrutiny on whether he has said anything at all about it to the Ministry or his fellow Ministers since then. And even if he has not, it is unseemly for him to hold an education portfolio while also being a director major shareholder of a major contractor. Either he needs to give up his position, or divest himself immediately.

[Hat-tip: @Dovil]

Update: It seems that Banks divested himself earlier this year when Talent2 de-listed from the Australian stock exchange. He claims that

He has never received any government information or briefings regarding Talent2 (or any company they are connected to), or participated in any discussions at either Cabinet or Cabinet Committee.

Of course, he was quite happy to leave this major breach of ethics unaddressed for six months, and its likely he would still have a shareholding today if it wasn't for the company's appalling performance in Australia.

Looking after themselves

Hostess, the US company which makes Twinkies, went into liquidation yesterday after its workforce refused to carry the can for mismanagement. Meanwhile, its executives, who just last year voted themselves enormous pay rises, are trying to pay themselves an extra $1.75 million in bonuses - presumably because they did such a great job in running the company into the ground. Its a perfect example of how business managers look after themselves, at the expense of workers and shareholders alike.

Management bonuses in failing companies are theft, pure and simple. And shareholders and liquidators should not tolerate them.

New Fisk

Israel demands our support because it fights its ‘war against terrorists’ in our name

A $300 million scam

The government has decided to build Peter Dunne's pet highway through Transmission Gully under a Public-private partnership. According to Gerry Brownlee, this will be more efficient and will result in cost-savings. But according to the project's Q&A [PDF], its a different story:

The design and construction cost, including inflation, is currently estimated at $1B ($882M in 2011 dollars). This figure does not include the maintenance and operations services that will also be provided by a PPP.

Under a PPP the construction cost is debt-funded. Interest cost is accumulated during the construction period and therefore we expect the debt level on opening day (2020) to be approximately $1.3B.

(Emphasis added)

So, we're paying an extra $300 million extra to do things this way. So much for cost-savings and "efficiency". But I guess that's just the price of hiding debt from the taxpayers: an extra 30% for the money launderers.

Its a perfect example of how PPPs are just a form of looting the state. Whichever cronies National selects for the job will be laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, we'll be paying the price of their financial trickery for 25 years.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An act of self-mutilation

So, the Labour Party caucus has met. As predicted, they have endorsed David Shearer's leadership unanimously - an act which hardly strengthens it given that there will be a revote in February. And as expected, they have banished David Cunliffe to the backbenches.

Well, that'll teach those Labour MPs to be competent and inspiring then. Clearly, that is something which is just incompatible with Labour values. In the modern Labour Party, everyone must be as incompetant and uninspiring as the leadership, for fear of showing them up.

To echo Talleyrand, this is worse than a crime, it is a mistake. Its an extraordinary act of self-mutilation, which shows exactly where Shearer's priorities lie. And its not with having the strongest Parliamentary team to stick it to National. And that's the difference between strong and weak leadership. Helen Clark co-opted her potential rivals. Shearer is so weak he cannot risk being compared to them, so he must destroy them.

Autocracy advances in Britain

What does "cutting red tape" mean in practice? In Britain, it means cutting policy impact assessments, reducing consultation, and making judicial review inaccessible:

David Cameron has axed standard assessments used to gauge how policies affect different social groups as part of a drive to get rid of the "bureaucratic rubbish" that gets in the way of British business.

Cameron also vowed to slash three-month consultation periods on future government policy proposals, signalling that the public may not get a say at all on some proposals, with the final decision left to individual ministers. Other measures include reducing the time limit for bringing judicial reviews, hiking up the legal charge involved, and halving the number of possible appeals.

The prime minister outlined plans to axe equality impact assessments at the CBI conference, saying new government measures needed to be "tough, radical and fast" to help British business compete in the global race. He said "faster government" was one of the key steps Britain needs to take to thrive – "in this global race you are quick or you're dead", he said.

Which no doubt sounds great to businessmen - but society isn't a business. These processes exist for an important purpose: making sure government gets it right when making policy. And judicial review - the ability to challenge a decision in the courts for illegality, irrationality, or impropriety - is a core check on the powers of the state. And Cameron is tossing all of that overboard, undermining democracy in the name of economic efficiency.

The drafters of our Canterbury dictatorship would be proud. But what's really worrying is that they'll look at Cameron, think to themselves "that sounds like a good idea", and start doing the same here. I mean, its not as if we need Bill of Rights review of policy, or statutory consultation on mining in national parks, or the ability to take the government to court when they clearly and obviously have behaved unlawfully. No, government knows best, and we should just leave it to make decisions. The only role of the peasantcitizen is to obey.

Undermining Freedom of Information in Australia

Australia has a weak Freedom of Information regime, which for example allows information to be cloaked in secrecy merely by wheeling it into the Cabinet room on a tea trolley (and yes, they do actually do that). So naturally, the Australian government is trying to weaken it further, with a strapped-chicken review aimed at cutting costs by reducing transparency. But as Paul Farrell points out, this would be a blow for Australian democracy:

It’s true that FOI costs have increased, with the 2010/11 year costed at $36 million. The increase can be attributed largely to the number of non-personal requests being made, according to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) 2012 annual report. Non routine requests are often those made by journalists and politicians seeking access to documents in the public interest.

It’s ironic that the federal government is now concerned about an increase in costs brought about by encouraging open access to government information. In some respects, the FOI Act has succeeded in encouraging precisely the type of requests that are good for open government, and good for the public.

The expected change - higher fees, fees for reviews (!), an absolute cap on request time - would make the law even more ineffective, and hence make it more difficult for Australians to hold their government to account. And given Australia's persistent corruption problems, that would be a Very Bad Thing.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Calling us on our bullshit

New Zealand likes to consider itself "clean and green", "100% pure". Its a central part of our national identity, and a central part of the way we market ourselves overseas. But its a lie, and now the New York Times is calling us on our bullshit:

The clean and green image has long been promoted by the isolated country in its striving to compete in world markets. But an international study in the journal PLoS One measuring countries’ loss of native vegetation, native habitat, number of endangered species and water quality showed that per capita, New Zealand was 18th worst out of 189 nations when it came to preserving its natural surroundings.

Dr. Joy said that for a country purporting to be so pure, New Zealand seemed to be failing by many international environmental benchmarks.

Last month, the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment released a survey showing that more than half of the country’s freshwater recreational sites were unsafe to swim in. Fecal contamination of waterways, caused largely by dairy farming — the source of 13.9 billion New Zealand dollars, or $10 billion, in annual exports, nearly a quarter of New Zealand’s total — was widespread.

The survey showed that people who swam in those rivers were at a high risk of illness, including serious diseases like giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis and campylobacteriosis. The waterways were the cause of 18,000 to 34,000 cases of waterborne disease each year.

There's more there, and its damning - and it will no doubt affect our international image. National will no doubt shrug, quibble the numbers, and say that its just the price of their mates making more money. But the rest of us should take it as a challenge. Environmentalism is a core part of kiwi identity, and as a nation we should be living up to that aspiration, rather than letting the government shit all over it for the profit of the few.

No freedom of speech in Greece

Corpus Christi is an American play which depicts Jesus and his friends as gay men living in modern Texas. But when it opened in Greece, the premiere was disrupted by the fascist Golden Dawn party, who beat people while police stood by and watched. And now, its cast and crew have been charged with blasphemy:

Charges of "insulting religion" and "malicious blasphemy" have been filed after Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus lodged a lawsuit against those involved in the play, the officials said on Friday.

The play's director told Reuters he was stunned that prosecutors had chosen to go after him rather than pursue tax evaders and others blamed for driving Greece to near-bankruptcy.

"What I see is that there are people who have robbed the country blind who are not in jail and the prosecutor turns against art," Albanian-born Laertis Vasiliou said.

If found guilty, Mr Vasiliou and the other defendants could face several months in prison. A trial date has not been set yet.

Greece is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which affirms both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Prosecuting people for criticising religion is obviously incompatible with either. But thanks to austerity-induced fascism, Greece is fast turning away from those values, and towards something rather frightening. And the Orthodox church, who previously backed the quasi-fascist, theocratic LAOS party, seems to be going along with it.

Immigration policy for sale

First China Southern Airlines, now another Chinese company wants special immigration treatment for it staff:

New Zealand is considering providing special visa processing for employees of controversial Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.


It can now be revealed Huawei wants "an alternative way" for some its employees to meet requirements to obtain visitor visas.

Immigration NZ head Steve Stuart said Huawei Technologies had applied to have requirements to prove sufficient funds and employment for its employees waived.

"The proposal is still being discussed by Immigration NZ and this consideration is at a very early stage."

The fact that they're even discussing it is deeply disturbing. China may run on special favours and secret deals, but that's not how we're supposed to do things in New Zealand. We're supposed to have rules, transparent and applied equally to all. The idea of one company being able to evade normal requirements simply because it wants to ought to be an anathema. Sadly, it now seems to be becoming common under National.

New Fisk

As the 'gates of hell' open once more in the Middle East, these old journalistic clich├ęs won't do

That Labour meeting thing

So, apparently the Labour Party had a bit of a meeting over the weekend, during which the membership passed some rules changes imposing greater democratic control over the caucus, and especially over the leadership. But even this weak democracy - seriously people, other parties elect their leaders every year - was too much for Labour's talentless and past-it Old Guard, and they've now gone feral and are attempting to drive out one of the party's few talented and popular frontbenchers.

Way to go guys. Great own goal there. This is why I don't give a shit about the Labour Party: because its collection of time-servers and over-ambitious incompetents will turn any success into failure. Such a dysfunctional party is not worth anyone's time or emotional investment.

Meanwhile, while the media was focusing on the leadership issue, the party also asserted greater democratic control over policy. There will be a new policy platform, set by the annual conferance and binding on caucus. And there were a host of remits, supporting the renationalisation of stolen assets, a lower voting age, and support for marriage equality, which will presumably make their way into it.

And then there was David Shearer's speech, in which he introduced a new (actually very old) policy to build 100,000 affordable homes over ten years to solve the housing crisis, boost employment and skills, and kickstart the economy in one go. Its an obvious policy, apparently self-funding, and one which people have been calling for for a long time. I expect it will be popular, an example of what government can do to help. And the mere fact that it has been advocated by Labour, one of the two main parties, will have shifted the boundaries of public debate and will hopefully make the government have to justify its "do nothing" position.

This is what oppositions should do: advocating alternative policies which challenge the government. And it would be nice if Labour focused a bit more on it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A worrying answer

Back in September, when it was revealed that the GCSB had been unlawfully spying on Kim Dotcom, I wondered aloud how often they do police work. Thanks to subsequent reports, we've now found out: 58 times in the past three years, 3 of which are of dubious legality. Now thanks to FYI, the public OIA request site, we have more information [PDF]. And its slightly worrying.

The GCSB performs its functions under section 8(2)(c) of the GCSB Act at the request of other agencies. In the past year (since September 2011), preliminary figures indicates that the GCSB has performed these in respect of 16 operations. Unfortunately the compilation of the data is taking longer than initially envisaged. GCSB will be able to provide a confirmed figure in the coming weeks.

(Emphasis added)

So, firstly, GCSB has only a hazy idea of how many times it spies for the police. No matter what you think of that spying, given the powers involved and the need for them to have an absolute legal justification for them, that should be deeply worrying. But secondly, there's the worrying admission that these powers are exercised at the request of other agencies. The way the Act is structured strongly suggests that they're not meant to do this. Interception powers are limited to foreign communications, and the interception of domestic communications is forbidden. They can pass on information related to serious crime if they happen across it while intercepting for foreign intelligence, but they can't intercept communications in New Zealand to go looking for such information. They're a foreign intelligence agency, not a domestic law enforcement one.

We also need to look closely at the police end of this. For very good reasons, police spying powers are highly restricted. But they appear to be using GCSB to do an end-run around those limits. And that is not something we should accept or tolerate.


The government has announced a new response to the housing crisis: 600 new "affordable" homes in its Hobsonville Point development. But when you look at the actual prices, they're not that affordable:

Under the inflation-indexed targets, of all homes built at Hobsonville Point:
  • 10 per cent will be sold for less than $400,000
  • a further 10 per cent will be priced between $400,000 and $485,000.
Housing Minister Phil Heatley thinks that these prices are "affordable in the Auckland context". Bullshit. According to Kiwibank's calculator, payments on a $485,000 house, assuming a 20% deposit, are over $1,100 a fortnight. Which is about the same as the median pre-tax income ($560 a week), and almost 70% of the median pre-tax income of wage and salary earners ($806 a week). And that's at historic low rates, and assuming that people have almost $100,000 to put down to start with; if they don't, its even worse.

Basically, these "affordable" houses are completely unaffordable to the vast majority of New Zealanders. They're houses for the rich. And they will do nothing to solve our housing crisis.

A sensible ruling

Back in 2010, the Charities Commission deregistered Greenpeace as a charity, on the basis that its objects - including promoting peace through nuclear disarmament and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction - were "political" rather than charitable. The ruling was subsequently upheld by the High Court, who also took a swipe at its involvement in protests. now, the Court of Appeal has overturned that ruling, and ordered that the Department of Internal Affairs reconsider the application:

The court concluded that the public benefit of nuclear disarmament and the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction is now sufficiently well-accepted in New Zealand society that the promotion of peace through these means should be recognised in its own right as a charitable purpose.

During the Court of Appeal hearing Greenpeace indicated it would look at making changes to its objects, such as changing its rules to limit political advocacy to activities that furthered its charitable objects.

Greenpeace's application is to be sent back to be re-considered with the changes in place.

The Charities Commission has since been disestablished and the group's application will now go to the Internal Affairs Department chief executive and the Charities Registration Board, which still has to decide whether Greenpeace's political activities are ancillary to its charitable purposes.

This is good news, and hopefully they'll be registered. but at the same time, the fundamental problem of a definition of "charity" which dates from 1601 remains. Isn't it time we updated that for the 21st century?

Utter madness

Lobbyists ExportNZ want to more than triple the size of New Zealand, growing the population to 15 million in just 45 years in order to provide them with "scale" and more exports. Its utter madness. Quite apart from the question of where all these people will come from (Statistics New Zealand projects a population of about 6 million in 2061, so they're talking about finding an extra 9 million people from somewhere), there's also the question of where they'd go. ExportNZ's plan would involve tripling the size of every urban area in New Zealand. It would mean the end of the quarter-acre paradise, and a definitive shift to high-density living (which, while more efficient from an urban planning point of view, is also not what people actually seem to want, at least on current models). And it would likely mean the end of our uncrowded wilderness and our relatively clean natural environment.

One of the great things about this country is that it is relatively empty. And judging by the results of the Herald's entirely unscientific poll, most of us would like to keep it that way.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Absolute insanity

The government's contracting out of the education payroll to Novopay has been a disaster, with hundreds of people going unpaid, often for months. The Ministry of Education's payroll office has been working hard to try and clean up the mess its contractors had made. or at least it was - because now the government is sacking them:

The Ministry of Education is planning to cut nine jobs from its payroll unit as staff struggle to deal with the Novopay teachers' pay debacle.

PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott said a restructuring proposal would reduce the number of positions from 23 to 14.

"It claims the staff will not be needed once Novopay is operating smoothly. The timing of this beggar's belief," she said.

"Everyone knows that the Novopay system has been a debacle and with the magnitude of the problems, who knows when it will be properly up and running."

To do this now, when the new system is still not functioning, is absolute insanity. And it just makes the government look callous and utterly divorced from reality.

The plot thickens

Yesterday, we learned that National had sold our immigration law to China Southern Airlines, allowing wealthy members of its frequent flyer club to bypass normal immigration requirements when visiting New Zealand, despite concerns being raised about security and access by organised crime. Now the plot has thickened: according to information tabled in Parliament today, National's best friends SkyCity were involved in the deal. And its pretty obvious why: those wealthy frequent-flying Chinese organised criminals and corrupt officials like to gamble (in part, because its a useful way of laundering money). So weakening immigration restrictions on them directly benefits SkyCity's bottom line. But the downside is that we're directly supporting money laundering, and indirectly helping to sustain a culture of crime and corruption in China.

These are not the actions of a good neighbour, or of a responsible member of the international community. But I guess all those things go out the window when it comes to helping National's mates make a quick buck.

Appalling and barbaric

What the anti-abortion movement is actually in favour of: killing mothers who miscarry:

Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

This is appalling and barbaric - not to mention needless. As The Guardian makes clear, abortion is actually legal in Ireland to save a mother's life. But Ireland is so priest-ridden that its doctors would rather let their patients die than fulfil their duty as medical professionals.

Hopefully, this will lead to change. Hopefully, there will be no more women like Savita Halappanavar condemned to death by backwards superstition in Ireland.

A good idea

Pike River saw a careless company ignore safety in the push for profit. The cost was 29 lives. Now Labour has drafted a member's bill introducing an offence of corporate manslaughter to prevent it from happening again:

The penalties in the Bill include:

A fine on a company or organisation up to $10 million

Imprisonment up to 10 years for any director or senior manager shown to be responsible for the corporate failure

A publicity order requiring the offending company or organisation to publicise the conviction, including in any annual report.

One of the key insights of economists is that incentives matter. At present directors and managers can ignore safety, because any cost will be paid by workers and shareholders. This gives them a direct and strong incentive to take an interest and correct any failings - because if they kill someone, they could be going to jail.

Though I can also think of another penalty that could usefully be added. At present, the Companies Office can bar someone from managing a company for up to five years in certain circumstances. Putting the jobs and future livelihoods of directors directly on the line over safety would also provide a strong incentive for them to take their responsibilities seriously.


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

  • Public Broadcasting Foundation (TV 7) Bill Electronic Data Safety Bill (Clare Curran)
  • Summary Offences (Possession of Hand-held Lasers) Amendment Bill (Cam Calder)
No-one has the full list up yet, but all the bills will eventually be listed on the Parliamentary website here.

(Thanks to @LamiaImam for today's results).

Edit: had the wrong bill for Clare Curran. its been a diffuclt bill to cover due to the absences of my usual sources.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cronyism in action

Immigration Minister Nathan Guy is trumpeting his new scheme to encourage Chinese tourism. But look a little closer, and it begins to look a little shabby: a deal with a specific airline to exempt their frequent flyer members from normal visa requirements. The underlying reason? Because they're rich - Immigration thinks that frequent flyer status is an indicator of their ability to meet character and funding requirements.

...or at least some of them do. As Winston Peters laid out in parliament today, Immigration's Intelligence, Risk and Integrity Division raised serious concerns, essentially that this would allow wealthy organised criminals to bypass normal checks, and that the airline in question has a poor record of compliance with providing advance passenger data. In other words, a bad idea, and not people we should be giving sweetheart deals to. Which raises the question: why is the government going ahead with it? what did China Southern offer Guy in their secret meeting in April?

This also gives us a troubling image of how the government sets policy: after secret meetings with lobbyists. First Snapper, now this. And it makes you wonder how much other policy is being set by and for cronies of the National Party.

How it works in Guinea

Guinea is one of the more corrupt countries on earth, ranking 164th in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Its mining sector is totally corrupt, with money flowing into the pockets of politicians and cronies rather than the people. Its public sector is full of fictitious jobs, enabling theft by public servants. The police are basically street thugs who shake people down for cash.

Guinea's president Alpha Conde promised to change this. He appointed a treasury chief who would take a hard line on corruption. And last month, when she discovered someone had stolen US$1.8 million from the treasury, she began an investigation. So they murdered her:

The head of Guinea's treasury was gunned down as she was driving home in what her colleagues describe as a brazen assassination aimed at silencing an official who had launched an investigation into the disappearance of millions in state funds.

The forensic doctor who examined the body of treasury chief Aissatou Boiro after she was brought to the morgue Friday night said she had two bullet wounds to the chest and died of internal bleeding.

"She was hit by two bullets in the heart, and died from hemorraghing. The bullets were shot from a close distance, which makes it clear that they were intended to kill her," said the doctor at the Ignace Deen Hospital in Conakry, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.

The government issued a statement which was broadcast on state television on Saturday evening, saying that Boiro had been killed by a group of men wearing military uniforms. Security forces have launched a manhunt to try to find and arrest the gunmen, the statement said.

This is what happens when corruption and lawlessness is allowed to continue. And its a perfect example of why we cannot tolerate it anywhere.

More autocracy

Consultation is one of the core underlying concepts of our democracy. When the government makes a decision, it is supposed to consult those interested or affected. So naturally, National is seeking to reduce consultation requirements around setting the minimum wage:

The Government is being accused of silencing the voice of low-paid workers through plans to streamline the way the minimum wage is assessed and set every year.

The Government considers public submissions when it reviews the minimum wage every December.

It also takes into account more than 20 factors including: unemployment, productivity, inflation and the principles of fairness, protection, income distribution and work incentives. The impact on new migrants, women, Maori, Pacific people, the disabled and part-time workers is also considered.

It is understood the Government wants to reduce that to four factors: inflation, wage growth based on the medium wage, employment and the impact on jobs, and ''other factors'' which could include changing conditions.

It also wants to only consider public submissions every four years but will consult Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions annually.

And the reason for this of course is so they can ignore the voices of those affected, and the issues which they are excluding: things like fairness, equality, and the status of women and ethnic groups. because obviously, none of that matters when setting a minimum wage. its typically autocratic - but so very, very National.

Victimising children

In July 2010, National passed welfare "reforms" imposing work-tests on solo parents and sickness beneficiaries, and kicking people off unemployment benefits after a year unless they reapplied. The new regime was enforced by harsh sanctions: a 50% cut in benefits for the first work-test failure, and a complete cut after that.

According to research from the Child Poverty Action Group, children are significant victims of this sanctions regime:

CPAG has received figures from Work and Income NZ under the Official Information Act which give a snapshot of the situation as at the end of August 2012. The figures show at that time 377 people with dependent children had had benefits reduced by 50%. The majority of those (234) were sole-parents receiving the DPB. In 84 cases, the youngest child in the family was younger than five. In 63 cases, the reduction had lasted over four weeks.

They don't provide data on the number of beneficiaries without children sanctioned in this way (which would be useful for context), but regardless: this isn't acceptable. Children are being punished, and their long-term life chances are being reduced, for something which is no fault of their own. To echo John Campbell, no matter whose fault it is, it isn't the kids. Children should not be victimised by a harsh government policy aimed at bullying their parents. And in a nation which took its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to make the best interest sof children the primary consideration in policymaking concerning them (including specifically welfare decisions), they wouldn't be.

But quite apart from being cruel, vicious, and contrary to our international obligations, its also just dumb. Child poverty costs us in the long term, in health, in reduced educational outcomes, in mental illness, in lower lifetime earnings, and in crime. We'll be paying for National's cruelty and sadism in twenty, thirty, forty years time in all of those ways. But I guess for them its a case of IBGYBG. So they dump costs on the future to buy sadism votes today.

(Incidentally, Danya Levy's Stuff piece on this misinterprets the data. Its a snapshot at August 2012, not a total since the new regime was implemented. Sloppy, but given the table titles in the detailed press release they sent out, I can see how the mistake could be made).

Member's Day

Today, by leave, is a Member's Day. Yes, last Wednesday was a Member's Day too, but there seems to have been some swap done over the end-of-year urgency. Its good to see the government doing this, rather than just eating Wednesdays like it used to do, and they should pursue such deals more often to ensure that the other parties get their day and their say.

As for business, the first item is a local bill, then its on to the real stuff. Firstly, Scott Simpson's BORA-violating Land Transport (Admissibility of Evidential Breath Tests) Amendment Bill, which will probably pass with the support of National, ACT, and (of course) Peter Dunne. Then there's Jacqui Dean's Conservation (Natural Heritage Protection) Bill, which is a long-awaited updating of penalties for various offences under natural heritage protection legislation. Following that we have Metiria Turei's Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 (Application to Casinos) Amendment Bill, which extends the net of asset forfeiture even wider by allowing the government to reclaim proceeds of crime gambled away in casinos (with a reverse onus of proof and a civil standard of evidence). While I don't like casinos (they're a private tax on hope), hopefully this will be voted down. Finally, if the House moves quickly, it might make a start on Rino Tirikatene's Employment Relations (Protection of Young Workers) Amendment Bill.

There will be a ballot for two, maybe three bills tomorrow. Again it will be interesting to see what the parties have come up with.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Saving my local democracy

Three months ago, the Palmerston North City Council was scheming to undermine my local democracy by introducing at-large election. Now, in the face of public opposition and the threat of an appeal to the Local Goverment Commission, they've given up. According to today's Manawatu Standard (offline):

After months of debate, the decision to retain wards for next year's Palmerston North City Council elections was rubber-stamped last night without a comment.

Mayor Jono Naylor and deputy mayor Jim Jefferies were the only ones to hold out until the end in favour of city-wide voting.


As well as retaining wards, the decision maintains the number of councillors at 15, adjusts the boundaries of the five existing wards, and resolves not to have any comunnity boards.

(The council had already decided to switch to STV for the 2013 election)

But while this is a victory, it isn't the war. The council is still keen on undemocratic city-wide voting, and will be reviewing it for the 2016 elections. I guess you can always trust in the self-interest of politicians...

Pure waste

That's the only way to describe NZDF's planned purchase of a satellite system:

New Zealand's Defence Ministry has begun calling for tenders for a sophisticated wideband military satellite system that will guarantee "a seat at the top table" with any US led military activity.

The ministry launched a request for tender asking for companies to bid on the provision of certified Wideband Global Satellite Communications (WGS) equipment, necessary training, and associated support to the New Zealand Defence Force.

It will also include ground stations in the North Island and on ships.

As the article makes crystal clear, the primary purpose of this purchase is prestige: "a seat at the top table". And that is not a proper function of our military. But its secondary purpose is interoperability - or, in English, making it easier for us to participate in America's wars. As I've previously argued, this doesn't serve our interests either. Instead it just makes us a better vassal, while directly undermining our long-term independent foreign policy.

We should not be wasting money on interoperability, and we should not be wasting money on prestige. Instead, our military spending should be focused solely on what serves our interests - not those of the USA.

Climate change: And more shame

Last week, National gutted the ETS and announced it would withdraw from Kyoto. Meanwhile, tiny Niue is planning to go 100% solar:

The Premier of Niue says the country is aspiring to follow the lead of Tokelau and become 100 percent solar powered.

Niue has received four million US dollars in funding from the Pacific Environment Community Fund, a joint initiative between the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Japanese government.

Tokelau is the first country in the world to become 100 percent solar powered.

As it should be clear, Niue is just the latest small island nation to do this. And it should shame us deeply. Countries smaller and poorer than ours are making tremendous efforts against climate change. Meanwhile, we are doing sweet fuck all, and primarily making sure that our polluters get a big fat payout. So much for "common but differentiated responsibilities"...

Climate change: Pointless

Some apparent good news on climate change policy: National has decided to ban some dubious types of carbon credit from the ETS:

“The Government has considered whether Emission Reduction Units (ERUs) from HFC-23 and N2O destruction projects, and Certified Emission Reduction Units (CERs) and ERUs from large-scale hydroelectricity projects should be ineligible in the ETS. There are legitimate questions about these types of international units and the Government wants to maintain the integrity of the ETS,” Mr Groser says.

The proposal is that we exclude the use of these particular units either from 1 January 2013 or 1 June 2013. The European Union is proposing to ban these units from 2013 and Australia is also proposing a prohibition when their emission trading scheme comes into effect in 2015.

This would normally be a good move - both types of unit are highly dubious, HFC-23 because people are manufacturing pollutants to claim the credits, and large hydro projects because they're not additional emissions reductions (i.e. they would have happened anyway,and in most cases were already complete when the claim for credit was made). But National's other changes to the ETS, which have basically transformed it into a Pollution Subsidy Scheme, render it pointless. We now have a scheme so riven with subsidies and exclusions that it might as well not exist. Changing what sorts of units you can buy to meet your non-existent "obligations" is simply rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

"Assurances" are not enough

For the past ten years the UK has been trying to rid itself of Abu Qatada, first detaining him without trial as a terrorist, then plotting to extradite him to Jordan where he had already been tried in absentia. And at every turn, the courts have refused permission for extradition because of one key issue: torture. Quite apart from the threat of Abu Qatada himself being tortured, there is the risk that he will be tried on the basis of evidence procured by torture. This is contrary to the ECHR, and so he cannot be deported until those risks are removed.

The British government thought they had got around it by gaining an "assurance" from the Jordanian government that those things would not happen. But a UK court has laid down the law: assurances are not enough. They want to see Jordan pass robust laws against evidence procured by torture before they will allow any extradition:

The radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada is to be released from Long Lartin high security prison after winning his latest legal challenge against being sent back to Jordan, where he faces allegations of plotting bomb attacks.

Qatada, who was once described by a Spanish judge as Osama bin Laden's righthand man in Europe, is to be released on Tuesday on an electronic tag to enforce a 16-hour curfew between the hours of 4pm and 8am and under severe restrictions as to who he can meet.

His release, following a ruling by the special immigration appeals commission (Siac), is a setback for the home secretary, Theresa May, who personally secured assurances from the Jordanian authorities that Qatada would not face a trial based on evidence obtained by torture. She intends to fight the ruling, and the Home Office immediately gave notice of its intention to go directly to the court of appeal.

Mr Justice Mitting and the two other senior judges who allowed Qatada's appeal said that despite those assurances a real risk remained that he would face a trial based on such evidence. They said changes needed to be made to the Jordanian criminal code before they could be satisfied that the risk no longer existed.

The government will of course appeal, but I think the court is right. The word of politicians and governments cannot be trusted on such a serious matter. That means an odious person goes free, but that is better than allowing them to be tortured or receive an unfair trial.

Of course, the UK could always prosecute Abu Qatada themselves. It speaks volumes about the quality of their "evidence" against him that they have not done so.