Thursday, January 31, 2013

A new Speaker

Lockwood Smith has gone to London, and David Carter has just been elected Speaker of the House. The first question I had was whether Carter would follow Smith's precedent, and force Ministers to answer questions, allowing the House to effectively hold them to account. The good news is that he answered it in his acceptance speech, declaring that he intended to follow in Smith's footsteps. Its good to hear, and hopefully he'll keep his word. Smith changed Parliament for the better, and I want it to stay that way.

Striking a nerve

So, it looks like my calling National on its bullshit yeterday has struck a nerve. According to DPF, National's MP's aren't bigots - they just think proper Parliamentary procedure is more important than doing the right thing.

Well, that makes everything alright then (/sarcasm).

But the fact is that there was no infringement of proper Parliamentary procedure. Standing Orders give any member the right to raise issues in the manner Charles Chauvel did. And when they do, I expect the case to be assessed on its merits (which in this case are fairly significant). DPF OTOH seems to think deference and hierarchy and grovelling to the right person are more important and that anyone who doesn't do this to the satisfaction of those in power should be dismissed out of hand. Which is after all what National and other conservative parties are all about - but its a pretty shitty worldview, and the idea that its more important than doing the right thing is simply ridiculous.

If National's members and MPs are upset at being criticised for this behaviour, then they have an easy course of action available: change that behaviour. They need to talk to the Leader of the House and their whips and make them aware of the reputational damage their bigotry and dismissive attitude are causing. Alternatively, if they're sick of their reputation being damaged by their more bigoted associates, then maybe they should end that association, and find better friends, rather than whining about being held responsible for the company they keep.

Climate change: Keeping the coal in the hole

It looks like Solid Energy's plans to strip-mine Southland for dirty lignite are on the skids:

Energy experts are criticising plans made by state-owned miner Solid Energy, saying efforts to build a large export factory in Southland’s Mataura valley are uneconomic.

The state-owned miner’s lignite briquettes are expected to go on sale this year, but an ambitious plan to export the pellets overseas is now looking unlikely.

Which means less coal mined, and therefore lower emissions. Which can only be positive for our environment.

Meanwhile, the fact that Solid Energy was considering this plan at all shows that National's corrupted ETS isn't working. It was supposed to discourage the dirtiest of industries; instead the promise of subsidies for pollution seems to have encouraged them.

Forcing proactive disclosure

Back in 2010, I tried to get some information out of the Cabinet Office about Cabinet conflicts of interest. They refused, I appealed to the Ombudsman, and last year they were forced to release some information.

But it doesn't end there. That request has also forced some longer-term transparency:

The Prime Minister and Cabinet have approved a system of regular and proactive publication of information about the management of Ministerial conflicts of interest from 30 September 2013 as a result of the Chief Ombudsman’s investigation into the Cabinet Office’s refusal of a series of requests for such information. The Ombudsmen will have a monitoring and audit role to ensure the information that is released is a fair summary of the fuller details recorded by the Cabinet Office.


Dame Beverley considered that the degree of transparency necessary to maintain public trust and confidence can only be achieved by regular and proactive publication of a summary of actions taken when Ministerial conflicts of interest are identified.

The Prime Minister accepted Dame Beverley’s view that the public interest in transparency about how Ministerial conflicts of interest are handled requires a proactive disclosure regime. Public trust and confidence in the good government of New Zealand would suffer if there was insufficient transparency about measures taken to manage Ministerial conflicts of interest.

...which makes you wonder what he was doing when his department was fighting any form of transparency tooth and nail. But I'm pleased to see that he's been forced to admit the obvious: that secrecy invites suspicion, and that only transparency can create trust.

Of course, this is only from this year, so someone will need to go back and ask for last year's conflicts. But now we have a precedent for transparency, that ought to be a lot simpler.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This will be interesting

Back in December, Justice Minister Judith Collins publicly rejected an independent report on whether David Bain should be granted compensation. Instead, she threw out the report, signalling that she would be seeking a further one from more amenable experts. And now, she's getting sued for it:

David Bain has filed a claim in the Auckland High Court seeking a judicial review of Justice Minister Judith Collins' handling of his compensation case.

A statement issued by Bain supporter Joe Karam said he was seeking a judicial review of the actions taken by Collins since she received Justice Binnie's report in late August 2012, including the "secret process" which culminated in the subsequent report by Judge Robert Fisher.

"The claim includes allegations that the Minister has breached David's rights to natural justice, breached his rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, acted in bad faith, abused her power, and acted in a biased, unreasonable and predetermined manner," Mr Karam said.

And on the face of it, from what's been made public about Collins' "process" (which included getting a "peer review" done in secret, effectively by one of the parties, without any input by the other) that all seems entirely correct. The question is what the courts can do about it. There's no statutory right to compensation for wrongful conviction, it is entirely at the discretion of Cabinet, and I'm not sure if the courts can intervene in that process (Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis will no doubt give us an answer on that in the next day or two). But OTOH, if they find Bain's right to natural justice has been breached, then they can award him compensation for that, regardless of what Cabinet decides on the matter of wrongful conviction. So, Judith Collins' aggressive protection of her "tough on crime, tough on people wrongfully convicted of crime" reputation may have just cost us all rather a lot of money.


While the UK prides itself as being a birthplace of parliamentary democracy, its democratic structure is in fact utterly backward. First, there's the matter of its unfair electoral system, which sees parties gain absolute power on as little as 35% of the vote. Then there's the question of electoral boundaries - they have no requirement for equal sized electorates. Which means that while they have "one person, one vote", the votes of some are worth decidedly more than others.

The current conservative government had promised to do something about this, with a proposal for an immediate review of electoral boundaries, shrinking the House of Commons to 600 members and ensuring equal-sized electorates. That proposal has now been defeated, with the Liberal Democrats siding with Labour to vote it down. Why? As revenge for the Tories refusing to back a fully elected House of Lords.

None of the parties come out of this looking very good. While reform would result in a fairer, more democratic system, the Tories only proposed it because it would result in electoral advantage to themselves. Labour opposed it for the same reason. And the LibDems, who had originally supported it on principle, voted it down simply out of anger at their coalition partners. Which I guess show show much their "principles" are worth. But in addition to being a display of the grubbier, more despicable side of British politics, it also exposes a very unpleasant truth: that Britain's democracy seems to be essentially unreformable by democratic means. And that is a very dangerous situation for a supposed democracy to be in.

National: Homophobic bigots

At the moment several African governments are progressing virulently homophobic legislation. There's Uganda's "Kill the Gays" bill, which would impose the death penalty for homosexuality and require reporting of homosexuals to the government. And in Nigeria there's similar, though less brutal, legislation, which would (among other things) outlaw LGBT support groups.

Today Labour's Charles Chauvel tried to move a motion expressing Parliament's condemnation of this bigotry:

CHARLES CHAUVEL to move, That this House note with grave concern both the recently retabled legislation in Uganda, that would increase the penalties imposed in that country for certain consensual sexual activity between two consenting adults in private, and the legislation, passed recently by Nigeria’s legislature but not yet signed into law, which would criminalise freedom of association and advocacy for same-sex couples and organisations; and state its hope and expectation that the New Zealand Government will urge other governments to uphold the rights of all people to their privacy and dignity in accordance with international law.

National vetoed it.

I think this tells us exactly where National stands on gay rights. They'll send John Key along to the Big Gay Out, but at their core they're simply bigots, no different from Family First or the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Justice for genocide in Guatemala

Efraín Ríos Montt is a former dictator of Guatemala. His 17-month regime in the early 1980's was a reign of terror, in which the indigenous Maya population was subjected to massacres and scorched-earth campaigns as part of his campaign against left-wing rebels. Now, he is to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity:

Ex-Guatemalan military leader Efrain Rios Montt is to be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity.


[P]rosecutors argued a rigid chain of command in the military at the time meant the general was responsible, even though he was not present at the killings.

Manuel Vasquez said he could present documents, videos and statements accusing Gen Rios Montt of "planning, designing and overseeing the military counter-insurgency plans against the indigenous population in Ixil de Quiche".

Mr Vasquez accused Gen Rios Montt of being behind 100 massacres in which 1,771 people were killed and 29,000 displaced.

Like other former South American dictators, he's been able to hide from this for a long time, using his immunity as a Senator. But now that immunity has expired. Its been slow in coming, but justice has finally caught up with him. And if Argentina is anything to go by, he isn't going to be the first...

National's economic plan: Prison slave labour

So, buried in yesterdays insults from the Prime Minister there was apparently one new plan: a massive expansion of prison slave labour:

Up to 1400 inmates will be working 40 hours a week - without pay - by the end of this year as part of a plan to create more "working prisons" in New Zealand.

Prime Minister John Key announced in his first speech to Parliament for the year that the number of prisons with fulltime work programmes would be expanded as part of a drive to cut reoffending.

Inmates at Rolleston Prison had already begun 40-hour weeks in response to a demand for labour for the rebuild of Christchurch.

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley confirmed this initiative would be extended to all prisoners at Rolleston, and also to North Island prisons Tongariro-Rangipo and Auckland Women's Corrections Facility.

I have no problem with prisoners working on everyday tasks such as cooking and cleaning within their prison, as part of genuinely educational training schemes, or for a commercial wage with reasonable deductions to cover accommodation (but not incarceration) costs. Corrections' "release to work" scheme, where prisoners are released during the day near the end of their sentence to work in an ordinary workplace is an example of this, and it helps reintegrate people back into the community. But that's not what National is talking about. Instead, they're planning to use the coercive power of the state to extract labour from people by force, and punish them if they refuse.

There's a name for that: slavery. And its illegal in pretty much every country in the world, including New Zealand.

But its not just a moral case - its also a practical one. Existing prison labour has been driving private sector operators out of business. An expansion will mean more of the same. Which in turn means higher unemployment and lower economic growth. But I guess National thinks that's a price worth paying in order to get the vicious sadist vote.

If National wants prisoners to work, they must do so under the same conditions that apply to everyone else: work should be voluntary, with full labour rights, a fair days wage, and transparent deductions for expenses. National's current model of keeping them in a cage, paying them nothing or a pittance, and beating them in the head with a stick if they refuse is simply forced labour and a crime against humanity.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Insults are no substitute for policy

I'm currently listening to John Key's opening statement to Parliament. According to Parliament's website, the statement is supposed to "review... public affairs and outlin[e] the Government’s legislative and other policy intentions for the next 12 months", so that we can know what the government is planning to do. Instead, he's just spent 15 minutes shouting and insulting the opposition. Oh, there's some brief mention of policy between the insults - but nothing new. National's plan for the next 12 months is apparently to do the same stuff it has been doing for the last 12 months - the same stuff that has given us 7.3% unemployment and people living in squalor in Christchurch.

This government isn't working. It is not addressing the problems of the country. Instead its sole goal seems to be to continue to hold power and collect their salaries for the next two years. And that simply isn't good enough.

National's New Zealand

Over-loaded charities and people living in tents in Christchurch:

Horror stories of Christchurch families living in garages and tents continue to surface almost two years after the February 2011 earthquake.

Some families are still stranded in sheds or illegally overcrowding friends' and relatives' houses.

Meanwhile, rental housing prices show no sign of abating, and welfare agencies believe this year could be worse than 2012.

Demand on Christchurch's social services continues to increase. People who have never needed help before are queuing up at food banks, and many families still face impoverished living conditions.

Meanwhile, we're now a target of child-sponsorship schemes, the sort that normally operate in the third world.

This is National's New Zealand: grinding poverty for increasing numbers, while John Key and his rich mates laugh and sip champagne. Its obscene. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

Fiji: Worse than I thought

Two weeks ago the Fijian regime moved to crack down on political parties, imposing a ridiculous membership requirement and high registration fees in an effort to stop anyone from contesting their promised elections. Its had the obvious result, with two of the existing parties shutting down because they do not expect to meet the new requirements (though one of them is planning a relaunch; the shutdown is to stop the regime from stealing their assets and gain more time to get the required 5,000 members).

But so what? This is just about registered political parties, right? Those too small to register will still be able to continue to agitate, even if they can't contest elections, right? Nope. According to section 3 of the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Decree 2013 [PDF], unregistered political parties will be illegal, and membership will be a crime:

(1) An association of persons or an organisation shall not operate, function, represent or hold itself out to be a political party unless it has been registered as a political party in accordance with the provisions of this Decree.

(2) If any association of persons or an organisation operate, function, represent or hold itself out to be a political party without being registered in accordance with the provisions of this Decree, then any person who is a member of or holds office in any such association or organisation commits an offence and shall be liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or to both.

Basically this is a recipe for shutting down all political activity. There will be no registered parties, because they will not be able to meet the requirements. There will be no unregistered parties, because membership will be a crime (there may also be fewer NGOs, as many could be accused of "functioning" as a political party by advocating for political causes like human rights and democracy). It will be a serious risk for anyone to even become a member of a proposed party trying to meet the absurdly difficult requirements - because if anyone in it says the words "political party" before it is registered, you're on the hook for five years imprisonment, even if you knew nothing about it.

Quite apart from the infringement of democratic rights and the assault on free speech, its also impossible to see how the proposed new electoral system can work under this regime. Party-based proportional representation requires parties, and lots of them. If this regime stays in place, then Fiji may very well have an "election" in 2014 that no-one is allowed to contest.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Talent2 is a repeat offender

So, it turns out that Novopay isn't Talent2's first large-scale payroll fuckup:

EPMU national communications sector industry organiser Joe Gallagher said NZ Post had been sold a "dog" of a system.

"We had workers overpaid, underpaid, not paid, you name it, we had it. We had instances where people got significantly large amounts and occasions where they were paid minus amounts."

Gallagher had heard of team leaders paying for their employees' groceries and petrol to cover pay problems, while others had faced the possibility of mortgage defaults.

"It's quite distressing when you're mucking around with people's lives."

Almost two years on, the state-owned enterprise was only just beginning to see improvements, he said.

All of this happened long after the contract for Novopay was signed, but it still raises serious questions around Taelnt2's competence. It also invites some pretty stiff questions about how much the government knew about these problems, and what (if anything) Talent2 told them. Was Ministry of Education aware of the problems in NZPost? Was Talent2 deceptive? If either is the case, then heads have to roll.

But what's really worrying is the demonstrated timeline for fixing things: two years. I don't think teachers or the public are going to put up with that.

Climate change: Worse than Stern thought

Back in 2006 the UK government released the Stern Review, an in-depth look at the effects of climate change on the global economy. Stern concluded that climate change would impose immense costs, though drought, famine, and consequent impacts on human health and the environment, and that there was a strong economic case for action to counter it. Now, he says things are turning out far worse than he expected and that he didn't go far enough:

Lord Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change that became the reference work for politicians and green campaigners, now says he underestimated the risks, and should have been more "blunt" about the threat posed to the economy by rising temperatures.

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: "Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then."

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are "on track for something like four ". Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, "I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise."

According to the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, four degrees means widespread widespread water stress and a significant decrease in crop yields. In English, that's drought and famine. In addition, we'll get more deaths from extreme weather events such as floods and heat-waves, the spread of tropical diseases, and a worldwide mass-extinction. Even if you don't give a shit about impacts on the non-human environment, the impacts on people will be enormous and negative.

Stern estimated the cost of two to three degrees of temperature rise to be between 5% and 20% of global GDP, and the cost of acting to be about 1%. Now we're looking at higher costs, the economic case for acting looks even stronger.

...And meanwhile, our government sits there twiddling its thumbs and refusing to do anything because it might cost their pet farmers and truckers money. Which means they'll just end up paying more in drought relief and health costs later.

(Also on climate change: a well-argued piece from Cass Sunstein on why the US should act unilaterally on climate change. The short version? It would break the negotiation deadlock, while delivering immediate and tangible economic benefits. Unmentioned is that this would come at the cost of existing economic interests in the oil and coal industries. The question is whether the US will cut its own throat and burn the planet just so a clique of rich old guys can keep their money...)

New Fisk

From Algeria, a lesson in how to bypass democracy

Another rendition

Mahdi Hashi was a British citizen. Last year, he disappeared while in Somalia. Now, he's turned up in a US jail, telling the usual story of disappearance and torture:

Mahdi Hashi, who vanished last summer in Somalia, has described for the first time his 'horrific' ordeal at the hands of the secret police in the neighbouring state of Djibouti, who he claims worked closely with US interrogators.

The 23-year-old, who lived in London, alleges that he was stripped and repeatedly slapped before being threatened with electrocution and sexual abuse by officers who were attached to Djibouti's intelligence service.


Mr Hashi claims that he was then handed over to the Americans. He described how the first team of two US interrogators ignored his pleas to alert the British authorities to his detention and torture.

He claims they knew that he had been badly treated, but let him believe that he faced far worse if he refused to co-operate. A second team of three American interrogators – whom he says treated him better – then persuaded him to sign a confession and 'disclaimer' in which he agreed to waive his right to silence.

Meanwhile, while Hashi was being tortured, the British government was depriving him of his citizenship, to remove any chance of him gaining consular assistance. Its hard to see this as anything other than collusion in his treatment.

Hashi is now facing terrorism charges in the US. The primary evidence for those charges is the "confession" extracted by torture. Its use would be contrary to international and US law, not to mention basic judicial standards. But the US courts have been willing to ignore that in the past for other terrorism trials, ruling questions about torture inadmissible. In doing so, they are directly enabling and encouraging torture. Hopefully they'll change their mind in this case.

Friday, January 25, 2013

All about the water

Writing in The Press, former ECan chair Kerry Burke gives us his view of why the elected council was dismissed and replaced by uneelected dictators:

In 2007, four new ECan councillors were elected after campaigning on water issues, shocking the political establishment and planting water firmly within regional politics.

David Carter was one of those worried, making his displeasure known to me about ECan's 2009 proposal to change the Waimakariri River Plan. Perhaps he saw it as a harbinger of a more environmentally-friendly future elected ECan council?

As a new minister Carter told irrigators in Christchurch in December 2008 that "the one thing you need to understand is that you must take the urban community with you".

By April 2010, however, Carter's view had changed completely, threatening all regional councils at the Irrigation NZ Conference: "We had to act [re ECan] because the situation was untenable if we are to seriously make progress in delivering this irrigation. I would have thought what happened recently [re ECan] would be a signal to all regional councillors to work a bit more constructively with their farmer stakeholders."

Irrigation for farmers now took precedence over winning urban support. Democratic ECan was in the way and population trends would inevitably give urban representatives increasing influence over natural resources policy.

And that's basically what it was about: making sure farmers could get their hands on all of Canterbury's water regardless of what voters said. And to achieve that, they revoked democracy in Canterbury, effectively conducting a Fiji-style coup in one of our major regions. It was - and is - deeply, deeply undemocratic. But this priviliging of crony economic interests over democracy is what National is all about. When push comes to shove, they'll chose their money over our democratic rights any day of the week.

No justice for slave fishing

Sajo Oyang is South Korea's largest fishing company. Its also the company responsible for slave-fishing in New Zealand waters. Its predominantly Indonesian crews are reportedly treated like slaves: beaten, sexually-abused, forced to work in unsafe conditions, and (of course) underpaid. Last year, it looked like the South Korean authorities were finally goign to do something about this, bringing charges against the company and its managers for fraud and sexual abuse - charges which would have seen them in jail. Sadly, it hasn't worked out that way:

A top official of Korea's largest fishing company has escaped prosecution despite a report that he admitted ordering the forging of currency receipts to trick Immigration New Zealand over payment to low-wage crews.

Nine men either working for Sajo Oyang Corporation in Korea, or on their vessel Oyang 75 in New Zealand, will not be prosecuted by Korean authorities for a variety of offences, including allegations of forgery and assault.


Busan Regional Public Prosecutor Yoo Kyungpil said in his report that one of the accused, unnamed but described as the CEO of Sajo Industry (now part of Oyang), had admitted to his "suspected crimes".

He said it was the first time he had been accused of criminal activity, and would not be prosecuted for alleged abetting and fraudulent use of documents.

So, serious fraud, but as its a first offence he gets a free pass. I think we can call that a whitewash. As for the assault and sexual abuse charges, South Korean prosecutors claim they have no jurisdiction - despite the vessels being Korean flagged and therefore operating under Korean Law under UNCLOS. Either Korea has a serious legal loophole which renders all of its ships law-free zones, or someone is dragging their feet. And either way, its not acceptable. Serious crimes have been committed in New Zealand waters, including slavery, a crime under international law over which all nations have universal jurisdiction. If Korea disclaims all responsibility for investigating and prosecuting them, then we should take it up.

New Fisk

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the new face of al-Qa'ida (and why he's nothing like Osama bin Laden)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fallow on asset sales

The Herald's Brian Fallow points out the obvious: the government shouldn't push ahead with asset sales until we know what will happen with the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter:

If Meridian's Manapouri hydro station - which was built for the smelter, and vice versa - were widowed, its life would not be over. It is New Zealand's cheapest power and if it became available to the rest of the country it would have no problem getting dispatched.

The question would be which - and whose - other power stations would then become surplus to the system's requirements.

The consequences for Genesis' coal-fired plant at Huntly, and for Solid Energy which supplies it with coal, would be grave. Good for the planet, maybe, but not for the Government's asset sales programme.

If Tiwai Point shuts down, all the electricity companies are in for a rough time as the market reaches a new equilibrium. Potential investors in Mighty River will be pricing this into their bids - meaning that the uncertainty will cost us money, regardless of the outcome. But National doesn't care - they want to push on regardless. Which means they'll get a bad deal for New Zealand.

But then, getting the best deal for New Zealand isn't their goal - getting the best deal for their donors and cronies is. And the uncertainty and resulting discounting helps that goal. National is transparently ripping the rest of us off to further enrich its clique. And that is not something the rest of us should tolerate.

Ending the plunder

Yesterday I blogged about a report that an un-named fishing company was allegedly plundering the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary. While this is illegal, the penalties in the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 have not been updated for at least 15 years, have been eroded due to inflation, and clearely provide no deterrant.

In response to that post, Mike McGavin pointed out Jacqui Dean's Conservation (Natural Heritage Protection) Bill, which is currently seeking submissions before the Local Government and Environment Committee. The bill updates the penalties for numerous bits of conservation legislation to correct for the effects of inflation and bring them more into line with modern environmental values. However, the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 is not one of them. Mike suggested I submit on the bill proposing that it also amend penalties under this Act - and that's exactly what I've done. Here's my submission below:

  1. I support the Conservation (Natural Heritage Protection) Bill and ask that it be passed with the amendments below.

  2. The bill updates the penalty clauses of various conservation and wildlife protection legislation to correct for the effects of inflation and bring them more into line with the penalties in more modern legislation. In some cases these penalties have not been updated for more than thirty years, making them nominal and severely reducing their deterrent value.

  3. However, the bill makes a significant oversight in not updating penalties for offences under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. Like the Acts in this bill, the Act is administered by the Department of Conservation. Section 23 of the Act provides for a penalty of a $30,000 fine for purse seining in a marine mammal sanctuary, and a $10,000 fine for any other offence under the Act. The penalties have not been updated since at least 1996, and have been significantly eroded by inflation. Other legislation - for example the Marine Reserves Act 1971 - provides for much stronger penalties for violating similarly important conservation areas, including the forfeiture of fishing vessels upon conviction. The penalties for violating a Marine Mammal sanctuary should be increased to a similar level.

  4. The need for a stronger penalties regime in this Act has been brought to my attention by a media report of fishing companies plundering the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary. The law is clearly not acting as a deterrent to this behaviour. While s25(g) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 means that increased penalties will not be able to be applied to any prosecution in this case, they will hopefully deter others from doing so in the future.

  5. I do not wish to appear before the Committee.
Submissions will be open until the end of February. If you'd like to strengthen our protection of marine mammals, and end the plunder of their sanctuaries, I suggest writing up a similar submission and submitting it here. This is not a bill which is likely to attract a lot of submissions, so speaking up on it will make a difference. And if it doesn't, I'm sure Labour or the Greens would be willing to take a Member's Bill to solve the problem.

The Greens' housing policy

Late last year, Labour released their housing policy: build 100,000 affordable homes over ten years to solve the housing crisis, boost employment and skills, and kickstart the economy in one go. It was a good policy, and it will help a lot, but now the Greens have gone one better, with a push for a progressive ownership scheme [PDF]. Under the Greens' plan, not only would the government be building the houses - they'd effectively be providing the mortgages on them as well, using their access to cheap credit to help get people into their own homes.

Its an excellent idea, which neatly complements Labour's policy, while making it much more accessible. People on low incomes won't be able to access the commercial mortgages Labour is relying on. But they will be able to access the progressive ownership scheme at some level and start building up equity. And because they can cash out if they move, its also effectively a low-transaction-cost fully insured savings scheme as well.

There are two components to the housing crisis: a crisis of supply in affordable homes, driven by the market's refusal to provide them (they're not profitable enough, you see); and a crisis of incomes, driven by 25 years of NeoLiberalism. KiwiBuild addresses the first. This addresses the second. National's proposal - gut the RMA and remove planning restrictions to free up land so developers can build more unaffordable homes - doesn't address either.

The first rule of lese majeste is that you don't talk about lese majeste...

Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is a Thai magazine editor. In 2011 he was arrested for publishing two articles which (according to monarchists) disparaged Thailand's king. And for that, he's just been sentenced to 11 years in jail:

He was sentenced to five years on each of the two charges, and the court cancelled the suspension of a previous one-year sentence - for a total of 11 years in prison, a cumulative sentence.

The severity of the sentence caught both Somyot and his family - his wife and son - totally by suprise, as it was harsher than previous rulings in other lese majeste cases, which usually were based on the minimum sentence of three years.

The real reason for the severe sentence? Somyot had been campaigning for Thailand's lese majeste law to be repealed. He was arrested just five days after launching a petition campaign to force a Parliamentary review of the law. And now, he's become its latest victim.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Homophobia and tradition

So, Colin Craig is arguing that its alright to discriminate against gay people by denying them the right to marry because its a "tradition". But to point out the obvious, many of our "traditions" aren't that pleasant. Racism is a tradition. Sexism is a tradition. Domestic violence and the death penalty were traditions. And our society has looked at all of those traditions and decided that they are wrong and that we are better off without them. While we have a way to go on some of them, the overt, legally sanctioned discrimination and violence of those traditions has been outlawed.

It's called "progress". And it allows each of us, including Colin Craig (a member of a religious sect which would have seen him burned 500 years ago, and barred from public office 200 years ago), to live the lives we want, according to the values we choose, free from physical and social violence from others. Removing discrimination from our marriage laws is just the latest stage in this journey. And if Colin Craig wants to stop it, he's going to need a far better argument than just "it's tradition".

Something to be proud of

New Zealand is the best country in the world for budget transparency, according to the International Budget Partnership's Open Budget Survey 2012 [PDF]. Its something we take utterly for granted, but its also very, very important. The government stating openly how it intends to spend its money is vital to both preventing corruption and holding them accountable.

However, its not all rosy. The survey also included questions about public participation in budget processes for the first time, and we don't do so well here. Neither do most other countries, and we are in the second tier (behind South Korea, the only country which does do this well), but its still a bit of a blow. We can, and should, do better in this area.

The raw survey data can be accessed here.


Back in 1988, the government created new Zealand's first marine sanctuary around Banks Peninsula in order to protect the endangered Hector's Dolphin. In 2008, they extended it. But apparently at least one of our major fishing companies is refusing to accept this, and is plundering the sanctuary under cover of darkness:

Conservation group Earthrace said it saw many boats from a well-known fishing company in the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary during surveillance it carried out earlier this year.

The sanctuary is home to the endangered Hector's dolphin.

The surveillance involved observations from a plane, motor boats, kayaks and hilltops around the peninsula over a 10-day period.

Earthrace founder Pete Bethune said fishing boats steered clear of the sanctuary during the day but at night moved in and began gill netting and trawling, techniques known to trap and kill dolphins.

The Ministry of Primary Industries is investigating, and hopefully they'll find enough evidence to prosecute. OTOH, the penalties for violating the sanctuary are ridiculously low - a $10,000 or $30,000 fine - and so are unlikely to provide any real deterrant or punishment for offenders. Contrast this with the penalties available for violating a marine reserve: a $250,000 fine, imprisonment, and forfeiture of fishing vessels on conviction. Isn't it time we protected our marine mammal sanctuaries to the same extent?

Israel votes

Israelis went to the polls today in legislative elections, and the exit polls suggest a surprise upset for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Up until today, it looked like the country was going to continue along its path to religious and nationalist extremism, with new ultra-nationalist party Jewish Home - which wants to annex the West Bank and "transfer" (ethnically cleanse) Palestinians to leave a Jewish-only state - rising in the polls to provide a secure (but extremist) coalition partner for Netanyahu's Likud. But a surprise high turnout has meant a much better showing for the Israeli left. While it won't be enough to kick Netanyahu out of office, it may help moderate or stall those toxic policies somewhat.

What's depressing is that this may be the best we can hope for. Unless something significant changes in Israel, its long-term trajectory seems fixed: open apartheid, with a strong likelihood of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It would be ironic, if it wasn't so appalling. These people have learned nothing from history, and seem intent on repeating it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

British torture goes to court

Between 2003 and 2008, British forces in Iraq tortured hundreds of prisoners. Now, their victims are taking them to court:

Britain will face fresh charges of breaching international law over the alleged torture and killing of prisoners during the war in Iraq, which began almost exactly 10 years ago. The allegations will be unveiled in the high court, when Britain will stand accused of a "systemic" policy of abuse committed over five years, from 2003 to 2008.

At a hearing scheduled over three days from 29 January, lawyers for 180 Iraqis who claim they are victims of abuse, or that their family members were unlawfully killed, will place a file of statements before two judges presiding over the court in London accusing British soldiers and intelligence officers of unlawful interrogation practices. These include hooding and the use of "stress positions", sexual abuse, beating and religious abuse of illegally detained prisoners. In some cases, the testimonies allege, the torture led to the death of the prisoner.


Shiner's files are deeply shocking. Insults to Islam and sexual depravity feature frequently in the statements: a soldier is alleged to have masturbated over a prisoner, another to have committed sodomy with his finger; female interrogators are claimed to have stripped and feigned seduction in exchange for "information".

Most of the alleged incidents took place while prisoners were in custody, though some occurred during "strike operations" on people's homes, with suspects and their families allegedly subjected to abuse and crude violence. Prisoners who died in custody were invariably said to have done so due to "natural causes", despite beatings and kickings.

Rather than being isolated actions, the result of a few "bad apples", this abuse was the result of deliberate policy. And they have the training manuals and policy documents to prove it. Seeing it all exposed in court will be deeply embarrassing to the British government (which is why they want to institute secret courts and secret evidence for such cases in the future), and that will be worth it. More importantly, it will result in the truth about this ugly phase of history being told. But at the same time, despite all of these well-documented abuses, there has been a remarkable lack of justice. The perpetrators, the torturers and rapists and murderers, and the people who wrote the policies encouraging that torture, rape and murder, and the people who covered up for them, have not been held to account for their crimes. They have not been prosecuted. And they need to be. And needless to say, it all needs to be done in open court, so that justice can be seen to be done.

Censoring the environment: Stupid and undemocratic

One of National's core environmental policies in the 2008 and 2011 election campaigns was for regular, independent environmental monitoring, through a beefed-up version of MfE's 5-yearly State of the Environment report. As part of the policy process around this, they asked the Ministry of Economic Development's Green Growth Advisory Group. The result was a ringing endorsement:

"The Government should invest in economic and environmental state and trend monitoring to give a credible evidence base to support New Zealand's brand position," a preliminary recommendation in the report stated.

It added this would help to "build credibility of our image" through transparent and independent reporting, including "being open about the environmental challenges".

The advisory group was also told how New Zealand's reputation might be at risk, with the ability to authenticate claims supporting our national brand "increasing in importance".

So what did National do in response to this advice? Shitcanned the proposal and gave up entirely on regular, comprehensive reporting.

The reason for this is pretty obvious: just as with the now also censored Social Report, regular environmental reporting would show the true costs of National's policies. More cows and irrigation means dirtier rivers. Digging up national parks means reduced biodiversity. A refusal to act on air pollution means more corpses. And all of this means risks to our "100% pure" image and therefore our tourism and exports. But rather than face up to this, and try and convince us that the cost is worth it, National instead decided to censor the information to try and keep the truth from the public.

MED's advice makes it quite clear why that was a stupid decision. You don't fight doubts about our environmental performance with censorship - you fight them with information. The only reason for secrecy is if you think such information will confirm those doubts. But it was also a deeply undemocratic decision. In a democracy, its not just the government's legitimacy which derives from our consent, but also that of the policies they enact. In order to be meaningful, consent must be informed, and that means the public need information about the policy options available. But rather than give us that information, National has conspired to keep us in the dark, to deprive us of the facts we need to effectively judge their policies. And that is simply unacceptable.

New Fisk

Algeria, Mali, and why this week has looked like an obscene remake of earlier Western interventions
Ben Affleck, Argo and a chilling portrait of suspicion and vengeance in post-revolutionary Tehran

Ripping off New Zealand

It looks like the tobacco industry has another business-model besides selling cancer: tax cheating:

New Zealand First is calling on the Government to explain why it allowed vast quantities of cigarettes to be imported and stockpiled at the end of 2012 so they could be re-exported overseas and increased taxes claimed back by the tobacco industry.

Revenue spokesperson Andrew Williams says the tobacco industry plan will see it make big tax gains following the 10 per cent increase on tobacco tax which came into effect on January 1.

“'They were even chartering planes at huge expense to fly cigarettes into the country and stockpiled in warehouses to meet the 31 December deadline. That's how lucrative this scheme is,” Mr Williams says.

If this is true, then the government has seriously stuffed up. Reclaiming duty on re-exported product seems fair, but the idea that companies can claim back at the higher rate when it changes is just insane. If it is happening, then we have some very sloppy legislation, which has enabled tax cheating on a massive scale, and the Minister needs to be held accountable for it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today or Monday - I'm off to Wellington to attend Wellington's annual roleplaying convention.

Normal bloggage will resume Tuesday.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New Fisk

It sounds like a replay of Algeria’s civil war. Don’t bet on a happy ending

Our military is spying on us

Last year, as a result of the Kim Dotcom fiasco, we learned that the police were apparently using our spy agencies to do an end-run around legal restrictions on police search and surveillance. Now it turns out they're also using the military to do this work:

Air force planes kitted out with high-tech military equipment are being used to help investigate crimes.


A Royal New Zealand Air Force publication revealed one of the aircraft had been kitted out with full motion video gear to assist with the Rugby World Cup - although it was never used.

The Herald sought further details of how the plane was used in domestic policing operations. The air force refused to supply details, saying it could hamper efforts to detect, investigate and prevent offences. Details could also affect the ability of people facing charges to receive a fair trial.

Defence chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said the requesting agencies were responsible for ensuring surveillance warrants were obtained and that it was within the law. He said the NZ Defence Force was not covered by the legal definition of "law enforcement agency" under laws which controlled powers of search and surveillance but was "mindful of the need for compliance" with the law when helping others.


Police headquarters refused to reveal details, saying operational support from the military was a long-standing arrangement. A spokesman said: "Such requests are made on a case-by-case basis and are subject to approval at senior level by both police and NZDF, and must comply with all legislative requirements."

This is deeply disturbing. The primary purpose of NZDF is supposed to be the external defence of New Zealand. While we expect them to provide support for other government agencies - something they call "Multi-agency operations and tasks (MAO&T)" - this is for things like fisheries patrols, search and rescue, and disaster relief (there is a good discussion of this in their Budget appropriation here [PDF; p. 15]). Conducting surveillance on the part of the police is no part of this. When debating the new Search and Surveillance Act, MPs never once referred to the prospect of these powers being exercised by the military (Hansard here) - it is well outside the role we expect them to perform. The fact they are doing this under a cloak of total secrecy makes it even worse.

This is an abuse of power by the police and military, and it needs to be stopped. There is no role for the military in law enforcement. If they think there is, then our politicians need to haul them into line - either legally, or by cutting the capabilities they are clearly abusing.

The police don't care about electoral law

New figures from the Electoral Commission tell us what we already know: the police don't give a shit about electoral law:

Police are still investigating 89 alleged breaches of electoral law relating to the 2011 general election, new information has revealed.

Police say there were 62 complaints of individuals voting twice, while nine candidates did not file their returns by the due date of 30 April last year.

They have completed only two of the 94 cases the Electoral Commission referred to them following the election. No prosecutions were made from those investigations.

Most of these cases (e.g. double-voting and failure to file returns) are not exactly complicated. Being left this long shows that they are simply not regarded as a priority by the police. They'd rather focus on "real crime", like putting petty drug users in jail, rather than protecting our democracy. And in the case of offences allegedly committed under the Broadcasting Act - which included unlawful electoral programmes and overspending of the broadcast advertising limit, this has resulted in the time limit for prosecution expiring, and those alleged offenders getting away with it.

This isn't acceptable, and it has reduced our electoral laws to a joke. If the police aren't going to do the job, then we should take it off them and give it to someone who will: the Electoral Commission.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Apparently the British Ministry of Defence have access to their traffic control cameras. Just another reminder that almost two hundred years after Peterloo, the British government still sees its own people as an enemy, to be spied on and suppressed by military force if necessary.

Fiji bans political parties

Well, not in so many words. But it will be the effective outcome of their new party registration rules:

Fiji's military regime has imposed a draconian new decree on anybody planning to create a political party ahead of democracy-restoring elections promised for next year.


Under the decree the 16 previously registered political parties will have 28 days from Friday to re-register.

Previously a party needed 180 members to become registered. Now it must have 5000 and the initial registered number must not include police or military officers, trade union officials or various defined government officials.

With a Fiji population of only 870,000, the membership threshold appears to be a significant bar to creating any political party.

Even at the height of their popularity neither the Indian-dominated Fiji Labour Party nor the ethnic Fijian party Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua had 5000 registered members.

I'm not sure the regime has thought this through. They've spent the past six years calling for a new, non-ethnic electoral system, and the draft constitution provides one: a dual-level proportional representation system with regional lists and a national top-up. That proposal has wide acceptance - Fiji's political parties recognise the need for change in this area. But the new system requires political parties in order to function, and will not produce fair outcomes if there aren't any (or if there is only a single, regime-backed one). The regime's desire to punish those who spoke out over its treatment of the constitution commission and draft constitution seems to be at the direct cost of its supposed long-term objectives. Unless of course they've just decided to give up on the whole democracy thing after all...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Not even pretending anymore

The government has given up even pretending that its suspension of democracy in Canterbury is because an elected ECan would make the "wrong" decisions:

But the Government says elections this year could potentially produce the same deadlock between rural and urban councillors that created the need for commissioners in the first place.

It says the commissioners' work on freshwater needs to be finished before elections are held.

Local Government Minister David Carter says he did not want the commissioners' unfinished work on water going to a council that may have the same rural-urban balance of power as its predecessor.

Which, when you get down to it, is the same justification used by Pinochet, Franco, Bainimarama, and every other two-bit despot: "those fools will ruin the country by voting for something I don't like, so therefore their decision must be overturned". Yes, National used a law rather than guns to do it - but that's just a question of means. The underlying anti-democratic ideology is exactly the same.

Before the dissolution, urban representatives responded to their voters, and moved to protect Canterbury's water. That meant that farmers didn't get everything their own way. That's democracy - and if one of our two major political parties doesn't like it, then I think we have a severe problem in our country.

A new low

The latest in democracy-suppression from the UK: a local council is suing three of its own members for harassment for lodging Freedom of Information Act requests:

A Conservative-controlled council is to seek an injunction against three of its councillors for alleged harassment.

Rutland County Council has voted to set aside £90,000 for legal action against independents Nick Wainwright, Richard Gale and David Richardson.

The three members of the Rutland Anti-Corruption group (RACP) are accused of harassing senior officers in a series of requests for information.

Mr Richardson denied the charges and said he did not fear legal action.

This is a new low for Britain's democracy. The right to seek information under the FOIA is a statutory one, and an important means of holding officials to account. But their harassment law is so broad that it is almost certainly covered: "harassment" is doing something which annoys someone more than once - regardless of context. The law has been used against protesters, and now it looks likely to be used to silence a democratic opposition.

What next? Injuncting journalists from making FOIA requests which "annoy" officials? Or maybe the government could injunct the opposition for its repeated annoying questions in Parliament? Its on that level - and just as dubious.

(Lets just hope the Taranaki District Council doesn't notice this, or we could start seeing similar tactics here...)

Not so "neutral" after all II

One of the great myths of the UK's (and our) constitutional system is that the monarchy is "neutral" and does not involve itself in politics - something we have now learned is bullshit. A second great myth is that the monarch plays only a ceremonial role, and does not take an active role in decision-making. That too is bullshit:

Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals' little-known power to consent to or block new laws. They also reveal the power has been used to torpedo proposed legislation relating to decisions about the country going to war.

The internal Whitehall pamphlet was only released following a court order and shows ministers and civil servants are obliged to consult the Queen and Prince Charles in greater detail and over more areas of legislation than was previously understood.

New laws required to receive the seal of approval from the Queen or Prince Charles cover issues from higher education and paternity pay to identity cards and child maintenance.

In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member's bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

So much for reigning rather than ruling. When you're deciding on child maintenance and identity cards (and indeed, on the constitutional question of whether Parliament rather than Ministers should decide whether to go to war), you are making highly political decisions, and playing an active role in government. All of course while being unelected and unaccountable. And to add insult to injury, its all done in secret - the documents showing how the royals attempt to bully Ministers have been kept secret, on the hypocritical grounds that releasing them would compromise their neutrality (by exposing the truth that they're not).

This is not a suitable constitutional arrangement for a democracy. Political decisions should be made by elected, accountable politicians - not unelected, unaccountable inbreds. If the Windsors want to make these sorts of decisions, they should stand for election and gain a democratic mandate for doing so.

Monday, January 14, 2013

TPP: A mug's deal

Remember the Trans-Pacific Partnership? This proposed free-trade deal with the US is supposed to bring us enormous economic benefits by boostign exports. So what's actually in it for us? Nothing:

A top trade official from the United States says her country is yet to make an offer in trade talks on better access to its markets for New Zealand dairy exports.

The comments from the US chief negotiator in the TransPacific Partnership, Barbara Weisel, come despite a deadline for the talks to be completed by October.

Last month Trade Minister Tim Groser said it was high time the US made an offer on dairy in the 11-country talks if the October deadline is to be met.

But Ms Weisel says no such offer was made at the last round of talks in Auckland, held after Mr Groser made his comments.

So, the Americans are demanding we accept US-style copyright law (you know, the one that allows vindictive prosecutors to persecute activists and drive them to suicide as revenge for opposing it), and give up Pharmac (which saves us tens of millions a year by buying cheap medicines), and in exchange they're offering us nothing. That's a mug's deal, and one the government should reject.

"Stalling tactics"

ASH is outraged that the tobacco industry are using the OIA to request information on government tobacco policy, and are accusing them of trying to "bog down" the Ministry of Health with their requests. So how many requests did tobacco companies and their lawyers send in this effort to flood the Ministry and halt progress/ Thousands? Hundreds?

Nope. Nine in two years - less than five a year. I've been known to send that many in a single day. And against a backdrop of 450 requests a year processe dby the Ministry of health, its a drop in the bucket.

But apparently, these requests asked for a lot of information!

[British American Tobacco]'s first request, sent in May 2011, consisted of 63 separate points for documentation on plain packaging reform.

But as the article points out, the requests were largely declined because they would have required "substantial collation and research" (I would hope that this was done only after the Ministry had consulted with the requester and considered fixing a charge or extending the time limit, as they are required to do by law). So pretty obviously the Ministry has the tools to deal with such requests without suffering undue administrative stress.

While I don't like the tobacco industry, this is simply an attempt by ASH to smear them, at the cost of weakening the right of access to information for everyone. But as DPF points out, the OIA is not limited only to groups the government approves of - it is for all of us. And we weaken it at our peril.

How many NZ jobs did The Hobbit create?

Back in 2010, the National government agreed to subsidise The Hobbit films. So how many jobs did that subsidy create? They have absolutely no idea:

The Government is being accused of fabricating the number of jobs created by The Hobbit films following its $67 million subsidy to Warner Brothers.

The claim comes after correspondence between Prime Minister John Key's office and Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films was released to New Zealand First under the Official Information Act.


The correspondence does not say 3000 jobs had been created - only that 3000 people was "a good number" for those working on the films.

In June last year, Key said in a statement: "The Government has actively supported the filming of The Hobbit movies in New Zealand because of the enormous economic benefits they're bringing to the country, including the creation of around 3000 jobs."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the documents showed nobody had any idea how many jobs had been created by the Government's subsidy to Warner Brothers.

The first thing you do when giving money to create a supposed economic benefit is to quantify that benefit, so you can decide whether it is actually a good idea. The second thing you do is check it after the fact to see whether the projection was correct, and whether that benefit actually eventuated. Key appears to have done neither. Instead, his numbers are pulled out of the arses of his spindoctors, predicated on an apparent belief that all of those people at Weta were employed solely for the Hobbit, and wouldn't be making other movies if they weren't making this one - something which is demonstrably false.

Meanwhile, the bigger question remains unaddressed: this movie - the first of three - has already made over a billion dollars. Its is hugely profitable, and would have been so without Key's $67 million gift. The economic benefit would have existed anyway. So why were we subsidising it again?

New Fisk

The retrial that will seal the fate of Hosni Mubarak

Friday, January 11, 2013

Fiji: So much for the constitution

Fiji's military regime appears to have been taking lessons from Judith Collins. First, they commissioned an internationally renowned expert to draft them a new constitution. Now, they've chucked the entire thing out because they didn't like the results:

Fiji's military dictatorship has slammed a draft constitution drawn up with New Zealand aid as an appeasement to racist divisions in the Pacific nation.

But military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama, who rules Fiji by decree, told the nation on Thursday night there will be a new constitution – and democracy restoring elections next year.

But while Bainimarama smears the new constitution as promoting racial division, the draft (which is only available because it has been leaked on the internet) delivers exactly the electoral system that he wanted: a single national electoral roll, with seats allocated by proportional representation. The real problem seems to be the one highlighted earlier in the week: that the new constitution sees no role for the military in government, and seeks to make it subservient to an elected, legitimate Parliament. The fact that this is now considered unacceptable by Fiji's military shows us exactly why things need to change.

New Fisk

Anonymous comments, gutless trolls, and why it's time we all stop drinking this digital poison

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Novopay clusterfuck rolls on

Another week, and more fuckups from Novopay. This mess has already cost us over half a million dollars, but the real problem is that some teachers haven't been paid correctly for over five months. Which is absolutely intolerable. Isn't it time heads were put on spikes over this?

Also intolerable: Novopay's shit customer service. That second story reports that

Those trying to contact the Novopay service centre to report mistakes were forced to wait up to an hour and a half and 15,000 calls were unanswered or abandoned.

...which is par for the course for modern "customer service", but you'd expect that when Ministry of Education contracted with Novopay they included a requirement that queries were responded to in a timely manner (and if they didn't, time for more heads on spikes). This isn't even remotely timely - its just the usual tactic of piping everything to /dev/null in the hope that complaints will disappear. But when we're talking about people getting paid so they can pay the rent and have enough to eat, its just unacceptable.

How long is the government going to put up with this? Isn't it time the Minister - metaphorically speaking - walked into Novopay's office with an axe and did her best Conan the Barbarian impersonation? Or, less metaphorically, started activating the penalty clauses in Novopay's contract for non-delivery of service? Its her head or theirs. Time to choose.

The cost of cuts

Back in the 90's, then then-National government cut the public service to the bone. But the work it was expected to do didn't decrease, so the result was that expensive consultants were hired to perform basic tasks. Now, its happening again:

documents supplied as part of [the Ministry of Education's] 2011-12 financial review show it hired external consultants to conduct basic functions such as responding to Official Information Act (OIA) requests and writing speeches.

New Zealand Education Consultants was paid $49,707 between August 2011 and this month to help with the Kawerau School merger.

Sara Cunningham received $115 an hour to provide OIA ministerial support, Tammy Thompson $75 an hour as a ministerial writer and Caravel Group was paid $170 an hour to write business cases. Tuck Grye earned a total of $89,592 in the 2011-12 financial year for evaluating requests for information.

"Ministerials" is bureacratese for "answering the Minister's questions" - in particular, drafting response to their questions in Parliament. There is no more basic function in the public service than this, and it is central to the chain of accountability which allows government decisions to be perceived as legitimate. Outsourcing it is basically giving up on any pretence that a Ministry is fit for purpose. As for outsourcing OIAs, Ministry of Education receives 450 OIA requests a year - more than enough to justify retaining in-house expertise, which you can bet will be a damn sight cheaper than an inflated consultant rate of $115 an hour.

National's "cost-cutting" is really just another form of waste. It strips core capability from the public service, while requiring them to hire it back at inflated rates. We get reduced accountability and a public service which is no longer fit for purpose. But National's consultant friends are laughing all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

National's class warfare in health

When it stood for election in 2008 and 2011, National promised more elective surgery and "better, faster, cheaper health care". What they didn't mention was the caveat: "for rich white people":

A Government group is looking at limiting access to common surgical procedures which cost taxpayers $641 million a year.

The National Health Committee has to find savings of $30 million this financial year from elective procedures deemed to be of little benefit.

The money would be used for smarter investment in other parts of the health system.

The only specific elective procedure the committee has so far named for "disinvestment" is the insertion of grommets.

Grommets are tiny ventilation tubes placed in an incision in the eardrum to treat persistent, painful infections called glue ear.

...which is a disease of poverty which can have a long-term effect on hearing development and therefore learning. But its victims are mostly poor brown kids - people National doesn't care about. So, it wants to take medical resources away from them - in the process condemning some to much worse life outcomes - so it can use them on rich white guys with heart disease.

This is not a fair outcome. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

Not so "neutral" after all

One of our great constitutional myths is that the monarchy is neutral - they are "above" politics, and don't get involved in issues of policy. They reign, but they do not rule.


Prince Charles has held private meetings with eight government ministers in the last 12 months, including Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury.

Palace records show he also met with ministers with responsibility for defence, culture and further education, as well as top civil servants involved in British defence interests in the Middle East and the UK economy.

Details of the meetings with senior political figures in the Westminster and Cardiff governments, including why they were held and what was discussed, have not been not made public, in line with a convention of secrecy around communication between both the Queen and the heir to the throne and government ministers.

Regardless of what you think of Charles' opinions, this is deeply constitutionally improper. If the monarchy is "neutral", it needs to act like it - and that means not abusing their position to lobby for their pet policies. Alternatively, if they want to be political actors, then they should abdicate and stand for election like any other politician. The current hypocritical position of pretending to be neutral while playing politics under cover of secrecy is neither democratic, not sustainable.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

No freedom of speech in Kuwait

Ayyad al-Harbi is a Kuwaiti tweeter. Two months ago he criticised the country's Emir online. He was arrested, and today he was sentenced to two years imprisonment:

A Kuwaiti court sentenced a man to two years in prison on Monday for insulting the country's ruler on Twitter, his lawyer said, the second person to be jailed for the offence in as many days.


The court sentenced Ayyad al-Harbi, who has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, to the prison term two months after his arrest and release on bail.

Harbi used his Twitter account to criticise the Kuwait government and the emir. He tweeted on Sunday: "Tomorrow morning is my trial's verdict on charges of slander against the emir, spreading of false news."

And he's not the only one. Yesterday a second man, Rashid Saleh al-Anzi, was also jailed for two years for a similar offence. Sadly, the exact things these people said are not available - but the idea that someone should be jailed for criticising those in power is ridiculous and undemocratic. But then, Kuwait is a monarchy - so "ridiculous and undemocratic" pretty much sums up its entire constitutional structure.

Supply and demand

Its January, and therefore it must be time for the usual seasonal whine from employers about a lack of unskilled workers. Normally the culprits are orchards, but this time its from Christchurch, where employers can't find people willing to work for minimum wage:

Trish Paterson, recruitment manager for Christchurch-based employment agency Ryan Recruitment, said many local companies were struggling to fill positions that required no qualifications or skills that can be learned on the job.

"It's not so much that [jobs] are not available, but in a lot of cases they are paying minimum wage and there are other employers paying more, even if it is only 50c per hour, people will move jobs for that," she said.

The company was even struggling to find people to stand with Stop/Go signs to manage traffic at road works.

As is clear from Paterson's comments, the real problem here is that the wages on offer are too low. Housing costs have risen, so people want more money to match; meanwhile, thousands have left the city, so there's a local labour shortage and they can shop around. But rather than recognise this and suggest the obvious solution - increasing wages to a level where people will take your shitty boring job - she instead suggests flooding the market with unskilled immigrants to keep wages down.

Its a perfect example of the hypocrisy of our business community - its all "free market" and "deregulation" until they're on the sharp end of it, when suddenly they want the government to intervene to set prices at an artificially low level and effectively give them a social subsidy through the welfare system. And all so they can enjoy higher profits at our expense.

If you live by the market, you can die by the market. If your business isn't profitable at prevailing wage rates, then its not profitable and should fail. Its that simple.

Pure waste

Stuff this morning reports on the waste of the war on drugs: every year, we imprison hundreds of petty drug users:

Hundreds of people are locked up for petty drug offences every year - many for crimes our top legal body says should not exist.

Justice Ministry figures show a significant amount of court time is taken up by minor drug cases, with nearly as many people imprisoned for possessing a small quantity of cannabis as for dealing.

Among these offenders are hundreds imprisoned for possessing a pipe or a needle, an offence the Law Commission recommended legalising last year.

The figures also show fewer than one in three minor drug offenders is offered diversion, allowing them to avoid a criminal record.


Imprisonment for petty offences almost equals the number locked up for more serious crimes.

This isn't just a tremendous waste of court time, prison space, and ultimately public money - it tremendously socially harmful and may contribute to the problem. These criminal convictions have lifelong consequences, affecting employment prospects and travel. And sending people to prison for such bullshit can actually turn them into real criminals. In the words of Drug Foundation director Ross Bell, "You send someone away for a minor drug conviction and they can come out a meth cook".

Last year, the Law Commission recommended that we stop imprisoning people for minor drug offences such as low-level possession and possession of implements, and instead introduce a mandatory cautioning scheme including referrals to treatment agencies. This would reduce the social harm created by current policies, and save public money into the bargain. But it wouldn't be "tough on crime", so our Justice Minister (then Police Minister) has rejected it out of hand. She'd rather waste tens of millions of dollars of our money and ruin hundreds of lives a year to retain her image as "the crusher".

Monday, January 07, 2013

New Fisk

Army was the target audience of President's theatre at the opera house
Why the numbers game doesn’t add up in the killing fields of Syria
Could Saudi Arabia be next?
Does Arab progress founder on an ossified language?

Fiji: A bad sign

For the past year, an independent Constitution Commission appointed by Fiji's military regime has been overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, under which democracy will supposedly be restored after elections in 2014. But there are now severe doubts about whether the military will accept the document. First, the military seized all printed copies of the draft, and burned them symbolicly in front of the commission's head. And now, they are explicitly rejecting constitutional provisions aimed at preventing further coups and ousting them from politics:

Fiji's military has bluntly rejected a proposed constitution that would have forced soldiers back to the barracks and weakened the power of the Fiji Military Forces (RFMF).

"Let me tell you this, don't mess with the RFMF," the military's No 2, Land Force Commander Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga said.


Leaked copies revealed that the new constitution would significantly downgrade the military from any role in political life. It would also be smaller and have no role in internal security.

Tikoitoga's hardline response would deepen concern over Fiji's future direction. Last week New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said he had fears about what was happening in the country.

Tikoitoga, who was effectively in active day-to-day command of the military, rejected the proposal that soldiers should not have to follow orders they consider illegal.

He said that whether orders were right or wrong, they had to be obeyed and whoever gave the order would be responsible if questions arose over the order.

"Soldiers sign an oath to follow orders and they will at all times abide by it," he said.

He rejected any downsizing of the RFMF, which can call on up to 10,000 soldiers, saying cuts would not happen.

Its the latter which is the real problem. Fiji has too many soldiers with too many guns and too little to do. Coups are a natural consequence. Emasculating the military and shrinking it to something more in line with the country's actual needs is a necessary step to restoring a stable democracy. But that means sacking an awful lot of colonels, and lower prestige for those who remain. And given the army's well-established contempt for democracy and the rule of law, those colonels will be strongly tempted to use their guns to protect their budget and prestige (and give themselves a promotion into the bargain).

Meanwhile, its looking like Fiji's promised post-2014 "democracy" will be a democracy under the gun, where the military is constantly threatening to step in, and major political decisions are dictated at gunpoint rather than reflecting the will of the people. And it will stay that way until Fiji's people decide to stand up for themselves and take to the streets against their abusive "defence" forces.

Tasers: Torturing the mentally ill

When Tasers were first introduced to New Zealand, people warned that they would be disproportionately used against the mentally ill. They were right:

Since the nationwide rollout of Tasers in March 2010, they have been drawn by police officers 1320 times and discharged 212 times.

The battery-powered stun guns fire electric barbs, which penetrate a person's skin and deliver a shock of up to 50,000 volts.

Numbers released under the Official Information Act show nearly a third of those hit were considered by police to have mental health issues.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said they had always feared those with mental health problems would be a target for officers using Tasers and the figures confirmed that.

There are two ugly trends exposed here. One is the move by police from "policing by consent" to "compliance policing", where the public are made to obey by the constant threat of force. The second is pure laziness, with police dealing with troublesome cases by reaching for their electric torture device rather than their brains. Neither is acceptable.