Thursday, February 28, 2013

Capping the bankers

Banker's bonuses have been in the spotlight ever since the start of the Great Financial Crisis and the odious sight of the very people who had ruined the world awarding themselves enormous payouts for doing so. Now, the EU has moved to rein in this problem, by capping those bonuses:

European Union officials have struck a provisional deal on new financial rules, including capping bank bonuses.

Under the agreement, bonuses will be capped at a year's salary, but can rise to two year's pay if there is explicit approval from shareholders.

The deal was reached late on Wednesday. EU ministers must approve it, although this is considered a formality.

Its a good move, but at the same time you have to ask why it is only limited to banks. Corporations in general pay excessive bonuses, and these are both a source of economic instability and a driver of inequality. So why not cap their payouts (and limit their ability to rob their shareholders) too?

Removing democracy from the RMA

Another year, another push by government to "reform" the RMA to make it easier for its cronies to dig, bulldoze, and build whatever, where-ever, without having to listen to anybody else. While many of the proposals in their discussion document [PDF] are technical, the substantive ones are horrifying, including:

  • adding a development clause to the "matters of national importance", while weakening heritage protection and public access to beaches and rivers, and removing intrinsic environmental values and amenity values;
  • allowing Ministers to direct local bodies to change their plans in specified ways, and if unhappy with the results, amend them directly - basically over-ruling the elected representative sof local communities;
  • allowing the government to draft National Policy Statements for local areas (and hence further dictate the content of local plans). So for example they could draft an NPS for the management of water in Canterbury, again over-ruling local elected representatives.
  • allowing MfE or EPA to basically write everyone's plans through a highly detailed "national template";
  • reducing notifications, consent requirements, and appeal rights;
  • allowing the Minister to regulate for some types of consent decisions which do not meet call-in criteria to be made not by local councils but by an (unspecified) national body
The over-arching themes here are once again limiting local input and having more decisions made in Wellington (where lobbyists can secretly grease the Minister's palm), while reducing environmental protection and appeal-rights. Which in turn means more dodgy decisions, as councils and Ministers will be held to the law less. These are not good reforms, and they should not be progressed. The whole point of the RMA is local decision-making to meet local priorities. But National has never liked that - too democratic. They'd rather take us back to the days of Muldoon, where everything is decided in the Minister's office over whiskey If you want to submit, details are here.


Last year, we learned that Treasury had warned the government not to go to fast with asset sales, as selling too many similar companies all at once would be too much for the stock market. So guess what National is planning to do?

The Government is eyeing up as many as three power company share floats this year to rake in billions of dollars in extra cash.


Finance Minister Bill English said today Mighty River Power had had plenty of time to ready itself for the first float and the sale could occur "within a matter of months" after Cabinet signed off the plan on Monday.

"Generally there's just a couple of opportunities in the year because of the rules around accounting numbers and having up to date information for the public so you can get generally one float in before May or June and another one later in the year, perhaps two, depending on market conditions. As soon as the process for Mighty River power is signed off well then move to the other SOE's [State-owned enterprises]."

This is simply madness. If the government proceeds with this plan, it means that they (and we) will get a lower price for those assets. But given that the buyers will be foreigners and cronies, National probably regards that as a feature rather than a bug. A bad deal for us is a good deal for their rich mates, and flogging our assets off to them cheap is the primary goal of this corrupt policy.

Again, we need the opposition to stand up on this, and scare the markets with the threat of forced renationalisation unless the sales are approved by referendum. Do they have the courage to represent their voters, or will they represent the rich instead?

More cronyism

More cronysim from National: they've appointed former MP Belinda Vernon to the board of Maritime New Zealand. According to her Wikipedia entry, Vernon actually has prior experience in the shipping industry, so she may actually be qualified for the job. But appointing her in this way makes her look like just another crony, undermining both the position and her reputation.

If these appointments were made by an independent body then we might be able to have confidence that cases like this were merit-based appointments. The fact that they are made by Ministers, with a proven habit of bypassing process to shoulder-tap their former colleagues to well-renumerated positions means that we cannot.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The Supreme Court has dismissed the Maori Council's appeal against asset sales. Reading the full judgement, the Maori Council were in fact successful in their argument that the treaty clause applied and that therefore the decision to sell was reviewable. But the Supreme Court found that the sale would not materially impair the government's ability to provide redress for claims. On the financial side of things they are undoubtedly correct. But the most important form of redress is not financial, but regulatory: granting Maori more say in the allocation of their water, or the right to royalties from the use of their rivers. And on that, the court shows a lot more faith in the government than I do. They're bound to, since it is an inherently political question and they can't be seen to doubt Parliament's will. But the fact of the matter is that the moment those shares are sold, the government creates deep-pocketed opponents of such regulatory reform, some of whom will be able to use international free trade agreements to argue that it is an "expropriation" of "their" (stolen) property. And this cannot but have a chilling effect on the willingness of the government to provide proper redress.

If we want to stop this process, we now have two options. The first is the referendum campaign, which now has 390,000 signatures. While the timing means it is unlikely to stop the government from selling Mighty River power into the claws of its rich cronies, a strong showing may present a sufficiently credible electoral threat to dissuade them from selling any more of our assets (in that National backbenchers facing losing their seats will be less willing to support such a move).

But what we really need is for the opposition to stand up and make it clear that this is a theft from the New Zealand public, and that they will reverse it by forcibly renationalising any stolen property, at a loss to the thieves. National can't sell if there are no buyers, and no-one will buy if they will make a loss. Labour is quite willing to make such pronouncements on charter schools, and in the past on ACC. They should do it for stolen power companies too.

The consequences of juking the stats

One of the modern diseases of management is statistics-based management practices. Collect statistics, set targets, and punish the underperformers. Theoretically this creates an incentive for people to improve performance. in reality, it creates an incentive to juke the stats to create the illusion of performance. In the average office, that doesn't matter - it makes no difference in the great scheme of things how many reports you process (in fact, you could say that about most office jobs). But when you apply such techniques to policing, it means police stop investigating rapes:

Rape victims were pressured to withdraw their allegations by a specialist [London] Metropolitan police unit as officers tried to gerrymander their performance statistics, the report found.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said the Sapphire unit at Southwark had failed victims. Women reporting rapes and sexual assaults were encouraged to withdraw their allegations, it said.

The watchdog said its investigation followed cases in 2008, when the Southwark Sapphire unit was performing poorly and under pressure to improve.

The report found women were questioned repeatedly by a detective about whether they had consented to sex. They were encouraged to withdraw their complaints, which boosted the unit's sanctioned detection rate.

The rape allegations were not recorded by police.

The IPCC calls this "wholly inappropriate" and "deeply disturbing". One could say the same about the management practices which led to this abuse.

Meanwhile, I am wondering whether the New Zealand police use such methods - and if so, whether we will learn of similar horror stories here.

Says it all

Yesterday's document dump on the Hobbit revealed that the government thought there was no case to change the law. So why did they go ahead and change it? The Herald asked Ministers, but the response was disappointing:

[M]inisters who felt that there was no need to change labour laws for the filming of The Hobbit yesterday said they could not recall why they went ahead and changed them.


Mr Brownlee could not recall yesterday what took place in this period which prompted Government to push on with a law change. But he insisted the move was necessary: "There is no doubt the prospect of losing the film production to New Zealand was real."

This convenient "memory lapse" speaks volumes about the government's case for a law change. If there was one which would withstand public scrutiny, then Brownlee would say it. The fact that even he is ashamed of it, and is hiding behind senility and forgetfulness, tells us everything we need to know.

Of course, we should vote him out. Politicians should own their decisions and be held accountable for them. If they refuse to, then they have no place in our Parliament.


The Government Administration Committee has reported back on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. While they recommend that it be passed, they also recommend the insertion of a bigot amendment, clarifying that religious celebrants can continue to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of their personal religious views when exercising the state power to solemnise a marriage. This is far narrower than similar US amendments (which basically add an "except for faggots" clause to anti-discrimination law, allowing discrimination in the provision of housing as well as the solemnisation of marriages), and in practice the issue is never likely to come up (because who wants their marriage solemnised by a person who doesn't want to do it?), but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The purpose of this bill is to eliminate such discrimination. Instead, its now writing it into statute. It won't stop me from continuing to support the bill, because like Civil Unions its a positive (if imperfect) step forward. But it does leave a bad taste in the mouth.

(OTOH, in ten years time, when the bigots are well and truly in the minority, we can put up a bill to repeal this clause, limit religious body celebrants to solemnising marriages amongst their own cults, or eliminate them entirely. If religious groups won't do marriage according to state principles of neutrality and non-discrimination, they have no business doing it, EOFS).

On the plus side, they are recommending the repeal of the odious section 56, which makes it an offence to impugn the validity of a marriage or assert that someone is "illegitimate" (a word I thought belonged only in medieval histories). Obviously its being done so the bigots can sneer at same-sex couples who aren't "truly" married (fuck, I've seen Catholics do that about non-Catholics), but the law was an affront to freedom of speech and had to go.

The bill will be back before the House for its second reading on March 13, and if all goes well will pass its third reading a month later.

A cop-out on the BORA

The Bill of Rights Act is a core part of our constitution, and its requirement to report inconsistencies to Parliament a key constitutional safeguard. Unfortunately, the Attorney-General doesn't appear to be taking it seriously.

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from this ridiculous BORA vet of the government's Royal Succession Bill. Rather than addressing the serious human rights implications of the Bill in permitting continuing religious discrimination against "Papists" in New Zealand law, it dodges the issue entirely, declaring

The rules that govern succession are historically and politically complex. They are inapt for detailed Bill of Rights Act scrutiny.

Which is... interesting. I see no "except for the monarchy" clause in s3 BORA, and similarly there is no "its too complex" clause in the definition of justified limitations. Legal academic Dean Knight compares it to a student answering an exam question with "This question hurts my brain and is just too hard. Sorry." And he's right. It's just a cop-out.

We pay Crown Law $2.7 million a year for this advice. The lawyer providing it is likely to be paid more than $100,000 a year. The Attorney-General, who is ultimately responsible to Parliament for it, is paid more than quarter of a million. We deserve more for our money than this contemptuous bullshit.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Hobbit deal

Two weeks ago the Ombudsman ordered the government to release information about its negotiations with New Line over The Hobbit. Today, the government finally obeyed. The full documents are here, and they paint the expected picture of the government bowing to bullying from Warners and Peter Jackson. It also contains a fascinating (but undated) paper presumably from the Ministry of Economic Development about the issue, which states that there is no need to change the law. Finally, its very clear that Peter Jackson really hates MEAA negotiator Simon Whipp - and it seems that we had this law change forced upon us just so a Big Man didn't have to deal with someone he didn't like.

Contrary to the government's assertion, none of this information is "commercially sensitive". It is however politically sensitive, both for the government and for Jackson. But that's not a good reason to keep it secret. They made their political bed, and now they get to lie in it.

Meanwhile, what interests me as an OIA geek is the government's repeated use of the legal professional privilege clause to cover material which is simply not covered by it. According to the Ombudsman's practice guidelines, section 9(2)(h) applies only to "communication[s] from a professional legal adviser, retained in that capacity for the purpose of providing confidential legal advice to a client". But Brownlee is using it to cover the random legal views of Hollywood executives. Its not legal advice to the government from their lawyers, and to the extent that it talks about such advice (from context some of it discusses a legal opinion from Crown Law), that privilege has pretty obviously been waived. Once again the government is abusing the Act to keep things secret for their political convenience, and that is not something we should tolerate.

More Novopay fallout

After months of not being paid, teachers have finally had enough: they're going to court seeking compensation for the "hurt, humiliation and financial suffering" caused by Novopay. I don't think anyone will blame them for this - in fact, I'm wondering why the Department of Labour isn't doing their job and doing it for them. But unfortunately it won't impact on Talent2 at all. Why? Because their contract basically says they're not liable for their fuckups. If they make a mistake, resulting in loss, hurt, humiliation and financial damage, then the government pays for it. Possibly the government can then sue them for it, but even their their liability is capped at an agreed (but secret) amount (and they're required to have insurance, so they just don't have to care).

This is the "superior incentive scheme" offered by contracting out services: all risks are on the government, and the contractor collects a premium for it. Its a scam, pure and simple.

This is simply unacceptable. The public servants who drafted this contract and the Ministers who agreed to its provisions and signed it all need to be held accountable for it.


The government has raised the minimum wage by 25 cents, to $13.75 an hour. Its a miserable increase which will do nothing to address the very real problem of poverty in New Zealand. But that's what you get when you have a National government focused on keeping labour costs low for its rich mates, rather than on ensuring every kiwi gets a fair go.

Meanwhile, over the Tasman the minimum wage is now A$15.96 an hour. At current exchange rates, that's about NZ$19.60. Which sends a clear message to kiwis wanting higher pay and a better standard of living: you won't get them here under National.

Italy votes

Italians went to the polls over the weekend to replace their unelected austerity government, and the result looks like a narrow victory for the centre-left (but pro-austerity) Italy. Common Good coalition. With 98% of polling places reporting, they have a narrow 0.4% lead over Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom - but its a gap which will hold. Which means that under Italy's Porcellum law, they will gain a guaranteed 55% majority on the Chamber of Deputies on only 29.5% of the vote. Its a perfect example of why "winner's bonuses" suck.

Meanwhile the real winner is comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, which has gained 25% of the vote, making it the largest single party in the Chamber. They're anti-establishment, anti-corruption, and anti-austerity - and thanks to holding a balance of power in the Senate, they can decide who forms the next government and how long it lasts. The numbers only allow two real options: a grand coalition of the establishment, or a centre-left government with Five Star support. But given that Italy's "centre-left" are pro-austerity, the latter can't be assumed. There is every chance that Italy's establishment will try and erect a cordon sanitaire against the people who want to clean them up.

(As for former dictator Mario Monti, it turns out that the constituency for his austerity policies is only 10% - which shows precisely why he shouldn't have been appointed in the first place. He had no mandate and no legitimacy. Fortunately now he's also got no power and no say in who runs the country. Suck on that, bankers).

The media seem to be suggesting that there will be new elections if these ones don't go the "right" way. Which is a pretty odd idea of democracy. Italy's people have spoken, and Italy's politicians should respect their decision and try and make the best of it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Fiji: Political parties decree violates international law

Back in January, Fiji's military regime promulgated draconian political party regulations aimed at eliminating that country's political parties. Parties were required to gather 5,000 signatures in a mere 28 days in order to apply for registration, public servants and members of unions were banned from membership, party names had to be in English, and they could be de-registered (and their assets stolen by the state) if there was any flaw at all in the process. Now, a report by the International Senior Lawyers Project has found that the decree violates international human rights law:

A study by international lawyers of Fiji’s Political Parties Decree has found it to be extreme compared to electoral provisions applied in democracies and in parts unprecedented in global practice.

The International Senior Lawyers Project says banning civil society leaders, such as trade unionists, from party membership manifestly breaches Fiji’s obligations under the ILO Convention.

The New York-based group says in-depth research has failed to identify a single country that has such rules.

It says the decree’s provision allowing anybody access to a party’s records is in breach of the right to privacy under the UN Human Rights regime.

They also identify violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the rights to freedom of association, a fair trial, and an effective remedy. Oddly, they don't consider the effects on freedom of speech of the ban on political activity by unregistered parties, but that is at least as significant.

The Fijian regime is currently considering the applications of the three parties that managed to jump through their hoops. From the sound of it, they will disqualify and crush the Fiji Labour Party, whose leader fell out with the regime in 2008 - and the law gives them the ability to do the same to the others on a whim (because it is likely that someone's signature won't be able to be matched, creating grounds for refusal of registration, seizure of assets, and prosecution of party officials. Yes, the law is that bad). Its not yet clear whether they will do that, or be satisfied with having eliminated virtually all of Fiji's existing parties (and apparently all of its non-Indian ones).

The full ISLP report is here [PDF].

Police bribery taints the justice system

The Herald over the weekend had an appalling revelation: the police had bribed multiple witnesses in a controversial murder case:

Police paid witnesses who gave critical evidence in a rape and murder case for which an apparently innocent man has been in jail for 20 years.

The police have refused a request that the Weekend Herald made under the Official Information Act for information about witness payments, but High Court files reveal that $15,000 was paid to three witnesses who testified in trials arising from the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett.

Teina Pora is serving life imprisonment for those crimes.

The case became controversial after DNA testing identified semen in Mrs Burdett's body as being from Malcolm Rewa, a serial rapist who acted alone in all 24 other attacks he has been convicted of.

Pora's conviction was quashed as a result of the DNA evidence, but he was convicted at a retrial in 2000 on the new testimony. But the fact that bribes were paid irrevocably taints that "evidence" and makes it unreliable. It also means that the resulting conviction cannot possibly be regarded as safe. Pora's conviction must be quashed.

Meanwhile, we also need an independent inquiry to find out far this disease has spread and how many other trials have been compromised by police bribery, and those convictions must also be quashed. We cannot allow unsafe convictions tainted by police bribery to stand.

Finally, the police officers responsible for this misconduct need to be held responsible for their acts. When someone accused of a crime bribes witnesses to aid their case, we call it perversion of the course of justice and throw them in jail. We can apply no lesser standard to the police.

New Fisk

Mystery of a death on the Beirut road
War on terror is the West's new religion

The police UAV clusterfuck

Back in December, we learned that the New Zealand police had bought themselves a spy-drone, a 2.8m, single-camera, 5kg RQ-84Z AreoHawk. Now, thanks to Pundit's David Beatson, we learn that they can't actually do anything with their new toy, and that their policy and planning for it is a total clusterfuck:

New Zealand Police seem to have jumped into the deep-end with their decision to buy an un-manned aerial vehicle. You’d expect them to try and specify before they buy. But, no. They’ve purchased their UAV drone before deciding what they want to do with it.

Police briefing notes - obtained as a result of an Official Information request - say that they are “starting an evaluation of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. This evaluation is at very early stages and no decisions have been made yet about their use.”

The notes also say the police have not trained any staff to operate their drone, which is probably just as well because another OIA request to the Civil Aviation Authority confirms that the police do not actually have the required authorization to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle. Presumably, the drone they have purchased is sitting in someone’s office like a very big kid’s toy while their evaluation proceeds in flightless mode.

It gets better: they claim to have no material on the surveillance functions they want the drone to carry out, and they have no operations manual or policy on its use. Its almost as if they bought the thing because they wanted to keep up with the cool kids, before they'd really thought about it. Sadly, Beatson doesn't get an estimate of how much money they've wasted in the process - but it is something Parliament should really look into in their annual financial review.

Beatson's piece also displays all the usual police pathologies about answering OIA requests. They won't say what sort of drone they have - its been publicly reported. They pretend that no information is held because no formal decision has been made (but police have presumably discussed it, and the information in their heads is legally held by the agency). As usual, they do not regard themselves as accountable to the public, or to the law.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Climate change: Locked out

Its official: New Zealand will be locked out of the international carbon market in retaliation for our refusal to sign up for Kyoto's Second Commitment period:

In December, the COP 18 meeting voted to exclude New Zealand, Canada and Japan from access to the units after all three countries said they would not sign up to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

At the time, Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser described commentary by Carbon News and others that the decision would exclude New Zealand from international markets as “ill-informed”, saying that New Zealand emitters would continue to have access to them until the end of 2015.

But now officials in the New Zealand Emissions Unit Register have confirmed that New Zealand will be barred from trading in almost all Kyoto credits generated under the second commitment period, New Zealand's specialist carbon market information service, Carbon News, reports today.

“As of 1 January, 2013, only countries that have taken an emission limitation and reduction commitment under the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period (2013-19) may trade in CP2 Kyoto units,” a statement on the registry website says.

Unmentioned: the fate of our expected CP1 Assigned Amount Surplus. This is currently expected to amount to 35 million tons, but thanks to the lockout we won't be able to sell any of it. Given the crash in global carbon prices, that's not exactly a great loss - but it will be if they recover.

Reading the background documents on FYI, the government's clear aims were to avoid commitment while retaining access to the international carbon market. In that context, the lockout can only be viewed as a major foreign policy failure. And judging from the lack of the passive voice in the documents (particularly here [PDF]), that failure should be owned fairly and squarely by Tim Groser.

Climate change: China acts

Big news today: China is planning to introduce a carbon tax to curb greenhouse gas emissions:

China will proactively introduce a set of new taxation policies designed to preserve the environment, including a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, according to a senior official with the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

The government will collect the environmental protection tax instead of pollutant discharge fees, as well as levy a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, Jia Chen, head of the ministry's tax policy division, wrote in an article published on the MOF's website.

The tax will start out low, and increase gradually, to slowly internalise the cost of carbon. There are all sorts of doubts about its effectiveness (mostly focused on the practical problems of collecting taxe sin China's corrupt system; see here for an assessment of it as straight policy), but the blunt fact is that they're actually doing something - and far more than anything the US government is even considering. The US has long complained that it shouldn't have to reduce emissions while China doesn't; China has now taken the lead and put the ball firmly in the US's court. The US now needs to rise to the challenge.

Busting the myth of the "global talent pool"

With the heat going on Solid Energy's excessive management salaries and bonuses, we're probably due for another round of whining from the rich. "If you pay peanuts, you'll get monkeys," they'll say. "It's a global talent pool and you have to compete".

It's a self-interested myth. And the High Pay Centre has the numbers to prove it.

The HPC examined the career histories of the CEOs of current Fortune 500 companies. They found that contrary to the claims of business executives, there is no global talent pool:

  • Only 4 chief executives out of 489 were poached while CEOs of another company in a foreign country – just 0.8% of total appointments
  • Only one CEO was poached while CEO of another company in another continent
  • In North America, Japan, Latin America and Eastern Europe not one CEO was appointed from outside the country where the company is based
  • 80% of CEO appointments in the world’s largest companies are internal promotions
  • Just 6.5% (32) of current CEOs were poached from another company while serving as a CEO.
Myth... busted. So, those inflated salaries the business elite pay themselves are based on a self-serving myth which simply isn't backed by the facts. Sadly, this is unlikely to make them stop. But it should at least make our public sector and state-owned companies stop wasting public money on such ridiculous greed. (The full report is here [PDF])

Let Solid Energy fail

So, thanks to the management skills of that Mighty Atlas of Business, Don Elder, it looks like Solid Energy is on the verge of bankruptcy, with the government openly talking about a bailout. It shouldn't be. Unlike our electricity companies, coal is not a strategic resource. Neither does it constitute strategic infrastructure, unlike Telecom, KiwiRail, Air New Zealand, or KiwiBank. We own it basically as a legacy problem: it was important once, back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when coal literally drove the economy. But now we've moved away from coal-powered ships, coal-powered trains, and coal-fired electricity, its just an outdated relic (and a dirty polluting one at that).

Thanks to climate change, its also a relic without a future. Rather than propping it up for another few years, so it can cause more damage to the global climate, we should let it fail. The government has let non-strategic SOEs fail before - notably Terralink (formally the mapping arm of the Department of Survey and Land Information - something else which used to be important). There's no reason they shouldn't do so again. As a bonus, this will also hold the banks to account for their poor lending decisions, rather than implicitly bailing them out as well.

As for the jobs, fuck 'em. If the government wants to run a giant jobs scheme, it should be something less environmentally damaging.

One thing the government should be doing is going hard after Don Elder and his ilk. This collapse is pretty obviously the result of poor management, a weird belief (despite all the evidence) that the good times would roll forever. That poor management has now cost us hundreds of millions of dollars. And we should be trying to recoup that loss from the people who caused it. At the least, we should be reclaiming their golden handshakes and performance bonuses - because its now crystal clear that none of them deserve a cent.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dodgier and dodgier

So it turns out that the PM's own department ignored Treasury advice that it needed to seek guidance on the probity of his dealings with SkyCity:

the report notes that the Tourism Ministry, for which Mr Key has responsibility, was told by Treasury in November 2009 to seek advice from the Auditor-General "to determine the probity" of its discussions with the casino company.

"We have no record of any contact with ministry officials on this topic at this time," Deputy Auditor-General Phillipa Smith said in her report.

Ms Smith said she had concerns about officials' willingness to support discussions between SkyCity and ministers and their staff developing into more substantive negotiations, "without preparing to give advice on the Government's procedural obligations and options".

The Tourism Ministry now sits within the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and a spokeswoman yesterday confirmed that neither Tourism nor other officials running the subsequent Expression of Interest (EOI) process sought advice from the Office of the Auditor-General.

This is a serious failing, and the sort of thing someone should be losing their job over. And if the person who made it was the Prime Minister, then it should be him.

Meanwhile, unsuccessful bidders who wasted their time being played along as cover while Key did his backroom deal with SkyCity are now wanting their money back. Key's crony capitalism could yet cost us a significant amount of money.

I agree with Vernon Small: the stench around this deal is simply too much. The only way to restore public confidence is to scrap it and start again from scratch with a fair tender process. maybe SkyCity will win that process, maybe it won't. But if it does, at least it'll do it fairly, rather than because it happened to buy the PM dinner a lot.

Australia's shame

Australia's shameful refugee gulags have gone from bad to worse. Yesterday it was people sewing their lips together. Today its people trying to set themselves on fire.

This is what happens when you deprive people of hope and treat them like animals. And John Key thinks we should send refugees there? If so, he's nothing but a monster.

Coal corporation opposes fair trials

For the past few years the UK has been wracked by climate change protests, as the public has tried to turn the country away from dirty coal-fired generation. The protests have seen widespread abuses by police, from abuse of terror laws and pre-emptive arrests to long-term spies infiltrating the protest movement and acting as agent provocteurs. And now it turns out that coal giant E.ON has been furiously lobbying Ministers in an effort to fix trials and increase sentences:

The UK chief executive of energy giant E.ON repeatedly lobbied the then-energy secretary Ed Miliband and others over the sentencing of activists disrupting the company's power plants, warning that any failure to issue "dissuasive" sentences could "impact" upon investment decisions in the UK.

The warnings, which came while the government was still trying to persuade E.ON and others to invest in next-generation nuclear plants, have been described by activists as "wholly improper".


Referring to a group of activists due to be sentenced for aggravated trespass at Ratcliffe, another power station owned by E.ON, on the same day as Golby's scheduled meeting, the memo cautioned: "Today [5th Jan] these 20 activists are due to be sentenced. EoN, and indeed other market participants in the generating sector, are hoping for a dissuasive sentencing to discourage similar such incidents in the future."

"Improper" doesn't even begin to describe it. In a free and democratic society convictions are decided by independent courts, not officials, and sentences are determined by judges, not Ministers. And E.ON knows this. Its lobbying can only be seen as an attempt to get the Minister to unlawfully intervene in the judicial process to the detriment of the fair trial rights of the accused. And that is simply unacceptable.

(As for the outcome, the activists were initially convicted, then had their sentences quashed at the invitation of prosecutors after it was revealed that a police spy had acted as a provocteur and withheld evidence. Fuck you, E.ON).

Making it up as he goes along

Yesterday in Question Time, Prime Minister John Key, when quizzed about SkyCity's apparent assumption that it would be acquiring land owned by TVNZ for its convention centre, said that they had approached TVNZ about it, and that TVNZ had sold it to them. TVNZ, however, knows nothing about it:

TVNZ says it has had no approach from Skyity to buy its land for the proposed convention centre, contrary to the Prime Minister's assurances to Parliament yesterday.

The state broadcaster also ruled out any commercial arrangement with the casino company.


TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards told the Herald on a number of occasions last year there had been no approach by SkyCity for the land and no deal had been done.

Today, she said the position had not changed. "We have had no approach from SkyCity. We have no commercial arrangement with SkyCity. If we were to be approached by SkyCity we would have to consider it on its merits."

Someone is lying here, and I don't think its TVNZ. The Prime Minister is simply making it up as he goes along, telling any story he can in a desperate effort to avoid responsibility for his sleazy backroom dealing. But when you do that in Parliament, its called "contempt". He needs to be held accountable for it.

Bulgaria's government falls to austerity

Like most European governments, Bulgaria's government responded to the great Financial Crisis with cuts, austerity and privatisations. As a result, they've been facing an increasing series of protests. And now they've finally been forced from office:

Bulgaria's government has announced it is resigning after nationwide protests against high electricity prices and austerity measures, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov has said.

The PM said he had decided to go after protesters against rising electricity prices clashed with police in Sofia.

At least 14 people were injured during Tuesday's demonstrations.

"I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people," Mr Borisov said.

Elections scheduled for July will now be brought forward to early April.

There's a long background here of corrupt, self-serving politicians who enriched themselves off the transition to capitalism while doing nothing for their people, leading Bulgaria to be one of the poorest countries in the EU. And now they've finally reached breaking point. But while they've successfully driven the government from office, they still face the problem of who to replace them with. If all your politicians are crooks, who is there to vote for?

[More on European Tribune]

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shearer: Room for bigots in Labour

Pete George has the transcript of an interview with David Shearer on bFM:

Zac: Is there room for MPs with homophobic views in the Labour Party?

Shearer: Oh look yes, absolutely, there are some, when I say homophobic I don’t think we’ve got any homophobes there, but, there are some people who don’t agree with, ah, um, unsection (?) marriage, you mean you know, a marriage between two, two people of the same sex, um, that’s ah, that’s not ah a a majority but um look you know at the same time as we, you know we’ve been at the forefront of these things, we’ve also had people who didn’t agree with it, there’s plenty of room for them as well.

(Emphasis added)

FFS. Given a clear opportunity to talk about Labour's opposition to bigotry and its pretty good record on the issue, Shearer flubs it and instead hangs out a big "bigots welcome" sign. heckuva job you're doing there David. No wonder Charles Chauvel abandoned your sinking ship.

A party which calls itself "progressive" should not have space for bigots, any more than it should have space for sexists and racists. End of fucking story.

Fallow on biofuels

Writing in the Herald, Brian Fallow examines the recent Greenpeace The Future is Here reports' claims on biofuels. The short version? The potential definitely exists - but getting there is problematic.

All in all, a daunting concatenation of commercial risks faces any potential investor in a biorefinery reliant on the harvest from the existing plantation forest estate.

It would be a struggle to muster enough private capital with a hearty enough risk appetite.

And would a future government be able to step out of the long, dark shadow of Think Big to put that much public money at risk?

But the solution to this problem isn't a simple choice between "leave it to the market" (which won't take such a risk) and "get the government to do it". There are policy options between total laissez faire and state control. And in this case in particular, we've already seen a good solution, in the form of Labour's (now repealed) biofuels obligation. This significantly reduces the risk to business by providing them with a guaranteed domestic market for their product. They still have to produce it cheaply enough to compete with imported biofuels - but one of the big variables, oil prices, basically drops out of the equation.

We've seen under National that subsidies and grants aren't enough. If we want to make this switch, we need to create a market. A biofuels obligation lets us do this, and gradually build our way to cleaner energy and energy independence.

The elephant in the room

The government cracks down on benefciaries again, and the government is talking tough, with Chester Borrows saying:

welfare fraud is a crime, committed by criminals, for their own benefit at the taxpayer’s expense, and we treat it as such without excuse
Meanwhile, lets not forget the elephant in the room. Tax evasion costs the government between $1 and $6 billion a year. Meanwhile, welfare fraud costs only $39 million. They're chasing peanuts while ignoring the pot of gold. But then, I guess those peanuts aren't being stolen by their mates...

National spins the wheel again


The government is in trouble over Novopay, Christchurch school closures, and John Key's dodgy deal with Sky. So it must be time for another crackdown on beneficiaries. The latest measures? Collective guilt for partners of beneficiaries who lie about their relationship status, greater information sharing (again), and use of the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act to recover WINZ debt.

The latter is particularly concerning. The Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act (passed by Labour at the behest of Phil Goff) allows assets to be seized even from those acquitted of a crime. It creates a "guilty until proven innocent" regime with Ahmed Zaoui standards of evidence and a lower standard of proof. When introduced, it was targeted at "significant criminal activity" - people suspected (but not necessarily convicted, or even acquitted of) offences with a penalty over five years imprisonment. Now the government is planning to use it against welfare fraud, an offence which will have a maximum penalty of one year in jail. Its a massive lowering of the threshold for asset forfeiture and a massive expansion of the law. What next? They'll use it for littering?

The non-conviction-based asset forfeiture regime is an affront to our justice system. We should be repealing it, not expanding it to minor crimes.

Our dodgy FTA lobbying campaign

Corruption doesn't always come in the form of an envelope full of cash. Sometimes its disguised as generous "lobbying" and overseas junkets. Which is why we make our MPs declare every gift, and every significant externally-funded trip, so that we can see that they are clean. So how would we feel if a foreign government was inviting members of MP's parliamentary staffs - their policy advisors, research staff, and chiefs of staff - on expensive foreign junkets, treating them to a week a foreign country with all the tourist sites, and lobbying them all the while, in a deliberate effort to bypass that disclosure regime?

They're not, as far as we know. But we are doing exactly that to the United States. The revelation comes from the Washington Post, which has diligently tracked junkets by Congressional staff. And while the focus is on China, we are also on the list, with 13 "cultural exchange" visits between 2006 and 2011 (2012 reports aren't out yet, hence there is no data for that year).

For example, in 2006, we sponsored Jayme White (then Legislative Director to Rep. Jim McDermott, who was then a member of the House Ways and means Committee's Trade Subcommittee) and Robert Lee Larew (a staffer for the House Agriculture Committee) on a 10-day junket. They visited Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown, and their lodgings and meals were all paid for. The next year we sponsored Alan Tennille (chief of staff to Rep. Gerald Weller, also on the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee) and Bryan Dierlam (another staffer for the House Agriculture Committee) on a similar junket. We hosted more staffers in 2009, 2010 and 2011, again focused on trade (though after 2009 with a sideline on "Homeland Security"). The trips were classified variously as "Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange" and "New Zealand - US Congressional Education Exchange Program".

The point of this lobbying is clear: it is aimed at building influence to assist New Zealand's bid for a free trade agreement with the US. But its clearly lobbying, of a type that we would be deeply upset about if our elected representatives or public officials were targeted with.

New Zealand is supposed to stand for clean government. We should not be using such tactics. Instead, we should be trying to eliminate such deep-pocketed lobbying. But what politician is ever going to vote to do that?

Member's day

Today is a member's day, the first one of the year. And while the Herald is suggesting David Clark's Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill will pass its second reading today, I'm not so sure. Not because the votes aren't there, but because there is just too much stuff ahead of it on the Order Paper.

First up, there are three local bills to get through, including a committee stage. While I doubt there's anything really interesting to discuss in the Waitaki District Council Reserves and Other Land Empowering Bill, its a third reading debate, scheduled for up to two hours - giving the government a perfect opportunity for a filibuster. Likewise with the other two local bills. Similarly with Chris Auchinvole's Habeas Corpus Amendment Bill - again, utterly uncontroversial (it implements a Law Commission report - something which should really be a government bill), but that's potentially another two hours. on an ordinary day, I'd say the chances of at least getting to the holidays bill weren't bad - but then this is a bill that looks certain to be passed against the government's wishes. They will be eager to avoid that humiliation (and maybe buy some more time in which to strongarm the Maori Party or Peter Dunne), giving a strong incentive for obstruction.

I'd be glad to be wrong, but I expect the next few member's days will be drawn-out affairs, as the government tries to delay its defeat until the last possible moment.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


The Office of the Auditor-General has released its report [PDF] into John Key's cosy deal with SkyCity over the Auckland Convention Centre. John Key claims to have been "vindicated", but reading the report a different picture emerges. Yes, the Deputy Auditor-General finds that Key didn't break any rules. But this is because it was a novel sort of arrangement, so there were basically no rules to break. They also find that the decision to go with SkyCity was not "influenced by inappropriate considerations" - that is, no-one took a bribe (which no-one had alleged). But on the substantive question of whether the government ran an open, fair and transparent process to ensure all bidders had an equal chance and that we got value for money, the answer is a clear "no". The government started such a process, then Key started wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, and basically used it as cover while he negotiated preferentially with SkyCity. In the Deputy Auditor-General's words:

[T]he result was that SkyCity was treated very differently from the other parties that responded and the evaluation process effectively moved into a different phase with one party. In our view, the steps that were taken were not consistent with good practice principles of transparency and fairness.
If that's "vindication", I'd hate to see what guilt looks like.

As the Deputy Auditor-General points out, we follow these processes for a reason: to ensure competition and value for money, and to protect against cronyism and corruption. Insofar as we got the former and avoided the latter in this case, it was only by accident. I expect better from our government, and better from John Key.

A good move

The government has announced that it will move forward on plain packaging for cigarettes with legislation introduced by the end of the year, and hopefully passed by the end of next year. Good. Cigarette packaging has been used as a marketing mechanism to circumvent advertising bans. Requiring plain packaging will prevent that. While its a prima facie restriction on freedom of speech, like the advertising ban itself it serves an important public purpose and is necessary and proportionate to that purpose and is therefore a justified limitation.

As for Big Tobacco's threats of domestic legal action, they're largely empty. The courts cannot overturn legislation in New Zealand. The real worry is action under the investment clauses of the various FTAs the government has signed. In the Americas, such clauses have been used to overturn basic health and environmental standards for the benefit of polluting corporations, and there's no guarantee that we won't face a similar veto on our efforts to protect public health. If so, I think it would provide a strong argument for repudiating those agreements.

Goodbye Charles

Labour MP Charles Chauvel has announced he is leaving Parliament for a UN job. Bugger. He was one of Labour's more talented MPs, a strong voice for equality, republicanism, and the environment, and he would have made a good Minister one day. But I guess watching Labour sleepwalk to defeat in 2014 and the prospect of demotion by the ageing clique around David Shearer was just too much for him.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering how many other Labour MPs will be forced out by the old guard. Labour's focus on incumbent-protection in its 2011 party list has already stripped it of most of the talent it gained in 2008; how much more is it going to lose due to the refusal of ageing time-servers to relinquish their death-grip on the party?

The Royal Succession Bill

Last year, the British government decided to end a thousand years of sexism (but not 350 years of religious bigotry) and alter their royal succession. Now, thanks to some unrepealed colonial baggage, we have to pass a law to enable it.

The bill is here. It abolishes male primogeniture and the exclusion of those who marry "Papists" (to use the odious language of the Act of Settlement), but fails to remove the exclusion of Catholics. In that respect, it is fundamentally incompatible with New Zealand values and the right to be free of discrimination enshrined in the BORA. But then, so is the monarchy itself. It is undemocratic, it is snobbish, it is foreign. It is British, not Kiwi - nothing to do with us.

Obviously, if the UK needs this law passed to tick all the boxes on their changing the succession for their monarchy, then it would be improper to refuse (just as it would have been improper pre-1986 for them to have refused to pass any bill requested by the elected New Zealand government). But rather than just tinkering around the edges of this undemocratic institution, we should take the opportunity to do away with it entirely and replace the foreign figurehead with an elected one.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Staying in Afghanistan

Last year, the government told us that we would be pulling out of Afghanistan this April. They lied:

Cabinet today agreed on New Zealand’s contribution to Afghanistan beyond the April withdrawal of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) from Bamyan province, in line with the joint ISAF/Afghan transition plan.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman say New Zealand will continue to make a small but proportionate military commitment to the international mission in Afghanistan from May 2013, and that we remain committed to international efforts to improve the security and prosperity of Afghanistan.

We will apparently have 27 people risking their lives fighting an unjust war to support this corrupt, theocratic, torturing, misogynistic kleptocracy. Its not worth even one. John Key should keep his word, and bring everybody home.


Back in November, just before the House rose, the government introduced a Statutes Amendment Bill. The point of such a bill is to make a lot of "technical, short and non-controversial" changes to legislation in one go. As a result it tends to pass quickly through the House, but also has an enhanced scrutiny process: if any member of the House objects to a clause at the committee stage, it is struck out. This is a way of ensuring that those amendments truly are technical and non-controversial, rather than being a means of introducing policy by the backdoor.

I've finally got round to reviewing the bill, and it proposes a substantive amendment to the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 to protect the name and emblems of the 28th Māori Battalion. This may very well be worthy, but its clearly substantive, not technical. It effectively introduces a new criminal offence, and has Bill of Rights Act implications, in that it is a prima facie limit on freedom of expression (and on that point, the bill oddly does not have a BORA vet on the Ministry of Justice webpage. I assume they actually did one, rather than just going "oh, statutes amendment, nothing controversial there"...) It is therefore not suitable to be passed by a Statutes Amendment Bill. Instead, it deserves the proper scrutiny of the whole House.

As noted above, the amendment is likely worthy, and the limit on freedom of expression is highly likely to be a justified limitation (since its in the nature of a trademark). My objection here is to the process, not the substance. If the government wants to pass this, it should put up a proper bill, not try and slip it through like this.

A positive innovation

I'm busy browsing last week's dump of select committee financial review reports (start here). While most of them are deathly boring, I have noticed a positive innovation: select committees are now reviewing and commenting on department's OIA performance. This is good for two reasons. Firstly, it sends a clear message to departments that the OIA is core business, and that they are expected to comply with it and its timeframes. Secondly, we get to learn shit like this:

The Office of the Auditor-General has reported that 60 percent of Official Information Act 1982 requests [to MFAT] are not being responded to within the target time of four weeks, and 20 percent did not receive a response within eight weeks. We are not aware of any other department failing to meet this particular legal responsibility so conspicuously. The ministry replied that it has set up a new team to coordinate processes, and its response would improve as a result; adequate staffing was not the issue.
That's from MFAT's financial review [PDF], and I guess its what happens when you have Murray McCully in charge of your department.

2,000 new homes? Yeah, right

In last year's Budget, Prime Minister John Key made a clear promise to the New Zealand people:

In terms of housing, the Government is itself planning to build more than 2,000 houses over the next two financial years

So, how many new homes did the Government build last year? Just 68. And the year before it built only 56 [PDF, p. 22]. Against that background, Key's promise looks... overambitious.

So are they actually intending to act on that promise? If they were, I'd expect to see a line in the Budget 2012 Estimate of Appropriation for Vote Housing [PDF] labelled "capital expenditure: build 2,000 new houses over two years". No such line exists. In its absence, I think we can treat this promise as pure hot air.

Ten years

A little over ten years ago, a blog was born. Two days later, on February 18 2003, I made my first post, having been lured aboard by my then-co-blogger Mike (who then wandered off and left me in charge, which may have been his cunning plan from the beginning).

I've now been at this for ten years. In that time, No Right Turn has had 13127 posts, and now gets ~390,000 visitors a year. And while posting volumes have declined as I've moved onto Twitter, I'm still cranking out around 200,000 words a year on this thing. I've done some cool stuff: getting sedition repealed, reporting on Member's Bills and driving more openness about them, holding Ministers to account using the OIA. Hopefully I'll keep finding cool stuff to do in future.

Why do I do it? Apart from the driving urge to write, its because politics is a participation sport. Laws get made by those who turn up, and if you don't, you get walked all over by those who do. This is my way of getting my views out there, of pushing for change, of trying to affect our national conversation. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not - but if I stop doing it, then those views get ignored, because no-one is going to stick up for them but me.

As for the future, I have no intention of stopping anytime soon.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The "neutral" monarchy strikes again

Does it matter that the UK's heir to the throne is a quack who believes that mislabelling water as medicine is medically efficacious? It shouldn't. After all, the monarchy is supposed to be politically neutral, and their views simply should not be a factor in government decision-making. Unfortunately, it turns out that that's not the case: one of Charles Windsor's charities has had information critical about homeopathy removed from a UK government website:

Draft guidance for the website NHS Choices warning that there is no evidence that homeopathy works was suppressed by officials following lobbying by a charity set up by the Prince of Wales.

Homeopathy, which involves the use of remedies so heavily diluted with water that they no longer contain any active substance, is "rubbish", said chief medical officer Sally Davies in January to the House of Commons science and technology committee. She added that she was "perpetually surprised" that homeopathy was available in some places on the NHS.

But the government's NHS Choices website, which is intended to offer evidence-based information and advice to the public on treatments, does not reflect her view. A draft page that spelled out the scientific implausibility of homeopathic remedies was neutered by Department of Health officials. It is now uncritical, with just links to reports on the lack of evidence.

Lobbying by opponents, and the response from DH officials who did not want to take on Prince Charles's now defunct Foundation for Integrated Medicine and other supporters of homeopathy, is revealed in correspondence from the department discussing the new guidance.

There's no evidence that Charles was personally behind this, but his name certainly lent his charity's views weight, making the Department of Health more cautious about standing up to them. Which is exactly what the ban on the monarch's involvement is supposed to avoid. But by laundering his views through a front, Charles appears to have effectively circumvented it, and imposed his opinion on a government department. And that is unconstitutional, undemocratic, and wrong.

Canada steps off the deep end

Care about the environment? Oppose fracking, deep sea drilling, or mining in national parks? In Canada, you'd be officially viewed as a terrorist:

Monitoring of environmental activists in Canada by the country's police and security agencies has become the "new normal", according to a researcher who has analysed security documents released under freedom of information laws.

Security and police agencies have been increasingly conflating terrorism and extremism with peaceful citizens exercising their democratic rights to organise petitions, protest and question government policies, said Jeffrey Monaghan of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

The RCMP, Canada's national police force, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) view activist activities such as blocking access to roads or buildings as "forms of attack" and depict those involved as national security threats, according to the documents.

Protests and opposition to Canada's resource-based economy, especially oil and gas production, are now viewed as threats to national security, Monaghan said.

And as a result, environmentalists get monitored, infiltrated, spied on and harassed.

This is not how a democracy is supposed to operate. People are supposed to be free to speak, organise, and protest. Instead, they're being spied on as if they are criminals. Its a nasty example of what happens when government, police and intelligence agencies are in the pockets of the resource industry. But its also an example of how America's "war on terror" has undermined democracy worldwide. Democratic governments shovelled money at "counter-terrorism" without actually stopping to think if they faced any real threats. The result was bloated, overfunded agencies without any real work to do desperately looking for someone to target to justify those massive budgets.

If we want our democracy back, we need to cut the spies' budgets back to a level commensurate with the actual threats they face. But advocating that probably gets you labelled a threat to "national security"...

Fiji: Dissolved

So, that's it then: last night, almost all of Fiji's political parties were dissolved and their assets will be forfeited to the state. Only two parties - the Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party - attempted to re-register under the draconian political parties decree. Another one, the SDL, wound itself up to avoid the forfeiture provision, and is planning to register under a new name at a later date. The rest have either wound themselves up, or had it done automatically.

Fiji's proposed new proportional representation system requires a diversity of parties to operate. Instead, it looks like there will be only three - or four if the regime launches its own political vehicle. And that assumes that those parties which have applied will be allowed to register, rather than being excluded (and their assets seized) by regime fiat.

With an absurdly high membership requirement and a penalty of five years imprisonment for belonging to an unregistered political party, establishing new parties is likely to be difficult or impossible. Meanwhile, even those which have tried to register have been effectively silenced: they are not allowed to operate, function, represent or hold themselves out to be a political party until finally registered - meaning an effective shutdown while they wait for the regime's decision. And with the regime supposedly about to launch its new constitution any day now, that could be crippling to the constitutional debate. But then, maybe that is exactly the point...

Water companies: Tax cheats

The Independent exposes the latest group of UK companies engaged in wide-scale tax-cheating: privatised water utilities:

British water companies are avoiding millions of pounds in tax by loading themselves up with debt listed on an offshore stock exchange, an investigation has revealed.

The disclosure is likely to reignite the public outcry about legal tax avoidance by big firms at a time when Britain is drowning in debt and suffering painful public spending cuts. It comes only a week after industry regulator Ofwat announced that water bills would rise by an average of 3.5 per cent to £388 a year. Corporate Watch found six UK water companies took high-interest loans from their owners through the Channel Islands stock exchange. Interest payments on the loans reduce taxable profits in the UK and, thanks to a regulatory loophole, go to the owners tax free.

So, the wealthy owners of those companies laugh all the way to the bank with their tax-free profits, while the people paying for them see their public services fall apart. But it doesn't just cost the government:
The huge levels of debt used by the industry overall to finance its operations are also costing UK consumers £2bn a year more than if it was publicly financed – equating to nearly £80 per household.

Think about that for a moment. Privatisation is supposed to provide cheaper, more efficient services. But it turns out that in the case of water in the UK, its significantly more expensive than if the government did it themselves. Once you include dividends, almost a third of people's water bills is vig for the offshore owners. That's 33% people wouldn't have to pay if their water supply was run by the government at cost, rather than by foreign bloodsuckers seeking a profit.

Its a perfect example of the failure of privatisation. Government services can borrow money cheaper, and they don't have to make a profit. They should therefore always be cheaper than an equally well-run private provider (plus, they don't cheat on their taxes). The only people who benefit from privatisation are the buyers and the corrupt politicians who sell to them.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

No future for charter schools

There was an interesting spat yesterday between the Greens and Labour over National's charter schools: the Greens have promised to integrate them into the state school system, while Labour wants to simply close them down. Despite all the noise, this is an argument over means, not ends, over whether re-integration and being subject to state school standards and requirements or just locking the doors is the best way to clean up the mess that National is going to leave. But underneath that dispute, there is a solid agreement that National's charter schools have no future and are going to be eradicated. Those thinking of investing in them, and those parents thinking of sending their kids to them, should take note.

Israel admits it

So, its true: Israel disappeared an Australia citizen, and held him in secret until he killed himself:

After more than two years of silence, the Israeli Government has admitted a prisoner it held in detention for "security reasons" – believed to be the Australian Ben Zygier – committed suicide in custody.

Amid increasing pressure on the Israeli and Australian Governments to reveal what they knew about the December 2010 death of Mr Zygier in solitary confinement in Ayalon Prison, Israel's Justice Ministry released a statement on Wednesday night announcing that the court's gag order had been partially lifted.

Without naming Mr Zygier or identifying him as an Australian citizen, the statement said: "For security reasons, the prisoner was held under a pseudonym, but his family was notified of the arrest immediately. The prisoner was held by proxy of an arrest warrant issued by the court. The proceedings were overseen by senior officials in the Justice Ministry and he was duly represented in all the proceedings against him by attorneys Roi Belcher, Moshe Mazor and Boaz Ben-Zur.

And it gets worse: the Australian government was told about it, but looked the other way. So they basically sold one of their own citizens down the river tot he Israelis without a peep of objection.

Again: disappearance is a crime under international law. Secret detention is a breach of the Convention Against Torture. Both underline Israel's status as an outlaw regime.

This isn't the first time israel has done this. The Israeli government has a long history of kidnapping, torturing, and secretly imprisoning those it deems to be "enemies of the state", then using censorship to keep their crimes out of the media (and their politicians from being held accountable for them). This is not how democracies are supposed to behave. But with a perpetual war mentality, Israel is fast slipping away from being one.

Unconstitutional and dangerous

That's the Ombudsman's view of National's plan to exclude its charter schools from the Ombudsman's and Official Information Acts:

The bill exempts partnership schools from the Ombudsman's Act and the Official Information Act, but Dame Beverley Wakem told the select committee that is unconstitutional.

Dame Beverley said the acts ensure that state-funded agencies are accountable and people have a fundamental right to the complaints process provided by the Office of the Ombudsman.

The full submission is here [PDF]. It makes the simple point that state-funded agencies with statutory powers are covered by both acts to ensure accountability and transparency. Its good enough for National's private prisons, and its good enough for schools as well. In addition, they point out that the Ombudsman has had an important role in ensuring schools provide a safe physical environment for their students (particularly around bullying), and in ensuring that they follow the rules around suspension and exclusion. Ousting their jurisdiction would prevent them from fulfilling those roles - allowing such schools to be dangerous and lawless.

Charter schools will be taking public money and exercising statutory powers. They should therefore be subject to the full constitutional safeguards around such activities. We should not permit National to carve out a secret realm beyond the reach of the law in the education system for its cronies.

A living wage and the sin of cheapness

The Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand campaign has released its Report of an Investigation Into Defining A Living Wage For New Zealand [PDF], finding that a wage of at least $18.40 / hour is required to live with dignity in New Zealand. Note that that's not living well; its just the basics of a dignified life: food, shelter, and time with family. Employers who pay less than this are demanding that their employees sacrifice some of those things, that they go without basic human necessities such as food or sleep or family time - effectively that they subsidise their employer by burning their life. And that is simply wrong.

Naturally, John Key opposes a living wage. I guess things look just fine when you're sitting on a pile of $50 million in a Parnell mansion. Meanwhile, at the other end of our society, we have people scrambling to do two minimum wage jobs, at the cost of never seeing their family, just to get by.

Deborah at Telling It Left presents this as a matter of pride for employers: they should reject government subsidies, stand on their own two feet, and pay their workers enough to get by. Except that the scary thing is that the living wage computations explicitly include government subsidies such as Working For Families. Without them, it would be even higher. Its an example of how ingrained the culture of low pay has become in our society: it is now seen as a core duty of government to effectively subsidise corporate profits (and hence the incomes of the wealthy) by compensating for their substandard wages. We spend over a billion dollars a year doing this; meanwhile the idea of government regulating for decent wages (or even paying them itself) is apparently now politically unthinkable for the major parties.

Way back in 1888, a man called Rutherford Waddell preached a sermon on "the sin of cheapness". While couched in religious language, its key point was decidedly secular: that low wages were damaging our society, causing people to live degrading lives. Waddell would have called it "ungodly"; nowdays we would call it indecent. But either way, that sin remains, and it is pervasive amongst our employers. And they are not going to stop it themselves, out of the kindness of their hearts. If we want to eliminate cheapness, if we want everyone in our society to be able to lead a dignified life, then we need action by government to make them do it. Which, in turn, means voting for parties who will take or support that action, rather than stand on the sidelines and wring their hands and say that nothing can be done.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Did Israel disappear an Australian citizen?

A state decides that someone is a threat to "national security". It disappears them and holds them incommunicado in a secret prison where even the guards are forbidden to know their name. It refuses to acknowledge this detention, and media reports on it are suppressed by official censorship. When the prisoner finally hangs themselves, worn out by the indefinite, arbitrary detention, it refuses to acknowledge even their death.

Iran? Syria? China? No, this happened in Israel, "the Middle East's only democracy". And now it looks like their victim was an Australian:

Evidence has been unearthed that strongly suggests Israel's infamous Prisoner X, who was jailed under extraordinary circumstances in 2010, was an Australian national from Melbourne.

Investigations by the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program have revealed Ben Zygier, who used the name Ben Alon in Israel, was found hanged in a high-security cell at a prison near Tel Aviv in late 2010.

His body was flown to Melbourne for burial a week later.

The death goes part of the way to explain the existence in Israel of a so-called Prisoner X, widely speculated in local and international media as an inmate whose presence has been acknowledged by neither the jail system nor the government.

Disappearance is a crime under international law. The Israeli government needs to be held to account for this.

No progress under National

The Salvation Army has released its sixth annual State of the Nation report on social issues [PDF], and found that New Zealand is increasingly leaving behind those at the bottom of the heap. while there are some positive signs around crime rates, there has been little or no progress on child poverty, unemployment, and housing affordability:

The report found child poverty rates were static over the last year and violent offences towards children increased by 84 per cent in the five years to July 2012.

It also showed a widening gap between achievement rates of students in low-decile schools and those in richer areas.

Between 2010 and 2011 the achievement gap between the poorest three deciles and wealthiest three deciles increased to 31.6 per cent, despite a fall in the achievement rate at the top decile schools.

Inequality was also growing between workers, with those in well- paid work and secure housing getting a pay increase while the picture for those in low-paying jobs was "less attractive".

The housing market was increasingly about the "haves" and "have nots", the Salvation Army said.

"Government's response to these difficulties has been token at best."

This isn't good enough. These are serious social problems which cause untold misery, and we need a government committed to solving them. Instead National seems to be ignoring them in the hope that they'll just go away, while they focus on handing out money to their rich mates. Its clear where their priorities lie, and its not with poor kids or New Zealand's future.

Meanwhile, its also worth noting that once upon a time it was the government which reported on social statistics, via The Social Report. But that started to show bad news, so National shitcanned it. Which means that now the job is left to charities, and the government can ignore the results by labelling them "politically partisan" (i.e. about the poor). Its revolting, cynical politics which helps blind our national conversation on some of our most important challenges. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

A fox in charge of a henhouse

Yesterday we learned that the Minister of Building and Housing, Maurice Williamson, is also a secret director of Holyoake Industries, a company which supplies products to the building industry. Its a serious conflict of interest, in that he is directly involved in the industry he is regulating, and could potentially profit from the decisions he makes. He has apparently complied with the Cabinet Manual, by having papers relating to the business sectors Holyoake is involved in dealt with by another person. But I don't think that's enough. Our Ministers must not only be free of conflicts, they must be seen to be so. And merely having papers withheld does not manage that fundamental perception issue of being a fox in charge of a henhouse (a perception which has been magnified by Holyoake's secrecy about Williamson's directorship - though he is listed in the companies register and has declared it in Parliament's Register of Pecuniary Interests, he is oddly absent from the list of directors on their website).

TVNZ quotes Brian Gaynor as arguing that Ministers should not be on the boards of major companies, particularly if that company is in the area they are responsible for. I agree. Regardless of the steps they take to manage it, the perceived conflict is too great. In addition, we pay Ministers very generously, and we deserve their full and undivided attention.

While there's no suggestion that Williamson has done anything wrong, he needs to choose whether he wants to stay a Minister, or stay in business. If he refuses, he needs to be sacked. He cannot retain the public confidence required to be a Minister while wearing two hats.

Justice for rendition in Italy

In 2003, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (AKA Abu Omar), an Egyptian refugee, was kidnapped off the street in Milan by the CIA as part of a joint operation with the Italian SISMI. He was rendered to Egypt, where he was detained, beaten, electrocuted and raped in the name of the "war on terror". In 2009, an Italian court convicted 23 CIA agents for their role in Abu Omar''s rendition and torture. And now, after a retrial, they've convicted the then-head of SISMI and his deputy:

Italy's former intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the rendition of a terror suspect.

The court in Milan also sentenced his former deputy Marco Mancini to nine years in jail over the 2003 kidnapping.


Pollari, who was head of Sismi military intelligence agency in 2003, insisted during the trial that he had known nothing about the kidnapping, but that documents proving he was not involved were classified under secrecy laws. He resigned over the affair.

Last September Italy's highest court upheld the guilty verdicts on the 23 Americans, and ruled that Pollari and four other senior Italian secret service agents be tried again for their role in the kidnapping.

Tuesday's hearing, in Milan's court of appeals, also saw six-year sentences handed to three other Italian agents.

They're appealing, so there's a long way to go yet, and Berlusconi's self-serving changes to the statute of limitations may mean that they never face jail even if the convictions are upheld. But the mere fact of a conviction sends a powerful message about the accountability of spies and the rule of law. If only the US courts would do the same...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

As useless as a proverbial useless thing II

Today NZ First MP Richard Prosser made some stupid and grossly offensive comments. Naturally, the Parliamentary press gallery have been asking other politicians about them - including David Shearer. So, did Shearer take the opportunity to make a public stand against racism and define himself as a decent person (and leader) by saying that if Prosser was in Labour he would stand him down? Of course not:

David Shearer says Richard Prosser's comments were "offensive and completely inappropriate" but wouldn't say if he would stand him down.

Like I said, have no convictions, make no commitments. Completely and utterly useless.

NZ First: Racists

Richard Prosser continues his "Bob the Builder" act, with a call for Muslim men to be banned from flying:

Mr Prosser, 45, said he wanted an end to "pandering to an upstart minority'' and a ban on young Muslims from flying.

"If you are a young male, aged between say about 19 and about 35, and you're a Muslim, or you look like a Muslim, or you come from a Muslim country, then you are not welcome to travel on any of the West's airlines,'' he wrote in his Eyes Right column in Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine.

Later in the article he added: "I will not stand by while [his daughters'] rights and freedoms of other New Zealanders and Westerners, are denigrated by a sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan.''

Its appallingly racist, but sadly what we've come to expect from Prosser. The question is why NZ First continues to tolerate him. They kicked out Brendan Horan, they can do the same to Prosser. If they don't, we can only conclude that they agree with his views.