Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Climate change: 400 parts per million

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are expected to hit 400 parts per million in the next few days. 400 ppm is the level at which we would have had a good chance of avoiding the two degrees of global temperature rise considered by the international community to be unacceptably dangerous. Now we've blown through it, we are now committing to a much riskier future than we were before.

How risky? That depends on how high the CO2 level goes. At 450 ppm we have only a 50% chance of avoiding the drought, famine, flooding and widespread species extinction a two degree increase means. At 550 ppm, those consequences become highly likely. And that's the optimistic view from 2005; in 2013, now that we know more about positive feedback and tipping points, things look even bleaker.

We're spinning the wheel, and the safe outcomes are shrinking by the day. How long until our "leaders" act to protect us? Or are they too busy protecting the inflated asset values of those who have invested in the carbon bubble?


A woman is beaten by her partner. The police are called. What do they do? Have her evicted:

Last year in Norristown, Pa., Lakisha Briggs' boyfriend physically assaulted her, and the police arrested him. But in a cruel turn of events, a police officer then told Ms. Briggs, "You are on three strikes. We're gonna have your landlord evict you."

Yes, that's right. The police threatened Ms. Briggs with eviction because she had received their assistance for domestic violence. Under Norristown's "disorderly behavior ordinance," the city penalizes landlords and tenants when the police respond to three instances of "disorderly behavior" within a four-month period. The ordinance specifically includes "domestic disturbances" as disorderly behavior that triggers enforcement of the law.

And this has exactly the effect you'd expect: deterring victims from calling police:
After her first "strike," Ms. Briggs was terrified of calling the police. She did not want to do anything to risk losing her home. So even when her now ex-boyfriend attacked her with a brick, she did not call. And later, when he stabbed her in the neck, she was still too afraid to reach out. But both times, someone else did call the police. Based on these "strikes," the city pressured her landlord to evict.

Norristown is not an isolated case. Such ordinances are widespread across the United States [PDF]. Most specifically include being a victim of domestic violence as a "nuisance" triggering fines or criminal charges to landlords, or condemnation of the property. And the message is clear: domestic violence victims are not worthy of protection under the law.

This is absolutely sickening. Fortunately the ACLU is bringing a legal challenge against these ordinances. Here's hoping they win.

New Fisk

Assad sends his feared militia squads to the battlefront

National's celebrity-cronyism

Last month the government appointed former squash player Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner. The appointment has been widely criticised due to Devoy's lack of qualifications for the role, and in office she has been even worse than expected, with Devoy publicly wallowing in self-pity, Christine Rankin-style.

Surely we could have done better than this? Not under National. TVNZ has obtained their short-list for the role, and discovered that it consists of other sports stars:

Two high-profile sports stars were in the running for the job of Race Relations Commissioner which was controversially given to former squash great Dame Susan Devoy, ONE News can reveal.

Rugby legend Michael Jones and netballer Irene Van Dyk were both shortlisted for the position before it was given to Devoy earlier this year.


ONE News understands Van Dyk made it to the interview stage, while Michael Jones was offered the job but turned it down.

Like Devoy, its hard to see how either of these people could possibly have been regarded as qualified for the role. Their sole qualification seems to be fame (and in Jones' case, his strong links with the National Party).

The Human Rights Commission is an important body and a vital watchdog in our society. It deserves better than National's celebrity crony-appointments.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Pirates ahoy!

Iceland went to the polls on Saturday, and returned the centre-right to power. That's right: the same parties who were dramatically kicked out four years ago for causing the country's banking crisis are now back in, largely because of the austerity required to clean up the mess they made. And now they'll no doubt go back to the same lax oversight which caused the mess in the first place...

But the interesting news is that the election saw Pirate party Iceland win three seats, becoming the first Pirate Party to win seats in a national legislature. They're there to push for the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a widescale law-reform to protect freedom of expression. The IMMI has been backed by members of all parties, and hopefully they'll see it become law.

Auckland Council does not understand LGOIMA

The Herald reports that the Auckland Council is refusing to release background papers used by the working party developing its unitary plan. Their reason?

She said the political working party was still meeting and it was important that councillors and Local Board members and officers who advised them were able to express their opinions and discuss options in a free and frank way.
Which doesn't sound like "free and frank advice" at all; rather it sounds like Auckland Transport are attempting to import the OIA's s9(2)(f)(iv) protection of "confidential advice", designed to give politicians "space for decision-making" without us dirty peasants looking over their shoulders - a withholding ground which does not exist at all in LGOIMA.

But even if they're not, they're still misapplying the law by applying it in a blanket fashion to all background papers. As the Ombudsman makes clear, the "free and frank advice" clause applies only to opinions, not to factual and background material, and it must be assessed individually on the merits for each document. Furthermore, material can only be withheld if its release would inhibit the expression of such free and frank views in the future. The people supposedly generating these views are local body politicians, councillors and board members; they can and should be expected to take responsibility for their views, and to be held electorally accountable for them. But the latter I suspect is precisely why they are trying to withhold them.

The Herald is taking the Auckland Transport Council to the Ombudsman over this, and I suspect they'll win.

Also on the topic of Auckland Transport Council and LGOIMA: Rodney Hide complained on Sunday about their CCO Auckland Transport's handling of a request for traffic modelling spreadsheets:
I followed Randle's lead and requested the spreadsheets and the relevant model output reports. Auckland Transport has refused to supply them to me.

Its latest is a lawyer's letter explaining that Auckland Transport will provide what I want but only if I pay them $3850.

Oh, and they won't send me the spreadsheets.

Instead, they will send a printed output. That's useless to me. It won't allow me to check the very calculations that Randle showed were so devastatingly wrong in their first report.

The Ombudsman has been very clear on this: an organisation must provide information in the format requested, unless doing so would be prejudicial to the interests protected by the act (in which case it can be withheld anyway), contrary to a legal duty in respect of a particular document, or impair efficient administration - a very difficult test to meet (even where information is held in hardcopy, it is no more difficult to scan than photocopy, and in many cases it is done on the same machine). As for their proposed charge, it is clearly predicated on having to print the material out, and is thus unreasonable. It costs nothing to send an attachment on an email, and where that is requested, that is how agencies should respond.

Correction: Yes, its Auckland Council being bad over the Unitary Plan, not its agency Auckland Transport.

"The worst of the worst"

When National passed its "three strikes" legislation in 2010, they promised that it would not be like California's, and target shoplifters, drug dealers, and other petty criminals. Instead, it would be used on "the worst of the worst". Throughout the debates (which are linked to from here), they repeatedly referred to "the worst murderers", the "worst serious violent offenders" and the "worst" sexual offenders. So who are actually they using it on? Dumbarse muggers:

The controversial "three strikes" legislation has seen a young man jailed without parole and warned that if he steals another skateboard, hat or cellphone he will spend 14 years behind bars.

In issuing Elijah Akeem Whaanga, 21, his second strike, Judge Tony Adeane told the Hastings man his two "street muggings" that netted "trophies of minimal value" meant his outlook was now "bleak in the extreme".

"When you next steal a hat or a cellphone or a jacket or a skateboard you will be sent to the High Court and there you will be sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment without parole," Judge Adeane said.

So, it turns out that National were lying. Judith Collins thinks that this is an example of the law working. I guess she's forgotten all the assurances she gave back in 2010.

If our legal system thinks that this dumbarse is among "the worst of the worst", or that his crimes merit 14 years imprisonment without parole, then it is fundamentally disproportionate and unjust. If our politicians think it is anything other than a waste of public money, then they are simply insane.

But its hard to see how, if this moron gets to a third strike, the Bill of Rights Act's affirmation of freedom from disproportionately severe treatment or punishment would not be invoked. Which should see the law being "read down" to include discretion on sentencing where it would be manifestly unjust (something that only exists at present for the parole decision). The politicians will squeal, but if they won't obey the BORA as they promised, the courts will just have to do it for them.

(I'd suggest that juries simply start refusing to convict people where legislated sentences woudl be unjust, as they did in the C17th in response to the "Bloody Code", but National deprived most people of the right to trial by jury last year...)

New Fisk

They may be fighting for Syria, not Assad. They may also be winning: Robert Fisk reports from inside Syria
Syria and sarin gas: US claims have a very familiar ring
This was supposed to be a 'game changer' week in Syria, so why is it all the same?

National hates families

So, despite massive public support for the bill, National is still threatening to veto the extension of paid parental leave. Their reason? We can't afford it. Bullshit. To point out the obvious, National has spent billions on tax cuts for the rich. It plans to spend billions more on non-cost-effective roads. It is spending hundreds of millions more on private prisons, on charter schools, and on subsidising the snob schools its MPs send their kids to. Hell, they're even promising to blow millions on a convention centre in Queestown which doesn't actually need the money. It is a question of priorities, not unaffordability. But its pretty clear that National's priorities don't include ordinary kiwi families. They are solely interested in helping out the ultra-rich, at the expense of everybody else.

But because National needs the votes of ordinary kiwis, it won't say any of this out loud. So it pretends its "unaffordable", but holds out the possibility of an extension after 2015, when they expect to return to surplus (assuming Treasury's numbers work out, and assuming the cuts they make to get there don't crash the economy even further). Sue Moroney should call them on that bullshit. Currently, the extension of paid parental leave will come into force immediately. Changing the date to 1 April 2015 strips National of its excuse, and forces them to say clearly whether they support ordinary kiwi families or not. And if they don't, we can all vote accordingly for a government which will.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Another subsidy to business

John Key is suggesting that the government help fund a convention centre in Queenstown:

Speaking at Trenz in Auckland yesterday, Mr Key, who is also the Minister for Tourism, said government funding would not be ruled out.

He had yet to be asked for money towards the proposed facility but expected such a request to be forthcoming "from everything I hear every time I'm down there [in Queenstown]".

The proposed centre was estimated to cost about $50 million and cater for up to 1000 people.

But here's the kicker:
The Government would not fund the bulk of the centre, and it did not need to because it looked as though there were a number of interested parties, Mr Key said.

"But I'm not ruling out putting in some cash."

So John Key is going to throw taxpayer's money at a convention centre when its not actually needed, just so he can say that he did. Its pure pork, with no additional benefit to the people of New Zealand for that money. And meanwhile, he's cutting schools, hospitals, benefits, and public sector wages, all in the name of "the recession".

I can't think of a better illustration of what National is all about: shovelling money at business, while screwing over everybody else.

Smashing the unions

Today is virtually a public holiday, with a large number of New Zealanders taking the opportunity of Anzac day on a Thursday to take a four-day weekend. So naturally, its the perfect day for National to introduce its latest attack on worker's rights.

Not that they're brave enough to call it that - instead the PR is about a procedural tweak to the workings of the Employment Relations Authority. The real policy is included almost as an afterthought:

A return to the original position in the Employment Relations Act where the duty of good faith does not require the parties to conclude a collective agreement. Instead, the Employment Relations Authority may declare whether collective bargaining has concluded.

Allowing employers to opt out of multi-employer bargaining.

In English, that means that it will no longer matter if you belong to a union or not, because your employer can just refuse to bargain with your chosen representative. The net result will be to de-unionise New Zealand workplaces and force employees onto individual contracts, where strike action is effectively illegal. And that means lower wages and worse conditions for New Zealand workers.

This is how National plans to "close the gap" with Australia: by driving kiwi wages lower through de-unionisation. I guess John Key would "love to see wages drop" after all.

But this isn't just wrong - it is also stupid. Like criminal law, employment relations law exists to provide a framework for mediating certain kinds of disputes. But in order to function effectively, that framework needs to be seen as fair to all parties. If it is not, then they seek alternative means of dispute resolution. Historically, when governments have attempted to outlaw or smash unions, it hasn't prevented strikes; they've just been more violent, and been accompanied by repression and sabotage.

That's what National's nineteenth-century model of industrial relations as a master-servant relationship opens the door to: nineteenth-century means of dispute resolution. By eroding acceptance of the law, they push us back towards the state of nature. And that isn't good for anyone.

Not acceptable

The Otago Daily Times reports that Mana Party leader Hone Harawira is consistently failing to turn up to Parliament:

Mana leader Hone Harawira described himself as going "to battle for those without a voice in Parliament" at his party's conference this month, but he has been a rare sight in Parliament this year.

In the nine weeks that Parliament has been in session, the MP has given just two speeches and asked one spoken question to a minister.

Mr Harawira has spoken only on the Prime Minister's statement after the opening of Parliament in January and on a debate into financial reviews of Government departments. Major legislation on which the Mana Party has taken a strong stand but Mr Harawira did not speak included the final stage of the welfare reforms.

Mr Harawira was also away on the day in which Treaty settlement bills were debated and for the passing of the same-sex marriage law, although earlier in the day, he had hosted a "Big Breakfast" for schoolchildren in Otara to publicise his member's bill for a free meal for low-decile schools.

While there's more to being an MP than just speaking and asking questions in the House, Harawira's performance seems to fall well below that of other members. And while some of it is tactical - he's trading questions away now so he can get more later in the year when his bill comes before the House - not all of it can be explained this way. Speaking slots aren't that rare, and his level of absences is far higher than normal. Bluntly, he's not doing his job.

This is not acceptable. We pay Harawira $141,800 $155,700 a year, plus slush fund and expenses, to represent the people of Te Tai Tokerau (and, in a wider sense, New Zealand). The least he can do is turn up. And if he can't be arsed doing that, he should resign and make space for someone who will.

Abusing Ministerial office for self advancement

Last week we learned that the Minister of Trade negotiations, Tim Groser, had spent almost $250,000 of taxpayer's money promoting himself for his bid to head the WTO. That bid has now failed, but the entire thing is a perfect example of why the public are distrustful of politicians and their spending: while there are legitimate expenses involved with being a Minister, trying to set yourself up for a post-political career isn't one of them. The expenditure was for personal purposes, not official Ministerial ones. As such, it is outside the appropriation, arguably unlawful, and should be repaid.

And while we're at it, we've been paying Groser $250,000 a year to represent us in international trade negotiations, a job he has been neglecting for his own personal advancement. That needs to stop as well. We pay Ministers and MPs the big money because we expect them to represent us. If they don't want to do that job, they should do the decent thing and resign - not continue to serve in name only so they can spend our money on boosting their own careers.

(Meanwhile, it looks like its time for the quarterly trawl to see which Ministers have been abusing their expense accounts...)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The UK's political veto on corruption investigations

Back in 2006, the British government infamously turned a blind eye to corruption, shitcanning an SFO investigation into allegations that BAE paid the Saudi royal family hundreds of millions of pounds in bribes to secure a multi-billion pound arms deal in the 80's. It was a direct attack on the rule of law to defend the wealth and interests of the powerful (not just Saudi Arabia's corrupt monarchy, but also Mark Thatcher, who allegedly benefited from the deal). And, thanks to budget cuts, the UK's current government has just institutionalised it:

George Osborne has a secret veto over large and potentially politically sensitive fraud investigations, The Independent has learnt.

Under a government agreement the Serious Fraud Office must get permission from the Treasury to launch any complex new inquiry which comes on top of its normal budget.

But controversially the Treasury can keep its decisions secret – potentially allowing it to veto politically sensitive fraud inquiries, either before or midway through an investigation, without public scrutiny.

Ministers have now become the final arbiters of which major financial crimes are investigated as a result of 25 per cent cuts to the SFO’s budget over the past three years, Labour warned.

And of course the Tories are even bigger friends of the rich, powerful and corrupt than Tony Blair was. Which means that we're not going to be seeing any real investigations of corruption from the UK any time soon.

Another lie from the Prime Minister

When the issue of his crony appointment of Ian Fletcher was first raised, John Key sought to minimise their relationship, passing it off as a casual acquaintance from long ago. He also claimed in Parliament not to be able to recall any contact with Fletcher before the appointment, and to the media that he had not seen him in a long time. He lied:

Prime Minister John Key had breakfast with Ian Fletcher just days after he selected a panel to interview candidates for the country's top spy job.

The pair ate together at Auckland's Stamford Plaza Hotel on June 17, 2011. Key says the vacancy, as head of the Government Communications Security Bureau, was not discussed.

Three days earlier, Key had signed off on an interview panel for the job, which included then Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet boss Maarten Wevers. Fletcher was the only person to be interviewed for the post, after a shortlist of four other candidates was rejected.

Of course, there's no evidence to suggest that the GCSB position was mentioned at that meeting - but if it didn't, why has Key been so keen to cover it up? The fact that he has consistently lied and minimised shows he is trying (ineptly) to hide something. And the natural conclusion is that he stitched up this appointment from the beginning.

MMP review: Running down the clock

Last year, the Electoral Commission presented its review of MMP [PDF]. But rather than supporting an improvement of our voting system, they blew it, recommending a much less representative Parliament than we have at present. At the time I pointed out that the decision would ultimately come down to the politicians, whose venality could be relied upon to neuter the worst of the Electoral Commission's recommendations. And that's what seems to be happening, with National apparently running down the clock on enacting the legislation before the next election.

As someone who thinks that the Electoral Commission's recommendations are worse than what we have at present, I'm not exactly broken up about this. The only concern is that if they wait too long, they'll basically be leaving it to the next government, which may be a Labour-Green one. And I'm even more afraid of Labour's ideas of how to "fix" MMP (which would fundamentally break it) than I am of the Electoral Commission's.

In the post linked above, Andrew Geddis suggests National has three options: enact the recommendations for 2014, delay and enact them for 2017, or do nothing. I think they have another one: enact only some of the recommendations, those bits they can gain consensus on (i.e. that their single-seat coalition partners do not object to). This would be better than nothing, and coincidentally would likely leave us with a better system than the Electoral Commission has recommended. Of course, they'd take a PR hit; the question is whether they think that's worth it to settle the matter in their favour.

Equality comes to France

The French Parliament has just passed a marriage equality law. Which means that once it is approved by the constitutional court and signed by the president, France will become the 14th country in the world to permit same-sex marriage.

In New Zealand, the law passed in an atmosphere of joy, with people queuing for hours in the rain outside Parliament for space in the gallery. In France, the parliament was surrounded by riot police armed with water cannon after violent protests, and several bigots were ejected from the gallery after attempting to disrupt proceedings. Which is I guess what happens when you have too many bigots in your society who want to violently deny other people their human rights.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Freedom of information coming to Tonga?

Tonga is considering a freedom of information law:

Tonga will hold public consultations in July and August on a freedom of information bill, Acting Prime Minister Hon. Samiu Vaipulu said April 22.

He was the keynote speaker at the opening of a three-day “Rights to Information in Tonga Workshop – Freedom of Information Policy Awareness.”

Freedom of Information is a tool towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, he said, according to an article in MatangiTongaonline.

Vaipulu also said a government who is afraid of the media is a government that is afraid of its people – everyone has the right to information and this government has accepted these rights to information, according to the article.

This is good news. Corruption, nepotism and cronyism are major problems in Tonga [PDF] according to Transparency International, and freedom of information will help fight them. The question is whether the law will actually be passed, or whether it will be successfully resisted by the privileged elite of "noble" inbreds who benefit from those crimes.

A look inside the sausage factory

There's an old line, attributed to Otto von Bismark, about how laws are like sausages, and its better not to see them being made. The same is true of politics as a whole: if you look under the hood, the compromises, deals and inauthenticity behind anything political is enough to put most people off the entire thing.

Thanks to 3 News, we have a reminder of this, in the form of Gareth Hughes' "Hey Clint" video:

Its embarrassing, I suppose, but shouldn't really be surprising. Politicians understand the value of "communications" (in its one-way, spin and marketing sense). Everything they say for public consumption is carefully crafted, designed to appeal to the maximum number of people while offending the minimum. They worry about, in Hughes' words, "how do I say this?" They worry so much about it that they pay people to tell them what to say. And, unless that advice sounds batshit insane, they listen to it. In modern politics, authentic, unspun comments are the exception, the product of media ambushes. Everything else is artifice. The talking head you see on your TV screen is just the face of a machine.

And yes, this applies even to the Greens. Politics is an arms race, and if you don't keep up, you get beaten. The Greens have been around more than long enough to realise this, and take steps accordingly. They hire spin-doctors, they learn their lines (well, except for Hughes), and they stick to them. This improvement in marketing has given them more success, but at the cost of the authenticity which is part of their appeal.

The problem is that professionalisation leads to capture. The spin doctors and advisers, the apparat, are interested in perpetuating their cosy, well-paid Parliamentary jobs more than they are in party policies, and will compromise the latter to protect the former. That happened long ago with Labour - so long ago that you need to look back to Norman Kirk to find a party whcih appeared to believe in anything beyond getting their claws on bigger offices and ministerial salaries. Will it happen to the Greens too? Unlike Labour, the Greens have a robust internal democracy, which vests the membership with real power; hopefully this will check the apparat and prevent them from turning into a soulless husk like the Labour Party. And if not, well, Labour is showing us right now what happens to a party which abandons its principles: their activists give up and find something better to do with their time, their (former) supporters stay at home rather than turning out to vote for liars. And if the Greens are captured by their apparat, the same will eventually happen to them in turn.

$100 million

That's how much analysts think the Labour-Green electricity market policy will reduce Mighty River's profits by:

The Labour-Greens proposal to restructure the electricity market would put a $100 million dent in Mighty River Power's operational earnings, says financial research house Morningstar.

In a report issued today, Morningstar said the plan, which would introduce a single buyer of electricity which would then be on-sold to competing retailers, was one of the biggest risks hanging over the firm.

MRP produced earnings (before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation and fair value movements) of $461.5m in 2012 financial year, meaning the NZ Power move would equate to a 21.7 per cent reduction.

Of course, that's also $100 million a year they're currently gouging out of us in oligopoly profits. But strangely, the analysts aren't too interested in that. They don't care about ordinary kiwis paying too much for electricity, or businesses facing higher costs (and therefore being less able to pay decent wages) because of our dysfunctional electricity market. All they care about is the return to the tiny shareholding elite who benefit from this dysfunction.

These profits are gained by an abuse of market position to extort higher prices than there would be in a truly competititve and properly regulated market. They should be returned to Mighty River's customers. Labour and the Greens will return them; National won't. I think that's a clear choice for election day.

Its law

It's official: the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act has received the royal assent. While there's a delay to allow the Department of Internal Affairs to change all the forms, celebrants will be able to start performing same-sex marriages from 19 August.

Meanwhile, most major Christian religious groups have confirmed that they are still bigots. And then they wonder why they have such a poor reputation...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Oh dear

It looks like the Labour-Green electricity-market policy has successfully sabotaged the Mighty River power privatisation:

Investors who have already paid for Mighty River Power shares may be given the opportunity to claim their money back following the opposition's radical policy proposing to overhaul the electricity industry.

Treasury officials are currently considering whether the Labour/Greens proposals would warrant the issue of a supplementary disclosure statement, a spokeswoman confirmed this afternoon.

Such a statement is required if any ''significant adverse developments'' occurs between a share offer opening, and the beginning of the bookbuild process, according to the Mighty River Power prospectus.

In the event that such a statement is made, applicants who have signed up for shares can withdraw, with those who have already paid claiming their money back.

The Government and Mighty River would also be forced to publish the warnings in newspapers and on the share offer website.

This would be absolutely humiliating for the government, and there's now no chance that they'll get the sort of money they were hoping for from their privatisation program. The only reason their cronies are interested in buying electricity is the excess profits / oligopoly rents. Take away the ability to price-gouge, and its no longer nearly so attractive. If this sale isn't cancelled, then the next ones surely will be.

As for the business community's squealing, they need to get over themselves. We live in a democracy, and that means that policy can change. As Bernard Hickey pointed out yesterday, the only reason people were willing to tolerate electricity-company price gouging was because the vast majority of the money went to the government, and hence back to them as schools and hospitals. But once it is redirected into private pockets, then that reason simply disappears. Who wants to pay more for power simply so fat-cats can have bigger yachts and another holiday home in Hawaii? Put like that, I doubt even National party supporters would support it.

National day of action against asset sales

The government is currently trying to sell Mighty River Power, which we all own, to its rich mates, effectively transferring public wealth into the private pockets of its cronies. Such wealth transfer is fundamentally what privatisation is all about. This Saturday is your opportunity to speak out against it. The Keep Our Assets coalition have organised a national day of action against asset sales, with events in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Hanmer (yes, really), Christchurch, and Dunedin (details on the page linked above). If you oppose asset sales, then please turn out and say so.

[Hat tip: The Standard]

Gutting the watchdog

The Human Rights Commission is a vital watchdog in our society, both mediating discrimination complaints and advocating both publicly and politically for human rights. So naturally, National is cutting their funding:

More than 10 jobs will be axed at the Human Rights Commission under a proposed shake-up which could see its head office moved from Auckland to Wellington.

The commission launched an organisational review after the Government signalled it would receive no extra baseline funding until 2020.


Staff were told Thursday that 10 full-time jobs would be cut, as well as a number of part-time and fixed-term positions.

PSA national secretary Richard Wagstaff said the scale of the proposal, which would reduce staff numbers by about 15 per cent, had taken staff by surprise.

"In an organisation of its size with only about 72 full-time staff, that's a pretty big hit and will have significant flow-on effects in terms of workload and efficiency."

Ten staff out of 72 is an enormous cut, and raises serious doubts over whether the HRC will be able to continue to fulfil its legal duties. National clearly doesn't care about that - after all, the HRC keeps telling them that their policies are contrary to both New Zealand law and our international human rights obligations. But we should. If we want a society that respects and protects human rights, we need an effective HRC to police and lobby for them. because bigots won't police themselves, and neither will politicians.

New Fisk

Inside Damascus - memoirs reveal the Hafez approach
The 9,000 unsung heroes working on both sides of Syri's front line
Beware wishful thinking. Assad isn’t going soon

Dumb argument of the day

The Herald's Liam Dann on the Labour-Green electricity market policy:

We'd all like lower power prices. It's a clever election bribe. But if a government bludgeons down the returns available to international investors they simply won't invest, they'll go elsewhere.

New Zealand taxpayers in the future - my kids - will have to earn or borrow the money to pay for new power generation as the population grows.

We either pay as we go or we pay later. Power stations cost.

Firstly, that's exactly what we do at the moment. New power stations don't fall off a tree for free. They are paid for by our power prices, either directly, or through borrowing backed by that revenue stream. And that's the case whether they are built by a government-owned SOE, or a publicly owned company, or a new foreign company entering the generation market.

(Or, more generally: foreign investment isn't free money. We pay for it, through their profits. Which are then siphoned off overseas)

Secondly, historically our new generation hasn't been built by greenfields foreign investment, but by government-owned SOEs and (since 1997 or so) NZ-companies. So, this "threat" to security of supply from a foreign capital strike is simply a fantasy.

The Labour-Green proposals won't any change this. What it will change is how much extra the power companies can gouge out of us under cover of this. By tendering for new generation, rather than leaving it to the market, we can pay only what we need to, and remove those excess, unearned profits. No wonder the business community and their stooges are squealing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Wellington to do that other thing I do.

Normal service will resume Monday.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fixing the electricity market

Back in the 90's, the then-National government "reformed" the electricity sector, breaking up the state-owned ECNZ into competing generators and lines companies, and selling one of them (Contact Energy) off to foreigners. The reforms are widely acknowledged to have been a disaster, producing an oligopoly rather than competition, regular shortages (with windfall profits due to high spot prices) and continually rising residential prices as rapacious foreign owners (particularly of lines companies) used their market power to extract monopoly profits. Despite this, successive governments have refused to admit that the market is fundamentally broken, and focused on attempting to boost competition rather than fixing the fundamental problems.

Now Labour and the Greens have broken with the competitive market model in favour of introducing a Pharmac-style single buyer as an intermediary. This will effectively set electricity prices, removing the unearned super-profits and producing solid savings to consumers. But more interesting is its effects on the wholesale end: the new single buyer will contract for new generation capacity as needed using long-term fixed-price contracts, giving it control both over prices and the generation mix, and effectively giving us a feed-in tariff system by stealth (in the sense that new generation will have a reliable, fixed price for their electricity, rather than being exposed to the vagaries of the spot market). Incidentally, this should make it much easier for generators to finance new investment, as they will be able to point to that long-term supply contract, and borrow against it (which is another advantage of feed-in tariffs).

It looks like a workable system, and its in use overseas, both in the EU, and in Ontario (where it was introduced after a similar spectacular failure of a market model). The major losers will be electricity generators, who will lose the ability to screw us for monopoly rents. At the moment, they're mostly owned by the government anyway, so its effectively the government choosing to have lower (non-gougy) returns. But its also quite deliberately aimed at privatised electricity companies, like Contact Energy and Mighty River Power. Both will be looking at much lower profits under this system. Those thinking of stealing part of Mighty River should take note.

Marriage equality: The vote

The Herald's Claire Trevett has photos of the tally sheet, the Ayes (in pink!) and the Noes. The votes were mostly the same as last time, the exceptions being National's David Bennett, who changed his mind to vote for the bill, and Labour's Rino Tirikatene, who voted against (and hasn't had the decency to say why yet).

Note the "noes". They are bigots and we should be trying to unseat and destroy them at the next election.

Fiji: The fix is in?

So, having effectively outlawed political parties (and condemned the three which did manage to jump through their hoops to legal limbo as their applications for registration are "considered"), Fiji's military regime now appears to be planning a snap election to legitimise their power:

The Fiji Broadcasting Corporation says the country may have early elections after the regime initially scheduled them for September next year.

The FBC says this was hinted by the prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, in a speech at a dinner in Papua New Guinea.

It says according to the Commodore, this depends on how soon the new constitution is ready.

Exactly how this is going to work is unclear. The regime's new constitution uses a party-list proportional representation system for elections. But with no parties, and people effectively barred from forming them, such a system simply cannot function, and the elections cannot possibly be considered free and fair.

Meanwhile, the regime, having dumped its initial draft constitution because there were too many submissions, is simultaneously calling for more submissions on its new draft, while declaring it is not going to pay any attention to them anyway. According to the regime, any desired changes can be made after elections. Which misses the point that key parts of the constitution - notably those granting immunity to the coup's perpetrators and makign its decisions irrevocable - cannot be changed. And those parts are highly contentious.

Fiji needs an end to military rule. It needs elections. But those elections must be free and fair. The suspicion is that the military is not offering free elections, but a sham, rigged to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Bainimarama and his cronies.

Dead and buried

They buried Margaret Thatcher last night, and hundreds turned their backs and jeered her coffin as it went past. Meanwhile, in the South Yorkshire mining village of Goldthorpe, they had their own memorial:

Hanged, paraded, punched and spat on before finally being set alight – cheered on by the jeering crowd.

These were the final moments of an effigy of Baroness Thatcher yesterday as three decades of anger and hurt spilled over during a mock funeral in the heart of the former coalfield communities for whom she will forever be a reviled figure.

Up to 1,000 former miners and locals marched behind the image of the late Tory leader as she was taken in a procession behind a horse-drawn carriage in the former South Yorkshire pit village of Goldthorpe.

Rob Shaw, 53, spent a year and a day on strike. A veteran of the Battle of Orgreave, he conceded outsiders might find it hard to understand what was happening here. “She was horrid. If you are from down South you won’t understand the feeling in the community at what she has done to us,” he said, as the mannequin was taken to derelict land behind a pub and ceremonially torched.

It is unclear whether they threw the ashes in the mine pit afterwards, but it would have been entirely appropriate.

As for those wanting to paint Thatcher as a Great Leader, people tend not to memorialise great leaders in this way. No-one burned Edmund Hilary in effigy. No-one strung up David Lange. The reaction of the ordinary people of the UK to Thatcher's death is the real verdict of history, and its quite different from the Tories' deification of her.

We did it!

Tonight, Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill passed its third reading, 77-44. We did it!

Martin Luther King once said that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice". As a godless materialist, I don't believe in the spooky woo-woo of a pre-ordained "arc" to history. The only direction to history is the one we give it. Which makes tonight's victory all the sweeter. Tonight, we made New Zealand (and the world) a better, more equal, more moral place. Not some imaginary god, not some mystic historical forces, but us. We did it by standing up and demanding it, by not being satisfied with half measures, by taking civil unions and pushing for more.

And that's how you change the world. Push long enough and hard enough, convince enough people, and eventually you'll find you're pushing on an open door.

There's still more to do, of course. But we can talk about that later. Tonight is for celebrating!

Finally, politicians often complain about the New Zealand public being "apathetic" and not caring about politics. But as tonight shows, we are anything but. A packed gallery, packed bars watching ParliamentTV, lively commentary across the web - the country was watching. Which tells us that the problem is not with us, but with the politicians. All they need to do is start talking about the issues we actually care about...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Happy Mondays

David Clark's Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill has just passed its third reading, 61 - 60. Good. Now people can get their full holiday entitlement every year, rather than being robbed of two of them two years out of seven.

Getting a member's bill through without government support is a rare achievement, and David Clark deserves our congratulations for it. As for those who voted against it, Jan Logie is right: it was just curmudgeonly. We deserve better from our MPs.

Bigotry, "offensive language", and freedom of speech

The Herald reports that an Eketahuna man has been convicted and fined for "offensive language" for subjecting a gay couple to homophobic abuse on the town's main street. The comments - calling the victims "a poofter" and alleging that they had Aids - are an appalling example of bigotry. But contrary to the judge, this is not sufficient to warrant a criminal conviction.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Brooker v. Police [PDF] that the offence of disorderly behaviour was not about its insult to the values of "right-thinking" New Zealanders, but about whether it actually disrupted public order - that is, whether it seriously interferes with the "ordinary and customary use" of an area. In 2011 in Valerie Morse v. Police [PDF] they applied the same thinking to the charge of offensive behaviour, finding that it was not about giving offence, but about aggression and threat which (again) interfered with the use of public space. Together, these rulings raised the bar on the traditional public order offences, requiring that there basically be a real risk of starting a riot in order to justify interference with the BORA-affirmed right to freedom of expression.

While the Eketahuna bigot appears to have been charged under s4(1)(b) or (c) (relating to "threatening or insulting", "indecent or obscene", or just plain offensive words) rather than s4(1)(a) (relating to disorderly or offensive behaviour), the same principle surely applies. The law is not about protecting people from being offended in public, but about preventing breaches of the peace. Whether a breach of the peace is likely depends on exactly what is said: direct threats and intimidation are likely to be seen as disruptive, as they directly interfere with people's right to peaceably go about their business without fear of violence. But in a society which respects freedom of speech, mere insults are not enough. When insulted, "reasonable" New Zealanders are expected to respond with words or defamation lawyers, not violence (as the absence of any provocation defence for assault makes clear).

To be fair, the judge acknowledged this dependence on public order in their comments, but then flubbed it:

Judge Hastings said under the Bill of Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of expression but that was "not absolute" and was subject to reasonable limits. He said for the offence Strange was accused of committing to be upheld, it was necessary to establish that at the time, the place and in the manner of using the words, public order would have been disturbed.

That, the judge said, was "very clearly" the case.

"The words you used were offensive and homophobic and, as such, undermined the simple values New Zealand cherishes. They were used in the middle of the day in a public street and would have disturbed the public order of Eketahuna on that day."

But the issue isn't whether those insults offended against kiwi values of tolerance (they certainly do), but whether they were such that they would have driven the victims from the street or caused a riot. And that simply does not seem to be the case. The judge has misapplied the law, and entered a false conviction. It should be appealed and overturned.

John Tamihere: Bullying thug

Last month, journalist Matt Nippert did some excellent work investigating dodgy dealings by John Tamihere, whose Waipareira Trust enabled a $500,000 loan to him as a "reward" for his leadership, and took the hit when the deal went sour. In retaliation, Tamihere stalked Nippert's family, and posted photos of his home on the web.

Its a classic case of thuggery by Tamihere, an attempt to stifle criticism by bullying and intimidation. Fortunately it hasn't worked. Meanwhile, though, he's hoping to be selected as a Labour candidate next election. Labour has a choice here: it can support bullying, or take a stand against it. Hopefully they'll make the right one.


New Zealand First has always been a party of vindictiveness and xenophobia, promoting harsh law and order policies and outright racism towards immigrants. So I suppose its not really surprising that they're supporting John Key's amendments to allow the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders. During the original passage of the Act they opposed section 14's clear prohibition on spying on New Zealanders due to concerns about "our open-door immigration policy" and "the distribution of methamphetamine" (yes, really). It looks like even evidence of clear abuse has not been enough to disuade them of the dangers of letting the spooks get tangled up in law enforcement.

NZ First talks of "safeguards". But those proposed "safeguards" are for the Minister to sign warrants, and for them to be reviewed by an "independent" tribunal. The first presumably is supposed to bring accountability - but as the Minister is a captive of the agency, and its all kept secret anyway, there will be none, from either the Minister or the public. The second sounds good - but the involvement of the police and NZDF in the oversight of warrants makes the tribunal less than independent. These agencies will be the very ones using the GCSB's services, and they have already demonstrated that they do not care about the law, or people's rights. Their "oversight" will be a bad joke, rather than a source of confidence.

Meanwhile while Labour seems to be strengthening its rhetoric against the changes, I'm not hearing any promises from them to repeal Key's domestic spying legislation next time they are in government. Another example of how they're soft on protecting our rights.

New Fisk

‘We don’t really know what war is like. We haven’t seen it yet’
At a checkpoint, watching for bombs, the talk turned to religion

The big day

Today is a Member's Day - and a big one, with two third readings. First up there is David Clark's Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill, which is expected to pass (against the government's wishes) at 18:00. Then there's the main event: marriage equality. The debate on that is expected to start after the dinner break, with the vote sometime around 21:30. The gallery is apparently fully booked for this historic moment, but there is now overflow space in the Great Hall. And if you can't be there in person, you can always watch online.

The big question isn't whether the bill will pass, but by how much - and which MPs will be on the wrong side of history. The fossils voting against this, who would deny the full equality of every human being regardless of sexual orientation, are on the same side as the racists, sexists, and slavery advocates of yesteryear. And they need to be driven from public office for it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy

In 2011, former United Future MP Larry Baldock ran as a candidate for Colin Craig's Conservative Party. And now he's been referred to police for filing a false election expenses return, and for exceeding the $25,000 limit on candidate election expenses. If done knowingly, then each is a corrupt practice, with a penalty of 2 years imprisonment. otherwise they are merely illegal practices, subject to a $40,000 fine.

Of course, we know what will happen: the police will take the complaint, and then forget about it, just as they have with virtually every other complaint referred to them by the Electoral Commission. The police simply don't care about electoral law. If you steal a television, they'll throw you in jail. Try to steal an election, and they ignore it.

Looking out for their own

The National government is starving state schools, with sub-inflation increases to funding. Meanwhile, they've increased funding to the private schools they send their kids to by up to 40%.

Another example of how National looks out for their own - and of the class-warfare they are waging against the rest of us.

Public protection orders and human rights

Last year, in a moral panic about the release of Stewart Wilson, the government introduced the Public Safety (Public Protection Orders) Bill. The bill would allow people like Wilson to be detained indefinitely upon completion of their sentences, to make the government appear tough on crime "protect the public".

Given his views on the (much milder) Parole (Extended Supervision Orders) Amendment Act 2009, I expected the Attorney-General to advise that the bill violated the BORA. He didn't - thus calling the entire BORA-vetting system into question, and raising further doubts about the ability (and willingness) of Parliament and the executive to protect our fundamental rights.

When the idea of public protection orders was first proposed, I OIA'd the advice on them. Unfortunately it was almost all withheld as "confidential", despite Cabinet having clearly made a decision. I complained to the Ombudsman, who has now forced a partial release. And what it says about the human rights implications is pretty interesting. Here's the section from a draft Cabinet paper from March 2012 [PDF; 90 - 93]:

The detention of detainees by the Department of Corrections within the preceincts of a prison, its application solely to offenders and any limitation on the provision of treatment, among other factors, may lead the courts and the international human rights bodies to determine that the order is criminal rather than civil. if so, the proposal would likely be found to infringe the rights not to be subjected to retroactive penalties or double jeopardy affirmed in section 26 of the New Zealand bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA) and article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This is because it would apply to people who have already been sentenced and are serving a finite prison sentence or are or have been subject to the most intensive form of extended supervision order.

Although the proposed order will not be made unless the court finds that there is a very high risk of imminent and serious sexual or violent re-offending the imposition of a further significant restriction on liberty would be connected to the previous conviction. In the case of those already released into the community, i.e. the 12 offenders who are or have been subject to the most intensive extended supervision orders, this further restriction on their liberty may be done without further evidence of inappropriate behaviour by them after they have been released into society (albeit under very close supervision).

Limiting the orders solely to offenders risks the detention being found to be arbitrary, irrespective of whether or not it is considered civil or criminal, in breach of s 22 of NZBORA and article 9 of the ICCPR. Article 9(5) of the ICCPR expressly provides for compensation for those who have been arbitrarily detained.

The proposal may also limit the right to be free from discrimination affirmed in section 19 of the NZBORA on the grounds of disability, as the proposal could have a disproportionate effect on people with intellectual disabilities.

The final Cabinet paper [PDF; 100 - 103] reiterates this warning, and adds some more:
The Courts have discretion to make, or not make, an order. if they consider public protection orders to be inconsistent with fundamental human rights, they may simply decline to exercise their discretion in favour of making such orders, rendering the new regime ineffective.

New Zealand is party to the first Optional protocol to the ICCPR, which establishes an individual complaints mechanism. it is possible that individuals affected by the proposed Bill may also pursue complaints before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Criticisms, or findings of breach by New Zealand of its international commitments following complaints to the Committee, would have no binding effect, but would have implications for New Zealand's international reputation.

Naturally, these concerns were toned down for the final Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF], which is what MPs get to see when considering a bill.

The bill is still on the Order Paper waiting for its first reading. Hopefully the government's real views on its consistency with human rights (as opposed to the Attorney-General's tawdry whitewash) will inform that debate if it ever happens.

There are a few more documents on the bill available here.

Daily cronyism

National's Dr Jackie Blue has quit Parliament. Why? Because she's just been appointed to the Human Rights Commission as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

Blue might be qualified for this job, but again the manner of her appointment and the stench of cronyism calls her merits into question. The usual OIA has been dispatched, and we'll see whether she applied through normal channels, or was shoulder-tapped by Collins.


John Key wants the GCSB to be able to spy on New Zealanders. His reason?

He said the security threat was low but claimed there had been attempts to use New Zealand technology to build weapons of mass destruction.

"There have been cyber intrusions in New Zealand and we believe that the basis of those intrusions has been to retrieve information that could be used in the creation of weapons of mass destruction."

Individuals here were funding, or had links to, overseas terror groups, he said.

Yes, really: he expects us to believe we're under a serious terrorist threat.

This is simply laughable. But even if it were true, it does not require an expansion of the GCSB's powers. Actual attempts to acquire WMDs carry severe criminal penalties under the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 and the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act 1996, and can be prosecuted by police (who have access to wiretaps for that purpose under the Search and Surveillance Act 2011). And people with actual links to overseas terrorist groups - that is, acting as their agents, rather than just having some Facebook friends in common - are "foreign persons" under the GCSB Act, and the prohibition on domestic interceptions does not apply.

Basically this is a try-on. The spies have been caught out abusing their powers, and rather than admitting their guilt, they're trying to scare us into submission with phantom "terrorists" so they can go back to spying on environmentalists, human rights campaigners, Maori activists and other such "threats to security". We shouldn't let them get away with it. As for John Key, this Tony Blair act shows us that he has contempt for us and thinks we're stupid. we shouldn't let him get away with that either.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Another reason to hate Margaret Thatcher

As if NeoLiberalism, homophobia, and being chummy with Pinochet and Saddam weren't enough, she also pushed ethnic cleansing in Northern Ireland:

Margaret Thatcher horrified her advisers when she recommended that the government should revive the memory of Oliver Cromwell - dubbed the butcher of Ireland - and encourage tens of thousands of Catholics to leave Ulster for the south.

A year after she was nearly killed in the IRA's 1984 Brighton bomb, the then prime minister expressed dismay at Catholic opposition to British rule when they could follow the example of ancestors who were evicted from Ulster at the barrel of a Cromwellian gun in the 17th century.


Sir David Goodall, then a diplomat who was one of the most senior British officials negotiating with the Irish government, told a BBC four-part documentary, Endgame in Ireland, that Lady Thatcher made the "outrageous" proposal during a late night conversation at Chequers.

"She said, if the northern [Catholic] population want to be in the south, well why don't they move over there? After all, there was a big movement of population in Ireland, wasn't there?

"Nobody could think what it was. So finally I said, are you talking about Cromwell, prime minister? She said, that's right, Cromwell."

And then the right wonders why people hate her...

Equality coming to Ireland?

It looks like marriage equality may be coming to Ireland:

Ireland is to hold a referendum on legalising gay marriage after a special convention set up to reform the Irish constitution recommended that same-sex couples in the republic be recognised in law.

The convention voted 79% in favour of full equality for same-sex marriage in Dublin on Sunday.

Under the Irish constitution any major constitutional change has to be ratified by the electorate.

While it requires a referendum, there have been strong majorities in favour of marriage equality for the last five years, and the public opposition of the Catholic church (which has destroyed its reputation by covering up for pedophiles) will only increase them.

Meanwhile the Irish constitutional convention process seems quite interesting: its basically a citizen's jury supplemented with MPs, meeting in public plenary sessions to debate a set of specific questions. While its recommendations are not binding, it has a high degree of democratic legitimacy. Meanwhile in New Zealand, our constitutional consideration is done by political appointees behind closed doors. Its recommendations will therefore be owned by (and in the interests of) politicians rather than the people. As one of the world's oldest functioning democracies, we can do better than this, and we should.

Climate change: More policy failure

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is difficult and time consuming. A lot of emissions are tied up with capital-intensive infrastructure, which is difficult to replace. It will take time to shift our electricity generation to a more renewable mix, because we need to shut down old power stations and build new ones. It will take time to reduce our transport emissions, because we will need to build better public transport and replace a lot of cars with more efficient ones. It will take time to reduce our agricultural emissions, because farmers are dicks and refuse to adopt greener farming practices. Which means that the most powerful short-term method of reducing emissions is stopping people from cutting down trees.

The ETS achieved this, significantly reducing deforestation immediately after its introduction. But now the price has crashed, and it is on the rise again:

Deforestation intentions have soared as the emissions trading scheme, at least at current rock-bottom prices, is no longer seen as a barrier to switching to other land uses.

A survey of large forest owners (with over 10,000ha) by Professor Bruce Manley of Canterbury University has found they intend to deforest 39,000ha between now and 2020, mainly in the central North Island and mainly to switch to dairy farming.

They represent three-quarters of the plantation forests with trees older than 20 years, which are likely to be harvested within the next eight years.

This is basically twice what it was last year, and it is all a result of low carbon prices. Which we're exposed to because of a deliberate design decision by Labour to allow international units. While the government has banned the worst sort of international units from use in New Zealand, they still affect the market price. Which means soaring emissions, and much less ability to offset them in future.

As for how to fix it, the only way of doing it seems to be decouple the New Zealand carbon market from international ones. The good news is that the government's refusal to sign up for Kyoto II will see that happen anyway - but by then it may be too late. If the government wants to prevent another chainsaw massacre, it needs to act now, rather than twiddling its thumbs for two years.

New Fisk

President Assad's army is starting to call the shots in Syria
Mobiles become weapons as tactics change in Syria’s new phoney war
A barbaric war throws up a horror story that makes villains of all

Labour: Soft on protecting our rights

Last week we learned that the GCSB had been unlawfully spying on New Zealanders, and that they may even have passed the resulting information on to their overseas masters "partners". John Key's response is to make it legal. And now Labour, which had been doing a great job of holding the government to account for this mess, is saying they might actually vote for it:

Labour would consider allowing the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders in limited circumstances but only if that was recommended by a full independent review of intelligence agencies, party leader David Shearer says.


"If that comes out as the result of an independent review, and it's carefully prescribed and recommended on the basis of the balance of intelligence versus privacy, then we would certainly look at it," he told the

And this is why you just can't trust Labour: they're soft on protecting our rights.

The purpose of the GCSB is the collection of foreign intelligence. It should stick to it. There is simply no justification in a free and democratic society for intelligence gathering on the civilian population. The police already have the power to tap phones for law enforcement purposes, subject to appropriate safeguards - and the reason we've learned about this abuse of power by the GCSB is because the police tried to use them to evade those safeguards. And that is simply not something we should permit.

I will not vote for any party which votes to give the GCSB a domestic mandate. Other people should do the same.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Electoral Commission on electronic voting

I've long been an opponent of electronic voting, based on the experience in the US where it simply cannot be trusted. And it seems the Electoral Commission share some of my concerns:

The Electoral Commission has warned those calling for an electronic voting system that there is, as yet, none which could completely guarantee the security of ballot papers in the way that the paper-only system does.


The law required the Electoral Commission to deliver all ballot papers to Parliament's clerk where they were stored for six months before they had to be destroyed.

The law would have to change to allow that information to be stored electronically "and why would you want electronic records of how people voted when our whole concept of democracy is based on the idea of a secret ballot"?

Its a good point. It just can't be done - you can't have ballot secrecy with electronic authorisation. Even if you think you can, it comes up against the fact that anything electronic is hackable (and if it is hackable, it will be hacked). And no, its not just something we can trust the government on (or even trust that they will keep it secure). If we want the secret ballot (and the protection it gives us from both government and employer intimidation), we need to stick with paper.

Against the tax-cheats

Two pieces in the media today highlighting tax-cheating in New Zealand. In the first, Deborah Russell highlights cheating by wealthy individual taxpayers:

[W]e hear very little about another set of people who rort the system. These are the people who manipulate their earnings, and use elaborate financial structures to ensure that they don't have to pay as much tax as they ought to.

We have clear evidence that many taxpayers engage in this type of rort. The evidence comes from the numbers of taxpayers at different income levels... What this shows is that some high- income earners are not prepared to pay tax. They look for any means whatsoever to reduce their income tax, despite generous changes in their favour.

In the second, Labour's David Cunliffe highlights cheating by multinational corporations:
The Herald asked this writer if it seemed fair that in New Zealand Apple paid only $2.5 million in tax on $571 million in turnover. Of course tax is paid on profit, not revenue - and Apple NZ apparently made only $5.5 million in profit and paid 31 per cent tax on that. Fair enough?

Oddly, Apple shares have climbed 73 per cent from US$404.30 to $700.09 ($471,00 to 815.85) over the tax year to September 2012. Its global profits climbed from US$25.922 billion to $41.733 billion, or from 23.94 per cent to 26.66 per cent of sales revenue during that time. So why was its New Zealand arm so apparently unprofitable at less than 1 per cent of sales revenue, relative to Apple's global operations?

In both cases, this cheating deprives the government of revenue, and therefore New Zealanders of the social services we expect. It also shifts the burden further onto those who do pay, punishing good citizens for the profit of the bad ones. And its simply not acceptable. Our government should be doing everything in its power to crack down on these tax-cheats, auditing those whose incomes hover suspiciously around band-changes, and using a generalised anti-avoidance principle against multinationals playing corporate shell-games to hide their true profits. But National won't. As Cunliffe points out, it won't even require large multinationals to publish their revenue, profit and the amount of tax they pay in order to shame them into being better citizens. National is firmly on the side of the tax-cheats - not of ordinary New Zealanders.

How the hell did that happen?

Last year, Palmerston North City Council schemed to undermine my local democracy by introducing at-large election - a system favouring wealthy incumbents and disenfranchising everybody else. But after public submissions, they were ultimately persuaded to retain the ward system and its local representation. I expected the decision to stick because in 2007 the Local Government Commission had rejected a move to at-large representation [PDF], and the reasons for doign so hadn't gone away. So imagine my surprise when I opened the Manawatu Standard to learn that they had overturned it (offline):

City-wide voting is back - the division of Palmerston North into five areas to elect 15 city councillors has been scrapped.


The Local Government Commission yesterday, right on its legal deadline, released the determination abolishing wards, after hearing appeals in February against the city council's decision to retain them.

The commission pointed to a 2010 non-binding poll in which 53% of voters indicated a preference for city-wide voting.

As for the strong arguments they made in 2007 about the need for local representation, they have apparently been forgotten. Apparently now I live in "a single community of interest" with no geographic socio-economic disparities or divergent local interests at all. I guess that's how it looks to rich people on Victoria Ave. The reality is a little different. Highbury isn't Hokowhitu. Summerhill isn't Rangiora. Ashhurst and Longburn aren't even Palmerston North. The people there have different interests, and they need different people to represent them.

The commission's sole concession to local interests is to suggest that STV will provide a mechanism for ensuring they are represented. Which is fine in theory, but as DHB elections show, absolutely unworkable in practice. Assuming only two candidates stand for each seat - far less than do at present - then in October I will be facing assessing the merits of 30 candidates, rather than the six to eight I have to at present. And even for a hardened democrat like myself, that's just too much.

New Fisk

The war has reached Damascus, but for now it is not a warzone

Climate change: The latest inventory and the net position

The annual inventory report [PDF] of our greenhouse gas emissions has been released. The headline data:


Gross emissions rose by almost a million tons in 2011 - a change characterised by the government as "slightly". The apparent culprit is a single company importing a large volume of HFCs in order to evade future carbon charges. But underlying that there is the ongoing rise in agricultural emissions - an increase the government has no intention of doing anything about. Meanwhile, removals from forests have been falling as trees are harvested and land is converted to dairying.

Together, these trends are unsustainable. But to the rich old men running our government, they're Somebody Else's Problem (meanwhile they're happy to keep shovelling welfare at farmers when the consequences of their actions come back to bite them in the form of floods and droughts).

The annual net position report confirms these trends, and adds projections for 2012 emissions showing rising emissions and a declining surplus. New Zealand will still come out in credit across Kyoto's first Commitment period (thanks in part to dodgy, Enron-style accounting), but the trend beyond that is not good. Which is probably why National refused to sign up for Kyoto 2: it would have required actual policy and emissions reductions, rather than just fiddling the numbers.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A vital question

We know now that the GCSB illegally spied on Kim Dotcom, intercepting his communications in violation of a clear prohibition in law. And we now know that he wasn't the only victim - they illegally spied on another 88 people over the past decade, almost all of them at the behest of the SIS. But there's one question we really need to know the answer to, given what has happened in this country recently: were Tame iti, Urs Signer, Valerie Morse, and the rest of the Urewera 18 among their victims? Some of them at least want to know:

"We have no confidence that the Prime Minister, the Inspector-General or the Director of the GCSB is telling the full story of the illegal spying by the GCSB. We demand to know unequivocally if we have been spied on - either in relation to the Urewera case, or in relation to our political activity - by the GCSB. Nothing short of full disclosure of those spied upon will suffice," says Valerie Morse, one of the initial accused in the 'Urewera case'.

Its an important question, and one which needs to be answered. If evidence gathered illegally by GCSB was used in the trial (and remember, the Police attempted to lie about that in the Dotcom case), then the resulting convictions are tainted and cannot be considered safe.

John Key has assured us that there have been no arrests and prosecutions as a result of the illegal spying. Of course, he also assured us that there hadn't been any more illegal spying, so I think we can take that with the grain of salt it deserves. The only way we are going to get to the bottom of this is through a full, independent public inquiry.

Paula Bennett giggles at child poverty

Paula Bennett, the Minister of Social Development, giggles at child poverty. Don't believe me? Watch the video [from 5:28]:

Asked how the government knows it is reducing child poverty, she says that it depends on how it is measured. Asked how it is measured, she is eventually forced to confess that it is not - something she finds hilariously funny.

But its not funny. Child poverty is a blight on our society, which ruins lives, both those of children and of the adults they grow up into. Its immediate and ongoign effects are estimated to cost us $8.8 billion a year. And (and this cannot be stressed enough) it is entirely a matter of government choice.

Our government chooses to have 270,000 kids grow up in poverty. It chooses to waste their lives, and inflict on the rest of us the social cost of doing so. And it finds that funny.

The Children's Commissioner is right: the government needs a plan, and it needs measures and targets, so we can hold them accountable for their performance in this area. And then we'll see who's fucking laughing.

Equality comes to Uruguay

Uruguay has legalised same-sex marriage, becoming the 12th country in the world to do so. So, they beat us by a week. But hopefully next Wednesday we'll be joining them.

Part of the problem

Yesterday Justspeak released data showing systematic racial bias in prosecution rates by the New Zealand Police. In all but one offence category, Maori were noticeably more likely than Pakeha to be prosecuted once apprehended (the exception was "miscellaneous offences"). Some of the differences e.g. for robbery, property damage and drug offences - do not appear to be statistically significant (in that while they show a pattern, it is not so overwhelmingly one-sided that it is almost certainly not the result of chance). Others - unlawful entry, theft, and public order offences - very much are. At the least, this is prima facie evidence of racial bias in prosecution decisions by police.

So guess what happened when Police Minister Anne Tolley was confronted with this in Parliament yesterday?

Mrs Tolley rejected accusations of institutional racism.

She said the data did not take into account many factors such as whether the crimes were committed by repeat offenders or whether evidence was available to help with a prosecution.

Take a minute to unpack that: she's saying that either more Maori are repeat offenders, or that magically there is usually more evidence against brown people than white ones. The latter is laughable (or rather, its difficult to see how that "evidence" would track so closely the colour of the accused's skin - unless it was the colour of the accused's skin). The former is simply a claim that "Maori are criminals". In other words, the very racism that is being complained about.

Anne Tolley is part of the problem. Can we have a Police Minister who isn't a racist asshat please?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A good idea

Last month we learned that the government had revived its plans to dig up our national parks, issuing exploration permits for Schedule 4 land. Today the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill has its committee stage - and the Greens have put up an SOP to protect schedule 4 by banning prospecting:

Today the Green Party is introducing an amendment to the Crown Minerals Bill to prohibit petroleum and minerals prospecting and exploration in New Zealand’s most treasured places areas listed in Schedule 4.

“This amendment would help ensure that our most precious conservation areas are never opened up for mining,” said Green Party mining spokesperson Catherine Delahunty.

The full SOP is here.

This is a good idea, which will properly protect our most precious natural sites against desecration. Sadly, I expect the government will oppose it.

Does the government have a majority for GCSB "reform"?

The government's response to revelations that the GCSB has been spying illegally is to make it legal and allow them to spy on New Zealanders. That's morally untenable - but I'm wondering if its politically untenable as well. The government has two paths to a majority: with the Maori Party, or with ACT and Peter Dunne. The Maori Party is unlikely to vote for legalised spying. And judging by his past comments, Peter Dunne might not either. Here's what he had to say about the GCSB in October last year:

I am starting to feel very uncomfortable.

First, there were the revelations about GCSB acting improperly in the Dotcom case; now we have the Police false arrest case. Neither look particularly good.

I am a supporter of the institutions of the state – like the Police and the security services – to protect the public interest, and I readily acknowledge their task is often a thankless one, which I would not want to undertake.

But I also believe very strongly that when exercising their responsibilities the agencies of the state must at all times act within the law they are pledged to uphold. In a free state, it cannot logically be otherwise.

So, when I hear of instances when law enforcement agencies have not been doing so, and more than that, seem to have actively conspired to subvert the particular provisions of the law to achieve an outcome they might regard as being in the wider interests of upholding the law, I become extremely concerned.

No matter the history or integrity of the agencies, it is not for them to decide how the law should be applied. That is the prerogative of Parliament or the Courts.

Would the man who wrote this vote to confirm a self-serving interpretation of the law to justify state intrusion explicitly forbidden by Parliament? Not if he is consistent. It will be interesting to see whether Dunne is, or whether he'll bow to National and vote to give GCSB carte-blanche.