Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Our spying Prime Minister

Yesterday John Key denied any responsibility for the henry inquiry's spying on Andrea Vance. But it seems that he lied:

Prime Minister John Key has confirmed his chief of staff told Parliamentary Service staff to supply records to a ministerial inquiry after the department initially refused to cooperate.


Fairfax understands Parliamentary Service refused two requests for records from the Henry inquiry - and Key today confirmed that was the case.

He also confirmed his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson became involved at that point, notifying Parliamentary Service that ministers and their staff had been told to cooperate with the inquiry so there was no problem handing over their records.

That followed an edict to minsters offices from Eagleson that they and their staff should cooperate fully with the inquiry. Eagleson had made the edict known to Parliamentary Service told it he believed they could release that information.

Key is still trying to quibble and pretend that his chief of staff - who speaks with his voice - was only asking for information about Ministers. But the clear meaning of the email sent by Eagleson is that he wanted all information on contacts between Ministers and Vance, including her phone records. Our Prime Minister is simply a liar.

But that's not the only problem here: Eagleson had no business talking to Parliamentary Services at all. They're not part of the executive and not subject to his inquiry. And for the same reason, Parliamentary Services should not have given him any information, let alone information on a journalist, without a warrant and clear permission from the Speaker. So we'r enot just looking at over-reaching, spying government, but also at a Parliamentary Service which is overly subserviant to it and does not understand its constitutional role.

Heads must roll for this - and now we know whose: Eagleson and the Parliamentary Services manager(s) who approved the release.

We're better than Labour thinks we are

Last election, Labour promised to extend working for families to cover beneficiaries in order to reduce child poverty. Then, having lost the election and change their leader, they backed away from the policy in order to "move to the centre". When a Green member's bill was drawn which would have implemented this policy, we had the farcical scene of Labour promising only to support it to select committee.

Now it turns out that that policy is actually quite popular:

Just over half of voters support extending Working for Families in-work tax credits of at least $60 a week to beneficiaries - a result that has surprised and pleased the Child Poverty Action Group.

In a Herald-DigiPoll survey of 750 voters taken last month, 51 per cent said they agreed with the Child Poverty Action Group's wish for the tax credits for parents to be extended to parents on welfare. Forty-one per cent disagreed with it.

And Labour? They're still "reconsidering" their policy and "looking at whether there were better ways to address child poverty" than giving poor people the money they need for food and rent. Chickenshits and morons the lot of them.

We probably have the Greens to thank for this. They've stuck to their guns, kept putting out the evidence on child poverty and the need to address it, and as a result have won the argument - just as they have on food in schools, home insulation, water quality, Auckland rail and a host of other issues (John Campbell has probably also been influential, though his focus has been tighter). Meanwhile Labour flits around, pretending that they are slaves to public opinion rather than influencers of it and being too scared to even make the argument for their values, let alone do the hard work of pushing those values against criticism from National and the press gallery until they win. Its lazy and its cowardly, but worse, its self-defeating.

With this poll, we've shown that we're far better than Labour thinks we are. No doubt we'll see them "reconsider" that policy again and end up backing it. But while that's good, we should remember their fickleness. Labour won't stick to our values of egalitarianism and a fair go, but will abandon them at the first sign of criticism. Better to support a party with a backbone.

New Fisk

Baroness Ashton’s low-key approach gets her all the way to Mohamed Morsi’s secret location

The Manning verdict

So whistleblower Bradley Manning has been convicted of "espionage". A law intended to target actual spies has been perverted to punish whistleblowers and threaten journalists.

It is literally Stalinist. Prosecuting someone for revealing to Americans what their own government has been doing (including torture, murder, and various dodgy dealings around the world) is the sort of thing that totalitarian governments do. And now the US is doing it too.

(Of course, the US has always behaved like a totalitarian empire - just not so publicly, and not to its own (white) citizens. But now that mindset has come home to roost...)

Its a dark day for America, and a warning sign for Americans: they need to take back their country from its national security state, before it is too late.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The spy bill and metadata

Today in Question Time John Key gave an assurance that the interception of New Zealanders' metadata would require an access authorisation. But while its good to hear, its not quite true. Why not? Let's take a look at the law:

What do you need a warrant or access authorisation for? According to new section 15A, "the use of interception devices to intercept communications". A "communication"

includes signs, signals, impulses, writing, images, sounds, or data that a person or machine produces, sends, receives, processes, or holds in any medium

Metadata is data, signals travelling over the network. So its clearly a communication which can be intercepted using a warrant. But that's not enough to make us safe. Why? Because that clause only applies to interceptions requiring the placement or connection of an interception device. Where that's not necessary - for example, when an interception device has already been installed, or when one is used which is not limited to a particular place (as is the case with sniffing WiFi or cellphone traffic), or when the information is gained by computer hacking rather than a physical tap - then an interception can be made under Section 16. Previously, this was targeted only at foreign communications, but the spy bill would remove that word and allow warrantless interception of domestic communications as well. And while it would insert a clause forbidding its use to intercept the private communications of New Zealanders, it is unclear whether that term (as defined in the Search and Surveillance Act) covers metadata (furthermore, resting as it does on "reasonable expectations" of privacy, pervasive state surveillance seems to permit itself by undermining those expectations and instead creating an expectation that you will be spied on).

So, if Key passes the law, the GCSB will be able to use existing taps, hacking, or sniffing to access your metadata, without needing any form of warrant or outside authorisation. The Prime Minister's statement in Parliament today was simply a lie.


Today is the first question time in two weeks, and it ought to be a firestorm. With growing disquiet about the GCSB bill, and revelations of spying by both the defence forces and Parliamentary Services raising huge public interest, you'd expect the opposition to be asking pointed questions to hold the government to account on those issues. But instead, they've been asking questions about... housing.

I understand they've just launched policy in this area and want to highlight it. But there's a point where religious adherence to the message calendar becomes pathological, and Labour has reached it. Competent political leadership - or virtu as Machiavelli called it - consists in part of being able to respond to events and seize opportunities. Labour isn't displaying it.

Oh, but apparently they'll be talking about the GCSB bill and spying during the Estimates Debate right after Question Time. Big deal - nobody watches those. So they're passing up an opportunity to slam-dunk the government when everyone is watching in favour of doing it out of sight. Meanwhile, they're wasting time on an issue where they have already won over the public, and thanks to their usual woeful delivery, turning it into an opportunity for the government to criticise them.

The good news is that the Greens are light and nimble enough to respond to the events of the day. And they'll reap the rewards for it. But if Labour wants to continue pretending to lead the opposition, they need to up their game significantly.


Meanwhile, on the same day we learn that the government did spy on a political journalist, we also learn that the army threatened to murder a war correspondent:

Jon Stephenson says the Defence Force mounted a campaign of intimidation against him while he was working in Afghanistan, in an effort to discredit him.

He says that while he was in Afghanistan, a senior officer in the New Zealand special forces, who is still serving, made repeated threats to him and his sources.

Mr Stephenson said he laid a complaint with the police the day the threat was made, in June 2010.

This is completely unacceptable. Our military cannot be allowed to behave like thugs in a dictatorship. The officer involved should be investigated, charged, and prosecuted.

Spying on journalists III

Last week when we learned that the Henry inquiry had asked Parliamentary Services for Andrea Vance's private phone records, we were told that they had not been handed over. It was a lie:

Speaker David Carter has confirmed three months worth of phone records for Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance were handed over to a ministerial inquiry.

Carter today apologised to Vance and Fairfax group executive editor Paul Thompson and acknowledged answers given last week in response to the journalist's phone record were wrong.


Carter said today he became aware on Friday his answer in response to questions about Vance's phone records was wrong.

Three months worth of phone records had "inadvertently" been supplied to Henry by Parliamentary Service during the course of his investigations.

The information had been collated by parliamentary contractor Datacom.

Henry claims that he never requested those records, and had instead been seeking records of Ministers. But its hard to see why they would have been supplied except in response to a direct request. Interestingly, last week Carter said they were requested. Given that he's now changed his story twice, I'm not sure we can trust him to be telling the truth now.

But even if we accept his latest story, it tells us that Parliamentary Services are a bunch of muppets, and that contracting out services subject to Parliamentary privilege to companies with no understanding of the concept is not a good idea. Again, heads must roll for this - and the chief executive of Parliamentary Services is the prime candidate, for letting this happen on their watch.

Also in the "not a good idea" category is Parliament supplying telecommunications services to the press gallery. Clearly, merely paying for it is not enough to ensure ownership or to protect such communications from random government snooping. And again: if their data traffic goes across the same phone lines, it should be regarded as fundamentally compromised.

Finally: John Key's spy bill would let the GCSB do to everyone what Henry did to Vance, legally and in secret. We cannot permit it to pass. This spying government must be defeated.

Monday, July 29, 2013

No-one likes a snoop II

It looks like US web companies' active collaboration with the NSA is about to cost them big in Europe:

The so-called Safe Harbor agreement that allows U.S. web firms to take on customers in the European Union is in deep trouble. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has launched a review of the deal, and on Wednesday it emerged that data protection watchdogs from around Germany have urged Chancellor Angela Merkel to push for its suspension, due to NSA surveillance fears.

Basicly US web firms can only operate in Europe if they agree to obey EU privacy standards - including not handing the data of their EU customers to outside parties like, say, the NSA. They're breaking this agreement. And now they're going to pay the consequences, with either tighter policing or a wholesale denial of access to the European market.

But this isn't just about the US - John Key's spy bill would let the GCSB do exactly what the NSA is doing, right here in New Zealand. If it passes, our web companies could face the same punishment. Key is endangering the future of our economy if he pushes on with this. Sadly, he seems too blinded by the spooks' secret bullshit to care.

There is an alternative

Here we go: John Key has said there is no alternative to mass-surveillance of all our phone calls and emails to protect the New Zealand public:

However, when pressed over who has rights over such metadata, Mr Key said: "Well, I think in certain circumstances, the Government, if it's collecting that data for the purpose of trying to understand whether something untoward is taking place.

"For the most part, the individual obviously owns it, because you understand through your own phone bills or your own emails who you communicate with, what, where, and how and why. But obviously there are circumstances, and this is where the touchstone is or where the dilemma is, what is the demarcation line between the right of the Government or its agencies to look at information vis-à-vis the privacy of an individual.

"And my view is that we've got the balance about right, because the alternative here would be either we don't collect this data at all."

(Emphasis added)

Of course, there is an alternative: collect such data only from people who are actually suspected of doing "something untoward", on probable cause with judicial review. This is exactly what we demand for the police to be able to invade our privacy and rummage through our private lives, and we should demand no less from our spies.

A dumb idea

At the anti-GCSB protest on Sunday, one of the speakers suggested that we use the Official Information Act to effectively conduct a DDOS attack on them by asking trivial questions about toothpaste and toilet paper. This is a dumb idea. Quite apart from bringing the Act into disrepute and providing ammunition to secretive politicians wanting to reduce their accountability, it will be ineffective, for the simple reason that the people answering the requests are not the people doing the spying. You'll ruin the day of their staff counsel, but not of anyone whose activities threaten our democracy.

No, if you want to hurt the GCSB using the OIA, you need to ask smart questions, the answers to which will promote accountability. Alternatively, questions which will simply embarrass them and cause the public to view them as a wasteful organisation whose budget should be cut. Travel, expense accounts, cellphone bills, salaries, spindoctors, website costs - all of that stuff Rodney Hide pried into during his perkbusting days. None of this is remotely classified, so they can't hide behind "national security", but secretive, unaccountable organisations being what they are, some of the answers at least are likely to be "interesting".

If you're interested in doing this, you can send an OIA with a click of a button here.

New Fisk

As impoverished crowds gather in support of Mohamed Morsi, the well-heeled march behind their images of the General
Eyewitness in Egypt: 'Most were shot in the face – only one in the back'
Egyptian violence was a massacre, not a ‘post-revolution transition’

Something doesn't add up here

Over the weekend we learned that our defence forces officially regarded investigative journalists as a security threat on the same level as foreign intelligence services and extremist organisations. The government's response to this? Blame Labour, of course:

In a statement to RNZ, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said a Defence Order to protect soldiers on operations had been in place since 2003, under the previous Labour government.

I guess they couldn't point the finger at their other usual excuses, the earthquake or the recession.

But something doesn't add up here, because most of that article is about how former Defence chief Bruce Ferguson thinks the order is undemocratic. Which is a bit odd if what the government says is true, because Ferguson was Chief of Defence Forces in 2003, when the order was written. So either he's now unhappy with an order he wrote and signed off on, or Coleman isn't telling the whole truth.

(The obvious explanation is that the order was drafted in 2003 and the reference to journalists was added later, a fact Coleman and/or NZDF is eliding in an attempt to shift blame. But the media will have to do a bit more digging to find that out, I think)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A point that needs making

Today, we learned that the NZDF had been spying on a kiwi journalist in Afghanistan in an effort to prevent political embarrassment. But John Key's spy bill would let them do the same thing right here in New Zealand. Don't believe me? Let's look at the law.

Firstly, the bill's new section 8C gives the GCSB the explicit role of cooperating with the NZDF. This cooperation is limited to "activities that the entities may lawfully undertake", and here its worth noting that the NZDF has no statutory authority under any enactment to intercept private communications (unless it is one of "the inherent powers of search exercisable by commanding officers under service custom", but they certainly have no power to do so under the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, not being "enforcement officers" for the purpose of that Act). But NZDF weren't spying on Stephenson's communications, they were spying on his metadata. While there's no statutory authorisation for that, there's also no statutory prohibition either - something the Police at least seem to have regard as carte blanche, and which the GCSB's stooge Inspector-General regards as "arguably" legal.

Still, they'd need a legal purpose for such interceptions. And they have one: the Armed Forces Discipline Act 1971 prohibits members of the NZDF from (among other things) unauthorised disclosure of information and creating alarm or despondency. NZDF personnel providing information to journalists could be accused of such crimes, the investigation of which is an activity NZDF may lawfully undertake. Meaning GCSB could spy on their behalf.

Yes, it sounds tenuous. But if we accept that the GCSB is subject to no controls in its spying on metadata for the police's criminal investigations, then this is where we end up.

All of which highlights the crucial role of metadata, and the problems which leaving it out of the law create. Parliament desperately needs to fix this. Failing to do so leaves the door open for domestic military spying - an anathema in a democracy.

(Of course, there's also the SIS, who can spy on "subversive" investigative journalists with total legality, despite it being a gross breach of the democratic principles they supposedly exist to defend. But I take it as given that they are anti-democratic thugs who need to be destroyed. I think all of us expect better from the NZDF).

We can no longer trust our armed forces

The Henry inquiry's spying on Andrea Vance was bad enough. But now we learn that the New Zealand Defence Force spied on a kiwi investigative journalist who was exposing their misbehaviour in Afghanistan:

The New Zealand military received help from US spy agencies to monitor the phone calls of Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson and his associates while he was in Afghanistan reporting on the war.


The monitoring occurred in the second half of last year when Stephenson was working as Kabul correspondent for the US McClatchy news service and for various New Zealand news organisations.

The Sunday Star-Times has learned that New Zealand Defence Force personnel had copies of intercepted phone "metadata" for Stephenson, the type of intelligence publicised by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden. The intelligence reports showed who Stephenson had phoned and then who those people had phoned, creating what the sources called a "tree" of the journalist's associates.

New Zealand SAS troops in Kabul had access to the reports and were using them in active investigations into Stephenson.

The sources believed the phone monitoring was being done to try to identify Stephenson's journalistic contacts and sources. They drew a picture of a metadata tree the Defence Force had obtained, which included Stephenson and named contacts in the Afghan government and military.

The sources who described the monitoring of Stephenson's phone calls in Afghanistan said that the NZSIS has an officer based in Kabul who was known to be involved in the Stephenson investigations.

So, we have NZDF - an organisation established to defend New Zealand - using the Americans to spy on a New Zealand citizen, in violation of his BORA-affirmed right against unreasonable search and seizure, using the SAS as spies, and passing the resulting information on to SIS and fuck knows who else. And they were doing this not to protect "national security", but simply to protect their own reputation and prevent us from finding out what was being done in our name.

This is a massive abuse of power. Its also downright sinister. The NZDF is now explicitly in one of its training manuals classifying journalists as subversives, as enemies of the state. And its just a short step from spying on "hostile" journalists to arranging "accidents" for them.

How could they do this? Because the Defence Act includes no safeguards against it. While the law prohibits the NZDF from being used for law enforcement or to assist the civil power without explicit Ministerial or Parliamentary authority, it does not prohibit them from spying on New Zealanders or from collecting and exchanging information about us with foreign powers. There is not even a toothless SIS Act-style "statement of principles" committing them to upholding the democratic rights of New Zealanders. Why? Because we never for a moment imagined that they would do those things. We never considered the possibility that our own armed forces would be used against us.

Clearly, given their actions in Afghanistan, we need to reconsider that approach. With this one act, the NZDF has utterly destroyed its reputation as a democratic institution. If they do stuff like this, it is clear that we can no longer trust them. While people need to be sacked, and some metaphorical heads stuck on spikes, we also clearly need further legislative safeguards. Starting with a ban on spying and an enforceable statement of principles (though the BORA covers some of that, it does not cover the more general principle of respect for democratic values). And if they grumble about it, that will simply be a further sign that we cannot trust them.

In a democratic state, the military should not be regarding journalists as enemies and seeking to control them. It is that simple. If our generals want to operate differently, they can resign and go to work in a country more in line with their values. Like Fiji.

But this also raises further questions about the GCSB. As the article points out, GCSB staff were seconded to the US intelligence operation which tracked Stephenson, and may have been involved. If so, they've violated section 14 of the GCSB Act, which prohibits employees of the spy agency from taking any action to intercept the communications of a New Zealand citizen.

The scary thing is that rather than regarding this scandal as further evidence that our military and spies are completely out of control, John Key will probably see it as another reason to change the law in their favour.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Politicians and "apathy"

One of the common complaints I hear from politicians (I'm looking at you, Clare Curran) is about "apathy". The reason those politicians are unsuccessful is apparently not due to any fault of their own, but because the public are "apathetic" and do not care about politics.

Those MPs should look at the pictures of last night's public meeting on the GCSB bill. 500 people showed up to hear about the bill, packing out the venue. They wouldn't have done that if they didn't care about politics. If politicians can't pack out halls like this, then the fault lies with them and what they are selling, not with us.

And no responsibility

John Key's response to the Henry inquiry's abuse of parliamentary Privilege and media freedom? It was nothing to do with him:

[S]peaking in Korea today Key said he did not believe Henry, a former top public servant brought in to find the leaker, had impinged on any media freedoms and no action would be taken against him.

He said Henry also would be considered for doing future Government reports.

Henry had been asked to carry out an enquiry using terms of reference given to him by the prime minister' office. Nobody complained about those terms, Key said.

"He then went out and did his own thing. I wasn't involved in any of that," Key said today, adding that he made it clear to Henry that he expected access records to be accessed.

[Emphasis added]

So, Key makes it clear that he expected Henry to get Parliamentary access records, but claims it is nothing to do with him when he does and it blows up in his face. Bullshit. If you tell someone to do something, and they do it, then you bear some culpability for the result.

Meanwhile, his claim that media freedom has not been infringed is unbelievable. Spying on journalists and trying to find out who they have talked to so as to persecute their sources and prevent them from informing the public is a textbook example of infringing media freedom. Key's denial of this is another sign that his government has gone off the deep end is lurching towards a dangerous authoritarianism.

New Fisk

Alaa Aswany: The overthrow of President Morsi was not a coup, it was the third wave of the Egyptian revolution

Nonexistent oversight

If a senior state servant such as a Crown Entity board member joins the board of a political party, you'd expect their Minister to be informed of the conflict of interest and the measures which are being taken to manage it, right? Not if you work for Paula Bennett.

The senior state servant in question was Christine Rankin, who back in May announced that she had accepted a position as Chief Executive of the Conservative Party (oh, and that she'd been on its board since July 2012). This appears to have blindsided MSD, who didn't ask the State Services Commission for advice on the conflict of interest until after the position had been announced. And via FYI again, Paula Bennett seems to have been blissfully unaware of it:

I can advise that, apart from when Ms Rankin was first appointed a member of the Families Commission in 2009, I have not received any written advice concerning any conflicts of interest she may, or may not, have.

I am aware that Ministry officials had discussions with the State Services Commission in the week ending 10 May 2013 concerning Ms Rankin's appointment as Chief Executive of the Conservative Party. Those discussions took place at a time when I was in the process of replacing Ms Rankin as a member of the Families Commission.

But more important is what else she was blissfully unaware of. Rankin joined the board of the Conservative Party in July 2012. And no-one bothered to raise this with the Minister. While no-one has requested MSD or the Families Commission's end of things, IMHO it would be unbelievable for them not to have made her aware of it if they knew. This implies that Rankin did not tell them of a major conflict of interest involving her position.

But quite apart from any dishonesty on Rankin's part, this also tells us that Bennett's "oversight" of her portfolio is simply non-existent.

Spying on journalists II

So, not only did John Key's inquiry into the leaking of the Kitteridge report spy on Andrea Vance's movements around the Parliamentary complex, they also tried to get hold of her phone records:

A government investigation into the leak of the GCSB report sought access to the phone records of the journalist who broke the story.


In response to questions from Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, Speaker David Carter confirmed yesterday that the Henry inquiry also asked for information relating to internal calls made to and from Vance's office phone, as well as her building access data.

The phone line is paid for by Fairfax Media, parent company of

Carter said the request was declined but confirmed that Parliamentary Service handed over Vance's swipe-card access records.

This is so far beyond the bounds of democratic acceptability that I just don't know where to start. Quite apart from the inherent problems of spying on the communications of journalists - something which chills the media and makes their job of holding the government to account more difficult - Henry simply had no statutory authority to seek anything of the sort. Who the fuck does he think he is? Or does a (laughable) claim to be "protecting 'national security'" now grant the informational equivalent of a licence to kill?

Meanwhile John Key is trying to distance himself from this toxic mess, saying it was nothing to do with him. Bullshit. He appointed Henry, he gave him his terms of reference, and in doing so set the parameters of the inquiry. If that investigation ran amok, the person who ordered it and set its limits bears some responsibility.

But someone also needs to take responsibility on the parliamentary Services end of this debacle as well. As the Speaker's answers to Russel Norman's written questions [PDF] make clear, the handing over of Vance's internal access records was done without the permission of the Speaker. On something that sensitive, touching as it does on Parliamentary Privilege, you'd expect him to be asked. He wasn't. Instead some middle manager simply seems to have decided to do it themselves. Heads must roll for this. As for Henry, he needs to be dragged before the Privileges Committee for obstructing the business of the House.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

An interesting Ombudsman's decision

The Ombudsman has issued a decision [PDF] on the NZEI's OIA request for groups which had expressed interest in establishing a charter school, finding that there was no good reason for refusing the request. The decision is a no brainer, but the Ministry (acting under orders from the Minister?) fought it tooth and nail, raising additional withholding grounds every time their previous ones were knocked back - including a patently absurd claim that releasing the information would pose a real and serious risk to the physical safety of charter school applicants (something they continued to maintain despite admitting that they had no evidence whatsoever to support it). Its an unpleasant look at how a Ministry abuses the law to try and prevent release of politicly embarrassing information (something which, as public servants, they should not care about). But there's also a couple of interesting facts in there:

  • Charter Schools Czar Catherine Isaacs believed she could contract out of the OIA just by giving applicants an assurance of confidentiality;
  • Two One of the applicants is an existing (but as yet unnamed) state schools, who demanded confidentiality out of fear that their staff might leave and that they might have recruitment problems and face community opposition if word of their interest got out. The Ombudsman did not regard this as "improper" harassment. (Another is an existing private school)
The full list of those who expressed interest should be released to the NZEI in the next few days, and then we'll get to see exactly who wants to profit from providing substandard education to kiwi kids.

Reported back

The Intelligence and Security Committee has reported back [PDF] on John Key's spy bill, and as expected, has recommended no substantive amendments. Oh, there are minor technical amendments, but the general tone is that everything was fine with the bill and that submitters raising real concerns about privacy and human rights were just silly and don't know what we're talking about. As for the sole sop to those concerns - John Banks' vaunted "statement of principles" - it is somewhat undercut by a clause immediately after it stating:

Subsection (1) does not impose particular duties on, or give particular powers to, the Bureau, the Director, or any employee of the Bureau.

In other words, it has no legal effect, and isn't even worth the toilet paper it is written on. I can't think of a better example of how little our spies, or our Prime Minister, care about our democratic values and human rights than that.

This bill is a direct attack on our democracy, which will establish the legal foundation for a US-style surveillance state in New Zealand. It cannot be allowed to pass.

How it works in the UK

You're a major UK bank. Like your friends in the media, for the past decade you've been using corrupt private investigators to illegally snoop on people, hacking their voicemail, stealing their financial information and phone records, even acquiring police witness statements. All of this is against the law and carries serious criminal penalties. But that's fine, because the agency which is supposed to be investigating you - the Serious Organised Crime Agency - will instead cover it all up to protect your reputation:

Banks and pharmaceutical companies are on a secret list of blue-chip firms that hired private investigators who break the law, The Independent has learned.


Illegal practices identified by Soca investigators went well beyond the relatively simple crime of voicemail hacking and also included police corruption, computer hacking and perverting the course of justice.

Meanwhile, in an extraordinary joint admission on the Soca website, Mr Pearce and Commander Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police admit the agency sat for years on evidence of criminality, until it was finally forced to act in May 2011 by former British Army intelligence officer Ian Hurst whose computer was allegedly hacked by corrupt private investigators.

Mr Hurst told The Independent: “For reasons that remain unclear, the Leveson Inquiry did not touch the sides with regard to the police. In the final analysis, law enforcement agencies are going to have to justify why they conspired for years to protect the offenders and their clients, which extend way beyond the media.”

The joint statement also failed to address why Soca has still not passed all its historical evidence to Scotland Yard, which is currently investigating the crimes that the agency ignored.

The information has now apparently been passed to a parliamentary select committee, but in a final insult, SOCA has classified it in order to protect "financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality". Which tells us what is really going on here: SOCA apparently sees its job not as catching criminals, but as protecting the banks. Like the rest of the UK establishment, they work for the wealthy, and fuck the law.

The good news is that that select committee is so outraged by the evidence they've seen and by SOCA's tawdry coverup that they are planning to release it anyway under parliamentary privilege. Here's hoping. And then, maybe, there can be the sort of cleanout the UK desperately needs.

New Fisk

The Egyptian army wants to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood – but in many ways they are already history

Climate change: A climate bomb

As the climate crisis has rolled on, it has become increasingly clear that we are going to lose the ice cap over the North Pole. Generally, our leaders have regarded this as a Good Thing, leading to reduced transport times from Europe to Asia, and to a resource rush for oil and gas in the region. The costs of this aren't considered, or reduced simply to the extinction of the polar bear - something those leaders regard as secondary to increased GDP and political donations from oil companies.

But there are costs, and they are immense. The Arctic is a climate gateway. Billions of tons of methane - a powerful greenhouse gas - is buried in its permafrost. As the Arctic warms, that methane is already bubbling out, driving warming even faster. That's bad enough, but if it comes out too quickly, it could trigger sudden warming and impose enormous costs:

The sudden release from the melting Arctic of vast quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide –is an “economic time-bomb” that could explode at a cost of $60 trillion (£40tr) to the global economy, a study has concluded.

A scientific assessment of the costs associated with the release of Arctic methane into the atmosphere has found that the financial consequences to the world would almost equal the entire global economic output of one year.


Using the same computer models employed by the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, the researchers found that the effects on the global climate of a relatively sudden release of methane over a period of a decade or so could be catastrophic in terms of drought effects on crops, rising sea levels, coastal flooding and extreme weather.

“What we have got is an incredibly compelling set of data that the price tag of just this one feedback effect in present-value terms is $60tn. This is an economic time-bomb that at this stage has not been recognised on the global stage,” said Professor Gail Whiteman of Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Even if it is released more slowly - over 50 years rather than 10 - then we're still looking at substantial costs due to the faster warming. So one way or another, we're going to be paying this. Unless of course we decide to pay the much cheaper cost of reducing our emissions to stop it.

Not quite

Last night saw the first serious challenge to the NSA's abuse of Americans' privacy, with an amendment before congress to limit the NSA's powers. Sadly, it failed:

The first major legislative challenge to the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records from millions of Americans was defeated by only a narrow margin on Wednesday, sending a clear signal to the Obama administration that congressional anger about the extent of domestic surveillance is growing.

Despite a concerted lobbying effort by the White House and senior intelligence figures, the attempt to rein in the NSA failed by only 12 votes. The final vote was 205 in favor and 217 against, exposing deep restiveness in Congress over the wisdom and constitutionality of the bulk surveillance on Americans less than two months after the Guardian exposed it thanks to leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden. A shift of seven votes would have changed the outcome.

With such a narrow defeat the suggestion is that Obama will need to limit the spying himself and release more information about it in order to prevent a future loss. Sadly, I think he'll just bull on through. The US national security state has contempt for democracy; it has already lied to Congress about its actions, and seems to believe itself to be above the law. That attitude is deeply entrenched, and I don't think its about to change. But I'd be very happy to be proved wrong.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Google turns to the dark side

Google's motto is "don't be evil". So why are they supporting US climate change deniers?

Google, which prides itself on building a "better web that is better for the environment", is hosting a fundraiser for the most notorious climate change denier in Congress, it has emerged.

The lunch, at the company's Washington office, will benefit the Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, who has made a career of dismissing climate change as a "hoax" on the Senate floor.

Proceeds of the 11 July lunch, priced at $250 to $2,500, will also go to the national Republican Senatorial Committee.

It's the second show of support from Google for the anti-climate cause in recent weeks.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the internet company had donated $50,000 for a fundraising dinner for the ultra-conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute – topping the contributions even of the Koch oil billionaires.

So they're giving money to people who think climate change is a hoax and who launch lawsuits aimed at intimidating climate change scientists - that is, people who are actively working to prevent action on a crisis which threatens billions of lives. And this is "not being evil"?

New Fisk

Was it four killed? Or nine? In Egypt, the deaths keep racking up - and few pay any attention

Weak safeguards

How strong a safeguard are the "concessions" Peter Dunne extracted from John Key's spy bill? Weak, according to the NZ Law Society's chief submitter:

Changes to the GCSB bill negotiated by United Future leader Peter Dunne do no address the main flaws of the bill, says Rodney Harrison, QC, who says it is still "rushed, ill-conceived and downright dangerous legislation."

"The bill unnecessarily broadens the functions and powers of the GCSB," he said. "The need to do so has not been demonstrated."

He also said the promise of a review of the GCSB and SIS in 2015 "merely holds out false hope."


Dr Harrison said the changes to the bill essentially related to what Mr Dunne termed as "increased oversight, and a future "independent review of the operations and performance of the GCSB and NZSIS and their governing legislation".

"However, none of these measures addresses the substantive flaws in the GCSB Bill, which have been repeatedly pointed out to the Government during the select committee process. "

Unfortunately it appears that the government sees those flaws as a feature, not a bug. Domestic spying powers, wider warrants allowing class-based surveillance without individualised suspicion, and greater warrantless access are exactly what an agency which wants to "take it all" wants.

Meanwhile, opposition to the bill has received another boost, with a former Supreme Court Judge joining tomorrow night's public meeting. Its an impressive lineup, including the New Zealander of the Year and the Law Society, and it will be difficult for the government to use the usual arrogant tactic of dismissing it as a "rent a mob". But no doubt they'll try that anyway.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

New Fisk

Israel will maintain contact with Hezbollah, so why should we stop?

The buck stops there

Labour had another bad poll this week, so David Shearer is reshuffling his senior staff. Apparently Labour's consistent inability to gain traction is all their fault. It has nothing to do with its leader.

Bullshit. Shearer is the leader, and the buck stops on his desk. If he thinks there are failures, then they are ultimately his responsibility. Blaming your underlings while refusing to accept any responsibility yourself is simply the mark of a coward.

Good news from Dubai

Some good news from Dubai: they've pardoned and released Marte Deborah Dalelv:

A Norwegian woman who was given a prison sentence for extramarital sex after she had reported being raped while on a visit to Dubai has been pardoned and told she is free to leave the country.

Marte Deborah Dalelv, 24, had been awaiting the hearing of an appeal against the 16-month sentence, handed down this month after a court in the Gulf emirate found her guilty of having sex outside marriage, drinking and making false statements.

She was told on Sunday that officials had dropped the case, and her passport was returned. "I have my life back," Dalelv told the Associated Press. "This is a great day."

This is good news, but the fact that she was ever treated like that in the first place tells us that Dubai simply is not a civilised society or a place we can do business with. And if they want to be treated as anything other than a pariah nation, they need to change the laws which punish rape victims.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dunne sells us out

Its official: Peter Dunne has sold us out to the GCSB:

UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne says he will support controversial legislation to expand spying powers.

Dunne said he was willing to vote for the Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment bill after ''major amendments''.

The amendments give greater oversight of the GCSB's operations, which is welcome (though tempered by the knowledge that this is a lawless agency which might simply ignore them). But contrary to the clear message from submitters on the bill, there is no change to new powers granted to the GCSB. They will still be allowed to intercept all our internet traffic to allow them "to see who... is being attacked", and they will still be allowed to give that information to their foreign partners. They will still be allowed to use class-based warrants, rather than requiring a specific warrant for each suspect. And of course they will still be allowed to use those foreign partners to bypass the prohibition on domestic interceptions. Meanwhile, there's still been no public justification of this sweeping power grab, let alone an analysis of the costs of giving the powers to the (far better supervised) police.

Dunne's support for this bill flies in the face of all his self-proclaimed liberal beliefs, and will determine his post-political reputation. The "fuck one goat" principle applies here. Rather than being the man who gave us the Families Commission, or even the man who prevented any progress on drug laws for a decade, he will go down in history as the man who sold us out to the GCSB and NSA. If he doesn't want to be remembered for that, then he still has time to change his mind. Simple.

More cronyism from National

National has appointed Glenda Hughes as Chairperson of the New Zealand Racing Board. Unmentioned in the press release: that she is a former National Party candidate, and currently serves as Chris Finlayson's electorate chair and as deputy chair for the party's Lower North Island region. Which I guess means that she has the most important qualification for appointment under this government: a close connection to the National Party.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a state sector staffed on merit, rather than by cronies?

Why doesn't Fairfax want to talk about inequality?

Inequality is one of the biggest problems in New Zealand at the moment. It is the cause of many of our social ills, and is likely to be a major issue in next year's election. The subject has been highlighted by the recent release of a book, Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, and this has led to a lively debate in the media. Except for Fairfax outlets, which have apparently banned their journalists from covering it: and Dominion Post publishers Fairfax Media have barred their reporters from covering lectures on inequality by visiting London School of Economics Professor Robert Wade.

News staff were told early last week not to cover Wade’s visit, and to ignore press releases relating to it.

In fact, the only information a search of Robert Wade turns up on, is Deputy Prime Minister Bill English defending himself in The Southland Times after threatening Professor Wade after a TVNZ Q&A appearance, and English’s “rebuke” from The Dominion Post.

So what is Fairfax afraid of? Or is this an example of our media reflecting the views of the rich foreigners who own them?

More arrogance and bullying

John Key's efforts to pass his spy bill are best characterised as arrogant and bullying. He has consistently lied about the scope of the bill, implied that those who refuse to support it are traitors, and threatened to cut the funding of the Human Rights Commission for performing its function and criticising the bill. It looks like his handling of the select committee process is no different:

The intelligence and security committee is scheduled to discuss any proposed changes to the Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Bill after submissions from the public.

The legislation is due to be reported back to Parliament by the end of the week. The Government holds a majority on the committee, but Mr Key is likely to agree to some concessions, as he tries to win support from other parties.

However, it is understood committee members were given a copy of the new draft legislation only on Friday, giving them little time to scrutinise changes to the 40-page document.

This is not how a government trying to build a majority in the House for a bill usually goes about things. But maybe Key really thinks that he can simply bully the other parties into selling out our human rights for chump change...

The good news is that the other parties aren't bowing to this treatment. From Twitter, Peter Dunne is still refusing to support the bill, and judging by his interview on Q and A yesterday, so is Winston Peters. Even Labour, who I'd consider most likely to betray us, look like they are standing strong. If they stick to their positions, Key may very well find himself heading for defeat...

New Fisk

If we are going to retreat, must we grovel so shamefully as we leave?

Absolutely barbaric

If you get raped in Dubai, they'll throw you in jail:

A Norwegian woman has spoken out about the 16-month prison sentence she received in Dubai after reporting a rape incident to police.

Interior designer Marte Deborah Dalelv was on a business trip in Dubai when she says she was raped.

The 24-year-old reported the March attack to the police but found herself charged with having extramarital sex, drinking alcohol, and perjury.

Convicted earlier this week, she says she is appealing against the verdict.

As for her attacker, he was sentenced to 13 months for extra-marital sex and alcohol consumption. I guess it pays to be a rapist in Dubai.

Meanwhile, our government has negotiated a free-trade agreement with these barbarians, and it is currently awaiting ratification. Parliament should refuse to do so until they improve their record on women's rights and stop prosecuting rape victims.

Something to go to in Auckland


[Hat-tip: Scoop]

Friday, July 19, 2013


While we're not technically in recession, things are not going well in New Zealand. Unemployment is at near-record levels, wages are stagnant, ordinary families are struggling. And meanwhile, our foreign banks announce enormous profits again:

New Zealand banks boosted their combined profit to almost $1 billion in the March quarter, but an ultra-competitive lending environment appears to be favouring big players, like ANZ, over smaller operators such as TSB and Kiwibank, according to new research.

KPMG's quarterly Financial Institutions Performance Survey said the collective profit of the nine banks surveyed lifted 12.9 per cent on the December quarter to $971 million.

And of course most of this money went straight overseas to Australia, rather than being reinvested in New Zealand to create jobs for New Zealanders.

This what happens when you have a non-competitive banking sector dominated by a foreign oligopoly: a permanent siphon in our economy which profits from our misery. As for what to do about it, breaking up those banks and returning them to local ownership would be a good start...

Extraditing for rendition

In 2003, Abu Omar was kidnapped in Italy by the CIA. He was rendered to Egypt, where he was tortured. The rendition became public in 2005 and the Italian justice system was eventually forced to act; in 2009 22 CIA agents were convicted in absentia for their role in Omar's kidnapping and torture.

On of them was Robert Lady (who has since gone public claiming he was "only following orders". Spot the lack of historical awareness). He's just been arrested in Panama on an international warrant. The question now is whether he will be extradited to serve his sentence, or whether the US will bully Panama into releasing him.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Guilt by meta-association

It turns out that the NSA's spying on Americans is far worse than we thought:

The National Security Agency revealed to an angry congressional panel on Wednesday that its analysis of phone records and online behavior goes exponentially beyond what it had previously disclosed.

John C Inglis, the deputy director of the surveillance agency, told a member of the House judiciary committee that NSA analysts can perform "a second or third hop query" through its collections of telephone data and internet records in order to find connections to terrorist organizations.

"Hops" refers to a technical term indicating connections between people. A three-hop query means that the NSA can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but from everyone that suspect communicated with, and then from everyone those people communicated with, and then from everyone all of those people communicated with.

So, being a friend of a friend of a friend of a suspected terrorist is now considered "suspicious" by the NSA, and reason to rummage through your life. This is beyond even guilt by association; its now guilt by meta-association. And the US calls itself a land of freedom? It's a freedom only for spies, I think.

The good news is that Congress is getting restless, and is openly threatening not to renew the law empowering this mass-surveillance. But that surveillance gives the NSA the perfect tool to force Congress into line, in that they they can target uncooperative politicians, learn their dirty secrets, and either blackmail or discredit them. That's the really horrifying thing here: once you have set up this surveillance infrastructure, your democracy exists only by the goodwill of the spies.

All of which is an even stronger reason not to let it happen here. John Key's spy bill would hand the GCSB even broader powers than those the NSA is abusing. It cannot be allowed to pass.

Protest against the GCSB bill next weekend

There will be nationwide protests against John Key's spy bill on July 27:

Bring your banners, your placards, yourselves and your friends and family. This is a family friendly, peaceful protest.

Auckland - Aotea Square - 2pm-4pm

Hamilton - Garden Place - 2pm-4pm

Napier - Memorial Square - 2pm-4pm

Wellington - Cuba St Bucket Fountain (2pm) then march to The Beehive (3pm) for speakers - 2pm-4pm

Nelson - iSite, Halifax St - 2pm-4pm

Christchurch - Bridge of Remembrance - 2pm-4pm

Dunedin - The Octagon - 2pm-4pm

Please stand up for our privacy and democracy while you still can.

The problems of contracting out

Another story on the problems created by contracting out in the UK. last week it was fraud; today its cherry-picking and cost-dumping:

Private companies providing public services are routinely “gaming the system” to make money for their shareholders at the expense of the taxpayer, a major new study finds today.

An analysis of the Government’s controversial £100bn “outsourcing” programmes, such as its scheme to help the unemployed back into work, found private firms “creaming off” easy cases where they could make profits while “parking” problematic ones.

What this means is that welfare contractors focus their efforts on those who don't need help, so as to turn them over quickly; "free academies' (charter schools) push students towards easier vocational qualifications to boost their exam stats; and rest home providers call 999 at the drop of a hat to dump costs on the NHS. And all of this is driven by a focus on juking the stats, maximising profit and cutting costs, rather than actually performing the service.

Meanwhile, our government is moving towards more contracting out with private prisons, charter schools and whanau ora. And the same problems will happen here.


The Commerce Committee has called for submissions on the New Zealand International Convention Centre Bill (AKA the crony convention-centre bill). You can submit directly via the link above, or by sending two copies to

Commerce Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings

Submissions are due by Thursday, 22 August 2013.

Topics to raise: the unconstitutionality of the bill purporting to bind future Parliaments to compensate SkyCity of there is a change of government (and of policy); the anti-freedom of speech clause in the deal and its incompatibility with the Bill of Rights Act. While the latter isn't actually in the bill, criticism by the committee could see it removed from the deal, or make a future BORA case against its exercise substantially easier.

A rotten deal

How rotten is the SkyCity deal? So rotten that even treasury opposed it. In a January 2012 briefing on the government's negotiating position [PDF, p. 11; OCR version here], they laid out their very frank view of the proposed deal:

Treasury is not convinced by the cost benefit analysis for the NZICC. For example, New Zealand already attracts a disproportionate share of the international conference market. In addition, international arrivals for conferences have plateaued since 2005, despite increases in the number of international travellers arriving in the country. Taken together with the international evidence on the low net public benefit of conference centres, these considerations lead Treasury to doubt that an expanded conference centre in Auckland will attract significantly more international conference attendees.

Treasury is also concerned about the social costs to increasing gambling in Auckland, balanced against which are the potential benefits of the NZICC, paid for through the concessions. As soon as the cost of building the NZICC are recouped by SkyCity, public costs will go only to private gain. Given the poor information on the value of the concessions, Treasury has strong concerns that private benefits to SkyCity will exceed public benefits to New Zealanders.

However, if Ministers wish to proceed with a contractual arrangement with SkyCity, Treasury considers that the difficulty of accurately assessing both the costs of the building and the revenue generated by the concessions will inevitably expose the Government to significant risks. These relate to both the information asymmetry between SkyCity and the Crown and costs to the Crown in respect of both negotiating the contract initially and then managing it over an extended period such as 25 years.

In short, the costs would outweigh the benefits, the latter would go solely into private pockets rather than being split fairly with New Zealand, and the government would get rolled in negotiations. On the latter at least, that is exactly what happened, with SkyCity making a deal in May 2012, then playing hard-ball and backing away from it, secure in the knowledge that they would gain further concessions now that John Key and Steven Joyce had put their personal prestige on the line. As for the former, Joyce claims that "We were able to prove Treasury was in the wrong on that one". But no documents have been released suggesting any such thing. Until those documents are released, we must assume he is simply making it up to cover his arse for making a poor deal and selling out New Zealanders.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sky deal included anti-free speech clause

There was a large dump of documents from MED on National's corrupt SkyCity casino deal today (official release here; DocumentCloud with OCR here). I've been slowly reading it and doing my nut about it on Twitter, and there will be more posts later. But one of the more outrageous provisions was this, from a June 2012 briefing on negotiations [PDF, p. 29]

Selecting events for NZICC

SkyCity do not want the Crown to have the ability to prohibit them having any events of their choosing at NZICC [REDACTED] MED want the Crown to have the ability to intervene e.g. to avoid having protest groups hiring the NZICC at same time as a government event, and events that might, in the eyes of the government, damage the reputation of its national convention centre).

A compromise proposal was offered by MED. This involves officials meeting six-monthly with SkyCity to discuss forward bookings at the NZICC, with the ability to raise any concerns about proposed bookings from a government perspective and to have those considered seriously by SkyCity. There would also be an expectation that SkyCity would contact officials whenever they had doubts about the wisdom of accepting a potential booking.

(Emphasis added)

So, just to make that clear, the government wanted to limit access to the "national" convention centre to people who agreed with them. Freedom of speech? Apparently the Ministry of Economic Development have never heard of it.

I have no idea whether this has made its way in to the final agreement - but the fact that it was even considered shows that something is deeply wrong with our government, and highlights the dangers of such commercial arrangements.

Update: Yes, its in the final deal, and includes events that would "reasonably be expected to be materially prejudicial to international relations or to national security interests of New Zealand". Which gives the government a veto-power over any event criticising its foreign policy, such as an anti-free trade conference or one against international spying.

Whanau Ora providers must be subject to the OIA

Yesterday, Whanau Ora Minister Tariana Turia revealed how she'd be managing her whanau ora programme: through three NGOs. Unfortunately, she hasn't decided yet whether they will be subject to the Official Information Act:

Three yet to be established non- government organisations (NGOs) will distribute Whanau Ora funds to the North Island, South Island and Pacific communities, a structure which could mean more of the activities escape the scrutiny of the Official Information Act.


She did not know whether the NGOs would be subject to scrutiny under the act.

They bloody well should be. To point out the obvious, these organisations will be spending public money. Public oversight under the OIA is a fundamental part of that. In this country, not even our spies get to escape that.

But even if Turia doesn't do the decent thing and bring them explicitly under the Act, they're arguably covered anyway due to section 2(5) of the Act:
Any information held by an independent contractor engaged by any department or Minister of the Crown or organisation in his capacity as such contractor shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed to be held by the department or Minister of the Crown or organisation.

Turia can either have these organisations answer requests themselves, or she can spend the rest of her Ministerial career demanding information from them so as to answer on their behalf. But she can't just expect to hand over public money with no scrutiny and no oversight.

(And while we're at it: what these bodies will really need is oversight by the Ombudsman. Someone should really be asking Turia about that...)

What the hell?

WINZ cuts off people's benefits for going to training to get a job:

Samara Tuwhangai, 19, has been to three work seminars and was on a stand-down this month because she missed three more in order to attend training for a possible job selling insurance. She says Work and Income is racist.

"When you go into Winz they look at you and your colour," she says. "If you go to white people they will give you a stink attitude compared to the other workers."

When she went in to complain about her benefit being stopped, the staff member wanted her to get a form signed by the insurance company, and refused to read a letter from the company which she says confirmed that she attended the training.

Shouldn't WINZ be encouraging people to do job training? But I guess when the priority is to kick people off benefits so the Minister can get headlines like this, then anything goes.


The UK's Serious and Organised Crime Agency is helping to assemble NATO's Afghan kill-list:

British police have been accused of illegally supplying information on potential targets for a highly controversial military "kill list" in a legal challenge being launched at the high court on Wednesday.


The legal challenge states that Amin was on the "kill list" and that information from Soca has been used to help the US military decide whom to target.

It cites a report to the committee on foreign relations in the US Senate, which says Soca was one of the agencies providing information for the "kill list".

Papers filed to court say: "The UK's involvement in the list is not limited to military or intelligence officials but includes civilians working for Soca.

"The US Senate report specifically acknowledges such involvement by Soca."

SOCA was established to prosecute drug traffickers and organised crime groups, not help write kill-lists for a foreign power's death squads. its just another example of how the UK's involvement in the US's "war on terror" is corrupting their entire system, and tainting their police agencies with murder.

A surfeit of caution

When Louisa Wall put up her marriage equality bill, senior figures in Labour denounced it as a "distraction" and a "sideshow" and wanted her to drop it. The bill went on to be a great success, exciting people, inspiring people, showing them that Parliamentary politics mattered, and that Labour was relevant and could lead.

Naturally, Labour's dinosaurs haven't learned that lesson:

Labour MP Maryan Street is under pressure to drop a member's bill which would legalise euthanasia because her party is concerned it could be a negative distraction in the lead-up to the general election next year.

If Ms Street's End of Life Choice Bill was pulled from the ballot, the debate could extend into election year, and some Labour MPs felt this could hurt the party's run for Government by distracting from its main policies and deterring more conservative voters.

Euthanasia is not as sexy an issue as marriage equality, nor as morally clear-cut. But like marriage equality, it is one whose support has been building for years and whose time has come. Its also one which reaches across traditional political lines - lest anyone forget, both Michael Laws (then a National MP) and Peter Brown (NZ First) have put up bills on the issue. While religious conservatives will fight it tooth and nail, there aren't very many of them anymore, and marriage equality has burned them. For everyone else - including the elderly, who have watched their friends and family die slowly and painfully, stripped of their dignity - it is largely a matter of getting the safeguards right.

Labour could lead on this issue. Or it could abdicate that leadership to others. But if it does the latter, then it is basicly saying that all it offers is management. And if that's the case, there is simply no reason to care about them.

Equality comes to England and Wales

Marriage equality has passed its third reading in the UK Parliament:

The bill allowing same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales has passed its final hurdle in Parliament.

The government legislation is now due to get royal assent, after which it is likely to become law later this week.

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships all backed the bill, after the Lords approved the changes on Monday.

It is expected that the first gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies will take place by summer next year.

Scotland isn't included, but they have their own bill. Which just leaves Northern Ireland...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Beneficiaries will be forced to pay for their own drug tests

When the government announced that it would be requiring beneficiaries to pass pre-employment drug-tests, I thought it was a waste of money which would cost twice as much as it was supposed to save. But the government seems to have found a way around the latter bit: they're going to force beneficiaries to pay for the tests, and extract it from their benefits.

It's all there in the tender document for Pre-employment Drug Testing for Work and Income Beneficiaries with Work Obligations (GETS Reference: 39654; login required). According to that,


The tender document notes that WINZ will not actually be entering into a contract with the drug-testing agency, and that they will not be demanding results directly. It will all be handled directly between the agency and the beneficiary, with WINZ acting only as a payment source via a letter of credit as required.

This differs considerably from the scheme originally described by the Minister, debated by Parliament and envisioned in the legislation. That scheme assumed that prospective employers will pay and that WINZ "may" reimburse them for failed tests (s102C(3)), and that beneficiaries would pay only if they challenge a test and fail it (s102D(9)). I am not sure if it is even legal. But it is certainly not moral. Quite apart from charging people for their own persecution, no-one should be forced to pay a charge to receive their statutory entitlements.

But this does make drug-testing a far better mechanism for throwing people off benefits. Previously, Bennett only get to evict those who couldn't pass a test; now she'll get to evict the debt-averse as well. Present people with an up-front charge of a weeks' benefit or more, and some of them will decide that they can't pay and hence "fail" the test. And who cares what ultimately happens to them? What's important for the government's re-election is to get those benefit numbers down (and donations from drug-testing agencies grateful at being funnelled benefit money won't hurt).

This is a vile policy. But isn't it so very, very National?

(Hat-tip: @DeckardPNNZ)

Prince Charles: Tax cheat

So, it turns out that Britain's future monarch is a tax cheat:

Prince Charles has been accused by an MP of "dodging around for tax purposes" during a testy select committee hearing in which the heir to the throne's most senior aides were grilled by members of the Commons public accounts committee over his financial affairs.

The allegation was made in a series exchanges on Monday between MPs and William Nye, the Prince of Wales's principal private secretary, who defended corporation and capital gains tax exemptions enjoyed by his boss's £847m hereditary Duchy of Cornwall estate.

Nye was repeatedly questioned as to why the Duchy was not a corporation, even though it has a head who is effectively a chief executive, it buys and sells assets and has trademarks. Its legal status is that it is a private estate.

"Given the Duchy of Cornwall behaves like a corporation with its income from complex investments … on the face of it many of my constituents would say it should pay corporation tax and capital gains tax," said Labour MP Nick Smith.

Just another example of the contempt Britain's aristocracy has for its citizens - and the law.

As expected

The police have refused to waste their time investigating Winston Peters' allegations of "espionage" against Peter Dunne:

Police has completed its assessment of a complaint laid by New Zealand First regarding the release of information about the "Review of Compliance at the GCSB" report to a Fairfax journalist.

The complaint was assessed in terms of section 78(a) of the Crimes Act 1961 and section 20(a) of the Summary Offences Act 1981.

After considering the information presented by the complainant police are satisfied that no offence is disclosed and that further investigation will fail to provide evidence leading to a prosecution under either piece of legislation.

That's not surprising. Section 78(a) (espionage) requires "intent to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand" - something difficult to argue in a case of leaking, and impossible when the Prime Minister says that the information was not harmful. The Summary Offences Act charge is even more laughable, since it requires knowledge that an unauthorised release of official information would be likely to prejudice a long list of interests (essentially s6 OIA, minus "national security"), none of which can possibly apply.

But the complaint has served its purpose: Winston has banged the patriotism drum and got his headline. And he can now bang it some more while denouncing the police as "traitors".

(Meanwhile, I'm deeply disturbed to see that we still have criminal penalties for the wrongful release of official information on the books. I thought we'd gotten rid of that shit when we repealed the Official Secrets Act...)

The same problems everywhere

One of the problems exposed by the GCSB's illegal spying is that their "watchdog" - the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security - is completely ineffective, having failed to detect the illegal spying for a decade, then excused it as it was "arguably" legal. Which is what happens when you have one old duffer, chosen specifically for his subservience to power, doing a part-time job.

It turns out we're not alone. The UK has a similar system: a small office, massively outnumbered and outgunned by the organisation it is supposed to "oversee". And it results in similar problems:

The Independent has established that the watchdog’s annual report had to be delayed and revised because the first draft made no mention of the hi-tech GCHQ spying programmes exposed by the US whistleblower.

The updated 2012 report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office (ICCO) will now be published later this month, after hastily organised revisions were ordered by Whitehall officials.


[T]he small ICCO office based in Whitehall’s Queen Anne’s Gate headed by the retired appeal court judge Sir Anthony May, currently has less than 10 full-time staff to carry out its statutory duty of reviewing the interception activity of the UK spy agencies, the Metropolitan Police, HM Revenue and Customs, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and Ministry of Defence.

In previous ICCO reports, two annual one-day inspections at GCHQ – where only a tiny sample of interception warrants are inspected – provide the basis for the conclusion that the intelligence agency conducts itself with high levels of integrity and legal compliance. Similar biannual inspection visits also take place at MI5 and MI6. How samples are selected, and whether or not Sir Anthony is presented with interception case notes chosen in advance by agencies like GCHQ, is not disclosed.

Understaffed "watchdog" fails to detect unlawful activity! Who'd have thunk it! But the point of such organisations isn't actually to oversee and ensure compliance - it is to build public confidence by creating the illusion of such. They're a sham for the institutional abuse of power, nothing more. They need to either be beefed up, so they can actually do the job they tell us they're doing, or dissolved, to remove the institutional lie.

(As for the "reforms" to the NZ IGSI in Key's spy bill, they're better than nothing, but still not enough for the task. I'll believe in such watchdogs when they show they can bark. Ours never has, and never will).


John Key's chief justification for his spy law giving the GCSB the right to spy on all New Zealanders is cost: it would apparently cost too much for the police or SIS to be given their own capability for domestic law enforcement / counter-espionage use, so we have to legalise GCSB using theirs instead (and allow them to use it on everybody, just in case). So you'd expect them to have at least done the costings to back that up, right?


The Government has no idea what it would cost to have the SIS eavesdrop on New Zealanders and intercept their emails, despite saying cost is the reason for getting the GCSB to do it.

This is simply unbelievable. Working out how much a policy will cost is a basic part of the policy process - and certainly fundamental to any claim that not doing it would be more expensive. Instead, the Prime Minister just hasn't bothered, relying on the GCSB's aura of secrecy to prevent anyone from challenging his claim. But the result is that his arguments for the bill are an exercise in pure bad faith.

The good news is that Peter Dunne appears to be calling him on it, demanding an analysis before he will support the bill. And given that his vote is crucial, Key may just be forced to either substantiate his claim, or admit that it is bullshit and that he is selling us out for chump change.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Separating church and state in New Zealand

On Saturday I went down to Wellington to attend Victoria University Centre for Public law's mini-conference on Constitutional Conversations on the Separation of Church and State in NZ. A summary:

Gay Morgan (University of Waikato) spoke on the US experience. After some background about how early US colonists fleeing religious persecution became persecutors in turn by establishing theocracies, she got to the meat of the US First Amendment's Establishment Clause, and the difficulties it has had in both defining "religion" and separating it from culture and traditional practice (which may have been religious originally, but have become secularised). She felt that there was a real problem with the broad-brush, constitutional language approach, which has begun to trivialise the real concerns people have in this area. What people object to isn't secularised yoga in school PE classes (irrevocably promoting Hinduism, according to some fundamentalist christian lawsuit), but being forced to go to church, and being forced to support religious groups with their tax dollars. Rather than the top-down approach, she advocated being specific e.g. legislating so that education funding could only be spent on education according to the curriculum, rather than on religious indoctrination.

Dr Caroline Sawyer (VUW) talked about the "UK" (actually English) experience. This was somewhat meandering, starting with the establishment of the Church of England and legal persecution of Catholics and other religious minorities, and went on to talk about marriage law as a specific example of the state recognition of religion in the UK. She tried to use the New Zealand Marriage Act as an example of this, but IMHO missed the key point that here it is a matter of convenience, rather than a recognition of any inherant "authority" to marry people. One of the key points was that establishment was tied to the monarchy, but that because that probably isn't going anywhere any time soon, neither is the church.

Dr Meg Wallace was supposed to talk about the Australian experience. Instead she gave a dull rant about the need for secularism in New Zealand, and invoked article 6 of the (dumped) draft Fijian Constitution [PDF] as a model to be adopted here.

Dave Armstrong talked about the effects of New Zealand culture. Our desire to view religion as a private matter and our dislike of abstract causes meant that we generally got along, but also has led to complacency which is being exploited by a fanatical religious minority. On this front, he expressed thanks to overseas fundamentalists for waking us up to the dangers a little, but thought we still wouldn't care until things had gone to far. The most likely crisis point would be Charter Schools, where the rules are so lax that Al Qaeda could set one up. And when that happens - or more likely some Christian fundamentalist group uses government money to deny evolution and push bigotry at small children - there is likely to be a backlash. He also had concerns about the Treaty of Waitangi as a barrier to seperation, due to the (well justified) consultation requirements.

Ngaire McCarthy rebutted Armstrong's last point, talking about how her language had been hijacked and perverted by Christians and mapped onto their concepts. She explained how wairua was about connection, not spirits, and karakia were not prayers.

Dr Bryce Edwards (Otago University) talked about the way forward, and suggested a sweeping secularisation bill to remove religious references from legislation. He had a long list of these, starting with the obvious - Marriage Act, blasphemous libel, Education Act, Charities Act - to the not so obvious - Broadcasting Act, Sale of Liquor Act, the RMA, the national anthem. And then the bastard made me talk briefly about the practicalities of that, in which I said that no MP would buy that big fight for no political payoff, and that it was probably better to salami the issue, with one or more specific bills on high-profile issues. The best candidates were the Charities Act (where the definition of charitable work is over 400 years old and written in an era when they thought religion mattered) and the Education Act (where secular education is only mandated for primary schools and often abused). Many of the other issues will pass in due course, likely the next time the government revised the law.

One thing which wasn't obvious from the advertising, but which became obvious at the event, was that that was basically the NZ association of rationalists and humanists talking to itself. No-one else was interested in the "conversation"; its just not seen as a priority by New Zealanders. Until, of course, something goes horribly wrong...