Friday, August 30, 2013

The legacy of Tony Blair

Well, that was a surprise: the UK Parliament has voted against military action in Syria. Its good news for Syrians (in that without their favourite vassal to provide diplomatic cover and an impression that they're not acting alone, the US might think again about bombing) - and good news for the world (in that it makes such action, and its inevitable fallout, marginally less likely). And we should all be thanking Tony Blair for it.

Why? Firstly, because he set the precedent that the UK Parliament votes before that country can go to war. Sure, he lied and cheated and whipped to get that vote to pass, leading to a disastrous campaign whose consequences we'll be living with for some time - but it established the principle. Secondly, because Blair's lying and cheating and the subsequent disaster has made UK politicians (well, some of them) rightly suspicious of campaigns for bombing. This vote was lost because the UK opposition wanted to see the full legal advice - not the sanitised version the government had made available. And that's a direct consequence of Blair's shameful behaviour over Iraq (where he wouldn't even show Cabinet the legal advice, let alone the MPs who were whipped into voting on the basis of his weasel-faced assurances)

David Cameron has said he will respect the vote. He doesn't have a choice, in that going against it would almost certainly result in an immediate confidence motion. Democracy stops isolated elites from waging wars. Who'd have thunk it?

Meanwhile, in NZ, war is still waged by Royal Prerogative. That has to change. At one stage Labour had a bill in the ballot which would have required a vote before any foreign combat deployment of military forces. It would be nice to see that become party policy.

Update: Andrew Geddis points out that we have Robin Cook to thank for the Parliamentary vote.

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me until Tuesday - I'm off to Auckland to participate in New Zealand's largest larp convention. Along the way, I expect to be an entrepreneurial scumdividual, corporate scum, a lowly scribe, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman edition), and a Victorian railway owner. Hopefully it will all have worn off by next week. Otherwise I'll just have to do terrible things to politicians - with a spoon.

New Fisk

We should have been traumatised into action by this war in 2011. And 2012. But now?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Laws are for little people - again

The police have announced that they will be taking no action against the GCSB over the latter's unlawful interception of Kim Dotcom's communications. Sadly, I'm not surprised. But I am surprised by their "reasoning". Here's their excuse:

Subject to the issue of criminal intent, the elements of an offence in respect to section 216B of the Crimes Act 1961 were established in relation to the actions of the GCSB. As for the issue of criminal intent, it cannot be established that any GCSB staff had the necessary criminal intent to illegally intercept private communications in this case and GCSB staff cannot be criminally liable.

[Emphasis added]

This is simply bullshit. Section 216B makes it an offence to intentionally intercept a private communication by means of an interception device. The police have admitted that the other elements were established - that the communication was private, and an interception device was used. But for intent, they are basicly claiming that the GCSB did not mean to intercept those communications. The extensive paper trail [PDF] already revealed by the police in this case shows that to be a lie. The police asked GCSB to spy on Dotcom, and the GCSB agreed. That's your intent right there.

(See also Graeme Edgeler's original legal analysis here, which makes it clear that the relevant intent is intent to intercept a private communication, not "intent to break the law")

Once again the police show they will not hold the powerful to account. Which means that the only means of doing so is for Kim Dotcom to bring a private prosecution against the GCSB staff who invaded his privacy.

Meanwhile, the police's other letter to Russel Norman regarding the GCSB's other 85 cases makes it clear that they do not regarded metadata as a "private communication". Which pretty much blows all John Key's claims that his spy law protected us from spying out of the water.

More Serco fraud

Serco has been caught committing fraud again - this time around prisoner transport contracts in the UK:

The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has called in the City of London police to investigate alleged fraud by Serco staff working on a £285m contract to transport prisoners to and from courts across London and East Anglia.


The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said detailed audit work initiated as a result of the investigation into the tagging contract in July had shown that some Serco staff were recording prisoners as having been ready for court when in fact they were not. This data is a key performance measure for the contract that could determine whether or not it is terminated.

It is thought the "potentially fraudulent behaviour" has been going on since last summer, when persistent delays in transporting prisoners between jails and courts led to an official improvement notice being issued.

It is alleged that instead of ending the delays, Serco staff simply fiddled the paperwork, for example by recording the time that the van arrived at court as if that meant prisoners were ready to appear in the dock.

As a result, Serco has agreed to repay all past profits on the contract, and forgo any future ones. But I doubt that will change the culture of fraud which seems to be becoming pervasive in UK PPP contracts. When its easier to juke the stats than perform the service, these companies will do the former every time.

Meanwhile, the NZ government still thinks Serco is fit to run a prison in New Zealand. How long till similar scams emerge here? And would Corrections even notice if they did?

The lesson from the UK is clear: private companies cannot be trusted to perform these services. They will cheat and lie to get their profits, rather than actually doing the work. We should heed that lesson, and stop contracting out immediately.

Seriously conflicted II

In July 2012, Christine Rankin - a member of the Families Commission - joined the board of the Conservative Party. Did she tell her employer about this massive conflict of interest? Of course not:

We have no record that the Families Commission was aware of any additional conflicts of interest apart from those disclosed by Ms Rankin between 2009 and 2011.

While the register of interests is a standard agenda item updated at each Board meeting, the Families Commission was not aware of Ms Rankin's political party involvement prior to Monday 6 May 2013. On that date Ms Rankin emailed the interim Chief Commissioner and advised that she would be acting as Chief Executive of the Conservative party. A copy of the email is attached.

Ms Rankin's term ended shortly after this date so we did not provide advice on managing this issue.

That email is a perfect example of Rankin's arrogance: she informs the Commission of a conflict of interest "just out of courtesy". She goes on
I wouldn't normally let you know about TLC's contracts but as this is a political party of which I am a board member I thought I should. Feel free to call of this causes any concern.
The Families Commission was apparently not concerned, but the rest of the public service was. When MSD heard of it - after the public announcement - they immediately asked SSC for advice. The SSC advised that the conflict was not manageable, and Rankin left 4 days later.

This is an appalling example of lax oversight by the Families Commission and its Minister, Paula Bennett. At the same time, it also appears to involve active deceit from Rankin. How could she not think that high-level involvement in a political party - and a political party with extremely strong views on "the family" - would be a conflict of interest? Or did she really think that because she laundered the relationship though a corporate shell, the conflict disappeared?

Either way, the Families Commission needs a shakeup, so that they can recognise a conflict of interest and act appropriately. And it raises a question: how many other such conflicts have gone unnoticed, because our Crown Entities are stacked with cranks and party hacks unfamiliar with the ethical obligations of public service?

[Thanks to Alex Harris on FYI for following this up]

Update: It gets worse: according to a clarification on that FYI request, the Families Commission did not tell MSD that Rankin had become CEO of a political party. They learned about it from the media. Someone needs sacking for this.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thoughts on Standing Orders, 2013 edition

Parliament has begun its triennial review of Standing Orders, and as before I'm trying to think out what to raise in my submission. There's the perennial topics of course: enhanced BORA reporting, privilege, the opening prayer and trusts and pecuniary interests, but I'm wondering what else to go for.

One obvious contender is Question Time and urgency. When the House sits under urgency (as it is doing now, on what should be a Member's Day), Standing Orders do not provide for a Question Time. However, it has become the practice for one to be allowed by Leave of the House. That's a good practice, but it is basically grace and favour. The government usurps the House's right to hold them to account, then politely permits it - most of the time (on some occasions questions have not been permitted during urgency, compounding the abuse of democracy). Replacing that system of grace and favour with a requirement in Standing Orders that Question Time be held regardless of urgency would enhance the ability of the House to hold the government to account, and thus its legitimacy.

New Fisk

Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side?

The Herald supports oligarchy

Just a few years ago, the Herald cast itself as a defender of democracy in the debate over the Electoral Finance Act. But in its editorial on the Labour leadership election yesterday, it showed its true colours. According to the Herald, letting a party's members vote on its leader

carries risks not just for Labour but for the good government of New Zealand if the consensus between the two major parties on economic fundamentals is undermined by a leader's public commitments in a campaign for the party's vote.

There is good reason to confine these elections to a party caucus. MPs are generally well briefed on policy issues and aware of the national interest. They also work closely with leadership contenders and are best-placed to assess their character and capabilities.

So, letting us dirty peasants have a say is a threat to "good government" (whatever that means). Better to leave the decision in the hands of a nice, safe, well-insulated and easily subvertable elite. Of course, exactly the same argument applies to national elections. So I guess we can conclude that the Herald supports oligarchy there as well.

What the Herald fails to recognise is that democracy isn't about making good decisions - its about making our decisions. Those decisions may not be to the liking of the Auckland business elite the Herald exists to provide a voice for. But if they don't like it, they should try and convince us, not demand that power be returned to a tight little circle who know best what's good for themselves "the country".

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bombing is not the answer

Last week the Syrian regime used chemical weapons to massacre civilians. It was a crime against humanity and a violation of international law. And now the US and its vassals are gearing up for their response: bombing. So, their response to the indiscriminate murder of civilians is going to be - in practice, because bombs miss, and Americans aren't too fussy about their targets anyway when the victims aren't white - to indiscriminately murder some more. Fantastic.

While I want to see the perpetrators of this atrocity brought to justice before an international court, the idea of military intervention utterly unconnected with that is deeply morally queasy. Iraq and Libya have utterly discredited the concept of humanitarian intervention, exposing them as a sick joke to mask US power politics. But even if we took such claims seriously, there'd still be problems. The basic criteria for humanitarian intervention to be justified were laid out a decade ago by Human Rights Watch. Firstly, because wars impose high human costs, the trigger is high: intervention is justified

only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life.
While the suffering in Syria is terrible, it simply does not meet that level. But even if it did, there are other barriers to overcome. Military action for humanitarian motives must:
  • be a last resort;
  • be "guided primarily by a humanitarian purpose" (this does not preclude other motives, but they must be subsidiary);
  • comply with international human rights standards (the means must be concordant with the ends);
  • be reasonably likely to actually make things better; and
  • ideally should be endorsed by the UN or other appropriate multilateral institutions, except in extremis.

Looking at this list, its hard to see how a US campaign of random airstrikes in Syria, not endorsed by the UN, would satisfy the criteria. There are huge problems of motive, and even if we granted that the US was acting for a humanitarian purpose, it is very difficult to see how airstrikes would serve that purpose, because airstrikes do not protect people. Its also difficult to see how they would be compliant with international human rights standards. Iraq, Israel and Libya have shown us for decades what "surgical strikes" do: kill children. There is no such thing as a "humanitarian airstrike". They are just another means of indiscriminate murder.

But beyond that, there's the bigger problem: airstrikes won't work. They won't stop the Syrian regime from murdering people. They won't even stop it from using chemical weapons, because those weapons have clearly already been dispersed to individual units. To the extent that they destabilise the Syrian regime, Libyan style, then they will encourage those weapons to be used. And if somehow they topple the Syrian regime without a general bloodbath, that simply means that something equally repugnant takes its place (see also: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya).

If we can't do any good, then we can at least do no harm. Leaving the Syrian civil war to fester is not a pleasant solution (it means ~50,000 dead a year). But given the hideous uncertainties involved in military action and regime change, it is almost certainly the least worst we can do.

(Meanwhile, times like these, I'm awfully glad New Zealand got rid of its air combat wing, otherwise John Key would be signing us up for this latest exercise in barbarism)

That didn't take long

From Rebuilding Christchurch:


I think those words are goign to haunt key from now until November 2014.

Parliamentary funding and leadership contests

The Labour leadership contest is dominating the news, allowing labour to showcase its personalities and policies. So naturally the PM's spindoctors have come up with a distraction: we're paying for it:

The three contenders for the Labour leadership have confirmed taxpayers are stumping up for the cost of them flying around the country to pitch for votes.

Labour MPs are also likely to charge their flights to the taxpayer for attending any of the 12 candidates meetings planned around the country over the next two weeks.

The three contenders - Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and Shane Jones - confirmed they would use the travel perk to campaign over the next two weeks.

But they will pay for all their other expenses, such as accommodation, out of their own pockets.

As they should. While the Speaker's Directions allow unlimited domestic air travel, they only fund accomodation for "parliamentary business". But while its unquestionably within the rules, does that make it right?

Firstly, we pay for MP's domestic travel not just so they can get from their constituencies to Wellington and back every sitting week, but also to allow them to fulfil their wider democratic purpose. Communicating policy. Investigating problems. Talking to us. We pay for them to show up en masse in Christchurch or Greymouth to show solidarity in the wake of a disaster, and we pay for them to go to South Auckland to launch employment policy outside a closed factory, because its their job to do those things. They are part of our democratic conversation - something we want our MPs to be full participants in.

But MPs aren't just individuals - they are members of political parties. And those parties play an important role both in the House and in our democratic conversation. Which is why the Speaker's Directions state that "Parliamentary business" includes "any function that... a party could be
reasonably expected to carry out in its capacity as a party, and that complements the business of the House of Representatives" (and specifically includes attending caucus and party meetings as examples of "Parliamentary business").

Parliamentary parties need leaders (both in practice and by Standing Orders). The House needs a Leader of the Opposition (ditto). These are democratic and Parliamentary functions, and I have no problem paying for them - just as I had no problem paying for all those National MPs to descend on Nelson two weeks ago. Its a core part of our democracy, and therefore something that should be publicly funded.

Key to Christchurch: Drop dead

Yesterday, Christchurch's quake outcasts won a High Court ruling that the government's paltry offers for their uninsurable land where unlawful and inequitable and should be set aside. Today the government announced that it would appeal - basically attempting to bury those they have wronged under the costs of litigation. That's bad enough, but then John Key went further:

Prime Minister John Key warned the Crown could simply walk away.

"The Government would say actually we are being pretty generous on an uninsured piece of land; we are paying you out 50 per cent,'' he said.

"One option is the Government says: 'Thanks very much, it's been a lot of fun. If you don't want to take the offer, that's where it's at'."

"[I]t's been a lot of fun". That's what John Key thinks of the struggle of Christchurch earthquake victims.

Its just another reminder that this is a heartless government, without compassion or any sense of fairness. Normally their victims are beneficiaries and the poor. But here they're victimising their own base. And hopefully those words - "it's been a lot of fun" - will come back to haunt them in 2014.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Compounding disadvantage

Peter Dunne has released his new flexible superannuation policy, and he thinks Maori and Pacific Peoples will benefit from it:

The proposal allows people to choose to take a reduced rate of NZ Super from the age of 60, or an increased rate if they defer taking up superannuation until they reach 70.

"Flexi Super lets people choose for themselves when they want to take up superannuation without being told by the government when they should or should not retire," Mr Dunne said.

"Maori, Pasifika and other demographic groups with shorter life spans would benefit most," he said.

Really? Yes, they'd be able to retire five years earlier - but they also die five years earlier. So if they retired early, they'd be paid the pension for just as long, but be paid less every week for doing so.

This "flexibility" simply seems to result in compounding the existing disadvantage of reduced life expectancy. Its obvious to anyone who thinks about it for an instant. What this says about Dunne's policy development process is left as an exercise for the reader.

Update: The full document is here [PDF], and oddly it doesn't even mention this problem. I guess nobody in United Future or Treasury bothers to think about the effects of their policies on poor or brown people.

NSA spied on lovers and the UN

The weekend's NSALeaks: firstly, NSA staff routinely abused their powers to spy on love interests:

National Security Agency officers on several occasions have channeled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests, U.S. officials said.

The practice isn’t frequent — one official estimated a handful of cases in the last decade — but it’s common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT.

While they're trying to downplay this, a practice doesn't get its own name unless it is common and widely known. Which means that when they say there have only been a couple of cases in the last decade, that will be a couple of cases where they did anything.

Naturally, no-one has been prosecuted for this gross abuse of state power. Laws are for little people, not spies.

Meanwhile, the NSA has also been spying on the UN, the EU, and pretty much everyone:
he U.S. National Security Agency has bugged the United Nations' New York headquarters, Germany's Der Spiegel weekly said on Sunday in a report on U.S. spying that could further strain relations between Washington and its allies.

Citing secret U.S. documents obtained by fugitive former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, Der Spiegel said the files showed how the United States systematically spied on other states and institutions.

Der Spiegel said the European Union and the U.N.'s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.

In the summer of 2012, NSA experts succeeded in getting into the U.N. video conferencing system and cracking its coding system, according one of the documents cited by Der Spiegel.

"The data traffic gives us internal video teleconferences of the United Nations (yay!)," Der Spiegel quoted one document as saying, adding that within three weeks the number of decoded communications rose to 458 from 12.

This is going down as you'd expect in German politics. There's an election on, and the leader of the opposition has made it an issue, promising to stall EU-US free trade talks in retaliation. Another example of how spying is harmful to the US's stated interests.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

When John Key was ramming through his spy bill to allow the GCSB to harvest all your metadata without suspicion, let alone a warrant, he pushed the idea that if you had nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear. Only Bad People, like terrorists, and paedophiles, and internet moguls, could possibly object.

So naturally, someone used FYI, the public OIA request website, to request all of Key's email metadata. And naturally, he refused.

So, Key wants to spy on us, but he won't accept even a fraction of that scrutiny on himself. Which tells you everything you need to know about this rotten law and the people pushing it.

New Fisk

Death is now everyday among Arabs - but culprits, and facts, are rare
'People think they made a big mistake, electing Morsi...they hate the Brotherhood'

Friday, August 23, 2013

A landmark decision for equal pay

While everyone was watching David Shearer's departure yesterday, the Employment Court handed down a landmark decision on equal pay. In a case between a caregiver and her employer, the Court had been asked to determine whether the effects of systematic discrimination could be taken into account in deciding whether pay was discriminatory. They concluded that it could:

Section 3 provides the mechanism by which the dual purposes of the Act are to be achieved. It must be interpreted consistently with those purposes. We struggle to see how the effects of gender discrimination on women’s rates of pay can be removed and prevented if a narrow interpretation of the provision is adopted. It would mean that any current, historic and/or structural gender discrimination entrenched within a particular female dominated industry would simply be perpetuated.

The fact that a man is employed to perform the same or similar role and is paid the same or similar rate of remuneration within the workplace or industry does not necessarily advance matters, and may reflect nothing more than receipt of an artificially depressed rate because he is performing what is colloquially (and pejoratively) known as “women’s work” (a phenomenon referred to by the 1971 Royal Commission of Inquiry into Equal Pay, referred to in greater detail below).

It would be illogical to use a small percentage of men as a comparator group if they are paid less because they are undertaking “women’s work.” Such an approach would distort the objective analysis required under s 3(1)(b) and fall well short of meeting the dual purposes of the Act. It would also be a simple matter to employ and then identify a self-defeating comparator (the token male), either
deliberately or for subconscious systemic reasons. This is something that has been firmly denounced, for obvious reasons.

Its a preliminary judgement, and it will undoubtedly be appealed. But if it survives the scrutiny of higher courts, then it is likely to mean some big changes - and hopefully a significant increase in pay for those working in female-dominated industries.

The full judgement is here [PDF].

Judith Collins two-faced on judicial independence

Judith Collins' behaviour in the Teina Pora case has been utterly disgraceful, basically refusing to consider a pardon (despite the overwhelming evidence that the police arrested and jailed the wrong man) as long as he continues to prove his innocence. She's been hiding behind judicial independence on this, saying it would be "inappropriate" for her to intervene while the case is still potentially before the courts. Except that that is exactly what the government did in the Arthur Allen Thomas case, appointing a Royal Commission to investigate his wrongful conviction despite the fact that Thomas' appeal rights had not been exhausted. That's what government should do when there is overwhelming evidence that the police have framed someone: appoint an independent body to sort it out.

Meanwhile, Collins apparently has no problems ordering the Independent Police Conduct Authority - a statutorily independent crown entity not subject to Ministerial direction - to investigate the police in this case (and they've obeyed). I guess her "respect" for judicial independence only applies when it is useful for keeping wrongly convicted victims of police misconduct in jail.

(I support judicial independence. But appointing a Commission of Inquiry to investigate a gross miscarriage of justice is not the same as interfering in the independence of the courts, and it is basically the last backstop in our system. The UK has a statutory entity, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, to review such cases, and I think such a permanent commission of inquiry would be a good addition to our system as well)

The global panopticon

Today's NSALeak: The UK is spying on all international phone and data traffic that passes through the Middle East:

Britain runs a secret internet-monitoring station in the Middle East to intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, The Independent has learnt.

The station is able to tap into and extract data from the underwater fibre-optic cables passing through the region.

The information is then processed for intelligence and passed to GCHQ in Cheltenham and shared with the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. The Government claims the station is a key element in the West’s “war on terror” and provides a vital “early warning” system for potential attacks around the world.

But remember, this doesn't just capture the traffic of the dread islamopedopirateterrorists; it also snoops on that of vast numbers of ordinary, innocent people. Quite possibly including you, if you've ever sent an email to someone in the UK or read Al-Jazeera's website.

And while we're on the subject of NSALeaks: the NSA illegally collected tens of thousands of US domestic emails. Their explanation of how is fascinating and troubling:
"If you have a webmail email account, like Gmail or Hotmail, you know that if you open up your email program, you will get a screenshot of some number of emails that are sitting in your inbox, the official said.

"Those are all transmitted across the internet as one communication. For technological reasons, the NSA was not capable of breaking those down, and still is not capable, of breaking those down into their individual [email] components."

If one of those emails contained a reference to a foreign person believed to be outside the US – in the subject line, the sender or the recipient, for instance – then the NSA would collect the entire screenshot "that's popping up on your screen at the time," the official continued.

So basically, if you're an American and you use a webmail service to talk to us dirty suspicious foreigners, the NSA reads all your emails. I guess we're all just islamopedopirateterrorists to them.

Which raises the questions: whose traffic are we snopping on as part of this system? And do we really want our government to be invading privacy on such a massive, worldwide scale?

In case anyone needs it

Now the GCSB can snoop on all our emails, Keith Ng has a quick and dirty guide to using public-key encryption on Public Address. As for why you should be interested, he also has the documentary evidence that GCSB assistance is NSA assistance. Which means

government agencies can tap into these powers as part of bread-and-butter law enforcement. Through the Bradley Ambrose case, we've seen that the Police are willing to use the full extent of their powers for entirely bullshit cases. Combine the two, and it makes me very, very queasy.
I too feel queasy. Which is why I've just installed GPG4Win and Enigmail at home, and GPG4USB for blogging use. If you want to send me a public key, my (munged) email address is in the sidebar. Meanwhile, here's mine:
Version: GnuPG v1.4.12 (MingW32)

(Also here; hit "save link as" to get it formatted correctly).

My key fingerprint is AE1C 445F 7A5E CAAF DA11 3CAE 7C56 FCD4 C60A A494.

Encryption is not the full solution. It only protects content, not metadata (and metadata is immensely valuable to snoops). But it will help a little, and at the least prevent our communications from being casually rummaged through by search functions. If they want to read my emails, they can burn some flops (or some qbits) to do it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

An unjust sentence

Six years ago last month, a group of US helicopter gunship pilots murdered at least eleven people in Baghdad, including war correspondents Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. The pilots have never been prosecuted for their crimes. But Bradley Manning was just sentenced to 35 years in jail for telling people about it.

I can't think of a better example of the injustice of the US's national security state. War criminals go free, while people seeking to hold the US to its laws and values are persecuted and imprisoned. America is a sick, sick nation.

New Fisk

A freed Mubarak should feel at home in today’s topsy turvy Egypt

Good riddance to David Shearer

David Shearer has quit as labour leader. Good riddance. He was never up to the job, and even the timing of his resignation - right when Labour should be milking public outrage over the spy bill and Meridian float - once again proves it. Still, it could have been worse: he could have quit last week, right before the GCSB bill debate, instead.

Now Shearer can go on to be the decent, hardworking backbencher and possible Foreign Affairs Minister he's actually qualified to be. Meanwhile, Labour will get to have a sort-of leadership election, in which the votes of its 34 caucus members will count for as much as its whole wider membership. That's the sort of electoral system they have in Tonga, and it is neither fair nor democratic.

The morning after

John Key's over-reaching and intrusive spy bill passed its third reading last night and will be law in a little over a month. Which means that the GCSB will be able to warrantlessly collect all our metadata, track us where-ever we go, whoever we talk to, and pass the information on to their foreign paymasters.

The good news is that we have an election in 2014. And Labour have made a pretty strong commitment to repeal the law (after reviewing it, but they seem clear on what the outcome will be). The problem is that as a party, they are part of the status quo, and have always supported the national security state. Their natural coalition partner, the Greens, are not so encumbered, and have a sizeable faction wanting to disband the GCSB entirely and withdraw from the US five eyes network. Abolishing the GCSB and closing Waihopai is official Green party policy.

This is not a recipe for a happy coalition. Everyone involved is going to have to walk a tightrope to try and get a deal they can live with. Failure will result in the Greens potentially self-combusting - or in them following the lesson of the Alliance and pulling the plug and forcing an election in order to avoid doing so. Either way, the stakes are high.

How can Labour and the Greens resolve this problem so they can work together on all the other things they have in common? The first step has to be to de-escalate. Labour's current policy - review then repeal - is negotiating with a gun to the Greens' head. Its telling them that its Labour's changes or Key's. That's not a good way to deal with a party of principle, and invites them to pull the trigger on their own, much bigger, election-gun instead. So if Labour wants this to work, it is going to need to shift from "review then repeal" to "repeal then review". Given their certainty on the outcome of the review, that's not that big a deal. But it will take the heat of the issue, and allow the Greens to reach a compromise they (and Labour) can live with.

Such a repeal need not be absolute. The improvements the bill makes to the oversight regime can stay. But in terms of powers and functions, there must be a roll-back to the status quo ante: no domestic spying powers, and all powers tightly focused on foreign intelligence. Once that is done and our privacy restored (at least to 2003 levels), the review of what sorts of spies we need, their powers and oversight regime can begin.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

TICS gives spies a veto on ISPs

Criticisms of the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill have focused on the powers of the GCSB to micromanage network decisions and demand backdoors into networks (to "protect us from cyber-attack", of course). But there's another problem with it as well, and its a significant one: the bill requires a substantial invasion of privacy by the SIS of people who are not government employees. And it gives the SIS an effective veto over who can run an ISP in this country.

How? Section 70 of the bill requires "network operators" - phone companies and ISPs - to nominate an employee to apply for a secret-level clearance. Nominees are legally required to apply. Once they do, then the SIS will vet them - which means trawling through their lives looking for signs that someone is a "security risk". What are those signs? The basics are MICE - Money, Ideology, Compromise, or Ego. So, they look at your financial records to see if you're in debt and e.g. whether you might be easily persuadable by someone offering you a large amount of money. They look at whether you have secrets in your life - affairs, sexual orientation, mental health issues. They look at whether you like to brag. They look at who you know, and whether any of them are a "risk" or "unsuitable". They look at your politics, whether you might be ideologically motivated (e.g. by a belief in democracy and transparency) to leak information. And they ask your friends and co-workers about all of this, asking them to rat on your private life, with your job on the line.

This may be suitable for government employees in sensitive positions. But it is simply no fucking business of government to do this to people who aren't working for them.

But apart from fundamental objections about the proper role of the state, this process is also likely to be hugely problematic in practice. To point out the obvious: the SIS are a cold war agency with a cold war mentality. They still believe in communists, and they don't believe in democracy and transparency. The average ISP employee has grown up on the net, and has its basic cultural assumptions: freedom, transparency, and de facto anarchy. "Information wants to be free" is an internet axiom. So is a free-market in legal jurisdiction. The SIS will regard both with utter horror, and its hard to believe that this huge cultural difference won't impact on vetting.

So what happens if the nominee gets denied clearance? The ISP must keep on nominating people. Which means more intrusion and more vetting. What happens if they run out? The GCSB can go to court and get a breach notice, compliance order, or pecuniary penalties of up to $500,000.

Under the law as written, it seems perfectly possible for the SIS to drive an ISP out of business simply by repeatedly denying them a security clearance. it gives them a political veto on who can run an ISP in this country. And that is something we should not accept.

The spy bill and the future

John Key's over-reaching and intrusive spy bill has its third reading today. Meanwhile, a poll by Fairfax has shown that three-quarters of kiwis are concerned about it. This backs up the results of Campbell Live's national tour, which found that ordinary people around the country were informed about the bill and had an opinion on it (and most seemed concerned) (I regard their online self-selected "poll" as not worth the bits it was written in).

There is a campaign to convince some government MP to cross the floor and vote down the bill, but I don't think it has much hope of suceeding. That would require MPs to have principles. But its been a long time since any National MP has had a backbone. They're all corrupt, hopeless, venal, arrogant pricks.

Which means we must turn to the second tactic: punishment. We must vote the fuckers out, and turn the supporters of this bill into the democratic equivalent of a smoking hole in the ground.

But beyond that: the movement built against this bill can't stop here. Labour has promised a review, but if we want that to mean repeal rather than just the usual fudge covering up continued abuses, we need to make it crystal clear electorally that we will hold them to it. We don't want to live in a surveillance state. We don't want our government reading our emails and tracking us through our metadata. We only want them to be able to do that on reasonable, individualised suspicion that a serious crime has been committed - not a tort like copyright infringement or some bullshit "security" which is really just code for political harassment, but an actual, serious crime - and with the oversight of an independent judiciary.

And looking at the broader picture, it is clear that belonging to the "Five Eyes" intelligence pact is a recipe for living in a US-driven panopticon state. If we want to retain our freedom, we need to get out of it. That won't be easy. As with the anti-nuclear campaign, the MFAT-defence-intelligence deep state will squeal (because bluntly, they won't get invited to parties any more). And the US will threaten and bully us, just as they did over ANZUS. But if we want to remain a free, democratic country, then that's what we've got to do.

Next election, we have a choice: us, or the spies. I'm voting for us.

What freedom of the press in the UK looks like


(The Guardian's smashed computer, which they were forced to destroy while GCHQ officials stood around and joked about black helicopters)

While the Guardian has been too chickenshit to name names over who threatened them into doing this, the Independent has the dirt: it was Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood acting on the direct orders of the Prime Minister. Heywood is clearly not the sort of person who can be trusted to hold senior office in a democracy. If the UK people want their country back from the spies, he has to go.


The Privileges Committee inquiry into the Henry inquiry's abuse of power while inquiring into the leaking of the Kitteridge inquiry got under way today. Naturally, everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else. Still, we've learned a few things:

  • Ministers don't like having their emails rummaged through without being asked, even when there is suspicion. Naturally, they're all going to vote for the GCSB bill this afternoon, which will allow suspicionless trawls of everything. And then they'll wonder why the public regards them as hypocrites.
  • Henry didn't care about what legal powers he had, leaving it to the recipients of his requests to worry about. Which could explain why Parliament had to hold a select committee inquiry into "Powers and Operations of the IRD" after his departure.
  • DPMC head Andrew Kibblewhite has no respect for journalistic privilege, and thinks he should be allowed to trawl through their emails and phone calls for his convenience. Note that he has a significant oversight role over the NZ intelligence community.
  • The inquiry was "driven" by Kibblewhite and GCSB director Ian Fletcher. Oddly, the latter hasn't been called to give his version of events. I guess being childhood friends with the PM has its perks.
  • Contrary to Key's previous assertion, David Henry probably won't be considered for any more government jobs.
Its great to see the Privileges Committee taking the privacy of MP's and journalist's communications seriously. But wouldn't it be nice if those same MPs cared as much about our privacy as they care about their own?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

GCSB receives US funding

Three weeks ago we learned that the NSA are secretly funding Britain's GCHQ by over £30 million a year. This naturally led to the question: are they also funding "our" GCSB? Today, Russel Norman asked that question in Parliament. The Prime Minister refused to answer, saying that it was "not in the national interest" for him to do so.

Key's refusal is as good as an admission. If our spies weren't being funded by (and therefore working for) a foreign power, he would simply say so. By refusing to answer, he's made it clear that "our" spies aren't. They're America's spies, hosted by us, but paid for and answering to the US.

This isn't acceptable. Our government should work for us, not foreigners. The practice has to end, and there needs to be a full inquiry into this dirty deal so we can see how badly the GCSB and our politicians have betrayed us. And naturally, that inquiry needs to be public. There can be no accountability from "investigations" conducted in secret.

No freedom of the press in the UK

A free press is one of the cornerstones of a democratic state. The UK doesn't have one:

The Guardian, a major outlet for revelations based on leaks from former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, says the British government threatened legal action against the newspaper unless it either destroyed the classified documents or handed them back to British authorities.

In an article posted on the British newspaper's website on Monday, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said that a month ago, after the newspaper had published several stories based on Snowden's material, a British official advised him: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back."


Rusbridger said that after further talks with the British government, two "security experts" from Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the ultra-secretive U.S. National Security Agency, visited the Guardian's London offices.

In the building's basement, Rusbridger wrote, government officials watched as computers which contained material provided by Snowden were physically pulverized. "We can call off the black helicopters," Rusbridger says one of the officials joked.

A source familiar with the event said Guardian employees destroyed the computers as government security experts looked on.

(Original article here; the Reuters version is a tighter summary)

The Guardian is now forced to report on UK political issues from outside UK jurisdiction, to avoid government persecution. A democracy? I don't think so.

Meanwhile, the attitudes of those "senior government officials" exposed in the Guardian's story are explicitly anti-democratic. "You've had your debate" tells us volumes: they think that public debate is both subject to government-imposed time limits, and irrelevant. To them, it doesn't matter what we think; their policies will never change.

There is a name for this phenomenon: a "deep state". And it is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. If the UK wishes to become a democracy, it needs to root out this Deep State, and destroy it.

Selling it on credit

The government has announced its plans for selling Meridian Energy. The core of the proposal? Investors will only have to pay 60% up front, with the rest of their "investment" being due in 18 months. So, in their rush to flick off our assets to their cronies, they're selling them on credit.

And what generous terms. This is basically an interest-free loan to investors, and personal loan rates are in the range of 12 - 15%. So this is basicly a 5 - 6% free gift to National's rich mates. Plus, of course, they get all the dividends Meridian can gouge out of us, despite not having fully paid for them.

There isn't even a pretence any more. This isn't about revenue, if it ever was. It is about wealth transfer, about shifting the ownership of these lucrative assets from public hands to private ones. Its about shifting the dividend stream from paying for our schools, hospitals and public transport to paying for their yachts and holidays. It is about making something which is ours into something of theirs. And National wants to do this as quickly as posisble, before anyone can stop it, and pay its thieves into the bargain.

Again, we should not tolerate this. The next government should forcibly renationalise these stolen assets, at a loss to the thieves. Anything less, and we're letting these criminals get away with stealing from us all.

New Fisk

Egypt crisis: A national tragedy plays out at Cairo’s stinking mortuary

More worthless promises

Last week, John Key promised us that he wouldn't sign warrants for the GCSB to read our emails, unless they really thought they should be able to. The natural response to this is "statute, or its bullshit" - if Key thinks that that's how the GCSB should operate, he should put it in law so we don't have to trust him (or the Prime Ministers who will follow him). This is still possible at this stage, though it requires leave of the House. Sadly, Key isn't buying it:

Labour plans to move an amendment to try to get written into the law a policy statement by Mr Key last week in which he said he said he would not grant warrants to the GCSB to look at the content of New Zealanders communications under the cyber security function in the first instance, but if the agency detected a serious cyber intrusion, it would have to come back to him for a second warrant.

Labour would require the leave of the House to introduce such an amendment because the part it relates to has already been dealt with.

Mr Key indicated that National would oppose leave for Labour to do that, saying it was not necessary.

Which kindof makes his promise in that article to resign in the event that we learn of mass-surveillance equally worthless, neh?

Meanwhile, also in the category of worthless promises, Key says that Opposition MPs can get details of "cybersecurity" warrants through the Intelligence and security Committee:
Prime Minister John Key said last night that Opposition members of the Intelligence and Security Committee would be able to find out how many times the GCSB spy agency had received warrants to intercept the content of communications under its cyber security function.

Mr Key said that under changes to the bill, every year the number of warrants issued in categories would be declared to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which included the leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, and his nominee, Greens co-leader Russel Norman.

"At that committee, somebody would be able to ask the very obvious question - 'when it comes to cyber security, have any warrants been issued that sought to look at content for New Zealanders?"' he said.

Well, they can ask. But the Director of the GCSB doesn't have to tell. Again, if Key thinks there needs to be (secret, therefore untrustworthy) scrutiny and oversight of these warrants, he should amend the law. Unless he does that, he's just blowing smoke.

And more generally: democratic states do not operate on the basis of promises from the powerful. We operate on laws, and transparency so we can see they are being obeyed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The other spy bill II

While attention is focused on the GCSB Bill, John Key's other spy bill, the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill is currently before select committee. The bill updates the Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act 2004, which requires "telecommunications providers" to have built-in interception capability for police and spies. But it goes further than that, requiring ISPs to register with police like printing presses in pre-Enlightenment monarchies and giving the GCSB power to micromanage individual ISPs procurement decisions. More importantly, it allows them to require that internet services, such as Gmail, Dropbox, or any other website, also provide interception capability. And apparently the government is planning to impose this requirement in secret:

Para 104 of the December 2012 "Technical Paper: Telecommunications Interception Capability and Network Security" by MBIE (page 19 of the combined document); para 109 of the paper to the Cabinet Committee on Domestic and External Security Coordination (page 62); and para 37 of the Cabinet paper (page 74) all confirm the same thing:

A Ministerial directive will be used to secretly/confidentially impose an obligation to create interception capabilities by individually named service providers (referred to as "deem-in" but what I call a backdoor) "so as not to publicly announce a lack of capability in a particular service."

The Government is therefore going to be using secret orders to specific service providers directing the creation of interception capability, allowing real-time access by surveillance agencies

(The documents referred to are here)

So, its not enough for John Key to have the capability to spy on all your domestically sent emails and phone calls, he also wants to prevent you from being able to take any steps to protect your privacy. And while he says this will only be to "protect" us, overseas we've seen where this inevitably leads: to pervasive spying on whistleblowers, journalists, and others who expose wrongdoing by the bureaucracy and the government of the day.

Microsoft has already threatened to leave the country in response to TICS, and they'd be wise to. but the real victims will be our small internet startups, whose services will be spook-compromised from the outset, and thus unmarketable overseas. The cost of this law may well be to strangle our internet industry, making us even more reliant on (poisoned) milk.



The meeting will be livestreamed here.

[Hat-tip: The Daily blog]

New Fisk

The police keep firing; the bodies pile up. In Cairo, bloodbaths are now a daily occurrence
How some ordinary Egyptians became ‘malicious terrorists’

The war on us

Over the past month, the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald has worked with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to expose the extent of NSA spying and the fact that the US has built itself a global panopticon. Today, his partner was detained under anti-terrorism legislation while transiting the UK. He was questioned for nine hours, his computer, cellphone and other electronic items were seized, and he apparently only avoided being charged due to the strong intervention of the Brazilian government.

The message is clear: if you are an investigative journalist, looking at the spies, those who seem to exercise real power in western "democracies", don't look too hard, or they will go after your family. The "war on terror" has morphed seamlessly into a war on journalism - and through that change, a war on accountability, a war on democracy, a war on us. "Anti-terror" legislation is no longer about protecting us from terrorist attacks (if it ever was), but about preserving the institutional power of spies and generals. The tools are different, but at its heart this is identical to the governing ideology of the regime currently murdering people in the streets in Egypt.

The existence of vast, unaccountable intelligence agencies is simply incompatible with democracy. And as nominal democracies, we can theoretically vote the spies out - repeal their legislation, cut their budgets, downsize them into agencies which are controllable and serve us (or into oblivion if need be). It is looking like we need to do this. But saying that is probably "terrorism".

Equality day

Four months ago, Parliament passed the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013, removing gender discrimination and allowing same-sex couples to legally marry. Today, it finally came into force. Contrary to the predictions of bigots, it has not been accompanied by rains of fire and the moon turning to blood (though I'm sure there's someone, somewhere, who has abandoned plate tectonics in favour of divine homophobia as an explanation for Friday's earthquakes).

Anyway, congratulations to the happy couples.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Murder for tourism

The death toll from the Egyptian regime's massacres has risen to over 600. meanwhile, the military has attempted to justify its crime:

"Egypt cannot move forward, especially economically, in the absence of security," [Prime Minister Hazem] Beblawi said in a televised statement.

Egypt's major source of income is tourism, which has gone through the floor since the coup. So basically they murdered more than 600 people in an effort to make tourists feel safe. Somehow, I think it will have the opposite effect.

Something to go to in Auckland

Don't like John Key's spy bill? Then you can take it directly to the Prime Minister this Saturday, with a protest outside his Parnell Mansion.

When: 14:00, Saturday 17 August
Where: meet outside outside the Holy Trinity church in parnell, then marching to John Key's place
Bring: Snapper to wave at him

(More details on FaceSpy here)

A worthless promise

When John Key appeared on Campbell Live on Wednesday night, he gave a clear assurance that the GCSB would not be able to read our emails and listen to our phone calls when performing their "cybersecurity" function. "They cannot look at the content of anything in there. All they can do, is protect you", he said.

He's now admitted that he was wrong. But that's OK, because he's given us a personal promise that he won't let the GCSB read our emails, unless they think they should:

In a dramatic twist on the GCSB bill, John Key now says he will restrict warrants granted to the spy agency so it can't initially look at the content of New Zealanders' communications in carrying out its cyber-security function.

And he says if the Government Communications Security Bureau makes a good enough case to access content, he expects it to seek the consent of Kiwis before looking, unless there is a good reason not to.

The Prime Minister made the announcement last night in an exclusive written statement to the Herald.

This is bullshit in so many ways. Most obviously, if the GCSB was really trying to protect our online infrastructure from cyberattacks, then surely they can simply get consent (especially as they're primarily supposed to be protecting government agencies, who would give it as a matter of course). The only reason they need warrants at all is to monitor us without our consent. For our own "protection", of course.

But more importantly, Key's promise is worthless. Even if you trust him (and I don't), he won't be Prime Minister forever. Will the next Prime Minister be as well-inclined towards us? Will the one after that? We've had one Prime Minister in recent memory - Muldoon - who abused their powers over the security services for political gain. Can Key guarantee us that we'll never see anyone like him again? He can't.

And even more importantly than that: we are meant to be a country of laws, not of men. Real protection doesn't come from trusting the Prime Minister's word. It comes from solid laws that cannot be abused, and transparency so that we can see that they are not being abused.

Promises are worthless. If Key is serious about this, then he should change the law to require it. If he doesn't, then we should treat his "promise" as what it is: a smokescreen designed to ease passage of the law and then be quietly forgotten.

New Fisk

Cairo massacre: The Muslim Brotherhood’s silent martyrs lie soaked in blood

Climate change: Promising less than we've already achieved

The government has finally set its emissions reduction target, promising a 5% cut by 2020:

"In deciding this target, the Government has carefully balanced the cost to New Zealand households and businesses against taking ambitious action to tackle climate change," Groser said.

It is unconditional but weaker than the conditional reduction of 10 to 20 per cent the Government has previously tabled in international negotiations.

Groser said he was confident the target could be met without any changes to settings of the domestic emissions trading scheme.

[Emphasis added]

So, the government explicitly sees this as a "do-nothing" target, then - one designed to give the appearance we're making a commitment, but one where the government doesn't expect it to be any effort at all. but looking at the 2011 Inventory Report again, its actually promising less than what we've already achieved - 2011 net emissions were down 6% from 1990 (thanks to economic collapse and an end to deforestation).

I expect this to be treated with the scorn and contempt it deserves by the international community. That gurgling sound you can hear is our mana-based foreign policy going down the toilet.

I'm also less sanguine than Groser that merely keeping emissions at the same level they are now will require no changes to the ETS. Maybe he's forgotten, but that broken system has production-based pollution subsidies, handing out more credits to polluters the more filth they spew. This doesn't set an incentive for reductions, and it doesn't set an incentive to cap growth. If we want even to merely limit emissions to where they are now, we will need to eliminate those subsidies - otherwise we're going to see an explosion of pollution when the recession finally ends.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Climate change: The ETS vs the Inventory

The EPA has released its annual ETS monitoring report, showing that reported gross emissions had risen to 108.8 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent in 2012. The reporting requirements had changed between 2011 and 2012, so we can't really directly compare it to last year's report. However, we should be able to compare it to the 2011 Inventory Report we provided to the UNFCCC, on the basis that ETS reports should accurately reflect emissions (or someone is cheating). To make the figures comparable, we need to remove the 17.352 million tons of deforestation emissions (which are counted separately in the Inventory Report and not fully accounted for under the ETS anyway), which gives us a gross 2012 figure of 91.456 million tons.

In 2011, we reported our gross emissions, excluding forestry, as 72.8 million tonnes. So emissions apparently rose by 18.656 million tonnes last year, or 25.6%.

Where has the apparent increase come from? Agriculture. The Inventory reported that our total agricultural emissions in 2011 were 34.4 million tonnes. The ETS report gives the total for 2012 as 51.4. At this stage its worth noting that the two reports use different methodologies for agriculture - the ETS report is working off tonnes of milk produced / animals slaughtered, while the Inventory uses (roughly) animal numbers times an emissions factor. But again, if the ETS is any good, we'd expect those different methodologies to produce similar results. They don't. So either there was a massive increase in agricultural emissions between 2011 and 2012, or the ETS methodology significantly overestimates those emissions.

Which is correct? We'll know in April next year, when the 2012 inventory is released. The comparison is going to be fascinating...


So, Egypt's military regime has done what we all expected it would, and started "clearing" - massacring - peaceful camps of protesters. So far the official death toll is almost 300, and the unofficial one is 2,000. These people have been murdered purely because of their peaceful political opposition to an undemocratic military regime.

Using the official death tolls, the Egyptian massacre is bigger than Tiananmen Square. That crime resulted in US condemnation and a suspension of diplomatic ties and arms sales. But while the US is making concerned noises about Egypt, they're still continuing to fund the regime to the tune of US$1.3 billion a year, giving them the money to buy the guns to murder their opponents. And they show of wanting to call this murderous coup regime what it is and cut off the money. The message is clear: as with Bahrain, you can murder with impunity provided you line up behind the US in its war on terror.

(And meanwhile, next time an Egyptian or a Bahraini participates in an act of terrorism against the US, they'll be all "why do they hate us?" and "what the fuck did I do?"...)

Meanwhile, the message to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - and similar groups of moderate political Islamists in the wider Arab world - is also clear: there is no democratic way to get what you want. If you win an election, the army will overthrow you. If you object and demand the restoration of democracy, they will murder you. But if you close off democracy as a pathway to change, the only paths left open are the undemocratic ones. Which tend to be rather less pleasant for everyone.

New Fisk

Cairo massacre: After today, what Muslim will ever trust the ballot box again?

How often do police spy on our TXTs? They don't know

Last week I highlighted some problems around the use of production orders by police. Police can use these orders to obtain both call-associated data (such as who you called and where you are) and stored telecommunications (including text messages and emails) from phone companies and ISPs. But there is no protection for legally privileged material, and the orders can be used to gain this information for trivial offences such as disorderly behaviour and resisting police. So how often do police use these powers? According to an OIA request someone filed through FYI, they don't know:

Police apply for Production Orders pursuant to the Search & Surveillance Act 2012 for a full range of criminal offences punishable by imprisonment, for example crimes of violence, dishonesty and drug offending. We do not collect information on the numbers of production orders, how many were granted or declines, the categories of offences or the type of documents (including CAD or content) sought because we have no business reason nor requirement in the Act to report on this activity.

Which is simply incredible. This is supposedly a major tool for crimefighting (and I agree, it is, and is perfectly justified for serious offences), but they have no idea at all how it is used. And when we're talking about a major intrusion into privacy - one that would require a predicate offence with a penalty of seven years imprisonment if the information was captured in real time rather than off a server - that's just not good enough.

And for an example: the police appear to have used this power (or otherwise obtained call-associated data) in the recent sleep-driving case, for which the predicate offence would seem to be driving while impaired. While not wanting to discount the seriousness of drunk driving, I'm not sure that its what we had in mind when we gave the police this power.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Isn't this illegal?

So, SkyCity apparently lost $2.4 million this year due to a large group of foreign gamblers who left without paying their debts. Which is interesting because it is illegal for casinos to loan money to their customers for the purposes of gambling.

While there are obvious exemptions, I can't find any evidence that they apply. All old approvals by the Casino Control Authority for casinos to offer credit to gamblers were revoked by the Gambling Commission in 2010 [PDF]. And I can find no suggestion in the Commission's list of decisions, its delegated approvals, or in SkyCity's venue or operators licences that any new approval has been granted. Either its (very oddly) not published, or it doesn't exist. In which case SkyCity has been breakign the law.

Either way: loaning money to gamblers is what Tony Soprano does. We should not be letting our casinos do it. We don't let them host loan sharks, and we shouldn't let them act that way either.

Update (16/8/13): According to Internal Affairs, it was a bounced cheque, rather than an illegal extension of credit by SkyCity.


The Pledgeme campaign to fund advertising against the GCSB Bill made its $3,300 target in a little over 24 hours. Its now sitting just shy of $4,500, and wondering what to do with the extra money. A billboard in Wellington? Posters in other centres? You can chip in with suggestions on the comments to the pledge.

The IOC backs Russian bigotry

The Russian government has said that they will enforce anti-gay laws against athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics. So is the International Olympic Committee standing with its athletes in opposing this discrimination?

Yeah, right:

The International Olympic Committee says it plans to stop any athlete from showing support of LGBT Russians at the Sochi Winter Games, reports Gay Star News.


“The IOC has a clear rule laid out in the Olympic Charter, which states that the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration,” an IOC spokeswoman told Gay Star News. “This rule has been in place for many years and applied when necessary.

According to the cited rule, athletes found in violation could face “disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned.”

This means any athlete who is seen holding hands with a member of the same sex or wearing a rainbow pin at any point during the games in Sochi would not only face potential fines, jail time, and deportation under Russian law but also punishment from the International Olympic Committee.

So, for gay athletes, simply being who you are will be classed as a protest and punished by the IOC. I guess they've decided that all that money from the games is more important than the human rights or physical safety of the participants who make them possible.

New Fisk

Any other ‘statesman’ who negotiated peace like John Kerry would be treated as a thief

A waste of money

Wellington's "Alternative Giving" campaign has come in for some well-deserved flack over the last month as being the friendly face of a campaign to sweep away the most visible reminders of economic failure. But in addition to that well-deserved criticism, there's also another reason to criticise it: its a complete waste of money.

According to an OIA request filed through FYI, the campaign cost between $34,000 and $40,000, depending on which of the two sets of contradictory figures supplied by WCC you believe. Meanwhile, its attempts to redirect donations to beggars to "better" (meaning less unsightly and morally troubling) causes have raised a grand total of... $452. Digital payment provider PushPay's skim is over eight times as much as the money raised.

If this was intended to actually raise money for the poor, its an expensive failure which has instead directed money to advertising companies. Wellington City Council would have achieved its policy objective better by cutting out the middle-men and giving that $40,000 directly to the charities concerned. But given that the policy objective is in fact to banish beggars and sweep the poor out of sight and out of mind, they're probably well-pleased.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Unsurprising II

Last year we learned that the courts were three times as likely to jail people for welfare fraud than tax fraud, despite the average offending being only a third the size. But that's not the only difference. It turns out that the government views the two types of debt differently as well:

Associate Professor Marriot’s latest research found that taxpayers can apply for financial relief from the IRD, but this is not an option for welfare debtors. In the most recent period (1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012) IRD wrote off nearly 50 percent of interest and penalties applied to overdue tax, amounting to $374 million. Furthermore, IRD wrote off $435 million in core debt (11.6 percent of collectable debt) while MSD wrote off just $8.7 million in core debt (2.1 percent of collectable debt).

Associate Professor Marriott says that in the 2011/12 period, the average value of outstanding tax debt was $14,479 per taxpayer in debt, while the average value of outstanding welfare debt was $2,523 per beneficiary in debt.


“There appears to be no basis for treating debtors to the two government agencies differently. However, these findings indicate that tax debtors get off more lightly,” says Associate Professor Marriott.

Marriott highlights the difference in official attitude towards the two types of debtors, which sees welfare debtors as less deserving. But when you think about it, this is the opposite of the truth. Tax debtors are cheats who have failed to pay what they owe. Most welfare debt OTOH is the result of administrative error by WINZ, not of any action by the debtor (the rest is largely loans and advances to which people are statutorily entitled - which again is a long way from the deliberate malfeasance of the tax debtor). And yet we spend far more money trying to collect the latter, and pursue the victims of such errors to the grave, while letting actual tax cheats off lightly.

This has to change. The differential treatment of tax and welfare debtors undermines confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our government services. And if IRD went to even half the effort to chase down debtors as WINZ, the government's budget, and our schools, hospitals, and public transport systems, would be much better off.

The price of arrogance

Two interesting news stories which have crossed my radar in the last 24 hours:

Two major policy announcements from National, two "meh"s from Peter Dunne. Dunne claims to be supporting long-established United Future policies, and he is. But as both of these policies need Dunne's vote to pass, the result is that they are effectively dead from launch. Normally governments consult their support partners and ensure there is a majority before announcing policy which requires legislation. But National has had things too easy for too long, and this seems to have led to arrogance. Dunne has basicly admitted that National didn't ask him about these policies (something which seems to be in breach of their confidence and supply agreement). And now they're going to pay the price for it.

(Meanwhile, wouldn't it be nice if Dunne stood up for those long-established United Future policies over the spy bill...?)

Spinning the wheel again


National is in trouble over John Key's spy bill and cuts to recreational fishing quotas, so its time for another spin of the wheel. So what do we get? Another crackdown on child-abusers, in the form of non-association orders banning them from being near children for up to ten years:

High Court and District Court judges will be able to impose the new civil orders on people who are tried for serious offences against children such as incest, sexual grooming or sexual violation - even if they are not convicted of the offence.

Ms Bennett said the scope of such orders would depend on the circumstances, and could prevent the person from living or working with children, up to blocking any association with children whatsoever, such as sitting next to a child on the bus.

"If it is serious enough, it could be that they cannot hang around parks, pools and other places children gather," she said.

So, the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" goes out the window because the government wants a PR hit. And it gets worse when you think about it. Modern society is infested with children, and if the orders ban even casual contact, then they amount to a 10-year sentence of de facto home detention, on pain of three years jail. Its not just "parks, pools and other places children gather" - its public transport, supermarkets, workplaces, streets. And all of this is specificly targetted at people who have been acquitted of any crime.

There are very obvious Bill of Rights Act problems with this idea. But this government seems to regard unconstitutionality as a sign of policy soundness. Which is another reason why we need to strengthen the BORA and give the courts the role of overturning laws found to violate it: because this government has shown that Parliament can no longer be trusted to be the final guardian of our human rights.

[And once again thanks to Joe Wylie and Dim-Post for the perfect summary of National's meta-policy]

Help stop the GCSB bill

Hate John Key's spy bill? Want to see some actual publicity against it, like a billboard and poster campaign? PledgeMe and Promoki have set up a Pledgeme campaign for exactly that, seeking $3,300 to pay for a billboard and 180 posters around Auckland.

You can contribute to it here. So far they're over halfway in under 24 hours. And if they exceed their target, there will be more posters in other centres.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Boycott the Bigot Olympics

In Russia, gays are officially designated as second-class citizens in law. While homosexuality is not (yet) illegal, gay people are routinely abused, assaulted, and persecuted. "Gay propaganda" - telling people that this is wrong, and that people are equal regardless of who they love - is a crime.

And yet the International Olympic Committee thinks this is an appropriate country to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Olympic Charter is pretty clear:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion,
politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

I guess the IOC just doesn't think that applies to gays. And OTOH, its been clear for a while that this is an organisation without any moral centre, dedicated solely to the pursuit of profit. After all, they gave the 2008 Summer Olympics to China, despite its appalling human rights record.

I'm not interested in sport, but those of you who are should consider whether you want to endorse these bigoted Olympics - and its sponsors - with your support and money. Decent people don't support bigotry, no matter how rich its excusers are.

More royal lobbying in the UK

The fundamental bargain of the British constitutional system is simple: the royal family keeps out of politics, and Parliament lets them keep their palaces (and their heads). But Prince Charles apparently thinks it doesn't apply to him:

An analysis of palace records showing that Prince Charles has held private meetings with cabinet ministers at least 36 times since the 2010 general election was seized on by campaigners for a republic who said it showed he was "a political operator and businessman with direct access to government".

Charles has met the prime minister, David Cameron, seven times and in many cases held meetings with ministers who have responsibility for areas in which he has taken a particular interest, according to the Daily Mail.


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

In a statement, Clarence House said: "The Prince of Wales has a right, indeed it is his duty, to communicate privately with the government on any matter he chooses, to bring his unique perspective and reflect the many issues people raise with him personally on his extensive engagements around the country."

Except if he was an ordinary rich person seeking policy concessions to his financial or ideological advantage - and there's no question that that is exactly what he is doing - his lobbying would have to be disclosed. Instead, it is being covered up in order to preserve the increasingly threadbare lie of the political neutrality of the monarchy.

This sort of secret lobbying simply has no place in a democracy. Neither does the covert wielding of power by an unelected, unaccountable hereditary elite. If Britain wants to truly call itself a democracy, it needs to put an end to its monarchy and strip them of any constitutional role. There should be only one source of political power in the UK: its people.