Friday, February 28, 2014

This smells

Moazzem Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner. After being imprisoned without charge or trial for three years, tortured, and brutalised, he was released in 2005. Since then, he's been a human rights activist, highlighting the western policies of torture, rendition and detention without trial that he was a victim of.

Part of this work has taken him to Syria, where he has been investigating the treatment of those rendered there by the Bush and Blair governments. The British don't like this, so in retaliation they used feudal-era laws to take his passport. And now, they've arrested him for "terrorism".

This smells. And it looks an awful lot like Putinism. But then, should we really expect anything different from a government which equates journalism with terrorism?


The theory behind banker's bonuses is that they're a reward for high performance. And if you pay them, it provides an incentive for staff to perform well in the future.

Royal Bank of Scotland shows the lie behind that. The company lost over 8 billion pounds last year. And its staff are being rewarded for that dismal performance with over half a billion pounds in bonuses.

This isn't a reward for high performance - its plunder. Greedy fat-cats are rewarding themselves and their mates for ruining a company. In the case of RBS, its even more obscene because the bank was bailed out by the UK government as a result of these clowns' mismanagement, so they're stealing taxpayer's money. That half a billion in bonuses could be going to the NHS instead.

Reported back

The Government Administration Committee has reported back on the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months' Paid Leave) Amendment Bill, and been unable to reach any agreement. There was some hope that National would back the bill after it asked for it to be delayed so it could consider its position, but it turned out that was just a delaying tactic; National opposes the bill, and voted down any amendments to it. Bad faith? All in a day's work for Chris Auchinvole, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, and Eric Roy...

3,795 of 3,809 submitters supported the bill. It has a Parliamentary majority. But National looks like it will squash it with an unconstitutional financial veto. That's what the right means in New Zealand now: stomping democracy to keep the poor in poverty.

An interesting omission

The GCSB's New Zealand Information Security Manual [PDF] is the standard for NZ government computer systems. It tells government departments what to do to ensure that their computer systems are secure, so that foreign agencies can't snoop on classified government information.

It doesn't mention webcams once.

This is mind-boggling. These things have been around for a long time, and we've known that they can be hacked and used to take pictures or video without the user's knowledge for almost as long. And you'd expect the GCSB - both because of their role in assuring the security of government computer systems, and because of their "close relationship" with Big Brother GCHQ, to be aware of this, and to formally advise that there simply shouldn't be any in secure locations. Instead, there's nothing.

So, is it deliberate, or are they just muppets?

Big Brother is watching you

The latest NSALeak: GCHQ is Big Brother, and is using your webcam to watch you:

Britain's surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, secret documents reveal.

GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.

In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.

This is mass-surveillance at its worst - intrusive, untargeted and ubiquitious. It is a mass-invasion of the privacy of internet users. And for what? In the hope that they'd spot a suspected terrorist sitting in front of a computer. Instead, what they got was lots and lots of porn (something they were apparently shocked by - do they know nothing about the internet?).

(Note that while the program ran until 2010, this doesn't mean we're safe - the document noted that it was "shortly to return!" so they could be perving at everyone through their webcams right now)

Could there be a clearer signal that spies are lawless, and incompatible with our privacy and our freedom? We need to vote them out. Cut their budgets, sack their staff, smash their toys, shut them down. Or, find ourselves being watched in our own homes, 24/7.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Treasury, National, and child poverty

Today's Treasury fuckup: they underestimated the number of children living in poverty by 20,000:

A breakdown in communication between Statistics New Zealand and Treasury saw the number of children living in poverty underestimated by tens of thousands.

It also led to the gap between rich and poor being slightly underestimated.

Treasury admitted substantial errors were made in its calculations of disposable income levels in Kiwi families for recent years, but says the results had no effect on the "real world".

"[T]here are no 'real world' impacts on New Zealanders from the miscalculations," Treasury chief economist Girol Karacaoglu said in a statement.

Treasury has one job: adding stuff up. And its clear that they can't do it properly. They can't accurately forecast GDP (they systematically underestimate under it left-wing governments, and systematically overestimate under right-wing ones - almost as if they had an underlying assumption that the economic sky will fall in under the "wrong" government), and now it turns out that they can't even track income distribution properly. And we're paying them $78 million a year to do this. For that sort of money, accuracy is the least we cna expect.

As for the idea that this had no impact at all, think about that for a minute. Sensible governments pay attention to the empirical evidence and use it to shape their policies and judge their performance. The only way such a massive error could have no impact is if National isn't doing that on child poverty - that is, if it doesn't care about it at all. We already knew that, but its useful to have it confirmed by another source.

A bad deal for New Zealand

The government has announced its plans to sell genesis Energy - and as expected, they're going to dump it on the market at a fire-sale price:

The Government is expected to set a low price for shares in Genesis Energy, to entice investors burnt by earlier asset sales, analysts say.

Finance Minister Bill English confirmed in Auckland yesterday that Genesis would be sold next month, bringing the Government's flagship mixed ownership model policy to a close.

English said though he remained willing to sell up to 49 per cent of Genesis, this could be reduced to 30 per cent if there was insufficient demand for a larger sale.

If the government needs to sell cheap to find buyers, then this suggests that its a bad time to sell and that the taxpayer is getting a poor deal. But National's privatisation policy has never been about getting a good deal (if it was, they wouldn't sell), but about transferring state assets and their oligopoly rents into the greasy paws of their rich mates. And if they get to do that cheap, allowing those rich mates to make windfall profits, then that's seen as a feature, not a bonus.

The solution to this corrupt policy is for the opposition to announce that the stolen assets will be renationalised at a loss to the thieves. Sadly, its been a long time since Labour has been enough of an opponent of privatisation to do that.

Equality comes to Texas

Yes, really:

A federal judge on Wednesday declared Texas’ ban on gay marriage unconstitutional but left the ban in place while an appeals court considers the matter.

The judge, Orlando Garcia of U.S. District Court in San Antonio, wrote that the state’s marriage laws demean the dignity of gay couples “for no legitimate reason.”

“Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution,” the judge wrote.

When we've won in Texas, the heart of American bigotry, we've really won. The principle of marriage equality is now unstoppable, just as racial equality was 50 years ago. There'll be more cases, to force implementation and iron out the details, but its all over bar the shouting.

Unfortunately, the bigots are retreating further into hate. Their latest tactic? Legalising discrimination against gays. Its not state action, so much as state inaction - a withdrawal from its role as the enforcer of a fair society. And that is going to make it difficult to challenge in court. It does make it clear that the US needs far better federal anti-discrimination laws - and I expect that to go to the top of the Democrats' agenda.

A dirty deal

When the government dropped charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall over the Pike River mine explosion, they claimed that the simultaneous announcement that he would pay compensation to the families of the 29 men he was accused of killing was just a coincidence, and that there was no deal. As usual, they lied:

Twelve health and safety charges laid against Whittall were dropped in Christchurch District Court on December 12. It was also announced at that hearing there would be a $3.41 million payment to the families of the 29 men who died in the mine and the two survivors.

At the time, Judge Jane Farish stressed to media there had been no back-room deal. One of Whittall’s lawyers, Stacey Shortall, also said any suggestion the payment offer from the Pike River Coal Company and its directors and officers was in return for the charges being dropped was ‘‘absolutely wrong’’.

But in an October 16 letter, Whittall’s lawyer Stuart Grieve QC lays out a proposal to make available $3.41m to the Pike River families.

The letter, released exclusively to Fairfax Media, says that in ‘‘advance of the $3.41 million being made available, it is proposed [with precise terms to be agreed] that ... the Ministry will not proceed with the charges laid against Mr Whittall by advising the Court that no evidence will be offered in support of any of the charges.’’

So, they cut a deal with a rich prick to allow him to buy his way out of jail, then lied to the public about it (and in the process, turned a High Court Judge into a liar as well - wonder how she feels about that?) This isn't justice. But its clear that National thinks that the law only applies to peasants, not to them and their rich mates.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Australia lies to refugees

The latest on Manus Island: staff there were instructed to lie to refugees about their prospects of resettlement:

A migration agent who worked at Australia's asylum seeker detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island says staff at the facility were told to lie to asylum seekers about their prospects of resettlement.

Liz Thompson says she was instructed by the immigration department to tell detainees they were going to be settled in PNG, even though there were no real plans in place.

There's more in the original SBS story: refugee claims aren't being processed, and there are no plans to process them. Instead, the gulag is for indefinite detention, aimed solely at deterring other refugees. And the worst bit is that they seem to be seeing this murder as an opportunity, something else they can use to "send a message" to those who would dare to seek a better life in Australia.

And again: John Key loves this policy and wants us to adopt it too. Isn't it time we stood up for kiwi values and told Australia that it was wrong?

The UK's government does not represent its people

The core idea of democracy is "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" - that is, representative of the people and reflecting its views. But it turns out that that's not the case in the UK, where the people are well to the left of the Labour Party:

If David Cameron genuinely believes "Red" Ed Miliband is a socialist then a new poll suggesting the public are far to the left of Labour and want state control of key sectors of the economy, will be enough to provoke nightmares of a Marxist revolution in Downing Street.

According to the poll, voters support state-imposed price controls on the utilities, re-nationalisation of the railways and Royal Mail, an end to private cash in the public sector and even state power to regulate rents.

But perhaps more worrying for the Tories is that, when asked, voters said they didn't believe either party was on the side of working people, suggesting they want to see even more radical policies.

This isn't really news - polls have been showing similar results for years. But it again highlights the near-complete disconnect between the UK's ruling class (educated at private schools, Oxford and Cambridge) and the people they purport to represent. As for how they get away with it, there are two reasons. The first of course is the country's unfair voting system, which reduces political "choice" to one between two (three if you live in a marginal university town) unrepresentative, elite parties, while limiting the ability of any representative party to break in. The second, in part driven by the first, is low voter turnout. People don't vote, because the parties don't represent them - and the parties don't care about them, because they don't vote. Its a vicious cycle of elite isolation and political disengagement feeding on one another. The question is how long it can go on before either the government give sup the charade, or the people grow angry enough to sweep the entire rotten system away.

The witch-hunt begins

Yesterday Uganda's president signed into law viciously homophobic legislation which would jail gays for life. punish advocacy of gay rights, and make it a crime to fail to report gays to the authorities. And today, we have this:

A Ugandan tabloid has named the country's "200 top homosexuals", a day after President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill toughening penalties for gay people.

Red Pepper's list appeared under the headline: "Exposed", raising concerns of a witch-hunt against gay people.

Hate-crimes against gays are common in Uganda. In 2011 gay rights advocate David Kato was beaten to death with a hammer after being named in a similar list. Red Pepper and the Ugandan government seem hell-bent on inciting further crimes.

Fighting the "Pacific solution"

Via Twitter (and ultimately screencapped from Facebook): a sign that ordinary Australians have grown disgusted with their government's racist anti-refugee policies:


Its good to see this, and hopefully its a sign that those policies will change in the future.

An attack on freedom of information

Its election year, and the State Services Commission has released guidance for state servants during the election period. But buried in section 2.4 there's a nasty surprise about the OIA:

Requests for information made by political parties during an election period should generally be treated in the same way as any other request for official information. However, the agency’s chief executive must be informed of any Official Information Act request received from an MP or a political party (including party research units) during an election period. The chief executive may wish to consult with the responsible Minister about the request. In such cases, the agency should consider whether it is necessary to extend the timeframe for making a decision on the request using section 15A of the Act.

So requests will be treated differently based on the political affiliation of the requester. So much for a neutral public service - or for a requester-neutral OIA.

As the Ombudsman has previously highlighted, there is a strong public interest in a well-informed electorate in election-year. The SSC's guidance seems to undermine that principle. And while "no surprises" means Ministers must be informed of requests with significant repercussions, this seems to go well beyond that and into political censorship. Which is the very opposite of what a neutral public service should be doing.

It would be interesting to know if the SSC consulted the Ombudsman about this guidance. Conveniently, we have a way of learning that (and as its not related to an investigation, its covered). To the OIA!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Manus Island: It was G4S

Last weekend, Australia's "Pacific solution" of loading refugees into boats heading north devolved into murder when in apparent retaliation for a riot, G4S security guards stood by and let locals, led by police, storm its Manus Island gulag. One person was killed and dozens were injured. The Australian government initially denied that a local mob had been involved, and blamed the refugees for the violence. But now witnesses are coming forward, and according to them, G4S invited the locals to storm the camp, and asked them to beat the refugees:

WITNESS: The police fired warning shots and that scared the clients and they went into their rooms., so that's when the G4S went in. And when the G4S get into the camp, they belt, they fight with the clients and belt them very badly and same are wounded, blood run over their face.

LIAM COCHRANE: Witnesses and guards say some G4S staff were injured by stones or by asylum seekers fighting back. There have been conflicting reports about whether local residents joined in the brawl. This witness is certain 10 to 15 locals armed with lengths of wood got involved.

WITNESS: But the locals went in.

LIAM COCHRANE: And are you sure that they were local residents and not G4S people out of uniform?

WITNESS: Yeah, of course. They're some locals. Because the locals came to see what's happening. They're on the road and see what's happening, so when the fence, the gates just - the G4S guards just break down the fence. They told everybody to go in and stop them and hit them and fight them, so that's when the locals get in.

LIAM COCHRANE: So the G4S guards asked the locals to come inside?

WITNESS: Yeah. Because the G4S guards want manpower to help them, so they took them inside, the locals helped them.

According to the witness, most of the culprits were local G4S guards; those hired from Australia apparently stayed out of it.

meanwhile, in related news: many of those detained in the Manus Island gulag are Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing the repressive aftermath of that country's civil war. But there's no escape, because G4S hired a former Sri Lankan army officer to run the camp. There's no suggestion that he is implicated in any war crimes himself, but as the Human Rights Law centre notes, it is inappropriate for anyone with links to the Sri Lankan military (who are reported to have massacred civilians in the final stages of the civil war) to be in charge of refugees, particularly those fleeing Sri Lanka. The good news is that he was employed by G4S, who have just been stripped of the Manus Island contract. The bad news is that reportedly he's staying on to run the gulag from Transfield, G4S's replacement. Which is what happens when you outsource: a billion dollars, and no accountability.


That's the only way to describe Immigration's attempts to deport a severely ill Tongan woman back to a disaster zone:

A member of the Tongan Advisory Council says that deporting Tongan overstayers with medical conditions back to the islands devastated by Cylone Ian is "sending them to die".

An illegal immigrant from an area of Tonga ravaged by Cyclone Ian is facing deportation, despite a heart complaint and a doctor's warning not to fly.

The woman's husband of 24 years has already been deported and now she faces the same fate. They come from the Ha'apai area where more than half the 8000 population were made homeless by last month's cyclone and most of the crops were wiped out.

The woman has heart and thyroid conditions which are severe enough that doctors recommend she does not fly. She will not be able to receive treatment for those conditions on Ha'apai, which means deportation is effectively a death sentence. Which seems to be a prima facie violation of the right not to be deprived of life affirmed in the BORA.

Civilised countries don't kill people, or deport people back to disaster zones to die. We are meant to be a better country than this. We should let this woman stay.

This is not the way to rebuild trust

The NZ Police have been having trust issues lately: police rapists, sexism, bullying, dead prisoners, Operation 8 and the Kim Dotcom raid. Not to mention an apparent inability to do the most basic tasks, and a culture of denial about all of it. Faced with that problem, you'd expect the next police commissioner to be someone who would present an image of culture change, who would add credibility to the Police's claims that they had learned and really were different now.

Instead, National has appointed Mike Bush - the man who infamously eulogised and made excuses for former police officer Bruce Hutton, otherwise known as "the dirty cop who planted evidence to get Arthur Allan Thomas locked up for a crime he didn't commit".

So much for rebuilding trust.


Yesterday the government raised the minimum wage by 50 cents, to $14.25 an hour. While its better than last year's miserable 25 cent increase, it still shows National's complete lack of commitment to reducing inequality and raising living standards of ordinary kiwis. But then, that's not surprising - National is the party of the 1% who benefit from inequality and from grinding people's faces into the mud; their policy goal is not to raise living standards, but to keep wages as low as possible while still getting re-elected.

Meanwhile, Labour has made it clear that their $15/hour election promise - which has since been heavily eroded by inflation - is a beginning, not an end: they're planning not just an immediate increase to $15/hour, but another substantial increase 6 months after that. Which even if they then drop back to annual increases, will put them well on course to meet that inflation-adjusted target over the term if they become government.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Looking for another dumping ground

Now that Nauru and Papua New Guinea are turning toxic, Australia is looking for another dumping ground for its refugees: Cambodia:

The Abbott government wants to send some asylum seekers to Cambodia, at a time when the country's strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, is overseeing a brutal crackdown on dissent in one of south-east Asia's poorest nations.

Facing growing opposition after decades of authoritarian rule, Hun Sen last month authorised a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters and striking garment workers that left five people dead and dozens injured.


If an agreement is reached with Australia, asylum seekers would arrive in a country that has no social welfare and where 20 per cent of the population live in poverty and 40 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished, according to the World Bank.

Given its desire for secrecy and image control in its current gulags, the Australian government probably regards Cambodia's political repression as a feature rather than a problem - it will make it that much easier to keep the gulags out of sight and out of mind of the Australian public. But civilised countries don't dump their refugees in repressive hellholes to enable their mistreatment - they deal with them humanely, according to international law, and within their legal jurisdiction so there are full appeal rights and judicial oversight.

The spies never stop

When the NSA was caught bugging German Chancellor Anglea Merkel's cellphone, they were ordered to stop by no less than the President of the United States. They did - but have simply started spying on other politicians instead:

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has stepped up its surveillance of senior German government officials since being ordered by Barack Obama to halt its spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday.

Revelations last year about mass U.S. surveillance in Germany, in particular of Merkel's mobile phone, shocked Germans and sparked the most serious dispute between the transatlantic allies in a decade.

Bild am Sonntag said its information stemmed from a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany and that those being spied on included Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a close confidant of Merkel.

"We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor's communication directly," it quoted the NSA employee as saying.

Again, these are not the actions of a friendly nation towards one of its allies. The US seems incapable of not abusing its diplomatic facilities to spy on friendly host nations. And if that's the case, Germany should kick them out until they can behave in a civilised manner.

New Fisk

Pluralism was once the hallmark of the Arab world, so the exodus of Christians from the Middle East is painful to one Islamic scholar
Ukraine’s future is tied up with Syria’s – and Vladimir Putin is crucial to both

"An operational matter"

When the GCSB refused to reveal whether it was being bribed by the NSA, it hid behind a clause in the Intelligence and Security Committee Act that the ISC could not inquire into "any matter that is operationally sensitive, including any matter that relates to intelligence collection and production methods or sources of information". So what's "operationally sensitive" according to the GCSB? Looking at the questions and answers received, there's an interesting pattern: Whether the GCSB spies on all our metadata is not "operationally sensitive". Neither is whether it spies on the citizens of other Five Eyes partners - things you'd expect to go to the core of their operations. But when Parliament asks about whether it is obeying the Public Finance Act, or whether it has formal NSA moles in its organisation, then suddenly its an "operational matter" which they can't answer. The natural conclusion: they do and there are - because if either allegation was false, they'd just deny it.

So much for Parliamentary oversight

Last year John Key passed a spy bill granting vast new domestic spying powers to the GCSB. But he said that we wouldn't have to worry, because they would be coupled with greater Parliamentary oversight through the Intelligence and Security Committee.

As usual, he was lying":

The Government's spy agencies have refused to tell Parliament's intelligence and security committee if they receive funding from the United States.


The agencies' responses to questions were provided to the committee late last week.

Both GCSB and the SIS refused to answer questions about funding from the United States Government, or any other nation which is part of the Five Eyes spying alliance.

US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed last year the National Security Agency provided $200m in secret payments to the British GCHQ to secure access and influence.

Both agencies cited legislation which forbids the ISC enquiring about matters which are ''operationally sensitive'' and that relate to ''intelligence collection and production methods or sources of information.''

They also refused to say if any foreign government, or the NSA, paid for any position within the bureaux, or if there were any secondees.

Where the money comes from and what it is spent on is the cornerstone of Parliamentary accountability. But the GCSB apparently thinks that doesn't apply to it. And this doesn't just raise questions about their loyalty to New Zealand but also to our democratic system.

It may also breach the Public Finance Act. The cornerstone of that Act - and of our constitutional tradition since the C18th - is that public money cannot be spent without the authorisation of Parliament. Which means that Parliament controls what the government can do by holding the purse strings. But secret bribes from the NSA would permit the GCSB to circumvent that control, to do things not authorised by Parliament, to run riot in our name.

This isn't acceptable. If GCSB isn't accountable to Parliament, then it cannot be permitted to exist. ISC, which has financial oversight of the GCSB and is the only body which sees its appropriations, needs to conduct a line-by-line review of its income and spending, to ensure that they are obeying the Public Finance Act. And if the GCSB is not willing to submit to it and disclose totally the sources of their funding, then they need to be terminated as an organisation: their budget cut, their statute repealed, their staff sacked, and their equipment destroyed.

Friday, February 21, 2014

None dare call it torture

In its annual reports and reports under OPCAT - the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture - the Ombudsman's Office has repeatedly raised concerns about segregation regimes (solitary confinement) in our prisons. Poor living conditions, long periods of solitary confinement, and limited recreation time means that imprisonment in this manner "could be considered cruel and inhuman for the purposes of the Convention Against Torture" (why? Because prolonged solitary confinement drives people mad, or, in the appropriate legalese, causes severe mental suffering).

Now it turns out that Corrections has been using this regime not for the purposes of maintaining security and good order in prisons, as envisioned by the law, but for punishing a prisoner who took them to court and won.

The Ombudsman's full report is here. It describes how Corrections staff placed Arthur Taylor in segregation for a period of nine months. Throughout his detention there were gross deficiencies in process, with reasons not being provided, detention not being authorised by appropriate staff, and justifications being transparently unlawful. While the initial decision to use segregation was found to be justified, the subsequent extensions were found to be unjustified and contrary to both law and prison policy. Particularly concerning was the decision to relocate Taylor to the "High Care Unit" - basicly a suicide cell, where the environment resulted in sleep deprivation - which was found to be "more akin to a punishment regime".

So, in short: they subjected a prisoner to prolonged solitary confinement and sleep deprivation - intentionally inflicting severe mental pain and suffering - as punishment. The treatment was unlawful, so was not incident to lawful sanctions. Which seems to constitute an act of torture.

Torture is a crime in New Zealand. The people responsible for this atrocity - including Corrections Chief Executive Ray Smith, who legally had to sign off on all of it - need to be put on trial for it. As for the Ombudsman, like Roger Brooking I am appalled that they would shy away from the natural conclusion of this investigation. They are supposed to defend our rights - not look the other way on torture and cruel and inhuman treatment.


For three months, the people of the Ukraine have been protesting in Euromaidan in Kiev for the restoration of their constitution, and end to corruption, and a European future. Initially the government met them with tear gas and beatings. Now it has started murdering them. An estimated 75 people are dead so far, most killed by government snipers; hundreds more are injured. But rather than reacting with fear and submission, the protestors have reacted with rage, seizing the streets of Kiev. Outside the capital, regional and local governments are under siege, and people are stealing weapons from military armouries.

I have no idea how this is going to end (other than badly and messily and with a lot more bodies). But a government which murders its own people forfeits all legitimacy and deserves to be overthrown. Ideally that will be at the ballot box, but Ukraine's regime may not give people that option. And regardless of how it turns out, the murderers who have done this need to face justice - ideally under Ukrainian law, but under international law if that is not possible.

The NSA are taking us to a creepy SF dystopia

Writing in The Guardian, Luke Harding describes his writing of The Snowden Files, and the odd incidents that happened during it. The sudden and simultaneous "road works" outside The Guardian's New York and Washington DC offices within hours of them publishing the Verizon mass-surveillance story (tapping the phones?). The clumsy CIA surveillance and break-ins in Rio. The sudden phone glitches when talking about it. And then there's this bit:

By September the book was going well – 30,000 words done. A Christmas deadline loomed. I was writing a chapter on the NSA's close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden's revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish. When I tried to close my OpenOffice file the keyboard began flashing and bleeping.

Over the next few weeks these incidents of remote deletion happened several times. There was no fixed pattern but it tended to occur when I wrote disparagingly of the NSA. All authors expect criticism. But criticism before publication by an anonymous, divine third party is something novel.

Its like something out of a dystopian SF novel. And that's where our spies are taking us to: to an SF surveillance dystopia, where everyone is subjected to constant surveillance, and those who criticise the powerful are subjected to pre-emptive censorship.

But we can still stop them. We still have free elections; all we need are politicians willing to stand on a platform of shutting down the spies. Cut their budgets, sack their staff, destroy their equipment, and kill their dystopia before it strangles us all.

Labour's unacceptable secrecy

Last year, the Labour Party ran a leadership election. There was big money involved - so much so that the party imposed a spending cap and required that large donations be disclosed. But now they're refusing to make the details public:

The Labour Party is refusing to release details of the donations its three leadership contestants received in the leadership contest last year and can escape the usual disclosure rules for donations the contestants subsequently passed on to the party.

The rules of the contest last September required the contestants to disclose to the party hierarchy any donations of more than $1500.

David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones were also required to give any unspent donations to the party after the contest.


[Labour Party Secretary Tim Barnett] would not say how much was passed on to the party's coffers but said if any candidates provided more than the disclosable limit of $15,000 for party donations, it would be declared in its return in April. Any such donations would be declared as from the contestant rather than the donors who originally gave the money.

The reason we have disclosure regimes in national politics is so we can know who is buying our politicians. The same principle should apply in party leadership contests. These aren't just an "internal party matter", but something which affects who gets to be our Prime Minister. And we have a fundamental right to know who the candidates for that office owe favours to. otherwise, we are simply exposing ourselves to corrupting and influence-peddling.

Meanwhile, primaries look to be a great way of laundering donations so as to prevent normal transparency. I wonder how many parties will now start running them?


The government introduced another Statutes Amendment Bill this week - the fourth this term (or possibly, the fourth at once). Statutes Amendment Bills are supposed to be for amendments that are "technical, short, and non-controversial" - basically, minor clarifications and drafting errors. To enforce this, they are effectively passed by leave: if anyone objects to a clause at the Committee Stage of the bill, it is automatically struck out.

In the Herald, "the Insider" raises concerns about the bill's proposed amendment to the Ombudsmen Act, which updates the rules around when an Ombudsman can refuse to investigate a complaint. Comparing the current and new versions shows that the only difference is allowing the Ombudsman to refuse to investigate or further investigate when it is unnecessary. This doesn't seem controversial at all, and reflects existing practice, particularly around e.g. complaints of late OIA responses (where often mere notification that a complaint has been lodged will cause the information to miraculously appear).

The bill also makes minor tweaks to the OIA and LGOIMA, but these also appear to be non-controversial: defining legal privilege, further clarifying that an OIA or LGOIMA request doesn't have to refer to either Act and can be made in any form, allowing part-transfers, clarifying that documents may be made available electronically, inserting a "reasonable efforts" provision in "file not found" refusals, and specifically stating that a late response is grounds for complaint to the Ombudsman. Again these amendments reflect current practice (some even seem unnecessary), and are non-controversial.

However, there is one section which should be highly controversial: the proposed amendments to the Tokelau (Territorial Sea and Exclusive Economic Zone) Act 1977. These massively increase the penalties for foreign fishing in Tokelau's EEZ, by a factor of 167 for crew. Such an increase in penalties (and move away from a distinction between fishing companies and captains, who decide where to fish, and ordinary mooks, who don't) seems to be rather more than "technical". While its legislation that needs to be passed, this is not the vehicle for such a measure; the government should instead introduce a specific amendment bill for the purpose.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The latest on the "Pacific solution"

Over the weekend, Australia's "Pacific solution" of loading refugees into boats heading north devolved into murder when in apparent retaliation for a riot, G4S security guards stood by and let locals, led by police, storm its Manus Island gulag. One person was killed and dozens were injured. What's the latest?

  • An Australian immigration translator has come forward as a witness, claiming that the attack was by PNG locals, some of whom were employed by G4S. She has now been sacked, and she expects the Australian government to "come after me with all that they have".
  • Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot views being expected to maintain a proper duty of care towards refugees by e.g. not letting them be murdered by a death squad employed by your security company while under your care as "moral blackmail".
  • The Age has denounced the entire Pacific Solution and called for an end to offshore detention, saying that "We have become a nation that acquiesces in the cruel and inhumane treatment of people who seek freedom from persecution". Except Australia doesn't just "acquiese" - it is the country which is carrying out that cruel and inhuman treatment.
The key question for Australians is how many more refugees they are willing to see murdered and tortured to pander to their racist element. And if the answer is anything other than "zero", then you are complicit in that murder and torture and need to be held accountable for it.

How China is dealing with farm pollution

Banning farms near rivers:

The Chinese government is considering moving farming away from major rivers in the country saying the industry's impact on the environment in these areas is just too great.

A senior Chinese government official and agricultural expert, Chen Xiwen, told a meeting at the Beehive in Wellington this week that while agricultural productivity has been rising, China faces a number of hurdles in terms of producing its own food.

Mr Chen said the Chinese government is considering banning or restricting farming along China's major rivers - as the effects of pollution are too severe.

He said farming was a major cause of pollution and the pollution downstream effect was particularly exaggerated.

That's one way of fixing it. Hopefully we'll act early enough to avoid such drastic measures.

National's environmental secrecy bill

Since time immemorial, National has been promising regular environmental reporting. Nick Smith ran on the platform in 2008, then failed to deliver so badly that Labour re-introduced his member's bill on the subject in the hope of forcing him to keep his word. But now, after six years in government, National is finally keeping that promise, introducing an Environmental Reporting Bill. The core of the bill is good, requiring a "synthesis report" every three years on the whole of the environment, and regular "domain reports" on land, air, atmosphere and climate, freshwater and the marine environment. In each case, the reports will have to describe environmental pressures and impacts, as well as the state of the environment.

But there's one unusual feature. Section 16 of the bill forbids disclosure (for example, under the OIA), of any "information or analysis that will be, or has been, used in an environmental report" except with the permission of both the Secretary for the Environment and the Government Statistician. Permission must be refused if "the information or analysis is integral to significant findings or conclusions of the report". The clause "applies despite any other enactment", specifically over-riding the Official Information Act.

MfE's disclosure statement says that this is "consistent with current practice for Tier 1 statistics (e.g. gross domestic product statistics)" and exists to ensure that the report will be independent from the government of the day. But think about it for a minute: the vast majority of the information used in these reports will be sourced from basic environmental monitoring conducted by Crown Research Institutes (such as NIWA), or from local or regional authorities. At the moment such information is routinely available; if I want to know how dirty my local river is, I can LGOIMA Horizons and ask. If this clause is enacted, such requests will be subject to a central government veto. Even assuming no political malice (something I am not willing to grant), at the minimum this will make such information much harder to get, and result in routine delays for consultation. But there's a real danger here that basic environmental information will become secret, except as presente din glossy central government reports.

Interestingly, the power is specifically noted as applying to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who has a statutory monitoring power under the bill. How they're supposed to do this independently with the Secretary for the Environment (a political appointee who must maintain good relations with their Minister) having a veto on their information is unclear.

What's really going on? Finding out will take some excavation under the OIA, but there's two obvious targets: environmentalists (who keep using environmental statistics and draft copies to challenge the government's rose-tinted views), and climate cranks (who have flooded climate scientists with OIAs for basic data, then launched meritless lawsuits over it, wasting everybody's time and money). But neither justifies secrecy. Lurking behind it is a toxic view that "independence" requires being insulated from any challenge. But as any scientist will tell you, a report whose conclusions cannot be tested against the data is not worth the bits it is written in.

If we want robust, independent environmental reporting, then it needs to be subject to criticism, including of its basic data and of its process. National's environmental secrecy clause must go!

The GCSB lied to Parliament

As a government agency with highly intrusive powers, the GCSB is legally required to report annually on its use of those powers, specifically on how many wiretaps and computer hacks it has been performing. But last year, they lied, massively under-reporting the extent of their spying:

In the Government Communications Security Bureau’s Annual Report for the year ended 30 June 2013, there are errors on page 22 of the report relating to the number of warrants and authorisations.

The error is because of record keeping and we reported the number of operations rather than the number of warrants. This means if there was more than one warrant or authorisation for an operation there has been an under count.

Russel Norman has a picture of the errata compared to the original here. The differences are significant - an understatement of a third on interception warrants, and almost a half on access authorisations. And it raises some interesting questions:
  • Firstly, how many times has this happened before? Has GCSB's statutory reporting to parliament been lies all along?
  • Secondly, if the GCSB are such muppets that they can't even count properly, why should we trust them with our privacy?
  • Thirdly, a false statement in an annual report is a formal lie to Parliament. Will anyone at the GCSB be held accountable for it?
The third one is important, and goes to the heart of GCSB's accountability. Are they above the law, or subject to democratic control through Parliament? Sadly, I think our weak government will let them get away with it - again.


A ballot for a Members bill was held today and the following bill was drawn:

The bill would stop people serving on multiple local boards of the Auckland Council. Fairly uncontentious (especially compared to some of National's other member's bills, which are utterly toxic).

There were 73 bills in the ballot today - not as big as it was before the holidays, but still a massive increase over the situation just a few years ago.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


What happens if you get raped in Sudan? The police ignore your complaint, then charge you with adultery:

A pregnant teenager who says she was gang-raped has been charged with adultery in Sudan, and faces a possible sentence of death by stoning. The country's judiciary has received millions of pounds in aid from the UK.


The young divorcee claims that last August, when she was about three months pregnant, she was lured to an empty property in the capital, Khartoum, and violently gang-raped by seven men. She reported the incident to a police officer at the time, but he decided against pursuing an investigation because of the Eid holiday. He was initially charged with negligence, but this was dropped on Tuesday.

According to SIHA, the attack was filmed by one of the men on his phone and circulated on social media six months later, leading to the arrest of both the alleged perpetrators and victim. The case came to court earlier this month. Five men, understood to be between 18 to 22, are accused of adultery; a sixth, who says he did not have sex with the woman, is accused of gross indecency.

The woman is charged with adultery, although she denied the charges and is pleading not guilty on the basis that the sexual act was against her will. Her attempt to make a complaint of rape has been denied on the technicality that she is under investigation on other charges and she should have complained at the time of the incident. Her request for bail has been denied by the attorney general.

Reading this, its pretty clear: Sudan does not have a justice system, so much as one which excuses rapists while persecuting their victims.

No justice for electoral fraud

Last year, Labour candidate Daljit Singh was convicted of electoral fraud. His sentence? Five months' community detention and 200 hours community service:

A Labour party candidate in Auckland's first Super City elections will serve five months' community detention for his involvement in New Zealand's first electoral fraud.

Daljit Singh's bid to avoid a conviction on two charges of using forged documents he was found guilty of was also scuppered today in the High Court at Auckland, where he was also ordered to do 200 hours' community work.

A jury acquitted the 43-year-old on a further 18 charges over a scheme designed to increase his chances of winning a spot on the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board by enrolling people from outside the area in that ward.

For those who don't know, community detention means being required to stay at home for a few hours a day. Its an appropriate sentence for some offending. But electoral fraud? This is a serious offence which strikes at the heart of our democracy. And the clear message of the courts is that they don't give a shit about it.

A threat to freedom

The latest NSALeak: the NSA and its British proxy spied on people who visited

Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.

The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.

One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.

So basically "our" spies are spying on whether we're reading material embarrassing to them. Its a threat not just to freedom of the press, but also to freedom of expression (which includes the right to receive as well as distribute information) - and to democracy itself. And it raises several obvious questions.

Firstly, how far did it go? They collected IP addresses - did they try and link them to people? Have they been drawing up an "enemies list" of "subversives" who read material critical of them?

Secondly, what else are they spying on? Have they been abusing the powers given to them in the name of "national security" to spy on who is reading anti-spying articles in the Guardian or New York Times?

Thirdly, and locally: was GCSB involved? Was it given access to information about New Zealanders? Either would be a gross abuse of their powers, and of our democratic values.

And again: the evidence shows that the existence of these agencies is simply incompatible with democracy. We must shut them down. Vote out the spies!

Member's Day

Today is (finally) a Member's Day - the government having dragged out the opening debate on the Prime Minister's statement to delay it. Unfortunately, it looks like a pretty boring one - a local rates validation bill, a private bill to amend a birth certificate (of great significance to the person involved, but not that interesting to the rest of us), and the second readign of Paul Goldsmith's uncontentious Electronic Transactions (Contract Formation) Amendment Bill. After that there's Clare Curran's Electronic Data Safety Bill (would would legislatively establish a special commission of inquiry into privacy failures by government departments), and the House will probably make a start on Phil Twyford's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (which would allow EECA to set minimum standards for rental housing and require landlords to comply with them). If the House gets that far, there should be a ballot for a single bill tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

International justice for North Korea

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has found that the North Korean regime is committing crimes against humanity on a scale not seen since Nazi Germany:

A prisoner is forced to haul emaciated corpses up a mountain ready for burning so their ash can be used as fertiliser but sees that the flesh on their faces has been gnawed away by rats. Horrified inmates watch as a guard angered by the crying of a baby forces its mother to drown it face down in a bucket of water.

These are just two in a litany of alleged “unspeakable atrocities” described in a nearly 400-page report released by an independent UN panel of inquiry into the North Korean regime and its decades-long subjugation of its citizens through incarceration, enforced starvation, torture, rape, enslavement and sexual abuse. “Hundreds of thousands” of detainees have lost their lives over 50 years, it claims.

Presenting the report in Geneva, the panel chairman, Michael Kirby, said some of the crimes described evoke those committed by the Nazis, like forcing prisoners to load corpses into pots for burning. “At the end of the Second World War so many people said ‘if only we had known... if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’,” he said. “Well, now the international community does know... There will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know.”

The Commission of Inquiry is recommending that the UN security Council refer the North Korean regime to the International Criminal Court, or in the event of a big power veto, for the UN General Assembly to create an ad-hoc tribunal to do it instead. I agree. The international community has looked the other way on atrocities like this for too long; its time for international justice to prevail.

An entirely avoidable disaster

If you've been watching the news recently, you'll know that great chunks of the UK are under water or under threat of flooding at the moment, thanks to the worst rain since records began. Why? Because the current government cut funding for flood defences:

Flood-stricken communities, including those visited by David Cameron in the Somerset Levels and Yalding in Kent, have been left without planned defences following government funding cuts, the Guardian can reveal.

Undelivered defences, totalling many millions of pounds, also include schemes on the stretch of Devon coast at Dawlish where the mainline railway fell into the sea and near the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

Ministers have been heavily criticised for cutting flood defence spending by almost £100m a year after taking power, but this is the first time specific projects affected by the cuts have been identified.

There's more detail here on the effects of the cuts on the Thames valley (some parts of which are flooded out).

Governments aren't responsible for the weather (except insofar as they ignore climate change), but they are very much responsible for how they plan for it. The UK government appears to have thrown such planning out the window in search of easy cuts so it could cut taxes for its rich cronies. They need to pay a price for it. At the least, there are Ministers who should be resigning - but a government which simply allows this scale of disaster to happen needs to go.

Shane Taurima

Last night TV3 revealed that TVNZ's Shane Taurima had been using TVNZ facilities for his political work for the Labour Party. Taurima has resigned, but this isn't just an employment matter: TVNZ is a crown-owned company, and its employees (but not its board members) are covered by the SSC's Standards of Integrity and Conduct - which among other things requires political impartiality, "an absolute obligation not to bring our political interests into our work". And its deeply troubling that the culture of TVNZ, both as a journalistic organisation and a public-sector one, seems to have let that standard slide.

The "Pacific solution" devolves into torture and murder

Something I missed last month: the Australian Navy has been torturing refugees, beating them and burning their hands on hot engines. This is what happens when politicians systematically dehumanise and demonise a group: the grunts who interact with them start acting on the politicians' message that they are not people, and that you can do whatever you want with them. Naturally, Tony Abbot is refusing any investigation, and prefers to smear the media than uphold core human rights standards. Its hard to see this as anything other than official sanction.

And then there's today's news: over the weekend, there was a riot at Australia's gulag on Manus Island, PNG. And in response, Australia's hired goons from G4S evacuated their staff from the camp, then stood back and watched as a mob of locals (led apparently by local police) stormed the place. Scores of people have been injured in the attack, and at least one is dead. Duty of protection? Australia doesn't recognise that, any more than it recognises the prohibition against torture, or the Refugee Convention itself.

And remember: the Australian government will not let its Human Rights Commissioner investigate its gulags.

Once upon a time Australia was a decent country. Now its one with torture, gulags and death squads. And John Key wants us to adopt their tactics? Again, someone should ask him whether he stands my that comment now...

Monday, February 17, 2014

London says it will reject the will of the Scottish people

Just a week after English politicians united to threaten Scotland with a forced departure from the Pound, London is now saying that it may simply ignore a Scottish vote for independence:

UK ministers could block full independence for Scotland if Alex Salmond makes “impossible demands” after a Yes vote in September’s referendum.

The Independent has learned that, even if Scots vote to break away from the UK, this would not guarantee that all the Scottish National Party's demands would be met.

One senior government source said: "A Yes vote in the referendum would be the start of a process, not the end of one. We would start negotiations. But if Alex Salmond made impossible demands, we would not just roll over and agree to everything he wanted. If we could not reach agreement, the status quo would be the default option."

"The status quo" being "Scotland subservient to London". But if the Scots vote to leave, then refusing to let them seems to be pissing in the face of democracy. But then, isn't that what English colonialism was always about?

Meanwhile, it speaks volumes that the English think they can only get Scotland to stay in the same country by threats, bullying, and dirty tricks. And those tactics seem designed to backfire messily.

Spying on lawyers

The latest NSALeak: The US got its toadies the Australian Defence Signals Directorate to spy on American lawyers representing Indonesia in trade talks:

A top-secret document, obtained by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, shows that an American law firm was monitored while representing a foreign government in trade disputes with the United States. The disclosure offers a rare glimpse of a specific instance in which Americans were ensnared by the eavesdroppers, and is of particular interest because lawyers in the United States with clients overseas have expressed growing concern that their confidential communications could be compromised by such surveillance.

The government of Indonesia had retained the law firm for help in trade talks, according to the February 2013 document. It reports that the N.S.A.’s Australian counterpart, the Australian Signals Directorate, notified the agency that it was conducting surveillance of the talks, including communications between Indonesian officials and the American law firm, and offered to share the information.

The Australians told officials at an N.S.A. liaison office in Canberra, Australia, that “information covered by attorney-client privilege may be included” in the intelligence gathering, according to the document, a monthly bulletin from the Canberra office. The law firm was not identified, but Mayer Brown, a Chicago-based firm with a global practice, was then advising the Indonesian government on trade issues.

On behalf of the Australians, the liaison officials asked the N.S.A. general counsel’s office for guidance about the spying. The bulletin notes only that the counsel’s office “provided clear guidance” and that the Australian agency “has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.”

So we now have clear evidence that our spy agencies use each other to circumvent bans on spying on their own citizens, and that they do not care about basic norms such as attorney-client privilege when doing so. This is utter contempt for the law. And note that its not being done in the name of "national security", but of commercial interests and petty trade disputes.

Again: the only way to end these abuses is to vote out the spies. Defund them, disband them, and destroy their equipment. Nothing else will do.

No freedom of religion in Britain

Back in the Sixteenth Century, the English government banned those who espoused religious views different from those officially approved from preaching in public or otherwise disseminating their views. Back then the target was Catholics - or Protestants, depending on how the monarch felt that morning. Today, its Muslims:

A Muslim convert who targeted members of the public as part of a campaign for a sharia state in Britain has been given a groundbreaking asbo, police have said.

Jordan Horner, 20, from northeast London has been ordered to stop preaching in public, in a legal first.


He was also told he must not be in possession of a loudhailer in public or enter any educational establishment, unless he is a student there.

As well as being forbidden to preach and hand out leaflets in support of sharia law, Horner was banned from defacing public adverts.

But now the UK is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which affirms both freedom of religion (including the right to manifest a religion in public) and freedom of expression. I don't think there's much of a question that Horner's religious-political views are hostile to the established order and policies of the UK - he appears to be part of a group which has supported (or in some cases, merely laughed about - which shows you the degree of British intolerance) the deaths of British soldiers - but the UK is supposed to be a democracy which respects the freedoms of religion and expression. And in such a society, people who oppose your wars as unjust, say that the soldiers who fight in them deserve to die (or at least, deserve no pity), and who call for radical changes to the social order are something which must be accepted. You might not like them, you might find their views repellent, but if you support human rights and a democratic society, then you cannot support this persecution.

(I should also note that its incredibly stupid. Banning people from preaching on transparently religious-political grounds is exactly the sort of grievance which radicalises others).

New Fisk

Civilians are dying. Campaigners are being kidnapped. The world cannot turn a blind eye to America’s drone attacks in Pakistan
Proof that politics hasn’t changed

A sensible policy

Over the weekend the Greens launched a new solar energy policy [PDF], which would see the government provide low-interest loans for home photovoltaic installations, while also ensuring fair sell-back to the grid. So how does it stack up? Very well indeed.

Firstly, the policy goal: more solar energy (and by implication, more distributed generation). Its a good goal, which both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and network upgrade costs, while adding some local survivability into the electricity grid. In Germany, the widespread introduction of photovoltaics (encouraged by a feed-in-tariff, which saw PV electricity paid according to its costs, not market rates) has been hugely successful at flattening the daily peak in demand, which reduces high spot prices, and therefore electricity costs. Its also contributed strongly to the reduction of Germany's energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. That's something worth doing, which will benefit kiwis.

Secondly, the policy instrument: government-backed, low-interest loans. This ought to be absolutely uncontentious; we already use such schemes all across New Zealand to fund the installation of insulation and heat-pumps. Those systems are run by local authorities, rather than the government, but the principle is no different. Its cost-neutral (apart from trivial administration costs, which could be loaded onto the loans in the form of an annual fee), well-understood, and unlikely to go wrong.

So why does the government hate it? Firstly, lower peak electricity demand is bad for big generators, who either see their thermal plants become uneconomic, or lose the daily profit peak from their greener assets. In Germany, this has been the biggest source of opposition to solar: it is putting Big Coal out of business. There's also no obvious big corporate winner from this sort of distributed economic activity, no-one who gets to make a lot of new money. So, no opportunity for patronage and cronyism - just a lot of people employed in small business doing installations, and lower wholesale prices for kiwi business. Bad for their allies, no obvious upside for them, and so its down to their natural hatred of change (National is the party of established economic interests, and therefore supports the status quo), and of their true ideological enemies, the Greens. Fortunately, Labour does see the benefits, so it looks to have a reasonable chance of happening if we get a change of government this year.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Equality wins in Virginia

In a perfect Valentine's Day gift, Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage has been overturned in federal court:

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, making it the first state in the South to have its voter-approved prohibition overturned.


"The court is compelled to conclude that Virginia's Marriage Laws unconstitutionally deny Virginia's gay and lesbian citizens the fundamental freedom to choose to marry. Government interests in perpetuating traditions, shielding state matters from federal interference, and favoring one model of parenting over others must yield to this country's cherished protections that ensure the exercise of the private choices of the individual citizen regarding love and family," Wright Allen wrote.

The ruling has been stayed pending a Supreme Court appeal, but its unclear who would lodge it - the State Attorney-General did not contest the case, because they agree that the ban violates the 14th Amendment. And the Christian bigots who make so much noise about other people's private lives are just going to have to get used to that.

One law for all on torture?

A US man has just been convicted for waterboarding his stepdaughter. Which raises the obvious question: isn't it about time the same happened to the CIA's torturers? Or does the law somehow not apply to them?

Filling in the gaps on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Last year, in response to an OIA request I made back in 2010, DPMC decided to come clean and proactively release summary information on Cabinet Ministers' conflicts of interest. But there was a problem: the release only covered the period from October 2012 - September 2013. My previous OIA had forced release of information from June 2009 to July 2010, but there was a two year gap in the data. That gap has now been filled, and the documents are available on DocumentCloud, including statistical information on declared conflicts and how they were handled, and a summary of conflicts and action from July 2010 to September 2012. The core data:

  • The Cabinet Secretary was informed of a conflict of interest under paragraph 2.69 on 168 occasions between July 2010 and September 2012
  • 131 of these conflicts were sufficiently serious that the Prime Minister was advised of them in writing
  • Ministers declared a conflict during a meeting on 135 occasions during that period
  • Arrangements were made for Ministers not to receive papers on an issue on which they were conflicted on 8 occasions during that period
  • Ministerial decisions were transferred to other Ministers 42 times to avoid a conflict of interest
  • No Minister ever transferred a conflicted decision to a department
Note that conflicts can be very broad (such as an entire industry), or very narrow (such as a particular company). Some conflicts are also portfolio based e.g. for shareholding Ministers in SOEs. Sadly the information is vague, because the Cabinet Office believes all real details must be withheld so that Ministers declare such conflicts in future, but there's still some interesting stuff there, and enough to allow real journalists to do some digging if they want to. Craig Foss and Amy Adams declared extensive corporate conflicts. Anne Tolley declared a personal conflict of interest in a particular Ministry of Education property, and Paula Bennett did the same about an organization potentially eligible to receive crown funding. In both cases the decision was transferred, but it would be interesting to know the details and how the decision (if any) turned out.

Pure waste

Last week the government ended its persecution of the Waihopai Three. So how much did this pointless exercise in vengeance cost? $93,000 according to an OIA request lodged through FYI. $87,000 of that will be billed to the GCSB; the remainder is time which will be written off by Crown Law.

This is pure waste. The damages claim against the protesters would not have achieved anything, as they had no money to extract. All it was was revenge for the GCSB's deflated ego. You can judge whether that was an appropriate use of taxpayer's money at the ballot box later this year.

Taken for a ride

Last year, the government agreed to subsidise foreign-owned Rio Tinto to the tune of $30 million. At the time they were pleading poverty; now its clear that they played us for suckers:

In a year where its aluminium subsidiary was able to extract a $30m payout from New Zealand taxpayers, world mining giant Rio Tinto has delivered a larger than expected profit and dividend - despite the prices of most of its products falling.

Rio's underlying profit in 2013 was up 10 per cent on the previous year to US$10.2 billion, above analysts' expectations of $9.7 billion.

Net profit, which included impairments, was $3.7 billion.

That $30 million could have paid for a full school lunch program which would have made a serious difference to child poverty. Instead, its gone straight into the pockets of this company's foreign shareholders. That noise you can hear is them laughing all the way to the bank (and trampling over hungry kids to get there).

And this is National's "better economic management" in a nutshell: robbing kiwi kids to subsidise foreign fatcats. Isn't it time we had a government which actually worked for us, not big business?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Muldoonist bullshit

Yesterday the Auckland Council started wringing its hands over misogynist rap group Odd Future's planned concert this weekend. Today, the government has responded by banning them from New Zealand. Their reason?

"The Immigration Act 2009 provides that entry permission may not be granted where there is reason to believe there is, or is likely to be, a threat or risk to public order or the public interest.

"Odd Future has been deemed to be a potential threat to public order and the public interest for several reasons, including incidents at past performances in which they have incited violence. In one instance, a police officer was hospitalised following a riot incited by Odd Future,'' the statement read.

That riot? Was caused by cops when they broken up a signing when too many fans showed up. And the injury was a cop falling over and hurting his back. From the sound of them, I wouldn't like Odd Future at all - but as a "threat to public order" goes, that's exceptionally weak, and certainly no grounds to violate their freedom of expression, or that of their New Zealand fans. This ban is simply Muldoonist bullshit.

(I'd suggest Odd Future seek to have the ban judicially reviewed for illegality, but it would take too long, the harm will already have been done, and those who made the decision will not go to jail for BORA violation. Which is one way governments get away with unlawful actions: because they effectively have impunity from any consequences)

As for how to deal with groups like Odd Future, I've said it before and I'll say it again: the answer to speech you don't like is more speech, not less.

Customs on digital border interceptions

The increased public scrutiny of Customs' search and seizure of digital devices has forced them to release some statistics - and some spin:

Last year, Customs detained 295 computers and 548 electronic devices for detailed examination of equipment that were suspected to contain objectionable material or other evidence of border offending.

In 2013, targeted searches of passengers’ luggage at airports led to a number of arrests, including a German tourist who was jailed for importing objectionable publications and images after Customs found over 35,000 child sexual abuse images on his laptop.

Customs would have you believe that this is all about child pornography. But stats released last year showed that half of all seizures were in fact for "materials breaching intellectual property rights". Those stats also showed that between september 2012 and August 2013, only 234 searches resulted in finding prohibited material. Assuming the number of searches has not jumped dramatically in the last four months, this suggests that only around a quarter of these grossly intrusive searches are successful.

Plus of course there's their unlawful searches of bystander's devices to allow Police to circumvent the Search and Surveillance Act, and their searches for the FBI for "brownie points".

But that's OK, because they assure us that "“Those who don’t break the law have nothing to worry about". Bullshit. The unreasonable seizure of Sam Blackman's devices shows that the innocent have a lot to worry about - and that Customs may be misusing its powers to conduct political searches.

While Customs' openness is welcome here, there needs to be a lot more of it, as well as much tighter constraints on their powers. We have a right against unreasonable search and seizure. Customs' limitless powers seem to be the very definition of "unreasonable".

A warmongering nation

The Guardian has an appalling statistic: after the withdrawal from Afghanistan next year, the UK will be at peace for the first time in a century. And here's the timeline to prove it.

Except its worse than that, because the UK was constantly at war long before 1914. In fact, it has been constantly at war, stealing colonies, enslaving independent nations, suppressing colonial rebellions, and squabbling with other imperial powers over the spoils of its robbery, since 1760:

You need to go back before Britain's foundation as a state and the English civil wars to find a time when government-backed privateers, slavers and settlers weren't involved in armed conflict somewhere in the world.

There are in fact only a handful of countries British troops haven't invaded at some point. What is so striking about the tally of the past 100 years is that only in 1940 were British troops actually defending their own country from the threat of invasion.

[Link added]

Seamus Milne attributes this to a ruling elite which conflates the exercise of military force with prestige and influence (not to mention private profits for the few). I'd add in a "democracy" in name only which has insulated the warmongering policies of that elite from popular opposition. But last year, that insulation finally cracked over Syria, and now the elite are lamenting their inability to get their war on ever again.

The lesson for New Zealand is obvious: if we want to be a peaceful nation - and most kiwis do - then we need to take the power to wage war in anything other than immediate domestic self-defence out of the hands of the executive and make it subject to a Parliamentary vote. That gives both democratic legitimacy and public accountability.

But there's something else we want to consider: is warmongering Britain really a nation we want to celebrate on our flag? I don't think so. The values of Britain's warmongering elite ar enot our values; its time we showed that, by removing the Union Jack from our flag.

New Fisk

Iran’s dead poets society: The execution of Hashem Shabaani shows the pen can be mightier than the sword


Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2014 is out. The good news: we rank 9th, up there with the sorts of Scandawegian countries we like to compare ourselves to. The bad news? we've dropped a place. The reason?

In New Zealand, the interception of reporter Jon Stephenson’s metadata by the military, which thought his articles were overly critical, and the release of journalist Andrea Vance’s phone records to a leak investigation is indicative of growing government mistrust of the media and their watchdog role.

A free press is a vital safeguard in a democratic society. it speaks volumes about National's authoritarian mindset that it has eroded it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ticket clipping

National's charter schools are predicate don the idea that the public education system is doing a bad job. They're (over-)funded to do things differently. So its more than a little odd that He Puna Marama Trust's charter school is simply getting local state schools to do all their teaching for them:

Chris Hipkins: Is she satisfied that the taxpayer is getting good value for money from the $1.8 million given to He Puna Marama Trust for its establishment costs, given that it has leased facilities at a cost of just $58,000 a year and is asking the existing State schools in the area to deliver teaching on its behalf?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: Different choices are made between leasing, owning, and servicing over the life of a property. As I have said, these schools are contracted for the term of their contract to deliver educational outcomes. They are free to make those choices but they must deliver the educational outcomes expected of them.

And to add insult to injury: He Puna Marama is the most generously funded of all charrter schools, at $40,000 per pupil. By contrast, state schools are funded at less than a fifth of that rate. So they can sit there, contract out all the actual education to state providers at double the government rate, and still make $1 million for doing nothing.

This is ticket-clipping at its finest: promise something different, then provide the same service from the same institutions, just with a crony middleman inserted into the process to cream off profits. There's no public benefit whatsoever from such "innovation". Instead the benefit is all private - to the charter school operators. And it is simply corrupt.