Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A good question

Last week, the Marshall Islands shocked the world by taking 9 nuclear-armed powers to the International Court of Justice for violating their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which requires them to

pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

Since the treaty became effective in 1970, the nuclear-armed powers have done no such thing, and have frequently opposed attempts to outlaw their toys or promote a general nuclear disarmament treaty. And its good to see someone finally calling bullshit on their hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, over at Frogblog, Kennedy Graham asks the obvious question: why didn't New Zealand do this? We supposedly support nuclear disarmament, so weren't we the ones calling bullshit? Sadly, I suspect the answer lies in the desire of the current government to suck up to America. They sent kiwis to die for nothing in Afghanistan, they let America murder our citizens without even a peep, so the last thing they'll do is sue their over-armed murderous friends to get them to keep their word on the international stage. That would go against the Key government's entire policy of sycophancy.

But this is a case which is entirely aligned with our national values of peace, disarmament, and international law. I agree with Graham and with Labour's Maryan Street: we should support this case.

Why does this woman still have an NZ honour?

Last week, this story crossed my screen:

A businesswoman honoured by the Queen will be appealing a court order to return more than $14 million to a Maori land trust.

Rae Beverley Adlam was found by the Maori Land Court to have "committed a blatant breach of trust" by taking money for self-gain from the process of developing geothermal powerstations on family land in Kawerau.

She was ordered to pay the Bath Trust (formerly the Savage Papakainga Land Trust) $11.2 million from the sale of a geothermal power station and royalties received from Bay of Plenty Electricity of $2.4 million. Adlam was also ordered to pay $823,000 in interest.

But that's not the only thing she's done. As the article points out, she was also convicted of tax evasion in 2012. And then there's the kicker:
Rae Beverley Adlam, 65, of Tauranga was a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business in the 2008 New Year's Honours List.
The tax evasion and theft relate to the very business activities she was honoured for. So why does she still have the honour? Is it really appropriate that we continue to honour a convicted tax cheat and thief?

(Though given his decision on Doug Graham, John Key probably thinks it is)


The government has decided to restore the funding it cut from women's refuges and rape crisis centres. But note the problem: its only for two years. Meaning in two years time we'll be seeing the entire system fall apart again.

Still, this does give Parliament time to complete its inquiry into sexual violence services. And hopefully they'll admit the obvious: that this is a vital social service which should be permanently funded by government.

Utterly barbaric

What the death penalty means in the US now: botched executions:

An [Oklahoma prison] inmate whose execution was halted today because the delivery of a new drug combination was botched died of a heart attack, the state Department of Corrections said.

Director Robert Patton said inmate Clayton Lockett died after all three drugs were administered.

Patton halted Lockett's execution about 20 minutes after the first drug was administered. He said there was a vein failure.

Lockett was writhing on the gurney and shaking uncontrollably.

According to another source, the execution was stopped after the victim sat up 40 minutes after injection and said "something's wrong".

The reason for this mess: back in 2011, the European Union banned export of murder drugs to the US. When the stockpile ran out, states scrambled to source them elsewhere, resorting to untested combinations of probably impure drugs, resulting in several botched executions which did not meet US constitutional standards against "cruel and unusual punishment" (in the US, the state can murder you, but only if its "humane" about it, which is a contradiction in terms). To avoid constitutional challenge on those grounds, Oklahoma refused to say what drugs it was using and where it was sourcing them from. And now we have the result: another person dying in agony. Sadly, this will probably be seen as an improvement on the process by America's sadism and revenge lobby.

All about distribution

Distribution - who pays, who gets what - is one of (or perhaps the) key question in politics. And as the Herald points out this morning, its the big problem with Labour's new monetary policy:

Households struggling to keep on top of their mortgages would be the winners under Labour's proposed interest rate shake-up, but at the expense of those who can't afford to get a foot on the property ladder, a budgeting service warns.


But New Zealand Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox said the policy to keep interest rates low while forcing everyone to save more raised issues of fairness.

"The people who don't have mortgages will be in effect subsidising the economy for the people who are obtaining an asset by buying a house."

To be fair, the policy document addresses this (@5.21), saying that "Distributional and hardship effects for the lower paid would need to be considered", and raising the possibility of a low-income exemption. But we've all seen how the theoretical ability to compensate the losers of policies which produce net gains tends to be forgotten in practice. Which means that the acceptability of the policy is going to depend crucially on whether Labour follows through on this promise. Because otherwise what they're proposing is lowering mortgages for the middle classes (and of course themselves) on the backs of the poor - something which is against everything they're supposed to stand for.

(Meanwhile over on Twitter we have Labour apparatchiks talking of the need for government to "set policy conditions that create jobs & lift wages", while airily ignoring any distributional effects. Exactly the same rhetoric is used by National to justify lowering wages and employment conditions. But the whole point of Labour is that it supposed to care about the effects of government policy on ordinary people - not just steamroller them in pursuit of growth for the few).

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Naming the crime

US Secretary of State John Kerry committed a major faux pas today by almost telling the truth about Israel:

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has warned in a closed-door meeting in Washington that Israel risks becoming an "apartheid state" if US-sponsored efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement fail.

"Risks"? Israel already practices apartheid - a crime under international law - and most of its citizens are just fine with that and want more of it. So when Kerry "warns" that a two-state solution is the only option because the alternative is an apartheid state where Jews oppress a Palestinian majority, he's missing a key point: that's what Israel actually wants.

No justice in Egypt

This is an absolute travesty of justice:

Fears for Egypt's democracy deepened on Monday when a judge sentenced 683 men to death in the country's latest mass trial, while another banned a youth movement that helped inspire Egypt's 2011 revolution.

The 683 men – including the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Badie – were condemned to death in the southern city of Minya on charges of killing a policeman last August.


Mohamed Elmessiry, an Amnesty International researcher who attended the hearings, said: "In each trial, the defence were not able to present their case, the witnesses were not heard, and many of the accused were not brought to the courtroom. This lacks any basic guarantees of a fair trial – not only under international law, but also Egyptian national law.

In other words, it was a show trial. Meanwhile, the same judge has been acquitting police who murder protesters. The message is clear: there is no justice in Egypt, simply punishment for the regime's political enemies.

New Fisk

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The Turkish holocaust begins

More corruption in Australia

We like to think that we share a culture with Australia. But yesterday we got a reminder that we are very different countries, by way of a huge political corruption scandal in New South Wales:

Premier Mike Baird has ordered an urgent audit of hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations made to the NSW Liberal party before the last state election, declaring he is "shocked and appalled" at evidence of illegal payments aired at a corruption inquiry.

On Monday, the Independent Commission Against Corruption heard a "substantial" portion of $700,000 donated to the NSW Liberals before the March 2011 election came from illegal sources, including property developers who have been banned from donating in NSW since December 2009.

"I am shocked and appalled at the allegations raised in today’s opening statement at ICAC," Mr Baird said in a statement.

Of course he is. And no doubt we'll be hearing soon about how he knew all about it.

This sort of corruption - illegal donations, kickbacks, and huge financial favours to political cronies - is a basic part of the political culture over there. In 2011 in the very same state a Minister in the previous government was found to have given a half billion dollar contract to his brother's company. Five Queensland Cabinet Ministers had been jailed for corruption, and others have been jailed in New South Wales and Western Australia. Its so endemic that every Australian state has its own independent corruption commission to fight it.

While New Zealand has a lot of cronyism and a culture of selling honours, we don't have the outright bribery and favours-for-cash they have over the Tasman. And I am very glad of it.

Economic sadomasochism

New Zealand has a problem: an independent Reserve Bank with an inflation target. In the 90's, this meant that whenever unemployment dropped, they Brashed the economy, hiking interest rates and throwing people out of work to prevent the spectre of "wage-inflation" (AKA ordinary people getting jobs and pay rises). Now the main driver is the Auckland property bubble, which pushes up inflation even when the rest of the economy is going downhill. Fighting this leaves us with a toxic combination of high interst rates, high unemployment, and a stagnant real economy. Worse, it doesn't even work, as those higher interest rates attract hot foreign money, which is then loaned out to property speculators.

Today Labour released its stab at a solution. The headline? Allowing the Reserve Bank to adjust the KiwiSaver savings rate. Which, combined with their universal Kiwisaver policy means that their "solution" to inflation is automatic universal wage cuts. So, when prices are rising, ordinary people will have less money in their pockets to pay for stuff. Thanks, Labour!

Its a bit more complicated than that, of course, in that savers will get their money back in the long run. What it really does is redirect money from higher mortgage payments to an Aussie bank to your future self. But the immediate effect is the same: less money in people's pockets while prices are rising. And the effect will be felt most by those who do not contribute to the problem: young people without mortgages. Somehow I don't think they'll be thanking Labour for this policy.

(I'm beginning to seriously worry about Labour's seeming devotion to inflicting pain on its core supporters in pursuit of economic abstracts. Combined with their superannuation policy it makes them look like the party of economic sadomasochists. And again, if a "Labour" Party doesn't defend and improve the living standards of ordinary kiwis, what fucking good are they?)

The non-headline stuff is where the real meat in the policy is. First, amending the Reserve Bank's purpose to manage the balance of payments. There's a consensus on the left that there needs to be some amendment, but whether it should include employment, the exchange rate or the balance of payments is disputed. Whichever it ends up as, it means the Reserve Bank will have to think about the consequences of its interventions, and should stop them from Brashing the economy to target a single part of it.

Secondly, there's a commitment to "[take] the pressure off the Reserve Bank's OCR by using government policy to address the sources of inflation in the non-tradable sector". I suspect this is the bit which is going to be doing all the heavy lifting. The core drivers of inflation are house and electricity prices, and Labour has strong policies to target both (Kiwibuild and a capital gains tax; NZPower). Deflating the housing market by taxing the crap out of speculators and increasing supply to the people who need it should remove the need for the Reserve Bank to intervene in the first place. So we might not need their economic sadomasochism after all.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why freedom of information matters

Writing in The Guardian, Australian Senator Joe Ludwig has a strong reminder of why freedom of information matters:

As technical as it can sound, the open and transparent operation of government isn’t a fringe issue. It goes to the very heart of what politicians do, and it speaks volumes about the respect and trust a government has for the public.


A strong FOI act matters because, to lift a phrase, it keeps the bastards honest. Ministers and departments should reflect every time they pick up a pen, write an email or make a decision which will impact the public.

A strong OIA is something we take for granted in New Zealand, and it does keep the bastards honest. Our MPs and officials do think every time they write anything down, because they know it may be scrutinised - and our policy is better for it. But more importantly than that, it makes it clear which way the power relationship goes in our democracy, and that they work for us, not the other way round.

National's New Zealand

Welcome to National's New Zealand, where the poor live in tents:

Blankets and body heat. Huddled together in a freezing tent as rain batters their makeshift home is how one Christchurch family has spent two months trying to keep warm.

The family of five has just weathered its third storm in a tent pitched at the Spencer Beach Holiday Park.

Taurua Houia, his wife and their three children are one of 270 priority A applicants on the Housing New Zealand waiting list. They have been priority A for three weeks, despite being assessed in February.

People living in tents is what Housing New Zealand exists to prevent. And if people are living like that for months after being assessed, then Housing NZ clearly is not doing its job properly. As for why, this probably has something to do with it:
Labour has accused the Government of using Housing NZ as a "cash cow" by demanding dividends of almost $500 million.

Housing spokesman Phil Twyford points to seven letters, obtained under the Official Information Act, in which ministers "repeatedly pressured" HNZ for the returns.

He says they have taken out $216m since the election in 2008, and have budgeted for a further $252m in the next three years. Twyford claims HNZ told the Government it would fund the dividend using some of a post-Canterbury earthquake insurance payout of $320m.

Yes, National is pillaging our state housing provider during a housing crisis - and people in need are paying the price. Our government really are heartless monsters.

Now that's a reason to vote for Scotland

Need a reason to vote for Scottish independence? How about getting rid of David Cameron?

Downing Street last night refused to comment on mounting speculation that David Cameron would be forced to resign if Scotland votes for independence in September.

While remaining behind in the polls, the Yes campaign has narrowed the gap over recent weeks to four points, and there are fears inside Whitehall that Scottish voters will back independence, triggering a constitutional crisis.


Writing in The Times, the respected political commentator Matthew Parris said that under a Yes vote on 18 September: "I cannot see a picture in which the Prime Minister who conjured that referendum out of nowhere simply carries on."

If Cameron resigns, he'll no doubt be replaced by another Eton- and Oxbridge-educated Tory tosspot. But still, the chance to roll him (and be free of his ilk forevermore) seems to be a pretty good incentive.

New Fisk

Yet another betrayal of the Palestinians

Back to hypocrisy again

Last year Parliament almost unanimously passed the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013. The bill ended the policy of attempting to regulate new recreational chemicals under the Misuse of Drugs Act and instead established an evidence-based regime which allowed substances to be sold legally if they could show they were low-risk. It was a bold step forwards on drug policy, one which hinted at an end to decades of wasteful prohibition and knee-jerk policy-making. And now, thanks to a moral panic and another election-year knee-jerk, its in ruins.

The ostensible justification is the harm caused by these products and "reports of severe adverse reactions". But Section 40 of the Act already permits an approval to be withdrawn if there is evidence a substance is not "low risk". Over on Public Address, Russell Brown points out that the government's claims that "[i]t has been impossible to attribute these adverse effects to any particular products" are bullshit and that the National Poisons Centre and users know which products are causing the problem. So why didn't the government use it and ban those harmful products? Simple. Firstly, it would be subject to judicial review, meaning the possibility of a court case and an embarrassing backdown if the government's evidence didn't stack up. And secondly, it would have given the Opposition a chance to grandstand instead - and as Peter Dunne made clear over Twitter, he wasn't going to let them do that:

do you really think the government would have given you a victory on this?

And so thanks to petty politics we're back to the insanity of blanket prohibition (with all the ills that that entails), not to mention the constitutional violence of all-stages urgency. Fuck you very much, Peter Dunne.

[And ditto to Labour. We had a good law, one you voted for, and you're feeding moral panic over it and destroying it basicly to make the government look weak. I guess for them its politics first and policy second]

Meanwhile we've been reminded once again of the hypocrisy inherent in drug policy. Old people's drugs - alcohol and nicotine - are legal, despite the immense harm and social costs they cause. Drugs which cause vastly less harm are not (and while its banning more of the latter, the government selects a tobacco lobbyist as a candidate). Such an approach does not reduce social harm. Nor does it encourage respect for the law or our political system as a whole. Instead, it makes it clear to all that our politicians are whores and hypocrites and that their law is an ass. As for the consequences, the widespread flouting of drug laws and declining voter turnout speak for themselves.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Australia welches on open government

Last year, Australia announced that it was joining the Open Government Partnership. But now that Tony Abbott is in charge, they're backing out:

THE Abbott government is reconsidering Labor’s pledge to sign Australia up for a major international transparency and citizen engagement initiative.

Australia was expected to formally enter the Open Government Partnership this month, joining 63 other nations in rolling out action plans to make their governments more open and accountable to the public.

But Attorney-General George Brandis has instead passed responsibility for the OGP to the Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann. Senator Cormann was invited to attend a regional OGP meeting next month but will only send a mid-level bureaucrat — and just to watch.

Senator Cormann’s spokeswoman confirmed the OGP commitment — made almost a year ago — was under review.

The Abbott government has been no friend of open government, and has led a massive increase in secrecy since coming to power. So its not really surprising that they're now also backing away from international commitments in that area. It is however disappointing that a government in a modern, democratic state thinks it can get away with it. OTOH, looking at what else they get away with, their contemptuous attitude towards the public is hardly surprising.

A counterproductive waste of money

That's the quick assessment of Britain's participation in the "war on terror":

Britain's military operations since the end of the cold war have cost £34.7bn and a further £30bn may have to be spent on long-term veteran care, according to an authoritative study.

The bulk [£30 billion - I/S] of the money has been spent on interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan judged to have been "strategic failures", says the study, Wars in Peace, published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

In comments with particular resonance in the light of Tony Blair's speech on Wednesday exhorting the west to do more to defeat Islamic extremism, the RUSI study concludes that "there is no longer any serious disagreement" that Britain's role in the Iraq war served to channel and increase the radicalisation of young Muslims in the UK.

So much for "fighting them overseas to prevent terrorism at home". These vastly expensive wars, with their huge cost in money and human life have had exactly the opposite effect. Anyone who wasn't on Blairite kool-aid knew that from the start; the question is why the British establishment didn't, why they still fail to admit it, and when (if ever) those responsible for this senseless waste will be held to account.

The ICJ orders Australia to stop interfering with witnesses

Last year, in what was clearly the actions of a guilty government, the Australian government detained a former ASIS agent who was going to testify against them over their bugging of the government of East Timor, raiding his house and stripping him of his passport. But yesterday, the International Court of Justice ordered Australia to stop interfering with witnesses, and to allow him to appear before it:

An international panel of jurists has ordered Australia to make available East Timor’s star witness – a former Australian spy – in a high-stakes legal battle between the two countries over $40 billion of disputed oil and gas reserves.

In a major blow to Australia, the panel of jurists has cleared the way for the former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer to testify that he helped bug East Timor's cabinet room during negotiations over the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields.

Australia's dirty tactics against East Timor and the ICJ are coming back to haunt it. Witness intimidation, spying on lawyers, not to mention the original spying itself - they're looking like a rogue state with no respect for justice or international law. And it makes it clear that the primary purpose of their spies isn't "national security", but to enrich Australian businesses. Which really makes you wonder why Australian voters pay for them or permit them to have such intrusive powers.

The benefits of transparency

Ministerial expenses were released today, and as usual, I spent an hour trawling through the credit card statements hoping to find evidence of Ministers rorting us. So what did I find?

Nothing. No $1,000 a night luxury hotel rooms. No enormous piss-ups on the taxpayer's tab. No drinking away our money in the middle of the night in a lonely hotel room. And no Ministerial porn. The worst I can find is a $1,000 dinner held by Tim Groser which (as usual) has no detailed receipt (without which its difficult to judge whether he was extravagant or not), and that Todd McClay likes to have a kit-kat bar for breakfast every day.

This is the benefit of transparency: it improves behaviour. If you watch the scum, they stop rorting us. Simple.

An FPP politician in an MMP world

So, now that Shane Jones has gone, he's come clean about the reason: he didn't want to work alongside Russel Norman and the Greens. Which I think emphasises just how much of a throwback Jones was, and how unsuited he was to modern politics. Its been more than 20 years since we adopted MMP, and 18 since our first MMP election. Having to sit down and govern with people you were recently campaigning against and don't necessarily like is a fact of our political landscape, being able to do it and find the common ground in your agendas a vital skill. Jim Bolger could do it, governing with NZ First who had campaigned against everything he stood for. Helen Clark could do it, making peace with the Alliance, cutting a deal with Peter Dunne to maximise her freedom in government, and finally working with Winston, which is never easy. The Greens can do it, and found a narrow slice of common ground even with National. But here, at the end of his political career, Jones is saying that he lacks that skill, that he can't work with other parties. Like I said yesterday, good riddance.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Another reason why we need an enforceable BORA

Back in 2003, the then-Labour government, faced with the "threat" of an unpopular child-sex offender being released from prison at the end of their sentance, enacted the Parole (Extended Supervision) and Sentencing Amendment Act, allowing them to be detained for an extra ten years. Because the bill extended a criminal punishment not imposed at trial by legislative fiat, it was found by the then-Attorney-General to be inconsistent with the right to be free from retroactive penalties and double jeopardy affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. This view was subsequently confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Belcher v Chief Executive of the Department of Corrections.

Fast forward ten years. The initial orders issued under the Act are expiring, meaning the government faces the "threat" of unpopular child sex offenders being released from prison at the end of their (extended) sentance. So naturally, they are proposing extending the law to allow harsh post-release conditions (including effective home detention and perpetual monitoring) to be extended indefinitely. Punishment without end! That'll get the "tough on crime" vote ensure these people are rehabilitated!

But as before, the Attorney-General doesn't buy it, and has ruled that the Extended Supervision Order regime is a criminal punishment which is inconsistent with the right to be free from retroactive penalties and double jeopardy affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act.

If the BORA functioned as it was supposed to, Parliament would listen, and not pass the bill. But we've seen in recent years that the BORA does not function that way. Governments pay no attention whatsoever to section 7 reports (except in the case of member's bills), and this government in particular seems to regard inconsistency with the BORA as a virtue rather than something to be avoided. And instead of stopping to think, they're bemoaning the fact that they won't be able to ram the bill through quickly enough. If the past is anything to go by, they'll simply ignore the Attorney-General, pass the bill, and bugger the BORA.

Parliament has shown that it will not protect our fundamental human rights. And as I have said then, and repeatedly since: if they will not do the job, then we need to take the job off them and give it to someone who will: the Supreme Court.

The Greens' "internet bill of rights"

Today the Green party released their draft Internet Rights and Freedoms Bill. The bill is a response to government interference in cyberspace via the GCSB Act, TICS, and the Skynet law, and is intended to limit government control. Interestingly, they're crowdsourcing it, setting up a website to solicit feedback on the draft before introduction.

I've been reading the full bill as well as the surrounding material. While the aim is admirable, the implementation is flawed.

Firstly, the good: the bill is a strong statement of principles for a free and open internet. It proposes creating an office with the role of defending internet rights and mediating disputes (but see below for the pitfalls in this). It also proposes a "Chief Technology Officer", a specialist adviser to the Prime Minister similar to the existing Chief Science Advisor, to advise on internet and IT policy generally. The name is unforgiveably corporate, but the idea is a good one. And it includes generic "safe harbour" provisions to ensure ISPs and network service providers are protected from the acts of their users and so able to function as common carriers.

The bad? As mentioned above, the bill is a great statement of principles. The problem is the implementation. The bill is strongly based on the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (complete with a "justified limitations" clause); however where the BORA applies only to the government or bodies performing a public function, the Internet Rights and Freedoms Bill also applies to "any agency, department, Internet service provider, online content host, network service provider, organisation, or telecommunications service provider". In English, that means Xtra, TradeMe, Kiwibank, Google and Facebook. As for enforcement, that will be the responsibility of the Internet Rights Commisisoner, Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Review Tribunal. That's right - the HRC and HRRT, specialist bodies based around human rights - will be policing account suspensions, comment deletions and website blockings. I'm not sure that they're really the best venue for that. They'll also be policing wider issues such as traffic shaping, data discrimination, and open source development. I'm not sure that they're the best venue for that either.

The enforcement of privacy on the net will also be the responsibility of the new Internet Rights Commissioner. I'm really not sure why the existing Privacy Commissioner can't handle that.

With respect to government action, there's a section 7-style reporting mechanism (which the government can of course ignore, just as it does when deciding to lock people up without trial after their prison sentence has been completed). There's some redundancy in the rights, in that the freedoms of expression and association (and indirectly, anonymity, encryption, and freedom from filtering) are already covered by the BORA; re-enacting them here could ironicly weaken existing BORA protections. As for the other rights, there will be some benefit in forcing Ministers to consider these issues before pursuing policy, and justify any departure from the principles in the Bill.

But overall, I think this is the wrong approach. Yes, there needs to be some general remedy for internet users against mistreatment by ISPs and service providers. Structuring it as a position like the Banking Ombudsman is probably better than putting it within the Human Rights Commission. As for the broader policy issues around net neutrality, filtering etc, Napoleon's principle applies. "If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna". And if you want to outlaw ISPS shaping customer traffic for anti-competitive reasons or erecting toll-gates on the information superhighway, then amend the Telecommunications Act to outlaw it. It wouldn't sound as great as an "internet bill of rights", but it would do the job better, and with more certainty of the outcome. Trying to use a general law to do it, without checking the underlying policy details, doesn't just risk failure - it also comes across as lazy.

"Shoulder-tapping" vs public service values

Another angle to the Shane Jones resignation:

Mr Jones said he would leave Parliament next month after he was shoulder tapped by Foreign Minister Murray McCully for a new role as a roving economic ambassador across the Pacific.

This is of course a total violation of public service values, and an unlawful exercise of Ministerial power.

For more than a hundred years, New Zealand has had a professional, politically neutral public service. In 1912 the Public Service Act removed Ministers from the appointment process, ending their ability to treat the public service as a means of rewarding their cronies. That ideal is given modern form in section 33 of the State Sector Act, which requires Chief Executives to act independently in employment matters, including appointments, promotions, demotions, transfers, disciplinary proceedings, or sackings. Chief Executives are explicitly not responsible to Ministers for these decisions. Ministers "shoulder tapping" preferred candidates for public service roles is precisely what the law is supposed to prevent. Instead, it looks like we're back to Seddon and his infamous "learn him".

Just a few years ago, both a Minister and a Chief Executive were forced to resign over unlawful interference in employment matters (the former by demanding that someone be sacked, the latter for obeying, then bowing to the "suggestion" of the next Minister to employ a crony). That lesson appears not to have been learned. Clearly we need to put some more heads on spikes, until Ministers and Chief Executives start obeying the law.

Some "democracy"

The UK calls itself a democracy. But if you try and present a petition to your local representative, their constituency staff will call the police on you:

David Cameron’s constituency office has come under fire for calling the police on the Bishop of Oxford and Reverend Hebden as they attempted to present him with an open letter on food poverty.

Their letter, part of the End Hunger Fast campaign, was signed by 42 Anglican bishops and more than 600 clerics and called on the three party leaders to work with the parliamentary inquiry into food poverty to implement its recommendations.

However, despite David Cameron’s Witney office expecting their visit, they were barred from presenting the letter and instead greeted by three police officers. Around 40 people had walked to his office following a service, and while the congregation stood on the opposite side of the road, the Rt Revd John Pritchard and Rev Hebden went to deliver the letter on their own. The police “weren’t there very long” when they realised the situation, Reverend Keith Hebden told The Independent, saying that they could see Cameron’s office staff looking out the window as they were forced to abandon their visit.

I can't think of a better example of the arrogant attitudes of Britain's rulers to the people they claim to represent.

Good riddance

Last night, Shane Jones dropped the bombshell that he would be quitting Parliament and the Labour party to work as a "roving ambassador" for Murray McCully. Good riddance. While pegged from the beginning as a "future leader" and "high performer", Jones has consistently underperformed in Parliament, his time there more memorable for scandals and blunders than any policy achievements. And while in recent months he's done solid work on exposing the shitty practices of the Australian half of our supermarket duopoly, at the same time he's been doing his best to ruin relations between Labour and one of the parties it will be relying on to be in government. And once he's gone, I suspect he'll be remembered for only two things: being the Minister of pornography, and having his Labour leadership campaign funded by the National Party. Again, good riddance, and don't let the door hit your arse on the way out. If you don't think you can win in September, if you don't want to win in September, then the Labour Party is vastly better off without you.

As for McCully: if he'd offered Jones a briefcase full of cash to resign, we'd call it what it is: Corruption and bribery of member of Parliament. I don't see how creating him a special job is any different.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Australia's lawless gulag

When a reugee was murdered at its Manus Island gulag in February, the Australian government tried to blame the victims and pretend that its prisoners were responsible for the violence. Since then, we've learned that the opposite was the case, and that Australia's paid G4S goons were responsible. And now we have the video footage to prove it:

Papua New Guinean nationals employed as security guards on Manus Island attacked asylum seekers at the detention centre more than 24 hours before Iranian Reza Barati died in a night of shocking violence, new footage shows.

The footage, obtained by Fairfax Media, shows the security guards attacking a group of asylum seekers who had absconded from the centre after being told they had no prospect of being settled outside PNG if their claims for refugee status were eventually recognised.

There are also images that show no action was taken to rope off the scene of Mr Barati's killing before evidence was either compromised or completely cleared away, including the rock that witnesses say made sure he was dead.

There's more there, and it contradicts in every way what the Australian government has said. Australia's guards rioted and assaulted the refugees. Australia's guards armed themselves with batons, machetes and guns, and shot to kill, not to warn. Australia's guards murdered Reza Barati. And they need to be held accountable for it.

John Key hates transparency

Over the weekend, the Greens proposed greater Ministerial transparency, with quarterly public declarations of meetings, overseas travel, gifts and hospitality. Its a great idea, which would help restore confidence in our system of government. So naturally, John Key opposes it:

Prime Minister John Key has dismissed the Greens' call for full disclosure of ministerial meetings, saying the information could already be gained through official channels.


"But nothing in the register that Metiria Turei is talking about would change anything.

"We already have the Official Information Act, you already have huge capacity through [the register of] pecuniary interests for people to register and for people to have access to information."

But the Register of Pecuniary Interests is released once a year, and doesn't capture meetings or gifts given. As for the OIA, this covers only information held in a Ministerial role; Ministers routinely refuse to release information on meetings with lobbyists and donors, pulling the same "its a private meeting" scam that Judith Collins has used over Oravida. In other words, Key's proposed "solutions" aren't, and he knows it.

Judith Collins is this very minute given us a public example of how there's no such thing as a "private" meeting by a public official. We need to take that lesson to heart, put our Ministers' corrupt and cozy relationships with lobbyists, donors and cronies under the microscope, and clean up our political system. Otherwise we'll keep seeing Ministers doing favours for people, abusing public office for private gain. And that is something we simply should not accept.

The GCSB has a credibility problem

Last month, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden gave evidence to the European Parliament, in which he revealed that the NSA were "advising" their "partners" on how to interpret mass-surveillance-enabling "loopholes" into their spy-laws. New Zealand was specifically mentioned as having received such advice:

In recent public memory, we have seen these FAD "legal guidance" operations occur in both Sweden and the Netherlands, and also faraway New Zealand.

This naturally raised the question of exactly what GCSB had received "guidance" on, and whether the NSA had written John Key's spy bill (which contains some very careful loopholes which enable mass-spying). So I did what I always do, and sent in an OIA request asking whether they had received advice from any foreign agency on the interpretation of their governing Act. Last week, I received the response [DocumentCloud]: a categorical denial:
The GCSB has not received any guidance or advice on how to interpret the GCSB Act or on any amendments to the GCSB Act from any foreign agency or government. As such I decline to provide the information requested under the provisions of section 18(e) of the Official Information Act (the Act), on the grounds that the information requested does not exist.

That's pretty clear, and there doesn't seem to be any wiggle-room to turn it into a non-denial "denial". At the same time, the GCSB has a credibility problem here, because its answer clearly contradicts Snowden's evidence. So, who do we believe? A secretive government agency with every reason to lie, or a whistleblower with none? That's a no-brainer - and if Snowden produces a single document backing up his claim, then Ian Fletcher's head should be on a spike.

New Fisk

Another ‘sham’ election is over, so what now for Algeria?
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

Shane Jones confirms everyone's suspicions

So, it turns out that Shane Jones' campaign for the Labour leadership was funded by a Nat. Which is hardly surprising - the loudest voices talking up Jones' ability and "leadership potential" have always been on the right. But actually taking money from them is hardly going to endear him to the rest of his party.

More interestingly, though, is that Jones was also funded by the oil industry:

Mr Jones revealed to the Herald that Sir Wira gave $1000 and NZ Oil and Gas board member Rodger Finlay also donated money to help the MP to pay for his campaign to win the Labour leadership last September.

And since then he's stepped up his touting for mining and his attacks on those who oppose it. Of course Jones claims its nothing dodgy, and that the money follows his support for mining rather than the other way round - but from the outside, it just looks like another example of corrupt political behaviour. Like Peter Dunne, if Jones hasn't been bought and paid-for, then he's doing a great impression of it. And that's not the sort of image a party should want one of its senior members to have in election year.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

National: American lickspittles

Yesterday we learned that America had murdered a New Zealand citizen in a drone strike in Yemen. Today, the government was closely quizzed about its views on this in Parliament. Steven Joyce (standing in for the PM) was very clear: he "neither supported nor condemned" the murder. Meanwhile, his backbenchers tittered and joked over the murder of a New Zealand citizen.

But Joyce went further: the government would not ask its "ally" about the reasons for or circumstances of the murder, and it was inappropriate to ask them to express an opinion on it. Whether the murder was ethical was "a matter for those countries which do carry out drone strikes... New Zealand is not one of them" [rush transcript; apologies for any errors].

This is absolutely appalling. The government has made it clear that our "allies" can murder us overseas, and it will not even make basic inquiries about it. In other words, they're perfectly OK with any of us being murdered, anywhere, by the US, on the basis of our political views.

They're nothing but American lickspittles. Throw them out and get a government which will protect the rights and lives of new Zealanders, rather than collaborate in their murder.

A $130 million gift to the rich

When the government announced that it was selling off Genesis Energy, it deliberately underpriced it, with a discounted price, generous bonus scheme, and huge dividend. And today that has had the expected result, with Genesis shares leaping almost 20% on their debut, an increase in value of $130 million. Rather than being retained by the government, that $130 million has gone straight into the pockets of the donors and cronies who bought into Genesis.

This is nothing but a corrupt, government-enabled theft by the rich of public wealth. It must be reversed, and the thieves and those who enabled them punished.

Meanwhile, in the next few months, we'll no doubt see some of that $130 million make its way back to the party which handed it out, in the form of political donations (and possibly with honours corruptly given in exchange). Its a nasty little circle which enables further corruption, and we need to stamp it out too, with public funding to drive corrupt wealth out of our political system.

New Fisk

A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

Against secret "justice" in NZ

Last year, in response to a series of court cases challenging its control orders or claiming compensation for human rights abuses by its intelligence services, the UK passed the Justice and Security Act 2013. The Act introduces a "Closed Material Procedure" into civil cases in the UK government, allowing the government to shield "sensitive" information from disclosure. Effectively, it means that if you sue the government for torturing you, it gets to hide all the evidence from you. Instead of your day in court, you get one-sided, secret "justice".

Now the Law Commission is considering introducing such a system in New Zealand:

The Law Commission has released A New Crown Civil Proceedings Act for New Zealand, its Issues Paper on reforming the Crown Proceedings Act 1950. The Issues Paper proposes a new statute to replace the Crown Proceedings Act 1950.


An important topic covered in the Issues Paper is the Crown’s ability to refuse to disclose certain information during litigation because of reasons of national security. The Commission is raising a number of options, including the possibility of court hearings in which material might be relied on by the Crown but not fully disclosed to the other side.

Sir Grant says “The Commission seeks views as to the appropriate way to balance the needs of justice that require all relevant material be revealed on the one hand, and on the other the legitimate national security concern that some things simply cannot be revealed.”

The issues paper is here; chapter 7 is the relevant section. While they present five options, ranging from repeal of s27 Crown Proceedings Act (which would give a consistent, though imperfect, regime under the Evidence Act), to full-on UK-style secret "justice", its clear that they're pushing for a solution more towards the latter end. At minimum they seem to favour an absolute, unreviewable ability for the crown to withhold documents on national security, defence, and international relations grounds - a privilege which overseas has been used to cover up government wrongdoing and deny justice to victims of torture.

We need to protect our courts from this toxic foreign invasion of secrecy, and prevent America's "war on terror" from fundamentally corrupting our justice system. Submissions on the issues paper are due by 1 August 2014; you can submit by email here.


Below is my draft submission on the Environmental Reporting Bill. I'm primarily interested in the freedom of information issues; I expect other groups to be focused on the reporting itself.

  1. I support the aims of the Environmental Reporting Bill of giving us regular, independent reporting on the state of our environment. Such reporting is vital as a mechanism to assess the success of government policy, as well as to identifying potential environmental problems.

  2. I have serious misgivings about some sections of the bill, particularly those relating to the selection of topics and the disclosure of information. I therefore ask that the bill be amended to address those concerns.
  3. I do not wish to appear before the Committee.

    Selection of topics

  4. Section 18 of the Bill provides for the Minister to specify the topics to be covered within synthesis and domain reports by Order in Council. Before prescribing such topics, the Minister must consult the Government Statistician and the Commissioner. This is a useful safeguard; however consultation is not the same as listening, and it still permits a perception that topics may be selected (or not selected) on political grounds. For example, a Minister under pressure from the dairy industry could select topics in such a way as to gloss over problems such as "dirty dairying". This perception undermines the purposes of the bill.

  5. There are two obvious solutions. One is to have the topics specified in law, for example as a schedule to the Bill. A second would be to allow the Government Statistician and the Commissioner to jointly select topics. Either would remove the perception of political interference (or, in the case of a schedule, require that it be exercised so publicly as to dissuade politicians from doing so). On balance, I would prefer specification in law.

    Disclosure of information

  6. Section 16 of the Bill allows the Secretary of MfE and the Government Statistician to veto the release of "information or analysis that will be, or has been, used in an environmental report". The veto power "applies despite any other enactment". From the departmental disclosure statement and the policy background to the Bill, the purpose of the veto power is to ensure that reporting is independent of the government of the day. However, the power goes well beyond that, restricting the right of access to information not just of government Ministers, but of the general public, and not just before a report is published, but also after.

  7. The Official Information Act 1982 is "a constitutional statute of major importance".1 It is a fundamental means of ensuring the public accountability of Ministers and public sector agencies. Overriding it requires extremely strong justification. Such justification does not appear to exist.

  8. In assessing the justification for overriding the OIA, the comparable scheme for overriding the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is helpful. In order to be justified, a limitation must serve an important public purpose, be rationally connected to that purpose, be proportionate to that purpose, and the least drastic means of achieving it.2

  9. Ensuring the independence of environmental reporting is an important public purpose. However, restricting public access to information about such reports runs contrary to that purpose. Rather than being a threat to independence, transparency is a means of protecting it. The best way to ensure that Ministers do not interfere in the production of an independent report is for their communications to be subject to the OIA and to be released on request. The best way to ensure that the conclusions of a report are seen to be robust and independent is to pro-actively release all drafts and working material at the same time as the report, so the public can see that that is the case.

  10. The veto power is also disproportionate. Quite apart from questions of scope or the fact it applies both before and after publication, the OIA already contains a legislative scheme allowing information to be withheld where release would cause identifiable harm and would not be outweighed by the public interest. That scheme was developed by a Royal Commission, has been the subject of thirty years of jurisprudence and interpretation by the Ombudsman, is well understood and has been repeatedly reviewed. In the most recent review, the Law Commission did not identify any need for new withholding grounds. To the extent that "information or analysis that will be, or has been, used in an environmental report" can already be withheld under the Act, the new veto power is unnecessary. To the extent that it cannot, it is unjustified.

  11. As noted above, the veto power "applies despite any other enactment". This does not just override the OIA, but also the information-gathering powers of Officers of Parliament contained in the Public Audit Act 2001, Environment Act 1986, and Ombudsmen Act 1975, the commission of inquiry powers of the Waitangi Tribunal exercised under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, the statutory powers of the judiciary, the privileges of Parliament, and indeed the protections of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.3 The idea that such a broad-reaching power which trumps all other legislation (including fundamental constitutional Acts) is a least drastic means is simply absurd.

  12. I recommend that section 16 be removed from the Bill. The existing structure of the OIA is perfectly capable of coping with environmental reporting information, and ensuring that it is covered would lend credibility to the independence of reporting.

  13. Concerns about Ministerial interference are already credibly covered by section 14 of the Bill, requiring the Secretary of MfE and the Government Statistician to act independently in preparing reports.
1 Philip Joseph, Constitutional and Administrative Law in New Zealand (2nd ed), Brookers (2001), p. 148.
2 Moonen v Film and Literature Board of Review (No 2) [2002] 2 NZLR 754 (CA)
3 The full submission suggests several possible scenarios where such conflicts could emerge.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The cost of tax cheats

How much do corporate tax cheats cost? In the US, over US$180 billion a year:

US taxpayers would need to pay an average of $1,259 more a year to make up the federal and state taxes lost to corporations and individuals sheltering money in overseas tax havens, according to a report.

"Tax haven abusers benefit from America's markets, public infrastructure, educated workforce, security and rule of law - all supported in one way or another by tax dollars - but they avoid paying for these benefits," US Public Interest Research Group said in the report released today, the deadline for filing 2013 taxes.

"Instead, ordinary taxpayers end up picking up the tab, either in the form of higher taxes, cuts to public spending priorities, or increases to the federal debt," it said.

In total, the United States loses $150 billion in federal revenue and another $34 billion in state revenue annually because of money parked in tax havens, the Boston-based consumer advocacy group concluded.

Tax cheats are simply social parasites. Its time we ended the practice, shut down the tax havens and the loopholes they depend on, and made them pay their fair share.

Needlessly shitty

Parliament has been rejecting select committee submissions for not being written in English or Maori:

The Health Select Committee is rejecting 60 submissions against plain packaging legislation because they were made in neither English nor Maori.


Committee chairman, National MP Paul Hutchison, said 60 submissions were made in languages other than English or Maori.

Fairfax Media understands that most of all of the submissions were made by retailers who submitted against the legislation.

Hutchison said the submissions were rejected on the grounds that they used unparliamentary language. If the submissions were re-entered in English or Maori, they would be accepted as late submissions.

This seems needlessly shitty - not to mention undemocratic. Parliament is supposed to represent all New Zealanders, not just those who write their submissions in one of our official languages. And while it would have been extra hassle to gain translations, I would expect parliament of all places to have access to the resources to do so, and to bend over backwards to make it happen to enable people to have their say.

Fiji: Hoist by his own petard?

Last year Fijian dictator Voreqe Bainimarama tried to ban political parties in an effort to limit opposition in the lead-up to promised elections. A key part of the crackdown was a ban on political campaigning by anyone who wasn't a registered political party. Now, it looks like he's fallen foul of his own law:

The Fiji police say they are investigating the prime minister, Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama, for being in breach of a regime decree and a law pertaining to the election promised for September.

If convicted for any of the breaches, he could face up to 10 years in jail.

The complaints were lodged by Mick Beddoes of the United Front for a Democratic Fiji.

The police say Rear Admiral Bainimarama is being investigated for campaigning without having his party registered, in contravention of the Political Parties Decree.

They say he is also being investigated for allegedly displaying Fiji's coat of arms on his campaign bus, in breach of the Coat of Arms of Fiji Act.

This being Fiji, of course, the complaints will probably be buried (they've buried worse from the regime). But wouldn't it be nice if Bainimarama was hoist by his own petard?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Touting for the donors

Judith Collins has been coming under renewed pressure in Parliament over her endorsement of (and secret meetings with Chinese customs officials on behalf of) her husband's company Oravida. Meanwhile, John Key says he's perfectly comfortable with it. No wonder - it turns out that he's touting for them too:

Prime Minister John Key says Oravida's scampi is "tasty" but the company's use of his photo in advertising does not constitute an endorsement of the product and does not breach any rules.

Oravida, which is owned by Stone Shi, a substantial National Party donor and close personal friend to Justice Minister Judith Collins, is using a picture of Mr Key in an ad in a Chinese magazine.


However, advice received by his office on Oravida's use of his picture in its advertising was, "it wasn't promoting or endorsing the product".

"It was in an ad, companies from time to time do do that, if it breaches the rules we tell them to stop doing that."

I guess Key can hardly sack one of his Ministers for something he is doing himself (and by refusing to tell them to stop, he's made it clear that Oravida has his implicit permission to use his image to implicitly endorse their product with the message "as eaten by the Prime Minister of NZ"). But it does raise some serious questions about just how close the links are between Oravida and the National Party - and exactly what they're getting for their money.

Why Labour will lose the election


[Image stolen from David Cunliffe]

Seriously? With the country facing unemployment, inequality, a housing crisis and climate change, and Labour is relentlessly talking about regulatory subsidies for the caravan-rental industry.

So much for "talking about the real issues".

The PCE on the Environmental Reporting Bill

Submissions on the Environmental Reporting Bill are due on Thursday, but the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has released theirs, calling for major changes to the bill. The full submission is here, and the key areas of concern are the purpose, the criteria for selecting indicators, and the process for selecting topics (which opens the report to Ministerial manipulation). But they also raise serious concerns about section 16, the secrecy clause, highlighting the fact that it goes far beyond its stated purpose of preventing Ministerial interference and provides for perpetual secrecy of a wide range of information. One aspect they highlight is that this restricts the information-gathering powers of Officers of Parliament, and that this raises constitutional questions. And its worth noting that this isn't just the PCE, but also the Auditor-General, or the Ombudsman. These are not bodies which should be statutorily blinded in this fashion.

There's also an interesting footnote (11) about the process of "consultation" on this section:

During the drafting of the Bill, I was consulted on only one clause, namely the description of the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner’s role in Clause 17. In a meeting with the Minister for the Environment on 30 September, she asked if I wished to see drafts of environmental reports. I replied that I would not, (before publication) because any commentary I would make would be on the final publicly released reports. Unfortunately, this seems to have been misinterpreted as my agreement to the disclosure clause which I did not see until shortly before the Bill was introduced. Letter from James Palmer, Deputy Secretary – Sector Strategy, Ministry for the Environment, dated 4 February 2014
[Emphasis added]

That's a pretty shocking indictment on the way this clause was formulated. What are the odds that they didn't consult the Ombudsman about it either?

[Meanwhile, I should really write my submission...]

Update: The Ombudsman doesn't like the secrecy clause either...

New Fisk

Has Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone from model Middle East 'strongman' to tin-pot dictator?

Climate change: Action is affordable

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the second part of its Fifth Assessment report, showing the dire future we faced if we did not act to reduce emissions. Over the weekend, the IPCC released the third part of the report, showing that such action would be perfectly affordable:

Catastrophic climate change can be averted without sacrificing living standards according to a UN report, which concludes that the transformation required to a world of clean energy is eminently affordable.

“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” said economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team.

The cheapest and least risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all dirty fossil fuels in coming decades, the report found. Gas – including that from the global fracking boom – could be important during the transition, Edenhofer said, but only if it replaced coal burning.


Diverting hundred of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%, the IPCC report concluded.

(And that's ignoring the benefits of cutting emissions, for example in reduced deaths from air pollution).

To put that in context: it would mean that the average cost of adapting to climate change next year(calculated by comparing per-capita GDP with a growth rate of 1.5 vs 1.44%) is less than $30. Remember that next time Bill English stands up in Parliament threatening economic Armageddon if we try and do anything about it.

Of course, the costs will not be equally distributed. They will be substantially higher if you are a shareholder in Genesis Energy (which runs on fossil fuels), or in English's case, a dairy farmer. Which makes it clear what arguments against emissions reduction have always been about: protecting dirty established industries. But the price of protecting those industries and the wealth of those who have invested in them is to dump enormous costs on our children. Bill English, John Key, and numerous other government Ministers have kids; I really wonder how they can look them in the eye over this.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to attend Hydra, Wellington's multiheaded larp convention.

Normal bloggage will resume Monday, or possibly Tuesday, depending on post-con caffeine consumption.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Descending to absurdity

The English campaign to frighten the Scots into voting for continued subjugation has descended to absurd levels:

George Robertson, the formerly UK defence secretary and Nato chief, has claimed Scottish independence would have a "cataclysmic" effect on European and global stability by undermining the UK on the world stage.


A breakup of the UK would weaken its global status and a yes vote would leave the UK government embroiled in a complex internal dispute about the terms of Scottish independence just as "solidity and cool nerves" were needed on the world stage. The "loudest cheers" after a yes vote would come from the west's enemies and other "forces of darkness".

"What could possibly justify giving the dictators, the persecutors, the oppressors, the annexers, the aggressors and the adventurers across the planet the biggest pre-Christmas present of their lives by tearing the United Kingdom apart?" Robertson said at the Brookings Institution on Monday.

Yes, if you vote for Scottish independence, you're supporting Kim Jong-il, Vladimir Putin, and Al Qaeda.

But it also makes it clear what this is really about for London: English prestige. And I'm not sure the Scots really care about that.


So, Labour has rejected an offer of a formal pre-election coalition and joint campaign from the Greens. Sadly, I'm not surprised. In the past, they've shown a preference for going right rather than left, and Labour's second-raters (who will lose out under any proportional Cabinet) have a strong reason to oppose formal power-sharing. But on any realistic numbers, its unthinkable for a future Labour government not to include the Greens, and as Gordon Campbell points out, by refusing to define their relationship themselves, Labour has given National a free hand to do it for them - and in undoubtedly negative terms. That won't do the Greens any harm: every time National says "the Greens will make Labour ban mining" or "the Greens will make Labour stop irrigation", its free advertising for them. But its unlikely to be good for Labour.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The NSA spied on human rights groups

Speaking of Snowden, he gave evidence to the Council of Europe yesterday, during which he claimed that the NSA had been spying on human rights groups:

The US has spied on the staff of prominent human rights organisations, Edward Snowden has told the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Europe's top human rights body.

Giving evidence via a videolink from Moscow, Snowden said the National Security Agency – for which he worked as a contractor – had deliberately snooped on bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

He told council members: "The NSA has specifically targeted either leaders or staff members in a number of civil and non-governmental organisations … including domestically within the borders of the United States." Snowden did not reveal which groups the NSA had bugged.

The assembly asked Snowden if the US spied on the "highly sensitive and confidential communications" of major rights bodies such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, as well as on similar smaller regional and national groups. He replied: "The answer is, without question, yes. Absolutely."

Because obviously, supporting human rights is terrorism and a threat to US national security. So much for the US being on the side of global human rights.

A victory for privacy in the EU

Since 2006, EU member states have been required to store their citizen's telecommunications and internet metadata - the source and destination of every email, phone call and text message sent or received - for up to two years under the Data Retention Directive. The direction, an explicit version of the NSA/GCHQ spying programs, exists to provide access to police and security agencies to fight crime and terrorism. And now, the European Court of Justice has overturned it:

The EU's top court has declared "invalid" an EU law requiring telecoms firms to store citizens' communications data for up to two years.

The EU Data Retention Directive was adopted in 2006. The European Court of Justice says it violates two basic rights - respect for private life and protection of personal data.


The ECJ ruling says the 2006 directive allows storage of data on a person's identity, the time of that person's communication, the place from which the communication took place and the frequency of that person's communications.

"By requiring the retention of those data and by allowing the competent national authorities to access those data, the directive interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data," the court in Luxembourg ruled.

The full ruling is here. The core problem is one of proportionality - while law enforcement access to this data is justified in some cases, capturing and storing everyone's metadata is utterly disproportionate. The court also raised questions about access safeguards and the period of storage. But key to the case was a greater appreciation for the privacy impacts of metadata analysis and how much can be learned from it. And we have Edward Snowden to thank for that.

Is the Minister of Energy a muppet?

Last week Minister of Energy Simon Bridges opened up vast areas of New Zealand for oil exploration. But it came with a nasty surprise: the area includes our biggest forest park:

3 News can reveal the Government is opening up the Department of Conservation's (DOC) biggest forest park for oil and gas exploration.

That came as news even to the minister who signed it off, with Simon Bridges admitting today he had never heard of the park.

Victoria Forest Park is 200,000 hectares - DOC's biggest forest park, and is described by the department as "pristine" and "untouched".

For the Minister to approve this without even knowing it raises serious questions about his competence and that of his Ministry. Was he advised about it? If so, and he ignored it, then he's a total muppet. OTOH, if he wasn't, it suggests serious problems with MoBIE's economic development unit, which the Minister is ultimately responsible for. And either way, its crystal clear that National has no commitment whatsoever to conservation or our environment; if it can be bulldozed for profit, they'll sign off on it.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, but like the last few it will be a boring one. The government is filibustering in an effort to prevent debate on Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months' Paid Leave) Amendment Bill until after the election. So, expect a lot of pointless discussion on the private and local bills up today, and a long, dragged out committee stage for Paul Goldsmith's Electronic Transactions (Contract Formation) Amendment Bill.

On the plus side: the Sullivan Birth Certificate Bill will almost certainly pass today. It's a worthy bill which corrects one incident of a historical injustice; its just a shame that this was the only avenue available to do so.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

How convenient

A team of UN investigators has been refused permission to enter Nauru to investigate Australia's gulag there:

The Nauru government has told United Nations human rights investigators not to go there.

The cancellation of the sheduled trip to investigate the treatment of asylum seekers Australia sends to Nauru is understood to have originated in Canberra.

So, Australia is pretty nakedly attempting to cover up its crimes, using its client regime to do the dirty work. Its a clear sign of a guilty conscience, and of knowledge that their policy of mass-detention violates international law (not to mention basic humanitarian principles). But if the UN can't visit, they can't officially say that.

Isn't it time new Zealand stood up for human rights and criticised our neighbour's abhorrent behaviour?


The Dim-Post highlights the yawning gap between National's rhetoric on the economy (borrowing is bad! Spending is bad!) and its actions (borrowing and spending). The summary:

The point I’m trying to make here is that almost every statement Key and the Finance Minister make about the economy is nonsense, pure disinformation dipped in hypocrisy, sprayed with drivel and then airbrushed dry with horrible fucking lies. That’s not part of the conventional wisdom though, especially among political commentators who all have Bill English as a straight-talking dour, fiscal, prudent conservative instead of a big-spending, big-borrowing outrageously dishonest hypocrite who vomits out floods of obvious lies every time he opens his mouth.

It’s a big problem for the opposition. In macro terms National has done pretty-much what Labour and the Greens would have done – with some obvious exceptions like the tax cuts – but pretended that they’ve done the opposite, and warned the country that Labour and the Greens are going to introduce fiscal policies which are basically identical to National’s but which National warns will destroy the economy. It’s all such a gigantic, egregious yet successful lie that countering it is all but impossible.

Getting us to accept this reversal of reality and its never-stated hypocritical "its bad, except when National does it" rules has obviously been a great achievement of National's spindoctors 9and a great failure of the opposition's). But it doesn't serve the public well. Politicians aren't interested in that - they're interested in winning elections - but surely the media should be?

So much for that good human rights record

One of the things we like to think about New Zealand is that we have a good record on human rights. But according to the report of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention after visiting New Zealand, its a lie. The working group visited to review our detention ystem; they visisted 16 prisons and consulted extensively with officials. And they found serious infringements of international law. The summary from Rethinking Crime and Punishment:

The Public Safety (Public Protections Orders) Bill, currently before Parliament, breached international law; prisoners who have served their sentence cannot be further detained under the label of civil preventive detention;

The 2005 Prisoners’ and Victims’ Claims Act 2005 was in breach of international law. This Act prevents a prisoner who makes a successful claim against the Crown, from keeping any compensation received.

There were indications of systemic bias against Maori at all levels of the criminal justice system. The Working Party urged a review into the degree of inconsistency and systems bias, including the impact of recent legislative reform. It noted that four previous UN reports have identified the same issue.

Seventeen year old offenders continue to be treated as adults, despite recommendation from the UN that the protection measures available under the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 be extended to this age group.

There were insufficient protection measures available to persons with mental or intellectual disabilities, who were detained.

They also had serious concerns about the advice Parliament is getting about our international human rights obligations. But its clearly not a question of bad advice - its a question of Parliament systematically ignoring it and violating those rights when politicians think they can gain politically by doing so. It is a conscious, deliberate crime of successive governments. It would be good if there was a working international system to hold them to account for it.

The Working Group's full report is here [PDF].

Tau to retire

The big political news this morning is that Tau Henare plans to retire at the election after 15 years in Parliament. This brings the number of National MPs retiring to 15, a quarter of their caucus. Meanwhile, Labour's Old Guard grimly hangs on to their positions and refuses to make way for new blood, with Trevor Mallard talking about being "mid-career" after 27 years, and pointing out that Walter Nash was an MP until he was 86. And then they wonder why people don't vote for the same old faces with the same old baggage...

The Reagan defence

John Banks has lost his attempt to have the charge of filing a false electoral return dismissed. But in the process, we've learned that he is using the Reagan defence: "I have no recollection of events at that time":

The judgment revealed details from Mr Banks' three-hour interview with police - never before made public.

Excerpts from the interview featured in relation to the two donations over which questions had emerged - a $15,000 donation from SkyCity and two $25,000 cheques from internet tycoon Kim Dotcom.

Evidence from SkyCity chief Nigel Morrison told of meeting Mr Banks, handing over an envelope bearing the casino logo and containing a cheque. The account was supported by Mr Morrison's executive assistant.

But Justice Wylie referred to Mr Banks' police interview, in which the MP said "he has no recollection of the meeting, or of receiving any cheque from Mr Morrison".

Convenient memory lapses are a stock-in-trade of politicians, one of the standard self-serving lies they tell. But normally they apply it to policies they supported or opposed until five minutes ago, not to statements in court. I strongly suspect that if Banks tried this on before a jury, they'd laugh him out of town (and his arse into jail). But Banks has elected to be tried before a judge; it remains to be seen whether they will be similarly cynical about his statements.

But even if we take it at face value that Banks "forgot" someone handing him a $15,000 cheque, that just gives him other problems. After all, if his memory is so bad that he'd forget something so important, surely he's unfit to be in Parliament?

Monday, April 07, 2014

Environmental Reporting Bill: The origins of secrecy

Back in February, the government finally introduced its Environmental Reporting Bill. The bill would require the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand to regularly publish reports on the state of our air, water, land, oceans, and climate, including sources of pressure on the environment and the impacts of degradation. Its a good idea, but there's a catch: it includes an odious secrecy clause which forbids disclosure of "information or analysis that will be, or has been, used in an environmental report" without the joint permission of the Secretary for the Environment and the Government Statistician. The clause "applies despite any other enactment", so it effectively ousts the jurisdiction of the OIA (not to mention the BORA).

I was curious about how this clause came to be in the bill, so I sent in an OIA for the details. The Minister's office were very helpful, and made sure that I got a response back in time to submit on the legislation. The formal advice on the bill is on DocumentCloud here (and on GoogleDocs here). It tells an interesting, if tragic, story about how this clause came to be there. Its also a great example of how good intentions can produce toxic outcomes.

First, the good intention: back in August 2013, when Cabinet approved environmental reporting in principle [PDF; see CAB Min (13) 26/6 on p. 24], they:

21. agreed that reporting be undertaken at arm's length from Ministers, according to the Principles and protocols for producers of Tier 1 statistics, in order to provide the public with assurance in the integrity and independence of the data and analysis;

22. noted that this means that Ministers will be given a briefing on the key messages in the days prior to release, but will not see information on the data released in the environmental reports before they are publicly released and will not be able to influence the content of those reports;

[Link added]

Cabinet appeared to think that the government's word on this would be enough, but late during drafting, while ironing out some of the inconsistencies around directing the Government Statistician to report on something (something which prima facie challenged their statutory independence), they decided to give it statutory form. A briefing note to the Minister for the Environment (13-B-02167: Environmental Reporting; starts on p.24 of the document linked above) has the details, and sadly their motivation here was unpleasantly political: to prevent oversight by a future less cooperative PCE:
19. [I]t is important that no party, other than those working on the reports, have access to any of the reports prior to publication. This includes any of the relevant unpublished statistical data to be used in the reports, or to any of the analysis that will make up the reports, as well as the reports themselves. This includes the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the joint Ministers.

20. Currently the PCE has powers to obtain information under section 19 of the Environment Act 1986. This could include environmental reporting reports, or any information or data relating to the generation of that reporting. While the current PCE has indicated that she has no intention of making such requests prior to publication, this issue could arise with future Commissioners.

21. Section 19(3) of the Environment Act allows persons bound by the provisions of any enactment to maintain secrecy in relation to any matter and not to supply any information to the Commissioner or to produce any document or paper. Our proposed approach is to reflect in the Bill that no party will receive the report and unpublished statistical data to be used in the reports, or any of the analysis that will make up the reports, or the reports themselves, prior to publication. We are working with PCO so that this does not restrict access by either Minister to information required to progress any policy work within their portfolio.

[Link and emphasis added]

A clause forbidding release prior to publication does not seem particularly onerous. So how did that turn into a general requirement for perpetual secrecy? A later Briefing Note ("Background to Drafting of the Environmental Reporting Bill", 13-B-02346; p. 5 of the document linked above) has more information:
17. Provisions have been made in clause 15 of the Bill to ensure reporting is conducted at arm's length from the Government of the day and to similarly restrict PCE's pre-publication access to material and access to other parties. These provisions apply to domain and synthesis reports, including their findings and conclusions.

18. You have advised that you do not wish to limit any provisions of the Official Information Act (OIA). For consistency with restrictions on Ministerial access, provisions to limit pre-release disclosure will also limit the ability of the public to obtain information prior to publication. This is consistent with section 52(3)(b)(ii) of the OIA.

19. Clause 15 also contains a mechanism to ensure that access to information required by Ministers to discharge their other functions (e.g. policy decisions) will not be impeded by this Bill.

20. We believe the clause constitutes a "minor and technical change" within the scope of the authority delegated to you and the Minister for Statistics by Cabinet...

[Link added]

They're right in saying that a general ban on pre-publication release would override the OIA. But then again, its unclear why they even needed to go that far - the OIA already has clauses protecting the relevant interests, and requests could be refused under s18(d) ("that the information requested is or will soon be publicly available"). And its worth noting that Statistics New Zealand manages to protect the security of Tier One statistics without needing this sort of general opt-out (they have statutory secrecy around their survey forms and a secrecy requirement on staff that information only be disclosed in accordance with their official duties). Its also worth noting that the clause as drafted goes well beyond a ban on pre-publication release and instead imposes perpetual secrecy on this material (so e.g. requests for drafts of an environmental report so we can see how it evolved and whether there was any string-pulling could be refused). It is unclear why the clause is so broad when a narrower one will do. Unfortunately, MfE couldn't release their emails and other communications in time (I'm expecting them in another couple of weeks), so we can't see what was driving officials to draft this atrocity.

Finally: that little note about it being a "minor and technical change": firstly, the OIA is quasi-constitutional legislation which establishes and protects a fundamental principle of our government. Overriding it isn't "minor". But that's not the only law this clause overrides - it "applies despite any other enactment". In other words, it overrides the Bill of Rights Act and the Treaty of Waitangi Act - cores of our constitution. And its not exactly hard to see how it could conflict with either (disclosure in an employment case after someone quit alleging manipulation of environmental reporting or in a Treaty claim about environmental damage). PCO's sloppy drafting just took a great, steaming dump not just on freedom of information, but on our entire constitution. Are these people really that clueless?

Update: due to problems with DocumentCloud, I've put the core documents on GoogleDocs here.