Friday, May 30, 2014

Statute or its bullshit

Last year, Peter Dunne betrayed us all by agreeing to support John Key's spy bill. His vote was crucial in ensuring the bills passage - he was the government's majority in the second and third readings. His excuse was that Key had promised him that the definition of "private communication" - a crucial term in the bill, which apparently allowed the GCSB to spy on our metadata without any regulation or oversight - would be reviewed to ensure consistency and to ensure that metadata could not be captured.

But it turns out that Key lied: there will be no review. And thanks to that lie, we have a bill which enables NSA-style mass domestic spying.

The lesson should be obvious: do not accept such promises from Key (or any other politician) in future. Instead, demand that concessions are enacted in legislation immediately - and if they require policy work, then delay the legislation until that work is done. Statute or its bullshit. Its that simple.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The SIS smeared an innocent man

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security released a report today about the treatment of a member of the public by the SIS. While the report does not name the complainant, their identity is clear: it is former Fijian cabinet minister Rajesh Singh. How do we know this? Because details of his treatment have entered the public record through the media and questions in Parliament. Despite this, in a perfect example of the petty secrecy spies are infamous for, the IGIS redacted material which is in the public record.

Naturally, the IGIS dismisses the substance of the complaint (their attitude can be summed up in one sentence: "I accept the NZSIS Officers record"), but there is one victory: the SIS delivered a "warning" to Singh that the New Zealand Government would not tolerate the activities that they (in their paranoid delusion) believed him to be involved in, and that anyone involved would be prosecuted. They also warned him not to speak of being raided. From the report, these "warnings" appear to be a standard practice of the SIS. But the Inspector-General has ruled that they fall outside its powers, and ordered them to cease such activities pending a legal opinion from the Crown Law Office (or, I suppose, a law change rammed through under all stages urgency if Crown Law agrees with the IGIS).

There's a couple of other things. Firstly, the report refers chillingly to "work done" on Singh's seized phone, suggesting they weren't simply reading the messages off it. Naturally, it doesn't say what this work was, but it was probably modified to allow them to listen in and track him at will (so, if spies ever touch your phone, treat it as compromised and dump it). Secondly, in a footnote, the IGIS notes that

there is nothing in the issue of the Warrant in itself, or in the questions and answers which followed... which comes even near to approaching proof of criminal activity or participation in terrorism. No police activity has resulted, or charges been laid. [Singh] is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Which is as close as you're going to get to an admission that they were full of shit and have damaged an innocent man's reputation.

This simply isn't acceptable, and its a prime example of why we need to disband the SIS.

Another dead lake

Last night, Campbell Live visited Lake Waikare in the Waikato - and found it coloured blood-red from an algal bloom:

Less than an hour from Auckland, reporter Tristram Clayton found a freshwater lake, Lake Waikare, that is stained blood red from one side to the other – giving a terrifying glimpse of what New Zealand could look like if nothing changes.

For 45 years, Ian Browning has been coming to Lake Waikare in north Waikato for the duck shooting season, but this year he needn't have bothered.

"Last week we came and I saw six ducks in three days," says Mr Browning. "It's changed from thousands of birds to single figures, just about; it's amazing how they've dropped."

The problem is an algal bloom so bad it's suffocating an entire ecosystem.

And it now threatens to poison an internationally-recognised wetland downstream.

People used to swim in this lake. Now they can't. They used to fish and hunt from it. They can't do that either. And the culprit is pretty clear: years of dairy farming (everything else has been cleaned up. Only farmers get to keep spewing their shit into our waterways).

This is why we need environmental bottom lines for our waterways, and land-use restrictions and stocking limits for farmers. sadly, I don't think we'll see them under this government.

New Fisk

Egypt elections: The coronation of the emperor
Egypt: An extra polling day but still hardly anyone wants to vote

A shambles

That's the only way to describe what happened last night over the vote on Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months' Paid Leave) Amendment Bill:

A bill sponsored by Labour MP Sue Moroney to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks failed to pass its second reading in Parliament last night and has caused a row over the vote.

The bill had a slim majority on its first reading, with only National and Act opposing it, and National promised to use its financial veto if it passed its third reading.

But the Maori Party's three votes were cast against the second reading in a proxy cast by chief Government whip Louise Upston.

The Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell has since confirmed that this was an error, and that they would be seeking leave to have the vote corrected. The question now is whether National will do the unthinkable and deny that leave. The other question is whether National whip Louise Upston is going to face a Privilege complaint for miscasting a proxy (something described by the Speaker as a serious contempt), or whether we'll be reminded once again that Parliament's internal disciplinary procedures run on politics, not rules. [See correction below - I/S] Either way, Parliament has once again brought itself into contempt with this mess; if they can't even cast their votes correctly, why should we trust them at all?

Correction: So apparently it was the Maori Party's fault, not National's. Their proxy was not miscast, instead someone filled in their proxy form incorrectly. Parliament has now granted leave for the vote to be corrected, and the bill has been restored to the Order Paper. So, the right outcome, but Parliament still looks like a House of Muppets. If they can't even vote correctly, you wonder what they can do.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Climate change: Scamming the ETS

Gutted, ineffective - now it turns out that the ETS is a scam as well:

It has been revealed in Parliament today that taxpayers are paying millions of dollars for companies to pollute under the Government’s failed emissions trading scheme (ETS), the Green Party said today.


Last year, 34 million free units were given away to large polluting companies under the ETS, worth, on average current market value, $165 million. A total of $1.36 billion worth of taxpayer-funded units have been given away between 2010 and June 2014.

The companies then surrender much cheaper international units to meet their emissions obligations under the ETS, either banking the more valuable NZ units or selling them for profit.

This is what happens when you combine pollution subsidies, an open market, and differential international prices: companies arbitrage, and a tool which is supposed to make pollution cost money instead makes it pay. A similar scam by forest-owners was closed in the Budget, but this is much bigger, and likely involves some of our largest companies.

This has to stop. And if the only way to do it is to shut off the flow of cheap international credit and force domestic polluters to offset with domestic reductions, then so be it. The government, and the public will benefit by doing so; the only ones who lose will be scammers and polluters.

Privacy: Not a priority for National

Back in 2011, the Law Commission released the final stage of its inquiry into the Privacy Act, recommending a new Act with tougher provisions to protect personal privacy. A year later the government accepted the proposals - but then sat on its hands and did nothing. Now, they've finally announced that they'll be beginning consultations to develop a bill. In the interim, they developed and passed under urgency GCSB proposals enabling the widespread invasion of our privacy on behalf of their foreign "partners". Its a telling display of their priorities.

The actual proposals are good. Mandatory reporting, enhanced powers for the Privacy Commissioner to force compliance with the law, limits on offshore transfers to low-privacy regimes such as the US (but note: there's an exemption for "security", so the spies have free rein as always). It will also make identity theft a criminal offence in its own right (rather than prosecuting it as fraud). OTOH, as TechLiberty points out, the Q&A file promises that the new law will enable further data-sharing between business and government. So, I think we'll need to wait for the bill to judge whether these changes are worth having or not.

Today's must-read

Over at KiwiPolitico, Lew has an excellent post elaborating on the idea that the housing problem isn’t a housing problem; it’s a regional development problem. Why are houses so expensive in Auckland? Because everyone lives there. Why does everyone live in Auckland? Because there are no jobs or opportunities anywhere else. Thirty years of NeoLiberalism and leaving it to the market has gutted our regional economies, resulting in an economic wasteland. Even in those regions which are doing relatively well - Waikato, Taranaki and the West Coast - the picture is dim when you look closely: the resource extraction industries in each region produce a small number of high-paying jobs, which skew the averages up, but the rest of the picture is the same.

Fixing this requires serious regional development and a hands-on approach from government to build strong, sustainable and diverse regional industries (which in turn can sustain strong and resilient regional communities). We won't get that from National. We might see it from Labour and the Greens (and even NZ First is contributing to the discussion), but its going to take us a long, long time to get there.

Who benefits from privatization?


Goldman Sachs New Zealand Holdings, the local unit of the Wall Street investment bank, posted a 63 per cent per cent jump in revenue in 2013, a boom year for market activity that saw it win a share of deals including the floats of Z Energy, Meridian Energy and Synlait Milk, Tower's asset sales, Harvard University's forest sale and the selldown of Air New Zealand.


It was one of the lead managers in Meridian Energy's IPO, which will net $1.88 billion for the government once the second installment is paid in 2015, and helped manage the government's selldown of its holding in Air New Zealand to 53 per cent from 73 per cent, raising $365 million. The Treasury also hired Goldman Sachs to assess Kiwibank's capital needs early in 2013.

And meanwhile, the public gets robbed. Just another example of how National helps out its mates while screwing over ordinary people.

Member's Day

Today is a member's day - and one that will hopefully finally see the end of National's filibuster. Still, there's a lot of business to get through before the logjam is finally cleared.

First up are a couple of private and local bills. These aren't contentious and shouldn't be time-consuming. After those, we've got the second reading of Cam Calder's Summary Offences (Possession of Hand-held Lasers) Amendment Bill, and then the main event of Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months' Paid Leave) Amendment Bill. National wants to vote this down, and now they've passed their own less generous expansion in the Budget, it will be interesting to see if majority support for it holds. OTOH, they might just continue their filibuster to ensure the issue is safely parked until after the election...

Only two or three more member's days, depending on whether the last one gets eaten by wash-up urgency. And then with a new House, hopefully we'll see some progress.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A committee of fuckwits

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back on the Harmful Digital Communications Bill. The bill attempts to outlaw "harmful digital communications" - defined as anything causing "serious emotional distress" - and imposes a regime of court orders, takedown notices, and criminal penalties. The latter would effectively reintroduce the offence of criminal libel - but only on the internet. The committee has tinkered around the edges, and made some real (but insufficient) improvements to the takedown regime, but at the same time have left the core provisions unchanged, and in some cases - adding "threatened" breaches of communications principles, and increasing criminal penalties for harmful communications - have actually made things far worse. Effectively, they've defined harassment down from a repeated pattern of behaviour to a single upsetting incident - but only if it happens online, of course. They also want to impose far greater penalties for offensive behaviour on the internet than you would face for exactly the same actions on the street.

Don't believe me? Consider this statement:

The Justice and Electoral Committee are fuckwits
If I say that to their faces, in a select committee hearing, say, I am likely to be charged, at worst, with offensive behaviour and would face a fine of $500. However, I've said it online, in a deliberate attempt to upset them. Which puts me on the hook for two year's imprisonment if this atrocity passes.

Two years, vs $500 - because its on the internet and the sad old fuckwits in Parliament are scared of us and scared of our future.

(Oh, and thanks to sloppy drafting I can now be dragged off to the Orwellian "Approved Agency" and thence to court if I merely threaten to call someone a fuckwit. Again, they're fuckwits).

It gets worse, because its not only outright insults which are covered. As TechLiberty has pointed out, the law covers publicising evidence of outright corruption by MPs - something which undoubtedly causes "serious emotional harm" to the exposed MP. There's no public interest defence, and there's not even a freedom of expression clause for the avoidance of doubt - unlike the non-criminal sections.

This bill is simply one long exercise in fuckwittery, which will chill our online conversation - which, given that that's where our conversation happens now, imperils our democracy. It cannot be allowed to pass.

The same problems everywhere

Last year we learned that Parliamentary Services spied on journalist Andrea Vance, accessing her access card and phone records in an effort to determine whether she had leaked information to Peter Dunne. Over the Tasman its worse: they're spying on Senators:

Senator John Faulkner has claimed he has been "spied on" by an arm of the bureaucracy in Canberra.

The matter relates to the use of images from surveillance cameras inside Parliament House and involves a suspected whistleblower who may have passed on information about the public service to the Labor senator.

In a fiery public hearing of a Senate committee, Senator Faulkner confronted the head of the Department of Parliamentary Services, Carol Mills, over the use of CCTV images against DPS staff.

In a half-hour long grilling, Ms Mills confirmed that a potential breach of the rules around the use of CCTV had occurred during a disciplinary investigation into a former staff member working in Parliament.

ABC has more details: they used CCTV to find out which Senator's door they pushed an envelope under. Its now been escalated to a complaint of breach of Privilege - interfering with people communicating with Senators being a classic contempt of Parliament.

A new alliance?

So, its official: Mana and the Internet Party are forming an electoral alliance. Given that the two parties have practically nothing in common its an odd alliance, and its hard to escape the feeling that Kim Dotcom is basically buying the electorate seat he needs, especially as they'll be providing the money. And on the gripping hand, Mana's members (give or take Sue Bradford) are apparently happy with the arrangement. Its their party, so who am I to disagree?

As for the practical effects: its likely to be a tight election (especially as National has no friends), so every seat will be crucial. Stopping 1% of the vote from being wasted and locking it onto the anti-National side could be the difference between a National-led and Labour-led government. If so, we can expect more wailing about MMP from National in future.

Monday, May 26, 2014

For a drone-free New Zealand

Over on KiwiPolitico, Pablo suggests a good idea: that New Zealand take a leadership role in the fight against US drone-murders by unilaterally renouncing the use of lethal drones:

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

(Note: lethal drones. Unarmed drones are a different matter, and have countless civilian applications)

He also suggests extending the ban to intelligence cooperation, and letting the New Zealand public decide the matter through a referendum.

I support this idea. Armed drones are used to murder people without trial. In Pakistan and Yemen, they are basically being used to indiscriminately wage war on civilians. We should have no part of either. New Zealand should renounce these weapons, ban our intelligence services from passing information to countries which use them, and organise the world against them. Obviously, that's not going to happen under our current extrajudicial-murder-supporting government. But surely one of our opposition parties could make it policy?

A good investment

In the budget, the government effectively abandoned the "warm up New Zealand" home insulation programme, reducing it to a paltry 15,000 homes a year (out of 600,000 that need to be done). Today, the Greens promised to reverse that, boosting funding to $100 million a year with a target of insulating 200,000 homes in three years. They're also offering $25 million specifically for homeowners in Christchurch to install wall insulation during earthquake repairs.

The government will no doubt decry this as "waste". Its not. An earlier phase of the scheme returned $1.2 billion in health benefits from spending of $347 million. This isn't waste, but an extremely high-value investment in the future of New Zealand which reduces government spending in fairly short order. If National doesn't want to make that investment, its a sign not of fiscal virtue, but of stupidity and short-sightedness.


Sanil Kumar came to New Zealand in 2010. He lived and worked here for four years as a sheet metal worker. Then he got sick with renal disease, and the government deported him back to Fiji - a country which could not treat his illness. And now, as expected, he's dead.

Our government murdered this man. And we should hold them accountable for it.

New Fisk

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A desert uprising that began in hope but was doomed to end in betrayal
A cardinal error? Maronite Patriarch of Antioch to meet the Pope in Israel

Climate change: Fingers in their ears

Over the past few years, the US military has published a number of reports on climate change and how it poses a threat to the national security of the United States. According to their 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the instability, poverty and environmental tensions caused by climate change were a driver of terrorism. And just two weeks ago the Military Advisory Board compared the challenge posed by climate change to that faced by the US during the Cold War. As a result, the US military is adapting its forces to a post-climate change world, and attempting to predict the effects of climate change so as to deploy those forces effectively.

None of this sits well with the Republican climate-change deniers in Congress. And so they've just banned the US military from paying any attention to climate change. faced with a significant security threat which threatens American lives and interests, they've instead decided to stick their fingers in their ears.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Green list

The Greens have released their party list for the election. Unlike last time, when they were coming out of a generational renewal, this list is more aimed at locking in the talented team elected in 2011. There's some minor juggling, reflecting the relative differences in performance among the MPs, but no major upsets. Steffan Browning and Denise Roche now get to be the cusp candidates, to make way for James Shaw and for their more popular caucus mates. There's some great new talent lined up behind them on the list as well, but the Greens will have to do better than ever before to get them elected (or I suppose have some more mid-term renewal, but there's no-one in their team that I really want to see gone yet).

As with previous elections, I've done a table showing candidates relative placements with last time:

2014 RankName2011 RankDifference
1Metiria Turei10
2Russel Norman20
3Kevin Hague30
4Eugenie Sage6+2
5Gareth Hughes7+2
6Catherine Delahunty4-2
7Kennedy Graham5-2
8Julie Anne Genter13+5
9Mojo Mathers14+5
10Jan Logie9-1
11Dave Clendon8-3
12Holly Walker120
13James Shaw15+2
14Denise Roche11-3
15Steffan Browning10-5
16Marama Davidson----
17Barry Coates----
18John Hart----
19Dave Kennedy23+4
20Jeanette Elley19-1
21Jack McDonald46+25
22David Moorhouse52+30
23Sea Rotmann20-3
24Aaryn Barlow18-6
25Richard Leckinger17-8
26Umesh Perinpanayagam----
27Susanne Ruthven----
28Teresa Moore51+23
29Dora Langsbury22-9
30Tane Woodley24-6
Further candidate details can be found here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Not in the public interest

When TV3 reported on Wednesday night that Judith Collins' had been accused of unlawful posession of a pistol over her infamous photo, I thought it pointed to a clear (though technical) breach of the law. Like machine guns, pistols are highly illegal; while there are sporting uses, their only real purpose is to kill people, and so you need a special licence to own one. Unlawful possession is a serious offence, punishable by up to three years imprisonment. Collins was in possession of a pistol, and that possession did not fall under any of the relevant exemptions; she was not under supervision on the range of an incorporated pistol club, and she was not a member of the Police, NZDF, or other relevant body.

Despite that, it is also clear that prosecution is not in the public interest. If it had been a normal firearm, there would have been no breach. Any illegality was technical, did not cause harm, and may have been invited by police. If brought to trial, the appropriate penalty would likely be a discharge without conviction. Looking at the Solicitor-General's Prosecution Guidelines, it clearly fails every one of the s5.8 public interest considerations for prosecution, and meets the first three of the s5.9 public interest considerations against prosecution. Under these circumstances, I don't think we can blame the police for not pressing charges.

What we can blame them for is their handling of the complaint. Their curt dismissal shows that they do not understand the law and do not accept that a technical breach occurred. It suggests an unpleasant (and inappropriate) subservience to the Minister, and feeds the public perception that they serve power, not the law. Instead, the police should have accepted a technical breach, explained that prosecution would not be in the public interest, and undertaken to ensure that it did not occur again. They should also have immediately sought an amendment to the law to ensure that people are not exposed to prosecution - because this applies to a lot more people than Judith Collins. Ever been to an NZ Army open day and played with their toys? Congratulations, you're technically guilty of possession of a military style semi-automatic firearm - an offence which unlike pistols has not even the implication of a supervision clause. These kids? They're technically guilty of possession of a restricted weapon.

No matter what you think of the military using its weapons as PR tools, that's not a good situation. The government may want to look at an amendment ASAP.

A serial offender

It looks like former Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson is a serial offender at interfering with police cases:

Maurice Williamson called a senior police officer in Counties Manukau on a separate criminal case in which he "merely wished to pass on" that a complainant in a fraud case was "unhappy" that police were not going to lay charges.


The phone call from Mr Williamson in October or November 2013 was about a complex financial case where the complainant was advised that it was unlikely the police would lay criminal charges, said Mr Lynch, according to the memo released today under the Official Information Act.

"When Mr Williamson phoned me he reiterated at the start of the conversation that he was not seeking to interfere in any police investigation but merely wished to pass on what [redacted] had advised him that he was unhappy that [redacted] would probably not face charges."

Mr Lynch was unaware of the details of the case and spoke with a colleague who said "the matter was quite complex but his current view was that police would be unable to reach the required level of evidential sufficiency to bring charges."

There was no further contact from Mr Williamson, said Mr Lynch.

So much for an isolated incident. Instead, it looks like a habit. We're well rid of him.

Meanwhile, there's the obvious question: was the complainant Williamson was speaking on behalf of a National Party donor?

The rich rort us again

The rich are now using their private snob schools to cheat on their taxes:

Inland Revenue has issued a Revenue Alert regarding payments being made to a small number of private schools and private childcare centres. The payments are being re-characterised as donations to charitable trusts, enabling people to make false claims for donations tax credits.

This issue applies to a very small number of private schools and private early childhood care/education facilities, Inland Revenue Group Tax Counsel, Graham Tubb said today.

Sadly, IRD does not name the schools and childcare centres which are encouraging parents to do this. They should, so they can get the reputation they deserve.

Another coup in Thailand

So, Thailand's "martial law" has turned out to be a coup after all, with the military arresting politicians, shutting down the media, and banning public gatherings. Supposedly, this is to "restore order' "for society to love and be at peace again", but the natural suspicion is that it is to do away with democracy in support of Thailand's urban elite - just like last time.

It won't work. The divisions in Thai society will not be removed by top-down repression. They can only be managed by all sides respecting democratic outcomes and the limits of government - something the anti-democratic opposition simply will not do.

In the meantime, its another potent reminder of why large militaries are a standing danger to democracy, and why sensible democracies do not have them.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


The government's home insulation policy - initiated under an agreement with the Greens - has been a resounding success, delivering a fourfold return on its funding in health benefits alone. So naturally, the government is downsizing it:

The Government is winding down its home insulation programme as part of Budget cuts leaving 600,000 homes across New Zealand uninsulated, including 300,000 homes of low income kiwis, Labour says.

Labour's energy spokesman David Shearer said last week's Budget confirmed the Government had "virtually abandoned" its home insulation scheme and as a result, a fifth of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority's (EECA) staff would be cut.

While $30 million a year would still be allocated to home insulation, "this means a meagre 15,000 homes will be insulated", Mr Shearer said.

The government's response is to trumpet that $30 million a year as a better-targeted scheme. But even then, it will take them twenty years to insulate the homes it is targeting, and in the meantime we will incur billions in additional health costs. It seems like a perfect example of short-sighted cuts to meet an arbitrary budget target, when spending more would actually save us money (and in a very short timeframe too).

An agreement for the sake of an agreement

National is saying that they might sign up to the TPP even if it doesn't give us free trade in agriculture:

Trade Minister Tim Groser says New Zealand may be open to a Pacific-wide trade deal that does not abolish tariffs on all agricultural goods.

Efforts to conclude the TPP in Singapore this week failed again, though analysts had not expected any breakthrough.

New Zealand wants full liberalisation in the TPP talks, but Mr Groser insists he's not backing down, saying he will agree on the tariffs only if Japan and the United States prove they can show another way to achieve a high-quality agreement.

But what would be the point of such an agreement? To get it, we'd have to give away Pharmac, allow foreign corporations to dictate NZ policy, adopt US-style IP laws, and secretly extend our copyright term. And in exchange we'd get... nothing. It would be an agreement for the same of an agreement which would actively harm New Zealand. But I guess if it gives the government "trade deal with the US" headlines, they don't care too much about that.

National: The Big Tobacco party

Last month, National selected a tobacco lobbyist as its candidate for Clutha-Southland. And now they've done it again, selecting Christopher Bishop to run in Hutt South.

Selecting one tobacco lobbyist could be passed off as a mistake. Selecting two looks like a deliberate policy. And it really makes you wonder who is donating to National and buying influence beneath the disclosure threshold...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Don't ask, don't care

Since the revelation that a kiwi had been murdered by the US in a drone-strike, John Key has been open in his support for the US's policy of extra-judicial assassination. But what's that support based on? Certainly not any legal analysis. Today in Question Time, Key was asked if he'd even sought legal advice on the consistency of the US drone program with international law. His answer was simple: "no":

Hon David Cunliffe: Has the Prime Minister sought or received any advice on whether remote operations such as drone strikes against non-combatants or in non-declared conflicts are compatible with international law?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: No.

Which is an appalling position when you remember that he has committed NZ spies to sharing information with this legally dubious program. You'd think he'd check first, if only to ensure that he wasn't exposing either himself or GCSB staff to future war crimes charges, but no. It's just "don't ask, don't care".

There's an obvious followup question that needs to be asked: has Key ever sought legal advice on the consistency with the BORA-affirmed right to life of sharing information which may be used in drone-murders? sadly, I expect the answer to that will also be "no", simply because he doesn't want to be told that what he is doing is illegal.

Our dishonest Prime Minister

Last night's Campbell Live piece on the GCSB was an important reminder of the extent to which John Key has lied to us over his role in the appointment of Ian Fletcher. First Key claimed that the appointment was made by SSC, then when confronted with evidence that it wasn't, he claimed that he hadn't had any contact with his old friend. Then, as more facts emerged, he gradually admitted that he had met Fletcher, then that he had asked him to apply for the job. Today, under further questioning, he's been forced to admit that his office organised those meetings, but he is still claiming that he had not discussed the role with him before the appointment. Those lies are now looking increasingly untenable. But above it all is the question: why lie at all? What is the Prime Minister trying to hide here? If he's so sure that the appointment was his to make (to paraphrase his explanation in the House today) and that he could therefore do whatever he liked, why didn't he just say so from the beginning rather than string together an increasingly implausible series of lies?

What's also looking doubtful is Key's claim never to have heard of Kim Dotcom until the actual raids. Last night, Campbell Live revealed a secret meeting between Key, Fletcher, and the GCSB just two days before GCSB surveillance on Dotcom began. And we're somehow expected to believe that the GCSB didn't brief their Minister on a key upcoming operation. Yeah right. Even Key now seems to admit that its implausible, retreating to not being sure that he wasn't briefed. Which is a very convenient hole in his memory.

Given his repeated lies, nothing Key says on this issue can be trusted. Instead, every statement must be assumed to be another self-serving lie aimed at covering up his actions in light of the latest revelations. The PM has form on this - remember his gradual revelations on his TranzRail shares as it became apparent how much the media knew? But we deserve better than this from our PM.

Twitter and Parliament

Yesterday, in response to a complaint from the National Party, the Speaker referred the issue of MPs tweeting from the House to the Privileges Committee. Ostensibly this is to "clarify the rules", but its pretty clear that he wants to stop people from slagging him off. And this is a gross over-reach of his power.

Parliament's Standing Orders exist for one reason and one reason only: to ensure a modicum of order in the House so it can do its job. No more, and no less. They're not there to police the conduct of MPs generally, and they're certainly not there to police the conduct of members of the public outside the House (as some of the examples of breach of privilege purport to do). Unless something poses a direct threat to the functioning of the House, it is simply no business of the Speaker, end of story.

MPs tweeting from the Chamber does not pose such a threat. Unlike verbal interjections, they do not lead to retaliation in the House which interferes with its function. Criticising the Speaker on Twitter rather than verbally challenging them does not lead to disorder, as it is confined to another forum. It may make the Speaker feel bad when he is told about it later, but protecting the Speaker from hurt feelings is not the function of Standing Orders. Neither is protecting the Speaker's sense of "authority" from things said outside the Chamber. While he gets to be a petty tyrant in the Chamber, he just has to put up with what people say about him outside it (subject of course to the law of defamation). And if he feels that those outside statements prevent him from performing his job impartially, then the only honourable course of action is to resign.

What MPs tweeting from the Chamber does do is give us a direct line into our democracy. Its immediate, its informal, and its responsive - and therefore hugely valuable in terms of citizen engagement. We also get to see our MPs warts and all - Judith Collins' bullying and vindictiveness, Tau Henare's humour, Jan Logie's over-extended simile - and judge them accordingly. And by threatening it, Carter is undermining a key part of our democratic conversation. And that's not something we should let him get away with.

Equality comes to Pennsylvania

Another day, another US bigot-state has its ban on same-sex marriage overturned:

Same-sex couples can now marry in all north-eastern US states after a federal judge struck down Pennsylvania's ban on Tuesday, a day after a similar law was overturned in Oregon.

The Pennsylvania ruling marks the latest victory in what has been a spectacular year for marriage equality. The ruling is the 14th consecutive legal win for gay marriage advocates since the US supreme court's Windsor decision in June 2013 that found part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (Doma) unconstitutional.

US district judge John Jones wrote in his ruling: "That same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional. Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. Were that not so, ours would still be a racially segregated nation according to the now rightfully discarded doctrine of 'separate but equal'."

Jones concludes: "We are better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them in the ash heap of history."

Good to see judges finally recognising that when the constitution promises equal protection under the law, it doesn't just mean "for rich straight white guys".

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Our quisling Prime Minister

John Key was grilled in the House today about the GCSB's involvement in US drone-murders, and his answers were troubling. First, as is clear from his comments before Question Time, he supports the US drone murder programme, even when it leads to civilian deaths. But he shouldn't be so comfortable. The UN considers these drone strikes to be an ongoing war crime. And that means that those who provide intelligence support for them are co-conspirators, liable under both international and New Zealand law. That's something we need a full public inquiry into, followed by prosecutions if necessary.

But more troubling was Key's attitude to the murder of kiwis. He clearly supports it, and when asked if he would instruct the GCSB to place conditions on the intelligence they share with their US "partners" that it could not be used to murder kiwis (as the Germans do for their citizens), his answer was simple: "no".

What do you call a Prime Minister who is willing to sacrifice the lives of the people he's supposed to represent to suck up to a foreign power? A lickspittle and a quisling. And the sooner we vote him out of office, the better.

Good riddance to RMA "reform"

National's latest attempts to "reform" the RMA are officially dead:

Government coalition partners have successfully stopped an overhaul of planning laws.

The Maori Party and UnitedFuture MP Peter Dunne teamed up to oppose reforms of the Resource Management Act (RMA), saying it placed economic growth ahead of environmental protection.

National needed either party's vote to get the legislation over the line.

This afternoon, Prime Minister John Key confirmed negotiations had stalled and he had "parked up" the reforms until after the general election in September.

Good riddance. National's "reforms" included making development a "matter of national importance", removing local democracy, and providing a blank cheque for mining, drilling, and urban sprawl. I'm very glad that Peter Dunne and the Maori Party have stopped it.

New Fisk

Our modern gods: Amnesty International, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations

The true purpose of US "lawful intercept" technology

The latest NSALeak: the NSA is tapping and recording every cellphone call made in the Bahamas:

The National Security Agency is secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.

According to documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the surveillance is part of a top-secret system – code-named SOMALGET – that was implemented without the knowledge or consent of the Bahamian government. Instead, the agency appears to have used access legally obtained in cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to open a backdoor to the country’s cellular telephone network, enabling it to covertly record and store the “full-take audio” of every mobile call made to, from and within the Bahamas – and to replay those calls for up to a month.

SOMALGET is part of a broader NSA program called MYSTIC, which The Intercept has learned is being used to secretly monitor the telecommunications systems of the Bahamas and several other countries, including Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya. But while MYSTIC scrapes mobile networks for so-called “metadata” – information that reveals the time, source, and destination of calls – SOMALGET is a cutting-edge tool that enables the NSA to vacuum up and store the actual content of every conversation in an entire country.

All told, the NSA is using MYSTIC to gather personal data on mobile calls placed in countries with a combined population of more than 250 million people. And according to classified documents, the agency is seeking funding to export the sweeping surveillance capability elsewhere.

Why the Bahamas? They're hardly what you think of as a haven of terrorism. Its hard to escape the conclusion that the NSA did this simply because they could. But now that its been made public, the blowback is likely to be an end to cooperation with the US on law-enforcement interceptions, which in turn is going to make the DEA's actual job of catching international drug dealers problematic. Another example of how over-reaching spies damage real interests.

Meanwhile, it really does make you wonder what the GCSB is going to do with TICS...

Equality comes to Oregon

Oregon has been the latest US state to recognise marriage equality:

A federal judge struck down Oregon's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage Monday.

"Because Oregon's marriage laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without a rational relationship to any legitimate government interest, the laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution," U.S. District Judge Michael McShane said in his ruling.


In February, the state's attorney general said she would not defend the ban in court because it would not stand up to a federal constitutional challenge.

The ruling won't be appealed, and some counties have already begun issuing marriage licences.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 18 states, another 18 are appealing against court rulings recognising it, and there are cases progressing almost everywhere else. The dam has broken and a flood of equality is rushing across America. The question is how long it will take the bigots to recognise that they've lost.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Serco covers up sexual assault

Private prison provider Serco has been caught covering up sexual assault at its UK refugee detention centres again:

Serco, the private outsourcing giant, is to be investigated by MPs after it was forced to disclose a secret internal report revealing evidence that it failed to properly investigate a claim of repeated sexual assaults by one of its staff against a female resident at Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre.

The document, which was marked confidential, was made public last week following a four-month legal battle between Serco and Guardian News and Media. Lawyers said the report demonstrates a culture of disbelief towards women inside the detention centre, which is run by Serco, and hailed the high court's decision forcing Serco to disclose the document as a victory for greater transparency.


Although the claims of Sana (not her real name) remain unsubstantiated after investigations by police and the Home Office, the report's findings and process have angered MPs and lawyers.

Among them is the revelation that a Serco guard who appeared to believe the claims made by the alleged victim be given "guidance" to assist her "objectivity" in future, and that Serco believed the alleged victim lacked credibility because her allegations were deemed too consistent and detailed.

And naturally, they deported her after a whitewash "investigation".

This isn't the first case. There's another example from last year, involving the same prison. Again, the witnesses were deported to prevent them from giving evidence. If this isn't an organised coverup of multiple sexual assaults, its doing a bloody good impression of it.

And this is the company that the UK government wants to outsource child protective services to: one that covers up for rapists.

Meanwhile, we should all be asking ourselves whether we really want this company running our prisons, and looking very carefully at their "investigation" of any crimes perpetrated against those in their custody.

A rising tide lifts all boats?

One of the great myths of capitalism is that "a rising tide lifts all boats". Economic growth is supposed to be good for everyone - a fact we're reminded of endlessly when politicians are gutting government services and handing tax cuts to the rich to "increase growth". But the graph below, from Polity's Rob Salmond, shows that in National's New Zealand that's simply not true:


According to Salmond,

The chart shows that the next three years will see real growth in the economy overall far outstripping growth in real wages. While there is modest redress for wage earners in the following two years, it is not enough to undo the harm. Across the whole forecast period, real GDP per capita is slated to grow by 8.5%, while real wages grow by only 5.8%.

And in practical terms it means that the benefits of economic growth will flow to owners and shareholders, rather than ordinary people - just as it did in the 90's.

Climate change: Maybe this will get their attention?

The National government's economic policy over the past six years has (publicly, at least) been driven by a need to protect New Zealand's credit rating in the face of the global financial crisis. But while they've been slashing and burning and selling stuff off, they've missed the real threat; climate change:

Climate change is a mega-trend that will affect countries creditworthiness, and New Zealands worse than most, says Standard & Poor's.

In a report released on Friday the ratings agency said global warming, alongside ageing populations, was going to be the second mega-trend affecting sovereign credit risk and more difficult for governments to address.


S&P said some of the most potent ways climate change could affect countries growth prospects might be changing patterns of rainfall that could reduce agricultural yields via droughts and floods, and heatwaves and wildfires.

And as the IPCC pointed out a few months ago, New Zealand is seriously exposed to these risks.

A prudent government would be working to reduce those risks, by reducing our domestic emissions while working constructively for an international agreement to reduce global ones. Instead, National has gutted our primary domestic emissions reduction policy, and allied with polluters to impede and water-down any replacement for Kyoto. And all so a few rich people can continue to profit by dumping the real costs of their actions on others. But maybe a threat to something they actually understand - money - will sharpen their minds a bit?

New Fisk

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A botched coup, sanctified by martyrdom

Are the GCSB murderers?

Over the weekend TV3's The Nation interviewed Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars - during which he alleged that "our" spies are likely to have provided information which led to the murder of a New Zealand citizen by the US last year:

An American investigative journalist claims New Zealand spies likely provided crucial information to the United States ahead of a drone strike that killed a New Zealander last year.

Jeremy Scahill says his claims are based on the Edward Snowden files, to which he has had access.

"The fact is that New Zealand, through signal intercepts, is directly involved with what is effectively an American assassination programme," Mr Scahill told TV3's The Nation this morning.


Last month it was revealed Kiwi al Qaeda suspect Daryl Jones, who had a dual Australian New Zealand citizenship, was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in November.

"It would be very difficult to believe that it, the New Zealand Government – if it had information about one of its citizens that the United States was tracking – that it wouldn't share that information with the US Government," says Mr Scahill.

Under the law of New Zealand, that's sufficient to make the spies a party to the murder, putting them on the hook for a 14-year sentence.

The Prime Minister's response? They don't comment on "security matters". But this isn't a "security matter" - its a serious crime by our government against one of our own citizens. And when that's alleged, we deserve a far better explanation than the usual spy-bullshit.

Our spies are supposed to protect us, not conspire to murder us overseas. Labour is promising an inquiry into the GCSB and its powers if elected - but we need to go beyond that, into a criminal investigation. And if a case for criminal wrongdoing can be made against "our" spies, they need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Friday, May 16, 2014

MBIE doesn't care about conservation

Last month, Minister of Energy Simon Bridges opened up vast areas of New Zealand for oil exploration. The offer area "just happened" to include our biggest forest park - a decision about which the Minister was apparently completely ignorant of - causing a certain amount of interest in whether he had properly considered conservation values in the decision-making process. Someone naturally asked over FYI, the public OIA requests site, and today the response came back: he didn't. The released documents show that conservation and environmental issues didn't really feature in the advice and that there was no advice on the underlying conservation values of particular areas proposed for exploration. In fact, MBIE officials were so unconcerned with conservation that they initially proposed including areas of schedule 4 land (which they would not grant permits for) in the offer simply to get pretty lines on the map:

While some small areas of Schedule 4 land have been included the release areas, this has been done so to maintain the integrity of the release areas for the tender process. No permits will be awarded over Schedule 4 land, World Heritage site or marine reserves.

[Briefing on Release of areas for consultation for Block Offer 2014, p 16 of response]

The Minister did at least realise how this would look, and squashed the idea immediately.

What about other conservation areas? A paper to the Cabinet Economic Growth and Infrastructure Committee [p. 30] makes their attitude clear:
While some of the proposed release areas do intersect marine mammal sanctuaries, as petroleum exploration activities are not incompatible with these sanctuaries, they have been included in the proposed release areas. Similarly, seamount closures and Benthic Protection Areas have also been included in the release areas as their restrictions only apply to fishing related activities.

In addition, the environmental effects of petroleum related activities are considered by different parts of the regulatory framework (such as the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012) from those that are concerned with the allocation of rights through the issuing of permits.

Basically, as far as MBIE is concerned, conservation simply isn't their problem.

But that wasn't the only interesting thing to come to light. As part of the process, the Minister was required to consult with iwi about the areas proposed for release. Their submissions were then summarily ignored [p. 56]:
A total of 22 requests to protect certain areas or amendments to the consultation were received. These include 11 requests from iwi and hapu, and 11 from local authorities.

Officials have analysed these requests and, with regard to the majority of sites of sensitivity identified, officials consider that the best way to address concerns is to include sites within Block Offer 2014 and to then encourage and facilitate engagement between iwi and hapu and petroleum companies to find their own solutions for avoiding or minimising any impacts of petroleum exploration activities on or near sites of significance.

[Emphasis added]

A small number of changes were made (most notably the exclusion of the Kaikoura Marine Mammal Sanctuary), but again the attitude is that it is simply not their problem. Whether this is consistent with the government's duties as a treaty partner is left as an exercise for the reader.

Overall, the message is clear: MBIE doesn't care about conservation, or about the Treaty. For them, the "right" of foreign oil companies to drill where-ever they want trumps everything.

Key knows what his spies are doing

John Key has admitted to knowing "some" the techniques the GCSB are using to spy on us:

John Key has said he is aware of "some" but not all of the tools used by the GCSB amid fresh questions over an intrusive piece of spyware showcased by the United States' NSA to their Kiwi partners.

The Prime Minister stuck to his position in refusing to talk about "operational" details of the GCSB's work.


But he repeated his oft-stated position there was no mass surveillance of New Zealanders and partners in the Five Eyes network were not used to get around the law.

And if you believe that, I have a round building in Wellington to sell you. They're on record as having an ethos of "sniff it all, collect it all... partner it all". The NSA sniffs every internet bottleneck out of NZ, and they track every cellphone in the world. And all of this information is shared with GCSB. If they want to know, say, that a kiwi software millionaire is at home in his Dotcom mansion, then they just ask. And they can do that to any one of us, if we ever come to their attention (and that attention need not be professional).

John Key is clearly happy with this situation. We shouldn't be. Instead, we should be shutting down this agency, and destroying its equipment so it can never be used against us.

No freedom of religion in Sudan

Freedom of religion is something we take for granted. Its nobody's business but your own what you believe, and its certainly nothing to do with the government. In Sudan, its a different story:

A Sudanese court has sentenced a pregnant woman to hang for apostasy - the abandonment of her religious faith - after she married a Christian man.

According to Amnesty International Dr Maryam Yahya Ibrahim who is eight months pregnant, was raised a Christian.

But the authorities consider her to be a Muslim, because that was the faith of her father, who was absent during her childhood.

She was also sentenced to receive 100 lashes for adultery because the court deemed that her marriage was not valid on the grounds that her marriage to a Christian man from South Sudan was void under Sudan's version of Islamic law, which says Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims.

But lest anyone think they're inhumane, they're not going to beat and kill her until after she's given birth. Isn't that nice of them?

This is absolutely barbaric. Its not up to the government to decide what you believe - its up to you. And the idea that a marriage could be declared invalid because a party didn't belong to the "right" religion is simply ridiculous.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Budget

The government delivered the Budget this afternoon, and it was pretty much as expected: steady-as-she-goes, with a "surplus" delivered by shoving costs into the future (in this case, the cost of ACC levy reductions) and a slight increase in paid-parental leave to 18 weeks with an increase in eligibility. There was also a surprise: an extension of free healthcare to all under-13s. The message: Labour has won the argument on paid parental leave and on free healthcare, and National is having to give ground in order to stay in power.

But while that's the good news, there's also a lot of bad: more roads (in fact, they spent as much on new Auckland roads as the city rail link would cost), more cuts to key areas of health and education. And the spies, whose budget should be being zeroed, get a $2 million increase. I guess that's what you get for knowing who John Key calls.

Why we need rental property WOFs

For the past few years, housing and health advocates have been pushing for a "warrant of fitness" for rental properties. The biggest opponents of this move have been landlords. Why? Because their properties fail the tests:

More than 90 per cent of New Zealand rental homes inspected in a pilot warrant of fitness test failed to pass.

The trial, which assessed 144 properties across Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, found the vast majority (94 per cent) failed on at least one of the 31 criteria on the checklist.

Carried out by home assessment experts, the inspections looked at weathertightness, insulation and ventilation, lighting, heating, condition of appliances and general building safety.

The top five areas that rental homes failed on were water temperature, lack of smoke alarms in bedrooms, lack of code-compliant handrails and balustrades, lack of a fixed form of heating, and security.

So basicly landlords want the right to rent substandard properties and skimp on basic maintenance. Fuck that. The quicker we have this as a mandatory requirement on rental properties, the better.

The NSALeaks hit NZ

Glenn Greenwald has just published a book on the NSA Leaks - and the online documents give some hints about the GCSB's involvement in the NSA's global panopticon:

One NSA document told New Zealand’s security services and those of other Five Eyes nations to "sniff it all, know it all, collect it all, process it all and exploit it all" [also "partner it all" - I/S]


A slideshow showed Government Communications Security Bureau spies how to operate a system that trawled through massive amounts of phone numbers, email addresses and online chat.

Other files state New Zealand was forwarded intercepted phone calls, texts and emails between the Brazilian president and her staff.

GCSB was also briefed on NSA’s efforts to put back doors into private companies’ computer networks, and given access to a program called “Homing Pigeon” which allowed in-air passenger jet conversations to be monitored, according to the book.

As Russell Brown points out, this doesn't really fit with GCSB director Ian Fletcher's public "assurance" last week that "We don't do that stuff". Clearly they do. Sadly, their way of dealing with the exposure of that fact is simply to lie to our faces rather than stop.

The powers our spies have are a standing danger to our democracy and to our freedom. We clearly cannot trust them. Therefore we must destroy them. There's an election later this year, and two parties standing who are promising to do that: the Internet Party and the Greens. Vote for them, and vote out the spies.

National, Claudette Hauiti, and cronyism

So, it turns out that National MP Claudette Hauiti hired her partner as her electorate secretary. Her excuse? She didn't know it was wrong:

A National MP has broken Parliament's rules by employing her civil union spouse in her electorate office.

List MP Claudette Hauiti's wife, Nadine Mau, was employed as an issues assistant in Hauiti's electorate office in Auckland from April 7 until last Wednesday when she was sacked.

Under direction from Speaker David Carter [see 4.10(4) - I/S], MPs are not allowed to employ their spouse or partner, either in or outside Parliament.

Hauiti said she was unaware of the prohibition on employing spouses when she contracted her wife to work in her office.

[Link added]

And if you believe that, I have a round building in Wellington to sell you. Quite apart from being a no-no in practically any workplace in the world, this rule is one of the fundamentals. Its right there in the Speaker's Directions, and I'd expect it to be highlighted prominently in both induction material and in any guidance MPs get when employing people. So Hauiti is either lying, or she ignored all the guidance she was given, demonstrating that she is too stupid to be an MP. Either way, there should be no place in our Parliament for an MP who corruptly enriches themselves in this manner.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How it works in Nauru

In most countries, when an opposition MP criticises the government, its called democracy in action. In Nauru, the government abuses its majority to suspend them from parliament:

Nauru's justice minister, David Adeang, led an urgent government motion in parliament yesterday to suspend three members of the opposition, Dr Kieren Keke, Roland Kun and Mathew Batsiua.

Reports say the reason for the government's move to suspend the opposition MPs was because they felt the three had made comments in interviews with foreign media which Mr Adeang says damages Nauru's development.

There's more information here; the comments in question criticised the government's attacks on the independence of the judiciary.

So, first they remove judges who disagree with them, now they purport to remove MPs. Just another sign of Nauru's descent into dictatorship...

Justice for Iraq

The International Criminal Court is investigating the UK for war crimes in Iraq:

Allegations that British troops were responsible for a series of war crimes after the invasion of Iraq are to be examined by the international criminal court (ICC) at The Hague, the specialist tribunal has announced.

The court is to conduct a preliminary examination of what have been estimated to be 60 alleged cases of unlawful killing and claims that more than 170 Iraqis were mistreated while in British military custody during the conflict.

British defence officials are confident that the ICC will not move to the next stage and announce a formal investigation, largely because the UK has the capacity to investigate the allegations itself.

They're probably right. However, it does mean that there will be a lot of scrutiny on those investigations, which in turn is going to limit their ability to whitewash their crimes. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team will actually have to investigate, rather than make excuses, and the Attorney-General will have to grant permission to prosecute, rather than block it to defend Britain's reputation. The ICC won't be delivering justice itself, but their oversight will force the UK to deliver it for them. And that is how the system is supposed to work.

Australia guts freedom of information

Australia announced its budget last night, and it appears to have been a horror-show of ideological cuts across the board. One of the victims? Freedom of information:

Australia’s privacy and freedom of information watchdog will be effectively abolished and have its core functions distributed to different agencies in a series of changes proposed in the budget.


The role of privacy commissioner will be moved to a position within the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth ombudsman will handle complaints about freedom of information requests, as occurred before 2009.

Reviews of the merits of freedom of information requests were previously available free of charge through the freedom of information commissioner, but this will be moved back to the administrative appeals tribunal, which is likely to impose a charge of more than $800.

When reviews of FOIA decisions cost $800, they will effectively be put beyond the reach of most requesters. And without them, there's no real incentive for agencies to follow the law. Instead they can unlawfully withhold information, secure in the knowledge that no-one will be able to afford to challenge them. The result will be to effectively make Australia's Freedom of Information Act (even more of) a dead letter.

Agencies will be very happy. Citizens shouldn't be. Freedom of information is a vital check on government and a means to hold them to account. And the government has just thrown that away to save a paltry A$10 million. You'd almost think they have something to hide...

Climate change: Point of no return

A key goal of international climate change policy, expressed in the UNFCCC, has been to "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". For the past 20 years, that has been interpreted as limiting temperature increase to no more than 2°C beyond pre-industrial levels. All our modelling on emissions reduction has been focused around meeting this goal.

Yesterday, we found out that its not enough, with two papers reporting that the West Antarctic icesheet was already beyond the point of no return and would collapse:

A disaster may be unfolding—in slow motion. Earlier this week, two teams of scientists reported that the Thwaites Glacier, a keystone holding the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet together, is starting to collapse. In the long run, they say, the entire ice sheet is doomed, which would release enough meltwater to raise sea levels by more than 3 meters.

One team combined data on the recent retreat of the 182,000-square-kilometer Thwaites Glacier with a model of the glacier’s dynamics to forecast its future. In a paper published online today in
Science, they report that in as few as 2 centuries Thwaites Glacier’s outermost edge will recede past an underwater ridge now stalling its retreat. Their modeling suggests that the glacier will then cascade into rapid collapse. The second team, writing in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), describes recent radar mapping of West Antarctica’s glaciers and confirms that the 600-meter-deep ridge is the final obstacle before the bedrock underlying the glacier dips into a deep basin.

Because inland basins connect Thwaites Glacier to other major glaciers in the region, both research teams say its collapse would flood West Antarctica with seawater, prompting a near-complete loss of ice in the area. “The next stable state for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might be no ice sheet at all,” says the
Science paper’s lead author, glaciologist Ian Joughin of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle.

What does 3 metres of sea-level rise mean? Hot Topic puts it succinctly: "we are going to have to say goodbye to the current coastline and everything built there". The timescale is long (though as we've found in the past, these things tend to speed up when we start looking at them closely), but in just a few human lifetimes, much of humanity is going to have to move.

And before anyone takes this as an excuse to simply give up trying to stop it, remember: this is one of the mild effects of human-induced climate change. Imagine what we'll get if we raise the temperature by the 3 or 4 degrees currently predicted for "business as usual"...

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What TICS was all about

The latest NSA leak: the NSA has been systematically compromising exported routers:

But while American companies were being warned away from supposedly untrustworthy Chinese routers, foreign organisations would have been well advised to beware of American-made ones. A June 2010 report from the head of the NSA's Access and Target Development department is shockingly explicit. The NSA routinely receives – or intercepts – routers, servers and other computer network devices being exported from the US before they are delivered to the international customers.

The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. The document gleefully observes that some "SIGINT tradecraft … is very hands-on (literally!)".

Eventually, the implanted device connects back to the NSA. The report continues: "In one recent case, after several months a beacon implanted through supply-chain interdiction called back to the NSA covert infrastructure. This call back provided us access to further exploit the device and survey the network."

I guess this is why the GCSB was so hot to get the power to micromanage ISP procurement decisions: so they could require the use of compromised technology which would give total control over our communications and network infrastructure to their foreign "partners". But as Bruce Schneier points out, vulnerable systems are vulnerable to everybody. The NSA's backdoor for "national security" can just as easily be used by cybercriminals to steal your credit card - or by cyberterrorists to bring down a crucial system. And by deliberately introducing such vulnerabilities into the system, the spies make us less safe, not more.

Environmental Reporting Bill submissions

Parliament's Local Government and Environment Committee began hearing submissions on the Environmental Reporting Bill last week. Today, those submissions finally hit the website. Browsing through them, there are a couple of obvious features:

  • Everyone supports the purpose of the bill (no submitter opposed it);
  • There is widespread discomfort with the Minister choosing what is reported on (about 25% of submissions opposed this);
  • A majority of submissions (33 of 55) opposed the secrecy clause. Most opposed it because they supported transparency and saw the clause as undermining the independence of reporting, but there was a strong strand from local government (who will be supplying much of the information which could be suppressed) opposing it on the basis of intellectual property rights. Only three submitters explicitly supported the clause: Fonterra, Federated Farmers, and the newly-privatised Mighty River Power (who wanted it expanded to cover "commercially sensitive" information as well). I think its clear then who wants it and why.

I am hoping that this level of opposition, from Officers of Parliament, environmental groups, business groups, and ordinary citizens, will convince the government to back down and preserve transparency.

The committee is currently due to report by September 5, but given that Parliament will be dissolved before then, we can probably expect it to be bumped until after the election.

No freedom of speech in the UK

What happens if you blog material critical of the racist UKIP party? They set the police on you:

Police have asked a blogger to remove tweets criticising Ukip policies after receiving a complaint from one of the party's councillors.

Michael Abberton disclosed on his blog that he was visited by two Cambridgeshire police officers on Saturday. He was told he had not committed any crimes, but was asked to delete some of his tweets, particularly a retweet of a faked poster giving 10 reasons to vote for Ukip, such as scrapping paid maternity leave and raising income tax for the poorest 88% of Britons.

Abberton, a Green party member who writes a blog on science and green politics, described the incident on his Axe of Reason blog."The police explained that I hadn't broken any law – there was no charge to answer and it really wasn't a police matter.

"They asked me to 'take it down' but I said I couldn't as it had already been retweeted and appropriated, copied, many times and I no longer had any control of it (I had to explain to one of the officers what Twitter was and how it worked). They said that they couldn't force me to take it down anyway."

From the actual post, the police officers clearly knew the complaint was a pile of arse, but were going through the motions. Which makes it look even worse. Meanwhile, their superiors are defending themselves by claiming they believe in free speech and that "We certainly don't go to people's houses and say: 'You can't tweet about this'. This is not 1930s Germany". Except that's exactly what they did. And its pretty obvious that they did it under political pressure. If they actually believed in free speech, they'd have said that to the complainant, not their victim.

As for the result, the Streisand Effect has kicked in, and the suppression attempt has caused far more attention than the original post. I wonder if UKIP will be complaining about that as well?

New Fisk

Why dictators hold elections: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bashar al-Assad and the fa├žade of legitimacy

A good idea

One of New Zealand's big economic problems is a lack of domestic capital. What capital we do have is conservative, preferring to clip tickets and extract rents rather than invest in innovation, so we constantly see kiwi startups with good ideas selling themselves offshore because they just can't get the money to keep growing in New Zealand. And if we want to shift our economy in a greener direction to reduce emissions, that's a problem.

Now the Greens are offering a solution: a "green bank" to drive investment in the clean technology sector:

The Green Party will establish a Green Investment Bank as a first step in accelerating New Zealand’s transition to a smarter greener economy, Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman announced today.

The Green Investment Bank will be an enduring, government-owned, for-profit bank partnering with the private sector to fund new projects ranging from renewable energy and biofuel production to new clean technologies.

“Like Kiwibank before it, the Green Investment Bank will combine the best of the public and private sectors to accelerate New Zealand’s transition to a smarter, greener economy,” said Dr Norman.

Reading the full policy document, it looks pretty good. Its costed, they're clear on how it will be paid for (increased mining royalties on fossil fuels), and it'll work. The worst that can be said for it is that they're possibly a bit loose with the term "bank". But as policy goes, its a good idea, and one I'd like to see adopted.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"A wish, a target, and a dream"

Back in 1999, when Labour promised to reduce unemployment below the prevailing 6% set by National, Bill English dismissed it as "a hoax". But by changing the Reserve Bank's Policy Targets Agreement and investing heavily in regional development, they ground unemployment down to 3.3% in 2007 - and delivered higher living standards for all into the bargain. Today, they promised to reduce unemployment to 4% by the end of their first term. The Prime Minister's response? It's "a wish, a target, and a dream".

Again we see the constraints of National's "hands off" thinking on the economy: they can't imagine a better world than the miserable one Treasury predicts, because that would require the government to actually do something. Instead, their vision of "effective government" is apparently one where Ministers are paid a quarter of a million a year to sit on their arses and decry the possibility of ever doing anything. But we know that such a world can exist: we've lived there in the past, and we know that a government which actually decides to intervene can deliver it. All we have to do is vote for it.

Abandoning the provinces

Housing New Zealand is apparently planning to abandon state housing in the provinces:

The Government looks set to empty state houses in New Zealand's provinces by selling off 5000 properties across the country.

Housing New Zealand did not intend to announce plans for the big sell-off, but Labour uncovered it with an Official Information Act request.


But it's not just Tither St that's up for grabs. There are thousands of similar places all over provincial New Zealand – places originally built by the Government for local workers and now being sold off to private enterprise.

Housing New Zealand looks like it will sell large chunks of its housing stock everywhere, in areas like Palmerston North, Hastings, North Waikato and Invercargill.

I really don't understand the logic here. Its one thing to adapt local supply to demand, but this seems to go well beyond that into a wholesale withdrawal from provincial centres. Does Housing New Zealand actually think that poor people only live in South Auckland, or is the government engaged in social cleansing?

Election funding: Be the change you want to see in the world

The scandal around the National party's "cash for access" Cabinet Club has focused attention on our electoral donations regime again. Most of the secret deals to see National Cabinet Ministers simply weren't declared, because the amounts involved fall below the disclosure threshold. Which means we can't really see whether donors are getting favours or not, which leaves us with a cloud of suspicion over the whole process.

The Greens have a solution to this: lowering the disclosure threshold to $1,000. Which led to the obvious question last night on Twitter: have they considered voluntarily disclosing to this lower threshold? The answer: no:

We advocate lower legal threshold for disclosure of identity of donor. Haven't adopted lower voluntary threshold for disclosure.

As I've argued before, this is an appalling mistake. Firstly, it makes the Greens look like hypocrites. And secondly, it gives up the most powerful weapon they have in this struggle: public opinion. People like transparency, and they hate politicians who act out of self-interest and appear to have something to hide. The quickest way to force the dirty old parties to change the law is to be the change you want to see in the world and offer the public a visibly clean alternative. There's no legal impediment to doing so (though donors would have to be informed up front), and they undoubtedly have the information (both because they're required to collect it to comply with the present legal regime, and because they will want it themselves for fundraising purposes). The only thing stopping them from doing it is themselves.

New Fisk

The spread of British hypocrisy, from Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland to Syria

TICS after Snowden

Last year, the government passed the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013. Ostensibly this was about ensuring the police continued to retain a "lawful intercept" capability over ISPs, but the Act also gives the GCSP a central role in "network security, requiring ISPs to register with them and giving them the power to micromanage procurement and even staffing decisions.

The internet industry has been suspicious of these changes and their breadth, and so in order to reassure them the GCSB today released its Guidance for Network Operators. And in the wake of the Snowden revelations, the guidance they give on exactly how they interpret the areas of specified security interest is truly frightening. Here's what GCSB wants to know about:

  • parts of the network which store aggregated information about a significant number of customers means "Databases which store data in bulk, such as call records or network traffic data". In other words, your metadata. GCSB wants to micromanage decisions around its storage or access. I wonder why?
  • parts of the network which store aggregated authentication credentials of a significant number of customers means "Areas of the network which store authentication credentials & encryption keys". So, they want your password, and they want your ISP's SSL keys. Again, I wonder why?
  • parts of the network where data belonging to a customer or end user aggregates in large volumes means "Large databases which reside in the core of the network and customer Voice Mail Systems (VMS), large email or message systems" and "Points of interconnection or intersection with other networks, and other areas over which a significant proportion of the traffic on the network travels" - so, your ISP's mailserver and key switches. Again, I wonder why?

Basically, the purpose of this part of TICS isn't to help protect us - its to allow the GCSB to build themselves a target list, and to direct procurement towards insecure systems which give them or their foreign "partners" access to our metadata, communications, and online identities. And this simply isn't something we should accept.