Friday, January 29, 2016

Open Government: Repeating past mistakes?

Back in 2014, New Zealand joined the Open Government partnership, a global alliance for transparency. The OGP is implemented by countries developing two-year action plans with clear, ambitious and measurable commitments to improve transparency. These action plans are supposed to be co-created with civil society and the subject of wide public consultation. But our government skipped that bit. Instead, they ran a mockery of a consultation process designed to rubber-stamp an action-plan that had already been decided. Civil society, which is supposed to be at the heart of the open government process, was excluded.

And now they look set to do it all again.

New Zealand is required to present our second national action plan to the OGP by June 30 this year. So, you'd expect them to be developing and consulting on it with civil society now. Instead, there's silence. Australia has a similar timeline, and they started their consultation process last November. The UK, which is looking at an April 1 deadline, started in July. As for SSC, they're sitting there with their thumb up their arse, doing nothing. Their OGP website hasn't been updated since October, and their Stakeholder Advisory Group - which you'd expect to be discussing consultation plans for the new action plan - has had no reported activity since September. In other words, they've learned absolutely nothing from their past mistakes - and instead are apparently intent on repeating them.

National's police state

National is signing the TPPA next week (at Sky City, a crony-venue, no less). So the police are going around banging on the doors of activists interrogating them about their protest plans:

Dunedin police door-knocked a Dunedin activist asking about their plans for the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Scout Barbour Evans was visited by two police officers on Thursday morning, "asking me what I'll be doing for the TPPA events".

The officers said they were following a national directive and were "visiting all known activists in the country".

We're supposed to be a free and democratic country, yet the police are acting like we live in a police state. We have legally affirmed rights of freedom of expression and assembly, but the police are acting like exercising them is a crime. And by doing so they're not just making clear their disrespect for democratic norms, but also publicly undermining their status as neutral agents of the law. This isn't the action of a neutral police force upholding democratic rights - they're John Key's Cossacks.

As for what to do if the police knock on your door asking questions about protests (or anything, really), remember that the right to speak also includes the right not to speak. You don't have to tell them anything, or talk to them at all. And if they're asking questions like this, you shouldn't. Instead, you should ask them to leave. There should be no cooperation or consent for politicised policing.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Not relevant"

Last year I lodged one of my usual OIA requests seeking information on Tau Henare's crony appointment to the board of Housing New Zealand. In December I got a response, showing that it was the usual crony process: Henare was nominated by English and was the only candidate interviewed. He was also, according to the response, to be paid $49,000 a year for the position.

The response also included extensive redactions of material as "not relevant to the request". Thanks to Nick Smith, we know that such redactions cannot be trusted not to be misleading or to cover in-scope material, so I requested the documents direct from Treasury. They revealed that the "not relevant" material covered Bill English's plans to give the Housing New Zealand Board a whopping 63% pay rise, from $30,000 a year to $49,000 a year. This had been redacted as "not relevant" from a request specifically asking how much Henare was being paid.

Just another example of how this government abuses the OIA in an effort to hide politically embarrassing information. And the lesson is that if they ever redact any information as "out of scope" or "not relevant", request it immediately - because it is clearly something they do not want you to see, but cannot think of a legal reason to withhold.

Good riddance

The government has finally decided to close one of its failing charter schools:

A troubled Northland charter school has had its doors shut by the Education Minister after two years of operation.

Te Pumanawa o te Wairua, whose future has been uncertain since a final performance notice in July, will officially close on March 7 after Education Minister Hekia Parata concluded the challenges facing the charter school are "too great to overcome".

Among those challenges are the school's heavy reliance on third parties to take it forward, lack of internal capability, the difficulty of attracting suitably qualified teaching staff and concerns over whether there are enough students to keep the school afloat.

...not to mention problems with poor attendance, bullying, drug use and management infighting and potential fraud by staff. Basicly, this school was a disaster from start to finish. And yet Parata shovelled money at it for two years in a desperate attempt to delay today's inevitable headline, while downplaying and minimising its problems. In the process, she's cost us millions of dollars. And she needs to be held accountable for that.

Also needing to be held accountable are the muppets who drafted the government's contract with this shady outfit, which let them take $3 million in establishment costs and basicly pocket it. They've bought themselves a farm, and now that the school has been closed, they'll apparently get to keep it - or we'll have to buy them out. Either way, they'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

The cost of a National government

What's the cost of a National government? Corruption:

New Zealand is slipping down the ranks of the least corrupt countries, with watchdog Transparency International accusing the Government of "astonishing" complacency.

After topping the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for seven years in a row until 2013, the 2015 survey ranked New Zealand behind Denmark, Finland and Sweden. In 2014 New Zealand was ranked second, behind Denmark.

The survey draws scores from a range of other surveys to give an overall rating of the perceptions about corruption for 167 countries. In 2015 New Zealand scored 88, a marked fall from the 91 it scored in 2014.

And now we rank fourth. And its easy to see why: because of the way National does business. The Saudi-sheep bribe. Sky City's crony casino deal. Oravida. Throw in wall-to-wall crony appointments and a politicisation of the OIA, and its easy to see why perceptions of corruption are growing. As for how to fix it, cronyism, corruption and the old boy network are fundamental to how National does business; if we want to change our reputation, we need to change the government.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Not very radical

Green co-leader Metiria Turei gave her "state of the nation" speech today, in which she both defended the Greens' nature as a radical party, while also trying to claim that they're not very radical. And she's got points both ways: on the one hand, the Greens are consistently political leaders, advocating for policies that the other parties first decry, then adopt. Policies like capital gains taxes, better public transport, a price on carbon emissions, and not beating children. But on the other, one of the reasons these policies look radical in the first place is because policy has already been pushed in radical directions: by Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and their heirs destroying our economy and our society, by National and its efforts to pave the planet with roads, and by farmers who want to fill our rivers and lakes with shit. And compared to this, Green goals of clean water, liveable cities, and not letting kids starve or go homeless do look pretty conservative. Which is I guess a nice example of the fluidity of political labelling and its relativeness to the policy-space.

Also in the speech Meyt proposed a small policy: a Policy Costings Unit to provide independent assessments of the costs of political parties' policies. Its hardly a radical idea, but it is a good one. More information for voters is always good, and it would cost a pittance to provide. But there is one problem: the Greens would locate it within Treasury. While they'd firewall it against Ministerial interference, I don't think such firewalls could be trusted, and in addition Treasury is a deeply politicised department and cannot possibly be considered "independent". It would be far better if such analysis was done by a truly independent agency - and the best way to get that would if the unit was an Office of Parliament.

New Fisk

Pakistan university assault: A warning for Turkey as Islamists turn on their old allies in Peshawar
Is Algeria’s military making its move on ageing President Bouteflika?

The same problems everywhere

Thanks to the Reserve Bank's efforts to evade public scrutiny, we now seem to have a public debate on charging for OIA requests (Bryce Edwards has a good summary here). But we're not the only ones. The UK is currently reviewing its Freedom of Information Act (before a strapped chicken "independent" commission of FOIA-hating establishment mandarins), and the issue of charging has been raised there as well:

Imposing fees on Freedom of Information requests would be “an extremely blunt instrument” that would limit access to justice, human rights campaigners have said.

Leading charity Liberty said it had used the act to expose injustices including discrimination under police stop and search rules and said that any reforms that downgraded Freedom of Information powers would be a “retrograde step”.


However, giving evidence to the commission, Sam Hawke, an FOI specialist at Liberty, said the Act had in fact saved money by highlighting inappropriate uses of public money.

“Discussion of burden is inappropriate,” he said. “This is simply what a Government pays for, to remain open, transparent and accountable, and it’s a very, very small cost overall.

And that, fundamentally, is the issue. Freedom of information is about open, transparent government. That costs money, but like Parliamentary oversight and "expensive" elections its just what you pay to have a functioning modern democracy. Imposing charges undermines that democracy. It creates barriers to transparency which can be deployed to hide incompetence and malfeasance and hinder accountability. And that means not just less democratic government, but less accountable and less effective government. And even if you don't care about democracy, you should probably care about that.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Places to go, people to be

No blogging today - I'm off to Wellington to participate in the annual roleplaying convention. Monday is a public holiday, so normal bloggage will resume on Tuesday.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

New Fisk

Ireland's Easter Rising and how history is being twisted in celebrating the struggle for independence

Journalism is not terrorism

Back in 2013, David Miranda, the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained by UK police under anti-terrorism powers while transiting through Heathrow. He was interrogated for nine hours, with no right to legal advice and no right to silence. His laptop, cellphone, and other electronic storage devices were confiscated. The ostensible reason for this was that he was carrying encrypted Snowden material, which could supposedly endanger UK national security. The British government called that "terrorism".

Today, the UK Court of Appeal declared in no uncertain terms that that was bullshit, and declared the law Miranda was detained under incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights:

A key clause in the Terrorism Act 2000 is incompatible with the European convention on human rights, the master of the rolls, Lord Dyson, has declared as part of a court of appeal judgment.


Dyson said that the powers contained in schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000) were flawed. Schedule 7 of the Act allows travellers to be questioned in order to find out whether they appear to be terrorists. They have no right to remain silent or receive legal advice, and they may be detained for up to nine hours.

“The stop power, if used in respect of journalistic information or material is incompatible with article 10 [freedom of expression] of the [European convention on human rights] because it is not ‘prescribed by law’,” the master of the rolls said.

The court ruled that the power was arbitrary as it lacked judicial safeguards. More importantly, it also ruled that terrorism requires intent - that one cannot be a "terrorist" simply by conducting entirely legal activity such as journalism which incidentally or accidentally puts lives in danger. In other words, contra the British establishment and its security state, journalism is not terrorism.

The ruling will no doubt be appealed. And it will also see the usual posturing by the Conservatives' authoritarian Little Englanders outraged that "Europe" is stopping them from arbitrarily detaining journalists for exposing government crime. But freedom of the press is supposedly a "British value", and if it doesn't protect those who hold the establishment to account, then it is an empty concept.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Justice for rendition

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

One of them was Sabrina De Sousa, a dual Portuguese-US citizen. She was detained in Portugal in October on a European Arrest Warrant, and a Portuguese court has just ruled that she should be extradited to Italy to serve her sentence:

A Portuguese court has ruled that a former C.I.A. agent should be handed over to Italy after being found guilty by an Italian court of taking part in the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in 2003, one of the renditions ordered by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

The former agent, Sabrina De Sousa, holds dual American and Portuguese citizenship. Ms. De Sousa has denied any wrongdoing or involvement in the kidnapping, which took place while she was working undercover for the C.I.A. as a diplomat in Milan. She will appeal this week’s ruling, her lawyer, Manuel Magalhães e Silva, said by email on Friday.

Good. And hopefully the other 21 will soon be following her to face justice for their crime.

A predictable outcome

How bad are Australia's refugee gulags? So bad that someone is trying to kill themselves every two days:

Incident logs from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection covering one year, obtained under freedom of information laws, paint a picture of depression, desperation and violence at Australia's domestic and overseas detention camps and in the community.

They raise fresh questions over the human rights implications of Australia's tough border protection regime, which has been condemned by the United Nations, and will fuel calls for children to be immediately released from detention.

The data shows that in the year to July 2015 there were 188 incidents of self-harm involving asylum seekers at Nauru, about one every two days. There were 55 such self-harm acts at Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

They included detainees swallowing poisons, stuffing tea bags down their throats and hanging by bed sheets or other makeshift nooses.

Its even worse in their onshore detention camps, where there are an averag eof two self-harm incidents a day.

This is an entirely predictable outcome. Austrlaia's gulags are purposely designed to mentally torture detainees in an effort to force them to "voluntarily" return home. But faced with a choice between ongoing persecution in an Australian gulag, and persecution at home, it is not surprising that refugees are seeking the only escape available: death.

Every refugee who injures or kills themselves in these gulags was effectively injured or killed by Australian Ministers and their officials. Its the purpose of their policy, and they should be held accountable for it - by trying them for torture if they ever set foot in New Zealand.

New Fisk

Restoring Beirut’s Pink House is a cheering idea amid destruction

62 Pharaohs

As usual, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And now inequality is at truly staggering levels:

Just 62 people own as much wealth as the poorer half of the global population, as the widening of the gap between the rich and poor accelerates.

As the business elite converge on Davos for the World Economic Forum, an Oxfam report shows wealth is becoming further concentrated, with the number of people owning the same amount as the bottom half of humanity falling from 388 to 62 in five years.

It says a "broken" economic model underpinned by deregulation, privatisation and financial secrecy has seen the wealth of the richest 62 people jump by 44 per cent in five years to US$1.76 trillion ($2.74 trillion).

In that time, the wealth of the poorest 3.6 billion people plunged by 41 per cent.

The report is titled An Economy for the 1%, but that's misleading. This isn't about the 1%, or even the 0.00001%, but about a tiny handful of people, few enough to fit in a bus. Medieval analogies of nobles and serfs fail in the face of this level on inequality - instead, we're back to Pharonic god-kings and slaves.

Though I suppose there is a sense in which the "1%" language might be useful, in that some of these 62 people will individually be one percenters, controlling at least 1% of the world's total wealth. Which in a world of over 7 billion people, is absolutely obscene.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

An attack on our democracy

That's the only way to describe the Reserve Bank of New Zealand's new policy of charging for all OIA requests:

Journalists who make requests for official information from government agencies are used to lengthy delays and lots of blacked-out pages.

Hefty invoices, like the $651 estimate received by Fairfax business journalist Richard Meadows this week for an Official Information Act (OIA) request to the Reserve Bank, are much rarer.

Meadows was informed by the Reserve Bank that charging media for requests was now its "standard policy", rather than a one-off.

This is part of a wider problem. Back in December outgoing chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem effectively recommended that agencies make wider use of charges, and especially, that they should charge media agencies and Members of Parliament, despite the clear public interest and democratic value of their requests. And the Ministry of Justice is reportedly following along with a review of the current charging regime. The expectation is that charging is going to become a lot more common - or, to put it another way, public information is going to become a lot less available, and Ministers and public servants a lot less accountable. Good for them, but bad for our democracy.

But its not just bad for our democracy. As Jacinda Ardern points out, this is our information, and departments should be making it available to us. Instead, they'll be using charges to deter requests and keep it secret.

In anticipation of these changes, I've just OIA's every core government department seeking information for the last financial year on their total number of requests, the number of times they have demanded and been paid OIA charges, and the total amount collected. If they're going to do something like this, then we at least deserve a statistical baseline so we can measure the impact. The responses are due on 15 February, and I'll be tracking them here. Assuming, of course, that they don't try and charge me for it...

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

New Fisk

‘Regrettable’ is as far as our criticism of Saudi Arabia is allowed to go

No benefit from the TPPA

The government has been selling the TPPA as a magic bullet, a guarantee of future prosperity for all. But according to the World Bank, the reality is a little different:

Australia stands to gain almost nothing from the mega trade deal sealed with 11 other nations including United States, Japan, and Singapore, the first comprehensive economic analysis finds.

Prepared by staff from the World Bank, the study says the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership would boost Australia's economy by just 0.7 per cent by the year 2030.

The annual boost to growth would be less than one half of one 10th of 1 per cent.

Other members of the TPP stand to benefit much more, according to the analysis. Vietnam's economy would be 10 per cent bigger by 2030, Malaysia's 8 per cent bigger, New Zealand's 3 per cent bigger, and Singapore's 3 per cent bigger.

An economy 3 percent bigger in 2030 means an annual boost of just 0.2%. Almost all of which will flow to National's farmer-cronies. Prosperity for all? Hardly. And to benefit them, we have to give up democratic control over environmental, employment, and consumer safety law, and hand sociopathic foreign companies a veto on our democracy. And that's just not worth it.

The US does even worse out of the deal, with just a 0.4% boost to their 2030 economy. So why did they sign it? Firstly, distribution: the people who will be getting that 0.4% - Hollywood and pharmaceutical companies - can pay lobbyists. And secondly because of this:
[The TPPA] opens up trade between members but makes trade more difficult with non-members through a process known as "cumulative rules of origin" where members lose privileges if they source inputs from countries outside the TPP.

The Productivity Commission has been strongly critical of the provisions saying that they turn so-called free trade agreements into "preferential" agreements.

And the most important non-member of the TPPA is America's geopolitical rival, China, which will now find itself locked out of Pacific markets (the US has another similar deal for the Atlantic to lock them out of Europe). This was never a trade deal, but a stealth geopolitical alliance against the US's rival. And we should never have agreed to that.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Minister's conflicts of interest

DPMC has finally released 2014-15 Ministerial conflict of interest data - only three months late. This year's release has a bit more detail than the last one, with a better explanation of the nature of the conflicts. They still avoid naming particular companies, though - which seems odd if they're also named in Parliament's Register of Pecuniary Interests. If something is publicly known and declared, then there's no privacy or confidentiality interest in withholding; refusing to release such information simply seems like more of DPMC's petty secrecy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Another British surveillance horror-story

The British government tells its people that their surveillance state - cameras everywhere, internet traffic logged, phone call data available without judicial oversight - is there to stop terrorists and keep them safe. What it means in practice is police using anti-terror surveillance powers in employment disputes:

Britain’s most scandal-hit police force faces a slew of legal claims after being accused of using controversial anti-terrorism powers to snoop on officers blowing the whistle on racism.

Cleveland constabulary faces claims that it secretly obtained details from confidential emails between Asian officers and their representatives and solicitors to defend against employment cases brought against the force.


The Independent can reveal emails from [a police officer who complained about racism] were part of a cache of documents that Cleveland Police secretly sought to recover from his senior ethnic minority colleague using the Ripa laws during a criminal investigation into unauthorised leaks from the force. The senior officer has since left the force and is preparing his own legal claim.

The force also used Ripa, which was passed in 2000 to help investigate terrorism and serious crimes, to check phone data of police officers, a solicitor and journalists over a five-month period, according to documents secured by one of the targets of the inquiry.

This is simply an outright abuse of power. There is no other way to describe it. These powers are not there to allow police to punish their critics, spy on those complaining about them, or win employment disputes over intolerable police conduct. But they exist, and so that is how they are used. And it raises an obvious question: what other police forces are doing this? After all, its not as if the London Met has been shy about using undercover officers to spy on their critics...

This is why there needs to be judicial oversight for surveillance: to prevent the police abusing powers for their own purposes. But as we've seen in New Zealand, even that is an inadequate safeguard: the police will mislead judges to get what they want, secure in the knowledge that they will never face sanctions for doing so.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

A giant pump and dump scam

That's the only way to describe what has happened to Dick Smith Electronics. They were bought by Anchorage Capital, a private equity firm, for $20 million in 2012. Anchorage then gutted the business, pumping up the reported profit in the meantime, and used that increased reported profit to dump it on the public for $520 million in 2013. Of course, that gutting led to long-term problems, which have finally resulted in the company going bankrupt again. But Anchorage has walked away with half a billion dollars, ripped straight from the pockets of the fools who bought in to their IPO. And now that the company is bankrupt, they (or someone just like them) gets to pull the same scam again. Rinse, repeat...

And this is why you should never trust stock markets. They're simply scams and tools for the sociopathic rich to steal more money.

New Fisk

Saudi Arabia has little to worry about – no state has the moral authority or will to attack this butchery
The death of an Irish general during the Christmas period recalls an earlier bloody episode in the Middle East
Saudi Arabia's executions were worthy of Isis – so will David Cameron and the West now stop their grovelling to its oil-rich monarchs?
Françoise Frenkel's escape from the Nazis and Vichy France: A bitter, beautiful and important book

Our racist spies

Over the weekend, the Herald had a piece on the racist and sexist attitudes of New Zealand's spies. The New Zealand Intelligence community had commissioned a report on diversity from a Massey University intern, which uncovered racism and sexism in their workplaces. Maori and Pacific employees were subjected to constant low-level racist abuse, while women reported being victims of sexual discrimination. An "old boy" culture and a view that diversity and difference were threats to security rounded out the horror story.

Unexplored by the story: the consequences of this racism and sexism on the GCSB and SIS's work. Because if the spies think being anything other than dead, white and male makes you a security risk and that all Maori are criminals, and feel comfortable expressing this to their non-DWM colleagues in the workplace, you really have to wonder how that spills over into their work - and how many people have been spied on and had their lives poked through as a result.

And here's the kicker (from 6.2.3.b of the report):

It became apparent through discussions that there was a significant proportion of staff who did not think of their organisations as a government department. This was more apparent by staff within GCSB but was evident in the NZSIS. This perception was perpetrated by staff that had significantly long careers in intelligence or had not worked in external government agencies, and did not see the work being performed
as a "public service". it was often mentioned by these employees that they did "not see the point of reflecting the outside community" because of this.

That public perception that "our" spies don't work for us? They don't think so either. And while its a problem for diversity in the workplace, its a bigger problem for our democracy. After all, if "our" spies don't think they're a government department or public service, you have to ask who they think they're working for and accountable to. And I wish that that Massey intern had followed up on that, because the answers would be enlightening.