Thursday, March 31, 2016

Climate Change: Going under

Today the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment warned Parliament about a slow-motion red-zone due to climate-change induced sea-level rise. The PCE's warning was based on an expected one metre rise by 2100. But according to scientists, its going to be twice that:

According a study, published in the journal Nature, collapsing Antarctic ice sheets are expected to double sea-level rise to two metres by 2100, if carbon emissions are not cut.

Previously, only the passive melting of Antarctic ice by warmer air and seawater was considered but the new work added active processes, such as the disintegration of huge ice cliffs.

“This [doubling] could spell disaster for many low-lying cities,” said Prof Robert DeConto, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the work. He said that if global warming was not halted, the rate of sea-level rise would change from millimetres per year to centimetres a year. “At that point it becomes about retreat [from cities], not engineering of defences.”

One metre of sea-level rise poses severe problems for Wellington, putting Eastbourne, the South coast, and SH2 to the Hutt under greater risk of storm damage. Two metres is basicly going to put these areas under water. The costs of that are going to be enormous, and councils need to be able to prepare for it and inform people of the risks. Unfortunately, rich coastal property owners who want to dump the bag on someone else are getting in the way.

Open Government: Finally, some attention

One of the reasons the State Services Commission's management of New Zealand's participation in the Open Government partnership has been such a miserable failure has been the lack of political attention paid to it. The Minister doesn't care, and as the Opposition doesn't care either, she has no incentive to. But that might be about to change. Last week, Labour Open Government Spokesperson Clare Curran lodged a series of parliamentary questions inquiring about the OGP, including these ones:

  • What lessons have been learnt from the first interim report and independent review mechanism, if any, and how will these lessons to inform the 2016-18 Open Government Partnership Action Plan?
  • What action has the minister taken, if any, to address issues raised in the New Zealand interim self-assessment OGP report and independent review mechanism report to ensure that the 2014-16 action plan implementation improves?
  • What instructions has the Minister given, if any, to ensure that the 2016-18 Open Government Partnership Action Plan does not reproduce the identified lack of civil society consultation noted by both the January 2016 self-assessment report and the independent review mechanism report?
The best way to get a Minister paying attention to something is for the opposition or journalists to start asking about it. Unfortunately, its rather too late for this action plan - its three months until the deadline, so even with the best will in the world, there is simply not enough time to properly co-create an action plan with civil society, let alone get it improved by Cabinet; in order for that to happen, SSC would have had to start six months ago. So, instead, we're going to get the usual bullshit of a two week "consultation period" on decisions which have already been made, for unambitious "commitments" which are really just rebranding existing programmes. But maybe this time the Minister will actually get angry about it and force change for the future.

Labour does the right thing on refugees

The petition to double New Zealand's refugee quota will be presented to parliament this afternoon. Meanwhile, it has already produced change, with the Labour Party committing to double the quota:

The Labour Party would double New Zealand's refugee quota to 1500.

Currently the number of refugees allowed into the country is 750.

A petition from 20,000 New Zealanders will be presented at Parliament on Thursday, calling for the Government to do the same.

Its good to see Labour joining the Greens in doing the right thing. The real question now is whether the government will join them, or whether they'll continue to sit on their hands and do nothing in the face of a terrible global crisis.

(Of course, doubling the quota isn't enough. But it would be a start...)

Arguing from incompetence

New Zealand's rivers are filthy, filled with cowshit and unsafe for swimming - and they're getting worse. National's "response" to this crisis has been to issue "national standards" which are effectively a licence for pollution and allow rivers that will make you sick; they're not committed to cleaning up our rivers, despite overwhelming public support for it, because it would upset their sacred cow, the dairy industry. So instead, when pushed about their failure, they spout nonsense about how ducks and volcanoes and floods are responsible for dirty rivers - echoing their earlier climate change denialist arguments about "sunspots".

But this invites an obvious question: if National thinks that ducks and volcanoes and floods are responsible for (some) dirty rivers, why not regulate around them, and target the problem we can clean up easily, cowshit? Green MP Catherine Delahunty asked this very question on Tuesday. The government's answer: More excuses:

Catherine Delahunty: Why is it not possible to regulate a nationwide minimum standard of swimmable rivers by simply exempting fresh water contaminated by natural phenomena such as volcanic ash and birds, or during high flood events?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: The first point I would make is this is the first Government in New Zealand history to set down national policy and standards for freshwater bodies across New Zealand, and I do find it a bit rich that members opposite who did nothing for decades now challenge this Government’s very comprehensive programme around fresh water. In respect of freshwater bodies, there are examples where it is birdlife and sometimes it is volcanic issues, but there is also the very practical issue in most of our urban areas where we have small streams that nobody swims in where it literally would cost billions to get the water quality up to that level, and we are not about spending billions of dollars of New Zealand ratepayers’ money in areas where people would not, practically, swim.

Note that he didn't even pretend to answer Delahunty's question. As for the issue of urban streams, again, the same question applies: if National wants to clean up rivers, but thinks that its not worth cleaning up urban streams that nobody swims in, then it is surely not beyond their wit to craft a regulation exempting them from tougher standards. By throwing his hands up and crying "it's all too hard", Nick Smith is basicly arguing that he - and by extension, the government he represents - is too incompetent to be in charge of this issue. In which case, why are we paying him $280,000 a year?

But the truth is that its not too hard. National's inaction is a matter of choice, not difficulty. And we should hold them accountable for it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Are the SIS refusing to prosecute terrorists?

In 2014, John Key rammed through changes to the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act allowing urgent, warrantless surveillance in terrorism cases. Today, the SIS tabled their latest interim report on such surveillance in Parliament, reporting that they had used these powers on one occasion between 1 July and 31 December 2015. While the report states that the Minister later decided that the urgent surveillance was appropriate, an obvious question is left unanswered - namely, where are the arrests?

To point out the obvious: urgent SIS surveillance is only justified "for the detection, investigation, or prevention of any actual, potential, or suspected terrorist act". Committing a terrorist act is a crime. Facilitating one is a crime. And that applies whether the offence is planned to occur inside New Zealand or not. The SIS were investigating serious criminal offences against New Zealand law. If they were right in their suspicions, then there should be prosecutions. The fact that there have not been any suggests either that the SIS is applying these powers incorrectly, or that it is failing to pass on details of serious criminal offending for prosecution. And either of those should worry us deeply.

Burying online voting

The government has been pushing online voting for years, viewing it an effective cost-saving measure. last year, they decided that they'd trial it in local government elections. Now, it looks like that won't be going ahead:

If you don't know where your nearest postbox is, Google it now, because online voting at this year's council elections appears unlikely to go ahead.

The Government is yet to make a call on whether to allow online voting at October's election. But it is understood the Department of Internal Affairs is not confident that councils can get systems in place to keep the hackers at bay.

It recently contacted Wellington City Council, one of eight councils keen to offer online voting alongside postal voting this year, to express its concerns.

(Unmentioned: councils don't want to pay to be the government's guinea pig).

So it looks like they've finally realised the truth: that online voting is fundamentally insecure and cannot be trusted. Good. The sooner they give up on this stupid idea, the better.

Of course they did

So, in addition to being torturers, it seems the CIA are also perverts:

The CIA took naked photographs of people it sent to its foreign partners for torture, the Guardian can reveal.

A former US official who had seen some of the photographs described them as “very gruesome”.

The naked imagery of CIA captives raises new questions about the seeming willingness of the US to use what one medical and human rights expert called “sexual humiliation” in its post-9/11 captivity of terrorism suspects. Some human rights campaigners described the act of naked photography on unwilling detainees as a potential war crime.

Naturally, they'd argue that its not a war crime because the Geneva Conventions don't apply to people America doesn't like "terrorists" (and innocent teenagers, German tourists, and anyone else the American shove into that dragnet). And naturally, they'd howl with outrage if anyone did anything like this to a US soldier. So they're hypocritical as well as criminal.

Supposedly this was done to document prisoners' physical condition while in CIA custody and to protect the CIA from being blamed for injuries inflicted by the torturers they passed them on to. But coming from an agency which explicitly uses sexual humiliation as an interrogation technique, that's less than convincing, and simply sounds like more self-serving bullshit.

Again, the people responsible for rendition need to be prosecuted, and the US needs to apologise to and compensate its victims. Refusing to do so isn't simply unjust - its also stupid, a standing inspiration for future terrorist attacks.

New Fisk

Interviewing Osama bin Laden: the scoops that became a burden
It's time that the US faced up to the 'G word' and finally recognised the Armenian genocide
Why is David Cameron so silent on the recapture of Palmyra from the clutches of Isis?

Feeding the watchdog

Last month I highlighted Parliament's annual review of the Ombudsman, which noted persistent under-resourcing and expressed surprise that former Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem had not asked for more funding. In an interview a couple of weeks ago, new Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he would be asking for more money, and that seems to have paid off, with the Government Administration Committee recommending an additional $2.5 million a year - an increase of ~20% - to deal with the backlog of complaints, audit agencies for OIA compliance, and raise staff salaries. Some of this funding is temporary - the backlog should disappear - and some of it will be reviewed in three years time. But Parliament finally seems to have realised that systematically underfunding the Ombudsman's Office erodes trust and confidence in government, in them, and decided to do something serious about it.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering why former Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem didn't recognise and seize this opportunity. That failure is just another reason we should all be glad she's gone.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A referendum on John Key

The results are in in John Key's flag referendum, showing (as expected) a strong majority for keeping the old flag. John Key has been spinning for weeks that this wasn't about him, but lest we forget: he promoted flag change as his "legacy", he effectively directed the flag change panel to choose ferns, then endorsed one of the contenders and wore it on his lapel for months; the "change" campaign was run out of the beehive by his staff. This was John Key's flag, and that was why it was voted down: not because enough people didn't want change (hell, 915,000 people hate the current flag so much they'd vote for Kyle Lockwood's beach towel), but because they didn't want this change, or they didn't want it like this. By involving himself in the process, Key turned the referendum into one on him, not on the flag. And he deserved to lose it.

And now that its out of the way, maybe we can do this properly. With real choices, not anodyne corporate logos, and a Prime Minister who knows their fucking place and stays the hell out of our decision.

The Dom-Post on the Governor-General

The Dominion-Post has joined the chorus of voices calling for the Governor-General to be elected by Parliament:

The process for selecting the governor-general needs to become more democratic. At present the office is largely the gift of the prime minister, though it seems some informal consultations are done with the leader of the Opposition.

This is an old-fashioned, secretive and elitist way of deciding the head of state's representative. A far more open and public-spirited way would be by a 75 per cent vote in Parliament, as the Green Party proposes.

This would mean the governor-general had the clear support of a majority of the people's representatives. It would prevent the kind of partisan or politically controversial appointments that have sometimes occurred.

Unfortunately, their conclusion is not hopeful:
The reform won't happen, of course. Prime ministers won't give up this power. Labour won't want a change. A Labour leader knows he or she will in due course get to appoint the governor-general. This cosy two-party club needs to end.

And they're right: the cosy club needs to end. And we need to elect the Governor-General rather than letting the Prime Minister shoulder-tap anyone they want.

2.1 million votes

That's how many people have voted so far in the flag referendum:


No matter what the result, that's a success for democracy. Now, if only we got to vote like this on things that actually matter, like the TPPA...

What happens when an MP runs over a protester?

What happens when an MP runs over a protester? We're about to find out:

Former policeman and National MP Chester Borrows will be questioned by police following claims he drove into a protester.

The incident happened in Whanganui on Tuesday when Mr Borrows and Senior Minister Paula Bennett were confronted by a TPP demonstration.

The police say one protester received a leg injury after allegedly coming into contact with a vehicle.

Mr Burrows has confirmed to One News he was driving the car that was confronted by protesters, but was not aware of anyone getting hurt.

Borrows could be facing serious charges. A person who
drives or causes a motor vehicle to be driven at a speed or in a manner which, having regard to all the circumstances, is or might be dangerous to the public or to a person and by that act or omission causes an injury to another person

faces up to 5 years in prison. Ditto for failing to stop after an accident which injured someone "without reasonable excuse" ("not knowing someone was injured" may be reasonable, depending on the credibility of the claim). Being convicted of either would see Borrows evicted from Parliament. Being convicted of the lesser offence of careless driving causing injury would merely see him facing a fine and up to 3 months in prison.

But we all know how this will go: the police will "investigate", then decide that its "not in the public interest" to prosecute, because Borrows is one of them and an MP besides, he injured a protester (rather than someone who counts in the police's eyes), and ultimately the police see their job as protecting the powerful rather than ensuring they are subject to the same law as everyone else. Even if by some miracle the police did decide to enforce the law, the courts hand out manslaughter and periodic detention to drivers who kill protesters; when its an MP - one of them - involved, and given the chance for them to be unseated, I'm sure the result would be a discharge without conviction.

In other words, our justice system does not cope well with crimes committed by the powerful. The clear message this sends is that people need to pursue their own justice in such cases. But stopping people from doing that is why we have a justice system in the first place.

OTOH, I suppose there's always Graham McReady...

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Misusing secrecy in the UK

The UK is currently preparing to hold a whitewash inquiry into police spying. The police - whose spies spied on critics, fathered children under false pretences, encouraged crimes, and perverted the course of justice - are demanding that all evidence be heard in secret to protect their methods. But it turns out that they're quite happy to disclose their methods, targets, even the identity of their undercover offices if it suits their spin:

In 2002, the BBC broadcast a three-part documentary series that looked at how the police spied on political groups. (See this for the BBC’s website about the series).

The letter - seen by the Guardian - discloses that the Metropolitan police was “keen to support” the documentary series and helped former officers to take part in it.

In the series, the officers revealed details of how they developed their fake personas and operated undercover.

These techniques are known within the jargon of the covert world as their “legend building and tradecraft”. The undercover officers also disclosed the groups that they infiltrated.

So, happy to have all of this broadcast on national television to promote themselves when budgets are under threat, but not happy to have it heard openly at a public inquiry into their criminality. Its hypocritical and dishonest. And it makes it clear that for the UK police, secrecy is about spin and image control, not about security or the law.

Reddy should be our last Governor-General

Yesterday, John Key appointed a new Governor-General via the traditional method of a secret shoulder-tap. The appointment was immediately followed by demands for future such appointments to be made by Parliament, which would be an improvement on the current system. But Peter Dunne has gone one better and called for this Governor-General to be our last:

However, she should be the last person to occupy the role. It is high time for New Zealand to elect its own Head of State, and for our country to become a republic. We should take the opportunity of the appointment of a new Governor-General to commence the process of public debate, leading up to a public referendum, which if supportive of our becoming a republic, should lead to the installation of our first President, when Dame Patsy’s term comes to an end in September 2021.

The Irish Republic provides the model for New Zealand, with a parliamentary system of government and an elected President as Head of State. The President does not exercise any executive functions and is obliged to act on the advice of his or her Ministers, in pretty much the same way as our Governor-General does now. The difference is of course that Uachtaran na hEireann (President of Ireland) is the supreme Head of State, elected directly by the people, not the representative of a foreign hereditary monarch at the other end of the world, as is our Governor-General.

Dunne is calling for an eminent person group (as opposed to a Parliamentary inquiry) to recommend a model, to be put to us in a referendum by 2020, so that when Reddy's term ends we can have a democratic President not another foreign stooge. I'm not that fussed about the final model, but I want that foreign monarchy, and the secrecy and unaccountability it promotes, gone. And the quicker that happens, the better.

Wicked campers and freedom of speech

Wicked campers appeal to foreign dickheads by putting sexist slogans on their vans. Its offensive, and its led businesses to refuse to deal with their customers. All of that is fine, the push and shove of a free and democratic society. What's not fine is politicians like Paula Bennett calling for them to be banned.

(Also, Paula Bennett's "troll" just happens to be a former National Party spindoctor. Are we being scammed here?)

To point out the obvious: we have freedom of expression in this country. And this includes the right to offend. The Chief Censor has pointed out how high we set the bar before we can justify banning something: basicly it has to be "injurious to the public good". Specifically:

[A] publication is objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good.

You might not like what's written on a wicked camper van, but it simply doesn't meet this standard. Neither does it clearly meet the standards of "highly offensive language" allowing it to be age-restricted (which would effectively be the same as a ban). Any attempt to classify them in this way would be asking for a BORA challenge.

(So, BTW, is the Department of Conservation. The BORA applies to every act by the executive branch and therefore requires them to consider freedom of expression when attempting to ban Wicked from their campsites or prevent them from selling passes, and impose only such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. DoC banning vans or acting against the company which hires them because it doesn't like what they have written on them is basicly asking for a lawsuit, which they would probably lose).

Yes, Wicked vans are offensive. So's Paul Henry. And we put up with both because the alternative is Paula Bennett telling us what we can and can't say. And that's the truly offensive prospect in all of this.

National's New Zealand

Last week, National was wanking about economic growth. Meanwhile, demand for food parcels is up by 50%:

Unprecedented demand for food parcels will leave a $100,000 hole in Auckland City Mission's funding.

The mission handed out 10,394 parcels in its financial year to the end of June 2015, but the organisation has already exceeded that in the first eight months of its current financial year.

"Working on current trends it would mean that our food parcels for the year end would be 50 percent higher than they were last year," the mission's acting chief executive Jacki Richardson said.

They're explicitly blaming National's benefit "reforms" (which throw people off benefits after a year unless they go through the humiliating and intrusive process of reapplying) and their cuts to social housing for the increase.

Meanwhile, if National's "growth" results in more people living in poverty, we have to ask why bother? And if the price of prosperity for bankers is more poverty for those at the bottom, then its not worth paying.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Open Government: The Minister isn't interested

Yesterday I received an OIA response from Minister of State Services Paula Bennett covering all the advice she had received since January 2015 on the Open Government Partnership. Which turns out to be a paltry seven documents. There's the stuff you'd expect: a general briefing from shortly after she became Minister, stuff on the appointment of the Stakeholder Advisory Group, a couple of briefings on the draft and final Midterm Self-Assessment Report. One interesting feature is that whenever they talk about consultation they redact material as "free and frank advice" - which isn't very open. But what's really interesting is what's not there: any briefing on the upcoming process for creating the second National Action Plan.

Consultation on this is scheduled to start next month, and the final document is due by June 30. You'd expect the Minister to be being kept aware of this, if not briefed early (late last year, say) on consultation and commitment options so she could choose what she wanted to do. Instead, there's nothing. Its possible that the Minister was briefed a few weeks ago, and that briefing excluded from the response, but its definite that she hadn't been briefed as of February. Which means in turn that SSC simply wasn't thinking about it that far ahead.

The upshot: the Minister isn't interested in the OGP, and SSC isn't interested in keeping her in the loop or asking her if she wants to do anything differently. And insofar as she hasn't been asked, then it is senior public servants in SSC who are to blame for the unambitious targets and appalling approach to "consultation" that they are inflicting upon us.

Time to end open slather for spies

What checks and balances are there on spy agencies demanding private information such as banking or library records from private bodies? According to Michael Cullen and Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, none whatsoever:

New Zealand's spy agencies have "open slather" access to Kiwis' personal information through government agencies as well as private companies including banks.


Privacy Commissioner John Edwards agreed with Sir Michael's assessment, saying no one was keeping track of personal data collection and the rules should be tightened.

Intelligence agencies were free to access individuals' personal information without a warrant, and without having to report it, he said, thanks to a specific exemption for GCSB and the SIS under the Privacy Act.

The exemption in question is section 57 which states that:
Nothing in principles 1 to 5 or principles 8 to 11 applies in relation to information collected, obtained, held, used, or disclosed by, or disclosed to, an intelligence organisation.
You might think that that is appropriate for information directly collected and held by spies (though exempting them from having to have a lawful purpose for collection, or from having to keep information secure and protect it from loss or unauthorised disclosure? Really?) - but there's certainly no need for it to apply to information disclosed to those agencies. Bluntly, if spy agencies want people's private information, then they should be required to get a warrant, and to track and report on how often they do it. Anything less is inviting them to abuse our privacy for no lawful purpose.

Another illegitimate Governor-General

Today the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Patsy Reddy as the next Governor-General. Like her predecessors, I'm sure she'll do a fine job, which basicly involves holding a lot of garden parties and signing whatever is put in front of her. But once again, its worth remembering: she has no democratic legitimacy.

The Governor-General is not elected, and they're not approved by Parliament. Instead, they were chosen by one man, John Key, shoulder-tapped in secret. And that's simply not appropriate in a modern democratic state.

In a democracy, power and legitimacy flow up from the people, not down from the Prime Minister. And that principle needs to be reflected in the way we choose our head of state. I'm agnostic on the question of direct election (as in Ireland) versus election by a supermajority in Parliament (as advocated by the Greens), but we need to change this. And the sooner we do it, the better.

Forced honesty

Oh dear. First, John Key is forced to pay Bradley Ambrose for defaming him. And now, he can't rip off the taxpayer to do it:

The Prime Minister's Office has issued a statement saying it will not use the Parliamentary Service leader's fund to pay for the out-of-court cash settlement of Bradley Ambrose's defamation claim.

"The costs involved in the settlement with Mr Ambrose will not be met by the taxpayer. Funds will be raised via the National Party or by private contributions for this purpose," the statement says.

The taxpayer will still pay Mr Key's legal fees, but the cash settlement will be paid by the National party or through private means.

Which naturally raises the question of why he doesn't just pay it himself. I mean, he's worth $50 million; its not as if he can't afford it. But I guess it just shows that you don't get to be rich by paying your own bills...

Monday, March 21, 2016

Labour on Universal Basic Income

Labour is following the Greens in investigating a Universal Basic Income:

A proposal to pay every adult Kiwi more than $200 a week as a "universal income" from the Government is being considered by the Labour Party.

A discussion paper from the party has mooted the idea of a universal income, where every adult New Zealander would receive $11,000 a year ($211 a week) in exchange for scrapping many current welfare payments.

The proposal is part of the party's Future of Work Commission, a project to look at the impact of new technologies on careers and the workforce.

Good. I've long argued that a UBI should be a key goal for the left, and its good to see Labour thinking the same way. And their discussion paper linked above gives a good summary of the available evidence and makes a strong case. By disconnecting work from survival, a UBI would allow us to find a better balance between work and leisure. It would address the changing nature of work, which has seen jobs become ever more insecure and poorly-paid, and give people a cushion against frequent redundancy as well as the confidence to risk entrepreneurship. It would be fair, progressive, broadly affordable as a replacement for existing social support systems, and has positive health and education benefits. Why wouldn't you want to investigate this policy?

The discussion paper suggests paying close attention to overseas pilots in Utrecht and possibly Switzerland and Finland. More importantly, it suggests running a multi-year pilot in New Zealand so we can see what the effects of this policy are. That seems sensible and reasonable. Again, why wouldn't you want to do this?

(The right's answer, via Kiwiblog, is to cry "unaffordable". Gareth Morgan already dealt with that one years ago, and in any case that just makes it a question of priorities. The real answer, of course, is that they are committed to widespread economic insecurity for the benefit of the few. And that is simply not a morally supportable position).

Why are we paying for John Key's mistake?

Remember the Teapot Tape scandal? John Key had his police raid newsrooms just days before an election in an effort to intimidate them into not publishing information he didn't want made public. Then he defamed Bradley Ambrose, accusing him of deliberately recording the conversation and comparing him to News of the World journalists. Now, he's settled the resulting defamation suit. But the kicker? We're paying for it:

The problem? Leader's office funding must be used for "Parliamentary purposes". The Speaker's Directions give examples, including policy development, communications, ICT, and helping members in "discharging their responsibilities as legislators and elected representatives". Settling defamation suits stemming from comments made in a personal capacity as a candidate does not seem to fall within that. But even if it is "within the rules" (as politicians love to say), its certainly not what the public expects this money to be used for.

Bluntly, John Key defamed Bradley Ambrose. He should be paying the expenses for that himself, not stealing from the taxpayer to do it. His refusal to bear the costs himself is just another way to deny responsibility, and it makes him a thief.

About time

Over the weekend The Nation interviewed new Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. The full interview is here, but takeaway is that Boshier is planning on introducing league tables to track OIA performance. Good. At present basic performance data such as average response times and refusal rates are all secret, and that robs us of an important check on agency behaviour. And while we could OIA all this data ourselves - I did, for two years running - we shouldn't have to; the government should make it available proactively, as a matter of course.

Boshier is also stepping back from some of former Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem's comments on political interference and charging, which is good to see. And he's talking about asking for more resources from Parliament and forcing faster response times from agencies on complaints. As someone with a number of outstanding OIA complaints, I've certainly noticed the difference in performance, and I'm glad of it; I look forward to the new Ombudsman doing their job and kicking the government into obeying the law.

New Fisk

Clare Hollingworth: 104-year-old on being first UK correspondent to report on Germany's invasion of Poland
With an identity caught between China and the West, Hong Kong is not at ease with itself - or its future

If the government wants Treaty settlements to stick, it needs to obey them II

Two weeks ago the government introduced legislation to establish the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, banning mining and fishing in the entire EEZ around the Kermadec Islands. Its a good move, but there's a problem: they failed to consult Maori, who are now taking them to court:

Maori have launched legal action that could sink one of the world's largest ocean sanctuaries.

Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Maori Fisheries Trust, has filed proceedings at the High Court in Wellington to prevent the Government establishing the Kermadec ocean sanctuary, north-east of New Zealand.


The trust wanted the Crown's 1992 Sealord fisheries settlement with Maori to be considered, however. Tuuta said it provided Maori with customary fishing rights and guaranteed the trust would be fully consulted "on matters relating to the management of fisheries and ecosystems".

That had not occurred with the Kermadec sanctuary proposal, he said.

John Key's response: pout and stamp his feet and say that he can pass whatever laws he likes. Which is true - Parliament is sovereign, and no court is going to say that it can't legislate (it might however injunct the government from issuing orders in council or other decisions required to perform key acts under a law). But the core issue here isn't the sovereignty of Parliament, but whether the government will keep its word to Maori.

In 1992, the government promised Maori it would consult them on fisheries decisions as part of a final and binding Treaty settlement. They haven't done that, so they're in breach. And while they haven't breached any of the specific consultation requirements under the Fisheries Act 1996 (because they're doing this by legislation), they've certainly breached its spirit, and their fiduciary duty to actively protect the interests of their Treaty partners. And this is a very stupid and dangerous thing to do. To point out the obvious, Treaty settlements return only a tiny fraction of what was stolen, and are "final" only by Maori goodwill. Breaking them undermines the entire Treaty settlement process and invites Maori to re-open their claims. And that's something that I don't think anybody wants to see.

I want to see a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary (in fact, I want there to be other ocean sanctuaries too). But I want the government to obey the Treaty, keep its word, and treat its Treaty partners with respect. These are not inherently incompatible goals, and the only reason we are in this mess is because National has behaved arrogantly and with contempt for Maori. They need to fix this quickly; otherwise they're going to create a bigger problem which will haunt us for generations.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Open Government: Compare and contrast

What submitters on the OGP Mid-Term Self-Assessment Report said they wanted in the next action plan:

A large number of the submitters queried the Government’s openness in light of the current negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. In terms of the relative importance of other issues raised, Government performance in terms of freedom of information and public record-keeping were noted by a number of submitters as the most important areas for improvement.
What the OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism recommended we do:


What SSC is going to force down our throats:


The OIA is mentioned as an afterthought - aspects of the Law Commission's recommendations "could be considered as components of future OGP commitments". But its pretty much crap like that all the way down. And because they chose to start so late, rather than have an extended co-creation process as seen in Australia and the UK, they've made sure there's no time to change any of this even if they wanted to.

Its not really co-creation, is it? Instead, civil society is sidelined, used solely as a prop to legitimise pre-determined decisions. So why play along?

Open Government: Another mock "consultation"

Two years ago, when the government was developing its first National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership, it engaged in a mockery of consultation, designed purely to "show to the OGP that they had done 'some' consultation". The public were "consulted" on a decisions that had already been made, and the OGP principle of co-creation with civil society went out the window.

According to documents just released on the State Services Commission's website, they're planning to repeat that process.

First, there's a draft high-level timeline for the action plan development process. This shows a "consultation and engagement process" beginning next month and running until late May - but also shows that the submissions will be analysed and the draft document submitted to the OGP before the process even finishes:


So, if you take their submission deadlines at face value, sorry, your submission will be ignored.

Secondly, rather than co-creating with civil society as the OGP requires, SSC has already decided what will be in the action plan. They have a list of themes, which were decided at their meeting in December. While the Better Public Services bullshit has gone - it had to after the OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism recommended it - it is essentially the same mush, focusing on open data, a "citizen centric public service" and consultation on social inclusion, all of which are existing policies rather than new commitments. One particularly threatening possibility is the inclusion of the Data Futures Forum, the government's project to increase "social licence" for mass privacy invasion through "big data" and linking government databases. This seems to have nothing to do with the OGP's principles of transparency, accountability, and participation (and using technology to achieve those aims); instead it seems they went "its to do with government data, throw it on the pile". Meanwhile, the strong preference for new, tangible commitments on the OIA and transparency have been relegated to an afterthought. Which tells us how much SSC's promises that our feedback would see change in the second action plan are worth.

In its Midterm Self-Assessment Report, the government promised that it would learn from its past mistakes, engage earlier, consult better, and that the new action plan would be more ambitious. None of that was true. Instead, we're just getting the same old shit of predetermined decisions and fake "consultation" justified by (self-imposed) tight timelines. And if this is what SSC means by "open government", then I think that civil society is better off refusing to participate in the process (and making sure the OGP knows that), rather than legitimising it with our participation.

National makes us poorer

Yesterday, National was wanking about economic growth. Today, the truth emerges: we're actually getting poorer:

Incomes in New Zealand are dropping on a per-person basis, Finance Minister Bill English has admitted.

Although figures out yesterday showed strong economic growth - at 2.5 percent overall - much of that had been driven by strong immigration flows, with a net gain of about 65,000 people in the past year.

The real national disposable income per capita fell 0.4 percent for the year.

Its pretty much National in a nutshell: focus on headline statistics, ignore what they actually mean for people. But if National's growth doesn't make us any better off, what's the point in pursuing it?

Canterbury's dictatorship ignores water theft

Five years ago, the National Party suspended Cantabrians' democratic right to elect their local government, and imposed a dictatorship to give their water away to farmers. But that apparently wasn't enough - the dictatorship is also systematically ignoring water theft by farmers:

Nearly one in five monitored consent holders with permission to take water in Canterbury were significantly breaking the rules, according to figures from the regional council.

After an unusually dry season in which river flows dropped significantly, it has emerged hundreds were caught breaching their resource consents for taking water.

Many were either taking too much water, or taking water during a restricted period.

More than 350 farmers were found to be violating their consents and taking too much water. And yet only nine of them were served with abatement notices, and none seem to have been prosecuted, let alone having their consents cancelled. Its pretty clear whose side the dictatorship is on, and it isn't the people of Canterbury's.

Multinational tax-cheats

A study by the Herald's Matt Nippert has found pervasive tax-cheating by multinational corporations in New Zealand:

A major Herald investigation has found the 20 multinational companies most aggressive in shifting profits out of New Zealand overall paid virtually no income tax, despite recording nearly $10 billion in annual sales to Kiwi consumers.

The analysis of financial information of more than 100 multinational corporations and their New Zealand subsidiaries showed that, had the New Zealand branches of these 20 firms reported profits at the same healthy rate as their parents, their combined income tax bill would have been nearly $490 million.

But according to their most-recent accounts filed with the Companies Office, most covering the 2014 calender year, these 20 companies overall paid just $1.8m in income taxes after several claimed tens of millions of dollars in tax deferments and losses.

The companies in question, including Facebook, Google, Pfizer and Pernod Ricard, said they followed New Zealand laws and differences in profitability between its New Zealand operations and elsewhere were the results of different business models.

Astonishingly, the Minister of Revenue Michael Woodhouse doesn't want to comment about this failure to collect taxes. But he should - because $500 million a year is a lot of money. On a government scale, its a huge policy; not quite KiwiSaver (~$750 million / year), but much bigger than expanding paid parental leave (~$150 million). Or, to put it another way, its a third of the entire police budget. That's not money the government should just be leaving lying around to be stolen by greedy companies and their immoral tax lawyers.

As for how to get it, Australia had the right idea: hold committee hearings, and summon these companies to justify their tax position. Put them in the chair, threaten to burn their public goodwill and reputation, and make them squirm. That, and start applying the generalised anti-avoidance rule to transfer pricing and artificially uneconomic loans. The sole purpose of these arrangements is to minimise tax in New Zealand by artificially transferring profits to offshore tax havens; that's already illegal, and the law should be enforced.

And then there's Methanex, which is hugely subsidised by government carbon credits while paying a 1% tax rate due to "past losses". If they're that unprofitable in the long-term, then it seems that the subsidies are the only thing keeping the business afloat. The government should not be in the business of propping up unprofitable businesses or of subsidising tax cheats; we should withdraw the subsidies and let them fail. Anyone want to take a member's bill on that?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spying is about power

National's strapped-chicken intelligence "review" has already been criticised for a one-sided view of the balance between human rights and security. But as the Council for Civil Liberties points out, its not that they don't really talk about human rights - its also the way they talk about them when they do:

The lack of thinking about these issues results in statements like: "The debate about how best to balance the need for security and the privacy of individuals will continue for as long as both are seen as essential to a free society."

The use of the word "privacy" completely undermines the importance of the debate. Civil liberties and human rights aren't just about privacy - they're about power. They're about maintaining the proper power relationship between government and the governed in a democracy. Government agencies collecting, storing, and analysing information about people tilts the balance of power from the people towards the government. It weakens our civil liberties and thereby weakens our democracy.

[Emphasis added]

This is something that cannot be stressed enough. Allowing the government to spy on us gives them power over us - not just in the obvious, abusive ways (using our secrets for blackmail or leaking them as revenge), but also in the tone of the relationship it sets between citizen and state. It asserts that government is something done to us (by our "betters", of course), rather than by us. It is therefore inherently destructive of democratic values.

In a democracy, citizens have power over the government, not the other way round. And let's keep it that way - by disbanding the spy agencies.

How it works in Brazil

The Brazilian government is currently mired in a massive corruption scandal which threatens to topple President Dilma Rousseff. Last week, it expanded, with police formally charging former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a money laundering investigation. So the current President immediately appointed him to a senior government position:

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been named chief of staff in the government of Dilma Rousseff, as the embattled leader reshuffles her cabinet in a desperate attempt to stay in office.

The decision means that the former president, currently under criminal investigation for corruption and money-laundering, will not have to face any eventual trial in an ordinary criminal court. As a government minister, he will be entitled to the so-called “privileged forum” of a hearing in Brazil’s supreme court.

This is simply corrupt and wrong. There is no other way to describe it. Politicians accused of corruption should face justice, not be shielded. And Rousseff's actions clearly show that she is a co-conspirator, not an innocent party.

More broadly, the entire idea that government officials should be immune from criminal charges is basicly a standing encouragement to criminal behaviour. No modern state should provide such immunity, and those which do provide it should repeal it.

Monarchy is an enemy of accountability

Another clanger of a decision from former Chief Ombudsman Beverly Wakem has been released - this one on the release of information about a nomination for a knighthood. Paul Collins was awarded a knighthood in 2014 by National, an award which was somewhat controversial. But DPMC refused to release information on the nomination, including records of deliberations by the Cabinet honours secretariat. And Wakem - who also has a knighthood, and therefore a clear conflict of interest on the question - backed them. The reason? She found this logic, by a past Clerk of the Executive Council, persuasive:

Because Royal Honours are awarded by the Sovereign in an exercise of prerogative power, the process should be free as possible of litigiousness, recrimination and inappropriate comparison. The procedures and conventions should be such as to minimise debate as to whether or not any particular person should have received a Royal honour, or whether or not the kind or level of an honour actually granted was appropriate.

Or, in plain language, "no-one should ever question an honour, ever, because no-one should question a decision of the monarch, ever". Its so very seventeenth century, isn't it?

Except they're not "awarded by the Sovereign in an exercise of prerogative power". They're awarded on the advice of Ministers. And the next effect of this decision is to shield the decisions of those Ministers from any form of accountability. And when Ministers regularly award honours to people who have made generous donations to their party, that simply invites corruption.

But suppose we take the Ombudsman's decision seriously. Isn't the clear implication then that if we want a clean society where Ministers are accountable for their decisions, we need to dissolve the monarchy and become a republic?

No ballot

Yesterday, I predicted that Member's Day would be clogged with private and local business, and that the House would be pressed to make a start on Alfred Ngaro's Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Bill (No 3). Instead, they moved quickly, and completed its second reading. Normally, they would have gone on to the next bill on the order paper - Andrew Little's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (No 2) - which would have resulted in a ballot for a new Member's Bill today. Instead, they adjourned at 9:27pm apparently by agreement.

This is unusual, especially for a Member's Day. I'm not sure whether it was because Labour was unprepared, or because the government wanted to prevent a ballot. Either way, we haven't been well-served by our democratic representatives.

Caught fearmongering

Last December, in an effort to justify its budget and new passport-cancellation powers, SIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge and Prime Minister John Key tried to scare the Intelligence and Security Committee by telling them that New Zealand women were leaving to become "jihadi brides" in Syria. It was a clear attempt to scare the committee and the public with a vague (and dubious) "threat". And now it turns out that none of them even left from New Zealand:

No presumed Jihadi bride has left from New Zealand, spooks have confirmed, instead all of the women who made headlines last year, departed Australia.

The Security Intelligence Service has confirmed those women were New Zealand citizens but living across the ditch.

The government is already pinhead-dancing, claiming they never said the women had left from New Zealand. But it was the clear implication that they had, that this was (somehow) a "threat", and that this justified the SIS's extraordinary powers. By failing to make it clear that the women they were talking about had left from Australia, Key and Kitteridge mislead both the committee and the public. And they need to be held accountable for that.

Meanwhile, its a nice example of how the SIS tries to manipulate politicians and the public with lurid tales of non-existent "threats". But the next time they try and do it to scam themselves more money and powers, we have a two word answer: "Jihadi brides".

Updating: Its been pointed out that Kitteridge did explicitly lie to the public:
Kitteridge said after the committee hearing the numbers leaving from New Zealand were small but significant - but declined to give further details.
From Twitter, the Greens are considering a privilege complaint for contempt, but I think they've missed their chance.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Labour goes for the racist vote - again

Once upon a time, anti-immigrant politics was the domain of the racist "NZ First" party. Now Labour wants a piece of the action:

If in power, a Labour Government would place a cap on immigration immediately.

"At times when our economy is creaking, we need to be able to turn down the tap a bit," Mr Little said.

Once the economy had recovered, the cap would be removed.

But of course Little is "reject[ing] any accusations of race-based policy". Bullshit. This is about pandering to racists and those who fear anything "foreign", the same demographic NZ First is chasing. Its disgusting and I expected better of them.

Fortunately, we have a principled, non-racist left-wing party to vote for. And people should do that, rather than vote for racist Labour.

Climate Change: Progress on the ETS?

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett has announced that the government will scrap the ETS's two-for-one discount:

A special 50 percent reduction on climate change obligations for New Zealand citizens and companies will be scrapped.

This has been hinted at for some time but Climate Change Minster Paula Bennett confirmed it in an address to the energy sector in Wellington this morning.


But Mrs Bennett told the audience this concession would go.

"This isn't really a case of if we remove one-for two, but more when and how," she told her audience.

"It was always a temporary measure.

"It is abundantly clear that if the ETS is going to work, carbon must cost more than it does right now."

Good. The discount is effectively a 50% subsidy on pollution which keeps the cost artificially low. Scrapping it might incentivise companies to start reducing emissions and investing in efficiency rather than just polluting more.

But while Bennett is scrapping pollution subsidies, how about she also scraps the elephants in the room: free allocations and the hundred percent subsidy for agricultural emitters? We won't really be able to make any progress on reducing emissions until both of these are removed permanently.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and just like the last one, the top of the Order paper is clogged with second readings and committee stages. There's two private and local bills up first, and they could conceivably take up all the time. If the House works quickly, it may get back to the Second Reading of Meka Whaitiri's Environmental Protection Authority (Protection of Environment) Amendment Bill, but I don't see them going much further. Which is a problem for National, because they'd really like to pass Alfred Ngaro's Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Bill (No 3) (which bans people from sitting on multiple local boards) in time for the local body elections. But with a clogged Order paper and at least three member's days required to do it, they're going to be pushed for time.

Unaccountable surveillance at WINZ

Speaking of surveillance: last month we learned that WINZ was monitoring beneficiaries' social media in an effort to detect fraud. Its intrusive, invasive snooping, akin to stalking someone in public and peeking through their windows. So what are the rules around this, and how often does it happen? Someone used FYI, the public OIA request system, to ask. The response? Of course not:

The Ministry does not have a formal policy to monitor social media. Your request is refused under section 18(e) of the Official Information Act as this information does not exist.


The Ministry does not record and report instances where an individual's activity on their social media accounts, blogs or online presence is monitored or checked. As such this part of your request as well as the cost of social media monitoring is refused under section 18(e) of the Official information Act as this information does not exist.

We've seen this attitude before: the police routinely demand highly intrusive information, including social media and text messages, emails, and long-term tracking information - using production orders. And yet they don't bother even to count how often they do it.

Government surveillance needs to be lawful, proportionate and justifiable. And if any government body uses it, they should be required to have a formal policy on its use so that legality and proportionality can be assessed, and track how often it is used, so that we can see if it is over-used. Refusal to do immediately suggests over-use, and a lax attitude towards the public's right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.

Unlawful surveillance in Christchurch

At the moment, the government is conspiring to extend the GCSB's powers to allow domestic mass-surveillance of all our internet and phone communications. But its not just the spies wanting to snoop on everything. Down in Christchurch, they're spying on people for dog control:

A Christchurch couple were shocked to discover the city council was spying on their dogs using a listening device covertly placed in their garden.

The move has astounded Jenny and Tim Bennett and a human rights lawyer, who said the couple's right to privacy has been breached.

The Christchurch City Council admitted on Tuesday it used the devices and normally sought permission before installing them.

That did not happen in the Bennetts' case.

In legal terms, this is an "interception device" as it is capable of recording private communications, and therefore a "surveillance device". Installing such a device without consent is clearly unlawful. Use of a surveillance device that involves trespass to land requires a surveillance device warrant. Such a warrant can only be issued for an interception device for serious crimes: serious drug or arms offences or crimes carrying a penalty of more than seven years imprisonment. There is no capacity in the Dog Control Act 1996 for the the use of such devices, for obvious reasons: its almost entirely infringement offences. The two imprisonable offences in the Act (mistreating a dog, or owning a dog which causes serious injury) do not remotely reach that threshold.

Unfortunately, its not a criminal offence - that requires both the actual interception of a private communication, and the intent to do so - so the moron in dog control who thought it was a good idea to put a surveillance device in someone's garden without permission and without a warrant will not be going to jail. But its clearly a violation of the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, and possibly of the Privacy Act as well. The Bennetts can take the Christchurch City Council to court, and they should - because the only way councils will learn not to pull this shit is if they are sued into the ground whenever they do it.

Meanwhile, it raises the obvious question: what other councils are doing this? What policies and procedures do they have governing this surveillance? And have any others violated the Search and Surveillance Act by engaging in illegal trespass surveillance? Fortunately, we should be able to get some answers using the OIA.

It also raises the question of what other surveillance they are engaging in. In the UK, local councils engage in widespread and intrusive surveillance over petty infringement offences and bylaw breaches. I'd hate to see a culture of that developing in New Zealand.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Nauru is not safe for refugees II

Today's horror story of refugee abuse from Nauru:

The refugee, who works for Connect, an Australian service provider for the Nauru refugees,, was arrested after police were called to an argument between the refugee and a local shopkeeper.

Even though the shopkeeper declined to make any formal complaint, the Refugee Action Coalition said police still arrested the man.

At the police station, Nauru police would not allow the man to make a phone call; instead, the Coalition said, he was handcuffed, placed in a cell, and stripped naked.

And he was kept that way for 24 hours.

While its the Nauruan police doing this, Australia sent the refugees to this tropical hell-hole, and they are ultimately responsible for their care. Instead, they're just abandoning them to persecution.

If the government wants Treaty settlements to stick, it needs to obey them

In 1995, the government settled most Treaty of Waitangi claims in the Waikato region with the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1995. In 2010 it settled most of the rest with the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010. Both settlements included right of first refusal clauses, requiring government bodies owning land seized from Maori to offer it back to its owners before any sale. But Solid Energy, which is selling its assets after going bankrupt, is ignoring that law:

The break up of ailing state-owned mining company Solid Energy has hit a legal hurdle with iwi saying farms currently offered for sale should be offered to it first.

Waikato-Tainui will file a statement of claim in the High Court in Christchurch ​on Tuesday to stop debt-laden Solid Energy from proceeding with a tender process on land subject to a right of first refusal (RFR).


The company shut down the Huntly East mine in October and has now put more than 1000ha of farms near the Huntly power station on the market as part of its sell down.

Of those listed properties, 54ha was earmarked for return to Waikato-Tainui under their RFR mechanism in both the 1995 Waikato Raupatu Settlement Act and the 2010 Waikato River Settlement Act.

Papa said Solid Energy failed to comply with legislation despite the iwi's confirming its interest in purchasing the land.

This seems open and shut. The law says Solid Energy must negotiate with Waikato-Tainui first, and they're not. And they should not have to go to court to enforce that, or to hold the government to its word.

But this raises a wider problem as well. Lots of Treaty settlements contain these sorts of clauses, and they're a primary form of redress. If they can simply be ignored, then those settlements are worthless and will need to be renegotiated. Solid Energy's actions don't just violate the rights of Waikato-Tainui; they undermine the entire Treaty settlement process.

More authoritarianism in Turkey

The big concern with the "war on terror" is the danger that the definition of "terrorism" will be expanded from people who use violence to oppose the government to people who do it peacefully and democraticly. And now, exactly that is happening in Turkey:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said it is necessary to redefine terrorism to include those who support such acts.

He said there was no difference between "a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims" of terrorists.

Mr Erdogan added that this could be a journalist, a lawmaker or an activist.

What does that look like in practice? Academics signing petitions critical of government policy are arrested for "terrorist propaganda". Journalists who expose government wrongdoing are prosecuted for "espionage". Independent newspapers are taken over at gunpoint and turned into government propaganda organs. Classifying your political opponents as "terrorists" is a hallmark of authoritarianism and tyranny. And the longer democratic nations stay signed up to America's war, the greater the danger for democracy.

A good turnout

Like others, I've been watching the voting statistics on the flag referendum, and I'm impressed. Turnout in the first week was twice what it was in the first referendum, and looking at today's data, we'll almost certainly overtake it tomorrow:

While it will inevitably level off eventually, at this rate the referendum will get more than two million votes, and its not inconceivable that it will approach the general election turnout of 2.4 million. And no matter what the result is, that's a success for democracy. It should also put paid to any post-result claims of a "silent majority" secretly supporting the loser: if there is such a majority, they're not going to be a silent one.

Creepy and intrusive

For the last couple of years National has been muttering about dumping the decile-based school funding system. And now we know what for: spying on everyone:

The Ministry of Education has proposed using Government-wide data on every preschooler and school student, including their mother's qualifications, to give extra funding to those at risk of failing.

​Education Minister Hekia Parata has been on the record for years saying the decile system is too "blunt", and wants a model that targets resources to where they're needed the most.

A preliminary proposal floated the concept of paying schools more for students that met one of four risk factors: a parent who had been to prison; if they or a sibling had suffered child abuse; if their family had relied on a benefit for a prolonged period; or if the child's mother had no formal qualifications.

The obvious question is "how will that data be gathered". And the answer is that it will be pillaged from currently separate databases, to give every child a dossier from birth which labels them as a failure or a success. Which is more than a little creepy and intrusive. The concentration of such data also raises huge privacy problems, while labelling people based not on their own abilities, but on their parents, smacks of the hereditary aristocracy National imagines themselves to be. We should reject this proposal, and we should reject this sort of use of "Big Data". It may be more efficient for the government to label kids from birth, but its simply not the sort of society I want to live in.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Denmark criminalises decency

If you gave a refugee a lift to the train station, or took them home and gave them coffee, most New Zealanders would think you were being a decent person. But if you do it in Denmark, they will prosecute and fine you for "people trafficking":

A high-profile Danish campaigner for children’s rights was prosecuted on Friday under people trafficking laws, shining a spotlight once more on the country’s crackdown on asylum, as Scandinavian countries compete to make themselves unattractive destinations for refugees.

Lisbeth Zornig, the country’s former children’s ombudsman and a well-known author, was fined DKr22,500 (£2,328) – the maximum demanded by the prosecutor – by a court in Nykøbing Falster, southern Denmark, for allowing a family of Syrians to hitch a ride with her to Copenhagen.

Her husband was fined the same amount for taking the family into his home for coffee and biscuits, and then driving them to the railway station, where he bought them tickets to Sweden.

Zornig calls this "criminalising decency", and she's right. The Danish government is behaving indecently and inhumanely towards refugees (they're robbing them at the border, FFS), and they are using force of law in an effort to coerce their citizens into going along with it. Hitler would be proud.

Nauru: Democratic in name only

Having evicted the opposition from Parliament, the Nauruan government is now trying to stop them from running in this year's elections by hiking candidacy fees 20-fold, to US$1500:

Mr Batsiua said that yesterday the government hiked candidacy fees 20-fold, from $US74 to $US1500, and dramatically increased charges for voters wanting to move electorates.

"Those increases in fees are further attacks on the rights of people to stand as candidates. We believe it is another evidence of this government trying to rig the outcome of future elections in Nauru so they can retain their seats, and they are going out of their way to make it difficult for others to challenge their incumbency."

To put this in context, per-capita GDP on Nauru was ~US$16000 in 2013. So, they're asking for ~10% of your annual income just to run for office. And if you're a public servant (which is where the high-paying jobs are), you'll have to resign three months before the poll, making you that much less able to pay it - and given that the government has unlawfully cut the pensions of those who protested against it, the chances of being re-employed if you are unsuccessful are low.

Its very clear that the Nauruan government is seeking to prevent any democratic challenge to their rule. Like the Soviet Union, they'll have "elections". But they won't mean anything.

This is what Australia's concentration camp has done: destroyed Nauru's democracy and turned it into an authoritarian, undemocratic state. I hope they're happy with themselves.

New Fisk

West failed to factor in Bashar al-Assad's Iranian backers as the conflict developed

Spies should not be above the law

There's a disturbing report in Stuff that the SIS should be above the law in their undercover operations:

Spies and police will have new freedom to conduct elaborate undercover operations if Parliament implements the spy report's recommendations.

Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy's independent report into spy agencies the GCSB and SIS suggested new "immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith" to protect and create spies' identity information.


The review said "identity information" should include credit cards and shell companies, as well as traditional cloak-and-dagger staples such as fake passports and driver licences.

So it means allowing the spies not just to commit burglary, but also money laundering, credit card fraud, and even perjury in court. But it goes beyond that - because they're also suggesting immunity for acts carried out not just to protect identity information, or to give effect to a warrant, but to obtain a warrant. And its easy to see that extending to burglary, wiretapping, making bomb threats, planting false evidence, or even torture.

This proposal would effectively give the spies carte blanche to commit any crime they wished with impunity. And that is utterly poisonous to a free society under the rule of law. Even if I trusted the spies, this would be too far. Giving this power to organisations with a long history of unlawful behaviour would effectively remove any checks and balances on their behaviour. If we want to remain a free society, we need to shut down the spies, not put them above the law.

Friday, March 11, 2016

76% of "terrorism" complaints are spam

For years the SIS has run a public freephone to allow the public to report "information of security concern". As the world has gone online, they've backed this up with an Orwellian-titled "Public Contribution Form", allowing people to anonymously denounce their friends and neighbours to the secret police. So how effective are these mechanisms? Someone used FYI, the public OIA service, to ask. The response? 76% of online submissions are spam or frivolous. Of 370 online submissions:

  • 281 (76%) were spam or frivolous;
  • 70 (19%) were "determined to be of security interest";
  • 19 (5%) were not spam but "did not meet the threshold for our definition of 'security interest'".
Surprisingly, there are no corresponding statistics on the phone hotline, despite it receiving 2602 calls last year. Unfortunately they didn't ask how much these respective denouncement tools cost, and gaining information on how much of it was really of security interest (as opposed to of interest to a compulsive paranoid with a budget to justify) or led to investigations, let alone arrests and prosecutions, would be impossible.

The cost of irrigation

For decades, farmers have been sucking Canterbury's aquifers dry to water their thirsty cows. And now its having the expected effect: Christchurch's streams are drying up:

Several inner-city Christchurch streams have vanished, leaving dead eels and puddles of stagnant water in the middle of an affluent suburb.

Low water levels have afflicted many of Canterbury's waterways in recent months, which the regional council attributes to dry weather.

Critics are adamant that is not the case, and fear it may signal the beginning of the end for Christchurch's waterways.

The Waimairi and Wai-iti streams, which run through Fendalton and feed the Avon River, have dried up.

Both streams were once teeming with trout, crayfish and long-fin eels; Waimairi Stream was so pure residents reportedly drank from it.

But the real problem isn't these two streams, but what they feed: the Avon. With its tributaries drying up, the worry is that Christchurch's iconic river will be next. And with Christchurch's residents stripped of their vote and democratically disempowered so farmers can keep on sucking, there seems to be no democratic way for them to save it.

The problem with the intelligence review

Writing in the Herald, Toby Manhire hits on the core problem with the government's intelligence review: for all its talk of needing to balance security with liberity, it didn't even bother trying:

Counting words is a crude measure, but can also be revealing. The words "liberty" and "liberties" appear eight times in the 179-page report; four of those in the foreword.

"Freedom" crops up 13 times, four in the foreword, and one in reference to the US "Freedom Act". You'd expect to see the word "security" plenty of times; it is after all a report into security agencies. Still, it's everywhere: 630 times over.

The words "terrorist" and "terrorism" appear 124 times in the report, and fair enough, too. But "civil liberty" and "civil liberties"? Zero.

"Free society" appears twice within the report, meanwhile - once in the introduction and once in the foreword, but isn't it reasonable to hope the concept might get more of a look in? It is, after all, in the title.

To point out the obvious: its not a "balancing exercise" if you only talk about one side of the equation. Sadly, that's exactly what Cullen and Reddy did. And its precisely why we should throw their "independent" report into a volcano, along with the GCSB and all its gear.

Zero-hours contracts are history

Yesterday afternoon, the Employment Relations Amendment Bill (No 3), which outlaws zero-hours contracts, passed its third reading. While it hasn't been assented yet, that's just a formality. As of April 1, zero-hours contracts will be history.

This happened because public pressure forced the government to pretend to do something, and the other parties refused to play along with their PR measure and demanded real action. So, in the end the government was forced to amend it to do what it should have done in the first place, and the bill passed unanimously. Its a great example of how we can force progress from National, even on issues where they deeply oppose it. And we should really do that more often.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ombudsman says agencies should discriminate against journalists

Today the Ombudsman released new guidance for handling OIA requests made online. Its a useful document for agencies faced with requests being made through Twitter, Facebook, and FYI, covering things like when requests are received (the moment they hit your inbox or timeline), eligibility ("the eligibility requirement is not about imposing unnecessary barriers to legitimate requests", which is Ombudsman for "don't be a dick"), and whether you should respond electronicly (yes). However, there's also an FYI-specific section on how the prospect of online publication should affect decision-making around requests:

The fact that information will be published online is not a reason in itself for refusing a request
for official information. Publication of information released in response to official information
requests has always been a possibility. Agencies have never been able to control what a requester does with the information they receive (unless there is a valid basis for imposing conditions). However, it may be one factor to take into account in considering whether or not there is good reason to withhold the information.

On the one hand, it is possible that online publication of the information may be more likely to cause prejudice to the interests protected by the withholding grounds. For instance, online publication may be more likely to impinge on the privacy of natural persons, or to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of a third party, than release to a particular requester with conditions where necessary.

[Emphasis added]

This seems to be a significant and troubling departure from the principles and wording of the Act. The OIA is supposed to be requester-blind; who requests information and what they want to do with it is simply not supposed to factor into decisions about release. It does not list the prospect of publication among its good reasons for withholding. But here, the Ombudsman is saying that actually, the prospect that a government document (or, by implication, some of its contents) will be published may be a good reason to withhold it, or some information from it.

Its not just online requesters who are affected by this. To point out the obvious, journalists publish information from OIA requests all the time (and are gradually getting into the habit of putting the documents themselves online). The Ombudsman has just given every agency guidance saying that they can refuse to release information because of that. I wonder how the media feel about that?

The purpose of the OIA is to make information available to the public. That, of necessity, requires that released documents or their contents ultimately be published. The Ombudsman's advice appears to be contrary to the Act and its purposes, and it needs to be corrected immediately.