Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ignoring the Ombudsman

Last week, the Ombudsman issued a damning report on Paula Rebstock's witch-hunt at MFAT, finding that it was a total hatchet job which ignored evidence and slandered innocent public servants. The Ombudsman recommended a public apology and compensation for Rebstock's defamation (something she sadly won't have to pay for out of her own pocket). State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie's response? An unenthusiastic "we'll think about it". Meanwhile, Paula Bennett, the Minister in charge of SSC, claims the report has been "misinterpreted" (a claim which shows that she is basicly illiterate), while Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, who along with Rennie instigated and oversaw this debacle and defamed its victims afterwards is refusing to admit that the public servants have had their names cleared and are owed an apology.

In short, it looks like the government is planning to ignore the Ombudsman and reject the report. that would be crossing a constitutional Rubicon - the Ombudsman is one of our ultimate backstops, and their "recommendations" are always implemented. But that would embarass top National Ministers and a key crony (not to mention lead to public demands that she repay the $208,907 she was paid for her hatchet-job), so obviously the political needs and sensitive egos of the government of the day trump that.

Just another example of how National abuses power, and why they should never be trusted to hold it. We need a new government, one which will respect the checks and balances of our democratic system, rather than running roughshod over them. We need to get rid of National.

There is no corruption in America

America is one of the most corrupt democracies on earth, with politicians forced to grovel and do favours to wealthy donors in order to collect the millions (or in the case of Presidential elections, billions) of dollars needed to run for election. But not anymore. With a single decision, the US Supreme Court has effectively defined corruption out of existence:

In the McDonnell case, it was proven that Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a dietary supplement company, gave [former Virginia governor Bob] McDonnell an engraved Rolex watch, took McDonnell’s wife Maureen on a $20,000 shopping spree at Louis Vuitton and Oscar de le Renta in New York, loaned the couple over $100,000, and much more. In return, McDonnell set up meetings for Williams with Virginia officials that Williams used to push for the state to fund studies on the effectiveness of his supplements, pestered his staff about it, let Williams throw a product launch lunch at the governor’s mansion, and allowed Williams to add himself and associates to the guest list for a reception for state healthcare leaders. Williams himself testified that the gifts he gave the McDonnells were “a business transaction.”

But so what, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts: “Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf and include them in events all the time.” If McDonnell’s conviction stood, “officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse” – since presumably all citizens buy their governor’s wife a full length white leather coat and pay for him to go see the Final Four.

Or, you know, those public officials could refuse to do favours for donors, and treat them like any other citizen (and behave like elected representatives in any other modern, western democracy: non-corruptly, and with a sense of decency). But then they might not get all that money. So, instead, the Supreme Court has basically legalised the most egregious corruption, and provided you never say "here's $100,000 for your vote", you're in the clear.

And then they wonder why no-one votes. Because doing so simply legitimises the corruption of the few, while enabling them to rule over the many.

New Fisk

Brexit is a 'heartbreaking wake-up call' – and other meaningless political clich├ęs used this week

Repeal the veto


Last night, National vetoed Sue Moroney's bill to extend paid parental leave. The bill had a clear majority in Parliament, and they couldn't vote it down. So they invoked an archaic, feudal provision to prevent there from being a vote at all. It shows an utter contempt for democracy and the new constitutional norms of MMP. So what are we going to do about it?

Simple: repeal the veto. Its an archaic and unconstitutional relic of (spit) English feudalism, ultimately dating from the days when the English Parliament (from whom we inherited our Parliamentary tradition) was merely a rubberstamp for the king, rather than an elected, sovereign, representative body.

As for how to do it, the veto is contained in Parliament's Standing Orders. The way to change it is therefore by petitioning Parliament. I've set up such a petition (through ActionStation), and you can sign it here.

Once submitted, the bill will be assigned to an appropriate select committee, likely the Standing Orders Committee. The government does not have an inbuilt majority on that committee, so they can't simply ignore it. Which means we will either get rid of the veto, or force the other parties to declare where they stand on it, allowing us to vote accordingly.

It's our parliament, and it is supposed to work for us. If you want it to actually work that way, rather than simply be a rubberstamp for the government, then sign the petition.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Austerity violates human rights

Its official: the UK's programme of austerity (which has seen widespread cuts to government services, the bankruptcy of the NHS, and a spate of benefit-cut induced suicides) violate human rights:

The United Nations has confirmed that the UK's Austerity policies breach the UK’s international human rights obligations.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed “serious concern” about the impact of regressive policies on the enjoyment of economic and social rights in a damning report on the UK.

Based on evidence it received from Just Fair and other civil society groups, the Committee concludes that austerity measures and social security reform breach the UK’s international human rights obligations.

The UN particularly criticised the UK's failure to tackle homelessness and the growing reliance on food banks, as well as its vicious regime of benefit cuts and sanctions. All of these problems exist in New Zealand (because National copies Tory policies), which makes you wonder what sort of report we will get when we're up for review in 2017.

The PCE on environmental reporting

Last year, National passed the Environmental Reporting Act. The purpose of the Act is ostensibly to produce regular, independent reporting on the state of New Zealand's environment. But that could result in bad news (such as reports that our greenhouse gas emissions are rising, our rivers are unswimmable, and our native species being driven to extinction), so National strapped the chicken, dictating the topics the reports would cover.

Today, that chicken came home to roost, with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment panning the prototype Environment Aotearoa 2015 report.

The criticisms are serious. The report is poorly structured, which obfuscates key issues. The indicators are poorly chosen. There is no forecasting of future trends. But above all, there are no conclusions, and no assessment of the seriousness of problems.

That, of course, was the point: National wanted people to think it cared about the environment, so it had to produce reporting - but forecasts, assessment of seriousness, and conclusions are the last things it wanted. Because then it would have the Department of Statistics telling it (and the people of New Zealand) that climate change, dairy intensification and over-fishing are real and serious problems, and they might be expected to do something about them. But if an environmental report isn't going to do those things, you really have to ask what the point of it is.

But the PCE's final recommendation is the best: she recommends that the Ministry for the Environment be required to produce a formal, public response to each environmental report, outlining priorities and options for action. This respects the difference between (scientific) reporting and (political) action, while making it clear that reporting must drive action. Which again is the very opposite of what National wanted. But if reporting doesn't result in action, then why bother with it?

National will try and dismiss this response. That could come back to bite them. Because if the PCE doesn't get what she wants, as an independent Officer of Parliament she can simply start producing her own reports, or her own assessment of responses. And that will be even worse for National.

Open Government: The dog ate their homework

Back in March, the New Zealand government received a formal warning from the Open Government Partnership that we were failing to meet our obligations. Given the reputational damage of such a warning, you'd expect it to have had a saultory effect on our policy and encouraged the government to do a better job. Instead, SSC did the opposite, unilaterally delaying the action plan and deciding to use it as a propaganda exercise, while ending any pretense at a partnership with civil society.

So how did this happen? Simple: The Minister claims to have never received the OGP's warning:

On 11 April 2016 I was first made aware of the Open Government Partnership Support Unit’s letter to the New Zealand Government dated 4 April 2016 (but received by New Zealand after that date). The letter dated 21 March 2016 referred to in your question was never received by the New Zealand Government.

"I didn't receive it" is the saddest of sad excuses, and it raises serious questions about whether SSC is fulfilling its duties as a point-of-contact competently. But also if they're paying this little attention to the issue then it explains a hell of a lot.

11 April is also when Bennett was briefed on SSC's plans to ignore the OGP's deadlines. Presumably, she also approved them. Which means when they turn into a clusterfuck and we get ejected from the OGP, we can hold her accountable for it.


For the past two weeks I've been running a petition campaign against Bill English's cowardly, unconstitutional and undemocratic veto of Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months’ Paid Leave and Work Contact Hours) Amendment Bill. On the advice of ActionStation, the petition was submitted by post yesterday when it had only 1275 signatures:

With a supplementary email with the final list following just a few minutes ago.

All up, 1385 people signed it, which is far more than I ever expected. Now, I guess, we get to see whether it works. And if not, well, I have other plans...

Member's Day

Today is a member's day, and the finale in Sue Moroney's campaign to extend paid parental leave. There's a private bill to get through first, but her Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months’ Paid Leave and Work Contact Hours) Amendment Bill will have its third reading today. The bill is subject to an unconstitutional financial veto by National, and unless that is withdrawn, it will not get a vote.

When that's done, there's the third reading of Adrian Rurawhe's Official Information (Parliamentary Under-Secretaries) Amendment Bill. I doubt that will be finished tonight, but if it passes, I'll be celebrating.

Because today will be all late stages, there won't be a ballot tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

National wants domestic GCSB spying

The Law Commission has just announced the statutory review of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012. But in addition to the expected material on whether the Act has worked and whether it needs to be fixed, the terms of reference also include this:

As suggested in the report of the First Independent Review of Intelligence and Security, the review will also consider whether the Act (or any related legislation) should be amended to enable broader use of the capabilities of the Government Communications Security Bureau and/or New Zealand Security Intelligence Service to support police investigations.

Those "capabilities" of course include mass surveillance, spying on private communications, and covert burglaries and bugging with no judicial oversight whatsoever. The capacity for abuse is obvious.

There will be public submissions on this, and we need to speak up about it. The question is whether it will do any good, or whether National's stooges on the commission have already been told what their conclusions will be.

New Fisk

My father fought in WW1, and my mother learned Esperanto – this is what they would have thought of Brexit

Customs are Islamophobic and racist

Radio New Zealand this morning has appalling data on apparent Islamophobia by Customs, with kiwi Muslims being regularly stopped and searched at airports for no apparent reason other than their religion:

Members of New Zealand's Muslim community say they have been humiliated and treated like "criminals" by airport customs.

They say they are regularly stopped at Auckland Airport for hours, while their belongings are searched and their mobile phones taken off them.


On Sunday night, Muslims living in Auckland's Mount Roskill suburb gathered at Al Manar mosque to pray, celebrating the final week of Ramadan.

Between prayers, the Imam made an announcement asking those who had been stopped by New Zealand customs to come forward and share their stories.

RNZ News spoke to 11 people that night.

Unmentioned: thanks to National, Customs can give the data it pulls off those phones and digital devices straight to the police, or the SIS (who can then pass it on to their foreign masters), without any need for suspicion, let alone a warrant.

Also worth noting: this isn't the first time this issue has been raised. Its a persistent, pervasive problem of discrimination at the border. Customs, of course, denies it, pretending that there is a reason for these searches. Unfortunately, what this "reason" boils down to is Islamophobia and racism. And the net effect of it is to tell kiwi Muslims that they're not "real" New Zealanders and that the state hates them and will not let them live their lives in peace. And when you're fighting a "war on terror", that message is an extremely dangerous one to send.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A coincidence, I'm sure

Damning inquiry points finger at the Government, State Services Commissioner, Stuff, June 23, 2016:

The Government has rejected parts of a damning report into its handling of an inquiry into leaks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Ombudsman Ron Paterson has told the Government it should compensate a former top diplomat whose career ended in tatters after he was targeted by the inquiry, which was instigated by the State Services Commission.

He has also recommended a formal apology.


In a statement, Rennie said he did not agree with all elements of the Ombudsman's findings, in particular that in making findings relating to the investigation being outside its terms of reference.

Ombudsman resigns: Professor Ron Paterson steps down two years early, New Zealand Herald, 27 June 2016:
One of the country's two Ombudsmen has resigned and will leave the role two years before the end of his five-year term.

Professor Ron Paterson will leave the role on Thursday. He was appointed an Ombudsman in June 2013 for a five-year period.

Deputy Ombudsman Leo Donnelly will be appointed temporary Ombudsman for a 12-month period, which could be extended by another two years.

The timing of this really doesn't look good. The SSC report was apparently hotly contested, and Rennie effectively refusing to accept its "recommendations" may have been a final straw.

Open Government: Dismissing the stakeholders

In 2015, a year after joining the Open Government partnership, the government established a Stakeholder Advisory Group. According to its terms of reference, the purpose of the group was to

assist with the development, implementation and evaluation of the commitments in New Zealand's Action Plans by providing constructive advice, communicating openly and involving other stakeholders.

The Stakeholder Advisory Group was also important for compliance with our OGP obligations. According to SSC,
Establishment of the SAG also aligns with an OGP requirement for a forum that enables regular multi-stakeholder consultation on implementing the Action Plan. It will also address concerns expressed by stakeholders during development of the Action Plan about the OGP being about stakeholder participation, not just consultation.

According to my sources, SSC has recently sacked the SAG. It will apparently be replaced with a yet-to-be-detailed "external advisors group".

As for why, it appears to be because SSC no longer considers it necessary for stakeholders to participate in the development of open government policy (if they ever did), and no longer wants to hear from them. Back in February, the SAG were told to go away and "provide further feedback on the possible themes for the next Action Plan". They dutifully did this, and produced a variety of reports on draft OGP commitments, the OGP and the Treaty, and specific commitments around the review of the OIA. In the meantime, SSC had decided that they wanted to delay the action plan and use it as a propaganda exercise, so their response was "thanks, but no thanks":
The Deputy Commissioner thanked SAG members for their contributions. Given the need to conduct a wider enhanced engagement process, individual SAG input could be revisited following planned engagement with Civil Society and New Zealanders, and formulated as a part of a broader group of ideas for consideration by government.

It will be interesting to see how many of their proposals feature in whatever document SSC finally produces, but my guess is "none". SSC isn't interested in hearing from civil society about open government. And apparently that even extends to a bound and gagged "advisory group". They just want us to shut up and go away. This attitude is of course utterly inconsistent with the ethos of the Open Government Partnership. But it has been clear from the beginning that SSC has no commitment to that ethos at all, and simply regards our OGP membership as a burden foisted upon them, to be grudgingly and technically complied with and otherwise ignored as much as possible.

Fixing the Statutes Amendment Bill

Last October, I highlighted a problem with the government's Statutes Amendment Bill. Such bills are supposed to be used only for "technical, short, and non-controversial amendments", but the bill included amendments to the Victims’ Orders Against Violent Offenders Act 2014 which created new powers and new criminal penalties, as well as being a prima facie violation of the right to freedom of expression.

Following my post, I made a submission to the Government Administration Committee on the matter, and it seems they took it seriously: today, they've split those provisions out into a seperate Victims’ Orders Against Violent Offenders Amendment Bill, allowing them to be properly debated.

I expect that bill to pass - the new powers (to clear courtrooms and make suppression orders around proceedings under VOAVO) are reasonable and a justified limitation under the BORA. At the same time, its good to see Parliament standing up against the constitutional abuses of the National government in trying to slip changes of this magnitude through under the (abbreviated) legislative tidy-up procedure of the Statutes Amendment Bill.

New Fisk

The relationship between Israel and Lebanon is deteriorating again - and it's civilians who will suffer
What does the Middle East think of Brexit? A lot more than you'd assume
Fallujah, the 'resistance' city, is liberated yet again – for the fourth time in a decade

The establishment protects itself

In 2004, Britain helped the CIA kidnap Libyan dissident Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his family from Thailand. Belhaj and his pregnant wife were rendered to Libya, where they were imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime. Belhaj was tortured. MI6 knew and wanted this to happen. And yet the British government has spent over £600,000 trying to prevent him from seeking justice through the British courts:

The government has spent at least £600,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to prevent a civil case being brought against it by a husband and wife who allege that British intelligence was complicit in their detention, rendition and torture.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the extraordinary lengths to which the government is going to prevent the civil case against it, former home secretary Jack Straw, and former MI6 spy chief Sir Mark Allen coming to court.


[I]nformation released under FOI shows that by 10 September last year the government had spent £355,000 on internal legal advice and £259,000 on external advice as it sought to have the case dropped. Of this, £27,000 was spent on advice relating to Straw and £110,000 on advice relating to Allen.

The FOI data reveals that the government has been paying as much as £250 an hour to two senior barristers involved in defending the action. A number of junior barristers have also been charging between £45 and £120 an hour.

Given that the figures are 10 months old, there is speculation that the total cost of fighting the case – before it even comes near a court – could be well in excess of £10m.

Belhaj isn't seeking damages - he is seeking an admission of involvement and an apology. But actually admitting what everyone knows - that they are complicit in rendition and torture - would be deeply embarrassing to the British political establishment, not to mention expose senior members to (well-deserved) criminal prosecution. So instead they're spending public money to prevent that. Just another example of how Britain's criminal establishment governs in its own interests, not those of the people.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The people have spoken

So, the results are in, and its Brexit by a million votes. The old, nostalgic for empire and Britain being important, voted to fuck the young, as always. And it turns out that I do have an orc in this fight - and it wears a kilt. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the EU. England voted to get out. So another independence referendum beckons.

As for England, some people are trying to highlight the fact that the poll is not legally binding, and hoping that parliament will veto the people. While legally true, doing so would give up any pretence that England is a democracy and that its government is legitimate. The consequences of such action will probably resemble the nightmare we saw on Friday.

Finally, no matter what you think of the result, its a Good Thing that the people of the UK can express their opinion and decide to leave by peaceful, democratic means. And it would be nice if the Basques, Kurds and Tamils were allowed to do the same. If a region or group wants to leave your country, the only moral option is for a peaceful departure, on terms which will maintain a friendly and peaceful relationship. So the idea that the EU would punish the UK for leaving and impose punitive exit terms pour encourager les autres to stay is fundamentally immoral. And if that happens, it will, like Greece, be another reason not to care what happens to the EU anymore.

No news but Brexit

You expect bloggage today? Sure, there's other stuff going on, but like everyone else, I'm glued to the results of the Brexit referendum. I don't have an orc in this fight (I hate the racists pushing for Brexit, and yet I can never forgive the EU for Greece, so they can both kill one another for all I care), but I'm a tragic election watcher, and I love seeing the politicians (and the banks) scattering like cockroaches in the face of a decision made by the people rather than them. Democracy, it's so messy for the people in power. We should have more of it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Open Government: More bad faith

When the government announced a unilateral delay in New Zealand's second Open Government partnership Action Plan, it was ostensibly for the purposes developing "more inclusive" engagement processes. The implication was that their mandatory consultation on the Action Plan and its commitments would be better than the last one's mockery.

They lied.

According to OGP Stakeholder Advisory Group papers released today (which had been kept secret despite still-standing commitments to public agendas and papers in advance), this is their new timetable for "consultation":
So, we're going to have one month to decide on commitments, and one month of consultation on the final Action Plan. Neither timeframe allows any scope for serious commitments or real change; instead, we're likely to be served up some pre-decided, pre-existing measures. Just like last time.

Also of note: the timeline makes a lot of noise about "awareness raising". SSC has never done any relating to the OGP (unless you count dumping material on an obscure corner of a website that only tragic geeks like me read), and there's been no signs of them doing any in the time-periods indicated by this plan. But stranger things have happened, and we can but hope.

Finally: its clear from SSC's utter denial of the problems with their first action plan that they don't like civil society involvement. So, their solution is to engage with the wider public via a survey. This is being done specifically to "reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’" - which are explicitly identified as "civil society organisations". You know, the ones the government is supposed to be in partnership with under the OGP.

The survey is a draft only, and it does at least ask respondents which of the OGP's core values they think are most important. But it also presents a frankly misleading statement of the actions in the first action plan (hint: the "work" on "Addressing processes and practices relating to the transparency of parliamentary proceedings, campaign finance and government procurement" was reading and responding to someone else's report on the issue - which they didn't actually do). It asks respondents to rank these in order of importance (rather than whether they have anything to do with open government). It does not ask about future commitments at all.

So SSC's "enhanced engagement" is to ignore its partners and instead try and get people to rubberstamp some list of pre-existing policies via a strapped-chicken survey. Again, they are dealing with us, and the international community, in bad faith, engaging in sham participation as a box-ticking exercise while ensuring that it will have no impact on policy at all. And that goes against the entire ethos of the Open Government Partnership.

The revolution in freedom of expression law continues

Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brooker v. Police [PDF]. The case represented a victory for the freedom to protest, significantly raising the threshold for prosecution for the public order offence of "disorderly behaviour". A majority of the Court applied a traditional analysis, balancing the insult to the values of "right thinking" member of the public test against freedom of expression (and weighing that heavily in light of the Bill of Rights Act). But it was Chief Justice Sian Elias' judgement, which approached it as a matter of straight statutory interpretation from the basis that public order law was about public order and disruptions to the use of public space, which has been the most influential. And so a few years later, in Valerie Morse v. Police [PDF], the offense of "offensive behaviour" was viewed not as primarily about giving offence as aggression and threat which interfered with the use of public space (the upshot being that quietly burning the flag at an Anzac Day dawn service simply didn't meet the threshold).

And now we have another example, with the Court of Appeal applying the same logic to rule that non-sexualised public nudity is not "offensive behaviour":

The bench of three learned judges at the Court of Appeal said the crucial question to consider was whether a conviction for offensive behaviour required the behaviour to be seen and that it actually disrupted public order.

The crown contended that it was enough that Ker was capable of being seen and his nudity had the potential to disrupt public order.

But ​the court ruled that offensive behaviour had to be observed - otherwise it could not cause public disorder -
and must actually disturb public order.

Because there was no evidence Ker had offended anyone or caused any problems, his conviction was quashed.

[Emphasis added]

Which is as it should be. If you're not causing anyone any grief, the law should leave you alone. Sadly, as with the previous rulings, it may take the police a while (and a pile of failed prosecutions) to get the message.

Simply illegal

You know those bad jokes people tell about $InsertRegionHere being backwards? Sadly, some people in the Waikato seem to be doing their best to make them true:

A man says he was denied a Waikato rental property because he loves another man.

Artist Lewis Johnston and his male partner of 15 years were considering renting while they sell their house and look to buy another.

But Johnston is now fuming after being told by a landlord the pair weren't wanted because of their sexuality.

And after the recent Orlando nightclub massacre, Johnston's not prepared to put up with that attitude any more.

It is of course illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation - and that's been the case for over twenty years. Which is more than enough time for people to get used to the law and the fact that society has changed. After twenty years, the Human Rights Act's "softly softly" dispute resolution mechanism isn't enough; we should be prosecuting bigots, or allowing them to be sued into oblivion when they discriminate.

Paula Rebstock should pay for this

Back in 2012, after a campaign of leaks about its proposals to restructure MFAT, National announced an inquiry. Naturally, they appointed their go-to girl Paula Rebstock to investigate. And when she reported, it turned out to be a total hatchet job which ignored evidence and slandered innocent public servants, while failing to make a concrete case against the prime suspect.

Today, the Ombudsman has found that the leak inquiry was flawed, and recommended a formal apology and compensation to one of Rebstock's victims:

The Government has been told to compensate a former top diplomat whose career ended in tatters after he was targeted by an inquiry into leaks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Ombudsman Ron Paterson issued a report on Thursday slating the State Services Commission over its handling of the leak investigation.

The 2013 inquiry headed by Paula Rebstock resulted in senior diplomats Derek Leask and Nigel Fyfe being singled out , despite evidence that one of the most significant leaks originated from within the State Services Commission itself. The person responsible for that leak cannot be identified because of suppression orders.

While they were not named in the State Services Commission-ordered inquiry, Leask and Fyfe were easily identifiable and their conduct was publicly castigated by the State Services Commissioner and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.

Unfortunately, outgoing State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie seems to be refusing to do either. That's unthinkable. While technically not legally binding, the "recommendations" of the Ombudsman are always acted upon. And in this case, they need to be. An innocent public servant has been mistreated and defamed. The integrity of the public service depends on righting that wrong.

Meanwhile, its worth noting that Rebstock was paid $208,907 for this report, and was also awarded a knighthood for "services to the state". Now, it turns out to have been a dud. She should be forced not just to pay the money back, but also to pay any compensation to the victim. This is her fault, and she should pay the price.

Worse than I thought

Yesterday I worried about the privacy implications of toll roads. Turns out National's plan is far worse than I thought:

GPS devices could be installed in every Auckland car, tracking where and when the driver goes around the city, as part of moves to introduce a form of road tolling in the city, the Automobile Association says.

The government has done an about-turn on its earlier opposition to motorway tolls and now says "network pricing" will be needed to combat worsening congestion in our biggest city.

AA principal adviser Barney Irvine said the system would not be a road toll as we traditionally know it, but would cover the whole Auckland region and replace the fuel tax.

A GPS in every car, tracking you everywhere you go? This isn't a toll system - its a fucking surveillance network.

Again, once the information is collected, it is useable by other government agencies. The police can already access toll-road records through the production order system (or simply by asking); this would let them get everywhere you have ever been. And they wouldn't even have to pay for the tracking device - you'd have to buy it for them in order to be allowed to drive.

Fuck that shit. Lets keep our privacy. Lets say "no" to spy-roads.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Toll roads, petrol taxes, and privacy

Yesterday the government reversed its long-standing opposition to road tolls, and instead suggested tolling roads in Auckland to reduce congestion. Today, they suggested the quid pro quo: lower petrol taxes. So why should we prefer one to the other?

Both petrol taxes and road tolls make transport users pay the cost of their activities. Petrol taxes are broader: the more you drive, the more you pay. Road tolls and congestion charges ar emore specific, allowing certian useage at certain times (e.g. rush hour, or the afternoon school run) to be targetted. But there is one major difference between the two: privacy.

Once upon a time, toll roads meant stopping and paying at a booth. Now, they use Automatic Number Plate Recognition to automatically identify and record vehicles. The mere act of running a toll road means collecting and storing a huge amount of information about people's everyday movements. And that information is available to others: not just the toll operator, but to police, intelligence agencies, even private individuals. And that's only looking at lawful disclosure. Toll operators could conceivably track individual vehicles and sell the information to third-parties for profit.

The best way to protect your privacy is not to create information in the first place. Toll roads create vast quantities of highly intrusive information. Once the information exists, it will be used. Better to stop that at the source. Better to tax petrol than toll roads.

Unreasonable and unnecessary

In 2013, the government passed a law allowing more frequent and more invasive stip searches of prisoners. The changes were criticised at the time as "needless, degrading and possibly dangerous" by the corrections union. Now, thanks to information released under the Official Information Act (via FYI, to boot), we know that that is true:

Prison guards are conducting thousands of strip searches but finding virtually no weapons or drugs.

The searches became more invasive three years ago, and at about the same time peaked at around 4500 a month, newly-released figures show.

But the hit rate on contraband in 2013 of 20 or so items a month is the same as now, even though strip search numbers have plunged by two thirds to 1500 a month across all prisons.

Looking at the raw data, the success rate even on "reasonable cause" searches (those where an officer claims to have "reasonable grounds for believing that the prisoner has in his or her possession an unauthorised item") is less than 2% (as of June last year; the success rate for other searches is about a sixth of that). But a success rate that low suggests that those "reasonable grounds" simply aren't. Instead, these searches are being conducted as a deterrent, or to degrade and humiliate prisoners and show them who is in control. But that is not what they are for and it is not lawful to use them for those purposes.

The other searches, legally justified by prisoner movements, aren't off the hook either. While the law says a prison officer "may" conduct a strip search under certain circumstances (basicly, when a prisoner has been moved or met with someone), that law must be interpreted through the lens of the Bill of Rights Act, which affirms the right of every person to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. That includes prisoners. And while the right is subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society", I don't think anyone could claim with a straight face that the mass strip-searching of people, making them squat naked while a guard looks up their arse with a torch, in order to find nothing, is "reasonable". Instead, it is the very definition of unreasonable.

Unreasonable searches. Degrading and humiliating treatment. That could be very expensive indeed for the government. To point out the obvious: this humiliation is an everyday experience for prisoners and there have been over 100,000 searches in the last five years. At $600 per strip search, the government could be looking at a bill of over $60 million. And when it arrives, we should lay it at the feet of one woman: Judith Collins.

New Fisk

Assassination attempt on head of Syrian Orthodox Church revives ghosts of massacres past

Climate change: The fear of increased expectations

Yesterday was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year - and it had record high temperatures. People are reporting that spring flowers have already appeared, and outside, I have strawberries in the depths of winter. Meanwhile, Treasury has been worrying about the threat of "increased expectations" for action on climate change.

The revelation is from a 2015 Treasury aide memoire on what to do with our fraudulent Kyoto surplus. A version of the paper was released via FYI last year, but with significant redactions. The requester successfully challenged those redactions with the Ombudsman, resulting in the unredacted paper being released.

Treasury basicly said there were three options for the profits of our Kyoto fraud: sell them, use them to achieve a higher 2020 target, or voluntarily cancel them. Naturally, they supported selling them as "there is a legitimate right to do so and the units will otherwise become worthless when access to international markets closes". They opposed retaining them and using them for our 2020 target because it would "increase expectations for an even greater target after 2020", which would be expensive. If they weren't sold, then Treasury supported cancellation as it would "largely avoid the risk [sic] of increasing expectations for our targets after 2020".

So, the planet is burning down around our ears, and Treasury's chief worry is that we might expect them to actually take credible action to stop it. You really have to wonder what it would take for the message to get through to them.

In the end, the government decided to retain the laundered units, but set a low target - in other words, to use them as an excuse to keep on doing nothing. So Treasury won in a way - they convinced the National Party that there was no crisis and that they didn't really need to do anything. But the rest of us, we lost badly. And winter strawberries aren't much of a consolation for that.

Same shit, different name

Back in the 90's, the last National government tried to introduce bulk-funding for schools. It was a scam-policy, designed to allow funding cuts while dumping the responsibility for them in the laps of powerless school boards (see also: DHB's). Fortunately, teachers resisted, and the policy was overturned.

But twenty years later, National is trying it again:

In consultation documents published on the Ministry of Education's website, the department proposes a new funding system with "the potential to increase flexibility in schools' use of funding while simplifying funding arrangements".

The change would set a "global budget" for each school, delivered as cash instalments for school expenses, and a credit system for salaries.

They say its different, but its the same thing: schools would be able to decide how much to spend on teacher salaries (rather than having staffing levels and therefore student ratios set centrally), and would be able to spend any excess from their salary portion on other things (such as, say, a new office for the principal). It therefore creates direct incentives for understaffing and over-working staff. Adding an extra layer also allows the government to pretend it has nothing to do with the decisions it has incentivised, freeing them from responsibility when they cut or cap funding and run down the state education system to allow for tax cuts for their rich mates (oh, and create a competitive advantage for the private snob-schools they all send their kids to). Its the same old shit, just with a different name.

Fortunately, teachers aren't going to take this lying down. Bulk funding was defeated in the 90's by protests, strikes, and blacklisting. I have no doubt that any attempt at reintroduction will result in similar action.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

New Fisk

My conversation with the son of Soghomon Tehlirian, the man who assassinated the organiser of the Armenian genocide

Equal justice for all?

The evidence continues to pile up of systematic bias in our justice system:

New research suggests welfare fraudsters are facing a tougher time than tax evaders, despite tax evasion costing taxpayers three times more.

A study by Victoria University shows tax discrepancies cost the Government $1.24 billion in 2014, while welfare fraud cost the Government $30.6 million.

However, tax evaders are far less likely to be investigated, prosecuted or imprisoned, and far more likely to have debts written off.

Associate Professor Lisa Marriott said judges tend to denounce blue collar criminals for the "seriousness" of their offending and recognise the "good character" of white collar offenders.

The reason for this discrepancy in treatment is obvious: tax fraud is a rich man's crime. Welfare fraud is committed mostly by the poor. And rich, white judges sympathise more with people like them - tax cheats - than with people who are not. But it makes a mockery of the justice system, and of the concept of justice. People should not face harsher punishment because they are poor. And people's crimes should not be excused because they are rich.

A clear electoral choice on Iraq

Yesterday, John Key broke his word and extended the deployment of kiwi troops to Iraq for another 18 months. Andrew Little has immediately come out and said that he will withdraw those troops if elected (naturally, the Greens have been against it all along). So, it looks like we have a clear electoral choice on the issue: if you want peace, vote for Labour or the Greens. If you want war and dead kiwis, vote National.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Another 18 months in Iraq

When John Key approved another deployment of kiwi troops to Iraq, he was very clear: it was only for two years. But he lied: he's just extended that for another 18 months.

The "justification" is this is that ISIS is somehow a threat to New Zealand. Bullshit. Its a threat to Iraqis and Syrians, not us. This isn't our war and we should not be involved. Being involved makes us a target, not safer.

The cost of this deployment is estimated by the government at $50 million. Pretty obviously, that's money they're not spending on housing and paid parental leave (or on health, education or public transport). So, Key is willing to throw money to the wind and endanger kiwi lives solely to toady up to the US.

Again, if any kiwi soldiers die on this deployment, the blood is squarely on John Key's hands. And we should hold him responsible in that eventuality.

You shouldn't need to go to court to end torture

Its official: the continued "seclusion" of Ashley Peacock - locking him in an isolation cell with no social contact and only a bottle to piss in for six years - constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under the Convention Against Torture. Worse, Capital Coast DHB have known this for four months and done absolutely nothing about it. Instead, they're now making excuses and quibbling details.

The Herald yesterday pointed out that Peacock's parents would seem to have an open and shut BORA case to force CCDHB to stop torturing him (and to compensate him for his torture). If that's what's required, I hope they bring such a case. But in New Zealand, they simply shouldn't have to. Not just because government agencies should obey the Ombudsman and correct these sorts of issues when they emerge, but because they should never happen in the first place.

Finally, there's another alternative to a BORA case, and that is a prosecution for torture. And given the manifest unwillingness of CCDHB and its clinicians to respond to these repeated concerns, that seems to be a necessary step pour encourager les autres.

ECan turns a blind eye to water theft

Back in 2010, the National government overthrew to democratically elected Canterbury Regional Council and appointed dictators to give the region's water away to farmers. And since then, that's exactly what they've been doing, by undermining Water Conservation Orders, overallocating catchments and allowing increased pollution. But even that isn't enough: there are still rules on the books about how much water farmers are allowed to take. ECan's solution is simple: ignore them, even in cases of blatant water theft:

Forest & Bird has lifted the lid on what it claims to be a massive water theft in Canterbury.

The conservation group has released data obtained under the Official Information Act showing those with consents to take water have taken hundreds of millions of litres more than they were entitled to.

The information reveals water was illegally taken from creeks that eventually ran dry, including during low-flow restrictions when rivers were at their most parched.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) did not prosecute any of 376 cases of serious breaches, despite many offenders being caught "red-handed", Forest & Bird says.

One case includes an irrigator who was found to have illegally taken 31 million litres of water from the Manuka Creek over 42 days. Forty of those days were during low-flow restrictions. The offender received an abatement notice.

376 cases and no prosecutions? There's no doubt about it: ECan is simply refusing to enforce the law. And sadly, with dictators having an inbuilt majority in the new transitional regime, there's no hope of a policy change after the October elections, no matter how much voters want it.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Good luck with that

Today we learned that National's 90-day trial periods for workers weren't working, having produced no discernible change to employment. So you'd expect the Labour Party to be even more strongly for repealing them. But no - as Stuff's Hamish Rutherford points out, Labour plans to do no such thing:

An early morning trip to Upper Hutt in July 2015 revealed Labour's uncomfortable realisation: the 90-day trials are immensely popular among businesses.

The party's union backing may be fiercely opposed to the trials, but Labour leader Andrew Little conceded to a business audience that, with immaterial changes, the trials would be maintained.


Little pledged to maintain the trials, albeit with a requirement for employers to give feedback, an about-face on his promise during the election (before he was leader) to abolish them.

The reason for this? So Labour can toady to business of course. Sellouts and chickenshits, the lot of them.

But apart from the insanity of seeking the good opinion of groups which inherently hate you, this simply isn't a sustainable policy. To point out the obvious, Labour won't be alone in Parliament, and another party (e.g. the Greens) could put up an abolition bill of their own. What will Labour do then? Whip their reluctant backbench into voting it down, in the face of intense pressure from their own supporters? Or try and get prospective support partners to agree pre-emptively not to put such a bill in the ballot?

The answer to both scenarios is "good luck with that". And they show the inherent problems of being a party which stands for nothing and which puts power and a desire for donations ahead of principle.

Doing something about the financial veto


Yesterday the government abused the crown's financial veto power to forbid a vote on Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months’ Paid Leave and Work Contact Hours) Amendment Bill. So what are we going to do about it?

Stage one I think is to ask Bill English to withdraw the financial veto certificate. I've started a petition over Action Station on this; you can sign it here. Better do it before Wednesday, however, because the bill will be debated (but not voted on) then.

Stage two is to attack the veto provision itself. As I've pointed out before, it is archaic and unconstitutional, a relic of (spit) English feudalism. It was reviewed at the 2014 triennial Review of Standing Orders, where the Standing Orders Committee supported it basicly on the basis that it wasn't used very often. That, of course, was before the government had used it to shitcan a popular bill with majority support from across the House (including from its own coalition partners). But we can force them to review it again by petitioning Parliament.

As for the chances of success, the government doesn't have an inbuilt majority on the Standing Orders Committee. So, if the other parties hate the veto as much as they say they do now (rather than wanting to use it when they're in government), then we can get rid of it permanently. And at the least, such a petition will force them to declare where they stand - and allow us to vote accordingly.

90 day trials don't work

When National forced 90-day employment trials on us, it was on the promise that it would increase employment. Making people easier to sack, so they said, would encourage businesses to take risks in hiring.

Naturally, they lied:

The controversial trial period allowing workers to be easily sacked within their first 90 days on the job has failed to boost employment, research has found.

Treasury-funded research conducted by Motu found no statistically significant increasing in hiring by employers following the introduction of the 90-day trial periods in 2009.

Motu Fellow Isabelle Sin said the research used "data from every firm and every person in New Zealand" to assess the law changes' effect.

"The main effect of the policy was a decrease in dismissal costs for firms, while many employees faced increased uncertainty about their job security for three months after being hired," Sin said.

And that's unsurprising, really. Businesses hire people when it is profitable to do so, not because they can. And whether it is profitable to do so depends far more on the underlying economics of the business - whether they can move more widgets or whatever - than on whether they can fire people more easily. So all the law does is enable abuse by bad employers while increasing uncertainty among their employees. Its about encouraging servility and keeping wages down, not increasing employment.

We can add this to the long list of NeoLiberal policies which fail empirical testing. Tax cuts don't increase economic growth. Benefit sanctions don't incentivise work. Charter schools don't improve education outcomes. But those failures aren't just academic - they produce real human suffering and social consequences which need to be rectified. The expense of which is then used as "justification" for even more such destructive policies by the right.

New Fisk

Why our nuclear deal with Iran is turning to dust

Fucking hell

Waking up to the news that a UK MP had been murdered outside their constituency clinic was profoundly shocking. Learning later that the attacker - who cried "Britain First" during the murder - had not just a long history of mental illness, but an equally long association with far-right politics sadly wasn't. The UK has had an undercurrent of violent racism for a long, long time, and while they've mostly focused on terrorising those of the "wrong" skin colour or political persuasion, it was only a matter of time before they entered the big leagues. A referendum campaign implicitly premised on "immigration" - British for "racism" - provides exactly the sort of context for that sort of shift, for letting people think its OK to start murdering their political opponents.

The obvious question is what impact it will have on the referendum campaign. But to be honest, I don't really care. When your choice is between two groups of racist xenophobes (one of which also destroyed Greece), it is hard to give a shit.

The real worry is what it might do to the UK (and NZ) practice of constituency clinics. MPs making themselves available to their electorates to help them with their problems and hear their concerns is a fundamental link between elected representatives and their voters - and one of the few things the UK's threadbare democracy does well. If MP's withdraw from this, or hide form their voters behind a wall of security and bodyguards, it turns them very visibly into a distant, insulated, isolated elite. And in a political system as unrepresentative as the UK's, that is unlikely to end well for its democracy.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

End the veto!

Today's abuse of the financial veto to prevent the passage of a law Parliament supported and the government did not have the numbers to defeat tells us one thing: we need to end this practice. The financial veto - and its companion monarchical veto in Standing Order 313 - is an affront to our democracy. It allows the arbitrary whim of the few to prevail over the expressed will of our elected Parliament. Not as a "check and balance", but as a political weapon to suppress Parliament.

That is not how our democracy is supposed to work. As Kenneth Keith put it, "the queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as it has the support of the House of Representatives". Parliament is supreme. It passes the laws, it votes the money, and if the government wants to change either of those things, Parliament has to vote for it.

Normally it does, of course, because the government is the government because it has a majority. But MMP means it doesn't have one on everything. And in such cases, our constitutional principles are clear: Parliament's will should prevail.

The financial veto is an affront to that principle. And all democratic political parties should commit to its removal.

Cowardly, undemocratic, and unconstitutional

So, after months of threats, National has finally vetoed Sue Moroney's Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months’ Paid Leave and Work Contact Hours) Amendment Bill. It claims that it did this because of costs. But in reality, it did this for one reason and one reason only: because it did not have the votes to vote the bill down.

As I've posted previously, the ability of the executive to override the will of the legislature in this way is a relic of English feudalism, which simply does not sit with our modern, MMP constitution. It is undemocratic and unconstitutional. In modern New Zealand it is Parliament which is supreme, and the veto denies this.

This violence to our democracy is also unnecessary. If the government thinks the bill is a financial matter, it could simply declare it to be a matter of supply and stand or fall on the result. Their refusal to do this is simply cowardly. But perhaps, having worked so hard to alienate its coalition partners, National is no longer sure of their support.

More defence waste

Last week we learned that National wanted to spend $20 billion on new toys for the defence force. One of the immediate criticisms - apart from the spending being inherently wasteful and aimed at producing a defence force fit to serve American, rather than New Zealand, interests - was NZDF's poor record on procurement, which sees costs escalate and escalate and escalate. And today we have a fine example of that, in the form of another $100 million cost increase on an upgrade to the navy's frigates.

The government remains committed to the upgrade of the Navy's two frigates, despite a $100 million increase in the cost of the project.

The weapons and communications systems on HMNZS Te Mana and HMNZS Te Kaha will be upgraded in Canada.

The cost was originally expected to be up to $374m, but has risen to $472m, and the upgrade will now be completed in March 2019, 13 months late.

The frigates will get upgraded missile defence, communications and radar detection, torpedo decoys and an overall combat management system. other words, the usual pointless crap aimed at being a vessel useful for fighting other people's wars, rather than the things we actually want our navy to do.

And then there's the kicker: that extra $100 million on the navy's gold-plated upgrade of its pointless vanity vessels? That, right there, is the cost of the third, ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessel they want (even at the inflated price they paid for the originals). You know, the ship that does the things we want our navy to do - fisheries patrol, aid delivery, search and rescue - rather than wandering off to the Middle East to "show the flag" to our "allies".

The conclusion is clear: we should scrap the frigates. Anything useful they do can be done by smaller, cheaper vessels at a fraction of the cost. And by taking military options off the table, we prevent our government from dragging us into other people's conflicts.

New Fisk

Is the backlash faced by French-Lebanese author for speaking to Israeli media justified?

This will be interesting

So, Earl and Lani Hagaman have filed defamation proceedings against Andrew Little for correlating the contents of their donations to the National Party and their gaining a government contract to manage a hotel in Niue. This will be interesting. Both because it will hopefully give us a precedent protecting such political speech (because really, if you can't publicly connect such facts, what can you do?), but also for what else it might expose.

To point out the obvious, Little now gets discovery. And valid targets of that discovery include all records of any donation to the National Party or associated entities by the Hagamans (and any institution they control), and all records of any communications between them and the National Party or National MPs (including, say, over this). After all, if they're saying that their donation record had nothing to do with the contract, and its all just a terrible-looking coincidence, then clearly Little gets to go looking for evidence to the contrary. And if he finds anything at all, the consequences of that could be rather more dire than simply winning his suit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Unconvincing lies

In parliament today, Paula Bennett was questioned pretty intensively about her clumsy smear of Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis. Her answers were less than convincing:

  • Bennett claimed to be ignorant of the smear until asked about it by journalists on Tuesday afternoon. But her face in that interview tells a completely different story: she's lying, and wasn't expecting to be asked about it. Incidentally, this was an answer to a primary question, so any evidence that she knew gets her for contempt of Parliament.
  • Bennett briefed her political staff about the investigation of Dennis. She refused to say why she did that, but there's no reason at all unless it was for the purposes of smearing him.
  • The staffer who did the actual leak offered to resign. Bennett refused to accept their resignation as she was assured that "it was not the intention for it to be a smear campaign against Mr Dennis or the marae". Which invites the obvious question: if it wasn't supposed to be a smear, why was it revealed?
  • Bennett, who has a past history of utter disregard for privacy of her critics, is suddenly very protective of the privacy of her staff, refusing to confirm or deny that the leaker was the person who accompanied her to a meeting with Dennis. By doing so, she made it clear that there will be no accountability whatsoever for this action.
These are unconvincing lies, and the overwhelming message is that Bennett ordered it, or at least tacitly approved it. And that is well below the standards we expect from government Ministers (or decent human beings). Lianne Dalziel was sacked for this sort of bullying, as was Judith Collins. And Paula Bennett must pay the same price.

We need to do something about wrongful convictions

The media reported yesterday that Teina Pora will receive at least $2 million in compensation after being falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit and wrongly spending 21 years behind bars. Pora is just the latest in a long line of people falsely convicted and imprisoned by our police. And while most people will be making the entirely valid point that $2 million can never be enough to compensate him for what the police have stolen from him, I have a different message. Namely, that this happens far too often, and we need to do something about it.

There are a few obvious things we can do. Preventing police from relying on uncorroborated "confessions" at trial would prevent them from stitching up people as they did Pora. We need judicial reform as well so that they are better able to review potential miscarriages of justice, rather than (as at present) being helpless because time-limits have expired or police misconduct or exculpatory evidence has only come to light at the "wrong" stage of the appeals process. The courts are supposed to be able to correct mistakes, and their inability (some would say refusal) to do so in these cases undermines both justice and the credibility of the justice system as a whole.

But beyond that, we also need an agency with the specific task of investigating, reviewing, and making recommendations on potential miscarriages of justice, to fix the problems when the courts can't. The UK has a Criminal Cases Review Commission for exactly this purpose, and the absence of such a body in New Zealand has been glaring. Back in 2006 National backbencher Richard Worth (remember him?) had a member's bill which would have established such a body; it should be resurrected as government policy.

Finally, it is wrong that the wrongly convicted should have to go begging to Cabinet for ex gratia compensation, or (as is the case with David Bain) try and prove their actual innocence in order to receive it. Whether they committed the crime or not, they have been wrongly jailed and robbed of years, sometimes decades of their life unlawfully. Compensation for that should be automatic, not a matter of feudal grace and favour, and taken directly from the police budget. That way, we would also have a direct financial measure of the cost of these mistakes, and a direct financial incentive for police to make fewer of them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sack Bennett now!

For the past few weeks, Te Puea Marae has been doing the work the government has refused to do in helping the homeless. There's strong public support for this work, and even the government has been forced to contribute. But its also very obviously embarrassing for the government to have such a visible symbol that the public believe in a decent society and want homes for all. So, after doing a quick photo op for the papers there this morning, Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett had her press secretary leak information that the marae's chair was under police investigation.

This is fucking low, even by Bennett's standards: someone is doing good, but their doing good makes her look bad by comparison, so she abuses information given to her in confidence to smear them. And there's no question that she did it: press secretaries don't do this sort of thing without instruction, and Bennett has past form for exactly this type of dirty bullying. That sort of behaviour is simply unacceptable for a Minister (or, indeed, a human being), and she should be sacked for it.

Also worth noting: Paula Bennett is one of the Ministers responsible for the government's Social Investment Unit, which will be the primary customer of Stats NZ's "big brother' Integrated Data Infrastructure. So the person responsible for the agency which collects and trawls through our most intimate secrets is also the Minister with the worst record for abusing that sort of information. And that just doesn't seem safe at all.

Who ordered that?

The government announced a new regulatory regime for rocket launches today, to provide a regulatory framework for Rocket Labs expected launches. Its what you'd expect - launches and payloads must be licenced, there's a security regime based on the Civil Aviation Act to keep people from wandering onto launch sites etc - and you'd expect it to be fairly uncontroversial. But digging into it, there are a few odd bits. Firstly, launches will be reviewed by the SIS and GCSB, who can veto them. That's expected - the security agencies have an interest in space, and presumably they don't want some nefarious country to launch anything from New Zealand we would object to. But the interesting bit is the appeal regime: if a launch is vetoed, all you can do is complain to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. And even if they find against the spies and issue a formal finding, the spy agencies don't have to act on it, but "may" withdraw their objection. So its absolutely toothless. Interestingly, the entire section on "dealing with national security issues in court proceedings" has been censored from the relevant Cabinet paper, but we know that their inability to win in a court where they are actually required to present testable evidence is a sore point for the spies; hence the restriction of appeals to their pet, secret "watchdog".

But the other odd point is the Minister's ability to declare a "debris recovery area" for locations of space accidents. There's a legitimate purpose for this - space debris is often dangerous, and you don't want people grabbing it and selling it on Trademe. But the law also criminalises taking any photograph or image of anything in such an area, on pain of six month's imprisonment. So, they don't just prohibit photgraphing fallen space debris, but also photographing the landscape, your lunch, or even yourself.

This is an absolutely unprecedented power and an obvious prima facie violation of the BORA's affirmation of freedom of expression. The government does not criminailise photography in general in places even to protect national security (e.g. it is not in general illegal to take photographs on an NZDF base or SIS or GCSB facilities), and there's absolutely no power to prohibit publication. If you can get hold of photos of the GCSB's sensitive satellite interception technology, you are absolutely free to publish them (and the most the government can do is ask you where you got them). The closest provision I can find to it is a power in the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act 1987 which permits the Prime Minister to prohibit publication or broadcasting of certain matters relating to international terrorist emergency - a power which predates the BORA and is tightly restricted both in content and in timeframe. Only photos of emergency personnel and images and descriptions of sensitive equipment or techniques can be prohibited,and the prohibition only lasts for a year. It must be notified in the Gazette, and as far as I can tell, the power has never been used.

So who ordered a broad, untargeted, unprecedented restriction of New Zealander's freedom of speech rights? The Americans, of course:

The draft [Technology Safeguards Agreement with the US] places obligations on New Zealand to ensure that, in the event of a launch failure or accident, measures are taken to protect US technology. These measures include designating a "debris recovery site" controlled jointly by US participants... and ensuring that components or debris are not studied or photographed in any way, except as required by the laws and regulations of New Zealand.

That Cabinet paper then goes on to assert that:
The proposals in this paper are consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993.

Which is simply bullshit. Restricting the freedom of expression of New Zealanders to protect the commercial and national security interests of a foreign power cannot possibly be justified under the BORA. It is highly questionable as a public purpose, and its absolutely disproportionate as a measure to protect that purpose. While the US may desire absolute secrecy over its Super-Sekret Rocket TechnologyTM, that's nothing to do with us. Insofar as there is a legitimate New Zealand national security interest in prohibiting the photography of space debris, that is already properly covered by the Crimes Act.

"Other priorities"

When National passed the Key-Kitteridge spy bill back in 2013, they promised safeguards. One in particular was that the GCSB would be statutorily obligated to formulate a privacy policy, against which its activities could then be audited. The law required them to do this "as soon as is reasonably practicable".

That requirement has been law been law for nearly three years. And yet today the GCSb has revealed (in a response to a request made through FYI, the public OIA request site) that

Unfortunately, due to other priorities, the policy has not been finalised and is still being drafted.

"Other priorities". That's right - the GCSB has "other priorities" than obeying the law.

This simply isn't good enough. The 2013 GCSB bill was predicated on a broad bargain with the New Zealand public: greater powers in exchange for increased oversight. But it seems that GCSB is reneging on their end of that bargain (and explicitly violating the law to do it). While there's obvious wiggle room, I don't think any reasonable person would consider thirty months to be "as soon as is reasonably practicable".

As for what we can do about it, we can't complain to the Inspector-General or the Privacy Commissioner, because they're both part of this policy formulation process and thus not neutral arbitrators. And Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee is worse than useless, as it meets in secret and is institutionalised against exercising proper oversight. There seems to be no institutional mechanism to actually enforce this provision at all. Which means any solution has to be political: if GCSB won't act within the limits we set for it, then we must insist that it be disbanded.

Palmerston North hires thugs to harrass beggars

Beggars on the streets are one of the most visible symbols of our society's failure, their increasing numbers an indictment of the current government. But the rich and powerful just Don't Want To Know, and so we've seen various local authorities try and "control" the problem and drive the destitute out of sight and out of mind. In Wellington, there was the "alternative giving" campaign, which turned out to be an expensive failure. And in Palmerston North, the council is planning to spend almost $20,000 to pay security guards to stand next to beggars all day:

The SafeCity Host programme involves security guards, known as hosts, patrolling the central city on Friday and Saturday evenings to assist in keeping the area safe.

A Safety Advisory Board working group has recommended a plan that would involve uniformed hosts standing next to beggars during the day, and discouraging people from giving them any money.

They would hand out brochures suggesting "worthy charitable organisations" people could give to instead.

(So, its basicly Jono Naylor's rugby-player initimidation plan, but with a different provider...)

Its the wagging finger of the nanny state made flesh and given a uniform: "don't give money to beggars! Force them to talk to WINZ or starve rather than cluttering the streets! Give money to approved, Worthy charities instead!". But its also very obviously legally dubious. The stated purpose of the policy is to prevent beggars from harassing people. But having someone stand next to you everywhere you go and interrupt any attempt by anyone to interact with you with a public warning? That seems to be the very definition of harassment. To point out the obvious, if I made a practice of standing next to any of the councillors who voted for this, with the purpose of reminding everyone they talked to about their voting record, they'd pretty quickly get a court order against me under the Harrassment Act 1997. The only thing that is protecting the council and its hired thugs from similar action is the low social capital of their chosen victims.

Last night, the council voted to implement this plan by a 6-5 margin. The guilty councillors were Annette Nixon, Susan Baty, Lew Findlay, Ross Linklater, Leonie Hapeta and Billy Meehan, with Vaughan Dennison abstaining. There's a local body election in a few months, so remember that list. I won't be giving any of these people a preference, and you shouldn't either.

Meanwhile, if you see a beggar with a security guard standing over them, give them money. And look the hired goon straight in the eye when you do it. Don't let the Palmerston North City Council intimidate you out of being a decent person.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The least they think they can get away with

To great fanfare, National has raised the annual refugee quota to a thousand places from 2018. But while its the first increase in 30 years and an improvement on the current situation, its nowhere near what is needed, and in fact the least they think they can get away with. To point out the obvious: this "increase" hasn't even kept pace with population growth since the quota was originally set in 1987, and while they complain about resourcing and the need to ensure that refugees receive proper support on arrival (which is a real concern), this is treated as a hard and permanent cap, rather than a temporary limit. A government which wanted to take credible action would have recognised the temporary limits on our ability to properly assist refugees, while setting a pathway to increasing our capacity. National hasn't done that, because they see this purely as a PR issue, not as a moral necessity: "how do we stop voters thinking we're heartless wankers" rather than "we need to do our bit to solve this pressing global crisis". But then, that's how they respond to everything: climate change, housing, child poverty - their "policy" is about mollifying voters, being able to say "we're doing something", while eliding the fact that they're actually doing sweet fuck all.

More wind

The GFC and uncertainty over the future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter seemed to have stalled energy projects in New Zealand. But it looks like Trustpower is starting up its project train again, and is seeking consent for a new 130 MW wind farm in South Taranaki:

Trustpower's proposed Waverley Wind Farm will inject $40 million into the Taranaki economy while being built, and $3.3 million a year after that, says New Zealand Institute of Economic Research senior economist Peter Clough.

His analysis forms part of Trustpower's application to build the 48-turbine wind farm on 980ha of coastal land between Waverley and Patea.

Trustpower applied to South Taranaki District Council for consent to build, operate and maintain the wind farm last month. The consent has been publicly notified and the deadline for submissions is June 16.

Its unclear when it will be built, and all the electricity companies are sitting on large portfolios of wind farm consents. The trick is going to be making sure that we build those, rather than polluting gas, when the market finally sorts itself out.

National rorts us on travel

As a functioning democracy, New Zealand provides its Ministers with various perks, such as free travel, an accomodation allowance, and so on. We do this to enable them to do their jobs: announcing policy, communicating with interest groups, seeing what things look like on the ground. Instead, National uses it for electioneering:

Newly disclosed information on the use of the Government's VIP limousine fleet suggest the Government was involved in extensive use of taxpayer funded transport during last year's Northland by-election campaign.

Ministerial cars are supposed to be used for ministerial purposes - election campaigning sits well outside that definition.

GPS records, which also show the cars were breaking open road speed limits, reveal Crown cars were used in Northland on 25 separate occasions throughout February and March in the eight weeks leading up to the by-election.

On one occasion in early February, four separate Crown cars were being used in the electorate on the same day.

[Unmentioned: how often crown limos are use din Northland when there's not a by-election on. But you can be pretty sure that it is much, much lower].

This is a straight-out rort of government resources for political purposes, an abuse of power. And it has to stop. If Ministers want to campaign in support of their colleagues, that's great - but they can do it on their own dime, rather than on the taxpayer's.

Update: Felix Marwick provides the extra stats in his accompanying opinion piece: ten visits in the four months after the by-election. So, "Ministerial business" in Northland increased by 500% when there was a by-election on. And if you believe that that's legitimate, rather than just a front to steal public resources for campaigning, I have a round building in Wellington to sell you...