Friday, November 30, 2018

Hutt City Council ignores the law

The Hutt City Council has abandoned its plans to protect Significant Natural Areas (SNAs):

Hutt City Council has abandoned plans to use the District Plan to protect biodiversity on private land, with the city's mayor Ray Wallace issuing an apology to Eastbourne residents.

The issue over Significant Natural Areas (SNA) had proved highly divisive, with residents claiming the council plan was a land grab.


After six hours of heated debate, the Hearings Committee rejected the use of SNAs and agreed that the council should work in partnership with land owners to find ways protect native bush.

At 11.30pm, Hutt Mayor Ray Wallace called a council meeting and issued a public apology to landowners.

This is illegal. The RMA requires local authorities to protect areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna and to control land use for that purpose. When the New Plymouth City Council ignored those obligations to "work with landowners", they were ordered to do it properly by the Environment Court. Forest & Bird have said they will pursue a similar case against Hutt City, and on past precedent, they'll win. Sadly, the bill for that victory will be paid by all Hutt ratepayers, rather than the noisy propetarians responsible for this illegal decision.

Democracy, trust, and populism

There's an excellent piece in The Guardian today on why we stopped trusting elites. The short version is that democratic society depends on trust: trust that elected representatives are actually representing us, rather than their donors; trust that officials are telling them what they need to know rather than what they want to hear (or worse, what the officials want them to hear); and trust that the media are doing their jobs and telling us the truth. Corruption and deceit destroy trust. And when enough of it has been destroyed, people stop believing in the system and its representatives entirely. If politicians are just self-serving on-the-take arse-coverers who try to lie their way out of trouble, their spokespeople paid liars, and the media obedient little stenographers for the above, then people stop paying any attention to them. And then anyone who promises to sweep the whole steaming pile away looks like a good bet - even if they drop a few steaming piles themselves (or, in Trump's case, are pathological liars).

In the UK, assorted political and media scandals have doused trust in politicians and institutions in petrol and thrown it on a raging bonfire (I'd throw the betrayal of the Iraq war in as the basis of that bonfire). Globally, Wikileaks, Snowden, the Panama Papers, and the Great Financial Crisis has done the same. In NZ, we had just recovered from the great betrayal of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia (thanks in part to the public revenge of electoral reform) when we were hit by the police rape scandal, The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics and now Hit & Run (Nicky Hager seems to have an eye for finding these things), which have eroded trust in law enforcement, politics, and the defence forces (who really do seem like institutionalised liars). The damage here is nowhere near as great as the UK, probably because we're a small country and our establishment is nowhere near as corrupt and self-serving as theirs. But the seeds are there.

What can be done about this? I'm actually optimistic, in that I think trust can be earned and restored. Governments which behave openly and honestly, which do what they say they are going to do and are responsive to voters will better preserve the credibility of politics. Officials and media can protect their credibility by very obviously doing their jobs: by providing free, frank and fearless advice (and then releasing it, so we know they've done it), and pursuing power and holding it to account respectively. But the key to all of these is transparency: being honest, and being seen to be so. The consent of the governed on which their legitimacy is based is not a one-off thing; it needs to be earned every single day. And the moment our institutions fail to earn it, then we can - and should - take revenge.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Climate Change: What you can do about it

As part of its series on climate change, Stuff is asking for people's stories about what they're doing about it. Which is great, in that it will help spread the word about obvious things people can do to reduce their emissions: use public transport, use the most efficient car you can afford (and switch to an electric at the next replacement), insulate your house, support electricity companies which only use renewables, eat less or no meat and dairy, cut down on or eliminate air travel, have fewer or no children and so on.

But fundamentally, that's not enough. Most obviously because not everyone will do it, but more importantly because most of our emissions are simply not of a nature that is directly responsive to the actions of consumers. For example, 95% of our dairy production is exported. So even if we organised a nationwide dairy boycott, it wouldn't matter to them. 40% of our electricity and 80% of our coal and gas is consumed by industry - again, not responsive to us, because we're not their customers. Around 20% of our fuel consumption is by the road transport industry. We're not their direct customers either. While there's some scope for consumer action to influence these sources (e.g. pressuring supermarkets to use only clean transport providers), it is less effective than direct action.

But while these large polluters are effectively immune to consumer action, they can be controlled by policy and regulation. Dairy emissions can be controlled by the RMA (or less effectively, the ETS). Industrial emissions can be reduced by direct regulation and higher carbon prices. Road transport emissions can be reduced by regulating the efficiency (and eventually, the fuel type) of the trucks they are allowed to use. And of course, regulation can be used to make it easy for consumers to do the right thing as well.

Which brings me to my point: the most effective thing you can do as an individual to fight climate change is pressure politicians to take strong action. Emissions can be reduced - will only be reduced - by strong policy, which can only be implemented by government. The good news is that politicians depend on you for their jobs, so we have direct leverage here. While polluters can donate to them, only people can vote. As for how to pressure them, you can do it directly, by emailing your MP, or with friends, by joining or supporting groups like 350, Generation Zero, and Greenpeace. The campaigns and protests of these groups and others like them have changed policy, and the more voices they have, the bigger the changes they can push. But above all, vote. Vote only for parties who commit to strong action (and actually do so when in office). Do not vote for deniers, foot-draggers, chickenshits or compromisers. Our future depends on this. Your children's and grandchildren's futures depend on this. So act like it, and vote for a government which will save us, rather than one which pretends there can still be a "business as usual".

Climate Change: Too many cows

Bad news yesterday: the number of cows in New Zealand has increased again, to almost five million. The major driver is dairy expansion in the South Island, which is in turn driven by government-subsidised irrigation. Meanwhile, we've also learned that that dairy expansion is poisoning the water in Canterbury and to the point where its now giving people cancer:

Intensive dairy farming and nitrate-laden fertiliser are contaminating the Canterbury water supply, says Fish & Game New Zealand.

It is calling for no more cows to be allowed on the Canterbury plains and for the use of fertiliser to be regulated and reduced.

The group tested 114 drinking water samples from the Canterbury plains and found that over half of them were above the trigger level for increased risk of bowel cancer.

And that's not even getting into the effects of all their shit and piss on lakes and streams, or their excessive water use.

Cows are bad for the climate, bad for the rivers, and a direct threat to human health. We need less of them, not more. And if we are to have any hope of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, we need central and local government to step up and start regulating the size of the herd down to within safe limits.

The exception that proves the rule

Stuff reports on the latest Independent Police Conduct authority report, into an incident of workplace bullying by police. And for once, its good news:

A police officer was sanctioned for serious misconduct after slapping one of his staff on the back of her head.

The Southern district police officer reported concerns in February about treatment she was receiving from her supervisor, including belittling comments made to her in front of colleagues and an incident where he allegedly slapped her on the back of her head.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) released a summary of the case on Friday.


"The officer's actions were found to meet the threshold for serious misconduct and misconduct, and he was sanctioned accordingly."

Its great that the police are acting on workplace bullying. At the same time, though, it highlights their refusal to act in much more serious cases, where police have been found to have illegally used tasers or pepper spray, engaged in dangerous driving, or assaulted prisoners. In most of these cases, officers face no sanctions whatsoever, let alone the criminal prosecution they deserve. So, this rare case of sanctioning an officer seems to be the exception that proves the rule: the police are primarily interested in protecting their own, rather than enforcing the law equally on all.

Justice for Yemen?

In 2015, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen. In the three years since, they've bombed hospitals, used banned cluster bombs and white phosphorus, and indiscriminately slaughtered civilians. The architect of the invasion is crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (yes, the man who ordered journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed). He is currently visiting Argentina for a G20 meeting. And Argentina has just begun a war crimes investigation against him:

An Argentinian prosecutor has agreed to pursue a case against Saudi Arabia‘s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over possible war crimes in Yemen, according to Human Rights Watch.

HRW petitioned Argentina's judiciary on Monday to use a clause in its constitution to prosecute Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, who arrived in the country to attend the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, announced on Twitter that a prosecutor has agreed to take up the case, and asked a judge to request information from Yemeni and Saudi authorities regarding alleged war crimes, and had also asked Argentina's foreign ministry whether the crown prince's diplomatic status might allow a legal proceeding to go forward.

“The Argentine judiciary, by taking steps towards a formal investigation, is sending a clear message that even powerful officials like Mohammed bin Salman are not above the law and will be scrutinised if implicated in grave international crimes," Ms Whitson said in an emailed statement to The Independent.

But we need more than scrutiny - if the evidence is there, we need arrest and prosecution. And we need bin Salman to be facing that threat not just from Argentina, but the entire world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Show us the backdoor

Today the GCSB banned Spark from using Huawei equipment in its planned 5G network. The ban was imposed for "national security" grounds, but naturally there's no details. So we're supposed to believe that Huawei gear is too dangerous to be used in our networks, but we are forbidden from knowing how to fix it.

This is simply bullshit. If Huawei gear is backdoored to e.g. route traffic back to Chinese state security agencies so they can read it (you know, like US stuff is), then the best way of protecting our security is for the details of those problems to be widely publicised, so that they can be fixed. There's no benefit to the public in keeping security flaws secret. The only people that benefits are the people who want to exploit those flaws: hackers, criminals, and spy agencies like the GCSB (or more likely, their foreign masters, the NSA). And if exposing Chinese backdoors causes the NSA's Chinese equivalent to expose American ones, allowing them to be patched, then again, we all benefit.

More generally, exposing and publicising bugs and security flaws makes the world a safer place. An agency genuinely interested in our security would do that. The fact that the GCSB doesn't - well, you can draw your own conclusions about their purpose.

For a lower MMP threshold

Yesterday we learned that the government was thinking of having a referendum on lowering the MMP threshold in 2020. But in his comments on it, it turns out that National leader Simon Bridges already supports a much lower threshold:

“My view is, we looked at this in government and we thought four per cent was about right, but I’d kind of say if you’re going to four per cent, that is tinkering actually, four to five per cent,” he said.

“Why not have the courage of your convictions, let’s throw this out there, why not two or three per cent? Actually let’s be genuinely democratic.”

And its a good question. Because parties which get two or three percent of the vote are every bit as deserving of democratic representation as those which get five or ten or forty. There is no democratic justification for excluding them, and even the Electoral Commission fell back on snobby concerns about a "need" to keep small parties out in the cold because they were "ineffective" or "extremist". On the former, I think the Maori Party, Progressives, United Future, ACT, and their respective supporters would all beg to differ; on the latter it is simply absurd fearmongering, rooted in a snobby view that some voices simply shouldn't be heard, even if there are enough votes to elect them (that this view was propounded by an unelected body simply adds insult to injury).

The ideal threshold is none at all (let the modified Sainte-Laguë method fall where it may!) or whatever it takes to win one seat - a level which would make the "coat-tailing rule" redundant and allow it to be repealed. But any reduction is an improvement. Dropping it to two percent would make a huge difference, and if the opposition really supports that, they should get together with the government, pass a law, and save us the cost of a referendum.

(If you're curious, Graeme Edgeler has been calculating the no-threshold results for every election since 2008. You can see his 2017 results and links to the rest here. A 2% threshold would not have changed the last election, but would have seen the Conservatives elected in 2011 and 2014, NZ First in 2008, Christian Heritage in 1999 and the Christian Coalition in 1996. The reason why there is so little change is of course because the one-seat "coat-tail" rule has moderated the undemocratic effects of the threshold, and helped keep our parliament proportional).

Still not their priority

Earlier in the month, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's ruling that National's prisoner voting ban is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. And now, the Greens are formally calling for it to be repealed:

Green Party Justice spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman timed the Wednesday call to coincide with the first time women were allowed to vote 125 years ago.

"Today is 125 years since New Zealand women first went to the polls, yet to this day there are New Zealanders still denied from casting their vote", Ghahraman said.

Ghahraman argued that taking the right to vote away from prisoners excluded them from properly engaging in society, which in itself harmed rehabilitation.

"We know that prisoners being disengaged from their communities is an impediment to them being rehabilitated and reintegrating effectively once they are released, which should be the key focus of a system of justice," Ghahraman said.

She believed all prisoners should be able to vote - not just those with short sentences.

(There's a strong argument from JustSpeak here on the issue)

As for the response, in Parliament today the government said that they hadn't even considered the issue and that it wasn't a priority for them. Which tells us everything we need to know. This government is not committed to fundamental human rights, and is quite willing to violate them for political profit. As for what to do about it, the answer is clear: Parliament is clearly unwilling to protect our human rights or obey the Bill of Rights Act. So we should repeal s4 of the BORA, take the job off them, and give it to the courts instead.

Climate Change: We don't need a "magic bullet"

Lots of bad news about the climate today, with the UN reporting that emissions have started rising again and that we need to slash them by 25 - 50% by 2030 to have any hope of staying within safe limits, and Stuff reporting that great chunks of Lower Hutt could be underwater by the end of the century, and uninsurable long before that (so if you live in Petone, move now, while you can). There's also a piece on Newsroom about the current dispute over methane and farmers' "no net warming" bullshit, and that's what's got me thinking today.

For the past twenty years, New Zealand's debate over agricultural emissions has been dominated by the idea that actual reductions are "too hard", and that what we need is a "magic bullet" which would allow business-as-usual to continue. The "fart tax" was aimed at funding research into one, and when that failed, the government pretended it was doing something by throwing tens of millions of dollars a year at scientific research. Meanwhile, because they were "too hard", actual emissions reductions were ignored.

But in fact, we have some perfectly non-magical solutions to agricultural methane. The first one is the RMA. Impose stocking limits, and regulate the size of the herd down over time. The average dairy cow is killed after five years, so this doesn't even require farmers to do anything different, other than not replace some of those they slaughter.

The second one is the ETS. Imposing an effective head-tax per cow based on average emissions would internalise the price, and in theory the market will do the rest (in theory, if carbon prices are allowed to rise, rather than artificially capped for the financial comfort of polluters).

Of course, if we tried to implement either of these options, it would become crystal clear that what farmers really object to is doing anything or paying anything or changing anything they do in any way (meanwhile, the rest of us have been exposed to the ETS for a decade, and we pay the full cost of emissions on our petrol and power). Like the oil & gas industry, they simply want to keep destroying the planet for their own private profit, while dumping the costs on the rest of us.

The question is, how long are we going to let these fuckers get away with it? Because they are now directly threatening our lives and homes. Are you going to let them flood your house and kill your grandchildren? If not, you need to make it crystal clear to politicians that you want action, now, or you will vote them out and replace them with someone who will act.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, probably the last for the year if there's end-of-year urgency. First up is National's Muldoonist dam bill, the Tasman District Council (Waimea Water Augmentation Scheme) Bill, designed to bypass normal processes and steal part of a conservation area for a dam to enrich farmers. Sadly, it looks like it now has government support and will pass (though not until March). If you're in the Tasman District and unhappy about this, the way to change it is to vote your council at at the local body elections in October. It killed Ruataniwha, and it can kill this too.

Once that's done, its on to the third reading of Gareth Hughes' Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill, followed by the rest of the committee stage of Simeon Brown's Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill. If they finish that, then they should start the second reading of Andrew Bayly's Arbitration Amendment Bill. I don't think they're likely to get further, but even if they do the next bill up is another second reading, so there will be no ballot tomorrow.

Contempt is contempt

Two weeks ago, the UK parliament voted unanimously to order the government to release its full legal advice on Brexit, so that it would be available to them ahead of their "meaningful vote" (whatever that means) on the final deal. But despite accepting at the time that they would have to publish the advice, the government is now refusing to do so:

Downing Street has refused to commit to publishing the full legal advice given on the Brexit deal despite a unanimous resolution by the House of Commons, in a move likely to spark a major new process row with Labour and Tory Brexiters.

No 10 has only agreed to publish a “full, reasoned position statement” – a summary of the legal advice rather than the full text – which Labour said would not comply with the terms of the Commons vote.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said the offer was completely unacceptable and said Labour would use every parliamentary mechanism available to challenge it.

This is both deceit from the government (quelle surprise), and a naked contempt of parliament. As for what to do about it, over the weekend parliament sent its serjeant-at-arms to arrest a visiting US executive and drag him to parliament to force him to disclose documents about Facebook. They can do no less here: send the serjeant-at-arms to Downing Street, arrest the Prime Minister, and lock her in the clock-tower until she complies.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A referendum on MMP?

Over the weekend, Justice Minister Andrew Little suggested out of the blue that the government was thinking of holding a referendum on the electoral system as well as on cannabis reform and euthanasia in 2020. As for the specifics, it would be to enact the recommendations of the 2012 Electoral Commission review:

A vote on possible changes to MMP is likely to involve decisions on whether to lower the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament to 4 percent and whether to do away with the coat tailing provisions.

Little goes into a bit more detail here. But while he's absolutely right about the unfairness of denying seats to the Conservatives, by linking it to removing coat-tailing, the proposal does as much damage as it remedies. As I noted at the time, at best the Electoral Commission's proposal works out to be roughly as representative as we are at the moment. But in some cases (e.g. 2002) it gives us a much less representative Parliament than we have at present. And that makes it a step backwards, not a step forward. We absolutely need to drop the threshold (IMHO we need to abolish it entirely, or set it to whatever it takes to get a single seat). But as long as there is a threshold greater than the vote required to get two seats, the coat-tailing rule enhances proportionality and representation rather than diminishing it. And if voters don't like the fact that it makes some electorates more crucial than others, the solution is simple: make it irrelevant by abolishing the threshold.

Labour's preferred changes are blatantly driven by self-interest: support their coalition partners while nobbling National's (National's preference for the status quo is equally self-interested, since they benefited from coat-tailing until ACT became a one-man laughing stock). But given the deadlock in the political establishment, bypassing them and putting it to voters in a referendum is fine - its our voting system, after all. But on the current proposal, I will be voting against, and encouraging everyone who wants a properly representative democracy to do likewise.

We should steal Norway's electric vehicle policy

If we want to have any hope of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, New Zealand needs to massively reduce its transport emissions. On this, the world leader for change is Norway, where 40% of cars are now electric. How did they do it? A feebate system, taxing dirty vehicles to fund clean ones:

Close to 50 per cent of new car registrations in Norway are now full battery electric or hybrid cars, helped by tax incentives and other sweeteners.

Large petrol-driven cars are taxed heavily while EV buyers don't pay import taxes or VAT in Norway, where cars and petrol are expensive.

Free inner city parking at chargers and permission to use bus lanes also helped boost uptake but these incentives are being wound back with more decisions being made by different cities.

In September 10,600 new cars sold in Norway were electric, dwarfing New Zealand's fleet which stands at just 11,000 registered EVs although the rate of increase in the fleet is accelerating.

Its an obvious policy, but it would mean change - and vested interests don't like that at all. So instead, we have some meaningless aspirational target, with no real policy to make it happen (sure, EVs don't pay road-user charges, but that's a tiny part of what is needed). If the government is serious about climate change being "my generation's nuclear-free moment", it needs to act like it. And stealing Norway's policy would be a good place to start.

Fixing Australia's pervasive corruption

Australia is a corrupt nation. State and federal MPs and parties think its OK to take kickbacks, allocate contracts to their donors or mates, and accept donations in exchange for favourable government tradition - and they are occasionally prosecuted and jailed for it. But those prosecutions don't seem to be enough, and the corruption continues. Many states have established independent commissions against corruption in an effort to change this culture, but the federal government has resisted all efforts. Until now. Thanks to the loss of the Wentworth by-election, the Australian government no longer has a majority. And so it has been forced to vote for a motion supporting the establishment of a federal ICAC to avoid a humiliating defeat. Of course, they're dragging their feet on the specifics, but hopefully those two will be forced on them.

As for why this is necessary, just yesterday it was revealed that all three major federal parties had corruptly concealed donations:

Australia’s three major political parties failed to declare sizeable donations from corporate interests seeking lucrative government work, mining approvals or favourable tax policies, the Guardian can reveal.

The Liberals failed to declare a $10,000 donation from Raytheon, an arms manufacturer that was at the time vying for defence contracts, including on Australia’s major shipbuilding and submarine projects. The party’s South Australian branch has blamed the failing on a “clerical error”.

The West Australian Nationals failed to declare a $20,000 cheque it was handed by Mineral Resources, an iron ore miner seeking government approval to access new deposits in environmentally sensitive and unique mountain ranges in the state’s Yilgarn region.

Federal Labor failed to properly disclose a $100,000 donation from the car salary packaging industry, received the same financial year the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, wrote a letter to the industry, pledging to maintain generous tax arrangements.

Which really does make it look like they were trying to sell policy to the highest bidder, while keeping it secret from the voters they were betraying.

This corrupt culture needs to be stamped out. The sooner Australia gets a federal ICAC to put these crooks in jail, the better.

Climate Change: Magic Beans

In the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk, the "hero" trades his family's future for some magic beans. And that's pretty much what the 8 Rivers "clean energy" project the fossil fuel industry are currently pushing boils down to. The basic idea is that they burn natural gas to produce hydrogen fuel, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and a bit of electricity. So far, so business-as-usual. What's different is that they claim they will capture and store the resulting carbon dioxide, so all of this will be environmentally OK. Obviously, this ignores the harmful effects of that fertiliser, which poisons our rivers and turns into the dangerous greenhouse gas nitrous oxide which is almost 300 times worse than carbon dioxide, but still: the removal of carbon dioxide emissions would be a major benefit. So, should we do it?

Hell no. The problem is that carbon capture and storage is an experimental technology, and we don't know if it will work. The world is littered with failed CCS projects, and usually rather than shutting down the plant just keeps on polluting. So there's a high chance that instead of a "clean energy" plant, we'll end up with the same old dirty energy we want to eliminate, spewing out greenhouse gases for fifty years while the world drowns. And that is simply an outcome we can not risk. If we want electricity, it is better to use renewables. If we want hydrogen, it is better to use renewables. We don't want synthetic nitrogen fertiliser anyway, so that's a cost, not a benefit.

Then there's the problem of leakage. In theory, carbon dioxide stored in empty gas fields should stay down there for thousands of years. But we don't know whether it actually will, and that assumes that it actually gets there in the first place (some projects leak above ground), and that it is properly maintained (difficult to assume given the timespan involved). But quite apart from the climate effects, depending on location a leak could be catastrophic. In 1986, a burp of naturally stored carbon dioxide beneath Lake Nyos killed over 1,700 people. Unless storage sites are carefully chosen, they could turn into similar carbon bombs.

(The regulatory issue here is fascinating. How do you regulate something that must last longer than human civilisation? Even in the short-term, how do you prevent the sociopathy incentivised by limited liability from causing companies to take the money from "storing" emissions, then declaring bankruptcy and abandoning them to leak? Any solution has to start with tossing away limited liability, shattering the corporate shell, and holding beneficial owners responsible, all the way up the corporate chain if necessary. It needs to involve ongoing and absolute liability for leakage. And probably a bond to cover the full cost of all stored emissions. Anything less, and a government is selling out its peoples' interests to polluters).

Globally, this technology is expensive failure, pushed only by cranks in the fossil fuel industry who want to pretend nothing has changed. It is not something we should bet our future on, and its certainly not something the government should fund. Rather than betting our future on magic beans, we should use technology we know works and does not risk environmental destruction: renewables.

Monday, November 26, 2018

What "no new taxes" really means

So, National leader Simon Bridges has promised no new taxes if he becomes Prime Minister, and to cancel both fuel tax increases and any capital gains tax. At the same time, though, he's promising to spend more money on core public services, and demanding the government end teacher's strikes by "prioritising funding for teachers". So which is it? Because pretty obviously, the government needs money to do things, and that money comes from taxes. And while the right loves to beat the drum about "waste", the fact is that there isn't any - and certainly when National had nine years to look for it, they found none (or at least, none of any significance that could be re prioritised to fund meaningful policies).

Like local body candidates who promise low rates, MPs who promise lower taxes are really promising to starve government and underfund public services we all depend on. To let the schools, hospitals, roads and everything else decay for the sake of a slogan. To leave people sick or homless for the financial comfort of the rich.

Every politician who promises this should immediately be asked whether they think our schools and hospitals are good enough, whether our teachers and midwives are paid enough to keep them doing their jobs, whether we have enough state houses, whether we need more mass-transit in our major cities, whether EQC has enough money to cope with a natural disaster. And if the answer to any of those questions is "no", then they're simply a hypocrite, and lying about their commitment to public services. Alternatively, if they say "yes" - if they think that this is as good as it gets, that we somehow can't or shouldn't have the same public services our parents enjoyed, then they should be made to own that view publicly, so we can vote accordingly.

A very British bribe

The UK parliament is about to vote on Theresa May's brexit deal, and the numbers are looking dodgy. So the government is trying to line up support any way it can - including by giving MP's knighthoods:

Conservative Brexiteers have reacted with fury to Theresa May’s decision to award a knighthood to a veteran Eurosceptic MP ahead of a knife-edge vote that could kill off her Brexit deal.

Sir John Hayes was given the honour in a surprise move by Downing Street on Friday, which immediately prompted accusations of “cronyism” from political opponents.


Sir John, a former minister who supports bringing back the death penalty, has expressed his doubts over Ms May’s withdrawal agreement but has not revealed whether he would vote against it.

The MP for South Holland and the Deepings is not believed to be among the Tory MPs calling for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister – an attempt that now appears to have stalled.

This is bribery, pure and simple. But isn't it so very, very British?

Climate change: Cross-party?

Over on Newsroom, Rod Oram has a long column on National and the upcoming Zero Carbon Bill, arguing that cross-party support is ncessary for the policy to work, and urging National to listen to the climate leaders in business rather than the "foot-draggers in farming". Which would be nice if it happens, but I suspect the reality will be that National demands the policy regime be compromised to protect those very foot-draggers (for example, by excluding methane from the target) as the price of their support. And then the question becomes "is a fatally compromised deal worth it"?

I would argue that it is not. Cross-party support for a compromised target is cross-party support for failure. And this is a challenge we can not afford to fail on. A long-lasting, politically durable regime that does not do what is required is worthless. In fact, its worse than worthless, in that it locks in failure for the long-run.

If National bows to its foot-dragging instincts and demands an inadequate target as the price of their support, the government should refuse. Instead, they should call out National for wanting to destroy the planet, legislate a strong target, and run on defending it at the next election.

No freedom of speech in Spain

Another week, another Spanish comedian being legally threatened by the Spanish state:

A court in Madrid is investigating the Catalan comedian Dani Mateo for a TV gag during which he blew his nose using the Spanish flag. The entertainer has been summoned for this coming Monday.

The police union Alternativa Sindical Policial pressed charges against Mateo for hate crimes and insulting Spanish symbols, accusations that then triggered the investigation.

If convicted Mateo could face a year in jail.

Being able to mock the state and its symbols is an essential part of freedom of speech in a democracy. And the sorts of countries that ban it? They're the sort of places that jail rappers for their lyrics, charge people with "rebellion" for peacefully advocating independence, or beat people for trying to vote. In other words, not democracies at all.

Democracy vs Facebook

The UK Parliament has been investigating Facebook for some time over the Brexit referendum and Cambridge Analytica scandal. But so far Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has refused to appear before them and answer questions. So now they've upped the ante and seized Facebook documents from a visiting third-party CEO who had obtained them as part of a lawsuit in the US:

Parliament has used its legal powers to seize internal Facebook documents in an extraordinary attempt to hold the US social media giant to account after chief executive Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly refused to answer MPs’ questions.

The cache of documents is alleged to contain significant revelations about Facebook decisions on data and privacy controls that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It is claimed they include confidential emails between senior executives, and correspondence with Zuckerberg.

Damian Collins, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, invoked a rare parliamentary mechanism to compel the founder of a US software company, Six4Three, to hand over the documents during a business trip to London. In another exceptional move, parliament sent a serjeant at arms to his hotel with a final warning and a two-hour deadline to comply with its order. When the software firm founder failed to do so, it’s understood he was escorted to parliament. He was told he risked fines and even imprisonment if he didn’t hand over the documents.

The UK parliament's contempt powers are ill-defined, and haven't really been exercised for some time, but in theory they could have imprisoned him until the next election (though the interaction between that, the Bill of Rights Act 1689 and the UK Human Rights Act and ECHR would have been fascinating). The documents themselves are subject to a non-disclosure order in the USA, of which the UK parliament has just forced a breach. Facebook will probably threaten to sue over that, but they won't get anywhere in a UK court because claims against parliament are simply non-justiciable. If they punish Six4Three's CEO for providing them, then that would seem to be a contempt of parliament which would expose them to sanctions in the UK. And now the committee has the documents, they can publicise them however they like under full cover of parliamentary privilege. But most interestingly, the UK parliament is subject to its Freedom of Information Act, so the documents could be requested (though probably not until the inquiry is over).

The fallout from this is going to be fascinating. And it will be interesting to see if any other legislatures take the hint that global corporations are globally vulnerable and take similar action to advance their own inquiries into how Facebook is used to undermine democracy and incite murder and genocide.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The indoor vaping ban

The government has announced plans to including vaping in the Smokefree Environments Act, banning it from restaurants, bars, and workplaces. Which is fair enough. I don't really care what people do to themselves with informed consent, but when you're emitting clouds of noxious crap, that no longer applies, and its perfectly reasonable to tell people to take that shit outside. As for advertising and display restrictions, that should depend on the harm they do. The evidence on that seems to be that they're significantly less harmful than conventional cigarettes, and that supports a lower level of regulation (and in fact, greater availability to allow for harm reduction). The Ministry of Health's Regulatory Impact Statement goes over these issues, and it looks like they support exempting e-cigarettes from most of the display restrictions. But it also recommends not including vaping in the Smokefree Environments Act, so the government has chosen a much tougher stance there - which suggests they may be more restrictive on display as well. It will be interesting to see what legislation finally emerges.

Climate change: Still rising

California is burning down. Australia's ongoing drought has seen Sydney blanketed in a huge dust storm. Here in New Zealand, the Taieri plain has flooded for the second year in a row. And meanwhile, greenhouse gas concentrations just keep on rising:

The main greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change have all reached record levels, the UN’s meteorology experts have reported.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are now far above pre-industrial levels, with no sign of a reversal of the upward trend, a World Meteorological Organization report says.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5m years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said the WMO secretary general, Petteri Taalas.

“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

We're now at 405.5 parts per million - more than 50 ppm above safe levels, and over a hundred more than pre-industrial levels. And this is not only warming the planet, it is driving our weather to more violent extremes. While its difficult to connect any particular event to climate change, its easy to connect the trend. And that trend is one of increasing damage and devastation. If we want to stop it, that means stopping warming, and that means cutting emissions as quickly as possible, focusing on those which will make the most difference. Sorry cows, your time is up.

Climate change: Not a good solution

Engineering New Zealand has weighed in on what we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and as expected their solutions focus on energy and transport (agriculture not really being their department). And most of it is the expected stuff: more wind and renewable energy, better energy storage, alternative fuels, mass transit, and a higher carbon price to help drive all these changes and effectively tax stupidity. But there's one miss: variable road pricing:

Use more variable road pricing to lessen traffic. Unfortunately, electric vehicles create traffic as much as fossil-fueled ones. Engineering NZ suggests reducing congestion on city roads using digital, variable road pricing that changes in line with actual demand, and doing the same with parking prices, to encourage people to use ride-sharing and other options at busy times. They also suggest cutting city car parks. "Driving down demand for rush-hour roads and parking means regulators making brave decisions," says the group.

The theory here is that pricing will manage demand and force behaviour changes. But what it means in practice is doing to getting to work what spot-price retail electricity does to power bills. The technology is also inherently massively invasive of privacy - it requires tracking every vehicle on priced roads so that they can be billed, which means effectively monitoring people on every trip. Throw in the fact that workers don't control working hours or commute times, and what it seems to be is a way of driving the poor off the roads so the rich can have shorter commutes in their giant filthy SUVs - a policy which would no doubt appeal to Mike Hosking, but which doesn't promise anything to the rest of us.

But fundamentally, it misses the point. Climate change is not about traffic management - it is about greenhouse gas emissions. Policies need to be focused on reducing or eliminating those emissions. This policy is not about that at all, but about efficient traffic flows. It may produce marginal gains, but these are incidental to its real purpose, and meanwhile it punishes clean and dirty vehicles equally (and if it didn't, it would be easier simply to tax the dirty and skip the rest). Its not a climate change policy, but a regressive and invasive traffic management policy looking for an excuse. If we want to reduce transport emissions, we need to ratchet up the efficiency of the transport fleet on the way to taking dirty, polluting fossil fuelled vehicles off the roads entirely.


When the Greens ran for election, one of their core promises was to ban new mining on conservation land. But now it seems that has been delayed again, and the consultation won't even begin until next year:

Consultation on the role of mining in parts of the conservation estate may not get underway until next year.

The government proposed its ban on new mining on Department of Conservation land a year ago. A discussion paper had been scheduled for September but even in August that was looking ambitious.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said she hopes to get the consultation underway in “coming months.”

“We are working to complete a public discussion document,” she said in an emailed response to questions. “Ministers recognise it is a significant issue and wish to put forward good information for the public to consider.”

Obviously this is disappointing - the mining ban and ensuring that conservation land is actually for conserving was a core promise, and the sooner it is implemented, the sooner conservation lands will be properly protected. And given that they've made it clear that current miners will be protected, its not clear what further information is required - information on current mines simply isn't relevant if the proposal doesn't affect them, and I'd already expect DoC to have the case for "conservation" actually meaning conservation sorted. So why the delay?

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Climate Change: Aussie banks are burning our world

Australia is one of the world's worst climate criminals. Run by climate change deniers, constantly threatening to pull out of climate change agreements, focused on fossil fuel exploitation, they seem to be intent on burning the planet as fast as they can. And unfortunately, their banks are the same. A report from has found that the major Australian banks operating in Aotearoa have loaned over $21 billion to the fossil fuel industry, providing them with the capital to keep destroying the planet:

“Banks are a direct link between everyday people and the fossil fuel industry. Since 2015, our Australian-owned banks in Aotearoa have loaned over $21billion to the fossil fuel industry. Financing fossil fuels is irresponsible, risky, and immoral, and it’s time that we demand our banks to stop fueling the climate crisis.”

The report ranks seven banks in Aotearoa on their lending and investment policies.

ANZ, Westpac, National Australia Bank (including the New Zealand subsidiary BNZ), and Commonwealth Bank of Australia (including the New Zealand Subsidiary ASB) are all given an E ranking, and described as the ‘bankrollers’ of fossil fuels.

These companies are basicly in the same ethical position as arms dealers, profiting from encouraging death and destruction. And we should treat them as such.

The good news is that NZ-owned banks - the Co-operative Bank, Kiwibank and TSB - are better. None is a financier of climate change, and TSB has banned "investments" in destroying the world (but not yet banned loans). The message is clear: if you want a better planet, you should take your business to a company which supports it.

The full report is here. 350 also has a petition to NZ banks demanding they go fossil-free, which you can sign here.

Are Lime tax-cheats?

The playbook of silicon-valley startups is simple: disrupt (ignore the law), disintermediate (insert yourself as the middle party of a transaction), profit (by selling your loss-making company to a bigger sucker, while selling the information of your customers to everyone you can). Uber ignores laws on taxi services. AirBnB ignores laws on both rental properties and hotels. But with Lime Scooters, the law they seem to be ignoring in New Zealand is GST:

At the risk of adding another “maybe Lime is bad” article to the pile, the electric scooter hire company could be dodging a shitload of tax by charging users via a US company and not adding GST.

Don’t get me wrong, aside from Lime being a bit pricey I quite like the thrill of caning it along a bumpy footpath with the wind flowing through my unhelmeted hair, weaving perilously between the pedestrians and councillors making their merry way on boring old foot.

But from what I can tell, when you hire a Lime scooter using the company’s app your credit card is charged by a US operating entity, Neutron Holdings, and these charges do not include GST. I say “from what I can tell” because, despite repeated questioning, Lime won’t actually tell me.

The law is pretty clear: if your turnover is more than $60,000 a year, you need to register for GST. There's no question that Lime's service is taxable, so if they've failed to register and are failing to collect or pass on GST, they've committed a criminal offence. The Spinoff estimates the amount of tax being avoided at a million dollars a year. And that's getting into some pretty serious tax cheating territory, the sort of stuff which should see people prosecuted and in jail. And the fact that Lime's answer is anything other than "of course we are paying GST, we obey local law because we're not sociopathic grifters" is worrying.

But there is an easy way to find out: while Lime doesn't have to provide a tax invoice for most rentals because they're under $50, they are required to provide one on request to any GST registered person (and failure to do so within 28 days is a criminal offence). So, The Spinoff or some other publicly-minded journalist could rent a scooter "for work", then demand an invoice. If Lime doesn't provide one, both publicise the fact and report them to IRD, then watch the latter like hawks to ensure that the law takes its course.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

We need fewer cows

Writing in The Spinoff, ecologist Mike Joy presents the answer to most of our environmental problems: fewer cows:

The problems faced by New Zealand’s environment, particularly freshwaters and soils are wicked, complex and intertwined. After struggling with these issues for a half a lifetime, it strikes me with great clarity that if you look at each in isolation they seem intractable; but when you grasp that there could be one single solution that addresses them all, then suddenly there is a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

Take, for example, a subset of the many environmental issues facing New Zealand, such as bacterial and pathogen contamination of water and soil, excess nutrients in waters, excess sediment in waterways, freshwater habitat loss, groundwater contaminated with pesticides and nutrients, and the huge loss of the mauri of waterways. Any of these issues appear impossibly hard and/or expensive if evaluated in isolation for costs, or for the difficulty or value of resolution.

But if there was one action available that substantially addressed all of the issues listed above, then the decision would be simple – take that action. When multiple gains can be made for the cost of a single action, and the combined gains far outweigh the single cost of that one action, the next move is obvious. When it comes to the freshwater crisis, a single solution does exist – simply, reducing farming intensity: less cows.

Reducing the number of cows will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality, and preserve freshwater habitats. It also looks to be profitable for farmers, because they don't have to waste money on fertiliser to support overstocking. So why don't we do it? Because the entire agricultural industry is invested in either high volume, or in quick-fix solutions for specific problems which become unnecessary if we remove the root cause. But ultimately, its the best way to get our environment back.

NZDF is hiding evidence

When the government announced a public inquiry into "Operation Burnham", its SAS revenge raid which resulted in the deaths of six civilians, NZDF said it would cooperate fully. They lied:

The Defence Force has given up just 324 documents out of more than 17,400 relating to 2010 Afghan SAS raids, it has emerged.


Deborah Manning, a lawyer for villagers allegedly caught up in SAS raids, said she learned overnight about the scale of documentation yet to be disclosed to the inquiry.

Of the 17,400 items deemed relevant, the Defence Force have catalogued and processed around nine per cent, or 1600. Only 324 have so far been provided to the inquiry.

Previous advice, received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in July said there were more than 2000 items of classified information . "That is quite a difference in number," she said.

Whatever way you look at it, this seems like a long way from the full cooperation that was promised. It needs to be made clear to NZDF that they work for us, and that as an institution they must cooperate completely with the inquiry and provide everything it asks for - or those in charge will be prosecuted, fired and replaced with people who will cooperate.

Climate Change: What would real action look like?

In the wake of the IPCC report, it has become clear that we actually need to do something to prevent catastrophic climate change, or we all burn. Over on The Spinoff, Alex Braae asks "what would real climate action [in NZ] actually look like?" There's a couple of suggestions: putting solar panels on kiwibuild homes, banning the import of petrol and diesel cars, rethinking Auckland's waterfront stadium and other high-emissions projects. That's a start, but what would it really look like? To decide that, we need to look at our emissions, both source and size. Fortunately, the Ministry for the Environment has that covered:

The most obvious point to take away from this graph is that reducing agricultural emissions is the key to everything. And most of these emissions are due to exports. NZ exports 95% of its dairy production, and a similar percentage of its beef and lamb. In other words, we don't need these emissions to eat - they're just farmers getting rich by destroying the planet. Eliminating these unnecessary emissions would obviously be terrible for the economy - dairy and meat are our biggest export earners, and their spending supports rural economies - and our methods of production are efficient, carbon-wise, because we grow cows in fields, not barns. So there's an argument that we might want to keep a food export industry. But that would require its emissions to be offset with mass tree-planting (because there is no other magic way of removing carbon from the atmosphere), and as the source of pollution, farmers are going to have to pay for that. So, step one of any action plan is make farmers pay the true cost of their emissions, while regulating the number of farms sharply downwards.

The next biggest segment on the graph is transport. Alex Braae has already suggested the obvious solution: force the transition to electric vehicles with an import ban. I've talked about the specifics of that here, but its basicly a matter of setting two dates: a cutoff for imports, and a cutoff for (non-historical / narrow permitted uses) registrations. The policy needs to be backed up by tight vehicle fuel efficiency standards in the interim (because the vehicles we import today are going to still be on our roads in 20 years time), and by a massive investment in both urban public transport and long-distance rail (the current government is at least beginning to work on those bits). But we also need to think about the heavy vehicle fleet, which uses 21% of our fuel (for only ~3.7% of vehicles, so they're disproportionate polluters). Some of these emissions can be eliminated by forcing a modal shift to rail and coastal shipping for long-distance stuff, but to get rid of the rest we either need electric or non-fossil fuel trucks (coming, but not as fast as suburban cars), or to change logistics patterns away from one which sees the food I buy in a supermarket in Wellington trucked down every day from Palmerston North. A rising carbon price might help with this, but if it doesn't seem to be forcing change quickly enough, its worth remembering that we used to regulate trucking to distances of less than 48 and then 150 km. Applying that sort of restriction to fossil-fuel vehicles (so clean transport is exempt) would force the change we need. Alternatively, there's the option of biofuels (which are carbon-neutral) for heavy vehicles - and that looks necessary for aviation anyway and has significant benefits for other energy uses. NZ has significant potential to produce biofuel from trees, but getting there would require significant investment to build an industry. Which means the government would have to do it.

Electricity is a small sector, but if we're driving electric vehicles, we're going to need a lot more of it. Here at least the government has made a commitment for 100% renewables (in an average year) by 2035 (building on 90% by 2025), but its important that that be backed by actual policy. Which means using regulation to prohibit dirty generation and relegate any fossil fuels to dry-year backup. It also means a real push to ensure that all future generation we build is renewable: wind, geothermal, solar or hydro. The RMA is a key tool here, and Labour looks like its going to allow it to be used. There's also an obvious synergy between distributed generation - solar panels on rooftops - and electric vehicles (not to mention summer A/C load, which is only going to increase in a warmer world), so promoting that - and doing it directly using the state housing system - should be a no-brainer.

Industrial, manufacturing and construction are a bit diverse, and some of the solutions are things which come out of things already discussed - process heat needs similar solutions to electricity, and construction similar tools to transport. The rest of the solution is to kill their fuel sources at source: kill oil, and kill coal. They either go green, or go extinct - because that's the choice facing humanity.

That's the emissions reduction side, but we're also going to have to deal with the effects of the climate change we've already locked in (and which we're feeling now). The most obvious move there is to stop people building on the coast, as the first part of a managed retreat. This will be hugely unpopular - witness the repeated lawsuits by outraged coastal property owners whenever local authorities perform their statutory duty to inform future buyers of flood risks - but if the government doesn't do it, then the insurance industry will make it happen anyway. Because bluntly, they're not willing to carry the can for people's past stupid decisions. And they can act on this a lot quicker than government can. The danger is that central or local government will face pressure for a bailout of coastal property owners, or to waste money on seawalls to defend the undefendable, all to prop up the inflated wealth or property values of entitled coastal landowners.

One way or another, we are going to have to deal with climate change and adapt to the new world we are making. as Brae points out, we can either choose to manage that transition, or just let it happen to us as a succession of shocks and crises. I would prefer the former. The big concern is that by dragging its feet, our government is heading for the latter.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Support locked-out bus drivers

Bus drivers in Hamilton have been taking industrial action for the last six months in pursuit of a living wage. And now, after they announced a new plan not to collect fares, GoBus has locked them out. The reason? "Health and safety":

"Go Bus must protect its employees. Providing a safe workspace is paramount. The majority of drivers are non-union members, but the decision from FIRST Union members to not collect fares puts all other drivers at risk of verbal abuse and physical assault if passengers think they are going to get a free ride, and don't," Piper said.

Which is simply laughable. Instead its a naked attempt to bully the drivers into submission. But Go Bus doesn't even have the courage to say so openly.

If you'd like to donate to the union's strike fund, you can do so here.

Secret "evidence" isn't credible

NZDF's response to Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's exposure of their war crimes in Afghanistan in Hit & Run has been to deny everything and smear the authors. Now, they're claiming they have secret "evidence" which supports their claim that they didn't kill any civilians:

New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has almost eight hours of secret American drone footage it says shows there are more than 100 mistakes in a book about a controversial raid in Afghanistan.


NZDF said the drone footage was so compelling and contradicted the veracity of so many claims in the book, it asked the United States to release the footage publicly. But the Americans refused, saying the videos had not been declassified.

The problem, of course, is that because this "evidence" is conveniently secret, we can never know if it shows what NZDF says it does - or even if it exists at all. It should be treated as seriously as the SIS's secret "evidence" showing that Ahmed Zaoui was guilty. And the same goes for any other secret "evidence" NZDF claims to have or wants to rely on at the inquiry.

Monday, November 19, 2018

An unfair allocation

Radio New Zealand reports that business in Hawke's Bay are looking at rationing water or shutting down production due to the rivers running dry. Meanwhile, six dairy farmers get to take half the region's water:

Some businesses and farmers in Central Hawke's Bay may start rationing water as parts of the Waipawa and Tukituki rivers are already bone dry.

It comes as figures obtained by RNZ show the top six water consent holders in the district are using more than half of all allocated water from the Ruataniwha Aquifer and rivers.


He asked the council to look at who was using the water and when they crunched the figures for the first time it showed that the top six consent holders were all dairy farms and they were taking more than half of all the allocated water in Central Hawke's Bay.

The largest, Bel Group Dairy Farms, took two and a half times the amount used by the townships of Waipawa and Waipukurau put together.

Roughly six thousand people live in those towns. So that one farmer gets 15,000 times as much water as them. As the article points out, this raises some equity issues. It is simply not fair that a tiny rural elite gets to monopolise our water supplies to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else. Its even more unfair if they keep getting supplied while others go thirsty. We desperately need to fix this situation, and restore a fair allocation of water. And we need to ensure that those who extract a profit from it, pay for it.

Climate Change: Committing to burn the world

The government likes to talk about New Zealand doing our "fair share" to reduce greenhouse gases. But are we? A paper in Nature and accompanying website looks at countries' commitments, assessing them on the fairly simple metric of "what if everyone else did this?" The result is (unsurprisingly) that major economies are on track to burn the world. And if you look at the graph, New Zealand is among the worst:

If everyone did as little as New Zealand has promise - a promise we are failing to keep, BTW - then the world would warm by 5.1 degrees by 2100. And that means melted ice-caps, uninhabitable tropics, a collapse of the global food supply, and all the war, famine and death that that involves. As for New Zealand, we just don't know, because NIWA's reference case just doesn't consider effects that high (oddly, they're not studying what we're actually doing). But 5m of sea-level rise will mean great chunks of our major urban areas under water, and the East Coast drought scenarios (already disastrous at 2 degrees) will basicly mean the whole place dries up and blows away. Plus, we'll be flooded with Australians fleeing the baking, uninhabitable wasteland their country will become.

The Prime Minister has talked of climate change as "my generation's nuclear free moment". If that is to be anything more than hot air, we need to dramaticly scale up our ambition and actually do something. The current policy of mouthing platitudes while refusing to do anything which might cost polluters any money or require anyone to change anything they do is not enough. This is about literally saving the world, and the government needs to start acting like it.

The government's secret OIA plans

Back in September, when the government announced plans to increase proactive release of official information, we learned by accident that they were also considering another review of the OIA, and "intend[ed] to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review". As someone interested in OIA reform, I was naturally curious about this, so I sent an OIA off to Justice Minister Andrew Little seeking information about the proposal. I finally got the response back on Friday, after a month-long extension for "consultation". Unfortunately, its not very informative.

You can read the released documents here. As is obvious, all interesting information about the proposal has been redacted. All their specific proposals for reform are secret, as is practically everyone they plan to consult in their "targeted engagement". People with specific expertise in the law? Secret. Bloggers and commentators? Also secret. They do list some media organisations, and the members of the OGP Expert Advisory Group, but everyone else is secret. Which is outrageous when you think about it. The OIA is quasi-constitutional legislation, something that belongs to (and affects) all of us. But rather than a full public consultation, they plan to privilege some voices over others, presenting their select secret proposals to a select secret group, then presenting the stovepiped results to us as a fait accompli. And they kept this entire process secret as well: they decided it all back in May, but never announced anything. The only reason we know about it at all is because of a passing reference in another document. Whether these are the actions of a government committed to transparency, accountability, and participation is left as an exercise for the reader.

As for the quality of their proposals, well, they're secret, so we can't tell. But what they do reveal isn't encouraging. For example, the Ministry of Justice's brief advice on whether the OIA should be extended to Parliament cherry-picks its examples to include only those that support the status quo, while ignoring the obvious counterexample: the UK Parliament is fully subject to its Freedom of Information Act, and this has brought about a huge improvement in accountability. Which doesn't provide much reason for confidence in the quality of their advice. And while they don't seem very keen on extending s48 of the OIA to cover proactive release, repeatedly highlighting the Law Commission's recommendation against extension, all their actual advice is secret, so we can't tell whether its robust or flawed. Which given the huge potential for abuse in the proposal - it would basicly give Paula Bennett total impunity to dox people at will with their benefit, medical, police and tax records - is something we need to know.

We deserve better than this. Its not just politicians, journalists and trouble-making bloggers who use the OIA, but all of us. Steven Price's 2005 study of the OIA contained an extensive list of examples of how ordinary citizens use the Act, and summed it up as "the stuff of democracy". According to the Ombudsman's 2017-18 annual report, individuals made three times as many OIA complaints as journalists, and its 5.5 times as many when you look at the LGOIMA. In short, it's our Act, not theirs. And any non-trivial changes to it require publicly consulting all of us, not just a select group of chosen insiders.

Update (31/1/19): Andrew Little has reconsidered his decision and released the options under consideration. More information here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

"A serious threat to public health"

That's how UK doctors have described that country's benefit system:

Universal credit has become a serious threat to public health, doctors have said, after a study revealed that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected claimants’ mental health that some considered suicide.

Public health researchers found overwhelmingly negative experiences among vulnerable claimants, including high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems and social isolation exacerbated by hunger and destitution.

“Universal credit is not only failing to achieve its stated aim of moving people into employment, it is punishing people to such an extent that the mental health and wellbeing of claimants, their families and of [support] staff is being undermined,” the report states.

It concludes that universal credit is actively creating poverty and destitution, and says it is not fit for purpose for many people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions. It calls for a radical overhaul of the system before the next phase of its rollout next year.

This system is profoundly evil. And its entirely intentional. Tories have never supported effective welfare systems. Instead, they want them to be cruel and punitive, pour encourager les autres. Every "suicide" due to universal credit is in fact a murder - a murder committed by a cruel and vicious government wanting to eliminate the poor.

meanwhile it'd be interesting to see similar information on the New Zealand welfare system. But I suspect WINZ refuses to collect any useful information, because it could only make them look bad.

New Fisk

On Armistice Day, we had the luxury of remembering the Great War – while Palestinians are still living its consequences

Time for the government to pay up

Primary teachers are on strike this week, secondary teachers are planning the same, and next year there's the prospect of a joint teachers' strike meaning schools everywhere will shut. Meanwhile, other strike action is shutting down the courts, forcing trials to be delayed and clogging an already overstretched justice system. The underlying cause of this? Nine years of National penny-pinching and trying to "do more with less" has left public servants overworked and underpaid, and now they're sick of it enough to actually do something about it.

The government's response has been to claim there is no more money. Bullshit. Whether there's money for public servants or planes is simply a matter of priorities. And this government's priorities are to spend $2.3 billion on war-toys for America rather than making sure basic government services like schools and the courts function. More generally, they get to decide their financial parameters, such as how fast they pay down National's debt, or even whether to raise taxes to gain additional revenue to boost public services. The fact that they're not considering any of this tells us that providing basic services is simply not their priority. What is their priority? Fuck knows - but its looking like as little as possible while collecting their fat salaries. Just like National, really.

But the New Zealand public does care about those services. We care about whether kids can go to school, and we care about whether the courts function. So unless the government wants us to start caring about them, at the ballot box, it needs to change its priorities and pay up.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

More dirty dairying

Councils and the courts finally seem to be getting serious about dirty dairying, with another conviction in the Waikato resulting in a near-record fine:

A Waikato dairy farming company has been fined almost $60,000 for discharging effluent into a waterway.

H & S Chisholm Farms Limited has been convicted and fined $57,375 for two discharges of dairy effluent from its South Waikato farm in mid-2017.


Judge Harland noted that the company's response to the incidents was "exemplary", with significant investment in effluent infrastructure on the farm following the pollution events.

However, she also noted that "dairy farmers in the Waikato region have had ample time to understand what is required to lawfully manage dairy effluent and to become educated about best practice, both in terms of the design, operation and management of effluent systems".

The fine is among the highest for effluent offences in recent years, with two other fines of more than $50,000 and a further six of more than $35,000 in 2017/18. However, the 21 convictions in the past two years involve a tiny fraction of the country's 8000 farm owners and 4000 sharemilkers

Which tells us the scale of the problem: a huge number of dairy farms fail to comply with their resource consents (almost a third in some regions), yet only a tiny number are ever prosecuted for it. Which means that most of these environmental criminals get away with it. if we're to solve this problem and clean up our waterways, that needs to change. The law needs much greater enforcement, so that dirty farmers will credibly fear prosecution and change their behaviour. Fortunately, the government looks like it is planning to do just that, by allowing the EPA to prosecute where councils won't.

The Fijian election

Fijians went to the polls yesterday in the second elections since the 2006 coup. While bad weather forced polling to be suspended in some areas, and the final count is not yet in, the provisional results show coup-leader Voreqe Bainimarama's FijiFirst party has retained its majority. The iTaukei SODELPA party, led by another former coup-leader Sitiveni Rabuka looks likely to be the main opposition, with about 38% of the vote, the Ind-Fijian National Federation Party coming third on 7.5%. There's 30% of the vote left to be counted, and things would have to shift significantly for FijiFirst to be forced into coalition.

FijiFirst threw everything it had at this election, unsuccessfully trying to convict the leader of the opposition over his asset declaration (which, if successful, would have disqualified him from the poll and made all votes for him invalid, costing SODELPA around half its total vote), and prosecuting another high-profile SODELPA candidate for sedition (again, unsuccessfully), and disqualifying former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry from competing. Fiji's election system is built entirely on candidate recognition, with most votes going to party leaders - for example, ~over 70% of FijiFirst's votes were cast for Bainimarama - so eliminating high-profile candidates can have hugely disproportionate effects. And with their dirty tactics, they've managed to just retain power. Which suggests that in a fair election, they might not be so lucky. While none of Fiji's political parties is especially appealing, in order for the coup legacy to end, its architects need to be de-elected. The sooner that happens, the better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Keeping a promise

After the Pike River disaster, then-Prime Minister John Key gave the victims' families an "absolute reassurance" that their loved ones bodies would be recovered. He lied, and left them to rot. Now, Labour is keeping his promise:

The Minister responsible for Pike River re-entry has this morning announced that a plan to re-enter the mine drift to retrieve the bodies of the 29 men who died there in 2010 will proceed.

Andrew Little made the announcement at Parliament, in front of a number of the families of the Pike 29.

"Re-entry of the Pike River Mine will proceed. To the Pike River families, to New Zealand, we are returning."

He said he decided the Te Kāhui Whakamana Rua Tekau Mā Iwa - Pike River Recovery Agency, recommended course of action to enter the drift, using the existing access tunnel, was by far the safest option.

Good. Because this isn't just a sentimental matter of recovering remains. Pike River is also a crime scene, and re-entry may help the police gather the evidence required to hold those responsible to account. They've already bribed their way out of trouble once - actions later found by the Supreme Court to be "an unlawful agreement to stifle prosecution". Hopefully they won't be able to do that again.

Pure cronyism

So, the rumours were true: the government has appointed former Labour deputy Annette King as High Commissioner to Australia. So much for Winston Peters' supposed opposition to such appointments - it turns out that he's really only opposed when they're from the wrong party. But the normal arguments against cronyism are even stronger in the case of this job. Australia is our nearest neighbour and one of our most important diplomatic relationships. It deserves better than to be used as a retirement home for washed-up, has-been former MPs.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Another reason to use a false name for OIA requests

Because if you request information about a company, they may turn around and request information about you:

In a case of the hunter becoming the hunted, people making Official Information Act requests cannot bank on remaining anonymous.

Over the past two years the Commerce Commission has received 10 requests from companies wanting to know the identity of those seeking official information about them.

Three requesters - all of them companies - were identified with their consent, five had their identity withheld under the privacy protection clause in the Act, and a further two cases were undecided.

While agencies should consult requesters about release, they're not bound to withhold if you object, and s48 of the OIA gives officials absolute protection from liability if they release your information in good faith. I've started putting a "fuck off" notice on the bottom of my requests, making it clear that I do not consent to any release of my personal information to any third party, but ultimately the only way to protect your personal information is not to give it away in the first place. If you care about your privacy, or think anyone else might care about the requests you are making, you should use a false name. Its not illegal, its not immoral - its just basic privacy protection. And fortunately, we have an online platform which makes it very easy...

Monday, November 12, 2018


That's the Chief Ombudsman's formal opinion of Horowhenua District Council's practice of redirecting, blocking and editing emails from people on a secret shitlist. While the Ombudsman recognises that sometimes members of the public might send emails that require management to prevent harassment, the way Horowhenua Council was doing this - in secret, without any formally recorded justification, and blocking innocuous and ordinary business content as well as abusive emails - was simply wrong. They highlight the way the blocks prevented communication with elected representatives and encouraged one councillor to route official emails through a private account to ensure they were received - effectively undermining good record-keeping practice and the LGOIMA. Apparently the policy has already been ended, which saves the Ombudsman from having to recommend that, but they have recommended an apology. Given Horowhenua's toxic environment, it'll be interesting to see whether the Council even tries to fake sincerity on that.

This is what happens when agencies investigate themselves

The State Services Commission's inquiry into its appointment of Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha has reported back - and unsurprisingly, cleared the SSC of any wrongdoing. The full report is here, but the short version is that the appointment panel didn't know of Haumaha's support for convicted rapists Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum, because Police Commissioner Mike Bush thought it had all been resolved and didn't think it was "relevant", even when explicitly asked by the Minister. Which seems to be extremely poor judgement on his part. But they go further, and claim that it wouldn't have mattered anyway if the panel had known, because they would have agreed with the Police Commissioner and ignored it.

Which is the exactly the sort of result you get when organisations investigate themselves, and simply shows the extent to which the police and SSC still don't get it. Their past behaviour of raping women and covering up for it has left the police with a lingering taint and caused many people to lose confidence in them. If they want to be rid of that taint and regain the public's trust, they need to change, and be seen to change. The fact that the Commissioner considers concerns about it to no longer be relevant, and sees no political risk in appointing someone perceived as condoning that past behaviour to a senior position sends a clear message that the police haven't changed, and that they are utterly blind to public concerns about their integrity. And that in itself seems to be a reason to sack him as well as Haumaha.

We don't need more terror laws

Back in 2007, the New Zealand Police invaded Ruatoki, terrorised the town, and held children at gunpoint as part of a series of raids against "terrorists". But when it came time to prosecute the seventeen people they'd arrested, the whole case fell apart because the police's behaviour had been "unlawful, unjustified, and unreasonable". No-one faced terrorism charges because, fundamentally, none of those targeted had broken that law: no-one had committed or planned a "terrorist act" (and no, talking shit about firing the Prime Minister out of a trebuchet doesn't count). In the end, despite four Arms Act convictions, it was a humiliating fiasco for the police, requiring a public apology to the people whose town they had invaded.

So now the police want more anti-terror powers, so they can do all that again and get away with it this time:

The Government is reviewing the anti-terror laws because of the carnage of the poorly enacted Urewera raids meaning authorities don't want to use them.

Minister responsible for GCSB and SIS Andrew Little, has ordered officials to fully scrutinise the Terrorism Suppression Act and the Counter Terrorism Act, both passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 and Bali bombings.

They were judged "unworkable" after the botched Urewera raids in 2007, and Little says authorities are now "reluctant" to use them.

While Little wants to remain open to what will happen, police are pushing for greater powers to intervene earlier when they detect suspicious behaviour.

Unlike the Minister, I don't regard reluctance to use anti-terror laws as a problem. Instead, they're something police should be reluctant to use. The fact that they want to use them (and in the complete absence of anything remotely approaching a terrorist threat, or which can't be dealt with under existing laws criminalising assault, murder and arson) says rather more about their desire to crush political dissent than any real need. And in this context, the reference to UK-style laws criminalising people for what they read on the internet - which are primarily used to persecute academics - is chilling. Faced with a lack of real terrorism to justify their inflated budget, the police want to introduce ThoughtCrime. And that's something any democraticly-minded kiwi should oppose.

But we know how this will go: they'll have a secret, closed-shop review, agree to limit our human rights for their convenience, and the law will be rammed through under urgency, backed by a National-Labour duopoly. Democracy? Not where "terrorism" is concerned, apparently.