Thursday, January 31, 2019

Will NZ join the EITI now?

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is an international organisation to promote transparency and reduce corruption around mining. In the past, the New Zealand government has been reluctant to join, seeing no value in membership other than the possibility of silencing critics. But the organisation has just nominated former Prime Minister (and UNDP head) Helen Clark as its chair. Which raises the obvious question: will New Zealand be joining now? Has MBIE even bothered to look at it since 2014?

Farmers should not be allowed to poison people

Poisoning people is a crime. If I poisoned someone's drinking water supply, and they got sick or died, I would be going to jail. But the law is apparently different for North Canterbury farmers. Down there, they are being allowed to knowingly poison people's drinking water supplies with nitrate, which poses a risk of death for babies and a long-term risk of bowel cancer for adults. Why? Because they would lose money of they had to stop:

A large North Canterbury irrigation scheme is being allowed to exceed recommended levels of nitrate in the water, potentially for years.

That's despite the known risk that it could cause blue baby syndrome.

The Amuri Irrigation Company's (AIC) scheme covers about 28,000 hectares in Hurunui and Waiau and mainly irrigates pasture.

The regional council is letting the scheme have excessive nitrate levels because Amuri is transitioning into a more efficient irrigation system.

But health officials and environmental advocates argue that's not good enough.

All they have to do is monitor people's wells, and warn them if they turn out to be poisoning them. And that's simply not good enough. The economic interests of farmers should not trump the health and safety of their neighbours and the general public. As for ECan, which allowed this consent, its another example of how National's dictatorship and subsequent rural gerrymander has endangered people's lives as well as the environment - and why they need to be voted out on their arses in October.

Climate Change: The cost of inaction

Stuff reports that local authorities want the government to pay billions of dollars to replace infrastructure threatened by climate change:

Local councils are facing a $5-8 billion bill to replace vital infrastructure lost to climate change in the next half-century - and they want a national war chest to pay for it.

For the first time, environment and engineering researchers have calculated the cost of replacing pipes, roads and buildings destroyed by sea-level rise.

The data is included in a new Local Government New Zealand report which spells out a dire warning about the country's ability to fund repairs. The organisation is now calling on the Government to create a national climate change adaptation fund to help meet the costs.

$8 billion is over 5% of GDP, and it is literally the cost of doing nothing. We will have to pay it because past governments have dragged their feet on climate change and climate change adaptation - not just allowing our emissions to increase and our planet to warm and the oceans to rise, but also refusing to set limits on coastal development. Meaning that stuff got built in places it shouldn't have, and is now threatened and will need to be rebuilt elsewhere, all because of government inaction.

But hey, at least farmers don't have to pay for their polluting cows, right?

Making work for themselves

Speaking of the Minister of Justice, I've been trawling through his answers to parliamentary written questions (in the hope that some useful opposition Minister might have asked a basic question about briefings received which might suggest documents worth investigating), and noticed a series of questions from Gerry Brownlee seeking information about how the Minister's OIA requests are tracked as well as basic timeliness statistics. Its the usual story of unhelpful, bullshit "answers", but he eventually admits he uses "a spreadsheet" and then a database with "several thousand fields" which must be kept secret to protect the Minister and requesters from malignant hackers (hint: you can request this spreadsheet, and I've done so in the past). But despite all this record-keeping, the Minister is apparently unable to answer basic questions about timeliness, including average and maximum response times, or even how many requests are answered within statutory timeframes (all of which should be standardised reports or functions in any well-designed system). Meanwhile, his associate Minister, who presumably uses the same system, is able to provide at least some of this data (though is still incapable or unwilling to work out the average of 26 numbers).

(Poking around, Brownlee seems to have asked the same series of ten questions seeking basic OIA data to every Minister and associate Minister. Basic OIA data which agencies are required to publish, but Ministers are not).

The government complains regularly about the opposition "flooding" them with written questions. But here, an opposition MP was forced to send twenty-one questions seeking information which, thanks to government obfuscation and denial, could have been answered in one or two, and which arguably should have been proactively published anyway. Its a perfect example of how Ministers make work for themselves by obsessively playing bullshit games over secrecy. And our ability to hold them accountable suffers as a result.

As for what to do about it, the broad answer is for Ministers to grow the fuck up and be transparent. But on the specific issue, they have decided to hold agencies accountable for their OIA performance by requiring them to publish statistics, and they should hold themselves to the same standard. As for how to do it, its surely not beyond the wit of Ministerial Services to have a standardised application or spreadsheet format with inbuilt reports for Ministerial staff to use. But that would require Ministers committed to opennness and accountability, rather than wasting everyone's time playing bullshit political games simply to frustrate the opposition and the public.

The government's secret OIA plans II

You may recall that back in September we learned that the government was secretly planning to review the OIA, planning to consult a hand-picked, secret group of lawyers, bloggers and commentators in a "targeted consultation" on quasi-constitutional legislation. The details of who they plan to consult and when are of course secret (whether they should be released or not is currently before the Ombudsman). But thanks to Justice Minister Andrew Little being forced to reconsider his OIA decisions, now at least we know what the options are.

The details are in this table, which was redacted (along with various mentions of the number of options under consideration) from Little's previous release. It shows us that Little was advised both of the public feedback on the 2016-2018 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, and on the views of academics, commentators and OIA experts, both of which supported extension of the OIA to Parliament, the establishment of a specialist Information Authority, and legislative support for proactive release. As for the options under consideration, they are:

  • A full public review of official information legislation (which could target areas that would benefit from further public engagement, such as the establishment of an Information Commissioner);
  • Reconsidering the Law Commission's 2012 recommendations;
  • "targeted reforms" to address specific Law Commission recommendations (AKA cherry-picking the ones the government likes, while ignoring the rest); and
  • Legislative amendments to support proactive release (which assumedly includes the push to extend s48 to grant immunity to Ministers and officials who abuse their control of official information to dox their political enemies).
what the officials actually think of these options is withheld as "confidential", but based on the focus on targeted engagement, it seems they are pursuing one of the middle two. And again, this is all being done in secret. Which, when you consider that this is our primary transparency legislation, is simply obscene. If the government doesn't want to talk about major reforms, it can simply say so. But if it is going to make changes to quasi-constitutional legislation which affects our ability to participate in government and hold them to account, it must do so openly and in public, rather than using stovepiped insiders to present us with a fait accompli.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Time for Aotearoa-New Zealand

NewsHub reports that there is a petition before Parliament for a referendum on adding Aotearoa to our country's official name:

A Kiwi man has launched a petition to add Aotearoa to our country's official name.

If accepted, it would require Parliament to pass legislation requiring a referendum on whether the official name of New Zealand should change to include the Māori name.

"Official documents of national identity, birth and citizenship certificates, passports and money-notes have Aotearoa and New Zealand together as the names of the country," Danny Tahau Jobe's petition states.

"Only 'New Zealand' has official status. Both names together will officially confirm/enhance nationhood and uniqueness in the world."

I've supported the idea of a national name change for a long time: our national identity has changed since the days of Muldoon (let alone the days of Holyoake), and referring to NZ as Aotearoa is second nature to many New Zealanders. Formally changing our name would be a positive expression of our new national identity and a recognition of this place's unique Maori heritage. As for the process, a national name change requires legislation (as noted in the select committee report the last time this came before the House), and a referendum is the appropriate way to decide such issues. I urge people to sign the petition.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

New Fisk

Why American figures like Michelle Alexander are breaking their silence on Israel

Getting the problem backwards

So, former Green MP Kennedy Graham (who viciously betrayed Metiria Turei last election) is backing National's astroturf "Blue Green" party idea. How unsurprising. And he cites the usual reason of the need for an environmental party to work with both sides of the house:

He said to have sustainability built into the Parliament in the long term, an environmentally focused party would - unlike the Green Party - need to work with both sides.

"It can work, obviously, with the left and right - and should, and will have to."

"If you listen to Vernon Tava - and I support this - you have government and you have opposition and if a political party says it's only going to work with one side of that house, then you're not going to get a long-term binding genuine consensus.

"That is required in any country - including New Zealand - for effective long-term or even medium term sustainability: You need environmental philosophy to be placed in the centre and to be working with both left and right."

But this gets things exactly backwards. The problem isn't that the Greens won't work with National - they have done so in the past and have signalled their willingness to do so again. The problem is that National won't work with the Greens. On environmental fundamentals - climate change, rivers, mining - National is utterly opposed to sustainability and Green policy. And that will be the same whether that policy comes from the existing Green Party, or some imaginary "centrist" vehicle.

Until National changes and really accepts sustainability, no green party worthy of the name can support them as a government. And anyone who tells you differently is either a fool, or trying to sell you something.

Climate Change: (Local) government in denial

Just when you thought the reality of climate change was settled in New Zealand, the West Coast Regional Council reminds you that some people are not interested in facts:

The West Coast Regional Council wants more scientific evidence to prove human-driven climate change is happening before it will commit to reducing emissions.

The council does not support the government's Zero Carbon Bill and is the only regional council in the country to reject it.

In its submission, the council said if West Coasters were to commit to emissions targets, "the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt".

I guess the West Coast really is a decade behind the rest of New Zealand.

Its easy to understand why they've taken this position: the West Coast's economy is based on coal mining, dairy farming and forestry - all things we need to stop doing if we are to stop climate change. Its a perfect example of Upton Sinclair's comment that "it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it". But meanwhile, while the coal miners and dairy farmers on the council cover their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears and deny reality, Granity keeps washing away and the tropical cyclones keep coming and the costs keep mounting. And the council keeps sticking its hand out for money to clean up these messes rather than taking basic steps to minimise the risk.

As for what to do about it, that's up to West Coasters. There are local government elections later this year, and West Coasters can decide whether they want to be represented by climate change deniers or not. But if they decide they do, then they shouldn't expect a lot of sympathy from the rest of New Zealand next time the climate bites them.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Fooling no-one

Fresh water is one of our biggest environmental challenges, and over 80% of us want to see the government take stronger action to protect our waterways and ensure we can all swim in our lakes and rivers. So what do National's proposed astroturf "BlueGreens" think about it? Predictably, they're backing polluters:

A rejected Green Party leadership hopeful planning to form a rival environmental party says New Zealand might not need stricter rules on protecting its waterways.

Vernon Tava, who unsuccessfully ran for the party's co-leadership in 2015, is in talks to set up a "centrist" green party that - unlike the present Green Party - could work with National.


"We've got a lot of rules… the councils' policies, the regional plans, the district plans, RMA requirements, national policy standards, national environmental standards that are tough, but they're not enforced.

"A big part of our problem in New Zealand is actually not the rules themselves, it's the lack of enforcement."

Tava is wrong. Yes, enforcement is a problem, but fundamentally the problem is that the limits in place are inadequate to begin with. We have too many farmers sucking our rivers dry, and too many cows shitting in them, all perfectly legally. If we want to protect our waterways and make them swimmable, then we need to tighten those limits, reclaim that water for the rivers, and cut the number of cows. But I guess someone angling to be astroturf cover for a party which is the biggest support of the polluting dairy industry just can't advocate for something like that. So why would anyone who wants to protect rivers vote for him? And is he really stupid enough to think he's fooling anyone?

Climate Change: The Winston problem

When Labour became government, they promised to have a Zero Carbon Bill introduced to Parliament by October 2018. But despite a round of public consultation attracting 15,000 submissions, that hasn't happened yet. Why not? Because of NZ First:

NZ First is slowing progress on the Government's proposed climate change legislation, leading to a missed deadline for an announcement.

A source close to the situation told Stuff the party has been more intransigent on the issue than the National Party, which Climate Change Minister James Shaw is working with separately to make sure his Zero Carbon Act gets some level of bipartisan support.

An announcement on the policy was planned for before the end of 2018, but no announcement or draft bill has been forthcoming, despite the Ministry for the Environment planning to have the bill in Select Committee by February, according to its website.

The core problem is that NZ First's MPs are mostly climate deniers, or at the very least foot-draggers, who don't want to "disadvantage" agriculture by making it responsible for the mess it makes. So, the same old story of destroying the planet for profit and for the comfort of those unwilling to change. Meanwhile, in a taste of things to come, we have a killer heat-wave hitting the country, which will not be good for either agriculture (who tend to go bankrupt in droughts) or NZ First's mostly elderly supporters (who die much more easily in heat waves). And as the climate warms, we're going to see more of these, which means more droughts, and more dead old people. But I guess NZ First doesn't really care about that.

Post-Brexit tyranny

Brexit is just 60 days away, and it now looks like it is going to result in an instant tyranny, with the British government planning to declare martial law to deal with "civil disobediance":

Brexit planners are examining the possibility of martial law in Britain in the event of a "no-deal" Brexit, it has emerged.

Whitehall officials are looking at how to use powers available under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to stop civil disobedience after the UK leaves the EU.

According to a report in The Sunday Times, the legislation gives ministers the power to impose curfews, travel bans, confiscate property and deploy the armed forces.

A source told the newspaper: "The over-riding theme in all the no-deal planning is civil disobedience and the fear that it will lead to death in the event of food and medical shortages."

Even more worringly, the same military the government plans to use against the people is stockpiling ammunition - something militaries only do if they're planning to actually start shooting people.

All of which should be worrying for a supposedly democratic country like the UK. Democracies don't declare martial law to deal with civil disobedience - tyrannies do. But I guess its clear now which category the UK government sees itself as belonging to.

An astroturf party?

National has no friends, leaving them with an obvious problem in the MMP coalition game next election. Their solution? To simply create one:

Talk of a new centrist green political party which could potentially partner with National in a future government coalition is starting to become more than just speculation.

It is understood preliminary discussions among interested parties have already been held on creating a party that combines economic and environmental credentials, filling a demand not already taken up by existing political parties.

It is also understood former Green Party leadership contender and one-time National candidate hopeful Vernon Tava is the front-runner to lead the party.

One political commentator said financial backing would not be an issue because the business sector would support the formation of such a party.

The problem: if they do, then its a clear signal that the party isn't really green. Because National's policies of supporting the dairy, oil and trucking industries, sucking the rivers dry, and dragging their feet on climate change in the name of "balance" with economic growth are inherently anti-environment, and any environmentally-minded voter can see that. Which makes their "BlueGreen" astroturf idea laughable - the only people it convinces are people who don't understand environmental issues at all. But like Colin Craig, Kim Dotcom and Gareth Morgan, they probably think they can simply throw money at the problem and buy the votes they need, with a fallback of hoping to buy enough votes away from the actual Green Party to drive them out of Parliament - a deeply undemocratic goal. But unlike National, I think environmentally-minded voters are smart enough not to fall for it.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Progress in Angola

Angola has decriminalised homosexuality and passed an anti-discrimination law:

Angola's parliament has decriminalised homosexuality, removing a notorious "vices against nature" provision in its penal code and banning discrimination against sexual orientation, in a reform hailed by rights watchdogs.

On Wednesday, 155 parliamentarians voted for Angola's first overhaul of the criminal statute books since independence, while seven abstained and one voted against.

The "vices against nature" law was a Portuguese colonial relic which apparently had never been used. Still, its good to have it off the books. Their anti-discrimination law OTOH makes discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation a criminal offence punishable by up to two years imprisonment. I'm not sure if that's the right approach, but it definitely puts the shoe on the other foot.

Hoist by her own petard

Sarah Dowie is a National MP. Back in 2015, she voted for National's Harmful Digital Communications Act, an overly-broad law which criminalised exposing corrupt politicians on the internet. Now, she's being investigated for possible prosecution under that law:

Police are investigating a text message, allegedly sent from the phone of National Party MP Sarah Dowie, to her former colleague and ex lover Jami-Lee Ross.

The police investigation is said to focus on whether the text message - which came after the break-up of their extra-marital relationship - constituted an incitement to self-harm, which is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Ross, 33, has previously named Invercargill MP Dowie, 43, as one of the women with whom he had an extra-marital relationship while National MP for Botany.

The text message included the words: "You deserve to die."

Which seems like a pretty clear-cut violation of s179(2) Crimes Act, which the HDCA amended in one of the few non-controversial parts of the law. But it may simply be causing harm by posting digital communication.

A lot depends on what exactly the police decide to charge her with. Because the "inciting suicide" offence carries a maximum penalty of three years, meaning that if Dowie is convicted, she would automatically lose her seat in Parliament. And if the Police don't charge her with that, its going to look like another case of them going soft on politicians, just as they have done in the past.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: in this post, I've advocated that an MP be prosecuted for their apparent criminal activity, and should face the legal consequences of their actions if convicted. Which is the sort of thing which would cause anguish, anxiety, or feelings of insecurity to an ordinary reasonable person in their position. And I want it to cause that harm: I am relishing the irony of Dowie having voted for the law she may be convicted under, and I want MPs to think about that when voting for such laws in the future. But by doing so, have I committed a crime? If so, I think it would prove the point perfectly: that while cyber-bullying is a serious problem, this over-broad law goes too far in trying to prevent it.

That's the way to do it

For too long US politics has been in the hands of plutocrats and their servants, resulting in ever-declining tax-rates, soaring inequality, and a government incapable of meeting its citizens expectations. Now, US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed a solution: a direct wealth tax:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will propose a new annual “wealth tax” on Americans with more than $50 million in assets, according to an economist advising her on the plan, as Democratic leaders vie for increasingly aggressive solutions to the nation’s soaring wealth inequality.

Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, two left-leaning economists at the University of California, Berkeley, have been advising Warren on a proposal to levy a 2 percent wealth tax on Americans with assets above $50 million, as well as a 3 percent wealth tax on those who have more than $1 billion, according to Saez.

The wealth tax would raise $2.75 trillion over a ten-year period from about 75,000 families, or less than 0.1 percent of U.S. households, Saez said.

And to prevent avoidance, there will also be a one-off wealth tax on those worth more than $50 million who renounce their US citizenship.

Of course, there's an election to win first. But there mere fact that Warren is suggesting this will help shift the political conversation and help focus it on ways to properly control the ultra-rich. And that, as the right has taught us, is how you win politics in the long term.

And of course, it inspires people outside the US as well. Because it raises an obvious question: why aren't we doing this here (with appropriately lower thresholds)? It seems like an excellent way to reduce inequality and re-fund government.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Australia's sham anti-corruption body

Before christmas I was pleased to hear that the Australian government was planning to establish a federal anti-corruption commission. But it turns out that it was all a sham:

A former judge of Victoria’s highest court has attacked the Coalition’s proposal for an anti-corruption body, describing it as a sham designed to shield politicians and public servants from scrutiny.

Stephen Charles, a retired Victorian court of appeal judge, said there was simply “no justification” for the Coalition’s proposal to limit the commission’s powers when investigating the public sector. He said the proposal to not allow public hearings for public-sector cases – as opposed to investigations of law enforcement – made no sense. Nor did the proposed body’s narrow remit, the high burdens of proof needed to initiate an investigation, its inability to take public tip-offs and its lack of resources.

“We see this body, the [Commonwealth Integrity Commission], insofar as public servants and parliamentarians are concerned, as a sham,” he told Guardian Australia. “It’s not really an anti-corruption commission at all.

“It’s a body set up to shield parliamentarians and public servants.

Why would politicians want to set up a body designed to shield themselves from prosecution? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, isn't it. The real question is why Australian voters tolerate a nakedly corrupt political establishment, rather than throwing them out on their arses.

Banning foreign donations

So, afte rewriting electoral law to reduce transparency over party funding, National's Nick Smith suddenly wants to ban foreign donations to prevent "foreign interference". It's pretty much a no-brainer, but what would it actually entail? At the moment, the law prohibits foreign donations above $1,500, but there are two obvious ways around it: making multiple "anonymous" donations below the $1,500 threshold, and using a New Zealand-based corporate shell to launder the donation. The first is easily fixed: reduce the threshold to a nominal level, and align it with the party and candidate disclosure thresholds, so that every non-trivial donation is publicly declared and subject to scrutiny. The latter would require effectively banning some or all corporate donations. There's a strong argument that the right to donate should be limited to natural persons - eligible voters - but people should also be able to do collectively what they are entitled to do individually, which suggests there should be some exemption for democratic, membership-based organisations such as incorporated societies and unions. while that is also potentially open to abuse, it seems a lot less so than at present, when anyone can set up a New Zealand company and use it to launder donations to whoever they wish.

Who'd have thunk it?

So, it turns out that the New Zealand Taxpayer's Union are simply a paid front for the cancer industry:

A right-wing lobbying group which has railed against cigarette tax increases and plain packaging laws in New Zealand counts a tobacco giant among its corporate funders.

The NZ Taxpayers’ Union has not disclosed its financial support from tobacco companies in its reports or press releases, with one public health academic calling on it to be more transparent about its donors.

The Guardian identified the relationship between the Taxpayers’ Union and British American Tobacco as part of its series on “the huge damage of the tobacco epidemic ... and the industry behind it”.

In an investigation into the ties between “free-market thinktanks” and the tobacco industry, the Taxpayers’ Union was identified as being supported by multinational firm British American Tobacco.

A British American Tobacco spokesman told Newsroom the company had been financially supporting the Taxpayers’ Union for three years, paying “a standard annual corporate membership fee”.

This is a basic conflict of interest, which could have been resolved by simply saying where their money was coming from. But that would have defeated the purpose: what British American Tobacco is paying for is "independence", the illusion that people who aren't paid by them advocate for their interests. And of course if they'd said "we take money from the cancer industry" on the bottom of a piece defending that industry's interests, everyone would have dismissed it for the hackery it is.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: now that they've been exposed as intellectual mercenaries, will the New Zealand media continue to print the Taxpayer's Onion's PR? It will be an important test of whether they have even basic journalistic standards.

The Taranaki Oil & Gas Security Group

When the police released their report on their relationship with Thompson and Clark Investigations back in December, it contained an interesting revelation: two bodies associated with the oil industry, TOGs (Taranaki Oil & Gas Security Group) and MEJIG (Minerals Exploration Joint Intelligence Group) were actually established by government bodies or had government participants. I sent off some OIA requests, and I now have the first of them, from the police on TOGs, back. I had asked for a list of meetings attendees, and agendas. The police responded with TOGs' terms of reference (which included a membership list) and assorted meeting agendas, though its not clear if the latter are complete (police record-keeping being what it is). The identities of all non-police participants were redacted for privacy. The documents have been uploaded to DocumentCloud:

It is unclear whether the group continued to meet after September 2015, or whether the police simply don't have minutes.

Since the request was simply a preliminary one for dates and agendas, there's not a lot there, but there's already a few followups which people could make. For example, the "Crime Prevention Partnership Forum" mentioned in the December 2014 meeting sounds interesting, and might reveal more of these secret public-private intelligence-sharing groups. maritime NZ appears to have attended at least once, so they might have further information. Most amusingly, its shown that the police's whitewash report into TCIL couldn't even get basics like the date TOG was established correct (it says "early 2014", whereas the first police minutes held are from 2013, and that's very obviously not the first meeting). Which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in their ability.

I'll be doing followup requests, obviously. Meanwhile I'm still waiting to hear from MBIE about MEJIG.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

This is what Kiwibank is for

Newsroom has a story about a threat by Australian banks to hold our economy hostage if they are forced to behave responsibly:

The Government, the housing market and the wider economy will have to navigate this year around a land mine put in their path by the Reserve Bank. This potential explosion inside the housing market may be avoided or deflected, but if the big four banks want to hold the Government hostage they could go on a lending strike and ramp up mortgage rates in a way that slams house prices and the wider economy.

It's all about an arcane part of financial regulation that most voters and home owners will never have heard of, let alone politicians and business leaders: capital requirements.

The biggest story in the political economy at the end of last year that didn't get a lot of attention was the Reserve Bank's proposals in mid-December for New Zealand's banks to double their tier one capital levels over the next five years.

That would force the big four banks to put aside almost $20 billion in fresh capital, which would be the equivalent of retaining 70 percent of their profits each year for the next five years.

Those Aussie banks make mega-profits, which they suck back over the Tasman to their foreign owners. As pointed out, they could easily afford to comply with the government's requirements (which are about ensuring that banks can withstand economic shocks, like, say, a mad orange blob in the White House starting a trade war with China). But that would mean lower profits, so they are apparently threatening sabotage instead. which, the government should say "bring it on". Because this sort of shit is exactly why we have KiwiBank. If this hostile foreign cartel decides to start a capital strike, then the government can and should shovel billions of dollars at KiwiBank so it can simply step in and take all their business. And then we'll find out whether they're actually serious about refusing to make money in New Zealand, or whether its just the usual huff and puff from rich wankers used to getting their own way from chickenshit politicians.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

New Fisk

Bernie Sanders could be US president in 2020 – and this is what it means for Israel and the Middle East
The US media has lost one of its sanest voices on military matters – so let's hope William Arkin's absence is brief

Time for redistribution

Oxfam released a report yesterday pointing out that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Its the usual story, with the twist that New Zealand's two richest men increased their wealth by only slightly less than was stolen from the poorest 50% of us. Which is exactly the sort of shit Labour was elected to put a stop to. As for how, the answer is simple: tax the fuckers.

New Zealand used to have a highly progressive tax system, with rates of up to 90% on top earners. That was during WWII, when the government needed more money than usual, but in the postwar period, the top tax rate was generally 70%. Roger Douglas and his NeoLiberal revolution ended all that, and the result was an explosion of inequality, with the rich using their untaxed income to make even more money, while public services fell apart and they created a permanent underclass - problems the government then refused to fix because (by choice) it "had no money".

Other countries, like Sweden, Norway and Denmark, have much lower rates of inequality than us, while also having much better infrastructure, social services and standards of living. And they do it by taxing the rich and the companies that do business there, and using the money to provide social services and support those on lower incomes. In short, redistribution. We can and should do that too. As for cries from the rich's mouthpieces that their masters will leave and take their money with them, firstly, that doesn't seem to happen in Scandinavia, and secondly, insofar as its a result of real economic activity, the source of that money will still remain here to be taxed (it may just be owned by someone else).

So Labour, are you going to do this? Or is your entire pitch - government for the many, not the few - a lie?

This isn't justice

Robert Roper is a rapist and child abuser. In addition to raping his own children, he raped and harassed women at his workplace, RNZAF Whenuapai, crimes which the air force effectively covered up. After his conviction, one of his victims tried to sue the air force for failing to protect her - a case which necessarily involved Roper. And as a result of that, she now has to pay him $28,000. Not because she lost on the merits - the court explicitly found that she was repeatedly harassed and groped by Roper and locked in a cage by him - but because the law sets a time limit on civil claims.

The judge was clear that the law didn't give them any other option: the time limit means the case must fail, and costs must be paid by the loser. There are good reasons for these laws. But at the same time, this isn't justice. In fact, its the complete opposite. And it sets a terrible incentive for anyone seeking justice in the future, because if you lose, you may be bankrupted by your vindictive abuser.

As for what to do about it, there's a GiveALittle campaign here, which might help with an appeal or with paying the costs. But that's just a sticking plaster, and this seems like it needs a more systematic solution. And here, its worth noting that criminal law sets different time limits on prosecution depending on the severity of the offence, and that there's no time-limit on prosecution for serious crimes. It may be time to import that sort of thinking into civil claims for sexual harassment. The alternative is to allow the law to be known as an instrument of injustice, which directly encourages people to seek their justice by other means.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Wellington to participate in KapCon, Wellington's annual rpg convention.

Monday is a public holiday,so normal bloggage should resume Tuesday.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

A threat to democracy

People have also suspected that New Zealand's spy agencies saw people who wished to limit their powers, cut their budgets, or disestablish them as a "threat" to "national security". And it turns out they were right. According to former Green MP Keither Locke, the SIS has been forced to apologise to him after documents emerged showing exactly that mindset:

Last April I received a letter from Rebecca Kitteridge, the director of the Security Intelligence Service, apologising for the way I was referred to in internal SIS documents. She wrote that I had been described as a “threat” in speaking notes for a Joint Induction Programme run by the SIS and the Government Communications Security Bureau since 2013.

In the SIS documents I was identified as an “internal” threat because I “wish[ed] to see the NZSIS & GCSB abolished or greatly modified”. The documents labelled this a “syndrome”.

In her apology, Kitteridge said “the talking point suggests wrongly that being a vocal critic of the agencies means you are a ‘threat’ or a ‘syndrome’. In fact, people who criticise the agencies publicly are exercising their right to freedom of expression and protest, which are rights we uphold, and are enshrined in the Intelligence and Security Act 2017.”

But pretty obviously, these are not rights the SIS upholds. They have a long and dirty history of political surveillance, of which this is just the latest outrage. And their closed, cold war mindset and the iron law of bureaucracy gives them clear and ongoing incentives to continue to paint critics in this light. All of which means that it is the SIS, not its critics, which is a threat: a threat to our democracy. And the best way of eliminating that threat is to disband it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why is NZ business opposed to behaving ethically?

In the wake of several high-profile cases of being bitten by the immoral behaviour of companies it has outsourced to, the New Zealand government is planning to impose a code of conduct requiring its suppliers to behave lawfully and ethically and not engage in corruption. Of course, Business NZ thinks that this is too onerous:

However, Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said some businesses may just pull the plug on contracts with government departments if a new code of conduct is too stringent.

"If there are additional obligations and things they have to do in their business to meet standards, additional auditing of small to medium businesses, particularly if they're only a small supplier then they might say this isn't going to work for us," Mr Hope said.

So, just to get that clear, Business NZ thinks NZ companies not committing crimes is too much work. Nice to have that on the record. New Zealand businesses meanwhile might want to reconsider the wisdom of being "represented" by a body which publicly portrays them all as corrupt, unethical criminals.

What happens now?

This morning the UK parliament voted on Theresa may's Brexit deal - and as expected voted it down in the biggest defeat for a UK government in the democratic era. So what happens now? The problem is that no-one can tell. The UK has passed into political singularity, and no-one knows what might come out the other side.

There will be a formal confidence vote tomorrow, which it seems likely May will win - no-one wants her shit Brexit deal, but her supporters don't want an election either. But MPs are known to lie, and its not inconceivable that a few backbenchers grumpy about the outcome will decide to roll her. Meanwhile, May says her plan is to consult her party and its DUP (fanatic Northern Irish protestant) supporters and take their views back to parliament, but this goes straight back to her core problem: her own party doesn't know what it wants. Or rather, it is divided into two increasingly hostile factions who want incompatible things: a full-on hard Brexit to show Britain's greatness and superiority to Johnny Foreigner (complete with soundtrack of "Rule Britannia" as the clown car hurtles off the White Cliffs of Dover and into the sea), versus cancelling the whole thing and trying to go back to the status quo ante. But she's legally required to come up with something for parliament to vote on, within three days.

Whatever may comes up with, Parliament gets to vote on it, and amend it. But its unclear whether there's a majority there for anything either. It seems there's a majority against hard Brexit, but the UK parliament voting against that doesn't mean its not going to happen: its the default option, and the only way to prevent it is to agree something else with the EU. Who, having painstakingly reached consensus on the deal parliament just voted down, are unlikely to agree anything more generous. Ideas that there is a "better deal" if the UK just Speaks Slowly in A Very Loud Voice (or more likely, whines piteously enough) are simply fantasies. Likewise, the idea that they can join Norway or Lichtenstein in the EFA or Efta are fantasies, because the existing parties to those deals won't agree to it.

As for a "people's vote", that would require someone to decide what the options actually are. So, the same problem, on a different stage. Plus they'd probably fuck it up again by not making the decision legally binding (or as legally binding as they could, given that its a referendum on international relations).

What happens now? Nobody knows. But what has been exposed by this is the utter dysfunction of its political system, and the utter cowardliness of its major political parties in refusing to take a formal position for which they can be held electorally accountable on the most salient political issue in a century. Whatever happens, UK voters should do something about that. sadly, the UK's unfair electoral system is likely to prevent them from doing anything of the sort, and so these dysfunctional political inbreds will remain in power.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fiji: Criminalising the opposition again

The Fijian government has introduced a Code of Conduct Bill, ostensibly setting standards for politicians and public servants and a body to receive complaints about them. But when you read the fine print, it turns out that its just a trojan horse for punishing people who complain about the government:

The bill lays out codes of conduct for public servants, politicians and judges as well as rules for a new Accountability and Transparency Commission which would enforce the code.

Under the bill, the commission must refer complaints it believes are malicious or politically motivated to Fiji's Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) and anyone found guilty would be liable to a fine of up to $FJ10,000 or up to five years in jail.

The terms "malicious" and "politically motivated" were not defined in the bill, Mr Naidu said.

Here it is worth noting that any criticism of the government by the opposition is deemed "malicious" and "politically motivated" by the former. So, if they make a formal complaint, they can be jailed (and unseated, and barred from public office) for it. Which when you look at the actual power of the ATC - all they can do is report things to the Fiji "Independent" Commission Against Corruption, and they are not allowed to investigate issues which have been raised in the media or with anyone else first - then it seems that jailing people who make complaints is the whole point of the exercise. The net result? Rather than building trust and accountability, it erodes them.

There's more from Richard Naidu about the bill here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The police keep on killing

The police killed three people in a pursuit in Christchurch last night:

Police said they began the pursuit after a vehicle was seen speeding in the city centre at about 11.13pm.

They said it is believed the car continued to drive at speed on Blenheim Road.

Police said they weren't in pursuit of the vehicle at this stage but laid spikes in an attempt to stop the vehicle.

The vehicle hit the spikes and crashed into a tree, catching fire, they said.

Police said all three occupants died at the scene. They were working to notify and support their next of kin and the staff involved.

So, just to be crystal clear, they decided to stop a vehicle using an inherently risky method, and people died as a result. And they almost certainly violated police policy in doing so. According to this 2016 IPCA report, road spikes are not to be used if "injury is likely to occur to the public, Police or the occupants of the fleeing car". Using them where there are trees to crash into means injury is likely to occur.

If you or I deliberately caused a fatal car accident in this manner, we would be charged and prosecuted. Isn't it time police officers who show a depraved indifference to lives of the public are subject to the same law as everybody else? Or are their egos, the blow to the confidence of arresting someone later when it is safe to do so rather than pursuing them like mad dogs, more important than human life?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

New Fisk

Judge Richard Goldstone suffered for turning his back on Gaza – but not as much as the Palestinians he betrayed
Trump vs Mattis: Watch out when men of war come to the rescue
The Ottomans were once humiliated by Yemeni rebels – today, the Houthis have done the same to Saudi Arabia

Taking back control

Brexit day is fast approaching, and the UK government seems to have no plan. Their deal is so despised that it will not pass the required parliamentary vote, while their contingency plans seem to rely on wishful thinking and ferries which don't exist (which is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the process). And so in a dramatic last-minute development, the UK parliament has taken back control over the entire process:

Theresa May’s room for manoeuvre should her Brexit deal be rejected next week was further constrained on Wednesday night, after the government lost a second dramatic parliamentary showdown in as many days.

An increasingly boxed-in prime minister must now set out her plan B within three working days of a defeat next Tuesday, after a rebel amendment passed on Wednesday.

There were furious scenes in the House of Commons, as the Speaker, John Bercow, took the controversial decision to allow a vote on the amendment, tabled by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

A string of MPs, including the leader of the house of Commons Andrea Leadsom, repeatedly intervened to question the Speaker’s approach, with some accusing him of being biased against Brexit.

But parliament went on to back Grieve, as Conservative rebels determined to hand control of the Brexit process to MPs if next week’s vote is lost, defied the prime minister.

This prevents the government from running out the clock and forcing a no-deal Brexit by default (and from using that threat to try and force people to vote for its shit deal). But more importantly, thanks to some earlier procedural jockeying, parliament will be able to amend the response. So, they'll be able to instruct the government to withdraw the Article 50 notice (stopping Brexit), leave with no deal (something they've already demonstrated a parliamentary majority against, though they should formally vote on it), or grovel to Brussels for an extended deadline while they draft legislation for a binding referendum giving the UK public a clear choice between those two options. The problem is that no matter what they decide, the issue isn't going to go away soon: a chunk of the UK population (mostly old, white, and rural) rabidly hates the EU, and will see any reveral as a betrayal, and any confirmatory referendum as the public being forced to vote until they get it right (as opposed to the public being given a final say over the actual options on the table / being used as the final arbitrator because the political establishment is too dysfunctional to make up its mind). Worse, they've shown a willingness to murder people to get their way. So, the immediate results are likely to be unpleasant. And in the long term, the demon that Cameron let loose is likely to continue to cause trouble - at least, until demographics takes its course, and memories of Empire die out naturally. And the UK will be a much better place for that.

Something to be proud of

New Zealand is the world's 4th most democratic country, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit:

New Zealand remains the world's fourth most democratic country, while the United States remains a "flawed democracy", the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) says.

According to the EIU's 2018 Democracy Index, New Zealand is one of 20 full democracies in the world. As often happens with such lists, top places are dominated by Scandinavian countries, with Norway rated most democratic, followed by Iceland and Sweden, while Denmark is fifth and Finland eighth.

Canada and Ireland share sixth, Australia is ninth, Germany 13th, and the United Kingdom 14th.

The US was in 25th place, having dropped from 21st in 2017, although the decline was partly to do with improvements in some other countries, the EIU said.

This is good, but our score hasn't shifted at all since last year, and its something we can still do better on. OTOH, at least it didn't decrease, unlike the US.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

More government spying

The Herald has disturbing news this morning: MBIE has recently signed a contract to train its staff in using fake social media profiles to spy on people:

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has hired a security firm to increase staff skills in using fake social media profiles to gather intelligence.

Among the modules offered are harvesting information from social networks, creating back-stories for false online personae and creating dossiers on people and groups.

When informed of the training by the Herald, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said senior ministers would be briefed on the issue when they returned to work at the end of the month.

"Kiwis should be able to go about their daily business without the fear of bureaucrats peering into their social media," he said.

Jones is right. This sort of spying is intensely problematic. As highlighted in the Law Commission's Review of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, simply using public information
has the potential to undermine the right to freedom of expression and other associated rights. It may discourage the public from engaging in debate and presenting opinions without fear of government interference. This is particularly likely if enforcement agencies use social media to monitor legitimate activity such as peaceful protest.

And that's just public information. Using fake profiles with detailed backstories suggests they are trying to capture people's private or friend-locked information, which is even more intrusive. But under the new "reasonable expectation of privacy" standard, it may also constitute a "search" under s21 of the Bill of Rights Act, and therefore be illegal without explicit statutory authority (which in turn, poses a legal threat to every case MBIE has used such information in). The Law Commission recommended that harvesting public information be covered by a statutory policy statement, setting out the purposes for which it could be done. They also suggested that using false profiles to access private, "friends-only" information be treated as a covert operation requiring a warrant. The fact that MBIE is doing this suggests we need such regulation as quickly as possible, to restrict such government spying to proper investigative purposes, rather than the current free-for-all.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Another "labour shortage"

Hawke's Bay apple growers are whining about a seasonal "labour shortage" and demanding they be subsidised by immigrant labour again. But the "labour shortage" is illusory - its not that there is a shortage of people to do the work, but a shortage of people willing to do it (in the hot, hot sun, in the middle of nowhere, with no job security etc) at the price employers are willing to pay. Which suggests an obvious solution: if apple growers want people to pick their apples, they should offer more money. Otherwise the fruit can and should just rot on the trees.

Monday, January 07, 2019

We need higher pay for local councillors

Everyone hates politicians. But sensible people recognise that they need to be paid - firstly, because they work hard for us, secondly, to prevent corruption, and thirdly, so that politics isn't the exclusive domain of the independently wealthy who can afford to do it as a sort of hobby. The latter is an underappreciated reason, but historicly one of the most important: we inherited our political system from the UK, where politicians were unpaid - a measure which would have excluded the vast bulk of the population even if they were allowed to vote (and this being Britain in the C19th, of course they weren't). Which is why "paid MPs" was one of the six demands of the People's Charter, along with universal suffrage and the secret ballot.

But while New Zealand got the message and pays its MPs (perhaps a bit too well, but better than the alternative), we haven't accepted it for local authorities. While large councils pay a decent salary, small councils effectively pay the minimum wage. And the result is what you'd expect: only rich people and pensioners can afford to do it, while young people and those with families are excluded. And the result is that their interests are excluded as well, while those of rich old people dominate. So public transport and playgrounds are sacrificed to keep rates low, while climate change is ignored because the rich old pricks either don't accept its reality or expect it to be someone else's problem (unless it threatens the value of their foolish coastal property investments, which case they will move heaven and earth to dump that cost on the young). And of course it sets a tremendous incentive for corruption, in bodies which perhaps have the greatest potential for profit (to point out the obvious, RMA planning decisions can be extremely lucrative, and that sort of corruption is pervasive in Australia).

This is a real problem. It undermines our democracy, and it results in poor, unrepresentative, and potentially corrupt policy choices. But fixing it would require accepting that local body governance was actually work, for which we should pay a proper wage rather than rely on potentially corrupt hobbyists. It would also require the status quo to yield some power. And that is not going to happen without a fight.

It can't happen here

Over in the US, they're in the second week of a government shutdown - an event so regular in their dysfunctional, ramshackle "democracy" that it has a name and a list on Wikipedia. And in NZ, curious people are asking the obvious question: can it happen here?

The good news is that no, it can't. The simple reason is that under New Zealand's Westminster system, "supply" - funding the government - is what constitutionally determines who is in power. So if a government is unable to do that, we don't have a shutdown, we have a coalition renegotiation or an election instead.

The more complicated reasons have to do with budget processes and incentives on government. The US has these shutdowns because they dick around with the budget process, engage in brinkmanship, and engage in other childish bullshit. One of the reasons they do it is because they have weak party discipline, and consequent weak accountability to the public. Another is that the US's strict separation of powers means legislators have no investment in the success of executive government. A shutdown isn't their problem, but a problem they make for someone else. Here, the executive is drawn from the legislature, so the governing parties (in theory a majority of the House) are invested in success. The ability of the government to continue to perform its basic functions is very much their problem, to the extent that threatening to interrupt it is like holding a gun to their own head. And they can't just refuse to do it or run out the clock like they do in the US: McGee's Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (practically a quasi-constitutional text) says that "The Government cannot avoid asking the House for supply, for to do so would be to abdicate its responsibility as a Government." While I don't think it has ever been tested, if they piss about, fail to do their jobs and pass the usual bills for interim funding and allow current budgetary approval to expire, then its treated as a loss of confidence and an election or coalition renegotiation automatically follows.

Which brings us to the ultimate safeguard: us. US politicians play these games because the US electorate tolerates it. While it has never been tested in practice, I suspect the tolerance of the New Zealand electorate for such bullshit is very, very low, to the extent that any government which threatened such an interruption (let alone presided over one) would be voted out on their arse. US politicians appear to face no such threats. And you can see the result of that in the media every January.