Friday, March 29, 2019



The false economy of cuts

When they were in government, National cut funding to NZTA's compliance section to save a few pennies. People died as a result. But it turns out that their "savings" were illusory:

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) has planned a rebuild of its $30 million regulatory functions, but investigations into its failures are far from over.

In October, it emerged NZTA had not been properly checking up on companies who certify vehicle safety and give out licenses, and when problems were identified were often not following up.

Law firm Meredith Connell was appointed to lead the NZTA regulatory compliance function to clear a backlog of 850 open compliant files, which it has now completed.

To date this has cost taxpayers about $5m and looks set to increase by about 20 per cent during the next three months, as the non-compliance project continues.

[...]

The second stage of the project was under way with a blueprint and plan for regulatory compliance being created.

'Future State' would require about $30m to start, to "get NZTA back to the position it should always have been in" but that cost could increase, he said.


And that's the false economy of cuts. If its an actually essential service - a category which includes most of what government does - then you just end up having to repay it all later, plus interest, to get things working properly again. Unfortunately, some things - like the lives of the people National killed - can't be replaced.

And now I'm wondering how many other similar messes have been created by National's penny-pinching, and how much we'll have to pay to clean up the mess they left.

Thursday, March 28, 2019



Giving the finger to dictatorship

Thais went to the polls over the weekend in the first elections since 2014's military coup. The elections were supposed to be a way for the dictatorship to legitimise its rule, Fiji-style. But despite censoring the media, banning a major opposition party, wheeling out the king to support the junta, having soldiers check the ballots of people voting, and the electoral commission refuse to finalise the results, the opposition still managed to win a majority on provisional results. And now, they've united to form a majority coalition to throw out the dictatorship:

Seven pro-democracy political parties in Thailand have united to form a coalition large enough to claim a parliamentary majority and declared their intention to form a government, ousting the military from power.

The announcement came amid concerns about potential irregularities in Sunday’s vote and before a full preliminary vote count has been released. Official results are not due until May.

Thailand’s Pheu Thai party said on Wednesday that it had formed a “democratic front” with six other parties after the disputed election, claiming the opposition alliance had won a majority in the lower house of parliament and the right to try to form a government.

The coalition, led by Thaksin-aligned party Pheu Thai which won the most seats in Sunday’s election, said they intended to “bring back democracy and stop the power of the NCPO [military junta]”.


Whether they'll actually get to do that will depend on whether the results stand, or whether the military "adjusts" them to give themselves power. But even if they do, the elected parliament will be battling against an entirely military-appointed Senate, which absurdly gets a voice in deciding the Prime Minister. OTOH, if they don't, then they will be able to prevent the dictatorship from passing any legislation whatsoever - a power they should use to the fullest until the Senate is abolished and democracy is restored.

Leaving them to drown

Every year, thousands of refugees try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats, desperate to escape whatever hellhole they're in and find somewhere safe. Previously, the EU had rescued them when they got into trouble. But now, thanks to Italy, they have a new policy: leave them to drown:

The European Union is to stop the sea patrols that have rescued thousands of refugees and migrants from the central Mediterranean, after Italy’s populist government threatened to veto the entire operation.

Operation Sophia, which has two vessels and five planes and helicopters, was set up in 2015 to prevent loss of life at sea in a year when 3,771 people died or went missing attempting to reach Europe in rickety boats.

The sea patrol element of the operation will end on 30 September, though air patrols will be stepped up. The mission will also continue training the Libyan coastguard – part of a controversial strategy that critics say leads to people being trapped in Libyan detention centres, where they suffer horrific abuse.


Meanwhile, they've harassed and deflagged the independent rescue ships, so there is now no-one to save these people. It is simply a policy of outright murder. And the politicians responsible should go to The Hague for it.

Time to sack NZBus

How bad are Wellington's bus problems? This bad:

The scale of Wellington's bus problems has been revealed, with one operator copping 117 fines a day for failures such as cancelled or late buses

Figures released to Stuff reveal NZ Bus was stung 17,663 times in five months after Greater Wellington Regional Council began penalising operators not meeting their contract requirements from October.

The infractions included 3207 cancellations, 8451 late services, and 6005 instances of using buses too small for the route.

In total, the company copped a fine on almost 12 per cent of its services from October 1 until February 28.


So basicly they're only doing 90% of the job they signed up to do. They're cheating us.

Unfortunately the total amount of the fines has been withheld as "commercially sensitive", but the Wellington Regional Council claims they are "substantial". The real question is whether they are "substantial" in relation to the contract, and whether they mean it is unprofitable to fail this badly. Because if it is not, it damn well should be (and if its still profitable to do this, the contract is badly written and WRC should be sacking its lawyers).

The whole idea of contracting out public services is predicated on there being meaningful incentives to perform. Time to apply some. Rongotai MP Paul Eagle has called on NZBus to surrender the contract. Instead, Wellington Regional Council should sack them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019



New(ish) Fisk

US grovels to Israel the same way ‘supporters’ fawned on Saddam
Don’t believe the hype, Isis has not yet been defeated – here’s why
Ardern’s response to Christchurch has put other leaders to shame – but not for its compassion alone
Like power-hungry leaders before him, Abdelaziz Bouteflika can’t quite let go – and now Algeria is a necrocracy

Shouldn't there be prosecutions?

Yesterday we learned that the Department of Corrections had agreed to compensate 15 women for illegal internal searches carried out at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility between 2006 and 2016. Corrections had been "suspecting" people of internally concealing contraband (none was ever found), locking them in solitary confinement in a "dry room" to allow material to pass, then proposing they "consent" to an internal search - clearly outlawed by the Corrections Act - in order to be released. There can be no consent of any kind in a prison, and the prisoners are being compensated for torture and degrading treatment, which is appropriate. But as the article points out, the searches "constitute[d] the offence of sexual violation under the Crimes Act". So shouldn't the staff who arranged and conducted them be prosecuted for that offence? Or are we happy for guards to sexually violate prisoners in our prisons?

A monument to corruption

Over a decade ago, the Palmerston North City Council corruptly sold access to one of its reserves to Mighty River Power to build a windfarm. The project then spent five years fighting for resource consent, before apparently being buried by the global financial crisis. But now, unfortunately, its back, and construction is beginning later this year:

Mercury has confirmed it will build the first 33 of 60 consented wind turbines at Turitea near Palmerston North.

The Manawatū wind farm will be the third largest in the country when construction begins in August, with it producing enough electricity to power 210,000 cars.

Mercury chief executive Fraser Whineray said it would be the first large-scale addition to New Zealand's generation capacity since 2014.


All of which would be great, if that wind farm wasn't in a reserve, and the local council hadn't effectively taken a bribe to reclassify that reserve to allow it to proceed. If instead they'd been able to proceed with the Motorimu project a bit further down the ridge (and not in a reserve), that would be great. Instead, they're going to cut down native bush (sorry: "regenerating native scrub") to build a monument to corruption.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019



The fear of a good example

Over the Tasman, the racist One Nation has been caught soliciting donations from the US NRA. Naturally, they've complained to police and ASIO about "foreign interference" in elections - not about themselves, of course, but about the (foreign-owned) media who exposed them. But why was the NRA wanting to donate to a racist Australian political party anyway? It was all about the fear of a good example:

In one meeting in Washington DC last September, senior NRA lobbyist Brandi Graham told the pair it would be easier for the NRA to resist calls for gun control in the US if Australia had softer gun ownership laws.

"That helps us, because the biggest argument we always get from folks is, 'Well, look at Australia'," Ms Graham said.

"They are continually attacking us, it's never-ending."


Which ought to raise some concern, given that New Zealand is setting a similar example. And while foreign donations over $1,500 are illegal, the ban is trivially circumvented by using a local company (which can be 100% foreign-owned), or simply a New Zealander to launder it. Though given the near-universal support for gun control, the NRA might have trouble finding people willing to take their money. Other than ACT, of course...

Climate Change: Coal is doomed

If we are to avoid dangerous levels of anthropogenic climate change which will make the earth uninhabitable, we need to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The good news is that advances in renewables mean that coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is already uneconomic:

Around three-quarters of US coal production is now more expensive than solar and wind energy in providing electricity to American households, according to a new study.

“Even without major policy shift we will continue to see coal retire pretty rapidly,” said Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. “Our analysis shows that we can move a lot faster to replace coal with wind and solar. The fact that so much coal could be retired right now shows we are off the pace.”

The study’s authors used public financial filings and data from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) to work out the cost of energy from coal plants compared with wind and solar options within a 35-mile radius. They found that 211 gigawatts of current US coal capacity, 74% of the coal fleet, is providing electricity that’s more expensive than wind or solar.

By 2025 the picture becomes even clearer, with nearly the entire US coal system out-competed on cost by wind and solar, even when factoring in the construction of new wind turbines and solar panels.


And that's in the US, which does not have a price on carbon. The picture is likely to be even better in countries with an effective carbon price.

But while simple economics should stop the construction of new coal plants, that's only part of the solution. There's also a huge train of legacy plants which are still burning. These aren't just destroying the planet - they're also making consumers pay more for electricity than they need to. And we do not have time to let them age out naturally. Which means that governments need to prioritise rapidly shutting down this old, dirty generation and replacing it with newer, cleaner, cheaper renewables.

Monday, March 25, 2019



Objectionable

The Chief Censor has declared the Christchurch terrorist's manifesto objectionable. Its not an especially surprising decision: the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 specifies whether a publication "promotes or encourages criminal acts or acts of terrorism" as a possible grounds for such a classification, and while it must be balanced against various other factors such as dominant effect, impact, scientific, literary or artistic merit, or intended audience, none of those present a particularly compelling reason for rejecting their conclusion. And its not a novel interpretation: the law has been used to classify ISIS material as "objectionable" in the past.

That said, I don't think this is the minimum restriction on freedom of speech necessary (as required by the BORA), and the Chief Censor recognises that it may interfere with the ability of journalists to do their job in reporting on this event. Graeme Edgeler has suggested restricting it to journalists subject to the jurisdiction of the BSA or NZMC, and that seems to be a far better solution. But if anyone wants that to happen, they can always seek a review, and then (if necessary) an appeal. The outcome will likely be a valuable clarification on the extent of freedom of speech, whatever way it goes.

Germany must investigate US drone murders

For the past 15 years the US has been murdering people all over Africa, Asia and the Middle East with drone strikes. At their best, these drone-strikes are simply outright assassinations. At their worst, they are indiscriminate murders or political killings of non-combatants - basicly, an airborne death squad. It is doubtful whether this policy of murder complies with international law. And now, a German court has ruled that that country's government can't just look the other way on it:

Three Yemeni men have scored a partial success after suing Germany for its apparent role in drone attacks that killed relatives. The plaintiffs want Berlin to stop the US using German territory to relay information.

A court in Münster on Tuesday ruled partly in favor of three plaintiffs from Yemen who believe that their relatives were killed in a 2012 US drone strike that was relayed via an airbase in Germany.

The Münster Higher Administrative Court ruled that the German government must take "appropriate measures" to ascertain whether US operations conducted via the Ramstein Air Base are in line with international law.

The court ruled that Berlin should also, if necessary, press Washington to adhere to international law on drone strikes.


There's more details here, but the short version is that the German government can no longer accept US assurances that everything is legal. Its unclear what would happen if the US refuses to cooperate with the required investigations, or they find that it is violating international law, but its not unthinkable that it could be ordered to cease any support for drone operations from German territory.

There's also implications here for New Zealand. Like Germany, we have a statutorily affirmed right to life which is binding on every action of any part of our government. And like Germany, parts of our government are providing tacit cooperation with US drone murders (in our case, far more directly: the GCSB provides them with information as part of the Five Eyes, and in 2014 the Prime Minister admitted that that information may have been used to murder people). The German ruling suggests that the GCSB can't just rely on US assurances of legality, but must actively investigate to ensure we are not assisting in an arbitrary deprivation of life or other violation of international law. The question is, who is going to make them do that?

Reversing the clearances?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Scottish landlords cleared the highlands, driving people off their land and forcing them into destitution or to emigrate. The result was a Scottish countryside full of sheep farms and deer-parks, run by and for a small clique of rich lords. Now, the Scottish government has been advised to reverse the process:

Scottish land ownership rules must be radically reformed to reverse the concentration of the countryside in the hands of a small number of ultra-wealthy individuals and public bodies, a major review has warned.

The study by the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, says that in extreme cases where landowners abuse their power they could face compulsory purchase or community buyouts.

The commission, set up by Scottish ministers who are likely to look closely at its conclusions, found that major landowners behaved like monopolies across large areas of rural Scotland and had too much power over land use, economic investment and local communities.

[...]

Describing the worst effects of that monopoly power as “socially corrosive”, the SLC warned: “In some parts of Scotland, concentrated land ownership appears to be causing significant and long-term damage to the communities affected.” The eventual goal of the commission would be to break up many large estates.


The Scottish parliament will be debating the report this week. Hopefully they'll decide to proceed. Alternatively, they could do what New Zealand did when faced with an incipient rural aristocracy in the late C19th: tax rural land, drive the landlords into bankruptcy, and use the resulting proceedings to break up their estates.

Thursday, March 21, 2019



Banned

The government has followed up with its strong words on Monday by announcing plans to legislate to immediately ban all semi-automatic and military-style firearms, backed by an immediate order-in-council recategorising them as requiring an E-class licence (so immediately banning sale to almost everybody):

Military style semi-automatics and assault rifles will be banned in New Zealand under stronger new gun laws announced today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

“On 15 March our history changed forever. Now, our laws will too. We are announcing action today on behalf of all New Zealanders to strengthen our gun laws and make our country a safer place,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“Cabinet agreed to overhaul the law when it met on Monday, 72 hours after the horrific terrorism act in Christchurch. Now, six days after this attack, we are announcing a ban on all military style semi-automatics (MSSA) and assault rifles in New Zealand.

“Related parts used to convert these guns into MSSAs are also being banned, along with all high-capacity magazines.

“An amnesty will be put in place for weapons to be handed in, and Cabinet has directed officials to develop a buyback scheme. Further details will be announced on the buyback in due course.

The law will be introduced under urgency when parliament meets again the week after next. It will have an abbreviated select committee process, and be passed within two weeks of introduction. There will be further legislation later around registration, but the immediate objective is banning these weapons and getting them turned into police. An amendment to the arms regulations means turning in a lawfully bought reclassified MSSA is not a crime, but as of half an hour ago, anyone who tries to retain or on-sell them is now a criminal. The government has made it clear that the police will be using their power to obtain records from dealers to track any semi-automatic that has been purchased, and will be following up if these guns are not turned in. So, the ban will be enforced, these guns will be taken off people if they don't return them lawfully, and the police will be asking questions if any of them can't be accounted for.

And that's that. The government is delivering exactly the sort of swift action people have demanded. And exactly the opposite of US-style "thoughts and prayers".

Wednesday, March 20, 2019



Looking the other way

In the wake of Friday's terrorist attack, the SIS has been quick to disclaim responsibility, making increasing claims that they were looking at Nazis, really. Perhaps then they'd care to explain why there's absolutely no mention of the issue in ten years of documents from them:

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of public documents from the Security Intelligence Service or the GCSB.

[...]

RNZ has examined ten years of annual reports and ministerial briefings and the threat of right nationalists is never specifically mentioned.

There is a heavy focus on Islamic fundamentalists, in the context of several terrorist attacks in other countries and conflict in the Middle East and parts of Africa.


The latter makes it clear that this is not about a reluctance to broadly identify target communities for "security reasons". They have been quite happy to publicly identify Muslims as targets of security interest for the past fifteen years. So again, you'd expect that if they were really paying attention to Nazis, they would have made similar mention. They didn't. The first public mention they make of the issue was last month, as an afterthought.

Their silence speaks volumes. In the face of an increasing international campaign of Islamophobic terrorism by Nazis, the SIS looked the other way. While they are now, finally, paying attention to the real threat against our society, their leadership needs to be held accountable for that failure. And that process can start by the director of the SIS offering her resignation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019



Show us the warrants

The SIS, in an effort to claim that Friday's terrorist attack which killed fifty people wasn't a failure on their part, is saying they had their eye on far-right extremists. It's an extraordinary claim, in contradiction to everything we know about their past behaviour and priorities. Fortunately, its easy to prove.

Since 2002, the SIS has been granted 314 intelligence warrants. These are basicly the sign of a serious investigation, allowing phone taps, computer hacking, and black bag jobs to gather evidence of interest to "national security". If they've been properly keeping their eye on Nazis, then there will be intelligence warrants for them. All they have to do to prove they've been doing their job is tell us how many there are, per year (or per 3 years, to give some statistical cover), relating to that sort of target.

They won't want to do this, of course. Telling us even broadly who they are spying on is anathema to the SIS. But they've already kindof done that by saying they've been surveilling Nazis. If they want us to actually believe it, and believe the level of surveillance was appropriate to the threat, they need to provide some proof. They need to show us the warrants.

Giving the finger to the Nazis

Parliament met for the first time today since Friday's act of terrorism, with an abbreviated timetable for a condolence motion. It opened with a procession of a dozen religious leaders of different faiths. Parliament's normal christian-centric opening prayer was preceded by an Islamic one.

This is what the Nazis say they fear. But rather than being some sort of sinister "takeover", here it was done as a sign that Muslims are New Zealanders, that they belong - as do members of those other religions, and those not represented, and those of no religion at all. That in New Zealand, religion is not exclusive of nationality, any more than ethnic or cultural background is.

What would the Nazis hate? For New Zealand to embrace the Muslim community. For us all to get along, in celebration of our differences, and protect each other against hate. Parliament gave a powerful symbol of that today. Now we all need to live it.

Little's whitewash

One of the obvious questions which immediately arose after Friday's act of terrorism was why our extremely well-budgeted spy agencies didn't stop it from happening. The fact that it happened, and 50 people were killed, represents a huge failure on the part of the SIS, and one the public deserves answers about. Yesterday, in her post-cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister suggested that we would get those answers, promising an inquiry into the question. But her Intelligence Minister Andrew Little has just pre-judged the outcome:

The Minister in charge of New Zealand's intelligence agencies, Andrew Little, says an inquiry into the events surrounding the Christchurch terror attack will show those agencies did their jobs.

[...]

Speaking to Q&A on Monday night, Little welcomed the news of the inquiry and said it would show the intelligence agencies did their jobs.

"… these agencies have done the correct things and done nothing other than fulfil their mandate in terms of security and intelligence."

He rejected any comments there was too much attention given to surveying potential Islamic extremism over other kinds of extremism.


So I guess we'll be getting a whitewash then, an exercise in arse-covering designed to protect the reputation of the spies, while doing nothing to address the question of who they target. Just like the Operation Burnham inquiry. Except of course they'll probably try and grab even more intrusive powers along the way.

We spend $80 million a year on the SIS, an amount which has nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years. What do we get for it? 50 dead bodies. They need to be held accountable for that, and we need to know where they went wrong, so we can be sure it will never happen again.

Monday, March 18, 2019



The Aftermath

I was expecting to spend today blogging about climate change, building on the enormous message of hope sent by the school strike on Friday. Instead, like everyone else, I'm struggling to deal with the aftermath of a horrific act of terrorism which targeted one of New Zealand's most vulnerable communities. According to Radio New Zealand, the terrorist talked in their manifesto about his victims "assault[ing] my civilisation". The real assault on civilisation is murdering people because of their religion, murdering children, spreading this sort of hate. The good news is that he's been arrested and will be prosecuted, and given that he videoed the thing, probably convicted. That won't bring back the dead, but it will stop him from killing anyone else. The other good news is that we're going to get better gun laws, which should make it vastly more difficult for people to engage in mass-murder in the future. And hopefully people are going to be a lot less tolerant of racism in future, now its been rammed home in blood what it leads to.

Obviously there has been a huge intelligence failure here, and I hope some very pointy questions are being asked about why police and the SIS have spent the last two decades spying on Muslims, Maori, environmentalists and the left, while ignoring Nazis. Or why the police were tapping the phones of human rights activists while handing out gun licences to militant racists. Given the scale of the failure, I am shocked that no-one has offered to resign over this. While I wouldn't expect such an offer to be accepted (at least, not immediately), I would have expected it at least to have been made. And it casts serious doubts on SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge's professionalism and integrity that she didn't.

I expect the government to be feeling quite uncomfortable as well. While the Prime Minister has shown us all why she is PM, and expressed the best of New Zealand, her deputy is a racist xenophobe who has repeatedly campaigned on Islamophobia and exploited it for political profit. He's wisely kept out of sight all weekend, but when he slinks back into the light, people are rightly going to ask why he is still in government, or indeed, in Parliament. And since he is unlikely to resign in shame, we're just going to have to de-elect him and his racist party at the next election.

Friday, March 15, 2019



Striking for a future

Thousands of schoolkids around New Zealand have walked out of class today in a school strike for the climate. They're part of a global movement, sparked by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, which is sacrificing a day of education to demand real action on climate change. The people in power now won't live long enough to be badly affected by the disaster they have made. These kids will. They are striking to make their parents care. They are striking for their future.

As it stands, that future is grim. The decisions their parents and grandparents have made - to knowingly keep spewing carbon into the atmosphere and warm the planet so a few people could keep on making money - have had terrible consequences. On current projections, we are heading for between three and four degrees of warming by 2100 - enough to destroy our food crops, spread tropical diseases, make significant chunks of the world uninhabitable, and cause widespread drought, mass-migration, and conflict. And that's just to 2100. Temperatures will continue to rise after that, making things even worse. This isn't extinction, not yet, but things will be very, very bad, with a huge amount of pain and suffering.

Unless we change. Another future is possible: one where we decarbonise the economy, stop polluting the atmosphere, and live within our ecological means. The schoolkids are striking for that future. And we should listen to them - because it is their future. We should not let the dead hand of the old destroy it.

No justice for Bloody Sunday

On 30 January 1972, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians in Derry in Northern Ireland, killing thirteen people. The usual official whitewash followed, and the leader of the murderers was awarded an OBE for his services. But a second inquiry in the 2000's called the crime what it was: murder. The Police Service of Northern Ireland finally began a murder investigation, and now one former soldier has been charged with murder. But only one. As for the rest, the men who pumped bullets into a crowd, shot those trying to flee, and murdered those trying to help the wounded, they all get away with it. But it gets worse - because the reaction of the British government to this was not an acknowledgement of its past crimes and a desire that a prosecution might finally bring some justice, however imperfect, to its victims, but this:

Responding to the PPS decisions, the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “We are indebted to those soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The welfare of our former service personnel is of the utmost importance and we will offer full legal and pastoral support to the individual affected by today’s decision. This includes funding all his legal costs and providing welfare support.

“The Ministry of Defence is working across government to drive through a new package of safeguards to ensure our armed forces are not unfairly treated.

“And the government will urgently reform the system for dealing with legacy issues. Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.”


No, Cthulhu forbid murderers living in fear that they might finally face justice! Won't someone think of the poor, oppressed killers?

In case anyone needs reminding, the dead of Bloody Sunday were UK citizens, killed by their own government for daring to demand human rights. They deserve justice. But they will never get it from Britain.

Thursday, March 14, 2019



How MBIE spies on people

Back in January, we learned that MBIE staff were being trained in using fake social media profiles to spy on people. This raised a number of issues around surveillance, freedom of expression, unreasonable searches and human rights, and so I sent an OIA request to MBIE seeking copies of this training material. They refused to provided it, but they did provide a copy of their social media guidelines, which are disturbing enough. MBIE staff will use Google to stalk you. They will log on to Facebook or LinkedIn to access information not shared with the general public, which is beginning to get intrusive. Worse, they will use false personas to perform passive searches, or even for "active engagement" (talking to people), suggesting they are not just accessing private, friends-locked or closed group information for which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, but also raising the possibility that they are attempting to manipulate public opinion or group actions. Which pretty heavily engages both the freedom of expression and freedom from unreasonable search issues the Law Commission expressed concern about.

Looking at a similar request sent via FYI, MBIE won't say who in their organisation is receiving this training or what it is being used for. Nor will they say whether they seek warrants or production orders to access this private information. Which is pretty dubious. The use of search warrants is the exercise of a statutory power, and there can be no justification for refusing such an abstract query. But the fact that they don't want to tell us tells us what the answer is: they don't, meaning any use of information harvested by such methods is potentially unlawful.

(And yes, in accordance with the "if in doubt, complain" principle, I am complaining about the response on a number of grounds, and have advised the FYI requester on some arguments for their request as well).

If in doubt, complain

Today Stuff launched Redacted, a series of articles on the Official Information Act and how it is abused, to raise awareness about the government's public consultation. Today's big piece is about how public servants circumvent and manipulate the Act to keep information secret and undermine accountability. Its an appalling read, but probably nothing new to regular OIA users familiar with these tactics. So what can we do about it?

Simple: complain to the Ombudsman. Public servants use these tactics because they get away with it, and they get away with it because no-one pulls them up on it. They also use these tactics because it is less work than obeying the law, and again, they get away with it because no-one makes it more work. If we want them to obey the law, then we need to reverse that calculation: make it more work to refuse, and make it likely that bad behaviour will be detected and called out. And the way to do that is by complaining.

Public servants hate Ombudsman's complaints. They are a shit-ton of work, and unlike requests from us peasants, they can't just ignore them, refuse them to meet deadlines, or give bullshit responses. Making complaints is a direct way of incentivising the public servants handling OIA requests to do their job properly and obey the law. At the minimum, they make it clear that someone is watching, and that bad behaviour may be caught.

So, if there is anything dodgy about a response, complain. If material has been withheld as "confidential" or "free and frank opinion" (the most frequently-abused withholding clauses), complain. If the public interest in release has not been considered, complain. If they are late, complain. If they dick you around in any way, complain. Anything less lets the fuckers get away with it.

As for what you should put in your complaint, simply say that you are not satisfied with the response and ask that it be reconsidered. If there's a clear violation of the law - lateness, an illegal second extension, failure to consider the public interest, or hyper-literalism and perverse interpretation of the request (a failure in the duty to assist), point that out. I find it useful to ground my complaints in the Ombudsman's guidelines, providing reasons why any cited withholding grounds do not apply, and this is usually an effective tactic. As the Stuff article points out, most public servants handling requests are poorly trained and unfamiliar with the guidelines, so frequently make mistakes.

The statistics are on your side. Complaints get remedies. Even when there's no formal finding, the fact that the Ombudsman is asking questions usually forces an agency to reconsider a response, and maybe you'll get something. And again: it incentivises public servants to make good decisions and lets them know they're being watched. Which means the public benefits as well.

Public servants will probably hate me posting this. Fuck them. If they don't want complaints, then they need to make obviously sound decisions. If they don't, they have no-one to blame but themselves if someone asks for it to be checked.

Juking the stats

The State Services Commission released its six-monthly OIA statistics yesterday, reporting basic information on volume and timeliness (but nothing on outcome or quality of response). But while the official press release crows about improved timeliness, there's a twist:

As signalled late last year, the non-Public Service departments subject to the Official Information Act, New Zealand Police and New Zealand Defence Force, are not included in the latest numbers. They are now reported separately to focus attention on the results of public service agencies and better reflect the Commissioner’s mandate.

And of course its just a pure coincidence that these are two of the largest and worst-performing agencies, the inclusion of which would have ruined SSC's narrative of ever-improving performance. Hell, the police are so crap that they couldn't even report timeliness for the last six months.

OIA statistics are an important performance metric: you can't manage what you can't measure. But they need to be honest. SSC's exclusion of two of the largest and worst-performing agencies means that that is simply not the case. Its another unpleasant example of how the government is trying to lie to us and pretend that the transparency status quo is fine and nothing needs to change.

Meanwhile, the Ombudsman has also released complaints data. Complaints have risen again, so I guess the Ombudsman was wrong in attributing the last increase to "the electoral cycle". The proportion of resolved complaints which resulted in a remedy - in other words, which found poor decision-making - continued to increase, from 66.2% to 73.3%. The other trend identified from the last stats - an increase in the proportion of complaints for full rather than partial refusals - has continued, suggesting even more strongly that agencies are meeting SSC's timeliness criteria by simply refusing requests to clear them off the books. The upshot: if your request is refused in full, complain. Public servants hate Ombudsman's investigations, so if you make it more work to refuse, then maybe you'll get them to obey the law.

(Analysis of the last batch of statistics is here).

Wednesday, March 13, 2019



Growing the conservation estate

A decade ago, the public fought a battle with Meridian Energy over the Mokihinui hydro scheme - a plan to build a dam on conservation land, flooding a scenic river gorge. Now the area has been protected forever by adding it to Kahurangi National park:

A wild and remote river gorge that was nearly dammed for power generation will be part of the largest piece of land ever added to an existing national park.

Nearly 65,000 hectares of land north of Westport will become part of the Kahurangi National Park, expanding the country's second largest national park by 14 per cent, the Government announced on Wednesday.

The added area is slightly larger than Christchurch and about half the size of Auckland.

Its the largest addition to a national park ever, and a huge victory for conservation. But its worth remembering that DoC still controls approximately 2.5 million hectares of unprotected stewardship land, which still needs to be assessed and then assigned protected status according to its value. Hopefully this is jut the first step in that process.

A British-style whitewash

Last year, the government announced that they would hold an inquiry into Operation Burnham, the SAS operation in which six Afghan civilians were killed, including a child. But now, it looks as if the "inquiry" is instead becoming a British-style whitewash:

"The ultimate objective is to get to the truth."

Sir Terence Arnold made this commitment as he opened the only hearing of his Operation Burnham inquiry so far held in public.

After hearing arguments on whether proceedings should be held in secret, Arnold and his co-chair Sir Geoffrey Palmer retreated behind closed doors. And that is where they have stayed.

The inquiry was due to finish in April. Instead, key witnesses have walked away, and some of its core participants are disillusioned, with one understood to be on the verge of taking legal action.


The core problem is secrecy, who gets it and who doesn't. Everything NZDF says will be secret, its witnesses protected from scrutiny and challenge. Meanwhile, the whistleblowers who provided information to Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, the journalists who exposed this crime, will be expected to give evidence in public and so be exposed to official and unofficial retaliation. And so unsurprisingly, they've decided that the cost of participation is too high. The result will be a one-sided inquiry which makes no effort to get at the truth - basicly an official whitewash for the NZDF. But the result is that whatever the inquiry concludes will simply not be seen as credible, and the taint will linger.

The lesson is clear: the New Zealand political system is incapable of providing justice by official inquiries, at least where the defence and security establishment is concerned. People who want it will have to use leaks and direct court cases instead.

The latest Brexit clusterfuckery

So, having rejected Theresa May's shit Brexit deal, UK MP's were told to vote until they got it right - and rejected it again. Which means that the UK is now just 16 days from Brexit and has no plan whatsoever.

Tomorrow the UK parliament will vote on whether to leave the EU without a deal. They will reject that (again). The day after they will vote on asking the EU for an extension, so they can flail around and fail to make up their minds some more. But with no prospect of any change to the deadlock, there is little point to an extension. The EU may grant it, simply to give the UK every possible chance, but ultimately the deal they have offered is the only deal on the table, and the UK can take it or leave it.

The real problem here is the dysfunction and delusion of the UK political class. Faced with the biggest political crisis in a century, they are unable to agree on anything, unable to even accept their negotiating position. So we have delusional absurdities like the EU just giving them whatever they want if they whine loudly enough, or that they can ignore their binding international legal commitments to the Irish peace agreement because they're Britain and they Rule The Waves. Or their imperialist delusions that Ireland would leave the EU and "re"-join their colonial oppressors for the convenience of the latter - or that threatening them with food shortages would change their minds (I guess they don't teach about the potato famine at Eton or Oxford...)

Given this utter failure, there is really only one solution: parliament can't make up its mind, so kick it back to the people in a second referendum. But that would involve the UK political class admitting its failures and yielding a smidgen of power (not to mention the risk that the people might then want to address the fundamental causes of an unfair electoral system and an intellectually inbred elite which produced this clusterfuck), so it will never happen. So instead they'll just continue the cannibalistic orgy all the way to the bottom of the cliff.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019



Climate change: Time for divestment

We are facing a climate crisis. If greenhouse gas emissions continue, the earth will become uninhabitable. Even if we're lucky, things are going to get very, very bad, with famine, plague, mass-migration and war. And currently, the new Zealand Superannuation Fund is helping push us towards that future, by investing in the companies which are causing it:

According to data from the NZ Super Fund – New Zealand's Sovereign Wealth Fund owned by the Government – as of June 30 last year the fund had a stake roughly 130 oil and gas companies.

The total value of those stocks at the time was $555 million. The value of the fund as a whole is more than $40 billion, meaning oil and gas stock make up just 1.4 per cent of the total fund.


This is madness. On a moral level, we should not be investing in companies whose business plan is the destruction of human civilisation. And on a financial level, these companies do not have a future, and therefore are simply bad investments. Greenpeace has called for the NZSF to divest from fossil fuels, and its a call we should all support. Norway is doign it, and if we want a future, so should we.

Not a good look

Thanks to the dodgy dealings exposed by former MP Jami-Lee Ross, the National Party appears to have become the first New Zealand political party to be investigated by the Serious Fraud Office:

Police have referred Jami-Lee Ross' complaint about National's election donations to the Serious Fraud Office.

Ross, who was kicked out of the National Party last year, lodged a complaint with police in October.

A police statement today did not refer to Ross by name but said:

"Police have referred to the Serious Fraud Office a complaint received in October last year in relation to the disclosure of political donations under the Electoral Act.

"The complaint has been referred to the SFO as they hold the appropriate mandate to look further into matters raised by the investigation to date.


The mandate of the SFO is to investigate serious or complex fraud. Being investigated by it is a big deal, and (in NZ political jargon) Not A Good Look. Hopefully they'll get to the bottom of any financial shennanigans and efforts to evade the transparency requirements of the Electoral Act and bring anyone who has committed a crime to justice.

Monday, March 11, 2019



New Fisk

Trump is trying to pay his way to an annihilation of Palestinian statehood, and an erasure of Israel’s crimes

Cimate change: Locked in

If we are to avoid the earth becoming unihabitable, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to virtually nothing by 2050. Which means eliminating coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels from our economy. But as Stuff highlights, a lot of our dirties emissions are locked in for decades to come, with long-duration resource consents giving a right to burn coal for a further twenty or thirty years:

It will be another 30 years before some of Canterbury's biggest consented burners of coal, including milk-powder processing companies, food and beverage manufacturers, a hospital and a university are forced to stop.

An Environment Canterbury (ECan) list of consented coal consumers shows Fonterra's Clandeboye plant in South Canterbury is allowed to burn up to 64 tonnes of coal an hour – the rough equivalent quantity-wise of bringing in every 60 minutes about 128 trailers of firewood.

Clandeboye is the region's biggest consented burner of coal. Its resource consent to use seven boilers to generate a maximum of 203.4 megawatts (MW) of electricity remains valid until June 30, 2039, during which time it is not allowed to discharge more than 463 kilograms of sulphur dioxide each hour.


Doing the maths using default emissions factors shows that this one dairy factory is up to a million tons of CO2 a year. Shutting it down would make a noticeable difference to our national emissions. But Clandeboye is just one source in Canterbury, and Canterbury is just one province. There are filthy, coal-burning factories all over the South Island contributing to this problem.

Fonterra won't shut them down until they become unprofitable. So, if we want to save the world, we need to make that happen. High carbon prices are one answer: if it costs too much to burn coal, then Fonterra will be forced to use cleaner sources of energy. But ultimately, we can't rely on those methods - we need to actually ban coal, and completely prohibit its importation, extraction, export and use. While we need a lead-time to give existing businesses time to switch fuels, the quicker we ban new coal infrastructure, the better off we'll be.

Taxing water

Two thousand people marched in Christchurch over the weekend to protest against a local water bottling plant threatening their water supply. And the government seems to be getting the message, suggesting that they may move to tax bottled water by the end of the term:

On Monday, Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker said water bottling companies should be paying something.

Asked on The AM Show if foreign water bottling companies were likely to be charged a royalty or tax this term, Parker said: "Yes it's likely.

"It's not guaranteed, it's likely but the amount of it, well that depends on whether it's an export only charge - which has to be very low - or whether you charge, you know, a cent a litre for everyone," Parker said.

"Maybe a cent or two on every litre of bottled water would be fair too, again it might kick up a bit of extra money for councils and they could reduce their rates, or put it toward cleaning up our rivers for example."


Good. This is a hugely profitable industry built on a natural resource it is given for free. It is only right that the public receive a share of the revenue for use of that resource. But it shouldn't stop at bottled water: dairy farmers are the biggest users around, and they need to pay their fair share. And obviously the government needs to reach a settlement with iwi first, because fundamentally, its their water.

The solution is obvious

Another day, another employer whining about a "labour shortage". This time its rest homes:

Resthomes say they are exhausted by the constant struggle to find nurses to replace those they lose to better paid jobs in public hospitals.

[...]

Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace said last year's district health boards' pay rise for nurses continues to strip resthomes of nurses.

"When you've got pay in the public hospitals at sometimes $5 or $6 an hour on average more, it is very difficult to hold onto our nurses."


Well, maybe they could increase wages by $5 or $6 an hour then. Its not as if they can't afford to: rest home companies are hugely profitable. If they build those profits on gouging their workers, and then find themselves with no-one to gouge, then that's no-one's fault but their own. And if they claim that they are unable to operate profitably while paying their workers what they're worth, then that seems to be an argument for nationalising the sector, to remove the wasted money that their profit represents.

Friday, March 08, 2019



No freedom of speech in Indonesia

Robertus Robet is an Indonesian human rights activist. On wednesday he was arrested and faces two years in prison for "hate speech" for singing a protest song:

Robet was arrested in relation to a song delivered at an event called Kamisan, a weekly human rights demonstration held in front of the state palace in Jakarta every Thursday.

The national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said on Thursday that Robet is being investigated for hate speech and faces up to two years in prison if convicted.

At the event on 28 February, Robet sang a song that was popular among student protestors in 1998, when massive demonstrations led to the fall of authoritarian dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades.

Robet’s song was meant as a criticism of the government’s recent plan to move unemployed military generals into civil institutions to address an institutional surplus.


His prosecution proves his point: that Indonesia is returning to an authoritarian state where people are not free to say what they think or criticise the government. And if that happens, countries like New Zealand should be reconsidering our diplomatic relations. We should not be friends with a dictatorship.

Why we need to tax landlords

How unfair is our current tax system, which exempts capital income? This unfair:

According to our model, a $600,000 investment property with a $200,000 deposit would pay around 12.1 per cent in taxes and rates over 25 years. If we only include taxes, this falls to 5.7 per cent.

Why is it so low? The property in our example would earn $694,000 in capital gains and $670,000 in rent (after expenses) over its lifetime, while costing $456,000 in mortgage interest. In principle, the property has earned $908,000. But capital gains are not taxed at present, so the mortgage interest is deducted entirely against the rental income, leaving a taxable income of $156,000.

The total tax bill is $51,000 over 25 years, or 5.7 per cent of the $908,000 earned.


Landleeches are rorting us, and laughing all the way to the bank while doing so. Its time they paid their fair share.

Time for pay transparency

Its International Women's Day, and Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Dr Karanina Sumeo is taking the opportunity to call for pay transparency. We lag behind the world on this: Australia, the UK, Iceland, Denmark, and even the USA all have legislation requiring large employers to report on gender pay gaps and voiding NDAs where they prevent discussions of pay to expose discrimination. And they're effective:

Shedding light on how much people earn significantly reduces the gender pay gap, research has found.

But not for the reasons you think.

A study into the salary transparency regulations in Denmark found a seven per cent drop in pay disparities when companies had to reveal wages by gender.

Researchers said the drop had more to do with a reduction in pay rises for men than an increase in pay rises for women.


Or to turn that around: it stops men from getting undeserved pay rises solely on the basis of having a penis. Which sounds like success to me.

Sumeo suggests that the government amend its Equal Pay Amendment Bill (currently before a select committee) to include a pay transparency clause for large employers. I agree. Inequality is a disease, and sunlight is the best disinfectant.

A public review

Last year, we learned that the government was planning a secret review of the OIA, taking the form of a "targeted engagement" with OIA experts, bloggers and commentators (all of whom were secret). As of two weeks ago, they were still planning to do that, starting once the Privacy Bill had been reported back in mid-March. But something must have changed, because today they began a public consultation as the first step towards a real review:

The Ministry of Justice wants to hear your views on how the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA) is working in practice, and whether a review of this legislation is warranted. Your feedback will help inform a decision by Government on whether to review it, or whether instead to keep the focus on practice improvements.
The consultation asks three simple questions:
  • In your view, what are the key issues with the OIA?
  • Do you think these issues relate to the legislation or practice?
  • What reforms to the legislation do you think would make the biggest difference?
Responses are due by 18 April 2019.

Thursday, March 07, 2019



Climate change: Denier mayors

Last month we learned that Thames-Coromandel Mayor (and former National Party MP) Sandra Goudie is a climate change denier. In the wake of that revelation, Stuff has done some followup work on councils which (like Thames-Coromandel) have failed to sign the Local Government Leaders' Climate Change Declaration. The good news is that some of them have now done so. But there's a number of holdouts, who seem to be climate change deniers (or desperately trying to hide the fact):

Several New Zealand mayors are still reluctant to say they agree with the scientific consensus that human activities have an impact on climate change.

[...]

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless said he believed that human industry had an impact on climate, but that it was overstated.

"Some of it has been exaggerated - I'm not sure about sea level rises and all that. I don't think people need to get too alarmed."

[...]

Central Hawkes Bay Mayor Alex Walker was also somewhat sceptical. "There is some evidence to suggest that [humans have an impact on climate change], but it's hard to pinpoint."

West Coast Regional Council Chair Andrew Robb refused to speak to Stuff.


...and so on. There's a table in the article showing everyone's response (or lack thereof), but spot the similarity: overwhelmingly dead white males.

Again: we have local body elections in October. If you live in one of these districts, and you don't want your home to burn down, flood, or fall into the sea, then I suggest you take the opportunity to get a better mayor.

A victory for privacy

In 2014, Westpac bank invaded Nicky Hager's privacy, handing over ten months of transaction records to police without a warrant or a remotely credible justification. The Privacy Commissioner subsequently found that this was a breach of privacy. And now, to avoid a formal ruling to that effect from the Human Rights Review Tribunal, they've finally admitted it, paid compensation, and agreed to change their terms of service to preclude such releases in future:

Westpac has reached a settlement with journalist Nicky Hager, admitting it was wrong to give his bank account information to police.

[...]

In a statement, Westpac said it now requires a court order before it will release customer information to the police and is changing its privacy policy to reflect that.

"Westpac's practice at that time was to comply with such requests in the belief that it was entitled to do so under the Privacy Act. However, in the light of the public discussion of Mr Hager's and other cases, it is clear that bank customers reasonably expect that in similar circumstances such data will be kept private."

The company has apologised to Mr Hager for distress caused to him and his family, and agreed to make a payment to him and a contribution to his costs.

Mr Hager's lawyer Felix Geiringer said Westpac had made a contractual promise to its customers it would never act in this way again.


Which is a huge benefit to Westpac's customers. And hopefully other banks will be forced to follow suit as well. But while police will now likely require production orders to obtain this information in future, there's still the problem that there's no public reporting on them whatsoever, and they seem to be used for all sorts of abuses (e.g. grabbing their critics' phone metadata and text messages). Ultimately, protecting our privacy means protecting it from the police, which means putting more checks on them. Until we do this, abusive police behaviour will continue.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019



Members' Day

Today is a Members' Day, the first of the new year, and its full of second readings. First up is Andrew Bayly's Arbitration Amendment Bill, followed by Scott Simpson's Litter (Increased Infringement Fee) Amendment Bill, both of which should pass without problems. The House should then make a start on Harete Hipango's Health and Safety at Work (Volunteer Associations) Amendment Bill. If the House moves really quickly they might even get to Kieran McAnulty's Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill, but that seems unlikely.

There won't be a ballot tomorrow, and with the inevitable third readings, there's unlikely to be one for another month at least.

Wage-theft should be a crime

Yesterday had another appalling story of wage-theft, with shitty employer Ravinder Arora exploiting his workers to steal tens of thousands of dollars a year. Writing in Stuff, Debrin Foxcroft argues that this should be a criminal offence:

The Crimes Act defines theft as "dishonestly and without claim of right, taking any property with intent to deprive any owner permanently of that property or of any interest in that property".

Somehow, this doesn't apply to employers under paying or taking advantage of workers.

At most, wage theft is often met with a slap on the wrist with the wet bus ticket.

To be perfectly honest, I am at a lost to understand why.

Theft is theft, is theft.


And they're right. Employers who underpay or hold back wages are stealing, and need to be treated like the criminals they are. Employees who steal can get seven years for "theft as a servant". Bosses who steal should be subject to the same penalty.

America's unrepresentative "democracy"

The idea behind representative democracy is that the people get what they vote for, and hold their representatives accountable at the ballot box if they don't. But in America - land of guns, low wages, and unaffordable healthcare - that system appears to have broken down completely:

About 75 percent of Americans favor higher taxes for the ultrawealthy. The idea of a federal law that would guarantee paid maternity leave attracts 67 percent support. Eighty-three percent favor strong net neutrality rules for broadband, and more than 60 percent want stronger privacy laws. Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, and 92 percent want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. The list goes on.

The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these. Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants — as much as demagogy and political divisiveness — is what is making the public so angry.


The problem is that running for public office costs so much that the candidates are all owned by billionaires, and so reflect their values rather than those of the people who elect them. Anyone who refuses to play ball gets de-funded, or primaried by a well-funded and more compliant candidate. And so Americans, who overwhelmingly want progressive taxation, universal healthcare, and decent public services, get tax cuts for the rich and a starvation state which funds only war instead - no matter who they vote for.

This isn't democratic. It's just a plutocracy in disguise.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019



Passed

The Crimes Amendment Bill passed its third reading unanimously tonight. While the government is crowing about tougher penalties for livestock rustling (which in fact seem to be tougher penalties for exposing animal cruelty), the bill does something much more important than that piece of farmer bullshit: it repeals the archaic offence of blasphemous libel from New Zealand law. Meaning we no longer need fear prosecution (in these days, private prosecution) for offending bigots, and it will no longer arguably be a crime to publish Siegfried Sassoon's poetry. So, good riddance to theocratic colonial law. And now we can join the civilised world...

Good riddance

Back in December Environment Canterbury introduced the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill to Parliament. Its a local bill, which would do what it says on the label: guarantee ECan representation to Ngāi Tahu by allowing them to appoint two members to the regional council. Apart from the obvious conflict of interest issues this would create - Ngāi Tahu has major investments in the dairy industry which it is expanding - this is also undemocratic. Not only would the members be appointed rather than elected, but they would also massively over-represent Ngāi Tahu, giving them two councillers (12.5% of representation) for 15,375 people (3% of the population at the 2013 census). So I'm not unhappy to see that the bill lacks support and is unlikely to progress:

A bill which would guarantee Ngāi Tahu two seats on future Environment Canterbury (ECan) councils is struggling to gain support in Parliament.

Labour says it is doing the numbers this week to see if it can get the apparently faltering Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill across the line for its first reading in the House.

However, the local bill will not get NZ First backing.

Neither is it likely to get the support that ECan chairman Steve Lowndes hoped would come from Canterbury National Party MPs, according to shadow leader of the House Gerry Brownlee.


I support guaranteed Māori representation on regional councils, but it must be democratic: elected and proportionate. ECan could have achieved that by choosing to have Māori wards under the Local Electoral Act. Instead, they chose to put forward a blatantly undemocratic proposal. It deserves to fail.

More undemocratic colonialism

If you're looking for a list of villains in the early 21st century, the British dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are somewhere on it. They're notorious tax havens, vehicles for tax cheats, corrupt officials and other criminals to launder their money, and so responsible for a decent whack of international evil. UK MP's decided to fix this by requiring them to introduce public beneficial ownership registers - which forced the government to withdraw the key Brexit bill they were using for this purpose:

Ministers have pulled a financial services bill from the House of Commons, fearing the government was almost certain to be defeated on an amendment requiring Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man to clamp down on money laundering.

The Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell and Labour’s Margaret Hodge want the crown dependencies to introduce public share ownership records by December 2020, which the three territories resist.

Mitchell said the government had pulled the bill “in face of certain defeat” because it was backed by a group of rebel Tories as well as Labour and the other opposition parties. The former cabinet minister added, however, that the amendment would be put to a vote whenever the bill was resubmitted.

Hodge said the government had taken an “outrageous step” in pulling the bill because “they knew we commanded a majority. I hope the government will accept our proposals, but if not, we will continue to campaign for public registers.”


I support public beneficial ownerhsip registers. But as with efforts to legislate for former British colonies, this oversteps the constitutional mark. These dependencies are self-governing, with their own elected legislatures, and the UK government has agreed not to legislate on their domestic affairs without their consent. But I guess that's the problem with former imperial powers: they don't recognise where their country stops and someone else's begins.

So what should the UK do about its criminal statelets? Economically blockade them. The selling point of these tax havens is that they have privileged access to the UK and EU economies. And that's something the UK parliament does have power over. Making that access contingent on adopting proper anti-money-laundering standards, including a public beneficial ownership register, is both reasonable and formally respects the dependencies' control over their own domestic affairs. And if the dependencies don't like it, they can always find some other outlet for their laundered cash.

"The most transparent government ever" - yet again

Shortly after being elected, Labour promised to be "the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had". Now they're being criticised by the Ombudsman for excessive secrecy:

The Ombudsman is warning government departments not to use the Official Information Act as a way of dragging their feet in response to media enquiries.

The National Party said there was an increasing tendency for government agencies to treat straightforward media queries as OIA requests, which then gave them 20 working days to respond.

[...]

Ombudsman Peter Boshier agreed.

"For things to be delayed is not acceptable, public debate now is very current on issues and we need to enhance that and support it."

The speed of digital news meant demand for information was quite different to 10 or 15 years ago, he said.

"And I think government departments have to accept that this is the requirement of the modern era."


Technically, every request for information from a government agency is an OIA request. But most are handled informally by just giving out the information, and that's the way it should be. Agency PR flacks treating routine inquiries as requests requiring a formal process with the intent of delaying them for twenty days defeats the purpose of the Act.

Agencies do what they think the Ministers want them to do, so if they're being more secretive, the responsibility for that lies with Ministers. And it is up to Ministers to make it clear that they expect their agencies to be open and transparent, provide information to the public on request, and comply fully with the law where they have to handle a request formally. The refusal of Labour Ministers to do so makes it clear that they are not truly interested in transparency.

Monday, March 04, 2019



A convenient information gap

Last week, Christchurch turned into an armed police state after the Christchurch police paniced over an armed offender and decided to carry guns at all times until they were caught. How often does this happen? As The Press points out in an editorial this morning, we don't know, because the police don't bother to keep records of it:

We don't know how often every frontline police officer carries a gun, largely because these orders are not usually announced and because police headquarters does not keep records of this sort. Why not?

Its a good question. Whether to arm police is an important policy decision and one which requires the highest level of public scrutiny. A refusal to keep records (or the keeping of records in a haphazard, distributed fashion so they cannot be recovered) frustrates this scrutiny. Which is, I suspect, the point. But while it is convenient for the police, it does not appear consistent with the duty under the Public Records Act for public offices (explicitly including the police) to "create and maintain full and accurate records of its affairs, in accordance with normal, prudent business practice" is left as an exercise for the reader. Failing to obey this requirement is a criminal offence. So maybe someone should lodge a criminal complaint and see whether the police actually obey the law, or place themselves above it?

New Fisk

Israel is playing a big role in India’s escalating conflict with Pakistan

A naked land-grab

Reserves are meant to be there for the general enjoyment and benefit of the public. So why the hell are DoC allowing a foreign billionaire to effectively enclose and privatise part of one?

When it’s finished, the new house of US billionaire and Tara Iti Golf Course owner Ric Kayne’s will have spectacular views over the dunes of Mangawhai.

Those views won’t be built out. Just 12m from his pool and 25m from his future house is the Mangawhai Wildlife Reserve.

Go for a stroll in the reserve and it’s unlikely you’ll realise you could get within eyeballing distance of a bathing billionaire. A sturdy, eight-string fence built by Tara Iti Holdings, extends - in places - up to 90m into the public reserve.

In total, 2.62 hectares of public land lies within the fence. Confusion over what is and isn’t public land has resulted in members of the media and public being told they were trespassing on at least two separate occasions.


Effectivley, its a naked land grab, and a theft of public property. The fence should be torn down. But just make sure you get the permisison of DoC first - because otherwise its a crime.

Strengthening our democracy?

Over the weekend the Greens introduced a Member's Bill with an assortment of changes to the Electoral Act to strengthen our democracy. The one that seems to be getting the most attnetion is overturning National's repulsive (and unconstitutional) prisoner voting ban, but it would also enable Māori voters to change rolls whenever they want (as recommended by the Electoral Commission), strengthen transparency and disclosure of electoral donations, and lower the MMP threshold and eliminate the one-seat rule (as recommended by the 2012 Electoral Commission review of MMP).

I support most of these changes. The prisoner voting ban is a stain on our democracy. It is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, and it has to go. And it is shameful that the response of our political class to the court ruling saying so has been a giant "meh", rather than urgently bringing the law into consistency with our constitution. The changes to the Māori roll seem like a good idea, though the Greens' drafting means that they are amending entrenched provisions in s35 of the Act. Not substantively, but it does mean that those changes (and the bill itself) would need a 75% supermajority to pass. Which National will use to defeat the very necessary changes to the transparency regime, which would throw open the books on who is trying to buy influence with our political parties.

The one area I don't support is the move to eliminate the one-seat rule. As I noted at the time, the Electoral Commission blew it by recommending a change which would actually make our voting system less representative than it is at present. I support eliminating the threshold entirely, and any reduction in it is a step towards this. But until the threshold is reduced to the level required to win two seats, then removing the one-seat rule will reduce proportionality, and damage our democracy rather than strengthening it. So oddly, I'm hoping that this bill is never drawn, and that the other changes in it are advanced by other bills instead.

Friday, March 01, 2019



Climate change: Truants

When UK school students went on strike last month over climate change, Prime Minister Theresa May called them truants and said they were wasting valuable lesson time. So you'd expect the UK government to be diligently goign about its duties, right? Of course not: when parliament held a debate on climate change in response to the school strike, only a handful of government members turned up:

In the week that the UK experienced its hottest ever winter day, just a handful of government MPs attended a debate on climate change in parliament on Thursday.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said she had secured the discussion after being inspired by the thousands of UK schoolchildren who went on strike over climate change this month and wanted to thank them for forcing MPs into action.

Moran said climate change had not been debated in the main chamber of the House of Commons for two years. She spoke, however, to a chamber where the seats were predominantly empty. At points, as few as 10 MPs sat on government benches, although the opposition side was more occupied. The lacklustre response to the debate from the government was in stark contrast to the condemnation by Downing Street to the thousands of children involved in the strike for climate change, calling it “truancy”.

For the record, there are currently 314 conservative party MPs, so only one in thirty of them bothered to show up to discuss the most important issue facing the planet today. As for the rest, I guess they had just decided to take the day off. So who are the "truants" again? At least the schoolkids know what's important - unlike the Tories.

More Israeli war crimes

During 2018, Israel murdered 189 people and injured more than six thousand when they repeatedly gunned down protestors at their border fence. Now, the UN has said it was a war crime:

UN investigators have accused Israeli soldiers of intentionally firing on civilians and said they may have committed war crimes in their lethal response to Palestinian demonstrations in Gaza.

The independent Commission of Inquiry, set up last year by the UN’s human rights council, said Israeli forces killed 189 people and shot more than 6,100 others with live ammunition near the fence that divides the two territories.

The panel said in a statement that it had found “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognisable as such”.

Thirty-five of those killed were children, three were clearly identifiable paramedics and two were clearly marked journalists, the report said.


Israel regards protests by Palestinians as a military attack or "terrorism". The UN dismisses that view. The protestors were not a military force and "were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat". Which makes shooting them simple murder. As for what happens next, hopefully it will result in a formal investigation by the International Criminal Court and war crimes charges.

Protecting their mates

Back in December, the SSC's inquiry into the state sector's use of outside security consultants exposed potentially serious criminal behaviour on the part of Thompson and Clark Investigations. SSC properly referred these matters to the police. Who promptly "forgot" about them:

A police investigation into spying on earthquake victims has been delayed after a top cop "forgot" to progress it.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes laid a complaint with police in December after private investigators Thompson & Clark were found to have covertly recorded Southern Response clients.

An SSC inquiry found an unlicensed investigator had posed as a victim and attended meetings.

On Friday, Police Deputy Commissioner National Operations Mike Clement admitted to Stuff the inquiry hadn't progressed, following an Official Information Act request.

"I didn't action it," he admitted. "I've gone back through my correspondence and found that I didn't task it on the 18th December when it came through.

"It is completely my fault. I can't undo history.

Stuff reporter Andrea Vance is "inclined to give the benefit of the doubt" over this. But its just so convenient. The most serious allegations against Thompson and Clark is that they unlawfully recorded a meeting of Southern Response claimants on 13 March 2014. The relevant offence there is unlawful use of an interception device, which carries a penalty of two years in prison. That penalty means that charges must be brought within five years of the offence. So, Clement's "forgetfulness" means that in all likelihood that will now be impossible, and Thompson and Clark's crime will go unpunished. And when you consider that Thompson and Clark works for the police, helps them spy on protest groups and undermine freedom of speech and assembly, and is run by ex-cops, it smacks of the police helping out their mates. Again.

Update: Oh look! Northland police also "forgot" to contact the victim of one of their own, until the IPCA kicked them. Its almost as if this is a habit...