Thursday, April 30, 2020

A new extreme for urgency

We're in a state of emergency at the moment, demanding a quick policy response from the government. So, you'd expect some use of parliamentary urgency as a result, and it might even be justified. But even expecting that, I was shocked today to see the government introduce an urgent bill, with no debate on the first or second readings, and no committee state. Its the most extreme urgency I have ever seen in our Parliament. It means there will be a debate, and a vote, but no real scrutiny, and no chance to correct the inevitable drafting errors. And of course, the opposition didn't even get to see the bill until earlier today (its now online, so the rest of us can see it as well).

Its as if the regular procedural abuses had become so normalised that they had to invent a new one just to stress that they were taking the pandemic seriously. Except that its not a way to get good legislation. Even the democratic fraud of an abbreviated select committee stage would have been preferable to this (and since it has retrospective application, its not as if that would make much of an implementation difference anyway).

In a crisis I expect some urgency, where required. I don't expect Parliament to essentially just give up on doing its job as a legislature and stop scrutinising legislation entirely. While this is a technical bill, it changes a very complicated area of law, which makes scrutiny essential just to avoid mistakes. This terrible process all but guarantees a fuckup, which will then no-doubt require equally urgent legislation to fix. Wouldn't it be better if the politicians did their jobs properly in the first place?

Getting what they voted for

The rich pricks in Remuera are complaining about bad smells and a filthy harbour:

Residents in the Auckland suburb of Remuera say they're being plagued by dead eels, sewage floating down streams and smells so pungent it makes them gag.

The waterways around Hobson Bay have become a hotspot for faecal contamination, and it could be years before the water runs completely clear again.


Charlotte Winstone leads a walking school bus route along the adjacent Shore Road, and saw the effects worsening in weeks of dry weather leading up to the lockdown.

"We were literally all holding our noses as we walked past and it smelt really strongly of sewage. So that was a pretty horrible experience," she said.

The problem here is crumbling sewage infrastructure, caused by years of skimping on maintenance and delaying replacement. And the reason for that is decades of council austerity, caused by councillors who have sworn a blood oath to Keep Rates Low. Who elects those short-sighted morons? The voters of Remuera.

Remuera voters are getting exactly what they voted for. And if they don't like it, maybe they should vote for something different.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Defending the indefensible

This morning Winston Peters dropped a bombshell: the Ministry of Health had recommended closing the border to returning New Zealanders, effectively summarily exiling every kiwi caught overseas by the pandemic:

The Government rejected advice to close New Zealand's border to anyone coming to the country amid the Covid-19 crisis, it has been revealed.

"The Ministry of Health recommended a total shutdown of the border, including to returning New Zealanders," Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters revealed in a speech this afternoon.

"From its health perspective this was understandable and appropriate advice," Peters said.

"But the Coalition Cabinet rejected that advice because it was and is inconceivable that we will ever turn our backs on our own."

They were right to do so, because it would be both immoral and illegal. The right to freedom of movement is affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act, which states clearly that "[e]very New Zealand citizen has the right to enter New Zealand". And that's given practical application by s13 of the Immigration Act 2009, which makes it clear that New Zealand citizens may enter and be in New Zealand at any time, and that the whole bullshit of visas and so on simply don't apply to us (you do however have to establish citizenship). So, it was a terrible idea, illegal, it should never have been made (or made it to Cabinet), and Cabinet was right to reject it.

And yet, as I type this, the Prime Minister is at the podium defending the Ministry of Health, and saying explicitly that they didn't need to consider human rights, or not consider them themselves. Bullshit. Firstly of course there's s3 of the BORA, which makes it clear that the Act applies to the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of the Government of New Zealand. So if they're not considering it in their decisions, they're both breaking the law, and simply not doing their job properly. And that's backed up by the Cabinet Guide - the government's guidance for doing Cabinet stuff - which has an entire section on human rights compliance in bills and Cabinet papers, which is crystal clear:
It is the responsibility of each department to make its own assessment and sign off on human rights implications in the department’s area of responsibility.
She's also pretending that the Minister of Health has no responsibility for the papers which go to Cabinet under his name, and which he (for OIA purposes at least) legally owns.

Its bad enough for a Ministry to apparently ignore the law and give terrible advice. But its worse for the Prime Minister to defend them and rewrite core government processes (designed to institutionalise human rights protection) by press conference in an attempt to minimise a bad headline. And I guess it shows us that politics-as-usual - the deceit, the lying, the spin, the bullshit - is back, and ugly as ever.

(None of this detracts from the amazing response of the Ministry of Health to the pandemic. They've literally saved tens of thousands of lives. But fuck, something went seriously wrong here).

Friday, April 24, 2020

Climate Change: A timely review

Back in 2015, the then-National government set a new climate change target of "30% by 2030". While it alliterates nicely, the target isn't as good as it sounds: the cuts are measured against a 2005 baseline - a peak year - and it uses the gross-net accounting scam, comparing apples and oranges and effectively stealing a huge amount of progress by a shitty accounting trick. To see how shoddy the target is, you only have to look at MfE's interactive emissions tracker: 2005 gross emissions were 81.27 million tons, and 2018 net emissions were 55.47 million tons. Some quick work with a calculator shows that we've already met it, not due to any serious emissions reduction, but because of forests planted long ago and some dodgy accounting.

This makes a mockery of the target setting process. So its good news then that Climate Change Minister James Shaw has asked the Independent Climate Change Commission to review the target and see if it can come up with one more consistent with our new statutory goal of net-zero (non-agricultural methane) emissions by 2050. The most obvious fix is simply to shift to net-net accounting, comparing like with like. To hit our target, we need to cut net non-agricultural methane emissions by roughly a third each decade from now to 2050 (plus whatever agriculture is expected to do). In 2005, net non-agricultural methane emissions were a shade over 25.8 million tons. On that basis, our emissions have actually increased slightly, to 25.9 million tons. And to follow a linear path, we need to get them down to 17.1 million tons by 2030 (agriculture will meanwhile be statutorily required to cut its methane emissions by 10% from 2017 levels). That's a pretty significant decrease - almost 9 million tons. But if you don't like that number, you can blame Helen Clark and John Key for pissing around for twenty years and making it that much harder on us now.

The weakness of the Ombudsman

While the Ombudsman rightly took a strong line on standing up for the OIA, there's another story this morning which doesn't exactly paint them in a good light. The Department of Corrections tried to deny them access to prisons (another example of trying to weaken oversight during the pandemic). And rather than putting their foot down, they wrote them a series of begging letters:

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says Corrections has discouraged him from accessing prisons, despite the fact he has a statutory monitoring role and is concerned about inmates enduring extended lockdown hours during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Boshier told RNZ that after spending a lot of time working through the issues with Corrections, his staff would begin a series of visits to 15 prisons and other detention centres from next week.


"I received a letter from Corrections which really was quite discouraging of my continuing role because of the risk of infection and what might occur in prisons. And so it's taken me some time to work through it with Corrections and come to a point where we can perform our role properly."

In case there's any doubt, the Ombudsman's case is rock solid. They are an essential service, and a designated National Preventative Mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which means that under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989 they have an unrestricted right of access to prisoners and places of detention. Corrections was breaking the law. Rather than writing letters begging for them to obey, the Ombudsman should have prosecuted the Chief Executive for obstruction (a power exercisable by way of s34 of the Crimes of Torture Act, which ensures that NPMs get to use all their usual powers in their OPCAT jurisdiction). While the penalty for this is a derisory $200 fine - something which desperately needs to be updated - its the sort of thing which should end an uncooperative public servant's career, and it would send a clear message that you do not fuck around with preventing oversight of detention facilities to cover up possible torture (because prisoners are being kept in prolonged isolation, and that constitutes torture under international law).

So why didn't they? The problem is institutional culture. Last year, in the context of a possible review of the OIA [long document; the quote is on p 269], a former Ombudsman's Office staffer talked about how the Ombudsman had a culture of mediation - suitable for cases of maladministration, where its about persuading an agency that they need to fix something, but utterly unsuitable for OIA cases where they make binding rulings. It also seems to be unsuitable for the OPCAT jurisdiction, where their job is to monitor places of detention to ensure they are free of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, where the agencies and people they are monitoring are by definition hostile (being on the hook for serious criminal charges if they are found to be misbehaving or failing to follow the law). You can't treat such investigations like a cosy chummy conversation seeking to persuade a colleague that actually they should obey the law. Instead, its effectively a standing criminal investigation. The Ombudsman should treat it as such. If they can't, maybe we need an NPM who will do the job effectively, or get international experts who aren't part of our system and so aren't afraid to burn bridges (and whatever else needs to be burned) to do it instead.

A desperate grab for unaccountability

Correction (21 May 2020): The OIA has come back, and it is clear that the Newsroom story this was based on was not accurate, and misconstrued the Ombudsman's comments. I apologise for my role in spreading it.

Right at the beginning of the lockdown, the Minister of Justice made it clear that the OIA is a vital safeguard during this crisis. But some officials didn't get the message. Instead of accepting proper public scrutiny of their decisions, they launched a desperate bid for unaccountability, by trying to suspend the OIA:

Government officials proposed suspending the Official Information Act during the coronavirus lockdown - a suggestion that was headed off after the intervention of the country’s official information watchdog, Newsroom can reveal.

Ministers have denied any involvement in the proposal, saying the legislation is more important than ever at a time of crisis where they have been given extended powers.


“The OIA is an important check on the use of power and authority and that’s even more important in times of emergency where those powers are extended,” [State Services Minister Chris] Hipkins said.

I will rigorously oppose any suggestion the OIA should be suspended, and note that no such proposal has ever been put forward.”

The Ombudsman refuses to name and shame which agency wanted to use a crisis to grab secrecy, but later in the article it makes it clear that it was Little's own Ministry of Justice. Naturally, I'll be sending an OIA to them seeking all the documentation and correspondence on this, including whether any Minister was briefed. But given the Minister's publicly stated position in support of the Act, I hope there'd be some accountability over his agency attempting to go behind his back like this.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

We got lucky

There's a lot to be grateful for in our pandemic response. By closing the borders and locking down early, New Zealand has avoided a runaway epidemic, overloaded hospitals, mass-death and the psychological scars that go with it. And that's something I think the government and the Ministry of Health deserve our thanks for. But it could have been very different, and an audit of contact tracing has shown that our success could easily have been a failure:

An under-resourced contact tracing system blamed for keeping New Zealand in lockdown has the capacity to investigate fewer than 200 coronavirus cases each day.

An audit of the system released on Monday showed that health officials tasked with interviewing and tracking the close contacts of people with Covid-19 had been swamped by fewer than 100 daily cases of the virus prior to New Zealand entering lockdown.

To prevent any future outbreak of the virus running rampant, the critical audit recommended the contact tracing system be able to manage 1000 new cases each day, and trace their contacts within five days.

How did we end up in this situation? Because responsibility for contact-tracing was devolved to a dozen public health units across the country, each with different levels of capability depending on DHB priorities. And of course, those priorities have been eroded by decades of austerity and a focus on meeting targets, none of which relate to public health or infectious disease. Meaning that when the epidemic came, we weren't really prepared, and we had to build a national capability to do this practically overnight, and clearly got some things wrong (like using anonymous numbers for calls. Well, duh, you might as well say "spammer", and its no wonder a huge number of people refuse to answer).

So, we got lucky. That doesn't detract in any way from the incredible work done by the Ministry of Health and the rest of the government in keeping us safe (for the moment). But it does show us what we need to do in the future if we want to keep being lucky. And its another potent reminder of the dangers of austerity. The National Party, with their focus on budget cuts, "doing more with less", and "waste", could have killed us all. Let's not make that same mistake in the future.

Child-beating police should be prosecuted

In 2007, New Zealand finally banned child-beating. The message was clear: hitting children was criminal, and there was no excuse for it. But over a decade later, the police just don't seem to have understood that message:

A police officer who punched an Auckland teenager multiple times in the ribs during an arrest was not justified to do so, a new report says.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority did not accept the officer's explanation that it was necessary to punch the boy and said he could have taken more care to avoid the injuries the 13-year-old boy sustained.

Was the officer prosecuted? Were they sacked? Of course not! This is the New Zealand Police, where cops who commit crimes - and the unjustified use of force is a crime - face no consequences whatsoever. As for the IPCA, this line says it all:
[Counties Manukau District Commander Superintendent Jill] Rogers said police conducted its own investigation into the incident which found the arrest and force used on the boy was justified.

And as a result, they're not going to do anything. Which means letting a child-beater continue to wear a police uniform, and continue to beat children.

Which just shows what a joke the IPCA is. Their "oversight" of police misconduct has no practical consequences, and therefore it is meaningless. All the institution does is lie to the public that there are effective checks and balances on police behaviour. That lie is dangerous, and it needs to be ended. The IPCA needs the independent power to prosecute, and it needs to be vigorous in using it, to root out police who abuse their power and fail to live up to the standards we expect from them. And they should start by prosecuting this child-beating thug.

(And meanwhile, while we're on this subject: it turns out that the police are instructed not to record evidence when one of them has shot someone. Which seems to be a formal instruction to pervert the course of justice. There needs to be some accountability for that, as well as mandatory body-cameras and mandatory sacking whenever they "fail" in a use-of-force situation).

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

More good news

The pandemic depression has crushed the US oil market, and sent prices negative:

US oil prices turned negative for the first time on record on Monday as North America’s oil producers run out of space to store an unprecedented oversupply of crude left by the coronavirus crisis.

The price of US crude oil collapsed from $18 a barrel to -$38 in a matter of hours, forcing oil producers to pay buyers to take the glut of crude which they cannot store, as rising stockpiles of crude threaten to overwhelm oil storage facilities.

“The problem of the global supply-demand imbalance has started to really manifest itself in prices,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil at research firm Rystad Energy. “As production continues relatively unscathed, storages are filling up by the day. The world is using less and less oil and producers now feel how this translates.”

Why is this good news? Not because oil is cheap, but because its now uneconomic to extract, and a whole bunch of wells will be shut down and companies will go bankrupt as a result. It should also have a flowover effect in suppressing exploration around the world - no point in looking for oil if its not economic to extract it. And in a world where we need to kill the oil industry and keep fossil fuels in the ground to survive, it going out of business can only be good news.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Make the rich pay their fair share

The pandemic has meant the government having to borrow to provide financial life support to people and businesses. It is absolutely the right thing to do - taking care of us in bad times is what government is there for - but eventually we're going to have to pay that money back. And there's a growing understanding that this is going to mean higher taxes in the long term.

The question then is "who pays for it?" Writing on Newsroom, Simon Chapple suggests the easiest answer is "the rich", and that we should legislate for a far more progressive tax system:

The readiest tool in the box and the most equitably appealing solution here to share the burden of the virus is simply legislating for more temporary steps in the personal income tax system and a more progressive marginal income tax rate. We could have, for example, an income tax rate of 40 cents in the dollar from 70K (up seven cents in the dollar), 50 cents in the dollars from 100K (up 17 cents in the dollar) and 60 cents from 150K (up 27 cents in the dollar). The top rate of 60 cents would apply also to all trust income – if you’re well off enough to generate income from a trust, you’re well enough off to share 60 cents of that with the less fortunate. Company taxes could stay the same as they are currently, encouraging businesses to retain and reinvest profits.

The equality benefits from this are obvious. And as for the rich's usual cry that they'll leave for somewhere with lower tax rates, with borders closed and economies in recession around the world, they simply won't be able to. For people who think a marginal tax rate of 60% is too high, beneficiaries and middle-class people routinely face such rates, due to abatements on benefits or working for families payments (beneficiaries in fact face effective marginal tax rates of over 90% if they do "too much" part-time work, which incentivises doing none at all).

While I'd prefer such a change to be permanent, Chapple suggests that it should be temporary. But he links its expiry to things returning to "normal", defined as unemployment below 4% for a whole year. In other words, the rich would only get to stop paying when everyone has a proper job again. And based on past performance and policy, that's simply never going to happen under a National government.


Former MP Peter Dunne has used his regular Newsroom column to call the lockdown "Orwellian" because Parliament is not in session. He's calling for parliament to resume as quickly as possible to subject government decisions around the pandemic to proper scrutiny.

Firstly, according to its adjournment motion, Parliament will resume on April 28th. While the Speaker can delay that (and I suppose the Prime Minister could call on some bullshit feudal power inherited from England's hereditary dictatorship), I think that's unlikely. So, that scrutiny is going to be happening very soon anyway, at which stage Dunne will probably try and claim credit for "making it happen" (which seems to be a theme in pandemic commentary). But secondly, if you look at the sitting calendar, the House was scheduled to be on holiday this week and next week anyway. So all up, we have lost two weeks of parliamentary scrutiny due to this crisis. Except that during that time, select committees have continued operating, and the Epidemic Response Committee has been meeting three days a week to specificly scrutinise the government's actions, and so far it seems to be doing a pretty good job. So its not like scrutiny has been lacking anyway. But if this is some sort of Orwellian tyranny, then I wonder what Dunne thinks of summer, when Parliament joins the rest of the country in fucking off for 6-8 weeks, and doesn't come back till Waitangi Day?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Some good news

One positive side-effect from the pandemic: its going to crush house-prices and rents:

Economists have predicted a world of pain for property owners: house prices dropping by double digit percentages and a rental market that doesn't look much better.

Treasury has developed scenarios of double-digit unemployment. Some investors believe if rents don't fall to match the reduced incomes of tenants the conversion of unneeded office blocks to residential apartments or a flood of Airbnbs might do the job.

Kiwibank economist Jarrod Kerr has predicted house prices could fall by up to 10 percent this year. Or almost 20 percent in a "downside" scenario.

Infometrics economist Paul Barkle had a similar prediction of a 5-10 percent decline. He said an oversupply of housing was on the cards with border closures leading to a "massive" slowdown in population growth. ANZ has forecast house price deflation of 10-15 percent, although that would only take prices back to where they were 12 to 18 months ago.

Good. And if it forces current house-hoarders to sell at a loss, even better. But if we're to make the most of this, and make housing affordable again, the government needs to follow up with a mass zero-energy state-house building scheme, to provide warm, dry homes for all and drive private landleeches and their overpriced hovels out of the market completely.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Punishing our saviours

The Prime Minister has just announced that she, her Ministers, and all public service chief executives will be taking a 20% pay cut "as a sign of leadership".

This is bullshit. The government is working through this crisis, doing their jobs probably harder than ever. They deserve a flat white, not a pay cut. As for "leadership", the message the PM has just sent to predatory employers is that its OK to cut the pay of people who are working their arses off to keep us safe and fed during this crisis.

And, to put a face to this: Dr Ashley Bloomfield leads the agency that has saved New Zealand, and the lives of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. And the Prime Minister, to show "leadership", has just cut his pay by 20%. That is not just or right, and if that is her style of "leadership", to punish those who have worked so hard to save us, I think we need a new leader.

Climate Change: The latest inventory

The annual inventory report [PDF] of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions has been released, showing a slight decrease in emissions:

This year the government has also released an interactive emissions tracker, where you can poke around in all the data since 1990, and explore long-term trends. And the standout trend is that gross emissions have been more or less static since 2007, or maybe 2003, depending on what you think of the 2005-6 peak (net emissions bounce around a lot more, depending on deforestation rates, which shows the huge difference planting trees and not cutting them down can make). This is kindof good news - at least we're not getting any worse - but we need emissions to actually decrease. And instead they're just stubbornly sticking there at ~80 million tons.

Which I guess shows you that current policy - an ETS loaded with free allocations and pollution subsidies, rigged to keep carbon prices low, and which excludes our most polluting sector, simply isn't working. If we want to reduce emissions and meet our targets, we need to do more. Removing those obvious problems from the ETS is part of that, but really we need the government to come up with direct decarbonisation plans, including targets and deadlines, for each sector: plans to eliminate fossil fuel transport, fossil fuel energy, fossil fuel extraction (which causes 1.7 million tons a year of fugitive emissions), and mandatory offsets and herd reduction for livestock emissions. They're groping at the beginnings of this, with the renewables targets and reports on decarbonising industrial heat, but they need to go harder and faster, and target agriculture's sacred cows.

(Note that there is a two-year lag in emissions reporting, so this data is for 2018. We won't see the full impact of the pandemic on emissions until the report released in 2022).

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Debt isn't support

Today the government announced a new "support" package for students: more debt! With universities shut, and their part-time jobs locked down, they can borrow more money! Employers get a wage subsidy. Home-owners and landleeches get a mortgage holiday. From the sound of it, businesses are about to get a rent holiday. But students have to borrow to get through this crisis.

This isn't "support". As an easily-implementable quick measure, sure. But real support would be grants and allowances, not more debt. But it makes the government's books look good (it goes on them as a capital asset, not as spending). We're supposed to All Be Socialists Now. Except I guess for students, who still get NeoLiberalism rammed down their throats, same as always.

Climate Change: The need for a green recovery

This morning, Treasury released some truly terrifying scenarios for the economic impact of the pandemic - a major recession and 13.5% unemployment in the best case. The government is going to try and counteract that and get people back into work by funding infrastructure - essentially, throwing money at the problem, which is good. But as The Spinoff noted, "by definition, today’s shovel ready project is yesterday’s idea". There's a danger that infrastructure will be old, dirty, and lock in carbon emissions rather than reducing them. And that danger has been highlighted by the Climate Change Commission, which has written to the government urging that it apply a climate change lens and not fund further pollution:

The Climate Change Commission – the expert panel tasked with getting New Zealand carbon neutral – has written to the government asking it to apply a "climate change lens" to the post-Covid-19 spend-up.

In a letter to Climate Change Minister James Shaw, the commission warned that locking New Zealand into a high-emissions future "will only compound today's crisis with a future one".

"An economic stimulus package can either speed up or stall our progress on climate change," said the letter.

The commission is worried about boosting emissions, but also concerned that the wrong investments will make people and costly infrastructure more exposed to damage from climate change.

If this had happened a year later, the government would effectively be obligated to do this anyway (or rather, would see its rebuild decisions delayed by judicial review, making it simply easier to be sensible). But because the Commission hasn't completed its initial budgets and reduction plans yet, the requirements are very weak: the government really only has to consider the 2050 net-zero target. Though given that infrastructure tends to be long-lasting (the Huntly power station has been with us for 40 years already), that should provide some leverage.

The Commission is also concerned that the pandemic could be used as an excuse to stall reform of the ETS and remove pollution subsidies. Farmers, National, and NZ First are already being vocal about this, but it would mean basicly surrendering any pretence that we ever intend to reduce emissions. And as with the lockdown, early action matters hugely. The quicker we get a proper price signal into the economy, the better (and easier) or emissions-reduction pathway. Hopefully, our politicians will accept that, rather than continuing to fuck up the future.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good riddance

OMV has indefinitely suspended its oil exploration campaign off Taranaki:

The future of offshore oil and gas exploration in New Zealand in doubt after OMV announced today it is postponing drilling its Maui-8 exploration well indefinitely due to the Covid-19 crisis.

The COSL Prospector rig, which is contracted to Austrian-based OMV, has just completed drilling the Toutouwai-1 exploration well off the coast of Taranaki, the results of which are due shortly, and was set to drill Maui-8 next.

But an OMV spokesperson said that would now not go ahead and there were no plans to reschedule the work.

"Hopefully next time we have a drilling rig in New Zealand, but currently we have no real plans to bring an exploration rig to New Zealand."

They've blamed this on the difficulty of doing staff rotations during the pandemic, which actually means the difficulty of cheating taxes. But the collapse in oil prices will also be a factor. What's the point in drilling for oil, when the barrel is worth more than what you put in it? But either way, they're done here, and hopefully they won't be back. But if we want to make sure of it, we need to cancel their permits and throw these foreign polluters out forever.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Those people deserve a flat white

The pandemic has shown us how effective our public service is. They've pulled together a massive policy response, from a lockdown to economic support to healthcare to planning how to keep everything running when this is over, and done it in next to no time. They are heroes, who have kept us all alive and fed, and are doing their damnedest to keep us that way.

So naturally, the twatcocks at the Taxpayer's Union think we should give them an across-the-board pay cut.

Hell, no. To update the language of a certain classic kiwi TV ad, those people deserve a flat white (or other beverage of choice). And a biscuit (a chocolate one, just to make those small-minded penny-pinchers die of apoplexy). And, above all, a pay rise. Because they have utterly earned it, and it is the least we owe them.

Halfway there (maybe)

New Zealand is now officially halfway through its first 4-week lockdown period. The good news is that it seems to be working - people staying at home has reduced the potential for the virus to spread, and we've had steadily decreasing numbers of new cases over the last few days (and only 29 today!) Better, its been so effective that the latest modelling suggests that there's a good chance of actually eliminating it - though this might require an extra week or two of lockdown.

The government will make that decision on April 20, two days before the lockdown period officially ends. It'll be a tough one, and depend on the numbers and how good a grasp they think they have on unknown spread. And its entirely possible that we'll be locked down for that extra week or two, just to really crush the disease. That would disappoint a lot of people, but if it results in actual elimination, it'll be worth it.

Either way, we're not going to be returning to normal. There'll be an extended period of restrictions and caution, just in case it pops up again. The border will not re-open until there's a vaccine and we've all been jabbed. The tourism and export education sectors will be dead. And the government will be sustaining the economy and a fair number of kiwis for some time to come. And all of that would have been the case whether there had been a lockdown or not. This way, at least, all but a handful of us will have survived it, and we won't bear the psychological scars of mass-death. And that seems totally worth it.

Meanwhile, we should all celebrate our progress by staying home harder. Keeping to our bubbles is getting us through this. Just keep doing that, and everything will be fine.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

A UBI in Spain

So far, universal basic income policies, which see people given a regular income without any conditions, have been trailed only on a small scale. But now, Spain is introducing one nationwide as a response to the pandemic:

Spain is to roll out a universal basic income (UBI) “as soon as possible” to mitigate the impact of coronavirus.

Minister for economic affairs Nadia Calvino told Spanish broadcaster La Sexta on Sunday night that the move was intended to help families during the pandemic.

But Ms Calvino, who is also deputy prime minister, said the government’s ambition was that UBI could become something that “stays forever, that becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument”.

Here's hoping. And hopefully it will also provide data on how such a system works on a wide scale, and its impacts on health and happiness.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

How to complain about MDC's unreasonable LGOIMA charging regime

Back in February, the Marlborough District Council increased the mount it charges for LGOIMA requests. I used the LGOIMA to poke into this, and it seems the case for increased charges is unjustified: the supposed increase in request volumes it rests on is an artefact of the Council suddenly deciding to count media requests (which previously had not been counted). Today, I found the Council minute ratifying the increase, so I've prepared a how-to guide on how to complain if this agency tries to charge you. You can read it here.

Monday, April 06, 2020

The Americans are trying to kill us all again

The Treaty on Open Skies is one of the most effective mechanisms for preventing war curently in force. By letting countries make surveillance flights over each others' territory, it eliminates fears that they are secretly preparing for war. So naturally, the US is planning to withdraw from it:

The Trump administration is determined to withdraw from a 28-year-old treaty intended to reduce the risk of an accidental war between the west and Russia by allowing reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has put off a full national security council (NSC) meeting on the Open Skies Treaty (OST), the secretary of defence, Mark Esper, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have agreed to proceed with a US exit, according to two sources familiar with administration planning.

A statement of intent is expected soon, with a formal notification of withdrawal issued a few months later, possibly at the end of the fiscal year in September. The US would cease to be a party to the treaty six months after that, so if a new president were elected in November, the decision could be reversed before taking effect.

As with their withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Trump administration is pretending that this is because of Russian non-compliance. But really its because of an ideology that the "world's greatest nation" shouldn't be "constrained" by agreements with "lesser" countries and a belief that its so powerful that it doesn't need them. And that is both toxic and dangerous - not just for America, but for the whole world.

Now we know what the rules are

As the lockdown has gone on, disquiet about what the rules were and the police's enforcement of them has grown. On Friday, Police admitted that they were abusing routine traffic stops to effectively set up illegal checkpoints, and on Saturday Stuff revealed internal police advice saying that they actually needed to suspect someone was infected to take any action (meaning a whole bunch of reported police interventions seem to have been illegal). And perhaps coincidentally, late on Friday the Director-General of Health quietly issued a national quarantine order, which sets out exactly what we are and aren't allowed to do. It gives the police enforcement power, but also significantly limits scope for police arbitrariness and abuse. And that's definitely a Good Thing.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Climate Change: The benefits of electrification

In order to meet our 2050 carbon target and do our bit to avoid making the Earth uninhabitable, New Zealand needs to decarbonise our economy, replacing fossil fuels with electricity in the energy, industrial and transport sectors. The good news is that it will mean cheaper power for all of us:

Households will pay much less for their energy in 2035, if New Zealand successfully replaces fossil fuels with sustainably-generated electricity, a new report says.

Transpower's Whakamana i Te Mauri Hiko – Empowering our Energy Future report estimates household energy costs could fall by as much as 27 per cent by 2035.

But for that to happen the country must build as much power generation capacity in the next 15 years as it did in the previous 40, and it will cost between $8-$10 billion.

In normal times, that $8 - $10 billion cost would be a barrier. But now, with the government desperate for construction projects to restart the economy when the pandemic ends, it is an opportunity. The RMA isn't a big issue - half of what we need to build is already consented (though some of those consents will expire soon and need to be extended). The bigger problem is that the electricity companies don't actually want more generation, because it would lower prices and profits. But that's nothing that can't be solved by re-nationalisation. If we're looking for projects of lasting value to build our way out of the post-pandemic depression, decarbonising our entire energy supply seems to fit perfectly.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

We have a right to know the rules we are expected to obey

Outgoing Police Commissioner Mike Bush appeared before the Epidemic Response Committee today, who asked him for the rules police are using to enforce the lockdown. He refused:

Police Commissioner Mike Bush has admitted the advice given to Kiwis about what they're able to do during the lockdown hasn't been clear enough.


Bush was questioned about who made the guidelines and exactly when people would find themselves on the wrong side of the police.

"Absolutely agree - the country needs clarity," Bush said.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges said it felt a bit like the "undies, undies, togs" television ad as people didn't know how far they could go before it was inappropriate.

Bridges asked if the guidelines would be made publically available.

Bush replied that it was a "good idea" and said he'd take it away as an action point and consult Crown Law for advice.

And that's just not good enough. We have a right to know the rules we are expected to obey - how else can we be expected to obey them? Instead, by keeping them secret, the police seem to be trying their hardest to give themselves space for the arbitrary exercise of power. And that is not going to encourage people to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, my OIA request for those rules, sent three days ago, hasn't even resulted in an acknowledgement yet (most agencies respond automatically, with a manual followup within a day). Which I guess shows how seriously they're taking oversight when they are exercising extraordinary powers.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Hungary is now a dictatorship

Hungary has been a virtual dictatorship for a decade now, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has gradually eroded its democracy. But now, its official, with the passage of an indefinite emergency law allowing rule by decree:

Hungary’s parliament has passed a new set of coronavirus measures that includes jail terms for spreading misinformation and gives no clear time limit to a state of emergency that allows the nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to rule by decree.

Parliament voted by 137 to 53 to pass the measures on Monday afternoon, with the two-thirds majority enjoyed by Orbán’s Fidesz party enough to push them through in spite of opposition from other parties, which had demanded a time limit or sunset clause on the legislation.

The bill introduces jail terms of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government response.

No parliament, no elections, no oversight, and no criticism. There are obvious parallels with the Enabling Act of 1933 - except that that law had a sunset clause, and German MPs had to go through the charade of renewing it twice. There are no such limits on Hungary's dictatorship. Will the EU permit this? Unfortunately, its permitted everything else: the suppression of the opposition and the media, the attacks on judicial independence, the establishment of concentration camps for refugees. But if the EU will permit one of its members to become a dictatorship, then what is the point of it?

A new Ministry of Works

While the economy is on pause under lockdown, the government is beginning to plan how to cope with the post-lockdown, post-tourism, post-export education world we will eventually find ourselves in. They're planning a lot of infrastructure spending as economic stimulus, and have asked for proposals which can start the moment the lockdown ends. And they've signalled a more direct role for the government in construction - effectively reviving the old Ministry of Works:

Ministers are rushing to prevent the country's construction sector hollowing out under lockdown.

However, they've also admitted the state's role in construction will massively expand in a way unheard of in several generations. That could include turning Crown Infrastructure Partners into a new Ministry of Works-style government department.


Answering questions on whether the Ministry of Works would be revived at the end of the country's Covid-19 recovery Twyford said he "wouldn't want to rule out that more hands-on approach", and Jones said he was strongly in favour of it.

"We're receiving a great deal of advice. And I have to say quite a lot of senior identities in the infrastructure community have already put forward the notion of something akin to the Ministry of Works," Jones said.

Good. Because the current way of doing this - contracting everything out to the private sector - doesn't work. Instead of getting "efficiencies", it turns out that we get screwed. Its been obvious for some time that it would be better value for the government to cut out the middle-leech and just build stuff directly, rather than paying for other people's profit margins and ticket-clipping. Rebuilding the economy after the pandemic is a chance to start that.

Its also a chance to do some other things too. Pretty obviously, we need to make this a green rebuild, focused on clean energy, efficient buildings, and public transport, things which reduce our emissions rather than increase them. We should be expanding Auckland's train network, extending Wellington's commuter rail to Otaki, Levin, or Palmerston North, building wind farms to push Huntly out of the market, and starting a mass house-building scheme of zero-emission homes to use as state houses. These are all opportunities to create jobs and breathe some life into the economy, while building for the future rather than the past. And hopefully, the government will take them.