Friday, May 29, 2020

A victory for freedom of information in Australia

Australia's High Court has ruled that the "palace letters" between the queen and then-Governor-General John Kerr are public records rather than private papers:

Historian Jenny Hocking has won her High Court bid to access the letters exchanged between then governor-general Sir John Kerr and the Queen around the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Until now, the National Archives of Australia had refused to release the documents, known as the "Palace letters", saying they were private papers.

But Professor Hocking told the High Court correspondence between a governor-general and a monarch was the property of the Commonwealth, and not private.

In a majority ruling, the High Court agreed with Professor Hocking, and found the letters to be Commonwealth records.

Weirdly, this wasn't on the basis of the "pub test": that the communications of the Governor-General and foreign monarch about whether to roll the Prime Minister are so obviously official in nature that of course they're an official record. Instead, they decide it simply on the basis of property. Commonwealth records are records that are the property of (certain parts of) the Australian Government, which includes the Governor-General's official secretary. The letters were held by the official secretary as part of their official duties, and submitted by them to the Archives. And that fact alone demonstrates they were Commonwealth property and therefore a Commonwealth record. Additionally, the fact that it was deposited by the official secretary means it was deposited by a Commonwealth institution, not a private institution, so private access arrangements simply do not apply.

Hopefully this means Professor Hocking will now receive access to the records. As for whether there's actually anything interesting in them, that remains to be seen.

Labour's Muldoonism

Labour's talk of gutting the RMA to push through "shovel ready" projects to boost employment after the pandemic predictably has every half-arsed pipe-dream crawling out of the woodwork demanding special treatment. Today, it's the West Coast inbreds, who are demanding a host of laws be rescinded so they can dig and dam and plunder and profit by destroying our natural heritage. But the article on that also has more details on the legislation itself, and they're pretty frightening:

Some large, Government-led projects — such as roads — would be individually listed in the legislation as going through the fast-track process. This would likely include six larger transport projects already on the books, awaiting resource consents.

More Government-led projects — specifically those led by the Transport Agency (NZTA) and KiwiRail — would be able to “occur as of right”, effectively a standing consent to do things like road and rail maintenance. This could also be extended to local authorities, the Cabinet paper states.

The final piece is a fast-track consenting process for all other projects. A public or private project could apply to the Environment Minister to go through this process, who must then decide whether the project meets a list of criteria, including whether it would have a “significant public benefit”. The minister can reject the application for any reason.

If approved, the project would be referred to an expert panel, led by an Environment Court Judge, to receive consent. A project referred to a panel would be expected to receive consent, the Cabinet paper says.

Which has more than an echo of the piggy cackle about it. Applications to the Minister, reference to an "independent" panel, and the Minister as effective decision-maker looks a lot like Muldoon's National Development Act, which was used to ram through numerous environmental atrocities and treaty breaches. Except that the NDA gave people affected by a development a statutory right to be heard, which the new legislation seems particularly aimed at preventing. Meanwhile, legislating certain projects for the fast-track - which as noted has an expectation of consent - is basicly the government saying "this project is consented, fuck you", exactly as Muldoon did over the Clyde Dam.

As for some projects not needing consent at all, this has been done before after the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes, but that's not exactly a good model: in Kaikōura it led to an occupation when the recovery authority tried to ram a road through an urupā. And the reason they ended up in that situation is because the government didn't need to listen to the public or hear any evidence before deciding what to do, and as a result either had no fucking idea of the actual impacts of its project, or decided it could run roughshod over the local iwi. And the result was entirely predictable. When you ignore people, when you don't even bother to hear the evidence, your decision isn't just bad, it's also illegitimate. And as we've seen in Kaikōura and Ihumātao, if people can't express their opposition through the planning process, they'll do it on the ground instead.

New Zealand's environmental movement was born in opposition to legislation like this and the bad and illegitimate decisions it enabled. It is absolutely shameful then that our primary environmentalist party, the Greens, will be supporting it with their votes.

Don't ask, don't tell

Since the government announced its pandemic wage subsidy, there have been regular stories about companies taking it and then sacking or refusing to pay their workers - essentially committing fraud. But how often does this happen? The Minister just doesn't want to know:

Government ministers are not receiving up to date figures on breaches of the $10 billion wage subsidy scheme, and one Minister's office says "it's not something we're interested in".

The government is monitoring how much money is paid out in the wage subsidy and leave payment schemes, but the number of complaints, audits and money paid back is only being provided in quarterly reports.

The Ministry of Social Development refused to provide up-to-date auditing numbers, instead treating RNZ enquiries as an Official Information Act request.

The office of Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Social Development, said that information would only be available at the end of June.

A member of her office said "it's not something we're interested in".

Why aren't they interested? Pretty obviously, its a case of "don't ask, don't tell": the Minister avoiding having to act by purposefully remaining ignorant. Whether this is appropriate governance in the public interest, or an appropriate attitude to serious crime by employers is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Chickening out on clean rivers

The government released its Action for Healthy Waterways package today, ostensibly with the goal of cleaning up our rivers and making them swimmable within a generation. Doing that, of course, requires confronting the cow in the room: the dairy industry which causes most of the pollution. But while they've imposed some limits, including restrictions on dairy conversions, in the end they chickenshitted it again, setting a fertiliser limit which is far too high, and delaying setting bottom lines for nitrogen and phosphorus for another year. The latter in particular has gone down like a cup of cold cowshit with environmental groups, because it is the core of the problem, not to mention a public health hazard. But instead of controlling it, the government's "plan" is that farmers should be allowed to continue poisoning the public for at least another year.

This isn't acceptable. Kiwis deserve clean rivers and water which doesn't give us cancer. And if this government won't protect us from polluting farmers, we should get another one which will.

Austerity threatens our lives again

Public health specialists perform a vital role protecting us from disease, and they've just literally saved tens of thousands of kiwi lives from the pandemic. But it turns out that they are grossly underfunded and understaffed, and the government isn't doing anything about it:

The number of doctors in public health units confronting the pandemic is in crisis, but there is no sign of a plan to fix the situation.

The funding for training registrars to become public health specialists is so limited applicants have had to be turned away.


Des Gorman led attempts to identify then fix the shortages while heading the Government's Health Workforce unit until last year (when the unit, having had its staff numbers chopped, was rolled up into the Ministry of Health).

"It was profoundly frustrating," Gorman, a Professor of Medicine at Auckland University, said.

"We had no support from the Ministry of Health (MOH).

"We had little or no support from the district health boards and we received quite strong opposition from some of the more established medical colleges because they quickly worked out that if more money was going to go to public health and palliative care, that might mean less money for them."

Artificial scarcity of funding due to government-imposed austerity is the key driver here. And it is directly threatening our ability to identify, track and contain epidemic disease - in other words, all our lives. While they've had a one-off funding bump due to the pandemic, long-term funding is still at austerity levels, $50 million below what it was a decade ago. And that is simply not good enough.

This is what failure looks like

Remember KiwiBuild? Previously the government's flagship policy, it was supposed to build thousands of new homes every year for kiwi families. But instead of flooding the market, we've got a pathetic dribble:

The Government's former flagship housing policy is so far behind schedule it will take more than 400 years to reach its initial target of 100,000 homes. It had hoped to reach the target in 10 years.

Initially, the Government had been hoping the rate of building would increase over time as KiwiBuild ramped up, with 1,000 homes built in the first year, 5,000 in the second, and 10,000 in the third, but the rate of building is slowing.


The number of KiwiBuild homes built to date stood at 393 at the end of March, equating to roughly 19 homes built each month since the scheme began in June 2018.

At that rate it would take 436 years to complete the remaining 99,607 houses that remain from the 100,000 target.

After two years, they were supposed to deliver 6,000 homes. They've done just over 5% of that, and now have a delivery date which is further in the future than pakeha have been in this country. As for why, relying on the private sector for construction was part of the problem, but the fundamental issue is that the government simply wasn't willing to fund it, wasn't willing to borrow to invest in New Zealand. Which makes the whole "policy" a fraud from start to finish. Which doesn't bode well for their new promises of increased state house building...

The government has managed to get this right in the past. But they did it by being willing to actually put the public's money where their mouth was and pay for it. Until that happens, nothing will change.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

NZ First's policy of starving migrants

While the government has dealt with the pandemic spectacularly well, it hasn't been perfect. One big flaw in its response has been its treatment of temporary migrants. The government has the power to extend social welfare benefits to temporary migrants during a pandemic, and the Epidemic Response Act clearly expects that that will happen. But that power has not been exercised. The reason? NZ First, who views the pandemic as an opportunity to force migrant workers to return home:

NZ First MP Shane Jones sympathised with the plight of many migrants, but said he believed the Government should pay for their flights home and not let those trapped outside back in.

"There is a humanitarian duty upon me as a minister. Something akin to having a Christian disposition towards the struggle that a lot of the migrants find themselves in right now.

"My overarching feeling is that they should go home. And if it's possible for us to assist them to go home then that to me is a very Christian thing to do.

The result is people living on the street and going hungry. Most New Zealanders will be deeply ashamed of that. But Shane Jones probably sees it as a bonus in his racist campaign to cleanse the country of those he sees as "undesirable".

Equality comes to Costa Rica

Costa Rica has become the first country in Central America to recognise same-sex marriage:

The first same-sex weddings have taken place in Costa Rica, the first Central American country to equalise its marriage legislation.

A lesbian couple became the first to tie the knot in a ceremony that took place just after the new law came into effect at midnight.

The wedding was shown on national TV.

President Carlos Alvarado said the law change meant Costa Rica now recognised the rights lesbian and gay people had always deserved.

As in other countries, this change was made by the courts: in 2018 Costa Rica's Supreme Court implemented a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and declared provisions prohibiting same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. They gave the legislature 18 months to fix the law. They didn't, so the ban was abolished.

Lining their own pockets

There's a new twist in the Winston Peters secret donation story. It appears that a significant chunk of NZ First's secret laundered donations goes straight into the pockets of the people administering the scheme:

Tens of thousands in donor's funds given to the New Zealand First Foundation were spent paying expenses, wages and bills for people closely associated with the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

The foundation, which has bankrolled NZ First using secret donations from rich business people, spent more than $130,000 on a company run by Brian Henry - the personal lawyer and close friend of Peters.

Documents obtained by RNZ show that between January 2018 and July 2019, the foundation took in $224,000 in donations from supporters - and overall, spent at least $368,000.

Of that, at least $137,000 of foundation funds were spent on a company called QComms.

Company office records show the sole director and shareholder of QComms is Brian Henry, who is a trustee of the foundation and the judicial officer of the New Zealand First party.

The money laundry paid Henry's daughter's rent and expenses, as well as John Thorn, the former NZ First official who wrote the memo suggesting setting it up. It also paid for air travel for Winston's partner Jan Trotman, who at the time was in business with Henry in a dodgy forestry scheme which attempted to extract money from the Provincial Growth partnership. No doubt there'll be reasons for all of this, but at the least it shows that Winston's money laundry is an orgy of nepotism and self-dealing by NZ First insiders. Which just makes it look personally corrupt as well as institutionally dodgy.

Meanwhile the SFO has promised to have a decision on whether to lay charges before the election. The sooner that happens, the better. Voters need to know what the situation is long before the voting period starts, so they can decide whether they want this party back in Parliament again.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Climate Change: Still not serious

New National Party leader Todd Muller has been interviewed about his policies, and has promised to restart offshore fossil fuel exploration if elected:

The Bay of Plenty MP rolled former leader Simon Bridges last week, but says the party has not changed its stance on previous promises.

"That is absolutely National Party policy," Mr Muller told TVNZ1's Q+A with Jack Tame, when asked about the Government's 2018 policy to stop issuing new offshore oil and gas exploration permits.

The ban did not extend to current permits.

Muller is supposed to be one of the good guys on climate change in the National Party. Instead, this shows that he and the party are still not serious about climate action. After all, if you won't take the mildest of measures to decarbonise the economy - phasing out the supply of dirty gas over decades - then what hope is there that you'll move on carbon-free transport, or raising carbon prices, or on confronting the giant cow in the room?

But I guess it just goes to show: you can change the bald white man in charge, but underneath its the same dirty old National Party, clinging to the past and trying to destroy the future.

Monday, May 25, 2020

A weird reappointment

A couple of weeks ago, Parliament reappointed Peter Boshier as Chief Ombudsman for another five years. There's nothing weird about the reappointment - it was recommended by the Officers of Parliament Committee, and Boshier is generally recognised as having done a good job in office (though at the same time, having a government Minister praise your performance as an Ombudsman suggests you're not kicking enough arse - they're not meant to like you). No, what's weird is the term. Boshier requested, and the Officers of Parliament Committee recommended, a three-year reappointment, after which Boshier "would want to discuss and engage with the committee about future plans at that time". Why? Because like judges, Ombudsmen are forcibly retired when they get too old - in this case, at age 72. Boshier was born in 1952, so he will hit mandatory retirement in 2024, a year before his new term as Ombudsman ends.

This doesn't make the appointment illegal, just unusual. There's obvious questions about why the House wasn't told about this issue before voting, or why the term was raised - presumably with Boshier's agreement - from the committee's recommendation. Is the government planning to raise the age limits mid-term? Or were they just not paying attention?

Labour doesn't care about the already poor

The government has announced another income support scheme for people affected by the economic aftershocks of the pandemic: a $490 a week tax-free payment for the newly unemployed, which you can get even if you have a working partner. Which is great, because its supporting people who need help, but at the same time the fact that it is double the unemployment benefit, which does not allow a working partner (and indeed, WINZ will hire PIs to peer in your bedroom window at night to see if you're sleeping with anyone who "should" be economicly supporting you because love is an economic transaction to them) kindof stinks. To ask the obvious question: what about the already poor? Don't they deserve this level of support too? Or does Labour not care about them?

But I think we all know Labour's answers to those questions, don't we? While they talk about "kindness" and "wellbeing", when push comes to shove, they're happy with existing inequalities, happy even to exacerbate them, happy with the underclass Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson created, happy with the status quo and all its injustices. Because doing anything about any of those problems would mean them having to pay more tax on their $180K+ salaries, or on their property portfolios or family trusts, and that seems to be something which is simply unthinkable to them now.

The Green list

The Greens have released their party list, and it contains a few surprises. The one that's getting all the news is that the membership are clearly fans of Chlöe Swarbrick, and she has worked hard to earn that. But they've also favoured incumbent protection over new blood, and in the process abandoned their traditional practice of alternating male and female candidates on the list. Which means that on current polling, they'd elect a caucus with only one man - which while its a reversal of the situation in certain other parties, isn't exactly good in a party committed to equality.

I've done the usual list below:

2020 RankName2017 RankDifference
1Marama Davidson2+1
2James Shaw1-1
3Chlöe Swarbrick7+4
4Julie Anne Genter3-1
5Jan Logie6+1
6Eugenie Sage4-2
7Golriz Ghahraman8+1
8Teanau Tuiono16+7
9Dr. Elizabeth Kerekere19+10
10Ricardo Menéndez March21+11
11Steve Abel----
12Teall Crossen15+3
13Scott Willis----
14Kyle MacDonald----
15Lourdes Vano----
16John Ranta----
17Lawrence Xu-Nan----
18Luke Wijohn----
19Kaya Sparke----
20Jack Brazil----
21James Crow----
22Elliot Blyth----
23Richard McIntosh----
24Gerrie Ligtenberg----

Friday, May 22, 2020

The new leader of the National party!

One of these MPs is the new leader of the National party. Can you pick which? (Source: Office of the Clerk/Parliamentary Service)

National has chosen its new leader, and as expected, it is an old bald white man. Totally representative of modern New Zealand, then. But its not like they had much else to work with, the alternative being the hired killer (no, not Judith Collins, the real one). Which given that they're the biggest opposition in New Zealand history, with 55 MPs, is really kindof scary. You have to work hard as a party to have that little talent in that many people. But I guess selecting only old bald white men will do that...

Labour is still underfunding our health system

Last week, an article on Newsroom made it clear how the funder / provider split - a core part of our public service - was used to enable underfunding. The government holds the purse strings, but dumps responsibility for its decisions on providers, so they get the blame for poor service. The article was crystal clear: "In both health and education, central government has abdicated responsibility and accountability... using the funder-provider split as cover for withdrawing resources". And there's a perfect example of how this works in practice today's RNZ piece about Canterbury DHB's new useless building. The DHB had asked for half a billion dollars for two new hospital towers to replace old, earthquake damaged wards. Th government gave them a third of that, allowing them to build one building which would be half-empty:

Canterbury DHB has revealed it asked for $438m to rebuild its strained hospital but has had no choice but to settle for a third of that.


Board chair Sir John Hansen acknowledged the truncated five-storey Tower 3 won't keep pace with rising demand on beds but said that's all the government would pay for.

"The simple reality was, we could accept the $150m one or nothing."

That is only enough money to fit two floors out as wards, so three floors would be empty shells.

So Cantabrians will have to use old, run down hospital buildings for another decade, and their hospital won't be able to keep up with demand. But none of that is the Minister's problem. He can sit in his office, issuing press releases about how much money he's spending, and from the top of the tree it's all smiling monkeys looking up.

Isn't it time we ended this scam, and made the arsehole at the top actually responsible for their decisions?

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Microcopter money in Palmerston?

The government is reportedly looking at "helicopter money" - giving cash directly to people to spend - as a way of stimulating the economy in the wake of the pandemic. But its not just central government: Palmerston North City Council is looking at the same thing, though on a much smaller scale:

Palmerston North ratepayers could be in line to get a $10 voucher to spend in shops in the central city.

Mayor Grant Smith and councillors have included investigation of the scheme in the city recovery plan, and will debate whether to go ahead with it next Wednesday.


People would be able to redeem their vouchers while shopping at central city retailers, although it was yet to be decided whether that would include supermarkets, which had continued to trade throughout the lockdown.

The scheme could cost the council up to $300,000 if everyone redeemed their vouchers. The source of the funding has yet to be decided.

$300,000 is not a lot of money as far as stimulus goes, more of a micro-copter than a helicopter, and focusing on ratepayers means a big chunk of it will go straight to landleeches rather than people. The push for contactless payment may mean that businesses may be reluctant to accept vouchers (in the same way they are reluctant to accept cash), and there won't be much of a multiplier effect as its illegal to include these vouchers even as a bonus to people's wages. Though in theory business owners could respend it, and the more they do, the better it would work.

Is this really the purpose of local government? Sure - its there to promote "the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being" of their communities. Economic stimulus falls squarely within that purpose, just as local economic development does. So, if the city council wants to buy people a coffee (because that's what it works out to per resident), I'm not going to object.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


The Finance and Expenditure Committee is holding an inquiry into the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 which was rushed through Parliament last week, and has called for submissions. Written submissions are due by Sunday, 28 June 2020, but if you wan tto make an oral submission, you will need to do so by 7 June. You can either submit online through the form above, or by posting dead trees to:

Committee Secretariat
Finance and Expenditure Committee
Parliament Buildings
The Act provides a legal framework for necessary public health measures for the lockdown, but it also grants police some highly intrusive powers, without any in-built framework to protect human rights. These aspects have been opposed by both the Human Rights Commission and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties. Hopefully, this post-legislative scrutiny will provide a chance to correct any excesses.

Climate Change: Ambition in Spain

While the world is currently struggling with the pandemic, we have another crisis to deal with as well: climate change. Fortunately, not everyone has forgotten about it, with Spain announcing ambitious plans to go net-zero by 2050:

Under the law, which still needs to be approved by Parliament, the government is pledging to make Spain’s electricity system 100% renewable by the middle of the century, ban all new coal, oil and gas extraction projects with immediate effect, end direct fossil fuel subsidies and make all new vehicles emission-free by 2040.

To reach its 2050 goal, the government has proposed interim targets through its national energy and climate plans to 2030.

By 2030, the government pledged to reduce emissions 23% from 1990 levels and double the proportion of renewable sources in total energy consumption to 35-42% — an objective it described as consistent with the EU bloc-wide target to cut emissions 50%-55% by 2030.

Its a very similar model to New Zealand and the UK, down to the independent panel to guide policy. But its a real net-zero target, not some bullshit "net-zero for everything but our biggest polluter", and its coupled with some actual legislated policy measures to make it happen, rather than just pushing it out into the never-never (again).

Meanwhile in New Zealand policy seems to be moving in the opposite direction, with the government planning to gut the RMA and pushing roads and "mangrove removal" - the destruction of coastal wetlands - as "shovel ready" employment strategies. Which tells us that Ardern's famous "nuclear-free moment" was nothing but a cynical marketing ploy from a politician who ultimately does not give a damn.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Disaster leisureism!

Now that the initial wave has passed, and we are (hopefully) safe in our national bubble, the government is thinking about how to keep the economy ticking over, and how to salvage the bits (like tourism) that are now useless. And for that particular industry, she has mentioned a great idea: more holidays!

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says more public holidays for Kiwis to experience New Zealand is among a number of things the Government is "actively considering" to encourage domestic tourism.

Ardern is in Rotorua meeting with key leaders to discuss the tourism industry's recovery.

She said her message to Kiwis was "to come and experience your own backyard" and experience the cultural offering.

But that requires that people have time and money. More public holidays - or more annual leave - would certainly help with the first bit. As for what public holidays we should have, Matariki and Suffrage Day are the obvious ones: both kiwi-as, both about who we are, and both well-timed with other holidays (and if you want Matariki to be a public holiday, there's even a Parliamentary petition for it here).

But also, once we have extra public holidays, it will become hard to take them away. So we may be able to use this disaster to fulfil the goal of giving people back a little more of their time, a little more of their lives that would otherwise be wasted by their employer. And that seems worthwhile to me.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Failing to protect the environment, again

From its name, you would think the Environmental protection Authority was there to protect the environment. But we've had another reminder that nothing could be further from the truth, with its decision to allow a toxic, burned-out Korean fishing boat to be dumped at sea:

The ship's owner, Dong Won NZ (DWNZ), applied for a non-notified consent to dump the trawler 25 nautical miles south-east of Otago Harbour.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) granted that precedent-setting request, on April 30.

Several agencies were approached by the EPA before the decision, including a letter from Environment Canterbury chair Bill Bayfield.

In that letter, obtained by Stuff, he wrote that while ECan had no statutory means to influence the EPA's decision, ''we feel duty bound to bring this to your attention''.

''It is our concern that the disposal of the vessel is being driven more by convenience and cost, than delivering preferred environmental outcomes,'' he wrote.

Ships have been deliberately sunk in New Zealand waters before - the HMNZS Wellington springs to mind - but they've been carefully stripped beforehand. And the reason for that is that ships are toxic waste, full of asbestos, heavy metals, oil, and PCBs. Dumping toxic waste is explicitly forbidden under the EEZ Act, and by the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter it purports to implement. But the EPA has decided to go ahead and allow it anyway, because it is cheaper for this toxic ship's foreign owners to pollute our waters than clean up their mess properly. Which is a disgusting abrogation of responsibility.

This foreign company should be required to take full responsibility for the toxic waste they have left in New Zealand. And if they don't want to pay for it, the New Zealand government should pursue them through the courts until they do. It is that simple.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Some belated scrutiny

On Wednesday morning, Parliament passed the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020. Because it was passed under urgency, the Act did not receive the usual select committee scrutiny. But today the government moved a motion to have it scrutinised by the Finance and Expenditure Committee, with a report-back date of 27 July - just a few days before the Act's first 90-day renewal comes up for a vote.

This is a good move, and I'm glad to see it happen. However, under the circumstances I would have preferred to see it scrutinised by the (opposition-dominated) Epidemic Response Committee - both because of the Act's subject matter, and because the committee's membership will mean it will receive far better scrutiny than in the busy, government-dominated FEC. Still, the bill will be looked at, and hopefully the public will be given the opportunity for submissions we were denied when it mattered.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The timid budget

The government is currently delivering the Budget. There's some good stuff in there - an extension of the wage subsidy scheme to stop people from starving, a billion dollars for green jobs, almost two billion for free retraining, and finally feeding the kids with a school lunch program. Plus I guess the massive increase for health announced earlier in the month. But at the same time, its a budget defined by what the government didn't do. We're in the middle of the biggest crisis in a century, which calls for new policies to both ride it out and pay for it. Its a golden opportunity to change the direction of policy for a generation, to show how government can work for people. Instead, we have:

  • No wealth tax or capital gains tax, not even a moderate tax increase on the rich.
  • No increase to benefits to support those most in need.
  • No massive state house building program. Yes, they're building some - but not enough to crash the housing market and give everyone a home. The First Labour Government built 10,000 state houses a year. Their successors are offering a fifth of that, and think its revolutionary.
  • No wind-farms or solar to drive Huntly out of business, and no massive decarbonisation program.
Grant Robertson at the moment is talking a big game about how the government is not squandering the opportunity to hit the reset button on policy. But this isn't a reset. Its barely a mild change in direction. The truth is that this is a timid budget, which tries desperately to continue the unsustainable and bankrupt status quo. And if this is all Labour has to offer, they're a failure as a government, and a failure as a party.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Return on investment

Earlier this year, Radio New Zealand revealed that NZ First had received tens of thousands of dollars in secret donations from the racing industry. Secret donations are bad enough, but it was particularly stinky because Winston Peters is Minister of Racing. And yesterday, he paid them back, with $72.5 million in industry pork:

Racing Minister Winston Peters has announced the Budget will include $72.5 million in emergency support for the racing industry.

The package includes $50m for the Racing Industry Transition Agency, with $26m of that to pay its outstanding supplier bill, which Peters said it had not been able to do because of strangled revenue.

Another $20m - from the Provincial Growth Fund - would go towards building two new all-weather synthetic racing tracks, initially planned for Awapuni in Manawatū and Riccarton Park in Christchurch.

The remaining $2.5m would go to the Department of Internal Affairs to fast-track work on online gambling.

That's one hell of a return on investment.

The police, privacy, and public trust

At the moment, Parliament is debating giving the police a warrantless entry power for homes and marae to enforce gathering restrictions. Its obviously open to abuse - and we know similar powers for warrantless entry and search under the Misuse of Drugs Act are regularly abused - so it requires an incredible degree of trust in the police. Unfortunately, this morning they've shown us that they can't be trusted even on the basics:

Police conducted a trial of controversial facial recognition software without consulting their own bosses or the Privacy Commissioner.

The American firm Clearview AI's system, which is used by hundreds of police departments in the United States and several other countries, is effectively a search engine for faces - billing itself as a crime-fighting tool to identify perpetrators and victims.

New Zealand Police first contacted the firm in January, and later set up a trial of the software, according to documents RNZ obtained under the Official Information Act. However, the high tech crime unit handling the technology appears to have not sought the necessary clearance before using it.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, who was not aware police had trialled Clearview Al when RNZ contacted him, said he would expect to be briefed on it before a trial was underway. He said Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told him he was also unaware of the trial.

So, they couldn't even tell their own superiors, let alone the appropriate oversight body, before hiring a white supremacist American company to "trial" an incredibly intrusive technology and illegally invade the privacy of who knows how many New Zealanders. And now they expect us to trust them with the power to kick in any of our doors, whenever they want, because "they heard a party" (or similar bullshit)? Yeah, right.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The COVID-19 Bill

With the move to level 2 later in the week, the government has to legislate urgently to provide a legal framework. So, tomorrow we'll be seeing a bill introduced and passed under all-stages urgency, without a select committee process. Because that has never gone wrong before. But in a token move towards democracy, they've released an exposure draft to the opposition and (hand-picked) experts for comment. I'm not a fan of that sort of secrecy, so if you'd like to, you can read it here (no, I'm not violating any obligation of confidence here). If you have comments, you should send them to by 10am, Tuesday, 12 May (yes, just nine hours away).

The most obvious feature of the bill is that while the government is talking a big game over the legality of the lockdown, it basicly yields the point: all future lockdown orders will be made under the new regime, not under the Health Act powers it says are currently sufficient. Which is if not an admission of illegality, at the least an admission that they're not certain of winning. So the bill will make the point academic. This isn't actually a bad thing - the outcome of a declaration of illegality would have been urgent legislation to fix the issue. This way we're just getting the fix in advance (which is what the government should have done in the first place if it had any doubts).

The overall scheme - orders from the Minister, automatically revoked if not quickly confirmed by Parliament, and revocable - is sound, but needs tweaks around duration (currently indefinite; should be time-limited and renewable like an Epidemic Notice), and around activation (notice from the PM does not have the same safeguards as the other two mechanisms). And the whole thing expires in two years, or earlier by order, which is I think at the upper limit of how long we will need it for, but I'm not sure people would want to risk it being too short (OTOH, its a very short bill to extend a sunset clause, and difficult to fuck up even under urgency, unless you're the PCO I suppose).

And now onto the bad stuff. There's a disturbing warrantless entry power for police, which will make "I hear a party" the new "I smell drugs", and an even more disturbing "papers, please" power for (ill-defined) "enforcement officers", which goes well beyond any ability to require identifying particulars currently in law (currently police can only demand your name, address and so on if you have been arrested, or to issue a summons, or when you are stopped in a vehicle - not just randomly on the street). But the real concern is the order-making power, which is so broad as to be virtually unlimited. As we've already seen, lockdown measures prima facie violate the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, expression, and the manifestation of religion. Those violations may be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, as I think we almost all believe the current ones are - but it will depend on the exact content of the orders, and there are no specific safeguards in place to ensure that. Legislation requires the Attorney-General to report any inconsistency to Parliament, so our legislators supposedly know what they're doing; this bill should go further, and require the Attorney-General to table a formal opinion on the consistency of each order in Parliament, so we can all see what we are sacrificing (and check that they are doing their job and giving an opinion that passes the laugh-test).

The bill also includes a power to require classes of people (and specifically not individuals) to "report for medical examination or testing in any specified way or in any specified circumstances", which prima facie violates the right to refuse to undergo medical treatment, and potentially the right not to be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation (e.g. depending on the tests and what is done with them). At present, Medical Officers of health can order individuals to do these things, but not whole classes of people, and as we've seen this week, they can simply refuse. So that's a pretty significant expansion of state power, with no real specifics on how it is intended to be used.

Obviously, all-stages urgency is not the ideal way to pass this sort of legislation. A select committee process would be better. But the government left itself with no choice with its lockdown decision. Hopefully they won't fuck it up again.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Hubris invites nemesis

On Friday, the government proactively released a huge amount of information about its handling of the pandemic. While journalists were rightly cynical about the timing - even in a crisis, the habits of government PR flacks die hard - and there were some notable omissions (everything on contact-tracing apps has been omitted or redacted), the documents were a welcome and entirely voluntary move towards transparency. And they paint the picture we'd expect: of a government acting quickly and generally sensibly in a crisis. Its the sort of measure which should boost public confidence and trust. Except that the government then ruined it all when it was revealed that Ministers had been ordered not to talk about any of it, that their performance was so great that they didn't need to defend or even explain it, and that they should dismiss all inquiries because the public loved them so much.

This is simply arrogant. Yes, the government has done a good job (and I say that despite sharing concerns about the legality of the lockdown). But that does not absolve them of the duty to be accountable to the public for it. We're a democratic country, and that means the government works for us, and they have an obligation to front up and talk to the media about what they're doing.

But its also stupid, because kiwis hate arrogance. And we will happily punish it at the ballot box. It would be terrible if the government which has just saved us was driven out of of the Beehive in September because voters didn't like its attitude. But that is what Labour is inviting. Hopefully they'll learn this lesson, show a little humility, and remember who they work for.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

The obvious solution

The government wants to build things to kickstart the economy after the pandemic. Meanwhile, we have a housing bubble and a homelessness problem. Economists are now realising that we can use one problem to solve the other:

A huge programme of social housing development could help vulnerable New Zealanders into homes and support the construction industry, economics consultancy Infometrics says.

Chief forecaster Gareth Kiernan said the waiting list for state houses had more than quadrupled since mid-2015 but high levels of construction activity had made it difficult for the Government to respond with more housing.

Now, with private development likely to be largely on hold through the rest of this year and next, there was a chance to reverse that.

Its a call backed by the Welfare Advisory Group as well, who also want the government to raise wages and push people above the poverty line so that they can spend and keep the economy ticking over. But sadly, the government seems to have abandoned any moves in the latter direction, walking away from its plan for fair pay agreements and better workers rights. Which given the party's name - "labour" - makes you wonder what its MPs think its supposed to stand for.

Why we need more transparency over party donations

Party donation returns were quietly released yesterday, and the big news is that NZ First has refused to name its foundation donors, apparently falsifying its return. Hopefully that will be investigated and any criminal behaviour prosecuted. But looking at the other returns, I'm appalled by how much secret money our political parties are raking in. Labour took in $784,000, of which $323,000 was secret - 41% of donations. NZ First took in $368,000, of which $317,000 was secret - 87% of the total. The Greens collected $339,000, of which $101,000 was secret - 30% of the total. And National took in $1.2 million, of which 87% was secret - more than a million dollars of secret money.

The basic idea of electoral transparency is that bribing politicians is fine, provided we all know about it, so we can be sure they aren't delivering. But our parties are taking in huge amounts of donations, some of which are obviously large, and we have no idea who is bribing them and what they are getting in return. And that is simply not acceptable. The disclosure threshold needs to be lowered immediately, to a very low level - $100 or $250 or $500, so that we know exactly who is giving what. And if this means that rich pricks are reluctant to bribe politicians and buy influence in secret, then so much the better for our democracy.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

10,000 employed under Labour

The quarterly labour market statistics have been released, and unemployment has risen to 4.2%. There are 116,000 unemployed, just 10,000 fewer than when Labour took office. Obviously, this is pre-pandemic, and things are likely to change dramaticly in the next few quarters. So I guess we can take this as the baseline, and measure the success or failure of the government's job-protection measures by how long it takes to return to this level.

A death-knell for PPPs?

When the then-National government approved a public-private partnership (PPP) funding model for Transmission Gully, it claimed it was all about building it quicker and cheaper. Paying a private company's profit margin would supposedly give "certainty of delivery and... better value for money". So how has it turned out? The cost has blown out by $191 million, a third of the road has failed quality checks and needs to be torn up and re-laid, the project is now delayed until 2021, and rather than face these costs, the PPP contractor is planning to walk away and dump everything back on the government:

Officials acknowledged on Sunday the already-delayed Transmission Gully project would be delayed until 2021. This has the potential to blow out costs by yet-more hundreds of millions of dollars. NZTA said in February the project’s estimated costs would over-run by $190m to $1b and the completion date had been extended from May to December this year.

An NZTA spokesman said on Sunday the project would now not be completed until some time in 2021 and the agency was in urgent negotiations again with the PPP’s contractor CPB HEB about the project. He would not comment on the fears of those close to the project that the contractor was days away from pulling out completely and dumping the project uncompleted back on the taxpayer. The project was suspended during the Level 4 lockdown, but failed to resume with all its workers as expected last week.

The entire project looks to be an expensive failure. Rather than transferring risk to the private sector, it turns out to be the usual scam of privatising profits and socialising losses. And its hard to escape the impression that we could have built it quicker and cheaper and without the quality issues caused by the contractor shaving costs and using substandard materials to increase its profits by just getting the government to do it in the first place. And hopefully it will be a death knell for PPPs in this country.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Labour drags its feet on electoral finance reform

At the end of last year, the Justice Committee presented the results of its regular inquiry into the last election. Among other things, it recommended electoral finance reform, giving the Electoral Commission powers to investigate and prosecute offences, and closing loopholes allowing foreign funding of political parties. Given the problems we've seen revealed just this term - two political parties investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over their corrupt handling of donations, and a bunch of people facing charges - you'd expect acting on these recommendations to be a high priority. Instead, the government finally presented its response today - a month late - and basicly told the committee to fuck off. Oh, they don't say that explicitly, of course: instead they propose a comprehensive review of electoral law, "to take place over the next two parliamentary terms". But it basicly amounts to the same thing. The clear message is that Labour has no appetite for proper enforcement of electoral law, and no appetite for anything which might limit their ability to receive laundered donations, foreign or otherwise. And so everything is pushed off into the never-never, where it will be someone else's problem, and clearly in the hope it will never happen.

This is not the way to build public confidence in our electoral finance regime. And it invites the natural conclusion that the government are a corrupt, self-serving elite addicted to secret and foreign money - and if they're not, they're doing a damn good impression of it. This simply isn't good enough. When the integrity of our elections is at stake, kiwis expect action, not foot-dragging.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Another expansion of secrecy

Government policy is complicated and easy to get wrong. So the government has a bunch of safeguards in place to try and ensure that doesn't happen. One of these is the boring-sounding "Regulatory Impact Assessment" - effectively a quality control process to ensure a policy passes the laugh test. The requirements for this are set out in a boring Cabinet circular, but they basicly boil down to saying openly what problem you are trying to solve (and why it is a problem), considering alternatives (one of which is always "do nothing", and the other of which is always "salmonella"), and thinking about the implications. Its a very minimal set of hoops to jump through, but it ensures some minimal protection against big, obvious mistakes (unless the House then comes along and passes the wrong bill). Unfortunately, the government has just repealed it:

Some of the most expensive decisions ever made by a New Zealand government will receive no scrutiny from its economic watchdog after Cabinet suspended Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA), due to Covid-19.


[A] Cabinet minute from 23 March reveals that the Government has decided to release itself from these obligations, where they relate to the impacts of the new coronavirus.

The minute said specifically that RIA requirements would be suspended for “regulatory proposals relating directly to Covid-19, so that these proposals may proceed to Cabinet decisions without accompanying RIA at any time up until or on 31 August 2020”.

The minute said that RIAs did not “provide for” decisions made swiftly to respond to emergencies.

I understand the desire to move quickly and Get Shit Done without the penny-pinchers at Treasury screaming in their ear about how this is going to cost money which could be given away as tax cuts to highly-paid Treasury analysts. But removing any sort of basic quality control from the policy process is a recipe for mistakes. And if your policy wonk can't say quickly and clearly how doing this is better than doing nothing and also better than torturing puppies, its probably a pretty shit policy to start with.

But its also not just about removing quality control: RIAs are proactively published, and provide a lot of insight into the policy process. Their removal therefore closes a significant window on the government's action, reducing transparency over some of their most controversial decisions. Again, you can see how the politicians in power benefit from that. But its not clear how the public does. I wonder if DPMC did any analysis of that?

A terrible idea

Since forever, the orcs have wanted to gut the RMA. Cut out the public, rubber-stamp consents, ram development through regardless of environmental costs or the wishes of local communities, so they can take their money and run. National wanted to do this during their term, but couldn't get the numbers. But now Labour is going to do it, supposedly as a pandemic response:

Cabinet has approved the fast tracking of large shovel ready projects, largely bypassing the Resource Management Act.


The aim is to boost the economy as it enters a sharp downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new act, due to be passed in June, would take away the ability of the public and councils to have an input in to whether projects proceed and instead hand this power to small panels of experts, chaired by an Environment Court judge. But this would only be for a period of two years.

This is a terrible move, which will result in terrible decisions. Why? Because the public participation the orcs see as a time-wasting impediment is actually about providing evidence of environmental and community impacts. So what the government is proposing is making resource management decisions without hearing that evidence, by hearing evidence only from one side: the developer's side. And that's not just morally wrong, a prima facie breach of the public's right to natural justice in these processes - it is also simply stupid. Throw in the limitation of appeal rights, and we're looking at a situation where stupid, one-sided decisions will be made, and we will institutionally have no way of correcting them. But hand-picked developers and cronies will be laughing all the way to the bank.

But its a terrible idea for another reason too: because it creates a single gatekeeper, the Minister, who by deciding whether to fast-track an application will effectively decide whether it proceeds. That's an obvious nexus for corruption, and it invites lobbying, palm-greasing, party "donations", cronyism, or just outright bribes. And to see how that turns out, we only have to look across the Tasman, where the entire development system is a cesspit, and (state-level) politicians are regularly convicted of corruption for taking bribes or being financially interested in such decisions. David Parker may be a person of integrity, but we shouldn't depend on our ministers being like that, and as a matter of institutional design, having a person with such powers is simply unsafe.

Finally, of course, public participation serves an important role in legitimising decisions. And if you prevent the public from having their say through the RMA process, they'll just have to have it through protests, occupations, and sabotage. And if the government is relying on continued anti-mass gathering restrictions to prevent that, then this is a bigger attack on democracy than I thought.

Naturally, the Greens oppose these changes. But sadly, that doesn't mean they'll vote against them. Instead, a fundamental gutting of the RMA will be sent to select committee with green votes. Which really makes you wonder whether the party stands for anything any more. Instead of collaborating with the orcs, they should be fighting them, every step of the way. And if that means they upset their coalition partners, then so be it. The fact that Labour is pushing this means they're not a suitable partner for government anymore, and it is time to pull the plug.

Friday, May 01, 2020


Yesterday, I blogged about Parliament's extreme use of urgency to pass a pandemic-related tax bill with only one debate and no select committee or committee stage. As I noted, this increased the chances of an error slipping through, which might then need to be fixed later. And it turns out that's exactly what happened: just now, the Finance Minister explained at one o'clock Ashley that the wrong version of the bill had been tabled by the Parliamentary Counsel's Office, meaning that they had passed a small-business loan scheme before they were planning to. Oops.

Its something the government was planning to do anyway, so as mistakes go, its not that serious, and it doesn't need fixing. But it highlights the dangers of this sort of abuse of the Parliamentary process. It also highlights that MP's don't bother to actually read the legislation they're voting on, and as a result can end up passing something unintentionally. And that's rather disturbing. Again, it would be nice if politicians actually did their jobs properly. But apparently that's just too much to expect.

The pandemic and national security priorities

There's an opinion piece in Stuff today arguing that viruses are a national security issue, and we need a budget to fight them. Its completely correct, and under the "always fighting the last war" principle, it'll probably happen. But our lack of such a budget highlights the serious mismatch between our national security priorities and our budget.

New Zealand supposedly takes an "all hazards, all risks" approach to national security. What this means is that instead of just looking at things like war and terrorism, our national security infrastructure is also supposed to worry about things like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes, and pandemics. A list of topics of ODESC meetings in 2017 showed that they met on things like Myrtle rust (a kiwifruit disease), the contamination of Havelock North's water supply (an infrastructure failure), severe weather, and the Kaikoura earthquake, as well as "traditional" national security threats. And in reality, natural hazards make up the vast majority of threats which actually impact us and affect our lives.

But that balance of risk is not reflected in government funding. Last year, we spent roughly $5 billion on defence, $170 million on the GCSB, and $100 million on the SIS - all of which is about traditional threats AKA supporting other people's wars and hegemonic dick-waving power-games. By contrast, we spend a paltry $18 million on civil defence - basicly everything else. Obviously, we get a huge civil defence value from NZDF - those soldiers are useful for laying sandbags and rescuing people and shipping in emergency supplies after all sorts of natural disasters - but its still a huge funding imbalance. And if you take a risk management approach, looking at likelihoods and consequences, its exactly arse-backwards.

So I hope that when all of this is over and we have the inevitable rethink, we'll refocus our funding to match our actual threats. That should mean more money for disease surveillance and planning, because as we've just seen, the impacts are enormous. But it should also mean a general refocus on the things that actually threaten us, and away from the things that don't. Because while the people in uniforms want to think about wars all the time, and the spooks worry about imaginary terrorists (while completely ignoring the real ones because they're white), those aren't the things which actually threaten us. And their enormous budgets are therefore mostly waste.