Friday, July 30, 2021



Ending royal corruption in Scotland?

Earlier in the week, The Guardian reported that England's monarch had been secretly having laws amended to carve out exemptions for herself, using a procedure called "crown consent". Its a corrupt holdover from the days of absolute monarchy, and something which has no place in a modern democracy, or even in the UK. Unfortunately, Scotland can't get rid of it (at least, not until they're independent, at which point they can redefine their relationship with the monarch, or just tell them to go fuck themselves). But as Andy Wightman points out, there are a few things they can do to make this power much harder to use:

First, Scottish ministers should reject any request from the palace to exempt the Queen’s private estates from Scottish legislation. If this means that Queen’s consent is refused, then ministers should come to parliament and make that known.

Second, the Scottish parliament can take the initiative. It cannot remove the statutory requirement for Queen’s consent but it can amend its procedures to require far greater transparency from ministers about which bills require it, when and under what conditions it has been granted, and (most critically for legislative proposals) complete candour about which parts of any bill or any subsequent amendments are being lodged at the request of the Queen.

That an unelected head of state has the power to legislate in their personal interests, with no transparency or accountability, is antithetical to democracy. The Scottish parliament must take a lead in insisting on the openness and transparency it so often claims to champion.

Meanwhile, Aotearoa has a holdover of this in our parliamentary rules. Standing Order 321 provides that "No member’s bill, local bill, or private bill that contains any provision affecting the rights or prerogatives of the Crown may be passed unless the Crown has, by message, indicated its consent to that provision". I'm not sure if this means that there is a similar consent process here for government bills, or whether it is simply assumed that the government automaticly consents on behalf of the foreign monarch to its own legislation. Either way though, seeing member's bills with majority support having to wait for a formal stamp of approval from an unelected foreign inbred who lives on the other side of the world is demeaning to our democracy. I can't recall such consent ever being denied - we're not the UK, after all - but the possibility that it could be, to a bill with majority support, is an affront to our democracy. As for how to fix it, the solution is obvious: remove this odious provision (and until that happens, move to suspend it in any third reading debate on a member's bill).

Ending conversion "therapy"

The government has introduced a bill to outlaw homophobic conversion "therapy":

Practices intended to change or suppress someone's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, also referred to as gay conversion therapy, will become a criminal offence under legislation announced today.

Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi said today the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill had been introduced to Parliament.

Measures proposed in the Bill were aimed at ending conversion practices which didn't work, were widely discredited, and caused harm to rainbow communities and the wider community, Faafoi said.

Good. This "therapy" is basicly an attempt to torture and bully the gay away. Despite the name, it serves no therapeutic purpose whatsoever. Instead, its directly discriminatory, an attempt to stop people being who they are, and we should all be glad that the government is outlawing it.

The bill is here. It makes it clear that actual medical practice or just the mere expression of bigoted religious beliefs do not qualify. Instead, it is aimed at discriminatory and harmful quackery. There are significant safeguards against prosecution. It looks good, and the sooner Parliament passes it, the better.

Thursday, July 29, 2021



Climate Change: The other Tiwai scam

Newsroom has a good piece this morning about the government's consultation on industrial free allocations, revealing that Fletcher Building is getting an extra $5 million a year ($7 million at today's prices) due to miscalculated carbon subsidies. That's bad, and it needs to be stopped by resetting emissions baselines to a credible level. But while we're talking about industrial over-allocation, we should talk about the elephant in the room: Rio Tinto.

In 2019, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters received 1.7 million tons of carbon as a free allocation for being emissions intensive and trade exposed (EITE). But its actual emissions were only 663,000 tons. The difference - 150% of its actual emissions - was the Electricity Allocation Factor, basicly "compensation" for the effects of the ETS on electricity prices. Except Rio Tinto doesn't pay those higher prices like the rest of us peasants - they got themselves a sweetheart deal which sees them pay a fifth of what us peasants pay, and less than a quarter of what industrial users are paying now. So they're being "compensated" for nothing. The financial cost of this unnecessary "compensation" is $50 million a year at current carbon prices - and triple that on the government's books. (The real cost is that it allows a million tons a year of unnecessary pollution into the ETS, which neither we nor the planet can afford).

Meanwhile, at the same time it is getting this compensation for being a vulnerable, struggling industry, Rio Tinto is telling its shareholders that it is hugely profitable. It can't have it both ways. If they're that profitable, they clearly don't need any subsidies at all, and we should cut them off.

As for the Electricity Allocation Factor, this was apparently recently reviewed by the government. Hopefully this will result in it being cut, or in it not being given to polluters who pay less than the market price for electricity. Not that there's a lot of other polluters eligible for it - it really is a special purpose subsidy for Rio Tinto. So we might as well just phase it out entirely.

End the Tiwai scam

A little over a year ago, Rio Tinto was pleading povery, claiming its Tiwai Point aluminium smelter was unprofitable, and threatening to close it unless it got a government handout to keep it running. Their bluff worked, and we ended up paying the BluffGeld by giving them lower electricity prices - less than a fifth of what us plebs pay on average. And now they're laughing about what suckers we are in their annual report:

The owner of the Bluff Aluminium smelter noted in its results statement released late yesterday how successful its bluff to shut down the smelter late last year had been. The threat led 51% state-owned Meridian Energy to give a $60m per year electricity price cut to Rio Tinto in January which means the smelter now pays just $35 per megawatt/hr. That compares with the average wholesale electricity price since January of $239 per megawatt/hr and the price this week in the lower South Island of $103/mw/hr.

[...]

Rio Tinto reported this lower price deal had contributed to its record US$12.1b profit in the first six months of 2021 and its record high dividend payout of US$9.1b. It illustrated its “outstanding financial results” slide (8) for investors with a picture of a Bluff Smelter worker. Most of the profits and dividends came from surging iron ore prices as China fired up its economy last year with more steel and concrete, but tens of millions would have come from the profits from Tiwai Point.

[Unemtnioned: their 1.7 million tons of carbon in 2019 - and likely a similar amount last year - worth an estimated $82 million a year at today's prices, or $250 million a year on the government's books]

As Bernard Hickey points out, this is just obscene when we have kiwis huddling in energy poverty. This company is taking us for a ride, driving up electricity prices for the rest of us and directly causing at least a million tons a year (two or three million this year) of extra carbon emissions from the coal it forces us to burn to make up for the electricity it uses. And they're openly laughing at us while doing so.

Its time to end this scam. We need to end all subsidies to Tiwai immediately: electricity prices, carbon, regulatory, pollution. Clearly they don't need them. We should use some of that money to develop alternative employment in Invercargill, as a hedge against future threats. And if this causes them to leave, good. Because the carbon subsidy alone makes it clear that we're better off just shutting this polluter down and paying everyone it employs to do something better with their lives rather than allowing this foreign extortion to continue.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021



Climate Change: Just predatory delay again

Another day, another story arguing that climate change is Just Too Hard for farmers, and that they should be given more time to wait for a magic technological solution which will cut emissions while allowing them to continue doing exactly what they're doing at the moment. Today, the magic Technological Solution is low-emissions cows, and like a methane vaccine, its just another exercise in predatory delay by New Zealand's biggest polluters. How can we tell this? Because their magic low emissions cows already exist. But rather than using them to reduce emissions, farmers use them to crank out more and more milk and pollution.

You can work out the efficiency of the New Zealand dairy herd from the herd size and production numbers in the NZ Dairy Statistics [PDF, p8 and 9] and the implied emissions factors per cow in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory [PDF, p192-193]. They tell a tale of continuous improvement. In 1990 we had 2.4 million cows producing 599 kg of milk solids, which at 77.8 kg of methane per cow, means an efficiency of .312 kg of methane per kg of milk solids. In 2019 we had over twice as many cows - 4.9 million of them - producing over three times as much milk solids - 1896 million kg - which at 96.8 kg of methane per cow, means .251 kg of methane per kg of milk solids. Thirty years of ordinary, business as usual breeding for more efficient production has produced a cow which is 25% more emissions efficient. Which sounds a lot like the supercow farmers say they're looking for! So why do we need to wait again?

The answer of course is so farmers can keep polluting as usual and not do anything to take responsibility for the problem they are causing. Its pure predatory delay. But we've given them 20 years already to start lowering emissions, and now (according to the weather at least) we are out of time. The planet is simultaneously on fire and flooding, and its simply no longer credible for them to stand there and pretend they can't do anything about when they clearly already have (and then wasted those gains by using them to make our problems worse). Farmers need to do their part, and since they obviously won't do that voluntarily, they need to be regulated into doing it.

How do we do this? The bare minimum is to cap milk production, and force reductions in herd numbers. Or we just do it directly and cap and cut cow numbers. Either will ensure that efficiency gains help the planet, not farmers. And on current business-as-usual that would meet the bottom end of the statutory 2050 methane target range. If we want to better - and we have to, because the current target is laughably weak - then we reduce those caps faster. Think of it as an incentive for farmers to go beyond business-as-usual, and do more than just talk about breeding better cows.

(Again, I am ignoring sheep and beef cattle from this, on the basis that a) they are also getting more efficient by business as usual, and b) high carbon prices will see them displaced by trees anyway. The problem is dairy, and so that's where we should focus the solution: on slaughtering the sacred cows).

Still the same question

The Independent Police Conduct authority has found another case where police used excessive force in making an arrest:

A police officer broke a woman’s arm with a baton before dragging her out of her car by the hair following a chase.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority has found the officer’s use of force was “excessive” and his actions were “unnecessary”.

Naturally, the police deny everything and claim the use of force was appropriate. But if anyone else had done it, they'd be slapping them with charges of assault with a weapon and injuring with intent. And so we're left asking the same question: why does the law apply to us and not to them? And how can a body which purports to be above the law have any credibility in enforcing it?

Monday, July 26, 2021



Profiteering politicians delegitimise parliament

Why aren't politicians interested in actually solving the housing crisis? Because virtually the entire political class is making massive profits from it:

MPs have pocketed $50 million in capital gains from their property interests in the last year amid a growing housing affordability crisis, a Stuff analysis has found.

It represents a significant increase in wealth for many elected representatives, around 95 per cent of whom have land or property interests. The vast majority of MPs are accumulating more wealth from their properties than from their salaries.

Pretty obviously, this is a conflict of interest on a massive scale. But its also a direct threat to the legitimacy of parliament and of our system of government in general, making it look like its really just a tool for the landed gentry to enrich themselves by fucking everybody else over. And the deeper the crisis gets, and the more people are excluded from safe and secure housing, the more illegitimate it will seem. Over on The Spinoff, Bernard Hickey is talking about the housing crisis driving a Rogernomics-Ruthanasia-MMP-scale political reckoning. Politicians nakedly profiting from everyone else's misery is only going to strengthen that push, and make the backlash harsher.

Democracy wins in Samoa

Over three months ago Samoa had an election, in which the people voted out the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party and voted in the opposition FAST Party. The incumbent Human Rights Protection Party ignored the results and clung to power, hoping to get their patsy head of state to call another election they could then fix. But on Friday afternoon, their plan came tumbling down, with the Court of Appeal ruling that FAST was the government, and had been since their impromptu swearing-in ceremony back in May. The ruling left the HRPP with nowhere to legally go - there's no appeal, no wiggle room, and no way even to delay things further using the patsy head of state (he can only act on advice, and advice from the old regime is pretty explicitly no longer valid). And so they've finally blinked: the tyrant Tuilaepa started packing up his office over the weekend, admitted defeat last night, and has just given a concession speech to supporters. The new government will formally take power tomorrow, and parliament is scheduled to finally meet on wednesday.

So there's actually a happy ending: the Samoan judiciary actually stared down an attempted executive coup, and forced the results of elections to be respected. And they managed it because both the former government and the Samoan people had enough respect for the rule of law that any attempt to fire them or retain power in the face of a clear ruling of illegality just wasn't going to stick. And because they didn't have an army to fuck things up or give the regime the option of just ruling by force.

There's still unfinished business though. The FAST government has talked about constitutional amendments to plug the gaps exploited by the HRPP to attempt to cling to power, and there'll probably be a referendum on those at some point (since I don't imagine the HRPP will vote for them). And there needs to be a clearout of regime loyalists. The attorney-general has already said she is resigning, and good riddance - she's destroyed her credibility, utterly poisoned her relationship with the judiciary, and made her position with the new government untenable by being an utter patsy of the HRPP. The head of state also needs to go: the court has been clear that he has repeatedly overstepped the constitutional mark and acting in bad faith throughout this. Though his term expires next year, so if he doesn't resign before then, he can simply not be reappointed. But above all, after this debacle Tuilaepa the tyrant needs to resign from parliament and exit politics forever. And hopefully, there'll be people in his party trying to convince him of that right now.

Climate Change: The solution farmers don't want us to talk about

RNZ this morning has a piece asking Can NZ really meet its methane emissions targets?. Posing it as a question like this frames it as difficult, more of the "but its too hard!" whine from farmers. But its not hard at all. Pretty obviously, we can meet methane reduction targets simply by reducing the number of cows.

This is the solution farmers don't want us to talk about. So, they spend a lot of time holding out the prospect of a methane vaccine to reduce emissions technologically. Obviously, this would be great if it actually existed, but we've had nearly twenty years of research on this and we still don't have one. Meanwhile, the focus on a non-existent future solution has distracted us from the very real things we can do to cut emissions here and now, allowing emissions to rise and rise. Its honestly beginning to look like a dairy version of the coal industry's constant talk about "carbon capture and storage": using the promise of non-existent technology as a tool of predatory delay. Governments have stopped believing the CCS bullshit, adopting a "you can have policy when you deploy it" approach, and we should treat methane vaccines and other promised technological solutions to agricultural emissions the same way. Yes, that would be nice, but for the time being its a fantasy, and we no longer have time for fantasies. We need to focus on what we can do now. And what we can do now is cut cow numbers.

This isn't as radical as it sounds. New Zealand has had fewer cows in the past [PDF, p9]. A 10% cut would simply mean cutting the herd back to the size it was a decade ago. A 49% cut by 2050 would mean cutting it back to what it was in 1990, the baseline year for our emissions (interestingly, both cuts would occur over a similar length of time to the original growth, so the industry should easily be able to handle that change). It would mean fewer farms, and fewer farmers. It would also mean cleaner water and a better overall environment. (It would mean less food, but we export 90% of that, so even significant cuts will leave more than enough for all of us).

(I am focusing on cows here because they're the really big emitters, and because current carbon prices mean trees will cut the numbers of sheep and beef cattle quite happily by normal market mechanisms. Those industries are now uncompetitive compared to sitting back and watching trees grow. And the quicker they admit it and move on, the better off we'll all be).

We need policy to start driving these cuts now. Bringing farming fully into the ETS with no subsidies will help, but we will probably need explicit herd-size and stocking limits as well to drive the reduction. The good news is that this policy is completely reversible: if in the future farmers get their magic vaccine, we can let cow numbers rise again (subject to water quality and other environmental limits). But in the meantime, we need to start cutting them down to size. And the sooner we start on it, the better.

Thursday, July 22, 2021



Looking for more coal is indefensible

Siberia is burning. China is flooding. Westport flooded last weekend. And against this backdrop of climate breakdown, the Southland District Council thinks its a good time to approve new coal exploration.

This is a terrible idea. But its also a waste of time. Any coal discovered can never be burned - not if Southland wants to keep its neighbours in Invercargill above water, anyway - so there is literally no point even looking for it. The best thing we can do with coal is leave it in the ground and forget about it. And even Southland District mayor Gary Tong seemed to recognise how indefensible his position was: he didn't want to say why the council had approved it, and certainly didn't want to say whether he had personally supported it (in the end, he admitted he did, with some mumbling about "jobs" and that they'd just get "Crown Minerals" - actually the Minister - to approve it instead. Well, then the Minister can be the climate criminal and face the lawsuit rather than him).

We need this to stop happening - both to remove the risk of further coal being burned, but also to stop companies from wasting their resources pursuing an asset which will ultimately become stranded and valueless. How do we do it? An immediate amendment to the Crown Minerals Act forbidding any future exploration or mining permits for coal and other fossil fuels would be a start, along with a sunset clause on existing permits and resource consents. That would both cut off supply, and send a clear message to existing coal users that they need to transition to carbon-free alternatives. The only question is how long we give them to phase out: five years or ten.

Update: And if any MP wants to work on this, here's the first stab at a member's bill to do those things: the Crown Minerals (Ending Fossil Fuels) Amendment Bill. It needs work, in particular on transitional provisions to state clearly that the new provisions prevail and apply to all pending applications, and that no compensation is payable (and on unpicking previous transitional provisions which preserve rights against past amendments) - but its a start.

An end to imprisoning refugees?

Back in May, Amnesty International exposed New Zealand's repuslive system of refugee detention, and the ongoing human rights abuses it leads to. It clearly embarassed the government, because today they've announced a formal inquiry into the practice - the first step to ending it:

But following the release in May of a damning report by Amnesty International into the practice, the Government is now acknowledging swift action is needed.

The Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi and Associate Minister Phil Twyford have ordered a review into Immigration New Zealand’s processes following Amnesty's research. The review will focus on the appropriateness of the use of Corrections and Police facilities for immigration detention.

[...]

[Amnesty International Executive Director Meg] De Ronde welcomes the Government’s prompt response to their meeting but cautions there is still work to be done.

“We’re heartened to see such a prompt and direct result to our research and to the meeting we had with the Ministers and the Asylum Seeker’s Support Trust. A review is a good first step, but we along with others in civil society will be keeping the pressure on until we see legislative change to stop the imprisonment of asylum seekers in criminal justice facilities.”

Good. This practice needs to end. We don't accept it when Australia does it, and we should not acept it from our own government either.

Hydrogen in Southland?

New Zealand wants to move to more renewable electricity. But there's a barrier: the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter. It sucks up 13% of our total electricity supply, but its continued threats to shut down create ongoing uncertainty about demand, which puts people off building the additional renewables we need. But it seems that Tiwai's suppliers, Meridian and Contact, have a solution: just build something else:

New Zealand could become the world's first large-scale producer of green hydrogen if Contact Energy and Meridian Energy's plans pan out.

The two big power companies are looking to develop the world's largest green hydrogen plant in Southland, once the supply agreement with Aluminium Smelters for Tiwai Point comes to an end in late 2024.

"New Zealand has a key competitive advantage, as the renewable electricity available from 1 January 2025 could produce green hydrogen at an internationally competitive price point," a report by global consultancy McKinsey & Co said.

Hydrogen is not a very good fuel, but it may have some uses in our future energy system depending on which ways heavy vehicles go. It is a useful chemical feedstock, and that's where its value actually lies: rebuilding a chemical industry that isn't dependent on gas. But it can be made anywhere there is power and water, which suggests that there isn't actually a lot of "competitive advantage" to be had. But ultimately, that's all a problem for Meridian and Contact and whoever goes into business with them.

Obviously, the plan lives or dies on whether Tiwai actually shuts down (something which looks unlikely this month). But by talking about it, Meridian and Contact have signalled that they are committed to ensuring that electricity demand stays high, which should in turn help encourage that investment in renewables that we need.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021



Samoa's women's quota: Have I missed something?

(Narrator voice: Yes, yes I did. See correction at the bottom)

Another election petition was finalised in Samoa today, seeing the first finding of an illegal practice against a FAST candidate (a party roadshow made a customary gift - koha in NZ terms - during a period where these are forbidden). She wasn't disqualified - it was an illegal practice, not a corrupt one - but before I learned that I wondered whether this would affect the operation of Samoa's women's quota. And that rabbit-hole got interesting.

Samoa's constitution requires that a minimum of 10% of parliament be women, with additional MPs appointed if not enough are elected. It has been established by recent court rulings that that (presently) means six women, and that appointments are made after all election petitions and resulting byelections are resolved (and that parliament can sit before that). Section 44(1B) of Samoa's constitution says that the (unsuccessful) candidates with the highest number of votes are appointed. According to the final election results, the top five unsuccessful candidates were:

  • Toomata Norah Leota (FAST) (780 votes)
  • Gatoloaifaana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow (HRPP) (555 votes)
  • Ali'imalemanu Alofa Tuuau (HRPP) (464 votes)
  • Lolomatauama Eseta Mataituli (FAST) (292 votes)
  • Atuatasi Katifa Bryce (FAST) (244 votes)
(Note that following the resignation of Leota Tima Leavai there are now only four female MPs. There are a bunch of byelections to be determined, which may see women elected or poll well, but on the present numbers, assuming nothing changes that seems to mean Leota and Gidlow would be appointed, with no change in the balance of power).

On 20 April, after these results came out, Samoa's head of state purported to appoint Ali'imalemanu Alofa Tuuau as an additional member. That appointment was later thrown out by the courts, but on the basis that it was made at the wrong time. Meanwhile, I'm left wondering why the third highest-polling unsuccessful candidate was appointed in the first place. Have I missed something?

Correction: And the thing I missed: the clause saying "“Highest number of votes” means the percentage of the total valid votes in a constituency polled by a woman candidate" (which I guess is because Samoan electorates are not equal-sized). So Tuuau has 464 / 1159 votes = 40%, Leota 780 / 2200 votes = 35%, and Gidlow 555 / 1669 votes = 33%, and Tuuau and Leota are first to be appointed if nothing changes.

A promising start

The "rebate" half of the government's feebate scheme to lower transport emissions came into force three weeks ago. And it looks like its had an immediate effect, with two months worth of EVs registered in the first 19 days alone:

More than 1300 electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles were registered in the first 19 days of the Government’s new “feebate” policy taking effect.

Though a small fragment of the overall light vehicle market, that number was higher than the two months of electric and plug-in hybrid sales that preceded it, and about triple the daily average for the first half of 2021.

[...]

According to Ministry of Transport figures released to Stuff, 1357 electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids were registered from July 1 to July 19 – including both brand-new vehicles and newly imported secondhand vehicles.

We'll get full monthly figures here early next month, but this is a very promising start. While the numbers are still low overall, and sometimes distorted by government procurement, it looks like the policy has roughly tripled EV uptake. The policy was expected to see 4,000 more EVs than the status quo, and it looks like they're well on the way to that. And when the fees on dirty vehicles kick in, the incentive for a clean one should be even stronger.

Taking shortsighted penny-pinching to a whole new level

Over the weekend Westport was hit by devastating floods. Half the town had to be evacuated, 89 homes (so far) are uninhabitable, and another 400 (of ~1700) need serious repairs. The total cost hasn't come in yet, but its going to be well into the tens of millions of dollars. And it turns out that the entire thing was preventable:

A $10 million flood protection scheme proposed for Westport would have prevented most of the devastation caused by the weekend's massive flood, the West Coast Regional Council operations director says.

[...]

Randal Beal said the scheme involved extensive stopbanks and floodwalls – essentially ringfencing the town from the Buller and Orowaiti rivers – and would cost $10.2 million. “It is designed for a one-in-a-hundred-year flood in the Buller, and whether it would have protected the town this time, the simple answer is yes, unless there was a flood bank failure,” he said.

[...]

The regional council originally pitched the project to Westport ratepayers in 2017, but they had little appetite for it, Beal said.

Only 10.8 percent of respondents supported it; 24.6 percent preferred to do nothing about their town's flood risk and 30 per cent had no opinion.

“It would have been an expense for ratepayers, certainly, and without a majority supporting it we couldn't go ahead,” he said.

This takes Keeping Rates Low to an entirely new level. Wellington's regular poonamis are embarrassing, but it takes real shortsighted penny-pinching to make 5% of your town homeless. They're lucky no-one died. But hey, at least some old dudes didn't lose an election.

Meanwhile, I'd hope that other councils around the country are looking at their flood protection, and their climate change projections, and prioritising improvements. And if they're not, they should face the rage of voters in 2022.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021



Climate Change: Calling time on "leakage"

When New Zealand was trying to implement carbon pricing back in the early 2000s, polluters whined about "leakage", either threatening to take their production overseas so they could continue to pollute for free, or complaining that paying the full cost of their pollution would mean they would be out-competed by those who did not. As a result, the ETS we eventually got had hefty free allocations for "trade-exposed" industries, meaning much weaker incentives for them to cut pollution. But there's another way to deal with leakage: remove the advantage of foreign pollution subsidies at the border, by making high-carbon imports pay for their embodied pollution. And this week, two of the world's biggest economies have taken steps to introduce such border adjustment mechanisms:

Milk, meat and metal exports could one day be stung with border tariffs, if the country falls behind international efforts to cut carbon.

Last week, lawmakers in the European Union and the US announced proposals to put levies on foreign goods that aren’t subject to carbon pricing in their home countries.

The EU tariffs will begin with industrial products, such as aluminium. Experts are divided on whether tariffs could one day extend to our biggest exports, dairy and meat. The goal is to level the playing field, so EU and US-based businesses don’t lose out to countries with softer emissions rules.

New Zealand exports might escape levies if they are covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme, or a proposed scheme to price farming’s greenhouse gases that could kick in from 2025 – if those schemes are deemed tough enough by overseas lawmakers.

[Emphasis added]

As I've said before, this is something New Zealand should welcome, as it punishes climate cheats. But the key is in the last bit. Would an ETS which includes enormous pollution subsidies be regarded as equivalent? Alternatively, the EU's detailed proposal [PDF] allows importers to deduct any carbon price already paid in the country of origin, but the methodology for this is a matter for future regulation, and there's a big question of how it would interact with free allocations. In particular, for aluminium - the NZ industry actually affected by the EU rule - its unclear what deduction they can make, given that their free allocation (1,697,437 tons in 2019) was more than twice their actual emissions (663,620 tons in 2019 according to Emissions Tracker). Will they have to pay more, to compensate for the excessive subsidy?

Of course, that problem simply goes away if we remove subsidies. And major global economies taking this step significantly reduces the case for their continued existence. After all, if New Zealand polluters' competitors can no longer gain a competitive advantage by carbon cheating, why do we need to "compensate" for it? If carbon prices on exports are simply deductible at the EU or US border, why do we need to weaken the pollution-reduction incentive by keeping them artificially low for favoured industries? Instead, we could get rid of them, and make polluters face proper incentives to reduce their pollution. So the quicker the EU and US phase this in, and the broader it is, the better.

Monday, July 19, 2021



Exporting their social licence

One of the slogans of Friday's ugly farmer protests was "no farms, no food". But the truth is that most of what farmers grow is exported, and kiwis are increasingly being priced out of eating it at all:

If you feel like red meat is more expensive than it used to be, you're right.

Around 95 percent of New Zealand's sheep meat and 87 percent of beef is exported, and what's left behind for locals is being sold at a premium.

[...]

Beef + Lamb NZ chief executive Rod Slater said the cost of meat in New Zealand reflected what markets overseas were willing to pay.

"If a housewife in the middle of Oxford in the UK is prepared to pay a certain price for a cut of meat, we have to match that in New Zealand," he said. "We are price takers, not price makers in this country."

I guess you could say that what they're really exporting is their social licence to operate.

So, we get 10% of the food and pay 100% of the environmental costs (which effectively end up as a subsidy to foreign consumers) - and get higher prices into the bargain. Meanwhile, farmers laugh all the way to the bank, having ripped us off at both ends. What, exactly, is in this for us again? And why should we listen to their whining about having to obey basic environmental standards, or pay for their emissions like the rest of us, when the primary benefit of their operations goes straight overseas?

At the moment we give the farming sector an effective $2 billion a year carbon subsidy, plus Cthulhu knows how much in water (both of which pale in comparison to the effective subsidy of past land theft), so we can pay more for food. And that seems like a pretty shit deal. We should end those subsidies immediately, make those "self-reliant" farmers stand on their own two feet for once. And if this means that half of them go out of business, I honestly don't see that as a negative. Again, its not like they provide any social benefit to justify their carve outs and subsidies.

The government needs to act on this warning

Over the weekend devastating floods hit the South Island. Half the population of Westport were forced from their homes, and it looks like hundreds have been made permanently homeless. Its a taste of what we can expect in the future due to climate change, and things are only going to get worse. The only way they stop getting worse is if we stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In this context, the government's plan to flood the market with carbon and allow polluters to emit an extra 7 million tons this year in order to keep carbon prices low looks wildly irresponsible. Every ton of carbon matters. Every ton makes it worse. While how bad things ultimately get depends on total global emissions, its trivially obvious that us allowing extra makes things worse, not better. And to do it because essentially you can't be arsed stopping it is a perfect illustration of the banality of evil.

We've had a warning here, and the government needs to act on it. And if they don't, if they just continue sleepwalking us deeper into the apocalypse because its just "too hard" for them to do otherwise, we need to hold them accountable for it.

Friday, July 16, 2021



A howl of ugliness

Farmers are protesting today, invading cities with tractors and utes in protest against water and climate change policy. The core message of their "howl of protest" is meant to be "no farmers, no food" - which rather undermines their own case, given that 80% of the food they produce is exported. We could drive half the farmers in Aotearoa out of business, be massively environmentally better off, and still have more than enough cheese for everyone. But of course, they're also displaying their ugly side, with signs displaying racism, gun nuttery, more racism, and of course sexism, misogyny, and an obsession with dead political ideologies. And we haven't even got to the weird conspiracy theorist stuff yet!

Meanwhile, parts of Germany just received two months' rain in two days, causing massive, unexpected floods which have left 58 people dead. The US and Canada are experiencing another heatwave, and a huge chunk of the US is on fire again. And we may be about to get another freak rain and flooding event in Westland. In these circumstances, protesting against climate change policy is as irresponsible and sociopathic as being an antivaxxer. Oh, wait!

Basicly, this sort of messaging is likely to be... unpersuasive with urban Aotearoa. Where "unpersuasive" equals "as popular as a proverbial unpopular thing". Which means it is unlikely to be persuasive with the government either. Urban Aotearoa is where the votes have been for decades, and the first rule of government is "learn to count". Maybe farmers should learn that too?

Thursday, July 15, 2021



Proactive release: What is the government afraid of?

Last month, Newsroom reported on the government's slow progress on reviewing its proactive release policy. The story quoted Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins as saying that there had been "ongoing reviews" about the effectiveness of proactive releases. Naturally, I asked for these reviews using the OIA. Naturally, I got dicked around, and had to complain to the Ombudsman to get a response. And naturally, it turns out he was big-noting. Those "reviews" turn out to be "people talked about it at an OIA forum a few times", plus a partially redacted piece from a daily briefing last December. Hipkins does note that

The review I described have been interim assessments of the implementation of the policy, based on the feedback received from agencies and the baseline metrics available.
But despite explicitly asking for such material, these weirdly don't seem to have been included. Though possibly he was referring to real work done back in late 2019 and early 2020, which has of course been withheld entirely. The government espouses transparency, but when it comes to actually practicising it, its back to control-freakery and secrecy as usual.

Which is not just disappointing, but downright weird. I mean, what are they afraid of here? What's the threat to orderly and effective decision-making? That people might agree with them? That we might nod and say "yes, this is very good work, and it is leading to positive change"? That we might, in short, encourage them?

Hipkins' response mentions the prospect of a single searchable platform for proactive releases. Obviously, that's the sort of thing which will take time and public consultation to develop properly, but it would be great to see. It would just be nice if they were more open about their plans here, rather than clinging reflexively to bad old habits.

UK plans amnesty for war criminals

England's massacres in Northern Ireland during "the Troubles" are just another in its long list of colonial crimes. And like their other colonial crimes, they plan to sweep them under the carpet, with an effective amnesty for their colonial criminals:

All criminal prosecutions relating to the Troubles and future attempts to take civil actions would be blocked under UK government plans that have united Northern Ireland’s parties in opposition.

The proposals, which are also opposed by the Irish government, were announced by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, who told MPs it was a “painful truth” that criminal investigations were unlikely to deliver successful outcomes.

Instead, the plan envisages the establishment of a new independent body, likened to South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission and intended to help families find the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

...and conveniently avoid providing any justice for the crimes committed, or any liability for the British military and state for their role in those crimes. And of course allow the latter to pretend that they weren't crimes at all, because a court was never allowed to say so. Its about impunity, not justice. And because of that, its not going to provide a lasting settlement. Anything less than full criminal prosecutions of all the murderers on both sides, regardless of whether they wore a uniform or not, is going to allow this issue to fester.

Even Northern Ireland's politicians can see this (or at least part of it), and are united in opposition to the plan. But I guess the real problem here is that Westminster doesn't really care what they think, and never has. Officially, their colonial project is over. But the colonial mindset persists.

The Ministry of health's transparency problem again

RNZ has an interesting piece this morning about the Ministry of Health's efforts to hide the truth about its misleading and nonsensical vaccine rollout graph, which showed second doses being given before first doses. The "graph" was in fact marketing bullshit, and many Ministry of Health staff were uncomfortable with it. But rather than just admit that when faced with the inevitable OIA requests, the Ministry staff at the Ministry tried to cover it up:

Emails show one official, faced with six different reporters asking for the data behind the graph under the Official Information Act, wanted to claim the figures were commercially sensitive.

"The data doesn't match that illustration as that illustration was a smoothed and high level visual of our plan," he wrote.

"Can we please go with the approach that the picture is an illustration at a high level and the underlying data is subject to commercial sensitive information as an approach?"

But a staff member from the Director-General of Health's office knocked back the idea.

[...]

The ministry eventually responded to journalists saying there was no specific data that informed the graph and declined the Official Information Act requests. Forecast data was released, but it didn't match what was in the illustration, or split out forecast first and second doses.

In other words, the graph was a lie. And in a situation where public trust is essential to an effective public health response, it was stupid and counterproductive. But it speaks volumes about the attitude of some at the Ministry that their first instinct when asked about it was to lie further to try and hide that fact, rather than come clean. Because obviously, that always ends well. You also have to wonder what sort of culture there is there if they thought they could publish something (especially something contentious and flawed) and not have people ask about it.

The OIA has been the law for 40 years now. Questions about stuff the government has published or said are part of the everyday business of democracy. If a Minister says they have received advice on something, someone is going to ask for it. If an agency publishes a graph, someone will want the underlying data. If a department says they've consulted people before making a decision, someone will want to know who and what they said. Agencies should expect and be prepared for this, and most welcome it as a discipline to ensure they do good work. But someone at Ministry of Health just didn't think about it, then did a mad, failed attempt at a coverup, and as a result they have a massive and completely avoidable PR fail which has undermined public confidence in a key government policy area. And if I was the Minister, I'd be pretty annoyed by that, and the unprofessional agency culture which allowed it to happen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021



Climate Change: Fixing the government's fuckup

Newsroom today has a piece on the ETS price crisis and the risk that poor market design means we will blow the carbon budget in its first real year of operation. But can we do anything about it? According to Climate Change Minister James Shaw, the answer is "no":

As the price nears $50, the trigger level for releasing a flood of new units into the market to depress the carbon price, the Government says its hands are tied about raising the cap this year.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Newsroom he'd been advised that he couldn't raise that $50 cap until the end of the calendar year. Given the speed at which prices are rising, the threshold is likely to be breached well before then - possibly in the next government auction, scheduled for September 1.

Bullshit. To point out the obvious, the government could legislate. I've taken a first stab at what a bill to do this would look like here. It is basicly a simple matter of changing one column of numbers in a schedule. The numbers I've chosen are higher, designed to give the market room to grow and find its price, while setting a clear pathway to a price of $150 by 2030. Note that the price cap is a maximum price; you would expect it to be significantly higher than the usual market price, and I'm actually worried that the rate of growth isn't enough (it would imply a trigger point of $235 in 2030, and I'm not sure that 50% headroom over the expected price is enough to cope with regular market variations). But whether the rate of increase should be $15, $20, or $25 a year is something we have a little time to work out - the important thing is to solve the current problem so the market can actually do its work.

The timeframe to pass this is narrow - the next auction is on 1 September. Given the significant environmental (and fiscal) implications of doing nothing, all-stages urgency seems justified, just as it would be for a tax-legislation fuckup. And that's what this is: a fuckup, which needs to be fixed ASAP.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021



National: Funded by racists

The National party is currently running a(nother) racist campaign, whipping up fears of "Māori separatism" (again) over basic measures for equality. So who did they get to fund it? Racist crank Don Brash:

National leader Judith Collins asked Don Brash to raise $300,000 for a billboard campaign attacking the Government on race issues, according to a leaked email from Brash obtained by Stuff.

[...]

The email headlined “strictly confidential” was sent in May by Brash to an unknown group of wealthy potential donors.

In it, Brash says Collins has asked him to raise $300,000 for a billboard campaign on “Treaty of Waitangi issues”.

He says he has done this as she believes the public has limited knowledge of the issues – such as a new history curriculum, the entrenchment of Māori wards, and the new Māori Health Authority – and the mainstream media was not shining enough of a light on them.

This speaks volumes about the current direction of National under Collins, and the popularity of that direction with its usual backers. Though it seems that not even Brash and his racist mates want their names associated with this - he was careful to donate less than the declaration threshold, and advised potential donors to do the same. It seems that even the racists realise there's something shameful about their position, and are afraid of the social consequences of exposure. Which highlights even more strongly the need to lower that declaration threshold: so those with these shameful views have nowhere to hide.

Running for the exits

Today is another key date in the ongoing Samoan constitutional crisis, with the HRPP-stacked Judicial Service Commission meeting to determine whether to suspend the Chief Justice. Not for any actual misconduct, but essentially because the HRPP doesn't like the decisions he (and other judges) have made. A suspension would only be temporary, until parliament sits, and the HRPP won't be able to actually sack him unless they can rig new elections to engineer themselves a two-thirds majority. But it would publicly threaten other judges - back us or we will suspend you too - and disrupt the ability of the court to continue to hear cases. And the latter may be all that's required for the HRPP to cling to power.

OTOH, its also clear that Tuilaepa's attempted coup is not supported by his own MPs. Yesterday, another three HRPP MP's resigned rather than fight election petitions, bringing the total to six - a quarter of his caucus. Two of those - Leota Tima Leavai and Aiono Afaese Toleafoa - have also agreed not to contest the resulting byelection, while in a third case - former Education Minister Loau Keneti Sio - their FAST opponent agreed not to stand, leading to speculation he plans to change sides and run for FAST. While the reasons for each resignation will differ - Leota is a lawyer and will lose her livelihood if the petition against her succeeds, others may fear being banned from office - the message is clear: Tuilaepa's MPs aren't willing to take any risks for him. Instead, they're running for the exits. And taking Tuilaepa's tenuous claim of an uncertain outcome with them.

As of today, the numbers stand at FAST 26, HRPP 17 (two other HRPP MPs have had their elections voided for corruption). If parliament was allowed to meet, it is crystal clear what the outcome of any vote would be and who would hold its confidence. Which is of course why the regime won't let it happen. There are currently eight byelections lined up (and potentially more to come), and the HRPP has to win every single one of them just to stay in the game. Which seems like a tall order when your own candidates are quitting or switching sides.

Monday, July 12, 2021



Saying the quiet bit out loud

Normally when people complain about unemployment, its that its too high. But the Employers and Manufacturers Association is complaining that it is too low. Why? Because it might mean they have to raise wages and compete for workers:

Unemployment is at present estimated at 4.5 percent and trending down. But the Employers and Manufacturers Association argues it needs to be closer to 5 percent, to make it easier to recruit and retain staff, and constrain wage inflation.
This really is saying the quiet bit out loud: that NZ business relies on the government to maintain structural unemployment to suppress wages and keep profits high. But it gets worse, because they then explicitly link it to immigration as well:
"And I think really what's exacerbating the problem is, we haven't got immigration. We might be able to cope with 3 to 4 percent unemployment, in terms of finding people, if we have the other side of the equation which is immigration."
Business (or at least the body purporting to represent them) views immigration not as a way of welcoming new citizens, but as a regulatory subsidy. No need to improve pay or conditions if you can just exploit a migrant! No need to change your sector's business model if you can just bring in someone who doesn't know that people don't work 18 days in a row with no breaks here! But the pandemic (and the petri-dish states breeding new and nastier variants) means the borders are unlikely to open anytime soon. Which means business will have to compete and innovate. Things like actually training staff, rather than expecting there to be someone with the perfect skill-set available from overseas or just waiting around due to structural unemployment. Offering better, more flexible conditions. And above all, paying more. And the sooner business gets the message the market is sending, rather than whining for the government to put its thumb on the scales for them, the better off we'll all be.

Finally, one of the reasons we have a housing crisis is because housing costs have massively outstripped wages. You know what would fix that? A decent bout of "wage inflation". But clearly the EMA doesn't want workers to have houses either.

Friday, July 09, 2021



"Contrary to law"

That's the Ombudsman's opinion on the actions of the Most Transparent Government Ever:

Minister for Courts William Sio has been found to have acted "contrary to law" over his office's handling of an Official Information Act request.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier also raised concern that the minister's office did not understand how parts of the OIA worked.

The judgment on Sio came after an OIA request to his office in January last year.

The Minister's office sought an extension, which it could under the law, and then sought to extend again, and then again and even again after that with the eventual response landing in May.

Boshier found the three subsequent extensions were not options under the law.

As the article points out, "contrary to law" is one of the stronger things an Ombudsman can say. One of the reasons for it may be that Sio tried to ignore the Ombudsman as well his obligations under the OIA. And when Ministers and agencies start doing that, the entire system starts breaking down. Which makes you wonder why Boshier didn't seek to charge the Minister with obstruction.

Meanwhile, its clear from this that the "most open and transparent government that New Zealand has ever had" is becoming actively hostile to freedom of information. Muldoon was forced to back down from such a position - the public reaction to his secrecy was why we got the OIA. We need to force Labour to open up as well.

Bad neighbours

This week the UK effectively surrendered to Covid, with Boris Johnson insisting he would scrap all public health restrictions by mid-July in the apparent belief that the UK will "return to normal" if only enough people die. And today, New South Wales - currently in the grip of an outbreak - is apparently thinking of doing the same thing:

The New South Wales (NSW) government is facing its most difficult decision of the pandemic, with senior ministers cautiously canvassing abandoning a zero local-transmission strategy and accepting the Delta strain of Covid-19 will circulate in the community.

Three senior ministers, who would not speak publicly due to cabinet confidentiality, have acknowledged the Australian state has reached a “fork in the road” where it must choose between a lockdown to eliminate Covid or living with the virus.

To be crystal clear, "living with the virus" means allowing it to spread. It means people dying. And it means allowing it to breed new variants, which may be even more infectious, or which our current vaccines may be less effective against - basicly becoming a petri dish and an epidemiological threat to the rest of humanity. It is effectively declaring war against every government which is trying to protect its people from this horror.

In short, if New South Wales decides to "live with the virus" and become a petri-dish state, then we can no longer live with them, and our borders to them and anyone who is open to them will need to remain closed until they come to their senses. And the same goes for the UK.

Climate Change: The credibility of the ETS is on the line

Stuff has noticed a story I've been keeping an eye on for the past month or so: carbon prices are rising, and we're about to blow the ETS budget:

The carbon price is at a record high – and while that may seem a good thing for the climate, the country could be on its way to blowing its first-ever carbon budget.

To reduce greenhouse gas, the Government has designed an elaborate game of chicken. Carbon-producing companies face rising costs to release greenhouse gas until some of them (and eventually all) back down – by cutting their footprints.

But the carbon price is reaching a point where the Government may be the one to pull out. If the price settles above $50 for a tonne of climate pollution, it could set off a trigger that could spoil the country’s chance to meet its 2021 emissions goal. Consequently, the Government may need to turn to other countries to buy extra carbon credits to balance the blowout.

That story was published yesterday, and clearly written late Wednesday, when the carbon price was at $46 a ton ($5 higher than it was in early March). Yesterday it rose another $1.50, to $47.50, and looking now, its already gone up another dollar. These are spot-market prices, of course, but the auction prices reflect them, so on the current trend, it'll be $50 next week, and we should be well above the trigger point by the time of the next auction in September.

What's driving this? At a guess, I'd say this. A major polluter tripling their pollution is exactly the sort of thing which will drive prices up. And its having positive effects, with Silver Fern Farms reading the market signal and deciding to decarbonise early. High carbon prices are a sign the system is doing what it is meant to - making polluters pay to pollute, and fight one another for a limited supply - and we should all want that market signal to be as strong as possible and to get stronger over time.

Pretty obviously, the credibility of the ETS is on the line. The government put in the cost-containment reserve as a protection against economic shocks, not ordinary market conditions. If it triggers in the first year of real operation, and effectively prevents the market from operating properly, then the system is pretty obviously a joke. As I noted last month, the government needs to fix this, with urgent legislation to replace the trigger points in Schedule 3 of the Climate Change (Auctions, Limits, and Price Controls for Units) Regulations 2020 (legislation, because to provide the market "certainty" they tied their hands on how often they could change this by regulation, and because if they merely remove this constraint and regulate, polluters might try and sue). The Climate Change Commission recommended an immediate increase to $70/ton, but looking at the way the market is going, I'd suggest a trigger point of at least $100/ton, and rising by $25 a year, to give the market space to find a price. And this needs to be done urgently, before the next auction on 1 September (so basicly when parliament gets back from its recess). If the government refuses, then it will be clear that their main carbon reduction policy is a joke, and that rather than discouraging pollution as it is meant to, they really have their thumb on the scales to encourage more.

Thursday, July 08, 2021



Free e-bikes for all?

Writing on Greater Auckland, David Slack presents A Proposal of Preposterous Audacity: inspired by Auckland's free public transport day, he suggests going a step further, with free e-bikes for all!

Just imagine for a moment what that might look like if every single person in the country had an e-bike and they all started biking.

Imagine, if you will, streets so full of e-bikes you’d think you were in Amsterdam. Only you’re not on a bike by a canal now, Dr Ropata, you’re in Palmerston North or Hamilton or Ashburton.

What I see is a country full of e-bikes. I’m not saying imagine a few more, I’m saying imagine if every single person had one.

My modest proposal is a free e-bike for every single person who wants one. Just like free public transport in Auckland: you do it, you stand back, and you see what happens.

Obviously, we'd need a lot of bikes - 3 million or so, at his guess. And since we need that many, we might as well build them here, to try and get the costs down (and create jobs). The payoff would be actually driving the mode-shift required to meet our climate change goals. 50% of Auckland's current morning commute journeys are 3-6 minutes - an easy walk or bike - while 75% are under 12 minutes, which is easy for e-bikes.

But would it work? Noodling around with the Auckland transport emissions calculator, eliminating 50% of trips (which would be the massive success story) saves ~1.7 million tons of carbon a year (caveat: this isn't exact, but the calculator doesn't go up to "50% cycling", and its probably close enough for a ballpark exercise like this). At the government's internal carbon price of $150/ton, that's $255 million a year. Or about a ten-year payoff period, assuming Auckland needs ~1.2 million e-bikes. Or we can put it another way: Auckland is currently spending more than $4.4 billion on the City Rail Link. For that, there's an expected reduction in emissions of just 30,000 tons. We could give free e-bikes to everyone in Auckland who wanted one for half that much, and still be ahead on emissions (and $/ton) if it merely tripled cycle usage. If it increased cycling use to Copenhagen-levels - which I think everyone would consider a wild success - it would save 12 times more emissions for half the price.

(Of course, promoting cycling requires more than just free bikes - you also need safe places to ride them, where you're not going to be smashed flat by some hoon in a ute. The good news is that "temporary" cycle infrastructure - seizing roads with planter-boxes - is actually cheap. And if the aim is to shift 10% or 50% of trips to that mode, then giving it 10% or 50% of the existing infrastructure to use seems eminently reasonable. Or we can build more purpose-built cycleways. Obviously, we should do both. I'm also not suggesting that we kill the City Rail Link; rather, that we should be looking at that to scale our investment in mode-shifting. Because that's where the huge emissions payoffs are).

Of course, we don't need to start big. Look at that "Copenhagen-level cycling" goal. That would save Auckland 400,000 tons of carbon a year - or $60 million to the government. For that budget, you could start, and then scale up, a free micromobility service, with free-to-use e-bikes and charging docks everywhere. Of course, you'd also need Limers to maintain them and collect the strays (an expense you don't need to care about when you just give people stuff). Make it easy, make it convenient, make it ubiquitous, and above all make it free, and (as seen with free public transport day) people will follow. Will it get all the way to Copenhagen cycle-utopia? I think it would be a hell of a good start. We could call them "people's bikes". And obviously, paint them red.

"It's not about austerity"

Back in May, the government imposed a three year pay freeze on the public service - you know, the people who literally saved our lives and worked overtime to stand up a Covid response in an instant that kept (most of us) alive and employed. After a pile of OIA requests (and a dubious-looking extension that in retrospect appears to have been largely about dragging things out so they could do a proactive release), they've now released some of the related policy advice. Naturally, in the spirit of the "most transparent government ever", they've done this on a page of "advice seen by our Minister", most of which is unlinked document titles, with no announcement and only OIA requesters receiving a list of what is relevant (example). Its not quite a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a "beware of the leopard" sign, but its pretty much the digital equivalent.

What does the advice say? Its difficult to tell, because so much of the early documents are heavily redacted (yes, I'll be challenging that). But when you get to Chris Hipkins' oral item for Cabinet from March, he actually has to come clean and make a case. And what does he open with?

Following COVID, our fiscal position will require careful management for a considerable period.
But, he goes on, "It’s not about austerity". its just about "managing wage growth in an environment of pay restraint". Which is another way of saying "austerity".

The later Cabinet Paper describes the policy context like this, which makes it pretty clear what has driven this decision:

TotallynotAusterity

[Note: screenshot edited to remove a badly-placed page break]

But remember, "It’s not about austerity". Yeah, right.

The Cabinet paper also notes their "consultation" arrangements. The Public Service Commissioner sought feedback from 143 government agencies, the CTU and six key public sector unions. Somewhat surprisingly, given the broad application of the pay freeze, the latter did not include the NZNO, PPTA, or NZEI, who represent the largest public sector workforces (see diagram on p9 here). I guess that's an example of TKM-PSC's "from the centre" blinkers, but in this case it seems to have bitten them very badly in the arse.

Update: Actually, this bit from one of the early documents is a bit more honest about why Labour is doing this:

In the longer run, further pay restraint will be one of several potential levers to support a return to a sustainable fiscal position. Exercising pay restraint will reduce the need to rely on other levers such as revenue increases or spending reductions.
You got that? They're freezing (meaning cutting, after inflation) public sector wages, so that they don't have to raise taxes on the rich. Why are they called a "Labour" party again?

Wednesday, July 07, 2021



One way of fixing it

New Zealand has seen a proliferation of dirty, polluting double-cab utes over the last decade, thanks in part to the belief that they're exempt from fringe-benefit tax (and our business class's tax-rorting ways). But according to IRD, they might not be exempt after all:

Double-cab ute owners might be getting an unexpected call from Inland Revenue to see if they are paying the right amount of tax, after Revenue Minister David Parker said he was considering a clampdown on the fringe benefit tax rules relating to utes.

[...]

Parker said the advice from IRD was that double-cab ute owners weren't exempt from paying FBT, despite a popular belief that there was an exemption in place. Instead, IRD thinks the existing rules aren't being properly enforced.

"The advice I have is there isn't actually an exemption for double-cab utes, the question is whether the existing rules are being properly enforced," Parker said.

IRD previously hasn't bothered about enforcement because there's not much money in it (and their enforcement decision is permanently underfunded for some reason). It looks like climate change will change that. Good. And hopefully it'll lead to the companies which are currently buying them as a rort dumping them for something cleaner and cheaper to run when they learn they have to pay tax on them after all.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021



How to complain about an OIA extension

I've been seeing a lot of OIA requesters complaining over Twitter about their requests getting extended for unspecified "consultations". Such extensions are permitted under the Act, under certain circumstances, but as I've noted previously, it is one way in which agencies juke the stats so they can respond late but pretend to be "on-time" for the purposes of Te Kawa Mataaho - Public Service Commission's OIA statistics (and their KPIs). My recent complaints to the Ombudsman on this issue have found agencies extending for unnecessary lengths of time, pretending routine decision-making is "consultation", and (most infamously) extending in order to create information to match their public statements. So there are reasonable grounds for suspicion whenever an agency invokes this clause, especially if it is invoked on the 20th working day - circumstances which immediately suggest an agency trying to scam extra time.

What should you do if your OIA request is extended for "consultations"? My first step is to immediately reply asking who they are consulting with and why it could not be done within the statutory timeframe. Sometimes, I get a reasonable explanation - they need to consult a third party, for example (but see below). Sometimes, they say the consultations are "internal", "with senior decision makers", with the Minister's office, or they just don't respond at all. In which case its on to step two: complain. You can use the online form here, or just email it to complaint@ombudsmen.parliament.nz.

What should you say in your complaint? The law says a request can be extended for consultations only if they are "necessary to make a decision [and] cannot reasonably be made within the original time limit", and that the extension must be for a reasonable period of time. So that's the three basic angles of attack:

  • Are the consultations "necessary"?
  • Could (or rather, should) they have been made within the original time limit?
  • Is the length of time reasonable?
The first two are tangled together, and the circumstances will dictate which to emphasise. There are circumstances in which agencies should consult third parties - when you have requested someone else's private information, where there are questions of commercial confidentiality, or when the information requested is from another agency. These sorts of consultations are unlikely to be able to be handled within the 20 working day time limit. If the request does not obviously touch upon these areas, then necessity is immediately questionable. Ditto if they're internal - there needs to be some extraordinary circumstances (like needing legal advice, or a large and complex request) for an agency's normal internal decision-making process to be classed as "consultations", and obviously all agencies should be able to make an OIA decision within the statutory 20 working days. Equally obviously, the less complicated your request is, the higher the bar the agency has to meet to claim that any necessary consultations couldn't happen within the original time limit.

My preferred wording for complaints on this angle goes something like this:

The extension is not necessary. There was no need to consult external third parties. Any internal consultations for signoff or management approval should be accommodated within the agency's regular working practice. If they are not, or someone is on holiday, or the agency feels it has "high demand", then that does not seem to reach the threshold of "necessity" envisioned by the Act. s15A(1)(b) is to accommodate extraordinary and unusual circumstances, not routine ones, and not failures of planning or resourcing by agencies.

If the "consultations" are with a Minister, that is a slam-dunk: the Ombudsman's guide on The OIA for Ministers and agencies notes that where Ministers are concerned,

[c]onsultation arrangements should be configured in such a way that the agency is generally able to meet its requirement to make and communicate the decision on a request within the maximum 20 working days.
So just quote that bit.

On the question of "a reasonable time", the Ombudsman's guide on Consulting third parties notes that external consultation should take 5-10 working days, though this can go up or down depending on the volume and complexity of information involved, or on other circumstances, including whether urgency has been requested by the requester (It also notes that agencies should plan ahead for consultation and start it as quickly as possible to meet their obligation to respond as soon as reasonably practicable). So anything longer than that requires extraordinary justification. Obviously, for internal consultations, the reasonable timeframe would be shorter - less than 5 days, absent extraordinary circumstances. My current preferred wording for this is:

The extension is for an unreasonably long period of time. [pick all that apply]
  • The information requested is simple and should not require this long for consultation.
  • The guidance on "Consulting third parties" states that such consultation should take no longer than 5-10 working days unless there are exceptional circumstances. It is unclear that these circumstances exist.
  • [And] Internal consultations should take significantly less time than external ones.
Also worth noting: if an agency extends for 15 working days for "consultations", then responds in five, that's a slam-dunk on unreasonable length, and you should complain to stop them doing it again.

Extensions for large volumes of information are a different kettle of fish, and the only guidance I have here is that if an agency extends for volume, then gives you nothing, or just a handful of documents, it strongly suggests that the extension was unnecessary (unless you were asking them to find a needle in a haystack). And again, you should complain, to stop them doing it again.

Samoa's dictator drops the mask

Last week, Samoa's Supreme Court attempted to end its ongoing constitutional crisis, ordering parliament to meet within a week so that a government could be elected and "the business of the nation can proceed". On Sunday night, the day before the deadline expired, the head of state decided to defy the court, and purported to defer parliament's sitting until August. The court has not yet responded, and the head of state is immune from civil and criminal prosecution anyway, but it looks like there's now going to be an explicit confrontation, rather than the easy, democratic solution the court has been striving for.

Meanwhile, the HRPP, in the aftermath of the court (provisionally) ruling that the May 24th "swearing in ceremony" was unconstitutional and void has escalated again, lodging a criminal complaint against FAST MPs, alleging that they had:

consistently incited members of the public to be hostile, violent and to rise up against the Government of Samoa and calls for charges be brought against him.

Leala'ilepule also said FAST leadership presented themselves as the new and official Government of Samoa.

So, claiming truthfully to have won an election and asking that the government obey the constitution and allow parliament to meet so there is no doubt as to who holds its confidence is inciting violence against the regime. That's some China-level bullshit right there. But it gets worse, because from the Samoa Observer article [paywalled], that second bit appears to be a treason charge:
“F.A.S.T. leaders continued to [allegedly] act as through they were the legally appointed Government of Samoa and have purposely used the force of media [and] live announcements to attempt the overthrow of the Government of Samoa," Leala said.
Like New Zealand's, Samoa's treason law (s40 here) requires the use of actual violence. The idea that media and public statements would qualify is absolutely laughable, and I expect it to be laughed out of court (if it even gets that far). But it does show us explicitly what the HRPP thinks of democracy and democratic advocacy, and its a very ugly picture. When a party in a democracy attempts to have its opponents charged with treason for peaceful advocacy, it is clear that they are no longer committed to democracy.

(As for the "inciting violence" claim, the charge here seems to be s41, "Inciting to hostility". This explicitly requires "circumstances where there is a present risk of lawlessness, violence or disorder in Samoa". It is left as an exercise for the reader to determine whether such circumstances exist anywhere outside the tyrant Tuilaepa's imagination).

Monday, July 05, 2021



Good riddance to Marsden Point

From Stuff this morning, it looks like the closure of Marsden Point is a done deal:

Shareholders in Refining NZ will vote on August 6 on whether to close the country’s only refinery, at Marsden Point in Northland, and switch instead to importing pre-refined fuels.

[...]

The result of the shareholder vote appears a foregone conclusion.

Z Energy and BP, which together own just over 25 per cent of Refining NZ, have agreed in principle to the import model.

Discussions are still continuing with Mobil, which holds a 17 per cent stake in Refining NZ, but it is not understood to be lobbying for refining to continue.

That's still only 42%. But with the big shareholders all on-side, it doesn't look like the refinery has much of a future.

The Climate Change Commission looked at the refinery closure in its emissions budget risk scenarios, and estimated the total impact at a million tons of carbon a year, so the quicker we're rid of it, the better. As for the jobs, the article gives a figure of 240 direct job losses, while earlier ones say about a thousand. But even then, at the government's internal carbon price of $150 a ton, we're basicly paying $150,000 a year to subsidise these jobs, which seems like an absurdly high figure. But if we're concerned about a just transition, spending some fraction of that on creating new, emissions free jobs in Northland for these people to do seems justified.

Friday, July 02, 2021



Political dishonesty

Politicians frequently ask why voters think they're all dishonest liars. Perhaps its because they act like it:

The government offered to pay millions of dollars to Rio Tinto just months after promising in the election campaign it would not give a direct subsidy.

[...]

While campaigning in Southland ahead of the 2020 election Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: "We have said we do not believe we should be giving a direct government subsidy to Rio Tinto, so that's not what we will be doing."

Three months later, the government wrote to Rio Tinto, which owns 80 percent of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters (NZAS), with an offer of a payment to begin the very next month, in January this year.

"To achieve a managed exit for the smelter and in consideration of our respective interests, the New Zealand government will provide a Transmission Transition payment to NZAS of [blanked out]," it said.

"This payment would start from January 2021 until December 2024."

Ardern made a commitment to voters. Her government then proceeded to violate that commitment. And quibbling over the definition of a "subsidy" just makes them look even more dishonest. This behaviour corrodes political trust, and (probably of more interest to politicians) political support. Why believe the "promises" of a politician who has already been shown to have lied to you? Why be the sucker in their political scam? You can only fool people for so long before they get sick of it, and vote for someone else (or not vote at all) just as a "fuck you".

Politicians are the only people with the power to change this dynamic. And they change it by being honest. Not just in keeping their commitments, but also telling us when the circumstances change and they can't (or don't want to). That's hard work, and politicians think explaining is losing. But not explaining is losing too, just in a different way.

Climate Change: Legal action

Good news on the climate front this morning: lawyers for Climate Action are taking the Climate Change Commission to court over their lax budgets and dodgy accounting:

A coalition of more than 300 lawyers has filed suit against the Climate Change Commission and Climate Minister James Shaw in the High Court.

They allege the commission's recommended emissions budgets and advice on strengthening New Zealand's Paris Agreement target are not consistent with the international climate pact, the Zero Carbon Act or limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels.

"The Climate Change Commission’s advice looks ambitious on a first glance. However, when you dig into the detail, it fails to adequately address the scale and urgency of the task and is inconsistent with the legislation and international agreements it is meant to address," Jenny Cooper QC, the president of Lawyers for Climate Action New Zealand (LCANZI), said.

One of the key issues here is dodgy accounting: rather than using UNFCCC accounting as required by the Act, the Commission is setting its budgets and measuring progress using an unrecognised "modified" accounting system, which effectively lies about our progress. But they're also challenging the weak budgets, and weak advice on a new Paris target. They're wanting the Commission to go back and redo its work using honest numbers, and actually aim for the target they've been set.

Will they succeed? In a judicial review against an expert body, the court is likely to have a lot of deference towards the judgements of that body. But on a pure question of law, like the accounting question, I think it will be a different story. And that alone will force stronger budgets, because when stated in honest numbers the Commission's budgets simply are not credible.

And in case we need a reminder of why this is important: the heat-wave in Canada has killed at least 300 people, set multiple temperature records, then burned the town it set them in. Climate change is here, and its killing people. Stopping it is not a "nice to have", but a matter of survival. Not doing everything we can to stop it makes us suicidal murderers.

Completely hollow

RNZ this morning has a story about the moral void that is former Prime Minister John Key, in which he gloats about being a personal friend of Chinese tyrant Xi Jinping. Which just highlights what a smug, sociopathic arsehole Key is. In case anyone has forgotten, Xi is committing genocide in Xinjiang, while destroying any semblance of democracy in Hong Kong. Its one thing to shake hands and make nice with a genocidaire when you're Prime Minister, for the sake of peace and international relations and just not making a scene. But to keep it up and turn it into a personal relationship when its no longer a requirement of the job? To gloat about it? That takes someone completely devoid of morals or empathy, someone completely hollow. And we're well rid of him as Prime Minister.

Thursday, July 01, 2021



Drawn

A ballot for four Member's Bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Resource Management (Regional Responsibility for Certain Agricultural Matters) Amendment Bill (Mark Cameron)
  • Autonomous Sanctions Bill (Gerry Brownlee)
  • Local Government (Pecuniary Interests Register) Amendment Bill (Tangi Utikere)
  • Freedom Camping (Infringement Offences and Other Matters) Amendment Bill (Maureen Pugh)
Of these, Utikere's bill will pass easily (and is necessary to limit local body corruption and conflicts of interest), and Brownlee's bill should at least go to committee. Cameron's bill is explicitly aimed at undermining climate change policy, and I expect it to be voted down at the first opportunity.

There were 68 bills in the ballot today, a significant increase from April. But its still well short of the maximum, and some parties clearly need to work harder on using their opportunity to legislate.

Can the courts save Samoa?

On Monday, Samoa's Supreme Court attempted to end the country's ongoing constitutional crisis, ordering parliament to sit within seven days so a government could be elected. The order was backed by an explicit threats that obstruction would be treated as contempt of court and result in the court recognising the FAST Party's outdoor swearing-in ceremony as legal, effectively making them the government. Last night, "caretaker" Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi gave his response: fuck the court:

The caretaker Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, says he will defy court order to convene Parliament, despite the judiciary warning anyone who stood in the way of its ruling could face criminal penalties.

The announcement, made by Tuilaepa on Wednesday evening, also suggests that the nation's long power crisis is far from over as he continued to reject out of hand a decision from the court that the Parliament must convene so that the nation can proceed with the business of Govenment.

A defiant Tuilaepa warned the judiciary was overreaching its powers and seeking to limit his own, saying that one arm of Government should not "like Hitler" seek to assert its authority over another.

Tuilaepa has instead insisted that Parliament can only be "properly constituted" after petitions, by-elections, and the invoking (if necessary) of a requirement that a minimum of six women M.P.s be present in Parliament.

[The Court of Appeal has explicitly ruled that the latter is false, and noted in its most recent ruling that an insistence that all members be present "would allow a minority to prevent meetings of the Assembly". But then, from the HRPP's perspective, that's the whole point, because the moment the Assembly meets, they get voted out and their power and salaries and perks end].

So what happens next? It seems that unless Tuilaepa changes his mind, or the head of state and clerk of parliament simply ignore him and obey the court's order (they are after all the people whose presence is required), there will be an explicit confrontation. The police have so far signalled their obedience to the courts and the rule of law, but its unclear whether that will actually extend to physically dragging Tuilaepa and his recalcitrant ministers from their offices and to jail for contempt. But the HRPP seems to be doing everything possible to back themselves into a corner and force that outcome.