Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Supreme Court bans undersea mining

The Supreme Court has rejected Trans-Tasman Resources' appeal to gain marine consents for undersea mining:

The Supreme Court has found the Environmental Protection Authority erred in law when it granted consents to seabed mining company Trans-Tasman Resources in 2017.

It said the matter should go back to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for fresh consideration - with one of the five justices saying the application could have been declined outright on the information provided.


The Supreme Court justices said if the seabed mining caused environmental damage, as it may from a sediment plume, decision-makers have to weigh up whether this could be avoided, reduced or remedied.

Economic considerations should be taken into account "only at the margins" or not at all.

The EPA committee failed to take the precautionary principle into account, the justices found.

This is great news, especially for the precedent it sets around the interpretation of the EEZ Act's purpose clause and the requirement to avoid pollution. As KASM points out, this is going to make seabed mining extremely difficult, and it is effectively an implicit ban. Which means we might as well go ahead and turn it into an explicit ban, just to give business the "certainty" it is always saying it wants.


The Privileges Committee has reported back on the New Zealand Bill of Rights (Declarations of Inconsistency) Amendment Bill. As I noted in my submission, the bill was the bare minimum that Parliament can do, a grudging acceptance of Parliament's wilful failure to guard our human rights. The good news is that the committee has strengthened it: now in addition to the Attorney-General being required to notify Parliament of any declaration of inconsistency, the executive will also be required to formally respond! And if that seems an underwhelming response to failure like this, that's because it is. Its better than the status quo, but like everything else Labour does, lightyears from what is required.

Gagging the public for ministerial convenience

Earlier in the month I raised the problem of Labour's new Civil Aviation Bill, which includes not one, but two secrecy clauses. The government has finally published the BORA vet on the bill, which actually addresses one of them. Naturally, it finds it consistent with the right to freedom of expression. But the reason it provides is absolutely extraordinary.

The section in question is s199, which was apparently s197 in the earlier draft. It allows the Minister to prohibit publication of any information information involved in a decision concerning international air carriage applications until the decision has been made (at which point it becomes subject to the OIA again). People violating such a gag order can be fined $7,500 (or $25,000 for corporations). The Ministry of Justice considers this justified because:

Restricting the publication or disclosure of sensitive commercial information in the course of decisionmaking serves the important objective of providing decision makers with the opportunity to make decisions free from external influence or pressure.

The information that may be restricted is only that which the Minister considers would prejudice decisionmaking on the application, and the information is subject to the Official Information Act 1982 following the expiry of the restriction.

Well, no. The clause as written allows the suppression of any information connected to the decision, with no test whatsoever on whether it would be prejudicial (maybe the earlier version included these tests; if so, they've been removed). And it applies to everyone in the country, not just the parties to the decision. As for the first bit, is the Ministry really saying that a Minister should be allowed to gag everyone in the country to allow them undisturbed decision-making "free from external influence or pressure"? If so, how is that possibly consistent with freedom of expression? Because Ministers make a lot of decisions, which would mean a lot of gag-orders if this is allowed.

Even if the orders applied only to the parties, is it really OK for the government to gag people simply because they don't want the "disturbance" of them talking while they are trying to make a decision? I don't think so. Its one thing for the government to refuse to release information (and even that I think is dodgy, rooted in an archaic ideology of top-down government which sees the public as an unwanted distraction rather than participants). But gagging other people requires extraordinary justification. Your voice being inconvenient to the Minister isn't good enough.

If we look at this from first principles, and taking the Ministry of Justice's view on what sort of information is viewed as needing protection at face value, there is no need whatsoever for a secrecy clause. The Minister can already refuse any OIA request for sensitive commercial information or for confidential advice on their decision under existing clauses of the OIA (subject to a public interest test, and with the latter protection ending once the decision is made). And that is all the protection they need. Anything more is unnecessary. Gagging the public with criminal sanctions is certainly unnecessary. And insofar as it is not "as little interference as possible" with the right to freedom of expression, this clause clearly cannot be regarded as a justified in a free and democratic society.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Building themselves a petard?

The government's Counter-Terrorism Legislation Bill is expected to pass its third reading today. The bill weakens the definition of "terrorist act" and creates a new offence of "planning", which would do exactly nothing to stop attacks like the most recent one and shows the government took exactly the wrong lesson from the Urewera raids. There's lots of criticism that the law is over-broad and will criminalise too much, and if politicians need to be convinced, I'd like them to consider the following scenario:

A political party leader is running for election on a platform of racism and being "tough on crime". They frequently use threatening and intimidatory language in their speeches towards the intended targets of their campaign - people who are not rich and white. They promise to "clean up" parts of New Zealand by "letting police off the leash", promising that those police officers will be armed. They say repeatedly that they want "criminals" to be afraid, dismiss concerns that this will lead to more people being shot by police by saying that only "criminals" should have anything to fear. They release a detailed plan to do this.
So far, so ordinary. We've had such politicians in the past. We have such politicians now. Its ugly, despicable politics, but sadly normal in our country. But the government's new law seems to make it a crime.

How? Look at the definition of terrorism as amended by the bill. An act is a "terrorist act" if it is carried out for one or more purposes that are or include advancing an ideological or political cause and with the intention of intimidating a population or unduly coercing a government and if it is intended to lead to one or more specified outcomes - one of which is the death or serious injury of one or more persons. Now look at the politician. Advancing a political or ideological cause? Check - that's literally what politicians do. Intimidate a population? Check - its well-established that "a population" means specific communities, rather than everyone. Specified outcomes? Check. While engaging in the usual equivocations (because in NZ not even a "tough on crime" platform lets you glibly dismiss police shootings), its clear that this policy will lead to deaths and injuries, so insofar as the policy is intended, the deaths and injuries are. If the politician is elected and the policy enacted and someone is shot, that shooting is arguably a terrorist act (which isn't as weird as it sounds, insofar as historicly most terrorism is state terrorism, carried out by those in power to keep people in line).

So, moving from "induce terror" to "intimidate" is a problem for politicians, because while no politician credibly intends to induce terror, plenty of them intend to intimidate, and some build their entire political brand around it. But it gets worse. Because the new "planning" offence criminalises "planning or other preparations to carry out [a terrorist] act, whether it is actually carried out or not" and covers acts "too remote to constitute an attempt to commit an offence". The key question is "if the act was carried out, would it be a terrorist act"? Policies are pretty remote, but they're absolutely plans. And it seems that if framed in an intimidatory context, they are arguably covered by the law.

[Yes, there's an "advocacy" clause, but its not clear how it interacts with the new planning offence, or what degree of planning is required to be allowed to infer intent from what people are saying publicly. And obviously, where government Ministers are concerned, they're not advocating, but doing.]

I do not for a moment believe the politicians intend this, and I do not for a moment believe they will ever apply it in the context suggested above (because politicians always intend for the law to apply to other people, never themselves). But its the law they're passing, and we should hold them to it. With private prosecutions if necessary.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Our right to know is under threat

Its International Right to Know Day, and the Ombudsman is praising the Official Information Act regime. Meanwhile, the current government is chipping away at it faster than any other government in recent history. How? With secrecy clauses.

A secrecy clause is any clause in legislation which explicitly or implicitly exempts information from the coverage of the OIA. Such clauses allow information to be withheld under s18(c)(i) of the OIA as "contrary to an enactment".

Sometimes, this is done to protect important public interests: the Statistics Act protects your census records from disclosure, so that people won't be afraid to answer. Many agencies with inquiry powers can suppress information during an inquiry, and there's a standard clause temporarily exempting it from the OIA. Information which might identify whistleblowers can be refused, to protect their confidentiality and encourage people to come forward. But sometimes, the public interests at stake are less clear, the interests are already well-protected by the OIA itself, or the law goes far beyond what is necessary. For example, the longstanding confidentiality clause in the Tax Administration Act requires people dealing with tax information to keep it confidential, with criminal penalties for unauthorised disclosure, which protects personal privacy and is commensurate to its sensitivity. But it also allows the Commissioner to refuse to refuse to disclose information which would "adversely affect the integrity of the tax system or would prejudice the maintenance of the law", which are interests strongly protected by the OIA. In another example, the Crown Minerals Act has a clause forbidding them from disclosing any information relating to a mining permit. These clauses seem unjustifiable.

Which brings us to the current problem: the number of such clauses, and of poorly drafted or unjustifiable clauses, is increasing. Of the 91 secrecy clauses passed since 1987, 35 of them have been passed since 2010. 15 of those have been passed since 2017, and the government has another 7 in the queue. And many of them seem highly questionable. For example, the clause forbidding disclosure of information from organic products producers, or the many clauses (apparently driven by public sector dysfunction and mistrust of the Act) ostensibly allowing information to be shared betwen agencies, but as drafted forbidding its disclosure to the public. While there might in some cases be a public purpose there, the government is clearly not taking sufficient care with our right to know (as was made clear when they admitted their proposed secrecy clause for the Climate Change Commission was a drafting error).

What is to be done about this expansion of secrecy? In 1987, five years after the passage of the OIA, Geoffrey Palmer reviewed every secrecy clause which still remained on the books, and repealed those he thought were unjustified. Clearly, with the growth of secrecy over the past decade, we need to repeat the exercise. Every secrecy clause should be reviewed. Those which serve public purposes but which are overbroad should be narrowed. Those which do not serve such purposes, or where the interests protected are already protected by the OIA, should be repealed.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Climate Change: Off to the World Court?

Vanuatu is leading a push to take the issue of climate change to the World Court:

Vanuatu will ask the International court of justice for an advisory opinion on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from climate change.


Ahead of the summit, Vanuatu will expand “its diplomacy and advocacy” by forming a coalition with fellow Pacific Islands and other vulnerable nations to push the initiative.

An advisory opinion would require a majority vote at the UN General Assembly. I'd expect Aotearoa to support this. Its in perfect alignment with our stated goals and values - environmental protection and a law-governed international order. OTOH, you'd also think that of the IUCN's deep-sea mining moratorium, which the government abstained from.

An advisory opinion isn't legally binding. But it would be influential. National courts will listen to it. Governments will listen to it. And even if it doesn't result in the outcome we want, it will almost certainly tell us what we need to do to get it (in the way that the Advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons effectively told us we needed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to establish a cusomary prohibion).

You can read more about the campaign here.

Progress in Europe

There's a lot of votes in Europe today, and the headline after the German election is that the Swiss have voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality in a referendum:

Swiss voters have decided by a clear margin to allow same-sex couples to marry, in a referendum that brings the Alpine nation into line with many others in western Europe.

Official results showed the measure passed with 64.1% of voters in favour and won a majority in all of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

Switzerland’s parliament and the governing federal council supported the “Marriage for All” measure, and pre-referendum polls showed solid backing. Switzerland has authorised same-sex civil partnerships since 2007.

Its good news, which officially brings Switzerland into the civilised world while further marginalising the bigot-states. Marriages should start in a couple of months.

And in other good news, Berlin voted to expropriate its large corporate landlords. Its a non-binding referendum, but the acid is really going to be on the politicians to obey. And San Marino finally legalised abortion.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Climate Change: Anatomy of a mistake

At the beginning of the month, the Emissions Trading Scheme turned into a farce, when the government flooded the market with credits in a failed and wasteful attempt to Keep Carbon Prices Low. This cost us a billion dollars while undermining the fundamental purpose of the ETS. So why did it happen? Pretty obviously, because the government set an important number, the Cost Containment Reserve trigger price, too low. I was curious about the reasons for this, so I asked Climate Change Minister James Shaw for the advice he had received on the matter. In response I received one of the most egregious "fuck you" responses to an OIA request I have ever seen:

I am withholding the remaining eight documents including the titles under section 18(d) of the Act because the information is or will soon be publicly available.
...which made it impossible to actually tell if the information was actually publicly available or not. Heckuva job, James. You're really complying with the Green Party's policy that "Politicians uphold high ethical standards [and] are open and accountable" there.

So what was the advice? Well, trawling through MfE's shitshow of a proactive release page for a while eventually led me to a May 2020 Regulatory Impact Statement on NZ ETS unit supply and price control settings regulations, which looks at the policy arguments on how that important number was set. MfE looked at four options for the CCR price trigger: $40, $50, $70, and $100. Important policy parameters were that the CCR should "help maintain NZU prices in line with other countries [to] prevent New Zealand’s emissions price from exceeding those in our potential linking partners and some of our major trading partners" and that it "should be set outside the expected cost of emissions abatement for meeting our targets, and therefore used rarely". The costs and benefits of the various options are laid out in a table and associated commentary on p69-71 for the usual Goldilocks exercise (dismiss the options at either end as extreme, setting up your preferred option as "just right").

The $40 price cap is immediately dismissed as too low as:

This would set the upper limit of New Zealand’s emissions price pathway too low to drive adequate levels of emissions reductions. It is probable that NZU prices will need to be able to rise above $40 over the PEB for net emissions to reduce in line with achieving the 2050 target.

The $100 price cap is likewise dismissed as being "too high", particularly because it might "allow an emissions price higher than what is required to achieve the 2050 target". That is, it might be effective, do more than the bare minimum, save the government from having to buy more expensive abatements internationally - not to mention consistent with the policy goal of price settings outside the expected market range, and therefore used rarely. But no, we can't be having that, so we're left with the middle options. Of which MfE chose the lower one, on the grounds that a trigger point of $70/ton was also "too high" and would allow emissions prices to rise to "unsustainable" levels, imposing "unacceptable costs on households and businesses". No, they don't bother to do any analysis of what might be "unacceptable", or to cost it against the cost of attempting to subsidise credit prices using the CCR, but from Treasury (p 66), we know that those costs would be around an extra $140 a year for the median household, and that the CCR costs around four times more than that.

So we're left with $50 - a price MfE notes is already roughly the same as that in the EU ETS (didn't they expect it to grow?) and lower than that in Korea, and which in reality was exceeded within six months. It also gave us the puzzling situation of a proposed $10 range for the market for five years - $40 being too low to produce required abatement, and $50 being the soft cap. And that alone seems like a recipe for disaster.

But the fundamental problem here is that MfE thought quite moderate carbon prices are bad, "unacceptable", "too high". And when you're designing a policy whose primary goal is higher carbon prices, that seems to doom you from the start.

All told this is very poor policy advice, and its no wonder Shaw wanted to keep it secret. After all, he signed off on this. The CCR and consequent seven million tons of extra emissions is his responsibility. And the worry is that he has learned nothing from it, and that the new price settings he announced last month are going to see this mistake repeated again next year.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

MBIE's muppetry on carbon prices

A while ago I snarked on Twitter about how awful MBIE's carbon price modelling is: in their Energy in New Zealand 2020 report, they made the following assumption:

Apart from the Environmental scenario, carbon prices are assumed to increase from NZD$25 per tonne of carbon dioxide in 2019 to NZD$66 per tonne by 2050 in all the scenarios. In the Environmental scenario, carbon prices rise to NZD$154 (USD$100) per tonne by 2050.
When they published that in August 2020, carbon prices were already above $35 / ton, so it immediately failed the reality test. And since then, carbon prices have risen to $64.50 / ton, the government is valuing it internally at $150, and the Climate Change Commission has said it should be that by 2030, and $250 / ton by 2050. So in the leadup to the release of this year's report, I sent MBIE an OIA request for the modelling behind the carbon prices it would inevitably contain. After a very dubious extension, I finally got the response back today: a refusal as the information was publicly available, in the report. So what does it actually say? sadly, it seems that MBIE is still in denial:
The EDGS 2019’s Reference scenario assumes that carbon prices will increase to NZD$66 (in 2017 dollars) per tonne by 2050. In the updated projection, we assume a constant $35 per tonne in real terms in 2019 dollars and have modelled a sensitivity analysis of a higher carbon price. In this sensitivity analysis, emissions values for carbon reaches $250 per tonne by 2050.
[Emphasis added]

I and a lot of other people have already paid attention to the sensitivity analysis, and what it says about the need for complementary policies. But I'd missed that bit: MBIE's core model of energy use and what will be built assumes a carbon price of just $35 a ton, forever. For the record, when that was published in August, it was already $50, and today its $64.50 (or $61.52 in 2019 terms), nearly twice what they assumed. And MBIE's modellers couldn't even be arsed looking out the window (or on CommTrade) to check if what they were saying was even close to reality.

This matters. The carbon price is now one of the most important numbers in energy policy. The government's entire view of our future energy system - how much we will use, how much we will need, how much we will need to build to get there - is based on this. The cost-benefit analyses of major energy projects will be based on power prices based on this. And MBIE is systematically getting it wrong, by a factor of 100%, year after year.

This sort of incompetence might be acceptable in the private sector. But it should not be acceptable in our public service. MBIE needs to get itself better modellers. Ones who can actually look out a window every so often.

Climate Change: Why are we ignoring nitrogen fertiliser?

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is a significant source of greenhouse gas emisisons. According to Emissions Tracker, it was responsible for 1.4 million tons of direct CO2-equivalent emissions in 2019, plus an unspecified amount of indirect emissions due to enabling dairy intensification. This is big enough to matter, and you'd expect there to have been something about it in the Climate Commission's report. But there wasn't. Why not? Because they buried the reporting suggesting it:

A hidden report uncovered by Greenpeace shows that the Climate Change Commission ignored its own internal advice that could cut agricultural climate emissions by a third or more. The internal Climate Commission report, titled ‘Eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on dairy farms’, shows New Zealand could achieve significant greenhouse gas emission reductions simply by eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. However, the Commission ignored its own advice when putting together its final climate recommendations, which are now being considered by Parliament.
As for their reasons, the report is very clear: "Eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on dairy farms would entail lower levels of production". In other words, farmers might make less money. And that apparently put it off-limits. Instead, the Commission's agricultural recommendations started from an assumption that dairy production would not decrease. Which given that agriculture makes up ~50% of our emissions profile, is basicly giving up from the beginning and committing us to failure.

That's not acceptable. Quite apart from committing us to failure, it is also grossly inequitable, requiring deeper emissions cuts from the 85% of us who live in cities in order to protect the extravagant, polluting lifestyle and profits of a tiny minority of farmers. Instead, the government should make these polluters pull their weight and cut their emissions, rather than expecting the rest of Aotearoa to continue supporting them.


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

  • Protection of Journalists’ Sources Bill (Louisa Wall)
  • Plain Language Bill (Rachel Boyack)
  • Public Finance (Prohibition on Providing Public Funds to Gangs) Amendment Bill (Simeon Brown)
  • Improving Arrangements for Surrogacy Bill (Tāmati Coffey)
  • Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) (Definition of Significant Criminal Activity) Amendment Bill (Nicole McKee)
  • Te Ture Whenua Māori Bill (Joseph Mooney)
  • Companies (Directors Duties) Amendment Bill (Duncan Webb)
I'm pleased to see Wall's bill drawn (I've posted about it here). The question is whether her own party will vote for it. Meanwhile, National and ACT are still banging their redneck drums; its as if they don't have any idea of what else they could do.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Equality under the law?

Twelve days ago New Zealand was shocked to learn that a rich Auckland couple had abused "essential worker" paperwork to break lockdown and fly down to Wanaka for a holiday. But despite multiple criminal offences apparently being committed, they still haven't been charged:

At least 20 people have been charged with breaching lockdown rules in the past 12 days but the couple who fled Auckland for a trip to Wānaka are yet to face any enforcement action.

Auckland couple William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley allegedly used essential worker exemptions to travel to a holiday home on September 9.

They have since apologised for their actions, but almost two weeks on, despite indicating the pair would be charged with breaching the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, police say their investigations are continuing and no charges have been laid.

The article has a long list of examples of people who have been quickly and rapidly charged for identical behaviour. But this couple haven't. Why not? Pretty obviously, because mummy is a judge, and apparently that merits a higher standard of treatment from police. And even if this is about careful checking to ensure a case withstands scrutiny, that immediately implies that the cases of mere peasants don't merit such care (and that therefore they may be facing inappropriate charges).

The overall impression is like that of the Helen Clark motorcade incident, where police bent over backwards to avoid charging anyone, because a Very Important Person was involved. But the law should apply to everyone, even if they're the Prime Minister or their mother is a judge. And if it doesn't, then the state has no grounds to demand that the rest of us obey it.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and due to the postponement of a lot of business, it consists entirely of first readings. First up is Ricardo Menéndez March's Human Rights (Disability Assist Dogs Non-Discrimination) Amendment Bill, which should easily go to committee. Second is Mark Cameron's Resource Management (Regional Responsibility for Certain Agricultural Matters) Amendment Bill, which is (as usual for National) trying to undermine climate change and environmental policy and will be voted down. Third is Gerry Brownlee's Autonomous Sanctions Bill, which is a good idea and at least deserves a committee hearing, but Labour may veto it out of spite. Next is Tangi Utikere's Local Government (Pecuniary Interests Register) Amendment Bill, which is also a good idea, but backe dby Labour so it will go to committee. The House should at least make a start on Maureen Pugh's anti-homeless people Freedom Camping (Infringement Offences and Other Matters) Amendment Bill (which received a BORA warning from the Attorney-General yesterday) and if they move really fast they might even make a start on Ginny Andersen's Crimes (Child Exploitation Offences) Amendment Bill.

All this means a ballot tomorrow, likely for at least four bills, and maybe even five or six. If any MP is looking for something to put in the ballot, how about removing eligibility requirements from the OIA, or letting the Ombudsman actually investigate all OIA complaints, or repealing New Zealand's most racist law, or criminalising wage theft?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Let them vote

A side effect of the pandemic and resulting closed borders: tens of thousands of overseas kiwis could lose the right to vote:

Currently, New Zealanders who are overseas must have visited the country once within the last three years to be allowed to vote - or once in the last 12 months for non-citizen residents. Those who fall outside that threshold lose the right to vote in that election.

With entry to New Zealand currently restricted by the clogged MIQ system, many New Zealanders overseas will lose the right to vote at the next election, unless the law is changed to be more flexible or New Zealand's border becomes significantly more open by 2023.

That currently appears unlikely, with the Government only committing to a gradual reopening of the borders, which is unlikely be normal by 2023 - or 2022, when local body elections are scheduled.

This is easy to fix: change two numbers in s80(1) of the Electoral Act. Doing so seems entirely reasonable, and its arguably something they need to do anyway: Canada's Supreme Court threw out that country's time-limit on non-residents voting in 2019, and a case taken in New Zealand is likely to have the same result (or rather, result in a declaration of inconsistency and intense pressure on Parliament to listen to the courts). The question is, will Labour do it? Or will they make a nakedly political calculation that overseas kiwis are now unlikely to vote for them thanks to MIQ, and refuse?

AUKUS has consequences

Last week Australia announced a new security deal with the UK and US which would see it abandon its plans to buy conventional submarines from France and instead acquire nuclear-powered submarines from one of its new partners. France is pretty pissed about this - they were completely blindsided, and the submarine deal was worth tens of billions of Euros - and have threatened consequences for australia's betrayal. They've already withdrawn their ambassador (a fairly major step between ostensibly friendly countries), and now the other show is dropping: they're going to veto Australia getting a free trade deal with the EU:

France is seeking to enlist European Union support to delay a planned EU-Australia trade deal, as part of a plan to punish Australia for what it regards as serial deceit and subterfuge by Canberra before it cancelled the contract for 12 attack-class French submarines.


The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, weighed into the diplomatic row on Monday, saying France had been treated unacceptably by the US, Australia and the UK and that many questions remained unanswered. EU foreign ministers were due to discuss the crisis on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York.

The next round of EU-Australia trade talks – the 12th – are due next month, and it remains to be seen how deeply other EU states wish to become embroiled in the fallout from the French loss of a commercial contract.

The French position makes sense. Why would you want to deal with a country which has just proven its duplicity? And the EU's qualified majority voting rule means they're not going to need too many friends to assemble a blocking majority if they really want to screw things up.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Expropriate the house hoarders

North & South has an in-depth piece on the origins of the housing crisis, and like so much else wrong with Aotearoa, the blame can be laid firmly at the feet of the NeoLiberal regimes of the 80's and 90's, who sold state houses, slashed benefits while imposing market rents, and implemented a landlord subsidy - sorry, "accommodation supplement" - in the bizarre belief that higher rents somehow improved "choice" for people in desperate financial need. The predictable result being that the subsidy went straight onto rents, and therefore onto the expected return from landlordism, and therefore onto house prices. And while some of this has now been undone - state houses now have income-related rents again, and we almost have as many as we did in 1990, when the population was 30% lower - the core problem of government subsidies underpinning landlords and fuelling speculation remains (and its been made worse by successive government shovelling cheap money at banks to keep the bubble growing).

Thanks to Ruth and Roger and their ideological successors, our old "property-owning democracy" is dead. A generation has been locked out of home ownership, and speculators now buy most of the houses that are built. We have a propertied class and a peasant class, with all the horror that implies. Most kiwis outside of the jetsetting-off-to-Wanaka-in-a-pandemic Auckland elite regard this with horror. So how can we fix it?

Most obviously, build state houses. The government is doing this, slowly, but its still going to be years before we reach the level of provision we had pre-Revolution. And its obvious that we need to do a lot more. So what else can we do?

Renters United is calling for rent controls, and that seems like a good idea. Fucks the landlords and house hoarders, limits (but does not eliminate) their ability to fund their speculation by forcing someone else to pay for it, actually works. That's good as far as it goes, and removing speculation heat from the market may burst the bubble, but more likely it will just stop things from getting any worse. Necessary, but not sufficient.

So what else can we do? Here's a radical idea: expropriate the landlords and house hoarders. Take those surplus houses - tenancies intact - and manage them as state houses. Berlin is voting on doing exactly this this weekend, in order to burst their property bubble and stop large corporate landlords from gouging and so driving up rents and prices. We don't have a lot of those in Aotearoa, but stats suggest that two-thirds of rental properties are owned by those who own four or more rentals, and over half are owned by those who own more than ten. Targeting these hoarders (with exemptions for non-profit and community housing providers) and expropriating their excess hoarded homes at less than market value (what they paid for them plus inflation seems fair) and running them as state-houses with income-related rents would immediately make the people in those homes better off, as well as crush the rental market with state competition and burst the property bubble by ending speculation. It wouldn't fix everything, but that sort of market reset would put us in a much better place to start.

So will the government do either? Of course not - they all own houses (some of them multiple houses), and they're hardly likely to hurt their rich, house-hoarding friends. But as the proportion of renters grows, these sorts of demands are only going to increase. and if renters vote, they will have real power behind them.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Samoa's opposition should be sworn in

On Monday, in response to a refusal by HRPP MPs to accept the proper process for being sworn in, Samoa's speaker banned them from parliament. Because they'd also called for a mob, he took the unprecedented step of banning the public too.

These decisions were reasonable at the time. MPs are not allowed to sit and vote until they have been sworn in, and the HRPP's refusal to accept the process effectively made them strangers and not entitled to be present. Their threat to disrupt parliament justified prohibiting their entry. But after Tuesday, the HRPP apparently accepted that they needed to follow the proper process, removing any justification for the ban. Despite this, the speaker continued to prohibit their entry, and at one stage the police threatened to remove them by force. The idea that elected representatives wanting to be sworn in can be barred from doing so by riot police is monstrous, and a mockery of democracy.

The HRPP have now gone to court over the issue, and the supreme court is holding an urgent hearing. So far the court has issued an interim order prohibiting the speaker from taking any measures affecting the HRPP MP's membership of parliament, stopping him from simply declaring their seats vacant. The fact that this was seen as necessary shows a significant distrust of the speaker and the government by the courts, and says a lot about how toxic and arbitrary Samoan politics has become as a result of Tuilaepa and his constitutional crisis.

There will apparently be a ruling later today, and I fully expect the court to order the speaker to stop being a dick and swear in the opposition MPs. While the constitution is silent on the matter (because it seems obvious), the idea that elected MPs would not be allowed to take their seats is simply monstrous and cannot stand in a democracy. And the fact that FAST is even trying to argue it is discreditable and gets their government off to a very bad start. If they want to bring change to Samoa, they should start by ending the HRPP's undemocratic practices and abuse of parliamentary procedure, not by continuing them.

Update: And just minutes after I posted this, the court delivered the expected ruling, ordering that HRPP MPs be sworn in ASAP. I wonder if those who attempted to undermine the judiciary by accusing it of bias will eat their words now?

Racist from top to bottom

Back in 2019, the government tweaked drug laws to encourage the use of police discretion. So did it work? well, charges are down, but the burden of prosecution is falling even more disproportionately on Māori:

A 2019 change to drug laws has led to far fewer people being charged for drug use/possession, but Māori are now even more likely to be charged than non-Māori.

The trends are revealed in police data, released under the Official Information Act, which include a breakdown of how the law is applied in each police district for different ethnic groups.

It has led to allegations of "racist outcomes" - especially in the Canterbury and the Waikato regions.

Police deny this, saying that the most important factor in whether someone is charged is prior convictions - but they have provided no data to support this.

It speaks volumes that the effect is strongest in regions that are more racist. Meanwhile, hiding behind prior convictions elides the fact that whether someone has previously been convicted or not is itself a product of racial bias. What we have here is a clear example of how police discretion in practice means police discrimination. The solution of course is to legalise completely, and strip police of this excuse for their racism.

And on a similar note, RNZ looks at who gets name suppression. And surprise, surprise, its overwhelmingly rich Pākehā:

RNZ can reveal that Pākehā are granted name suppression three times as often as Māori, even though Māori are charged and convicted with more crimes.

Last year, Māori were charged with 43 percent of crimes but only accounted for 17 percent of the interim and final name suppression granted, an RNZ analysis shows.

Pākehā were charged with 36 percent of crimes, but accounted for 65 percent of interim and final name suppression, Ministry of Justice figures show.

Taken together, these two data points suggest our justice system is racist from top to bottom, delivering jail for Māori and excuses and name suppression for the Pākehā elite (and their children). And this too needs to be fixed, because it erodes the very concept of justice itself.

Pattern recognition

Government defers introducing tougher winter grazing rules - again, RNZ, 26 August 2021:

The government has pushed intensive winter grazing rules back by another six months.

Intensive winter grazing is when livestock are feed fodder crops - when done poorly it can create a muddy mess leading to animal welfare and environmental issues.

Regulations aimed at improving intensive winter grazing practices were supposed to come into effect from May this year, but were recently deferred until May 2022.

The government has pushed them back another six months until November 2022.

Government’s climate plan delayed five months, Newsroom, 15 September 2021:
The Government's plan to tackle the climate crisis has been pushed back five months due to the Covid-19 pandemic and to align it with next year's budget, Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced on Wednesday.

The Zero Carbon Act currently requires the Government to release its Emissions Reduction Plan by the end of the year, but Shaw said the Government would move the deadline back to May 2022.

Mines, landfills near wetlands possible under Government walk-back of environmental rules, Stuff, 16 September 2021:
Mines, landfills, and housing developments could be built in or around wetlands under a proposed Government walk-back of environmental rules.

Those rules were only passed a year ago, but the Government was told “almost immediately” that they were preventing the development of housing and infrastructure in some areas, according to an impact analysis produced by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) last month.

One rule in particular banned all but the most important projects – such as flood protection and critical infrastructure – from being built if they would drain, or partially drain, a wetland.

But in a discussion document released earlier this month, the Government proposed widening the scope of those important projects to include mines, landfills, quarries, and significant housing developments, on the condition they meet stringent resource consent requirements and other provisions.

Is anyone else seeing a pattern here? It looks like the Labour government are orcs, just like their predecessors. So why are the Greens cooperating with them? Is this the positive change they promised from being in government?

Climate Change: An excuse, not a justification

Yesterday the government announced plans to delay its key Emissions Reduction Plan - currently due by law by 31 December - until next year. Its "justification"?

Shaw said consultations on the plan would begin in early October.

"It is only right to make sure everyone has the chance to contribute without the additional challenge of keeping people safe while the country is at different alert levels, especially those in Auckland who are still at level 4," he said.

"It also allows the Government to align the final plan with Budget 2022, so people can see how its delivery will be supported through Government investment."

Which probably sounds great it you ignore the fact that they've been "consulting" on this plan in one form or another since February (having already got an extension), and if you don't know how budget processes work. As someone who knows just enough to get myself into trouble, I don't think this stacks up at all.

Shaw's indicative timeline is "consultations begin in October". Allowing a month for consultations takes us to November. Another month for the answers to be read, collated, and summarised, and Shaw will be responding to them after December. That's a bare-bones, box-ticking timeline. In practice, this is going to have a lot of submissions, and a longer consultation deadline. As an indication, the Climate Commission's consultation earlier this year (on exactly this topic) started on 1 February and produced a decision on 31 May, so four months. Which would mean Shaw will be announcing a decision at the end of January / early February.

What's the budget timeline? Treasury has an overall guide here: the "strategic phase", where agencies prepare budget bids, runs from June to December. The "decision phase", where Treasury says no to those bids, runs from January to April. There's also a detailed timeline for the 2019 budget here (p6), which gives a deadline of 14 December for all initiatives, with the Minister of Finance assessing them from mid-February though to the end of March, when the Cabinet process takes over. There is a process for late bids, which must be pre-approved by the Minister of Finance, but Treasury will be institutionally hostile to these for "bypass[ing] good process".

So how does Shaw's indicated timeline fit with this? It doesn't. Even a short consultation leaves him no time to prepare or change budget bids in response. A long consultation gives very little time for assessment before he starts running into Cabinet deadlines. Either way, its going to mean the decisions will effectively have been made before the consultation begins, making it effectively meaningless. "Consultation" is an excuse, not a justification for delay.

So what timeline does fit with getting emissions reduction policies properly into the budget? The current one. Shaw was originally planning to publish the plan well in advance of the deadline, which would mean plenty of time for budget bids. It would also mean a transparent process, where everyone could see what had been recommended, and assess subsequent budgets against those recommendations. The new timeline cloaks all that under budget secrecy. Whether this bodes well for policy is left as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Climate Change: Some "emergency"

Jacinda Ardern: 'Climate change is my generation's nuclear-free moment', Newshub, 20 August 2017:

In her campaign launch speech in Auckland on Sunday, Ms Ardern called climate change "my generation's nuclear free moment".


"There will always be those who say it's too difficult. There will be those who say we are too small, and that pollution and climate change are the price of progress," Ms Ardern said.

"They are wrong."

She says New Zealand has an opportunity to shape its identity by making the transition to reduced emissions.

"This is my generation's nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on."

Climate emergency declaration by New Zealand government includes commitment to 2025 targets, RNZ, 2 December 2020:
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has committed the government and the public sector to going carbon-neutral by 2025, as she declared a climate emergency.

Ardern has moved a motion in Parliament this afternoon which would see New Zealand join 32 other nations in formally acknowledging the global crisis.

The motion was passed shortly before 4pm, with Labour, the Greens and te Pāti Māori all voting in support, and National and ACT opposed.

Climate emergency declaration will be matched with long-term action, James Shaw, 2 December 2020:
Today’s climate emergency declaration will be backed with ambitious plans to reduce emissions, the Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw today.

“Our Government has put New Zealand at the forefront of climate action over the last three years. Declaring a climate emergency and backing this with long-term action to reduce emissions shows that we intend to stay there,” James Shaw said.

Next year, the Government will agree the first three emissions budgets required under the Zero Carbon Act, publish an emissions reduction plan to meet these budgets, consider updating New Zealand’s target under the Paris Agreement, and adopt a plan to meet our international obligations for the period 2021-2030.

Work on each of these is already underway.

Government’s climate plan delayed five months, Newsroom, 15 September 2021:
The Government's plan to tackle the climate crisis has been pushed back five months due to the Covid-19 pandemic and to align it with next year's budget, Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced on Wednesday.

The Zero Carbon Act currently requires the Government to release its Emissions Reduction Plan by the end of the year, but Shaw said the Government would move the deadline back to May 2022.

Urgent? Ambitious? An emergency? A nuclear-free moment? You be the judge. Meanwhile, you might want to throw some money at Extinction Rebellion, 350, Greenpeace, Generation Zero, Lawyers for Climate Action, or any of the other groups who are campaigning on this, to help them oppose it.

Climate Change: We need more than excuses on methane

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. While its lifetime in the atmosphere is limited - its half-life is 9.1 years, so any given amount is almost entirely gone after a hundred years - it is far better at trapping heat. Averaged over a century it has a global warming potential of 28, meaning it is 28 times worse than carbon dioxide. But averaged over 20 years, its GWP is 84. Cutting methane therefore has an immediate and disproportionate impact on heating, and therefore on the storms, droughts, and fires which are killing us.

The US and EU have recognised this, and are planning to push an agreement to cut methane emissions by 30% (from 2020 levels) by 2030 at the next climate change meeting in Glasgow. This is exactly what we need to do to get us through the next few decades and buy time for more general decarbonisation, and it will literally save lives. New Zealand - a disproportionate methane emitter - is one of the countries they want to sign up for this pledge. So what does Jacinda "my generation's nuclear free moment" Ardern say to this? Yeah, nah:

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday in response to New Zealand being included in the list, the Prime Minister said her Government is working hard to address the climate crisis.

She said the Government's targets are based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.

"We've tried to really lean into the international science in this space because it's important to us and it's important that we do our bit," Ardern said.

"The second point I'd make is of course, we do that in the context of those emissions derived from food production being the most significant proportion of our overall emissions profile.

"My view is that actually, by developing initiatives that substantially reduce those emissions, we will have something that the rest of the world will be very grateful for.

"We are working very hard to actually reduce those emissions in real terms. We are the only country in the world that I know of that has made a commitment to how we will price emissions that are produced through our food production. You're just not seeing that in other countries."

If this sounds like hot air, its because it is. Talk of "food production" - bulk milk powder for luxury foods like confectionery - is simply more special pleading. As for "developing initiatives", thirty years of doing that has seen our methane emissions increase by 1.8 million tons. But then, they were never meant to actually reduce emissions. Like so much of climate change policy, they are simply there to give the illusion of action - "look, we're doing research" - while changing nothing. Meanwhile, the thing we can do right now to cut emissions - cut cow numbers - is ignored, because it is incompatible with the dairy industry's plans for infinite growth (which is itself incompatible with a safe climate or clean water).

We deserve better than this. The crisis is now so bad and so immediate that the government has to step up and act. The US-EU initiative is an appropriate way of doing that, of playing our part. We should join it, and implement its targets. And if we don't, the US and EU should treat us as a climate criminal, and apply sanctions to our methane-producing, climate-destroying dairy exports.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

One mine at a time...

Some good news for the climate today: another coal mine is closing:

The Ohai coal mine is closing in two weeks and rehabilitation of the site is expected to begin next month.

Ohai and New Vale coal general manager Antony Stodart said “business at the Ohai based coal mine is coming to an end after the decision was made to cease mining operations.

“The decision comes after months of deliberation by the board, assessing the long-term financial viability of the business,” he said.

September 30 will be the last trading day for the public to purchase coal direct from the mine.

According to MBIE, Ohai produced 32,963 tons of coal last year. That's just under 65,000 tons of carbon which will no longer be destroying the atmosphere every year. And every ton helps. But there's still 16 more coal mines we need to get rid of, and the best way to do it is by killing their market and forcing electrification by forbidding people to burn the dirty stuff.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Childish bullshit continues in Samoa

Samoa's parliament will sit tomorrow, for the first time since it was sworn in in May. But that first sitting only included FAST party MPs. As for the HRPP, they will not be allowed to attend tomorrow.

The context here is that the HRPP - or at least the tyrant Tuilaepa - is refusing to be sworn in by the legitimately elected Speaker, insisting instead on either a whole new state opening and re-swearing of the Speaker and all MPs, or that they be sworn in by the head of state in violation of standing orders. The Speaker is insisting that standing orders be obeyed - in particular the requirement that no MP can sit or vote in the house until they have been sworn in. The obvious solution is for HRPP members to turn up and be sworn in as required, but that would mean accepting the authority of the courts and the legitimacy of the government which threw him out of office, which appears to be too much for Tuilaepa's inflated ego to handle.

A complicating factor is that Samoa's standing orders require MPs to attend, and allow them to be unseated if they fail to attend for three successive days (something Tuilaepa was attempting to weaponise pre-election when opposition MPs were skipping two days in a row to campaign). Its unclear how this applies to unsworn MPs, but there's a possibility that if they refuse to be sworn in, the HRPP MPs could all be unseated and have to face by-elections. Which would of course go straight to court, and rightly so. In the past the Samoan courts have been reluctant to allow elected MPs to be unseated for trivial reasons, or in ways which appear to be an abuse of power, and I'd expect a high degree of scrutiny on any such decision. It is highly unlikely that any day where MPs hae not been provided the opportunity to be sworn in would count. And the contradiction between members being required to attend but unsworn members being forbidden to gives plenty of scope for the courts to overturn any purported ousting (though they might do so by ordering MPs to attend to be sworn in, which is probably not what Tuilaepa wants).

A second complicating factor is that Tuilaepa has called for a mob to attend tomorrow. Oh joy.

It would be nice if Samoa got a real opposition which accepted its loss and embraced its new role as a way of demonstrating its fitness for power in the future. Instead, their leader continues to engage in this childish bullshit. What's surprising is that his party continues to put up with him.

Another one bites the dust

Another offshore energy permit was surrendered on Friday: permit 60094, owned by Todd Energy:


The permit covered an area of Māui dolphin habitat, so its surrender is good news on that front too.

According to NZPAM's map, there are now only six offshore exploration permits remaining: one owned by Westside Energy, two by Todd, and three by Austrian polluters OMV. Almost all have "drill or drop" provisions coming due in the next two years, so hopefully we'll see them surrendered soon as well.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Too many cows in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has a water quality problem. Too many cows, producing too much shit and piss, which flows into the rivers and poisons them. But they also have a solution: forcing farmers to destock or sell up:

Dutch politicians are considering plans to force hundreds of farmers to sell up and cut livestock numbers, to reduce damaging ammonia pollution.

After the highest Dutch administrative court found in 2019 that the government was breaking EU law by not doing enough to reduce excess nitrogen in vulnerable natural areas, the country has been battling what it is calling a “nitrogen crisis”.


Now civil servants at the finance and agriculture ministry have drawn up proposals which include slashing livestock numbers [pdf] by 30%, one of the most radical plans of its kind in Europe. Two proposed scenarios include forcing some farmers to sell emissions rights and even their land to the state, if necessary.

Aotearoa also has a water quality problem, driven by the same cause: too many cows. And its time we pursued the same solution as the Netherlands. We cannot let farmers continue to destroy our environment and poison our drinking water supplies for private profit. We need to make them stop, and make them pay for the damage they have caused.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Cancel this odious debt

Writing on Newsroom, Laura Walters makes a case for cancelling student debt:

[A]t the moment, loan debt is hurting the economy, holding back everything from small business formation, to new home buying, and even marriage and reproduction.

So rather than offering interest-free borrowing, or expecting people to refinance their loans, the Government could try something more ambitious.

The Levy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in the United States, makes a strong case for student debt cancellation.

It found positive macroeconomic feedback effects from running simulations through two different models for debt cancellation. It saw average households’ net worth and disposable income increase, driving new consumption and investment spending.

In short, the analysis shows debt cancellation would lift GDP, decrease the average unemployment rate, and result in little inflationary pressure, while interest rates increased only modestly.

That's the economic case. Walters also mentions the values-based case about free education, and I'll throw in another: the student loan scheme is odious debt. It violates the government's own lender responsibility principles set by the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act 2003: the government exercises no care or diligence and makes no inquiries as to whether loans can ever be repaid; the sub-minimum wage repayment thresholds make the agreement inherently oppressive; the government exercises its powers as a lender in an oppressive manner, with border arrests and threats; and they induce young people to borrow by oppressive and downright fraudulent means, on a promise of benefits from tertiary education that turn out to be substantially overstated (and an implied threat that without this, you have no hope of a decent job or a future). If they were a normal lender who induced people to borrow in this way, on such terms, we would prosecute them and ban them from lending.

Or we can put it even more simply: the student loan scheme was a massive act of intergenerational theft by Boomers against everyone younger than them, which has burdened successive generations. And rather than perpetuating it any further, we should end it, lift that burden, and cancel the debt.

People who went through the system, were gouged by oppressively high interest rates, and paid off their loans anyway may feel hard done by by this. But their having suffered in the past is no reason to continue to make people suffer in future. The struggle to make a better society inherently means that people in the future are going to have better lives than us if we succeed. We don't begrudge them that. So why begrudge this? If you want to be angry at anyone over your suffering, be angry at Lockwood Smith and Phil Goff, who inflicted this misery on us and are still swanning around as if they didn't do anything wrong, and who haven't even pretended to apologise. Or at the Boomers, on whose behalf they looted the state and gouged us. Or at the entire class of 1980's and 1990's NeoLiberal politicians, who wrecked the country and fucked us over, and whose ideology of greed and selfishness is still governing the state today, despite being completely debunked and officially denied by their political successors. Be angry at the people responsible, not your fellow victims.

And when you're done being angry, use that anger, and make Aotearoa a better place, by cancelling this odious debt.

(Disclosure: Like Walters, I still have my student loan. I do not intend to repay it).

Climate Change: The CCR is a failed, counterproductive policy

Writing on Interest, and in the context of carbon farming displacing traditional sheep and beef farming, Keith Woodford says:

Given that this year’s cost-containment reserve is already exhausted, there is considerable speculation as to what will happen as soon as the next auction on 1 December. The Government will need to find some more firepower if it wants to put a lid on current prices.
To which the obvious response is "but why would it want to do that?" Because its clear from the progress of the ETS this year that the attempt to limit prices is both a failed policy, and completely counterproductive. Failed, because it did not work, and will not work; prices are already well above the government's $50 cap (set back in 2019, which is literally the dark ages for this area of policy), and the market clearly expects the CCR to trigger again at the first auction next year, meaning it will not control prices then either. Counterproductive because the cost of these failed attempts to limit prices is to allow more pollution, at a social cost significantly higher than any conceivable benefit, while even if it was successful it would mute the price signal and incentive for decarbonisation which is supposed to be the outcome of the policy.

So what should the government do with this failed, counterproductive policy? Abandon it. Not the ETS itself, which is producing a strong incentive to decarbonise despite the government's attempts to hobble it, but the idea of trying to cap prices. And the simplest way to do this, and one explicitly contemplated in law, is to set the cost containment reserve volume to zero (alternatively, it could be set to a much smaller amount, with a much, much higher trigger price to let the market find its level, but why piss about with half measures? If you want to end price limits, end price limits).

Unfortunately, Climate Change Minister James Shaw has already decided price settings for next year, which bake in the failure. Given that they will not work, are counterproductive, and are already being ignored by the market, he should reissue them. If the normal regulation timeline doesn't allow that, he should pursue urgent legislation to overwrite them instead. But with the clear and growing severity of the climate crisis, we cannot afford to pursue this failed, counterproductive policy. And we cannot afford to permit an extra 7 million tons of emissions every year doing so.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

More Labour secrecy

The government introduced a new Civil Aviation Bill to modernise the 30-year-old Civil Aviation Act and 55-year-old Airport Authorities Act today. Which is not normally the sort of bill I would comment on, except that it includes not one, but two new secrecy clauses.

The first of these in section 199 applies to information provided as part of an application for an international air carriage cooperation agreement (so e.g. something like Star Alliance, which raises questions around cartels and price fixing). Under this section, the Minister can make an order forbidding the publication of such information, or the giving of evidence about it. This isn't a duty of confidentiality on the government - its the equivalent of a court suppression order, but by Ministerial decree, applying to the media. And it allows fines of up to $25,000 for any person who violates it.

These orders expire when an application for a cooperation agreement is finally determined or withdrawn, so the purpose of them is clearly to protect commercially sensitive information. This is of course already protected by the Official Information Act, and while the public interest in withholding must be balanced against the public interest in release, the interpretations by the Ombudsman make it one of the stronger reasons to withhold. So what's the case for secrecy? And what's the case for gagging the public, in a prima facie violation of the BORA's affirmation of the right to free expression? The explanatory note doesn't say, simply passing it off as "provid[ing] further for how the Minister may deal with the application". And that is apparently the standard of disclosure the government provides on secrecy and undermining constitutional and quasi-constitutional legislation.

(Also worth noting: there's apparently no BORA vet on this bill. And from its title, I wouldn't have picked it as engaging free expression issues either).

The second clause, section 456, prohibits publication of any information or document obtained by the Civil Aviation Authority in exercising any of its functions, duties, or powers, except under specified circumstances (weirdly, the explanatory note says that the clause "allows" publication, but the way it is worded forbids it in all circumstances other than those specified). Effectively, this is a catchall secrecy clause which exempts the CAA from the OIA. The justification? Rather than say specifically what the concerns are or what information needs to be protected and why, the explanatory note simply says that the section is "modelled on sections 109A and 109B of the Land Transport Management Act 2003", which was passed last year. So, secrecy is being used to justify secrecy, and one agency being exempt is used as a justification to exempt others.

Both clauses are completely new; there is nothing remotely like them in the existing Civil Aviation Act. So this is a significant erosion of the level of transparency we have over a government agency.

These clauses have become more common and more onerous over the past few years, and it is clear now that this government has an unstated policy of chipping away at the OIA, exempting agency after agency with broader and broader secrecy clauses and without ever providing any justification. Which may be convenient for bureaucrats, but it is inherently damaging to transparency, accountability, and our ability to participate in public decision-making. And that is simply not good enough. We deserve an open, transparent and accountable government. And that means not passing legislation like this.

Stupidly counterproductive

Last night the government made it mandatory for businesses to collect contact records. There are obvious concerns here around abuse - for example, the police forcing the production of someone's covid app data under a production order - and these concerns are a disincentive for some people to sign in and enable contact tracing. The obvious measure, which has been used overseas, is to statutorily protect this information and forbid such abuses. The government already does this on information forcibly collected under the Statistics Act, on the basis that good statistics are better than some plod's convenience. So will they do it for covid contact tracing information? Sadly, no:

The government is dismissing calls for more protection of personal information in the Covid-19 contact tracing system.


Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said there was plenty of protection.

"The government has been at pains to reassure people that the information they supply to assist with the critical task of contact tracing will not be used for any other purposes," Hipkins said in a statement.

But the government's word on this is utterly meaningless. For example, police are operationally independent, and neither Hipkins or any other Minister can order them not to apply for production orders or search warrants for particular types of information. If they want to do that, they need to put it in law. And their continued resistance to doing this, after being asked by so many people for so long, is beginning to look highly suspicious. This is stupidly counterproductive, and it undermines the public health response to covid and the strong public support for signing in. And if we have difficulties tracing an outbreak in future because someone didn't sign in for fear of their data being abused, the government will have no-one to blame but themselves.

The OIA has a problem with extensions

The Ombudsman released their latest OIA complaint stats today, and the headline is a rise in overall complaints. But buried in the data is something interesting: extension complaints have increased massively. There were 54 complaints about extensions in the first half of this year, compared to 29 in the previous six months and 33 in the six months before that. Which looks like a step change in the numbers.

As for the reason, well, agencies are using extensions to juke the stats, so its not really surprising that requesters are objecting to that. And as the Ombudsman notes, complaints are an essential part of making the system work and ensuring that decisions are lawful and reasonable:

Mr Boshier says there may be a number of reasons why information requests are refused and requesters were doing the right thing by complaining to the Chief Ombudsman if they were unhappy with the response.
So, if any agency extends your OIA request for "consultations", ask them immediately "who are you consulting and why could it not be done within the statutory timeframes?". And if you don't like their answer, or they don't respond at all, then I've written a guide on how to make extension complaints here.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Too many cows in Canterbury

More than a decade ago, the then-National government overthrew the elected Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) and imposed a Wellington-appointed dictatorship to steal Canterbury's water for farmers. As part of the PR for this, they promised "ambitious" goals to improve water quality. A decade on, have they met those goals? Of course not:

Canterbury’s future water health is murky as a new report reveals that a region-wide conservation plan has met just two of more than 30 goals it set itself a decade ago.

The Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) was created in 2010 in a partnership between Environment Canterbury (ECan), local councils and iwi. It established ten target areas with more than 30 goals to improve water health and management.

A progress report released this week revealed that, 11 years on, just two of those goals had been achieved.


Most of the goals related to freshwater health and biodiversity targets. By last year, just one had been achieved – understanding the risk posed by potential contaminants, which ECan managed through monitoring programmes.

The only other fully met goal was in recreational water quality. Of Canterbury’s lakes and rivers used for swimming, more now met recreational water quality guidelines.

Meeting recreational water guidelines is important, but "understanding risks" is a very soft target. As for the rest, they're failing to meet even basic drinking water standards, while nitrate contamination is increasing.

The fundamental problem for all of this failure is simple: there are too many cows in Canterbury. Those cows pump out shit and piss, which ends up in the rivers and the groundwater, contaminating both. Nitrate levels are rising because of cowpiss and fertiliser. Freshwater health and biodiversity are shit because of cowshit. If Canterbury wants better water, the solution is simple: it needs to cut the pollution at its source, by cutting cow numbers. Until it does, they will continue to poison the environment, and poison Canterbury's people.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Climate Change: We need a total carbon budget

On Wednesday the government blew its carbon budget, flooding the market with 7 million tons of extra pollution (at a social cost of over a billion dollars) in a failed attempt to keep carbon prices low. In the aftermath, Stuff quoted Climate Change Minister James Shaw as saying he would be taking it out of future carbon budgets, which was some hope for sanity. Sadly, that hope was dashed: today Newsroom reports that Shaw will be covering only 1.6 million tons from future carbon budgets. As for the rest, he's going to pretend it is already covered as "stockpile reduction". This might meet the lax test of the Climate Change Response Act (which only requires CCR volumes to be covered when they exceed a formal emissions budget), but its basicly lying with numbers like Labour's "billion trees" (which included existing planting). Meanwhile, the reality is that those 7 million tons will be burned sometime, so we need to find a way to remove it from the system.

All of which suggests that we need a total allowable carbon budget for New Zealand to prevent such bullshit. What would such a budget look like in our current legal framework? Well, the Zero Carbon Act commits us to net-zero (except methane) by 2050. Depending on the exact methane target, that means net emissions of between 16 and 23 million tons in 2050 (midpoint 19.55). Using the same 2017 emissions baseline used for methane in the Act, that implies a total carbon budget of 1445.1 to 1549.6 (midpoint: 1497.45) million tons from 2021 to 2050. Methane post-2050 complicates this. But assuming we decide to phase it out at some stage, then it adds an extra ~200 million tons for a 20-year phase out (less if it is quicker, or if the 2050 target is deeper).

(As an aside, the total allowable global carbon budget to have a merely two-thirds chance of staying within 1.5 degrees is estimated by the IPCC at 420 billion tons. New Zealand has about 0.06 percent of the global population, so we're entitled to 0.06 percent of that. Doing the maths, that linear, status quo budget is about six times more than we are entitled to. And that's ignoring the burden of past emissions. At the very least, we have a moral duty to undershoot that budget by as much as possible, if not draw down everything in excess of our population share post-2050).

That total budget is all the carbon (except methane) we can ever emit. If the ETS covered everything (it doesn't), it sets a limit on how many non-forestry credits can ever be allowed to enter the system (e.g. by auctions or free allocation). The stockpile - 120 million tons at the start of this year - also comes out of that, since it is carbon that will be burned. And pretty obviously, credits issued as subsidies under the (old) fixed price option or (new) cost containment reserve have to as well. And on that front, poor policy design by James Shaw has allowed an extra 37 million tons of pollution to enter the system this year - ~2.5 percent of our total allowable budget.

A total carbon budget approach has implications - notably, that we must set future ETS allocations taking into account the total stockpile, so we don't let more carbon enter the system. But it also has consequences for free allocations, and in particular agriculture. The government's promise of subsidising agriculture by 95% of 2005 emissions - 37.7 million tons - phased out at 1% a year - implies that if it enters the ETS in 2025 the sector will receive 933 million tons of subsidies by 2050. That's over 60% of the total carbon budget. It also implies that the sector will continue to receive subsidies well in excess of its actual emissions post 2050. And that's simply unsustainable - environmentally, morally, and politically. The implication is that that promise is going to have to be broken, and that phase-our rates are going to have to increase. And on that front, its worth noting that farmers have already been entirely exempt from the system for nearly 15 years, and that that is more than enough lead time for them to change their dirty practices and get used to the idea of paying their way. And if they haven't used that time wisely to adapt, well, they deserve to go out of business.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Climate Change: Even OPEC gets it

Back in May we saw the International Energy Agency - historically not a green organisation - call for an immediate end to fossil fuel development to avoid catastrophic climate change. And now there's another unusual ally in the fight: OPEC:

The finance minister of Iraq, one of the founding members of the global oil cartel Opec, has made an unprecedented call to fellow oil producers to move away from fossil fuel dependency and into renewable energy, ahead of a key Opec meeting.

Ali Allawi, who is also the deputy prime minister of Iraq, has written in the Guardian to urge oil producers to pursue “an economic renewal focused on environmentally sound policies and technologies” that would include solar power and potentially nuclear reactors, and reduce their dependency on fossil fuel exports.

OPEC is literally all about oil and gas production (its in the name: "Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries"). So to have a key OPEC member call time shows how much the ground has shifted (and how serious the crisis is becoming). But if they're serious, they should follow the IEA's advice, and immediately end all new fossil fuel exploration and development, rather than continuing to destroy the planet.

Climate Change: The CCR was a huge waste of money

Yesterday the government held an ETS auction, and triggered the "cost containment reserve", flooding the market with an extra 7 million tons of pollution in an effort to keep carbon costs low. So how much "cost containment" did we get? Unfortunately, we're not allowed to know: the pre-CCR clearing price is not included in the information the auction monitor is required to disclose, and everything else is covered by a secrecy clause. I've asked under the OIA, but the government may be unable to tell us if their outrageous (and outrageously expensive) pollution subsidy policy was effective or not. Which would obviously be highly convenient if it wasn't...

But even if they can't tell us, we can take a stab at working it out. The government values carbon internally at $150/ton, so it thinks that 7 million tons of extra pollution was worth $1.05 billion. The "benefit" of that pollution is "lower carbon prices", so how can we put a value on that? We can use the cost plus household numbers from StatsNZ (interpolating between 2018 and 2023 gives 1,903,000 households in 2021) to get a weekly benefit per household required for the policy to be worthwhile ($10.61). We can compare that to Treasury's numbers on weekly change in household spending based on increases in emissions price (p 66), using the median household and remembering that we're already paying $50/ton, to get an effective carbon price rise where flooding the market would be beneficial. That number works out to be $14 extra per week per household, giving an implied carbon price of ~$125 / ton (the table stops at $100, but its linear between $50 and $100, giving an implied weekly spending of $13.60 at $125). Or, to put it another way, to be beneficial yesterday, to have a positive benefit / cost ratio, the CCR would have had to have prevented a sustained price increase of $75 / ton.

While the actual numbers are secret, it seems highly unlikely that the auction would have resulted in prices going up by 150%. Even if it deterred a 50% price increase (to $75 / ton, which also seems unlikely, but less outrageously so), it would only have produced benefits of $336 million, for a BCR of 0.32, which is about as beneficial as a motorway in Auckland. And because there's another 7 million tons next year, and the price at which it is released is only $70 (meaning the market expectation of where the price will be next year), the latter is in fact the upper bound on how effective this policy can be.

The conclusion: the CCR was a huge waste of government money, which increased emissions for no net social benefit for New Zealand. The mistake has been made, and now we need to do two things: hold the people who caused it accountable for that 7 million tons, and prevent it from ever happening again. And the latter requires a simple measure: repeal the CCR, and rip that 7 million tons straight out of future emissions budgets to ensure it is not actually emitted. Anything less would be a 7 million ton crime.

Update: And that's exactly what Climate Minister James Shaw says he will do. More carbon today means less carbon tomorrow! But unless he legislates, he'll be waiting until 2023 to fix this, and running the risk of a repeat early next year.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Climate Change: The ETS is a farce

The third ETS auction happened today, and as predicted, the cost-containment reserve was triggered, flooding the market with an extra 7 million tons of carbon. But this didn't actually contain costs. Instead, the auction cleared at $53.85 a ton - higher than the pre-auction spot price of $52 a ton. So the result of this farce is more pollution, higher prices, and a billion dollar bill for the government to cover those emissions, without containing costs. Which makes you wonder why we have a "cost containment reserve" in the first place.

Which is actually a good question: why are we trying to constrain this market? We've seen this year that polluters can cope with the price doubling in a year, and that that results in decarbonisation as polluters either clean up or shut down. Which is what the ETS is meant to do. So why are we artificially slowing this process down (and committing to higher emissions in the process)? To riff on Napoleon, if you want to limit carbon, limit carbon. Repeal the CCR, let the price rise and find its level, and let decarbonisation happen.

The good news is that now the cost containment reserve is blown, that's what's going to happen for the next year. The only constraint is $70 trigger point for the CCR next year. The bad news is that judging from this year, the CCR trigger point has become a market expectation, meaning the government will end up flooding the market with another 7 million tons of pollution we cannot afford (at the cost of another billion dollars) next year. The only question is whether it will happen in March or June...

The government can stop this anytime it wants, by urgently legislating to repeal the CCR or raise its trigger point to a level which allows the market to function. If they refuse, it will be a clear signal that they are not actually interested in decarbonisation at all, but are rather just subsidising the status quo to destroy our future. And future generations should not forgive them for it.