Wednesday, January 19, 2022



Hiding their dirty laundry

The government is trying to "reform" Oranga Tamariki, and has a bill before the House to do so: the Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill. Submissions on the Bill close next Wednesday, and children's rights campaigners are horrified by it - and in particular by the way it will replace the statutorily independent Children's Commissioner with a subservient Children and Young Person's Commission. I guess fierce and independent advocacy is not what the government thinks children - particularly children in its care, and who may be abused there - need.

My interest in the bill is mostly on its multiple secrecy clauses. I've been able to excavate some of the policy background to these using the OIA, and they seem even less justifiable as a result. The first of these excludes non-investigation-related communications with the Ombudsman about Oranga Tamariki issues from the OIA (communications around formal investigations are already exempt). What situation is this supposed to prevent? The Ombudsman helpfully provided one:

OTOmbSecrecy1

Note that the underlying situation, whatever is going wrong, would still be OIA-able; the amendment is aimed at making it harder to find by preventing journalists and advocacy groups from taking the shortcut of "so, what has the Ombudsman asked you to fix" (with the obvious followup of "and have you actually fixed it?"): this is about hiding dirty laundry, not about actually fixing anything. And the primary drivers here are the Ombudsman's preference for quick, informal resolution, and the desire of agencies to avoid embarrassment and public oversight. Its about bureaucratic arse-covering and a chummy desire to get along by covering for each other, not child-welfare. For the Ombudsman to be advocating for secrecy for such reasons is frankly disgusting, and calls into question their fitness to oversee the official information system.

Bluntly, if agencies are reluctant to cooperate with the Ombudsman, then the Ombudsman has the necessary powers to deal with that, and the solution is for them to start fucking using them (also to publicise non-cooperation to encourage compliance). Its a criminal offence not to cooperate with an Ombudsman's investigation or refuse their request for information, and those provisions should be used. The Ombudsman is not there to "get along" with government agencies; they are there to police them, and it is time they started acting like it.

Then there's the new secrecy clause for the Children and Young Person's Commission. The official reason for this is to enable children to engage with the Commission:

CYPCSecrecy

Which sounds like a good reason, but falls apart when you stop to think about it. If a child makes a complaint to the police, the details will be fully subject to the OIA. There may be good reason to withhold them ("maintenance of the law" if it is being prosecuted, plus obviously privacy), but the presumption is that the information is subject to the law. And that's fine, because the privacy interests of children are very strong, and the OIA provides sufficient protection. Does the government think the new Commission will fail to apply OIA withholding grounds sufficiently vigorously to protect children, or that the Ombudsman will ignore the strong privacy interest of children in deciding any complaint? Its a ridiculous idea. So who and what does the secrecy clause actually protect? The agencies being complained about. And they seem to be unworthy of any protection whatsoever; in fact, there is a strong public interest in poor government behaviour being exposed. And once again, if this is a question of "engagement", the Commission will have the required powers to force disclosure. But I guess the whole point is that the new, subservient Commission isn't really meant to inquire into anything...

One of the purposes of transparency is to make it easier for the public to find and correct abuses by government. The new secrecy laws in this bill work directly against that. And when the welfare of children is on the line, the consequences can be horrific. The government is currently conducting an inquiry into decades of abuse in care. Changing the law to make it easier for the government to hide its dirty laundry seems like a recipe for another such inquiry in a few decades' time.

Monday, January 17, 2022



Climate Change: Still making the same mistake

Last year it became clear that the government's ETS price control policy was a mistake, resulting in huge public costs for tiny, tiny benefits. The problem was clear well in advance, and while it couldn't be avoided in 2021 without urgent legislation, James Shaw could have used the opportunity of a required annual change in regulations to stop it from happening in 2022. But he didn't. Why not? Ministry for the Environment has just "proactively" released the regulatory impact statement on the 2021 Updates to NZ ETS unit limit and price control settings regulations, and while its heavily redacted, the answer seems to boil down to them just not wanting to think about it.

Firstly, the part of the RIS on "CCR initial trigger price level" starts out by effectively admitting that they got it wrong. They had apparently been assuming that carbon prices would just trickle on somewhere around $25 - $30 / ton, as if they'd never made any changes to the ETS. Instead,

NZU price movement since 2020 has been significant and somewhat unexpected. The risk of the CCR being activated at a $50 price trigger in 2021 was considered low at the time it was set. There is now a material likelihood of the CCR being triggered in 2021 and 2022, given recent NZU price trajectory (see figure 2).
This was woefully optimistic: when they said it, carbon was right on the edge of the $50/ton trigger price, and exceeded it within a couple of weeks. The market trend was obvious to all, and competent advice would have examined a broad range of higher trigger points in response, or even questioned the advisability of trying to control prices in this way in the first place. Instead, MfE stuck to its "low carbon prices" policy and recommended three options: $50, $60, and the Climate Commission's recommendation of $70 (which is what they settled on). Why didn't they go higher?
Options above the Commission’s recommendation are also not considered. A $100 trigger price option was assessed in 2020 and not recommended. They would risk very high auction clearing prices, which are well-above the abatement costs the Commission has forecast to meet their recommendations for the first emissions budget.[REDACTION] it could impose significant and unnecessary costs on businesses and households at this time. Options above the Commission’s recommendation would not effectively achieve cost containment in the NZ ETS.
...which is basicly what they said about a $70/ton trigger point last year. They do note that "[t]he acceptability of an emissions price around $70 has changed since the CCR trigger price was set last year", but they don't seem to consider that this has also changed the acceptability of higher prices as well. But as they note, this is all about "cost containment", keeping carbon prices low. And when the ETS works by making carbon prices high, they're basicly undermining their own policy. Its the same mistake they've made all along: trying to have a carbon price to lower emissions, while simultaneously trying to keep it as low as possible to avoid lowering emissions. And as ought to be clear by now, that policy is both immoral and untenable.

Incidentally, much of this briefing, including figures on expected outcomes, is redacted. Unusually, no reason is given for the redactions, meaning that their lawfulness cannot be assumed and that they may simply have been made to avoid embarassment over a very public and expensive mistake which is about to be repeated. But that's the problem with proactive release: with no legal framework and no oversight, its basicly the government telling us what it wants us to hear, at a time convenient for them. Which isn't exactly democratic.

Thursday, January 13, 2022



Climate Change: Here we go again

Last year the government turned the ETS into a farce, flooding the market with 7 million tons of extra pollution in a failed and counterproductive effort to keep carbon prices low. Using the government's internal carbon price of $150/ton, the social cost of this was just over a billion dollars (about a third of which was offset by auction revenues). The social "benefit" it produced was just $15 million. The government had a chance to fix this, by raising the cost-containment reserve trigger price - the price at which it floods the market - significantly, or just by abolishing the system entirely and setting the CCR amount to zero. They didn't. And now, predictably, it looks set to happen again.

This year's CCR trigger price is $70/ton. According to Commtrade, the carbon spot price is already $70.75, having risen by about a dollar yesterday. The auction price usually tracks the spot-market price, so if it stays at this level or rises, then we can expect the CCR to be triggered again at the first auction in March. Which means another 7 million tons of pollution allowed under the ETS, and another billion dollars down the drain.

The obvious question is: when is the government going to fix this? Or are they just going to keep pissing money down the drain while allowing more pollution in a desperate effort to undermine their own policy?

One country at a time

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister has announced that he intends to abolish the death penalty:

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape says his government is doing away with the death penalty and those now on death row will instead serve life sentences without parole.

Marape told members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church holding their 33rd synod in Port Moresby that PNG was a Christian nation and the death penalty was out of place.

"The Bible says thou shall not kill and the government has removed, by policy, the clause on the death penalty," PNG newspaper The National on Wednesday quoted him as saying.

This is good news - things had seemed to be going in the other direction in PNG, with a move just last year to finally allow executions. But an announcement isn't law, and PNG's death row prisoners will only be safe from execution when legislation is passed.

When enacted, Tonga will be the only (independent) holdout in the South Pacific. So I guess we can expect the pressure to go on them to make Oceania a death-penalty-free zone.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022



Guantanamo: Twenty years of shame

Today (US time) is the 20th anniversary of the opening of America's gulag at Guantanamo Bay. The US has kept people imprisoned without trial - sometimes without even charges - for twenty years now. Most of those kidnapped by the US have since died or been released, but 39 remain (18 of them cleared for release). Ironicly, one of the "reasons" for their continued detention is to protect "classified information", specifically information about how the US tortured them: to stop them from telling their stories. Human rights abuse is being used to "justify" further abuse.

I was wondering what to write about this, so looked back. Here's what I wrote ten years ago. The only thing that has changed since then has been the numbers.

As for what needs to happen: the prisoners should be released, and those responsible for their detention, from the Presidents and politicians who set it up and kept it open, the military officers who supervise it and run its kangaroo "courts", down to the lowliest guard, need to be put on trial for crimes against humanity. Anything less, and we're just inviting them to do it again.

Undermining the offshore exploration ban

Back in 2018, in what they trumpeted as a victory for the environment, the government banned new offshore oil exploration permits. But the victory was short-lived: two-faced Labour immediately started to undermine it, extending permits and changing conditions to try and keep the industry they had "banned" alive. And there's been another prime example of this two-faced behaviour already this year.

Permit 60092 is one of the largest offshore exploration permits remaining, covering a huge chunk of seabed west of Taranaki. While it doesn't expire until 2028, it had a "drill or drop" provision requiring owners OMV to drill an exploration well by 1 January 2022. That hasn't happened, partly because of the pandemic, and partly because in April 2020 OMV announced it was indefinitely postponing all exploration plans in Taranaki. So you'd expect the permit to have expired, and for there to be one less exploration permit sullying our waters, right?

Wrong! Because sometime between January 4, when I first checked, and today, NZPAM did the dirty on us, and changed that condition. OMV's new "drill or drop" date is April 2024, with a fallback of April 2028 - after the permit has expired.

It is unclear why this has been done - as usual there has been no public statement. And you'd expect a pretty compelling reason to change conditions when the permit holder has publicly announced they're giving up. But neither OMV, NZPAM, or the government has provided one (I guess we'll see what comes out via the OIA). Absent a reason, it just looks like the government is undermining its own climate change policies, and effectively lying to us about its intention to end the offshore oil industry, again.

(You can check the conditions on this permit here, and you can see what permits are still in force here).

Tuesday, January 11, 2022



Climate Change: Famers finally paying the price

It's official: 2021 was Aotearoa's hottest year on record. And the climate chaos is now affecting milk production:

Challenging pasture growing conditions have prompted Fonterra to revise its forecast milk collections to 1.5 billion kilograms of milk solids for the year to May 31, a reduction of 25 million kilograms on its opening forecast.

Fonterra chief executive Miles Hurrell said varied weather and challenging growing conditions across many parts of the country earlier in the season resulted in actual milk collections down on the same time last year.

“We were expecting conditions to improve over the Christmas-New Year period, but this has not eventuated,” Hurrell said.

Basicly, its been too hot and too dry. Which is I guess one way of fixing it: you can't grow cows without water, so in the long term dairy emissions should reduce. But farmers seem to be incredibly thick about recognising they are destroying their own livelihoods, and in any case, thanks to past pollution, we no longer have a long term. We need to cut dairy emissions now, through water restrictions, consent restrictions, and directly capping and cutting the number of cows to a manageable level. Waiting for farmers to pollute themselves out of existence simply means letting them take us with them.

Monday, January 10, 2022



Climate Change: A decision with no integrity

Back in November, the government introduced a new, "more ambitious" 2030 climate change target, which turned out to not be very ambitious at all. Quite apart from the funny accounting, the target will be met primarily through "international mitigation" (rather than, say, cuts to agricultural emissions). back in November, the Herald gave the commonly accepted version of this: "New Zealand paying money to other countries to reduce their emissions and counting those reductions as our own". But as we may recall from Kyoto, that meant fraud. So what does the government think it means now? Unfortunately, the actual details are hidden in another, unreleased Cabinet paper (so transparent!). But what Shaw says in the NDC paper is not good:

My proposed approach to accessing offshore mitigation is outlined in the accompanying paper Progressing international cooperation to reduce emissions and complement domestic action. This sets out a proposal for investment in offshore mitigation that prioritises sustainable development outcomes and resilience in the Asia-Pacific region.

[...]

This will require work to identify and develop options and partners for this cooperation. We can leverage New Zealand’s experience and networks for example, New Zealand’s support for the Global Research Alliance to identify options for reducing developing countries’ agricultural emissions and carbon accounting assistance provided to developing countries to meet the REDD+ qualifying criteria, to help identify viable options for high integrity forestry projects.

[Emphasis added]

What is "REDD+"? The paper helpfully defines it in a footnote: "REDD+ refers to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest degradation in developing countries, also known as avoided deforestation". Its the sort of "credit" businesses buy the greenwash their reputations. As for their environmental integrity, a (heavily redacted - again, much transparency, so open) briefing on feasibility considerations of a more ambitious NDC has this to say:

Our understanding is that no country is using REDD+ as a source of mitigation under Article 6 [of the Paris agreement]. REDD+ use for Article 6 is a contentious issue due to challenges around environmental integrity including avoiding double counting and ensuring additionality.
...which is basicly policy-speak for "this is bullshit, and other countries won't accept it". How bullshit? Avoided deforestation credits used in Australia are considered "hot air", with 20% of them "junk". The avoided deforestation schemes used by airlines are "flawed" and "not fit for purpose". California's scheme lets people claim "credits" for land that was never going to be logged. And so on. Discouraging deforestation is great, but making it a centrepiece of our climate strategy is a mistake on a similar level to allowing international credits into the ETS in the first place: a decision with no integrity, and an invitation to fraud.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022



Bring back traffic cops

Stuff has a story about the holiday road toll, and police saying they are "disappointed" and "frustrated" that it is so high. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Herald pointed out why it is so high: because police haven't been doing their job:

[F]or a couple of years now, police enforcement of the road rules hasn't been nearly so prominent, especially in cities. And guess what? Not counting the lockdowns, deaths and serious injuries on Auckland roads are up.

Why haven't the police been doing their job? They were funded to carry out 800,000 breath tests in Auckland in 2020 but did only half that. International best practice suggests they should be doing 60,000 hours of mobile speed camera surveillance. But they committed to only 30,000 and ended up doing just 16,800.

In the year to July, that translated into 681 speeding tickets. Not even two a day.

This negligence kills. In the three years to 2017, when there was a 33 per cent drop in alcohol breath tests, deaths and serious injuries (known as DSIs) on Auckland roads rose sharply.

After that year, the police strengthened their enforcement of drink driving, speed and other road rules, and the rates began to fall.

Road deaths are strongly correlated to the level of police enforcement. So when the police stop doing their job, people die. And in this case, the blame lies squarely on the police: they're funded to do the work, and they take the money, but they'd rather spend the time doing other things. And that latter bit is crystal clear from the police's response to the Herald, where they downplay enforcement and spew crap like "Road safety is everyone's responsibility" (which sounds like the sort of line you'd hear from a tobacco lobbyist or climate change denier).

So what's the solution? Traffic enforcement needs to be done. The police don't want to do it. So we should take the job off them, and give it to a new, standalone agency instead.

We've done this before: until 1992, traffic enforcement was the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport's Traffic Safety Service, which did all the things the police are supposed to do but don't: catch speeding drivers, run checkpoints, conduct checks for warrants of fitness and so on. we should recreate that agency. Apart from the obvious benefits - it would actually do what we paid it to do, and we wouldn't have to worry about road safety being deprioritised because its not "real crime" - there would also be a huge co-benefit of taking road-safety enforcement powers off the police. Which would mean they wouldn't be able to abuse them anymore. No more unlawful "traffic safety" roadblocks to gather intelligence. No more using traffic stops for racial harassment. And we could break the police's violent, aggressive, and lawless pursuit culture by removing its main excuse. And that latter alone will make the roads safer for everyone.