Monday, February 28, 2022

Open Government: A warning for Australia

Australia has been formally warned that it is not meeting its commitments to the Open Government Partnership:

The Australian government signed up to the Open Government Partnership in 2015, a 78-country multilateral initiative designed to promote open government, fight corruption and empower citizen participation in policymaking.

But Australia’s efforts since have frustrated the group. It has failed to act on prior promises – including to improve donations transparency and strengthen the nation’s anti-corruption framework – and has missed the deadline to file its latest two-year action plan for 2021-23, which was due in December.

That prompted the OGP chief executive, Sanjay Pradhan, to write to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet last week, warning that if it failed to meet the next deadline, its membership status would be reviewed.

The OGP has previously suspended Azerbaijan and designated several other countries as "inactive" for acting contrary to the OGP's goals or failing to meet commitments. If Australia does not quickly start acting, it is likely to suffer the same fate. And for a country which prides itself on being a democracy, that is simply shameful.

Utterly reprehensible

Declassified Australia has published a new piece by Nicky Hager on New Zealand and Australia's spying on the Pacific. Most of it is a summary of past revelations from the Snowden leaks, but there is something new: the New Zealand navy spies during aid missions:

The surveillance includes “COMINT [communications intelligence] operators on navy ships, locked away in a two-man room just behind the bridge”. They eavesdrop on South Pacific countries during regular port calls.

The officer described how all military staff on aid, disaster relief and training deployments are also sent with “intelligence collection tasks”. They are debriefed by intelligence officers on their return “to find out what they’d learned and what we could turn into intelligence”.

“They told us it was for humanitarian aid missions. But why do we need to know how many weapons they have, and what are the routine guard patrols, and how high are the fences?” This intelligence collection activity described by the contact also includes “Tonga, Tuvalu, Niue, not the Cook Islands. Fiji – Fiji they’re always very interested in.”

This is utterly reprehensible, akin to hiding an intelligence operation under the guise of a medical facility in wartime (which would be a war crime). Its made worse by the fact that the victims are our Pacific whanau, countries who are our closest friends. And it obviously has consequences, in that governments may be less willing to accept New Zealand disaster relief if it comes at the cost of spying.

The New Zealand government needs to stop this practice immediately, and destroy all the data it has collected. Anything less is an abuse of our friendship with these countries.

Friday, February 25, 2022

The problem of police deceit

Stuff reports that an Auckland police officer is being prosecuted for perjury and perverting the course of justice:

An Auckland police officer has been charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice and perjury.

Court documents seen by Stuff say the 29-year-old officer wilfully attempted to pervert the course of justice by entering false bail breaches without physically checking whether the person on bail was abiding by their conditions in January 2019.

He also faces two of the same charges for a time period between October 2018 and March 2019.

The 29-year-old is further charged with committing perjury at the Manukau District Court by falsely stating as part of his evidence under oath, that he recorded a breach of bail in his notebook.

Its good that they are prosecuting, but this raises some obvious questions. Most pressingly, if this officer lied in these cases, did he lie in others? Every case he has ever been involved in will now need to be scrutinised, and possibly appealed. But also, it invites the question of whether there is a wider issue: if one police officer lies in their paperwork or in court, others may have done the same. And when people can end up in jail as a result of those lies, that's not a prospect we can tolerate. We need to take a serious look at what institutional protections the police have against this behaviour, and how they can be improved to completely eliminate it. Because one person in jail (or even in court) as a consequence of police lies is one person too many.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

This cannot stand

Having previously been found to have misled Ministers and the public over its revenge raid in Afghanistan, NZDF has now been accused of misleading the Ombudsman:

The chief ombudsman has opened an investigation into whether the Defence Force deliberately misled him during an inquiry into civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

The investigation follows a complaint by journalist Nicky Hager.

Hager alleges NZDF withheld crucial information from the Ombudsman, whose Operation Burnham investigation into New Zealand-backed strikes found the military suppressed information to Ministers and the public.

The Ombudsman is taking this extremely seriously, as he should. If agencies can simply lie to the Ombudsman, then the office is about as credible as the IPCA. OTOH, even if he finds that they have, the maximum penalty is only a $200 fine. Which suggests that maybe we need to set some real incentives for agencies to obey the law?

The secret treaty we're not allowed to see

A few years ago someone told me about Security of Information agreements (SOIs) - treaties between governments about how they handle each others' classified information. Normally this involves promising not to disclose it to anyone or to use it for purposes other than the ones it was provided for. Which is fairly normal, but also has consequences for freedom of information, as this effectively prohibits release in a way inconsistent with the harm-based approach taken by most freedom of information regimes (including the OIA).

New Zealand is publicly a party to a few SOIs - searching New Zealand Treaties Online turns up agreements with Australia, France, Korea, Spain, and NATO. We also have one with the USA. It's mentioned in a few public treaties - the 1994 NAVSTAR treaty (article 4.1), 2010 Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (definitions) and the 2016 Space Technology Safeguards Agreement (Article V.4). The Treaties all use different names, but the best one seems to be in the science and technology agreement, which calls it the:

Security of Information Agreement between the New Zealand Minister of Defence and the United States Secretary of Defense of September 2 1952, as amended by the Exchange of Notes between the Government of New Zealand and the Government of the United States of America concerning the safe-guarding of classified information of 1961 and the Exchange of Notes constituting an Understanding adding to the Annex of General Security Procedures contained in the Exchange of Notes November 17, 1961; of 1982.
I was interested in the terms of this agreement and in whether it might impact the OIA, so in November 2018 I asked MFAT for a copy. They refused. I complained to the Ombudsman, on the grounds that if they were going to say "the Americans won't let us", they had an obligation to at least ask them. MFAT dragged things out for a year, then made the complaint go away by promising to do actually consult, then didn't do it and refused again. I went back to the Ombudsman, who was Not Impressed with MFAT's deceit, and extracted a commitment from them to make their own assessment under the OIA, then advise the US of it and ask for comments. That was in June 2021. In December MFAT was still dragging its feet. This week, they finally replied, blaming the delay on the pandemic and saying that the US had agreed to release an unclassified summary. Which looks fairly comprehensive for the original 1952 agreement, but is entirely uninformative for the 1961 and 1982 amendments which expanded and replaced it.

Naturally this will be going back to the Ombudsman, as I have some strong arguments for release. And one of these is that despite all the secrecy, we can pretty much guess the exact wording of the 1961 agreement, because the US's equivalent agreements with Canada and the UK from that era have been made public and are essentially identical. I would expect the New Zealand-USA agreement covering the same subject from the same period and approved at the same level and in the same format to be the same, barring the names and diplomatic flourishes. As for the 1982 amendments requiring "investigative and monitoring steps" to provide confidence, the US signed an SOI with Israel in 1982 which included a clause (clause 6) requiring periodic visits to assess security. The 2002 Australia-USA SOI - released as part of its government's treaty series - also includes a "security visits" clause (12) as well as one requiring each party to provide information about security procedures on request (13). Given the closer relationship between NZ and the USA, I'd expect the NZ agreement to include both clauses from the Australian one, but the exact language is likely to be similar to that of the 1982 US-Israel SOI.

(The biggest reason for release is of course that democracies shouldn't make secret treaties, as they have no democratic legitimacy. But that's an argument for the politicians, not the Ombudsman).

Does the agreement actually undermine the OIA? The summary, publicly available equivalent agreements, and MFAT's behaviour all suggest this. But we're not actually allowed to know. Because it is a secret.

Climate Change: Enabling retreat

One of the basic consequences of climate change is sea-level rise. In New Zealand, tens of thousands of homes are currently exposed to this risk, and will be underwater in just a few decades. But thanks to strategic legal action by rich coastal property owners determined to maintain the "value" of their "asset" (and, more importantly, pass it off to some other sucker for a higher price based on fraudulent information), local authorities have been afraid to properly notify of these risks. Now, the government plans to stop that bullshit:

Councils will be required to disclose a wider range of natural hazard risks to prospective home buyers, under a law change to be introduced to Parliament later this year.

Local authorities will in turn be shielded from legal action taken by home owners angry about their properties being added to hazard zones – provided they have disclosed the information in good faith.


Property owners would still be able to take legal action against councils for failing to include information about natural hazards, but the legal protection would make it easier for them to disclose relevant risks.

This is a good move, which will finally enable the retreat from the coast we should have been planning for the last decade. With hazards properly notified, people will be less willing to buy, and financial institutions less willing to lend or insure. The end result is that people won't buy or build there (at least not if they're intending to stay for any length of time), and high-risk coastal property will become a valueless stranded asset. So I guess we will see a concerted effort by current owners to get the government to bail them out at inflated values, or to sell up and dump their toxic waste on some other sucker before it gets labelled as such. Which sounds a lot like fraud to me...

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Pedestrianise the government precinct

One of the big concerns about the anti-vaxx / pro-Nazi occupation of Thorndon is the consequences it will have for future protests at Parliament. Trevor Mallard reportedly wants to lock Parliament away behind a giant fence, which will be a tragedy both for our democracy, and for the ordinary everyday use of the space by Wellingtonians. But writing in Stuff, Henry Cooke has a better idea: the main problems of the occupation - sustained disruption and harassment - stem from their ability to claim and occupy so much space and turn by parking a car on top of it. So the answer seems to be to stop people doing that, and block the cars, not the people:

Unlike people, vehicles are relatively easy to stop. There should probably not be an easy way for folks to drive onto the cenotaph that sits just below the Beehive. Parliament has already installed retractable bollards at its vehicle entrances after truck-based terror attacks in Europe. It would make some sense – if the council and local residents were fine with it – to install similar bollards on surrounding streets, only activating them if there was another threat of a serious vehicle-based blockade.

This would make much more sense than a fence, and would stop the real threats of these kinds of blockades without limiting the freedom to assemble and move freely around Parliament grounds. We shouldn’t give that right up so freely – to the protesters, or to the state.

And this isn't even that much of an imposition. Every march to Parliament already requires traffic management and temporary street closures anyway, so this would simply involving installing permanent infrastructure to enable that. Alternatively, Wellington is already planning to become a pedestrian city, and those plans could be extended to the government precinct to create a permanent pedestrian zone around Parliament. A place for people, not cars. A place that would actually be nice (though actually, its pretty nice already).

But they'll probably just build a fence instead.

Monday, February 21, 2022

The most divisive government in history?

Today National party leader Christopher Luxon followed the lead of ACT's David Seymour, and started pandering to the shit-flinging nazi-sympathisers who have annexed Wellington. Along the way, he claimed that the current government is the "most divisive government in history".

I can only conclude from this that Luxon is entirely unfamiliar with even recent New Zealand history. To point out the obvious, the revolutionary NeoLiberal governments of the 1980's and 1990's were so divisive that we changed the electoral system to get more representative government (and as an act of revenge against them). Or maybe Luxon could look at one of his National Party predecessors, Syd Holland, whose government literally made it illegal to feed starving children if their parents belonged to the wrong union. Or Bill Massey, who sent his rural militia into our cities to beat striking workers, in what was virtually a civil war. Or the succession of early Prime Ministers, who started and or presided over an actual civil war in Aoteraoa due to their efforts to steal Māori land.

But all of these government were looking after the interests of the big business community, the people who Luxon represents. Whereas Ardern in a crisis has put people first and business second. And that, really, is why they hate her and regard her as "divisive".

Update: How did I not mention Muldoon, who is basicly the byword for nasty, divisive, oppressive arseholery in Aotearoa? The man who gave us this and this and this? But maybe Luxon doesn't think he was "divisive" either...

Thursday, February 17, 2022

More solar

Back in November, RNZ reported on the scale of changes we needed to make to decarbonise the economy. One of those changes was to increase the amount of solar generation by 180% by 2025, and 2200% by 2035. The good news is that we're well on the way to doing it: in 2021 three projects (Lodestone, Kōwhai Park and Waiterimu) were announced which would meet the 2025 target by themselves. And today another one was announced: a 147 MW project in Te Aroha:

A new solar farm proposed in eastern Waikato could generate enough electricity to power 30,000 homes if its application under the Covid Recovery Act is successful.

Harmony Energy New Zealand has unveiled plans to construct 329,000 solar panels on 182 hectares of a 260-hectare site at Te Aroha West.

The UK-based company has been granted approval to speed up its application under the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-Track Consenting) Act 2020 but is yet to hear if the project has been approved.

Harmony director Pete Grogan said the solar panels could produce up to 147 megawatts of power at peak times. All the electricity would flow directly into the national grid for use by homes and businesses.

As with other recent rural solar projects, its dual-use, with sheep pasture beneath the panels (it will however displace cows to do this, so that's a definite emissions reduction as well).

The speed grid-scale solar is taking off in New Zealand is surprising - 500MW announced in the last three months. We're already well on the way to meeting that 2035 target, and hopefully we can exceed it quickly enough to drive dirty generation off the grid.

The plague camp and "national security"

Stuff reported this morning that the ongoing plague camp outside Parliament has triggered a "national security crisis meeting":

Top-ranking government officials are holding a national security crisis meeting in response to the ongoing protest and blockade at Parliament.

Government officials that make up ODESC (Officials' Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination) will meet on Thursday to discuss the protest and government response, in an effort to make sure “all risks and potential implications” of the protest are understood.

ODESC is headed by government chief executives and is the primary committee of the National Security System, which swings into action during crises that threaten New Zealand’s security, sovereignty or economy.

"The protest is a national security issue" sounds impressive and scary, but this is unlikely to actually be about the far-right aspects of the protest. According to the government National Security System handbook, "New Zealand takes an 'all hazards – all risks' approach to national security", looking at issues beyond traditional security threats. So instead of just focusing on war and terrorism, our national security infrastructure is also supposed to worry about things like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes, and pandemics. You can see the breadth of this in the list of issues ODESC met on in 2017: plant diseases, infrastructure failures, bad weather and earthquakes, as well as "cyber" and traditional security threats. They meet over bad weather; of course they're going to meet over a three-month long traffic jam affecting one of our major cities. The far-right and Kelvyn Alp's fantasies about overthrowing our democracy are likely to get a couple of bullet points (more if the threat is assessed as serious), but the major focus is likely to be the prospect of sustained disruption to Wellingtonians' lives and how to manage and mitigate that.

(It is likely ODESC also met in the last week over Cyclone Dovi and Ukraine, not to mention the pandemic. Its a regular thing, not some mysterious super-secret only for massive crises group).

Unfortunately this "all hazards - all risks" approach is not matched in government budgets, which consistently massively overallocate resources to agencies focused on dealing with traditional threats - NZDF, SIS, GCSB etc - rather than to things which actually keep us safe (like civil defence and public health). And that's something we should fix sometime.

Read the fine print

The Herald reports that after nine years, Australia has finally accepted Aotearoa's offer to resettle people from its offshore concentration camps. Which sounds like great news. Except there's a catch:

The deal was confirmed "in principle" in the Australian Senate this week but awaits further negotiation, including Australia seeking a guarantee there would be no "backdoor" for the people transferred to come to Australia.
Australia is obsessed with the idea that people who have the temerity to request asylum from them can never be allowed to set foot there (apparently they think they're such a great country that people will still want to visit their dry racist shithole even after being tortured by them for nine years). Refugees in New Zealand of course are eventually granted citizenship, which means a right to travel to and live in Australia. Australia's "solution" to this is to ask us to continue to oppress its victims on their behalf by denying them citizenship. Successive New Zealand governments have continuously told them that that's not happening, which is why this has taken nine years. But shuffling this fundamental disagreement behind an "agreement in principle" doesn't make it go away, and its likely that Australia's desire for a "guarantee" will continue to hold things up. So we probably shouldn't expect any concentration camp victims any time soon, unless we rescue them ourselves.

Australia could of course solve this problem itself, simply by exercising its right to refuse entry at the border in the unlikely event that any of its victims show up there again. The fact that they are instead seeking to make us complicit in their oppression speaks volumes about the moral character of their government. Aotearoa shouldn't have a bar of it. Once we accept these people, they're part of the whanau, and we should not cooperate in any way with their abuser.

(Australia's offshore detention regime has been found to constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and is unlawful under international law).

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

ACT cuddles up to the antivaxxers

Since the anti-vax plague camp was set up on Parliament's lawn last week, complete with nooses and death threats, I've been wondering how long it would take for the right to start cuddling up to it. And today, predictably, ACT's David Seymour did:

ACT leader David Seymour has met with a Parliament protest "intermediary" to deliver conditions to be met for dialogue with lawmakers.

Seymour said on Wednesday he had met with the unnamed intermediary out the back of the Backbencher, a pub across the road from Parliament forced to close due to the week-long protest which has blocked traffic in the surrounding area of central Wellington.

In case anyone has forgotten, this protest has included assaults on local residents, multiple threats to lynch MPs, a convicted white supremacist threatening to execute politicians, and calls for the military to stage a coup to overthrow the elected government. But clearly, Seymour doesn't have a problem with any of that (neither, sadly, do "Wellington business leaders"). And we should judge him and his party for that at the next election.

Member's Morning

Since the annual PM's statement trumps other business, this morning is a special extended sitting for Member's Bills. First up is the committee stage of Louisa Wall's Harmful Digital Communications (Unauthorised Posting of Intimate Visual Recording) Amendment Bill, followed by the committee stage of Todd Muller's Sunscreen (Product Safety Standard) Bill. When those are done, the House will move on to the secnd reading of Louisa Wall's Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill. If it moves quickly, it might make a start on Steph Lewis' Biosecurity (Information for Incoming Passengers) Amendment Bill. Because this is all later stages, there will be no ballot on Thursday.


The Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Act passed its third reading tonight, with only 8 MPs voting against it. The Act prohibits the torture of LGBTQ children by bigots and quacks, protecting their right to be who they are. It will make Aotearoa a safer place for these kids to grow up in, and its passage is something we should all welcome.

So who were the eight bigots? Simon Bridges, Simeon Brown, Melissa Lee, Todd McClay, Simon O'Connor, Chris Penk, Michael Woodhouse and Shane Reti. None of them bothered to speak to explain their hate - too ashamed, I guess. The thing they all have in common is that they are all from National, which has generally been on the wrong side of history on every vote about gay rights. The good news is that there were only 8 of them this time (of 33 National MPs). Which I guess goes to show how far the dial has shifted, and how indefensible this sort of bigotry is becoming. But if National wants to shift that dial further, and move in the right direction for once, it could make it clear that these MPs have no future in the party, and de-select them at the next election.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The police aren't doing their job on traffic safety

In 1992 Parliament disestablished the Ministry of Transport's Traffic Safety Service and gave the job of traffic enforcement to police. It kindof worked for a while, but now police aren't doing it:

A nationwide police operation to cut down on high-risk driving and road deaths has missed its target, an OIA reveals.

Most police districts missed most of their targets most of the time, reports released under the OIA about Operation Deterrence that ran for six months till December 2021 show.

Some key measures were worse than before the operation began.

"The results for Op Deterrence were not what we had hoped for," the director of the National Road Policing Centre, Superintendent Steve Greally, told RNZ.

They blame the pandemic of course, but this is fundamentally a question of what the police choose to prioritise and what they don't. And while the police clearly don't see traffic enforcement as "real crime" worthy of their attention, the fact is that it saves lives. Under-enforcement kills ten people a year in Auckland alone. If extended proportionately over the whole country, then that implies an annual cost of under-enforcement equal to half our annual murder rate. Which is clearly more important than this bullshit.

At the moment we fund police $330 million a year for road safety. That's 15% of the police budget for work they do not do (and which is being spent on other things, contrary to their appropriation). Since they clearly don't want to do the job, we should take it off them, and bring back traffic cops instead.

"Least corrupt country"

Last week the Chief Ombudsman was applauding Aotearoa's top ranking in the annual Transparency International corruption perceptions index. Meanwhile, in reality, six people have just been charged with corruption over roadworks contracts: Six people have been accused of corruption by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over roadworks contracts allegedly awarded for kickbacks in Auckland.

The agency claims two former employees of Broadspectrum (New Zealand) Limited, previously Transfield until 2015, received bribes in exchange for awarding road maintenance work to subcontractors between 2015 and 2018.

One of the former employees faces three charges of obtaining by deception and 12 charges of acceptance of gifts by agent, the SFO said in a statement today.

The other faces four charges of acceptance of gifts by agent.

Four subcontractors who were awarded the work also face charges including giving gifts to agent without consent of principal and obtaining by deception. The courts will deal with this, but it suggests we have a much bigger problem with corruption than we think.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Undermining the offshore exploration ban II

Back in January I reported on how NZPAM had apparently sneakily extended one of OMV's exploration permits to eliminate a "drill or drop" provision, effectively keeping the permit alive for two more years. I was curious about when and how this happened, so I filed an OIA request seeking advice and communications relating to the change. I got the response back today. Key points:

  • The extension was granted in July 2021, but NZPAM's interactive permit map wasn't updated until January 2022 (when it became unavoidable). Which isn't very transparent of them, almost as if they want to make it difficult for people to track what is happening in this sector.
  • The climate change analysis is laughably shallow, basicly "This change will have no effect on net carbon emissions" as it is only exploration. Any fool out here in the real world can see the clear and direct pipeline from exploration to mining to emissions, and how the earlier we close that pipeline off and keep the gas in the ground, the more emissions we avoid. But apparently that's too hard for NZPAM. Their jobs depend on there being a gas industry to "regulate", so it seems to be an example of it being difficult to get something to understand something, when their salary depends upon them not understanding it.
  • The justification for the extension is based on a clause in the 2013 Petroleum Programme which, from context, does not apply. While the wording is not the clearest, it is clear from context that the extension reasons are for when a permit-holder has encountered unavoidable delays in meeting their conditions (the wording does suggest this near the end, where it talks about the need to have identified and notified the Minister of "the problem" at the earliest opportunity). As is very clear from the documents, OMV haven't encountered a problem. Instead, they've discovered an opportunity: the exploration wells they drilled earlier suggest there might be gas, and they want more time to figure out where to drill next. But insofar as this opportunity was identified by required permit activity, that analysis and identification of opportunities should be regarded as normal permit activity, rather than exceptional circumstances, let alone a "problem".

The last point especially seems to give good grounds for judicial review. And such a review might encourage NZPAM to take a more robust approach to changes, rather than desperately trying to keep this toxic and polluting industry alive.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

The Greens' "land back" policy

It was Waitangi Day over the weekend, and the Greens took the opportunity to release a new Hoki Whenua Mai policy to remedy injustices in the Treaty settlement process. Key provisions include giving iwi and hapu a right of first refusal over raupatu land (with a voluntary register for non-raupatu land); restoring the power of the Waitangi Tribunal to recommend the return of council- and privately-owned land, an inquiry into Māori dispossession, and reopening the settlement process in recognition of the inadaquacy of most settlements. A lot of this echoes the main points of Te Pāti Māori's policy, and seems extraordinarily moderate given the scale of the wrong done. An inquiry and first refusal rights? Easy. Tribunal recommendations over private land? The government will still have to buy it, and there'll still need to be a process for that (and you can see how first-refusal rights could also be a solution there, if iwi are willing to be patient). As for re-opening settlements, everyone knows they are insignificant compared to the wrong done, and everyone should recognise that this inadequate redress is in itself a severe and ongoing breach of the Treaty. While the government calls them "final", that's only the case insofar as Māori accept that they are, and that's a political question for each generation. If a new generation of Māori leaders rejects the deals made by their elders and demands proper redress, then the government is going to have to deal with that. Recognising that reality and having a process to deal with it in advance seems sensible, and a government committed to a just Treaty relationship would recognise that.

All of which makes Labour's immediate rejection of the policy seem stupid as well as racist. The injustice of the settlement process is already causing problems - just look at Ihumātao - and the government is going to have to deal with them one way or another. Sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending there is no problem is not a good way of doing that.

End Tiwai's subsidies

So, having blackmailed us for BluffGeld with the threat of closure in 2020, foreign polluter Rio Tinto now wants to keep the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter open, and has started a public campaign for another subsidy (which naturally will peak around the 2023 election for maximum political blackmail). Aluminium production has got a lot more profitable, and they're eager to talk up the environmental benefits of making it from NZ hydro power rather than dirty Chinese or Australian coal. But those environmental benefits are overstated, as Rio Tinto ignores a huge part of the environmental cost of its smelter - namely that by using 13% of our total electricity supply, Tiwai forces us to rely on the coal-burning Huntly power station. In 2020, that meant an extra 700,000 tons of coal being burned, and an extra 1.4 million tons of CO2 (basicly doubling Tiwai's stated emissions per unit of production). In 2021 it was worse.

And it doesn't pay for any of that damage. Instead, Tiwai receives a massive subsidy of 1.55 million tons of carbon a year, about 900,000 tons more than it actually emits. The "justification" for this over-subsidisation is "compensation" for higher electricity prices caused by the ETS. But Tiwai doesn't actually pay those prices, instead being subsidised $350 million a year by the rest of us, at a cost of ~$200 per household.

If Tiwai wants to stick around, then we should end those subsidies. Meridian doesn't sound eager to continue subsidising its electricity costs (having used the last two years to start building alternative demand in the South Island), and that's good. But we should also eliminate its carbon subsidy. In theory that just means removing "aluminium smelting" from the relevant regulation, but to be certain, Parliament should add a clarifying clause to the appropriate section of the Climate Change Response Act specifying that "Aluminium smelting is not an eligible industrial activity". This one clause would reduce emissions by 1.5 million tons a year, saving us $225 million a year in social cost.

If Tiwai really is as clean as they say they are, they should have no problem paying the full cost of their emissions. And if they're not profitable when they do that, then they were never really profitable at all, and we really are better off without them.

Friday, February 04, 2022

Climate Change: The good news

I do a lot of posts about climate change policy and how bad its going, but over on Interest, Robert McLachlan has a roundup of what went right in 2021. Its an impressive list: solar power, carbon prices, EVs, climate lawsuits and actual transition plans (to which I'd add "the slow death of the offshore gas industry", "closing coal mines", and "more trees"). Some of it (solar, EVs) is obviously stuff that needs to scale up, but we're taking the first steps towards that, and you can see that change is coming. And the more we keep the pressure up, the faster it will arrive.

Which just makes the lack of progress on agriculture all the more glaring. The rest of the economy is pulling its weight, working towards solving this problem. Meanwhile, farmers are still refusing to play a part, offering a laughable scheme for emissions pricing loaded with dodgy accounting and denier bullshit to justify continued special treatment. And the longer they refuse, the more they erode their social license, and the harsher the public reaction is going to be.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Climate Change: Austerity is undermining our response

Imagine if the government declared a war, but didn't fund it? That's basicly what they've done with climate change. In December 2020 Parliament declared a "climate emergency", finally acknowledging the urgency of the crisis. But efforts to actually act to reduce emissions have been undermined by the usual bureaucratic penny-pinching:

Efforts to rein in the over-subsidising of large industrial polluters and a law that would enable a managed retreat from flood-prone coastlines were delayed because funding for them wasn't received in Budget 2021.

These were just two of several parts of the climate change work programme delayed or scaled down as a result of the failed Budget bid, according to a June Cabinet paper from Climate Change Minister James Shaw.


Shaw had sought $23 million in funding for MfE but had only received the bare minimum of $6.45m to keep the lights on and existing programmes going. The decision left "an $11.2m shortfall for what is needed to deliver the climate change work programme in 2021/22 that was agreed by Cabinet, and signalled for decision within the coming financial year".

Like most austerity, this shortsighted penny-pinching costs more than it saves. The total cost of the work programme is $11.2 million. Using the government's social cost of carbon of $150/ton, that's about 75,000 tons. Or less than 2% of the total industrial free allocation. Reining in existing over-subsidisation would save more than that, so by delaying it Robertson's tight fistedness is actually costing us money. But as usual, Treasury only looks at the costs of action, rather than the benefits.

Importing covid by the planeload

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just announced plans to phase out MIQ from the end of the month, allowing vaccinated kiwis and eventually tourists to self-isolate instead. Which no doubt sounds good to business, but sitting here in a (currently) low-covid country, it sounds like a recipe to import covid by the planeload.

MIQ has been our primary defence against the virus. And it has been remarkably effective, stopping over 2000 cases. All of the lockdowns and consequent pain and suffering we've had over the past two years have been due to a handful of leaks. We have MIQ because we learned the hard way in the early stages of the pandemic that "self-isolation" doesn't work: lax rules and rule-breaking mean that 20% - 30% of cases leak. At current rates that's nearly 50 cases a day at the border, and ten leaks into the community which will need to be found, traced, and stamped out. If international air traffic goes up tenfold - a conservative assumption given its dropped by a factor of 40 since the pandemic began - then we're looking at nearly 500 cases a day in isolation, spawning a hundred new untracked community outbreaks every day. For context, the latter is about what we're getting now from community transmission, a number which is already causing "economic carnage" as people sensibly refuse to engage in unnecessary interactions.

The Omicron wave is probably coming, and if we're getting thousands cases a day of community transmission, then an extra hundred (plus all the people they infect) is probably neither here nor there. But if we want that case-load to go down and people to stop dying, we can't keep feeding new cases into the system. The government's plan is the opposite: to keep feeding the local pandemic, so that it never goes away. Which is quite a change from the 2020 approach of "keep everybody safe".

What about vaccines and boosters? Well, they'll help, but as we saw in the September wave, and as we're seeing now, they were always a second line of defence. MIQ was always our biggest shield, our thickest, least holey slice of cheese. And the government is just going to throw it away to satisfy a sociopathic business community that doesn't care about our lives. Having recognised that capitalism is incompatible with public health, they've decided to ditch the latter. And we'll pay the price for that decision in corpses.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Labour throws the poor under the bus

The government has announced the details of its new unemployment insurance scheme: 80% income protection for six months for people who lose jobs through redundancy or illness, funded by kiwisaver-style contributions. It seems great for people with permanent, high-paying jobs, and its the sort of system used in Scandinavia - the place we should be using as a model. But the Scandinavians couple unemployment insurance with generous welfare schemes to protect everyone. Whereas what Labour is proposing is a two-tier system, generous for the rich and the middle classes, and outright brutal for the plebs in poorly-paying jobs or on short-term contracts, who will pay and pay and never see anything. The effect will be to insulate the middle classes from the horror of the existing welfare system, so that they never have to contemplate dealing with WINZ, undermining social solidarity and further marginalising those already at the bottom. Which is... not what I expect from a "centre-left" party supposedly driven by "kindness" and which relies on the votes of poor and precarious workers to gain power. Indeed, its exactly the sort of system you can imagine National proposing...

I'm sure its a very good system for what it does, and if it was a full Scandinavian model I'd feel differently about it. As it stands, it looks like Labour is misprioritising its policy resources and political capital towards the rich, rather than those in need. And its all the worse when you remember that they have recommendations from the welfare expert advisory group to make the system more generous which they have steadfastly refused to implement.

We're a wealthy country. We can afford to ensure that everyone is taken care of, that everyone has a roof over their head, enough food, and basic dignity. Once the Labour Party stood for that. Now they've thrown the poor under the bus in favour of middle-class homeowners. And their voters should show them the door for it at the next election.

30,000 employed under Labour

The quarterly labour market statistics were released this morning, showing that unemployment had dropped to 3.2% - the lowest since records began. There are now 93,000 unemployed, 30,000 fewer than when Labour took office.

This is an impressive feat for a government in the middle of a pandemic, but the expectation is that its going to go even lower. Business will squeal even louder at that - they're already having trouble getting people to take shit jobs, and facing pressure to raise wages from their existing workers. And if it goes on they're going to face real pressure to invest to raise productivity rather than just relying on adding more cheap labour. But it'll be good for ordinary kiwis for once.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Public radicalisation vs political self-interest

We are in the middle of a housing crisis. The average asking price for a house in Aotearoa is now more than a million dollars, effectively locking anyone without inherited wealth out of home ownership. Unsurprisingly, kiwis aren't happy about this: three quarters of us want house prices to fall, with half of us wanting them to fall by "a lot". Which is understandable: its the only way people have any hope of getting the landlord's boot off their neck.

This inequality-driven radicalisation should be an opportunity for an ostensibly "centre-left" government. But they're not exactly falling over themselves to respond. Instead, we've just got the usual Labour scam of "pretend they're fixing it" (they're not, and not fast enough). As for the explicit question of prices, the Prime Minister spent a year pushing for "sustained moderation" (continued increases) to protect the asset values of the rich. She's now abandoned that now explicitly supports a decrease - but only a small one; she still opposes a collapse. And of course she continues to oppose land, wealth, or capital gains taxes. At which stage its worth pointing out that she owns a house worth $2.7 million, and which has increased in value by almost a million dollars since she bought it three years ago. And she's hardly alone: our elected representatives own an average of two houses each, and have racked up more than $50 million in capital gains in the last year - an average of $400,000 each. The foot-dragging and opposition of politicians in response to this crisis looks a lot like them protecting their own wealth, rather than acting in the public interest or the interests of their voters.

The problem for the government, and the political class as a whole, is that such naked self-interest has a corrosive effect on their legitimacy, and the legitimacy of our political system as a whole. But it seems that they'd rather burn the house down than give up any of their ill-gotten capital gains.