Saturday, April 30, 2022



Gutting the OIA

Stuff's Henry Cooke reports that the government is planning a significant increase in proactive release of official information, with plans to proactively release almost all advice to ministers. Which is an idea I love, and want to happen, but at the same time fear, because under this government it is likely to lead to increased secrecy rather than greater transparency.

How? Because currently the OIA allows a request for official information to be refused if "the information requested is or will soon be publicly available" [emphasis added]. At the time of its enactment in the early 1980's this was justified on the basis of similar laws, notably Canada's Access to Information Act, and the first part seems completely justifiable. As for the second, the Danks Committee justified it as "a protection against requests for the content of a speech not yet delivered or a press release not yet made". Which seems reasonable, when the speech is being given tomorrow or even next week and in an environment where there is very limited proactive release. But it works very badly where proactive release is common.

How? Here's an example: last year Climate Change Minister James Shaw gave me one of the most egregious "fuck you" responses to an OIA request I have ever seen, withholding both documents and their titles on the basis that both would "soon" be publicly released. The underlying justification for this refusal was the government's proactive release policy: climate change advice is usually proactively released on MfE's website. The problem, is that that release is neither timely not certain; release requires explicit Ministerial approval, which seems to take months, and some documents don't show up at all or take years. In this case, they did eventually show up after a few months - by which time they were less topical and useful to public debate.

And that is the core issue: the point of freedom of information law is to give the public information when we want to know it, not when the government decides we should know it. Absent amendments to section 18(d), or a clearer message from the Ombudsman that they will enforce their current advice that it should not undermine the purposes of the Act, what this change is likely to result in is a complete reversal of that principle, and a return the the pre-OIA practice of the government doling out what it wants us to know, when it wants us to know it. That would be substantially worse than the status quo. And if that's going to be the case, we should reject this "reform" and tell the government to give us real, requester-driven transparency instead.

Friday, April 29, 2022



Climate Change: Farmers versus trees

Farmers have been whining for years about carbon forestry, and now they seem to have got their way, with the government proposing to ban permanent pine forests from the ETS. Which is a mistake on multiple levels. The one the government may care about is that it will cost us $64 billion - $870 per household per year. Which is the cost of covering the emissions those trees would otherwise soak up on the international market. But its also a mistake because it doesn't address the political problem it is meant to solve, and its not a problem the government should be trying to solve anyway.

To put the last point first: farmers say they're opposed to carbon forestry because of the "destruction of rural communities": pine means fewer jobs, means fewer people, which small rural towns dry up and wither away. But the fundamental driver of this process is that traditional farming is a less profitable land use than simply planting trees and walking away. And this is the case at much lower carbon prices than we have now.

Farmers solution to this problem is their usual one: get the government to step in and protect them, allowing them to continue their unprofitable, inefficient, polluting lifestyle. And when put nakedly like that, you can see how backwards and immoral it is - effectively a return to Muldoon-era protectionism, albeit via regulation rather than financial subsidies. And it has very real costs to Aotearoa. Apart from the higher emissions, the value of the carbon in trees is worth significantly more than the rural economic activity it displaces. So protecting farms leaves us worse off than if we let the market take its course.

So, the complaint of farmers is fundamentally illegitimate, a demand that one of the richest and dirtiest industries in the country be protected by banning their competition, making us worse off in the process. But banning pine doesn't solve the problem. Why? Because the fundamental problem here is that a certain type of farming is uncompetitive against carbon. And you can get carbon from native trees too. It's less efficient - 25 year old native forest has 215 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare, versus 435 to 722 (depending on the region) for pine - but that just changes the carbon price required to break even. And the upshot is that if it pine was more profitable than farming a few years ago when carbon was $25/ton, then in much of the country native trees are already more profitable, and in the rest they will be very shortly (and if the government updates the carbon tables to reflect new data, the difference will disappear).

Farmers say they're fine with native trees. But you can bet if large companies start buying farms to plant them, they'll be whining just as loudly as they are now, and for exactly the same reason: because the world has changed and they are no longer competitive. And fundamentally, I just don't think that's something we should protect them from.

Finally, some people, including the Climate Change Commission, have expressed concerns about the risk of planting "too many" trees, and not cutting emissions fast enough as a result. I think this is misplaced. Obviously, we need to cut emissions as fast as possible, and its good to see the ETS finally paying off on that front, and government policy beginning to bend the curve in other areas. But at this stage of the crisis, we need to do all the things, and not waste time worrying about what is "optimal" or "perfect" or "most efficient". And that means soaking up carbon as well as cutting emissions. Beyond that, when we have decarbonised, we're still going to need to draw down the carbon we have already emitted. And the best way of doing that, the way which doesn't rely on imaginary magic technology and wishful thinking, is trees. we've all heard the saying about the best time to plant a tree being twenty years ago. Well, looking forward, we're going to need some trees in twenty years. So we should really be planting them now.

Thursday, April 28, 2022



Unlawful secrecy in Rotorua

RNZ has a story today about fireworks at today's Rotorua lakes Council meeting, where a motion to move into confidential session over the controversial Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill caused a councillor to resign. The actual events can be viewed on the council livestream here (from 4:15 to 8:15). RNZ's focus is on the resignation, but meanwhile, something has been missed. Let's look at the report of that secrecy motion:

At a full council meeting today, Chadwick moved to include a discussion about the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill into a confidential section of the meeting.

She said it was to "enable us all as council, together, to have a free and frank discussion in response to the attorney general's request for further information needed to develop policy work".

The problem: "free and frank discussion" is not a lawful reason to exclude the public from a local authority meeting. In fact, it is specifically excluded by s48(1)(a)(i) of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (s7(2)(f)(i) is the LGOIMA's "free and frank" withholding ground).

The mayor should know this. The councillors should know it. The council staff responsible for running the meeting should know it. The fact that none of them did, or saw fit to mention it raises serious doubts about the competence of the council, and their knowledge of the laws they operate under. Its also concerning that RNZ's local democracy reporter failed to pick up on this, since you'd expect them to be familiar with LGOIMA. But I guess "councillor resigns" was a bigger story than "mayor illegally seeks secrecy and unaccountability".

Tuesday, April 26, 2022



Two elections

There were two elections over the weekend. In France, neo-liberal Emmanuel Macron managed to defeat neo-fascist Marine Le Pen, which should be a relief to everyone (especially given what a le Pen victory would have meant for Ukraine). But its hardly a particularly inspiring choice, effectively just a question of which flavour of racist you prefer, and the fact it was the second such contest raises questions about how long people will be willing to keep voting for the lesser of two evils rather than just stay at home. France's multi-round system is to blame here, and replacing it with a simple one-round preferential vote seems like it would help voters avoid disgust-fatigue.

But it was a happier story in Solvenia, where incumbent prime Minister Janez Janša, who was explicitly modelling himself on Trump and Orbán seems to have lost to green-liberal Robert Golob. Golob's Freedom Movement wants to close coal mines and other major polluters and protect social services, which sounds pretty good. Slovenia's Social Democrats have already announced they will support Golob as Prime Minister, so it looks like they're going to get a green-centre-left government.

Underwhelming

Aotearoa has an inequality problem. The top 1% own 20% of the wealth, and nearly half our total wealth is owned by the top 5% (and as that paper notes, it likely understates the problem, as wealthy individuals are poorly captured by the Household Economic Survey on which it is based). This creates all the usual problems of inequality - crime, poor health and education, loss of social trust - and is fast turning us into a society of peasants and landlords.

So what's Labour going to do about it? Introduce more progressive taxes, on high incomes, capital gains, land, or wealth? Of course not! Instead, we're getting another meaningless statement of principles:

Revenue Minister David Parker will introduce a bill which would set out principles of fairness in the tax system.

Speaking at the Victoria University in Wellington, Parker said authorities had “virtually no idea what rate of tax is paid by the very wealthy”.

[...]

The new bill, to be called the Tax Principles Act, was part of Parker’s work over the past few years looking into the wealth levels of the richest New Zealanders and how much tax they pay.

He said the research would inform future tax policy advice and development.

Which is rather underwhelming. And its not as if we don't know what the problem is - obscene wealth - or are short of solutions. Instead, as with climate change, it just looks like Labour is foot-dragging and engaging in predatory delay to avoid having to do anything. The charitable explanation for this is that they're afraid of offending the rich (which seems odd for a "centre-left" party). The less charitable one is to point out that many of them are rich themselves, and so part of the problem and inherently conflicted on any issue which might affect their wealth. Whatever the answer is, it would be nice to have a government which actually tried to do something about the problem, rather than endlessly making excuses.

Friday, April 22, 2022



A conviction for hate speech

The Herald reports that a man who recoded a violent rant calling for genocide of Māori has been convicted for hate speech:

Richard Jacobs, 44, filmed a video from his Pāpāmoa home in May last year where he called for the killing of Māori. The video was uploaded to YouTube.

In the video Jacobs spouted a diatribe of attacks against tangata whenua, labelling the race "overweight and unhealthy".

[...]

He then became markedly more violent, saying the Māori population "could be wiped out within a month". He threatened to burn down marae, said he knew how to kill and aimed a gun at the camera.

He was later charged with inciting racial disharmony - a rarely prosecuted offence under the Human Rights Act. He was also charged with knowingly making an objectionable publication.

He pleaded guilty to both charges.

The BORA's affirmation of the right to freedom of expression means that it is phenomenally difficult to prosecute for inciting racial disharmony, and this is only the second-ever case. But the penalty for that is only three months, so the bulk of his sentence (12 months' home detention and 300 hours of community work) was due to knowingly making an objectionable publication. Which I guess shows the opponents of a specific hate speech law the existing alternative: rather than risking three months in jail, they can risk 14 years, and be tainted by an offence normally reserved for child pornographers.

(In practice, the courts are highly unlikely to give 14 years for making a publication which is objectionable due to hate speech, as its considered less harmful than other types of objectionable material. But the maximum sets the scale of sentence, and in this case the offender was looking at two years as a default, which was then scaled down and turned into home detention by the guilty plea, mental health issues, and potential for rehabilitation. And contrary to Te Pati Māori's Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, that sentence isn't "a joke". Home detention is a real punishment, and a full year of it will not be easy).

Of course, publications are not the only vehicle for harm, which is why the Human Rights Act offence covers public speeches. Any broader hate speech law would need to cover them too. But given usual methods of distribution the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 might actually be good enough to deal with this problem.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022



Reported back

The Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee has reported back on the Digital Identity Services Trust Framework Bill. The bill is one of those boring administrative ones, establishing a regulatory framework for providers of "digital identity services" - people who validate your identity online. Which normally isn't the sort of thing anyone outside that industry would bother with, except for two things: as originally drafted, the bill included a (weak) secrecy clause, and it included a very expansive immunity from legal liability. The good news is that the first is gone entirely, the committee having agreed that it was unnecessary, while the latter has had its biggest hole plugged, by ensuring that providers are still liable for breaches of the Privacy Act.

But problems remain. While leaking private information is the most likely harm caused by digital identity services, there are other harms as well. James Ting-Edwards gives some examples near the end of this article, and of course extending immunity to cover interactions and communications with users as well as the actual provision of the service means it also covers straight-up discrimination and racism by the provider, both of which would normally attract liability under the Human Rights Act. The exemption only covers "good faith" actions, and arguably racism and discrimination can never be in good faith, but it would be safer to make that explicit by stating that the Human Rights Act still applied. And hopefully the government can be convinced to fix this at the committee stage.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022



Monstrous and illegal

In September 2021 Ahamed Samsudeen was killed by police after stabbing eight people in an Auckland supermarket. Samsudeen was a former refugee who seems to have been turned into a terrorist by the SIS and police (at the least you can say that their treatment of him did not help the situation, and it seems to have made it considerably worse). After an attempt to prosecute him for terrorism collapsed in the face of the inconvenient fact that he hadn't actually broken the law yet, the government tried to deport him, but were barred from doing so by international human rights law. But now the government has a "solution" for this "problem": simply ignore that law:

The government is looking into whether it will change the law to make it possible to send would-be terrorists, or refugees who have been serious offenders, back to their home countries.

[...]

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the government is talking to other countries about how they deal with deporting protected people - those who face the risk of persecution in their home countries.

"We're currently in a phase where we are asking some experts for some feedback to the proposals. Some of that includes talking to other countries about the regimes that they have in place to relocate people. It's not as easy as it sounds and obviously, that was one of the sticking points with the individual involved.

"So we haven't come to a final position yet. But we have, I guess - in comparison to where we were in September last year, we've advanced a lot of the policy discussions."

The most obvious problem with this is that it is blatantly illegal under international and New Zealand law. While the Refugee Convention allows people granted refugee status to be deported back to persecution when they have been convicted of a "particularly serious crime" and so constitute a "danger to the community", or where there are reasonable grounds for regarding them as a "danger to the security of the country", they are still protected by the the Convention Against Torture and the ICCPR, which forbid deportation to torture and death. Those protections are recognised in sections 130 and 131 of the Immigration Act, and beyond that by the affirmation of the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel treatment. While the former can easily be changed, the BORA rights are considered non-derogable by the courts (reflecting international law on the issue), so if the government wanted any change to stick, it would have to either directly amend the BORA, or write a nakedly explicit "fuck the BORA" clause into the Immigration Act. Both are obviously constitutionally improper. And even then, it would just move the problem from New Zealand courts to the United Nations (either the Human Rights Committee or the Committee Against Torture, depending). So, this isn't actually a "problem" they can solve, unless they want to turn us into an outlaw regime like Australia which pisses on international human rights law.

Secondly, what is the "problem" they are trying to solve? Looking at their chosen example, its not "people who have been convicted of crimes", but people who haven't been convicted, people who haven't actually committed crimes at all. Which gets us into issues of punishment without trial, which again is simply not the sort of thing countries which respect human rights do. Aotearoa likes to think of itself as one of those countries, and Labour likes to think of itself as a party which supports that. But clearly the current government haven't got the memo, because faced with some legally inconvenient people, their "solution" is simply to get rid of them, and bugger legal process or human rights protections. Which is the sort of mindset you'd expect from someone like Putin, not a New Zealand politician.

What the government is proposing is simply monstrous and illegal. It should not proceed. But beyond that, it exposes a sickness at the heart of government, a mindset of convenience and expediency and a disregard for fundamental human rights. A government infected by such a sickness should not be allowed to continue. Instead, it should be removed from office at the next election.

Thursday, April 14, 2022



More police corruption

The Independent Police Conduct authority has a report out today on an incident of corruption in the Police. The Stuff version of the story focuses on the inciting incident: a constable stole $50 which was handed in as lost property. But it glosses over the real story: that the police's own internal watchdog covered for them:

Public counter staff were not comfortable with the actions of the constable and took the matter to the local office of Police Professional Conduct. The manager of this office, Officer C, took ownership of the case.

It transpired that Officer C did not record or deal with the complaint. There was no formal or informal investigation, and no notification through to management.

As the IPCA says, "We cannot establish a rationale as to why Officer C failed to undertake those actions." Meanwhile, everyone outside of the IPCA can see the obvious one: to cover for their fellow officer. In this case, it was over a minor theft. But we saw exactly this attitude on display in the police rape scandal, and it seems that it is endemic. Which is why the police can't be trusted to police their own, and why the IPCA needs not only the resourcing, but also the powers, to not only investigate crime by police, but also to ensure it is properly punished.

The good news is that neither officer is with the police any longer. And good riddance to both of them. Hopefully they won't be getting a reference.

Member's morning

Today is a special member's morning, to deal with member's bills ahead of next month's budget. First up is the committee stage of Ricardo Menéndez March's Human Rights (Disability Assist Dogs Non-Discrimination) Amendment Bill, which will be followed by the committee stage of Nicola Willis' Unit Titles (Strengthening Body Corporate Governance and Other Matters) Amendment Bill and the committee stage of Tangi Utikere's Local Government (Pecuniary Interests Register) Amendment Bill. If the House moves quickly, it will then continue with Simeon Brown's Public Finance (Prohibition on Providing Public Funds to Gangs) Amendment Bill. There are plenty of bills on the Order Paper, so there won't be a ballot.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022



So what are they buying then?

Recently the National Party raked in $1.8 million in donations from corrupt richlisters. But don't worry, says Chris Luxon - they won't be getting anything for their money:

National Party leader Christopher Luxon says the rich-listers who donated $1.8 million to the party in recent weeks do not get access to him from their cash.

[...]

Asked if donating a large amount of money meant that Luxon would “pick up the phone” if a donor rang, Luxon said it wouldn’t.

“No no no. And that’s why I don’t talk money and donations with anyone. I know some of those people on that list. Many of them actually I don’t know. But the point is, you know, that’s for Paula [Bennett] to deal with in her fundraising capacity.”

Luxon rejected the idea that the donors would have any influence on National Party policy.

So what are they getting then? Because rich people don't give that amount of money without getting something in exchange, a return on their investment. And Luxon denying that just makes us think that he thinks that we are all fools.

This is why we need to get big money out of politics: because not only is it an avenue for corruption - its mere presence undermines public faith in the entire system. And that's simply not something we should tolerate.

More solar

Newsroom reports that Nova Energy is planning Aotearoa's biggest solar farm, and its truly massive:

A 400 megawatt solar farm planned for the Taupō region could produce 190 times more electricity than New Zealand's current largest grid-connected solar facility, Newsroom can reveal.

Nova Energy, owned by the Todd Corporation, has applied for two resource consents from Taupō District Council to construct the project in three stages over six or seven years. When completed, it will involve more than 750,000 individual solar panels and could power 100,000 homes – more than one in every 20 houses across New Zealand.

To put that in context, 400MW is the size of a standard gas power station (like Stratford, or Huntly 5), and just under the size of the Clyde Dam. So its a massive chunk of generation which will make a real difference. But it gets better, because there's mention of another 300MW farm in the South Island buried in the article. And just like that, the entire pipeline of solar projects has doubled.

This is obviously great news for emissions. While solar only generates during the day, every GWh it generates is one that won't be generated by coal or gas. Which means it will help push dirty fossil generation out of the market, and push it further into the cold winter peak load and backup roles. Daytime summer load will also allow more water to be held in the dams, rather than used to generate power, which will help smooth our seasonality. And since they can be built quickly, we'll start seeing the benefits in a year or two.

This isn't normal

There were 9,495 new covid cases today, and another 15 deaths. So naturally, the government is lowering the alert level to Orange (which is basicly the old Green).

The idea here is to return to "normal" to keep business happy. But 9,400 cases and 15 deaths a day isn't "normal". In fact, its exactly the sort of not normal we locked down last year to avoid. Its a slow-motion disaster which threatens the health and safety of everybody in Aotearoa. And our government is now just letting it happen, and throwing us under the bus so their business cronies can make money (which is probably why their polling has fallen off a cliff...)

Well, fuck that. If the government wants me to behave normally, they can actually make things normal. Which means no covid, no covid deaths, and not feeling like I'm gambling with my life and health every time I get within 2 metres of another human being. And if they're not going to do that, I'm going to stay home, not spend money, and fuck what that does to their precious "economy".

Tuesday, April 12, 2022



Incoherent CEO noises

Chris Luxon is a climate change denier. He opposes every government policy which might reduce emissions. This morning, he proposed cutting public transport spending, without having thought of the emissions effect. At the same time, he purports to think that the government is "too conservative" on climate change:

National Party leader Christopher Luxon this morning said a concrete plan was needed.

"We've all got more to do but ... what I would be doing is taking each of the categories of emissions and putting a proper concrete plan, working with the sector, working with the industries, to be able to hunt those down and to be able to close them down."

It was "possible" the government's approach was too conservative, he said.

This is pretty obviously just the usual CEO noises from Luxon, an attempt to portray him as Taking Charge and Doing Something. But as with his blurt about public transport, it again shows how little thinking he does on the topic. Luxon might be surprised to learn that we already have a statutory requirement for such a plan, and the first of them will be delivered in May, alongside this year's budget. At which stage, I expect him to oppose every concrete measure in it, while continuing to decry government "inaction", because that's just the sort of incoherent foot-dragging he does.

But maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at face value. If so, then I look forward to his support for rapidly shutting down Huntly, Glenbrook, and Motonui; for quickly killing the NZ fossil fuel industry and phasing out fossil-fuelled boilers and vehicles; for halving the polluting dairy herd; and of course for planting trees on unprofitable farmland and restoring our forests to soak up all the carbon we've emitted over the last two centuries. But if you really think Luxon supports that, supports what is necessary and achievable, then I have an airline to sell you.

Climate Change: The latest inventory

The annual inventory report [PDF] of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions has been released, showing that emissions fell by 2.7 million tons in 2020:

NZEmissions2020

Of course, there's an obvious reason for this: lockdown. So its not a permanent change. Still, 2.7 million tons not emitted is 2.7 million tons that aren't destroying the planet, and hopefully some of the habits we've built over lockdown (like working from home, or flying less) will lead to a positive shift in future.

The Parliamentary rubberstamp

The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has reported back on the NZ-UK free trade agreement, and as expected, rubberstamped the whole thing. But then, the executive deliberately puts them in a position where they have no alternative, otherwise New Zealand is "going back on its word". The question of whether they had any democratic legitimacy to make such promises in the first place meanwhile goes completely unexamined. And then they wonder why so many people are suspicious of secretly-negotiated "free trade agreements" and reflexively oppose them...

On the major issue of copyright term extension - an out-of-the-blue, unconsulted and so illegitimate change which violates our Bill of Rights Act - the rubberstamp noted the opposition to the change (virtually every submission which addressed the issue opposed it), but made no recommendations. They did however note that

the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade have agreed to provide advice on mitigating factors that may guard against the potential harm of the copyright extension term.
The most obvious means of "mitigation"? Not doing it in the first place. But since that apparently isn't an option, here's some suggestions on how to reduce the harm MFAT has inflicted on us, culled from the submissions:
  1. Take the full 15 years to implement the change, as allowed by the treaty;
  2. Make it apply only to works published after it comes into force, or to works by people born after it comes into force;
  3. Make it apply only by way of a work-specific extension / renewal process (so if your heirs don't renew at the end of your life + 50 term, the work falls into the public domain).

(In addition, I'd suggest using that 15-year period to work towards a new global copyright treaty to shorten terms to life + 25 years, making this shitty deal moot).

The deal will require legislation to implement, which the government has indicated it will introduce later this year (which suggests MBIE and MFAT don't have a lot of time to work, and their "mitigation" advice will be limited by that, especially if MFAT disrupts the process to protect its deal). This does mean that we will have a chance to submit on the changes, and the above may be useful suggestions for a submission. But we're still going to have the problem of the underlying dynamic of MFAT making promises without our permission or consent, and Parliament being unwilling to call them on it. Addressing that - and the issue of our undemocratic foreign policy in general - is going to need bigger changes, to empower the legislature over the executive and bind the latter to Parliament's will.

Monday, April 11, 2022



More support for Ukraine

Today the government announced additional backend support for Ukraine - a Hercules and logistics staff to move stuff around Europe so it can be transferred over the border, as well as a donation to their weapons fund, and further funding for UNHCHR and the ICC for war crimes investigations. Good. We're not a militaristic country, we don't have piles of weapons lying around to give, and we're at the bottom of the world, but this (along with all the sanctions we can pile on) seems like a useful way of helping. And we absolutely should help: Russia's invasion of Ukraine was utterly unjustifiable, and its ongoing war crimes unforgivable. Both are clear violations of international law, and utterly repugnant to most kiwis.

More Australian war crimes

Last week, Australia's ABC broke a major story about Australian SAS troops committing war crimes in Timor-Leste, murdering wounded people and brutalising their corpses. This week, they've got more, about an Australian-run torture centre:

During the widely celebrated peace-making mission in East Timor, Australian soldiers held 14 men and boys in a secret interrogation facility.

The detainees, suspected of being pro-Indonesian militia, say they were stripped, assaulted, deprived of food, water and sleep and forcibly shown the mangled bodies of two dead militiamen.

Their ordeal led to Australian military investigators recommending charges of torture.

Of course, the Australian military refused to prosecute its own. And of course, it refuses to say why. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering why Australia lets its soldiers violate Australian and international law, and whether the failure to prosecute in Timor allowed and encouraged Australian soldiers to commit further crimes in Afghanistan.

Friday, April 08, 2022



Pakistan's court defends democracy

Over the weekend there was a constitutional crisis in Pakistan. Dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Imran Khan had led to a confidence vote, with a major coalition partner defecting immediately beforehand. So, to avoid losing, Khan alleged he was the victim of a US plot to oust him, had his stooge deputy speaker prevent the vote, then purported to dissolve parliament and call new elections. But today, Pakistan's Supreme Court called bullshit on that:

Pakistan’s supreme court has dealt a devastating blow to the prime minister, Imran Khan, by ruling that he acted unconstitutionally in dissolving parliament prior to a confidence vote he was expected to lose, and ordering the vote to go ahead this weekend.

In the conclusion to a hearing that has gripped Pakistan for the past four days, the chief justice of Pakistan, Umar Ata Bandial, said Khan had violated the law in his attempt to stop the vote, which was widely expected to oust him.

The verdict said Khan was wrong to instruct the deputy speaker of the house, a close ally, to suspend the vote and wrong to ask the president to dissolve parliament on Sunday morning.

The bench of five judges ordered that a session of the national assembly be held on Saturday to allow for the confidence vote to go ahead. No member of the parliament will be restricted from voting.

And so the decision on who gets to be Prime Minister will be left where it belongs: with the national assembly. As it should have been all along. There are obvious parallels with Samoa's recent constitutional crisis (where the PM who had lost an election conspired to prevent parliament from meeting, then tried to call new elections in an effort to avoid being formally voted out), but as in that case, the judiciary stepped up to defend democracy.

Meanwhile, the only protection we have against this happening in New Zealand is convention, and the courts would be prevented from intervening by parliamentary privilege and a lack of written law around the confidence / dissolution process. While our convention is strong, it only works until it doesn't. Backing it with statute is something we ought to do one day, just to ensure our democracy can face any future challenge.

Thursday, April 07, 2022



A good week for workers rights

Its been a good week for workers rights in Aotearoa. Firstly, the Te Kāhui o Matariki Public Holiday Bill has become law. Secondly, the Fair Pay Agreements Bill passed its first reading and was sent to select committee. The first gives people an extra public holiday, which is always welcome. The second promises to improve pay and conditions across the board, through sector bargaining and the setting of minimum conditions.

Business is squealing, raising the terror of higher wages, meal breaks and overtime. All of which sound like a damn good thing! As Morgan Godfrey points out, employers have captured the value of virtually all productivity gains since the 1990's, and this bill restores the balance. Its about letting workers keep more of what they produce, rather than seeing all their surplus value stolen by their boss.

Supposedly these changes will force some businesses to go out of business. At least one economist thinks that's a good thing. According to Tony Alexander, businesses which can't afford to pay proper wages should fail, so that their employees can go work somewhere else which can:

"What we need in our country is a reallocation of people to higher-paying, higher profit jobs. That requires that the inefficient firms unable to pay decent wages to go out of business," Alexander said. "Enforced higher wage and non-wage costs are a way of doing that.

"It's called 'creative destructionism' and it lies at the very core of capitalism. We need more businesses to fail - not because of an economic downturn but because they don't produce a product or service valued enough by consumers to be able to pay high wages."

New Zealand employers have been coddled by NeoLiberal governments and subsidised by low wages and poor conditions for too long. The sooner that ends, and they are forced to stand on their own feet, the better.

The abuse of secrecy clauses

The Ombudsman has released a case note today on a request for polling data gathered by an IRD contractor. The contractor in question was Colmar Brunton, the polling data was highly controversial information on political leanings IRD had inappropriately asked the firm to collect. Someone - presumably Stuff? - had asked for the information under the OIA. IRD initially refused the request under its (old) secrecy clause. The Ombudsman's report focuses on a procedural problem - IRD had decided to refuse without ever viewing the information, in violation of the precedent set by Kelsey v Minister of Trade. Along the way, it also appears that they had ordered the contractor to delete the data when it became publicly controversial, in violation of the Public Records Act, right before the SSC announced an investigation, which looks a lot like trying to destroy evidence of wrongdoing (fortunately the data could be recovered, though it seems IRD initially tried to lie about that as well). Which all looks pretty dubious. But my real problem here, which wasn't addressed by the Ombudsman because it wasn't necessary to, was the use of the secrecy clause in the first place.

Section 81 of the Tax Administration Act (and its successor, section 18) existed for a specific purpose: to protect people's private information, and to protect the integrity of the tax system. Here, it has been used for another purpose: to cover IRD's political arse and prevent public criticism. It is a perfect example of how these clauses are abused, and why we need to repeal or significantly limit them (note that this is perfectly consistent with retaining criminal penalties for staff who abuse their positions and release such information without authorisation).

In this case, I would suggest repeal. The interests protected by the secrecy clause are already well-protected by the existing withholding grounds of the OIA (namely privacy, confidentiality / commercial sensitivity, the maintenance of the law, and potentially the rarely-used " substantial economic interests of New Zealand" clause). While many of those grounds are subject to a public interest test, the established public values around the privacy of people's tax information and the need for accurate disclosure would make that virtually insurmountable. As for the rest, if IRD thinks a particular disclosure would undermine the tax system, then they can argue that to the Ombudsman. Because it is clear from this example that they massively overestimate that risk and consistently conflate it with their own political interests and job security. And that is not something the law should enable.

Correction: The request was by Eric Crampton.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022



Member's Day

Today is a member's day. First up is a local bill, the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill, which is intended to bypass the requirements of the Local Electoral Act to allow a hybrid ward structure with Māori wards in Rotorua. The end result doesn't seem undemocratic - 30% of Rotorua's voters are on the Māori roll, and 30% of the seats would be in the Māori ward - and I expect the bill to be sent to select committee for examination.

After that, there's the last speech of the second reading of Nicola Willis' Unit Titles (Strengthening Body Corporate Governance and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, and the second readings of Ricardo Menéndez March's Human Rights (Disability Assist Dogs Non-Discrimination) Amendment Bill and Tāmati Coffey's's Local Government (Pecuniary Interests Register) Amendment Bill. If the House moves quickly, it might make a start on the first reading of Simeon Brown's racist fog-horn Public Finance (Prohibition on Providing Public Funds to Gangs) Amendment Bill. There's still plenty of first readings stacked up, so there won't be a ballot tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022



What is wrong with Labour?

On April 1, the government raised the minimum wage to $21.20. At the time, I thought it was an example of the progress you get under Labour. But there's a nasty twist:

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood wanted the Government to increase the minimum wage from $20 to $21.40, before Cabinet eventually worked him down to $21.20.

A Cabinet paper shows officials from MBIE recommended an increase to $21- a real-terms pay cut for roughly 160,600 minimum wage workers, as the increase would have been lower than the rate of inflation. Wood overruled this in his advice to Cabinet, and pushed for a larger increase.

Officials also presented Cabinet with a compromise option, which was to increase the minimum wage in line with the four-year average of annual increases under the current Government.

This would have seen the minimum wage increase to $21.25. Instead, Cabinet opted to undershoot that and landed on an increase of $21.20.

As the article makes clear, Wood stood up for Labour's professed values, pushing for a larger increase to drag wages up across the board, while encouraging employers to invest in increasing productivity (which in theory increases wages even further). The fact that the rest of his party rejected this in favour of something less than even MBIE's "Goldilocks option" casts real doubt on whether Labour subscribes to those values. Instead, they just seem to be pushing NeoLiberalism and protecting the rotten status quo, rather than supporting the people who vote for them.

Climate Change: More carbon neutral government

The government has introduced a whole-of-government direction to Crown Agents (agencies like ACC, Kāinga Ora, and Waka Kotahi) bringing them under the Carbon Neutral Government Programme. From December next year they'll be required to report on their emissions, set gross emissions reduction targets consistent with a 1.5 C pathway, and implement plans to reach them. Unlike central government agencies, there's no requirement to offset remaining emissions (hence why it is a gross target). But the requirement to include material scope 3 emissions will mean that Waka Kotahi will have to report on their emissions from roadbuilding.

Which sounds weak, but its a start, and the first step to reducing emissions is knowing how much you emit. It also obviously allows those targets to be tightened in future, and for offsetting requirements to be introduced. These will almost certainly be required to meet the net-zero 2050 target, so the quicker the state sector (and the rest of us) get used to it, the better.

Monday, April 04, 2022



Hungarian elections: Putin's man in Europe survives

Hungary went to the polls today in parliamentary elections, in which would-be dictator Viktor Orbán - Putin's man in Europe - was facing a unified opposition for the first time since taking power in 2010. Unfortunately, it didn't go well:

Viktor Orbán has won a fourth successive term as Hungary’s prime minister, capping a campaign dominated by his controversial stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a speech that appeared to mock Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian leader.

Ecstatic chants of “Viktor, Viktor” greeted Orbán as he addressed supporters of his Fidesz party outside its election headquarters on the banks of the Danube in Budapest as results made the scale of his victory apparent.

With nearly 86% of the vote counted on Sunday night, Fidesz was on course to increase its parliamentary majority by winning 135 seats in the 199-member parliament, crushing a six-party opposition bloc that united to form a common front aimed at unseating Orbán.

Instead, the ruling party has retained its two-thirds super majority, which has enabled it to reshape Hungarian politics and social policy during its 12 years in power.

Fidesz won just over 50% of the vote, but Hungary's unfair electoral system magnified that into a two-thirds majority. And this will further enable Hungary's slow transition from a democracy into an authoroitarian dictatorship. Orbán has already gone quite a way along that path (and went further, with pre-election amendments to electoral law to limit the ability of the opposition to contest elections), and unfortunately it looks like it will stay on that path. So now it will be up to the European Union to protect Hungarian democracy. On that front, there's already ongoing court action, and a cut in funding from the EU. And the war in Ukraine and resulting split between Poland (which is firmly anti-Russian) and Hungary has likely deprived Hungary of political cover in the EU council, potentially allowing further action.

Labour lied about banning offshore gas exploration

In 2018, the Labour-led government announced they were banning new offshore gas exploration. The ban was half-hearted at best, and immediately undermined by permit extensions and changes in conditions - a policy that has continued. But now they seem to have moved beyond sneaky extensions to explicitly voiding the ban, by allowing Greymouth Petroleum to conduct new offshore exploration without a permit:

When is a ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration, really a ban?

That's the question environmentalists are asking after discovering Greymouth Petroleum has been given permission to conduct a massive seismic survey off the coast of Taranaki - with the likelihood of more activity to come.

The crown minerals regulator has allowed Greymouth Petroleum to piggyback off an existing mining permit to survey an adjacent area of more than than 260 square kilometres.

And now they've allowed Greymouth Petroleum to do this, you can bet OMV and the rest will want to do the same.

This has been allowed under s42A of the Crown Minerals Act. Note that this is a discretionary power, and the Minister could simply refuse. The fact that she did not makes it perfectly clear where the responsibility lies. And the fact that this has happened repeatedly makes it clear that it is a conscious Labour policy to say one thing and do another. Labour is lying to us about fossil fuels, trying to preserve an industry whose continuation threatens all of us. They need to stop doing that, be honest, and end fossil fuels permanently.