Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Time to expand transparency

Since the unpleasant discovery that the government's health-sector centralisation has led to greater secrecy, there's been a lot of calls for greater transparency. Weirdly though these have been limited to the health sector, and primarily aimed at restoring the degree of transparency over health decision-making we had before. Which seems rather limited. So, I'd like to ask a provocative question: why shouldn't all government board meetings be open by default, rather than secret by default?

The discussion around Te Whatu Ora has reminded us of the benefits of openness, and we already have an established and well-tested model from local government and DHBs. This sets transparency as the baseline, while allowing secrecy where legitimate withholding grounds exist. The same arguments for using it for local government apply equally strongly (if not more so) to central government. So why not do it?

Largely, I think the government's answer is tradition. They've never done things that way, and see no reason to change. And of course central government business is so much more important than local government, so therefore naturally more secret. But on the first point, "tradition" is a bad reason to do anything - as we've seen in countless other policy areas, being traditional doesn't make something right, or a good idea. As for the second, bigger decisions which affect more people is actually an argument for more transparency, not less.

Democratic government is an act of constantly justifying your decisions to the public. Transparency by default makes that easier, not harder. It lets us see that decisions are well-grounded, that views have been taken into account, alternatives considered, and options tested. The need to withstand outside scrutiny is a good check on policy and helps catch mistakes. And this in turn increases public trust and the legitimacy of government decision-making. These are positive benefits, both for government and our democracy. And we should claim those benefits for central as well as local government, and expand their application as far as they can go.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Climate Change: Labour's policy of murder

Floods in Pakistan have killed more than a thousand people this week and displaced 50 million, and put a third of the country underwater. Locally, Nelson has been devastated by floods. Meanwhile, the latest ice-loss data from Greenland says we're looking at at least 27cm (and maybe as much as 78cm) of sea level rise by the end of the century from Greenland alone. And while this is going on, Labour has quietly extended a fossil fuel mining permit, increasing future greenhouse gas emissions for another 13 years.

The permit is number 38159 ("Surrey"), held by Greymouth Petroleum. It expired on April 4. But its owners applied for and were granted an extension until 2035. According to MBIE, the permit produced 65,000 barrels of oil in 2021 (which means about 32,500 tons of CO2). If that rate of production continues, then the government's decision has just allowed an extra 420,000 tons of CO2 to enter the atmosphere - all of which was completely avoidable. I wonder how those 50 million displaced Pakistanis feel about that? Or the people of Nelson?

But Surrey isn't the only permit. There are two more permits (53803 and 55491) which have also recently expired, and where the owners have also applied for extensions. And based on their current behaviour, it looks like Labour will grant them. Its clear from this that they have no intention of enforcing the Crown Minerals Act against polluters, and no intention of allowing even a gradual shutdown. Instead, they're going to protect the status quo, and let them keep polluting forever. And in the current situation, this is simply a policy of murder.

Monday, August 29, 2022

More labour "transparency"

Back in June, Labour passed the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Act 2022, restructuring and centralising the health system. One of the consequences of this? Reduced transparency:

The new national health organisation is being accused of secrecy and spin - and keeping too much behind closed doors.

Before Te Whatu Ora was created in July, the 20 district health boards it replaced held monthly meetings, with open agendas, that anyone could attend.

But Te Whatu Ora releases only a brief summary of its board meeting agendas - and no media or public are allowed in.

All the new bodies are subject to the OIA via the Ombudsmen Act, but the old open meeting provisions (based on LGOIMA) weren't replicated. Its easy to see how: DHBs evolved from local health boards, so the LGOIMA provisions were adapted. But central government doesn't think about that, and doesn't view opennness as a core responsibility (despite a clear requirement in the Public Service Act to do so). And the result is that we've lost opennness that we had before. Labour's centralisation has resulted in more secrecy (which sounds like a good reason to oppose it in general). Having board chair Rob Campbell saying he opposed transparency because he’s not interested in providing “occupational therapy for journalists” just makes it clear how contemptuous Labour is of the open government it promised, and how deeply ugly and undemocratic their attitudes to transparency are.

As for how to fix it, the Pae Ora Act could be amended to include the old open meeting provisions for this agency. Alternatively, a broader Open Government Meetings law could be drafted up, to apply those provisions to all Crown Entity and inter-departmental boards and other entities. People like Campbell would probably shit themselves in rage at that suggestion. And that in itself sounds like a very good reason to do it.

A failed state

People being told to drink sewage sounds like a headline from the early nineteenth century, before the public health revolution, or from a failed state, where it has collapsed. But its actually from modern England:

British people need to be “less squeamish” about drinking water derived from sewage, the boss of the Environment Agency has said.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Sir James Bevan outlined measures the government, water companies and ordinary people should be taking to avoid severe droughts.

He said: “Part of the solution will be to reprocess the water that results from sewage treatment and turn it back into drinking water – perfectly safe and healthy, but not something many people fancy.”

Bevan admitted the move would be “unpopular” and reactions on social media have been mixed but he said there was a need to “change how we think about water”.

The reason they're being told to do this is that decades of failed privatisation has seen a quarter of England's drinking water leak away, while privatised water companies dump untreated sewage into lakes, rivers, and the ocean. But rather than order the polluters to fix these entirely avoidable problems, the government is protecting their profits by telling people to just drink shit. Its a perfect example of how privatisation and deregulation erode the state, and ultimately lead to collapse.

Climate Change: Labour's hopeless helplessness

Writing in the Herald, government minister Megan Woods asks what are we going to do about climate change? I don't know - what could the number four-ranked Minister in Cabinet and holder of the housing, energy and resources, building and construction, and other key ministerial portfolios possibly do to deal with this problem?

Well, for a start, she could stop handing out oil and gas exploration permits, and draw up a plan for the rapid and orderly shutdown of the fossil fuel industry in Aotearoa, to stop making things worse. She could also draw up a plan for the rapid electrification and cleanup or shutdown of polluting industries, to kill industrial emissions at source. And she could provide government funding for a rapid expansion of wind and solar generation, to drive polluting gas and coal completely out of the energy market.

She could ensure that all newly built houses are zero-energy and whereever possible have inbuilt solar generation, further reducing electricity demand. And she could impose stricter requirements on commercial and industrial buildings, while requiring older buildings to be rapidly retrofitted and upgraded.

She could ensure that the agencies under her control support rather than consistently opposing climate change action (MBIE is one of the worst offenders here, and Woods could end that with a sharp word to its CEO).

Most importantly, she could use her position as a top Minister in Labour's Cabinet to constantly push for stronger action, rather than consistently dragging her feet.

But all that would be hard work, and worse, mean change, upsetting the status quo and established interests, who might kick up a stink at the thought of having to change what they're doing to avoid destroying the world. So I guess its just much easier for her to wring her hands and say "what are we going to do" and spout twaddle about "lifting the conversation" - rather than thinking about all the things she can do. Its a perfect example of Labour's learned helplessness - and a perfect example of why they're absolutely hopeless in the face of our biggest challenge.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Labour's stalled Crown Minerals Act review

On Wednesday, the High Court ruled that the Zero Carbon Act isn't worth shit and that the government can continue to approve new fossil fuel exploration without having to consider climate change. The core of the problem is the Crown Minerals Act, and in particular its purpose: "to promote prospecting for, exploration for, and mining of Crown owned minerals for the benefit of New Zealand". This taints every decision made under the Act, while the decision criteria for permit applications rule out considering climate change.

The Greens have responded to the ruling by calling for a review of the Act. The government actually began a review of the Act in 2018, which (among other things) explicitly considered the purpose clause. Submissions on that part closed in January 2020, and according to the summary of submissions 81% of submitters wanted that purpose amended to remove the word "promote" (11% opposed that; they were from the mining industry plus a few shills like the Buller District Council). And since then... crickets. The only thing to come out of the review has been the law to shift decommissioning costs back onto miners (where they belong) - and that seems to have been primarily driven by the Tamarind bankruptcy. As for those who submitted on the review (and I was one of them), congratulations - you wasted your time. Again.

There's an obvious parallel here with Labour's OIA review. In both cases, the government promised change, announced a review, then stalled and buried it. And in both cases, the motive is clearly to protect the status quo and avoid making the change they promised. But that dishonesty and bad faith has a cost in public trust. And when Aotearoa has a problem with conspiracy theorists and disinformation, that seems like something the government should be trying to avoid.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Climate Change: The courts fail again

Last year, two-faced Labour, having declared a climate change emergency, approved further gas exploration in Taranaki. The decision was challenged by Students for Climate Solutions, using the Zero Carbon Act's "permissive consideration" clause. The purpose of this clause was to make all levels of government consider climate change in decision-making. But according to the court, it isn't worth shit:

Justice Francis Cooke agreed that, at least under Te Tiriti, climate impacts “can become relevant”. But it would be unlawful to place substantive weight on climate change, he concluded. Because these issues are being addressed in other ways, Cooke dismissed the judicial review.


Cooke also dismissed the argument that a section within the Zero Carbon Act allows or compels a minister to consider Aotearoa’s climate goals when making decisions relating to other legislation.

It states: “If they think fit, a person or body may, in exercising or performing a public function, power, or duty conferred on that person or body by or under law, take into account: the 2050 target, or an emissions budget, or an emissions reduction plan.”

Cooke thought Parliament would need to “more precisely” edit the Crown Minerals Act itself.

That looks like a ripe target for an appeal, and maybe Students for Climate Solutions will go down that path. But its not guaranteed to be successful. And effectively, what the judge is telling us is that Labour failed us when they refused to change that "may" to a "must", and that we need to pass Eugenie Sage's Crown Minerals (Prohibition of Mining) Amendment Bill (or something very much like it) as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Mallard and crony appointments

Writing in Stuff, Luke Malpass defends Trevor Mallard's impending corrupt crony appointment as ambassador to Ireland, saying that he will make a good ambassador. And I agree, he might - but that's not the point. The problem with Mallard's appointment isn't whether or not he is suited to it, but the way in which it has been (or will be) done.

Being an ambassador for Aotearoa is a public role. It should therefore be appointed on merit, rather than as an act of political patronage. That's been the norm in the normal public service for over a hundred years, and its still the norm today, but ambassadorships have been partly exempt - largely due to a lingering legacy of English monarchy which saw them as the personal representatives of the monarch rather than of the state ("partly" because most are appointed on merit, which makes the politicians and cronies parachuted in to certain jobs all the more glaring). Malpass tries to justify this as follows:

There is of course the broader question of political appointments to plumb [sic] diplomatic postings. But it is a practice as old as time and practised by both parties as a way for rewarding old hands and ex-speakers.
In 1912 the system of handing our core public service jobs as patronage was also "a practice as old as time and practised by both parties". That didn't make it right. And the same reasons which justify appointment on merit in the regular public service apply just as strongly to diplomatic postings: in a modern, democratic state, we want the best person for the job, not the biggest crony. No government job should be a "spoil" to be dispensed as an act of political patronage.

If Mallard is as suitable as Malpass suggests, he would have nothing to fear from an open, competitive appointment process, and being appointed that way would add significantly to the legitimacy of the appointment (not to mention public trust in government). Conversely, denying him that process means he will forever be tarred as a crony, his ability questioned because of the manner of his appointment. It does both us and him a disservice.

As for Malpass, maybe a political journalist working for a media agency supposedly in service of the public good should be asking that "broader question", rather than simply seeking to justify public corruption.

Parliament's ugly, outdated protocols

Today Trevor Mallard resigned as Speaker, so he could go off to a corruptly-appointed diplomatic sinecure as a retirement package. Which meant Parliament today began with a humiliating "order" from the Governor-General to elect a replacement. It was entirely ceremonial and unnecessary; our House has its own processes around this, and does not need to be "ordered" by the unelected representative of a foreign monarch to follow them. It can (and should) just elect someone and tell the Governor-General to lump it.

But this is a powerful reminder that many of our political protocols and ceremonies were inherited from an age of absolute monarchy, when power and legitimacy flowed downwards from a monarch supposedly appointed by a god. In modern Aotearoa, we recognise the reality that they flow upwards from the people. And we should change those outdated protocols and ceremonies to reflect that reality, rather than the archiac views of early seventeenth-century England.

Failing the political hygiene test

Yesterday after having a show-trial outside Parliament, Bishop-Pope-Godking Brian Tamaki announced a new umbrella political party. Early members included the (christian theocrat) VisionNZ, and the (anti-democratic and white supremacist) New Nation Party, as well as the (anti-1080, antivax and "sovereign citizen") Outdoors & Freedom Party. Like Advance New Zealand, its basicly a coalition of conspiracy theorists, except with the added violence we saw at the parliament riot: a coalition of rioters. And this morning, National Party leader Christopher Luxon refused to rule out working with them:

National will not rule out working with the newly formed Freedoms NZ coalition party but its leader says he does not anticipate the party making it into Parliament.
Just to make it clear, these are people who want to overthrow our democracy and hang politicians. And Luxon is fine with that, or at least willing to accept it if it gets him the big office (maybe he thinks they won't hang him if he toadies enough?) Refusing to collaborate with political forces explicitly pursuing violence shouldn't be hard, and is a basic political hygiene test. But Luxon has failed even this low bar. He's a man with no morals whatsoever, and clearly unfit for any political office in Aotearoa.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Laughing at the Ombudsman

Back in June, the Ombudsman issued a formal opinion to Police criticising their consistent delay of OIA responses to allow Ministers to be informed under the "no surprises" policy. The Ombudsman found that this was unlawfully and unnecessarily delaying responses, and the police responded by stopping the practice. Which should be a success story: complaint made, practice improved, issue resolved. Except it isn't, because it turns out that having told the Ombudsman they'd stopped doing it, the police simply started delaying responses to please the Minister again:

Police told Stuff and Boshier that they had amended their practices and most requests were now notified to the minister at the same time as they are communicated to the requester.


However, information released to Stuff shows this is not the case. We requested the work logs for the last 50 requests to the agency (between June and August this year).

Just three were sent to the requester and Police Minister Chris Hipkins on the same day. There was a four-day gap in most instances (23), and a one-day delay in many others (12 requests). Six requests were stalled for three days, and four for two days.

In two instances, there was a five and six day hold-up.

And when we asked police, and the government, about the delays it appears they don’t agree with Boshier.

A spokesperson said: “In response to the Ombudsman’s advice, police initially changed its approach, but found that new approach inconsistent with the no surprises convention as more of the OIAs were considered as matters of significance to the Minister of Police than initially expected.

This is simply treating the Ombudsman and the law with contempt. The entire OIA enforcement regime is predicated on agencies following Ombudsman's recommendations (or, less formally, changing their practices so formal recommendations don't need to be made). Instead, we have an agency which just flat-out lies about what it is doing, and shows no shame about it. And we have a Minister who enables it, by making control-freak demands to be kept "informed" of (AKA to exercise an unlawful veto power over) every release, no matter how trivial. Together with today's story about the Ombudsman again telling Corrections that they can't video kids when they're in the shower - having made exactly the same "recommendation" to the same prison previously in 2016 and 2019 - it calls the entire chummy "good chap" model of oversight and enforcement into question.

So how can it be improved? Well, the Health and Safety at Work Act (and various other laws) let regulators accept "enforceable undertakings" to improve practice, which can later be enforced by a court. And the Privacy Act enables the Privacy Commissioner to issue formal compliance notices requiring specific remedial action where the Act has been breached, violation of which is a criminal offence. The primary reason the Ombudsman does not have these powers, in the OIA jurisdiction or any other, is that they are relatively recent innovations, and the Ombudsman's core legislation and mindset is from the 1970's and 1980's. It would not be especially difficult to splice them into the OIA or Ombudsmen Act, and it can be done without reopening cans of worms that we would rather keep closed. And in the face of consistent government non-compliance and outright contempt of its own oversight bodies, if the government refuses to do this, then someone should put up a private member's bill to do it.

KiwiBank's "new" ownership

This morning, the government announced that it was buying KiwiBank. From itself. Because two of its current government owners - ACC and the Cullen Fund - wanted to sell it to someone else. So they had to shuffle money from one part of the government balance sheet to another to dodge that bullet. But maybe it would have been better not to have had to dodge it in the first place, by not having government agencies which want to privatise and loot public property?

But there is an interesting question about the ownership model chosen. KiwiBank - via new corporate entity, Kiwi Group capital - will be a Schedule 4A company under the Public Finance Act. There are a bunch of these - Predator free 2050 and Green Investment Finance are ones you may have heard of - and its not an especially unusual form of government ownership. At the same time, there are at least two other models that could have been chosen: a Crown-Owned Company under the Crown Entities Act, or a standalone State Owned Enterprise. These each have slightly different obligations, and its no easier or harder to place things under one model than another (its all done with Orders in Council). So why choose one rather than the other? The major differences seem to be that while SOEs and Crocs must be fully government-owned, Schedule 4A companies only need majority ownership - making them easier to part-privatise, or pull National's scam of forcing other government entities to buy them, effectively raiding their dedicated funds for ready cash. SOE's are also subject to an obligation to be a successful business, meaning as profitable as non-government companies, and to "exhibit a sense of social responsibility" (all three however have good employer obligations, as you would expect, and all are subject to the OIA). SOE's are also subject to Treaty of Waitangi obligations, and to a special regime to enable the return of stolen land. It will be fascinating to see which of these differences the government thought was an advantage, and which a disadvantage, and why it chose the ownership model it did.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Labour and the "hat game"

Last night, soon-to-be-former Labour MP Gaurav Sharma made it clear that he wanted to be thrown out of the party. I don't actually care much about Labour's internal backbiting, but there was an interesting bit in his interview:

Another explosive claim from Dr Sharma is that he said the MP intake of 2020 were recently forced to attend a workshop ahead of election year where they were coached on how to handle information.

"One was obviously, shut up, don't talk about anything. Not about this, but anything. Don't say anything for which the Prime Minister has to stand up and do a media stand-up. But also, how not to get an OIA'd issue, so how to talk to somebody without having a track record of it so nobody could track it down the road."

Dr Sharma alleges staff in the Prime Minister's Office wear two employment hats and pick which one they're wearing when they receive information.

"They said the staffing arrangements are done in a way that some staff work part-time for Labour Leader's Office and part-time for Prime Minister's Office and when they want to prevent OIA, they just sort of make it that this is Labour Leader's problem, this is not the Prime Minister's office problem and then they can get away with it."

Combined with his earlier claim about advice from the PM's office to "not give anything in writing and do not expect anything in writing [as] Everything can be OIA’ed", its more evidence of Labour's ongoing information control-freakery and hostility to transparency. And people are already excavating to find the paper-trail on it.

The latter bit though is well known - the "hat game". And while its a problem, its also not as powerful as Labour seems to think it is. Why? Because the Ombudsman has ruled that information held by Ministers is official by default, and that overturning that presumption requires evidence that the information was received or held in a different capacity. So, if the Minister plays the hat game, complain. That way the Ombudsman will look at it, rather than the question just being left to a Minister's self-serving judgement.

(And obviously, if they try playing the hat game on their OIA workshops, then insofar as Ministers, parliamentary Undersecretaries and their staff are concerned, its a non-starter. Because keeping Ministerial records and handling OIA requests are explicitly Ministerial functions, so the information cannot be held in any capacity other than an official one...)

Thursday, August 18, 2022

NZDF, the OIA, and "national security"

Last month, peace activist Valerie Morse used FYI, the public OIA request system, to ask NZDF for information about the US "RIMPAC" exercise, including the rank of personnel seconded to a US ship for a command exercise. NZDF withheld the information under s6(a) of the Act "in order to avoid prejudice to the security or defence of New Zealand". Clearly, they regarded it as highly sensitive and dangerous information which would cause significant harm to New Zealand if it fell into the "wrong" hands. So sensitive and dangerous in fact that they then turned around and published it, as well as the names and photos of those staff, in their magazine Navy Today (p10). Which suggests strongly that there was never any prejudice to national security in the first place, and that this was just another example of NZDF's information control-freakery (as we saw so much of during the Operation Burnham inquiry).

Which is just another example of why you should always complain about "national security" refusals: because NZDF's decisions are clearly suspect and self-serving and need independent external review (in fact, this goes for every other reason they cite for refusal as well). The Ombudsman's review may be weak - like the courts, they tend to be overly deferential when the words "national security" are invoked - but it will in theory force NZDF to provide some specific justification, and might embarrass them into changing their practices slightly.

The best way of preventing such patterns of dubious decision-making becoming established would be for regular, random audits of past decisions. The Ombudsman can in theory do that already (except for police and Ministerial offices) using their existing Ombudsman Act inquiry powers. Weirdly, it does not seem to be part of the Ombudsman's irregular series of "practice reviews", which mostly look at policy rather than actual practice. Maybe that's something they should look at.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

"Economic stability"

Stuff reports that workers have had the biggest pay rise in more than 20 years. This should be great news - ordinary people are better off! But naturally, the Reserve Bank is there to ruin the party, hiking interest rates to throw people out of work. And they're pretty explicit about why:

"Production is being constrained by acute labour shortages, heightened by seasonal and Covid-19 related illnesses. In these circumstances, spending and investment continues to outstrip supply capacity, and wage pressures are heightened.
Yes, they have to tank the economy because ordinary people are making too much money. And then they wonder why people view the entire institution as scam to keep the rich rich and everyone else poor.

If the problem is too much money in the economy, the government could always tax it away, and do so in a way which reduces rather than exacerbates inequality. We could tax those windfall corporate profits, for example. Or just go all out and tax the rich properly. But apparently that's just not an option, so those least able to afford it get to carry the can so the rich can have "economic stability". Because it turns out that "economic stability" for the rich means instability and insecurity for everyone else.

Climate Change: Are the courts worth anything?

Activist Mike Smith has been in court for the last few days, as part of a case seeking to hold Fonterra, New Zealand Steel, and other large emitters accountable for the pollution they produce. Along the way, the case has raised serious questions about whether the courts are worth anything at all:

After Parliament failed to take effective action to cut emissions, the court is the public's last and best hope for protection, lawyers for green activist Mike Smith say.

Smith (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu) wants to convince the Supreme Court that his case against seven large fossil fuel users and suppliers deserves to proceed to a full hearing with expert evidence and witnesses.

But the polluters argue they have no relationship with Smith and no duty of care to him.

The full article expands on that last bit, but essentially the polluters are claiming that they have no obligations to the society they operate in, and no obligations not to harm us. Most of us would view that as being both monstrous and absurd. Still, its useful to have the polluters say it out loud, because it makes it clear what they think of us, and that they need to be regulated into less sociopathic views. As for the courts, the headline is right: if this case fails, then it is a failure of the law. If it is legal for a corporation to literally destroy human civilisation, then laws and courts are worthless.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Time to freeze rents

For the past few years Renters United has been calling for rent controls to stop gouging landlords. Now, that call has been taken up by the Human Rights Commission:

The Human Rights Commission/Te Kāhui Tika Tangata is calling for an immediate rent freeze and an increase to the accommodation supplement to give renters a reprieve during the cost-of-living crisis.

Too many New Zealanders are sacrificing their fundamental human rights to pay the rent, says chief commissioner Paul Hunt.

“We’re very concerned that some students, low-income or single-wage families are having to make trade-offs between the right to adequate food and the right to a decent home,” he said.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the government implemented a six-month freeze on rent increases to ease the pressure on renters. The commission is suggesting the government re-instate a temporary freeze.

This seems like a good idea. Currently the government is gradually building its way out of the housing shortage, and that's a long-term solution. But in the short-term, people are suffering as greedy Boomers gouge them for every cent they can, while rapacious property managers screw fees out of their captive market. Capping rents and controlling the rate at which they can increase will alleviate some of that suffering. Its what an actual left-wing government would do. The question is whether Labour is still interested in voters, or landlords.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Re-nationalising public transport

Back in 2013, the then-National government imposed the public transport operating model, requiring local authorities to contract out their bus services to the lowest bidder. Now, its being reversed:

The system that bus drivers and their union say has created the “race to the bottom” is on the out, Transport Minister Michael Wood announced on Monday.

A new “sustainable public transport framework” will replace the current policy and legislative framework for the planning, procurement, and delivery of bus and ferry public transport services, known as the “public transport operating model” (PTOM), which has been in place since 2013.

Good. The forced contracting-out under the PTOM has seen contractors lowball their bids, then try and screw a profit out of their workers by cutting pay and conditions. And the result has been regular industrial action and collapsing services because no-one wants to be a bus driver under those conditions. Not to mention councils and contractors blaming each other while the public wait in the rain for buses which do not come. Allowing councils to run their own services in-house should lead to better employment conditions and clear accountability for failure. But then, that's what the PTOM was intended to remove in the first place.

Absurd and offensive

RNZ had a piece this morning about Waka Kotahi's plans for smart speed cameras allowing things like point-to-point average speed tickets and so on. There are obvious privacy issues here, which waka Kotahi seems to have completely ignored, having signed a contract before they were even investigated, let alone addressed. But what actually caught my eye was that the information was that the information was obtained under the OIA, but

Waka Kotahi refuses to specify the total cost of the camera system and new tolling system, saying this was to protect "ministers, members of organisations, officers, and employees from improper pressure or harassment".
Which is a gross misuse of s9(2)(g)(ii). Why? Because that clause is basicly saying "we think the requester or someone they pass the information to is going to do something improper and illegal to one of our staff". According to the Ombudsman's guidelines, it requires the agency to identify a specific threat, to specific individuals, which will seriously interfere with them doing their jobs and be so likely and severe as to justify withholding. Basicly intimidation, death threats, and stabbing territory. These things sadly do happen, and where actual risks are identified, withholding is justified. But the claim that information about costs meets this threshold is as absurd as it is offensive (and that's even before we consider the public interest in accountability for the spending public money).

So what is Waka Kotahi actually worried about? Most likely criticism. But the Ombudsman is crystal clear that "ill considered or irritating criticism or unwanted publicity" does not meet the required threshold.

This is where transparency has descended to under "the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had": absurd, offensive, and blatantly unlawful decisions from a government agency which clearly does not care about the law, or fear the Ombudsman. As for who is responsible, the answer is Labour. They're the government, they set the tone on transparency for government agencies. And the tone they set is one of paranoia, secrecy, and compulsive arse-covering. There's a mention in Gaurav Sharma's facebook rant about the PM's chief of staff telling him "do not give anything in writing and do not expect anything in writing. Everything can be OIA’ed." Which is wrong - party communications are clearly not "official information" and not subject to the Act - but its an example of how the government views transparency at the highest levels. The fish rots from the head. And Labour is clearly rotten.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Asleep at the wheel

A couple of months ago, in response to a Newsroom piece about what endemic covid means for Aotearoa, I asked Treasury and the Ministry of Health what advice they'd produced on the impacts of "long covid" on the economy and health system. Treasury responded quickly, admitting that they hadn't been thinking about it at all. And on Wednesday, after months of being dicked around by what is rapidly becoming one of Aotearoa's least transparent agencies, I got the response from Ministry of Health. They actually did have documents to give me, which showed that they had agreed a clinical definition of long covid and established a technical advisory group. As for anything about impacts on the health system, nope, they haven't been thinking about it either.

Which is frankly scary. As of today we've had 1.66 million reported cases of covid. Estimate of the reporting rate vary, from a half to two thirds, but (accidentally due to today's number) that means that between a half and two thirds of the whole country have already had it so far. And then it gets scary, because Ministry of Health says anywhere between 10% and "approximately half" of those people will have ongoing symptoms six months later, and a recent study had nearly 45% of them meeting the criteria for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Even at the low end, that means we're looking at something like 2.5% of the country becoming permanently disabled by this pandemic. So far. That's the sort of thing which might just have an impact on future health system demand (not to mention employment levels, welfare spending, and the entire economy). And the agencies responsible for worrying about such things are ignoring them. The government is basicly asleep at the wheel.

It would be one thing if they were too busy trying to save us all from covid to worry about the long-term effects. But they're not. They've moved from "keep it out, stamp it out" to "let it in and let it rip", to making us "live with it" in the name of "protecting the economy". Well, the cost of that - in addition to over 1700 deaths (so far) - is a pile of human misery and long-term costs. Which they apparently haven't even done the most basic ballpark assessment on before inflicting upon us.

Heckuva job. Really builds confidence in the government's decisions, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Climate Change: Treasury's sabotage

Jon Kudelka - DinosaurAccountant
(Cartoon by Jon Kudelka)

There's a (paywalled) story on BusinessDesk about today's budget document drop - and in particular the climate change documents - about how Treasury resisted Ministerial demands for more spending on climate change, forcing cuts to a level deemed insufficient to meet the requirements of the Emissions Reduction Plan:

Ministers wanted spending that would bridge the gap in reductions needed to meet the first emissions budget. Ministers wanted quick action while Treasury asked them to “focus on the need to create the strong foundations for emissions reductions and removals over the medium and longer term, in addition to the short-term first emissions budget”.

Possible emissions reduction estimates were hard to be precise about, Treasury warned. There was also conflicting advice from the chief executives of the agencies with responsibility for climate change policy.

“The key differences between our draft package and the advice provided by Climate reflect our focus on the rationale for government spending, delivery risk and implementation readiness of initiatives, while Climate CEs’ advice focuses more on a package that is necessary and sufficient to deliver the ERP (emissions reduction plan), meet emissions budgets, and enable an equitable transition.”

Just to repeat that last bit: the climate chief executives recommended what was necessary to meet our emissions reduction targets, and Treasury cut it below that level essentially because they're ideologically committed to austerity. The implication is that the government will not achieve its promised level of reductions thanks to this Treasury sabotage. The comparison to the dinosaur accountant in the above cartoon should be obvious. Effectively, we have a key government agency acting as a quisling for the fossil fuel industry and betting on human extinction (or at the least, widespread immiseration). But hey, they kept taxes on the rich low...

Eugenie Sage's mining ban bill

A ballot for one member's bill was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Crown Minerals (Prohibition of Mining) Amendment Bill (Eugenie Sage)

The bill is pitched as protecting conservation land, and it does immediately do that. But it also goes further, doing exactly what it says on the label: prohibiting all new prospecting, exploration and mining permits, on conservation land or not, from 1 January 2025 (and new permits of any sort for coal immediately). It also requires existing permits to be surrendered immediately where protected wildlife is on the specified land.

There are a number of strands here (protecting schedule 4, protecting endangered species, banning new coal, banning all new mining), each of which could have been its own bill. And I think the "no new mining at all" provision is problematic, because it covers things like quarries, which actually seem necessary for a while longer. The other provisions though seem like a very good idea, and in the case of the coal ban, doesn't go far enough - to save the climate its not enough to ban new coal mines, but to shut down existing ones as well. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer's Prohibition on Seabed Mining Legislation Amendment Bill shows the method we need to adopt there, and has a number of useful provisions around extinguishing existing permits which could be stolen. The only question is the sunset date we choose, and how long we give the coal industry (and the industries dependent on it for energy) to manage an orderly shutdown and transition.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Another starving watchdog

WorkSafe is supposed to make sure that every Kiwi is safe at work. Except they can't any more, because they're not funded to do the job properly:

A lack of funding is forcing WorkSafe to reduce its focus on adventure activities, and it is unable to hold some companies that break health and safety laws to account.

The health and safety regulator has warned its minister it had made a "pragmatic decision" to focus more on the "high harm" forestry, transport, manufacturing and construction industries over "comparatively lower risk" adventure activities.

This was despite WorkSafe identifying "regulatory risks" in having other agencies doing safety compliance checks on its behalf - known as third-party accreditation regimes - including for adventure activity operators, WorkSafe Chair Ross Wilson warned Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood in October.

"These are the decisions that the Board must continue to take while there is a gap between expectations and resourcing," he wrote.

This is where Labour's commitment to austerity and keeping taxes on the rich low gets us: agencies unable to perform their core functions properly due to underfunding. And as for the consequences of that, it can be summed up in two words: Pike River. I don't think any single adventure tourism accident has hit that bodycount (the biggest single incident from a casual glance is the Carterton balloon crash, which killed eleven people), but there's a regular ongoing death and injury toll of skydivers, jetboaters, scenic flights, and river-boarders. The death toll is such that safety standards were tightened over a decade ago. And now they're no longer being effectively enforced, its only a matter of time and luck before we have another completely preventable mass-casualty incident. And I'm sure that thought will be highly attractive to foreign tourists considering coming here.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Party of bullies

Back in June Sam Uffindell was elected to parliament in the Tauranga by-election. Turns out he's a bully who beat a kid with a bed-leg at school:

The National Party’s newest MP, Sam Uffindell, was asked to leave his exclusive boarding school after viciously beating a younger student late at night.

Uffindell only offered the man an apology last year, 22 years after the attack, and nine months before he publicly announced his political aspirations.


The victim, who was 13-years-old at the time, was left with severe bruising and significant trauma.

Police were not involved. Instead, Uffindell was disciplined alongside three other teenagers who joined in on the beating, and asked to leave the school, Auckland’s King’s College.

Uffindell characterises this as "just being silly and playing up". Which is typical for bullies, and tells you everything you need to know about the man. The kicker is that the National Party knew this "and were grateful he had disclosed it to them", but they selected him anyway. They think someone who got together with a gang and beat a kid with a bed-leg is fit to be an MP. And then he gave his first speech about cracking down on crime...

Well, maybe we should. Beating someone with a bed leg is assault with [a] weapon. It has a penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment, which makes it a category 3 offence in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act. And since the penalty is more than 2 years, s25(2)(b) means that charges may be filed at any time. And from the Stuff report, it seems there's no shortage of witnesses. If National wants to have any credibility on crime, maybe it should start by expunging the criminals from its own ranks, rather than selecting and covering up for them...


The Justice Committee has called for submissions on the Electoral Amendment Bill. Submissions are due by Wednesday, 31 August 2022, and can be made at the link above.

The bill improves disclosure of party finances, lowering the declaration threshold to $5,000 and requiring parties to disclose their annual financial statements. But it would also grant greater secrecy to ultra-rich donors, by ending the immediate declaration of donations over $30,000. And of course amendments to it would be a perfect way of plugging the loophole exposed by the NZ First Foundation trial, which now allows parties to bypass the entire transparency regime and receive unlimited amounts of money in secret, provided they launder it through a trust.

In short, this is an important bill, and if we don't want the rich buying our politicians and controlling our elections, we should speak up on it.

Government-sponsored debt-slavery

Stuff this morning has an appalling story about the exploitation of RSE workers in Blenheim, with workers being overcharged for substandard accommodation, denied sick-leave, and held in what is effectively debt-slavery:

Migrant horticulture workers are being housed six men to a room, charged $150 a week to sleep in freezing and damp conditions which see them fall sick repeatedly, and then refused paid sick leave.

One worker living in a crowded motel unit in Blenheim became so unwell he was coughing blood, but his boss initially refused to take him to the doctor, telling him to go to The Warehouse and buy paracetamol instead.


Conditions are so bad, some of the workers say they are desperate to go home, but have been unable because they are in debt to their employers for flights, work clothing, or tools. Some have so many deductions from their pay each week, they end up with as little as $100.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo, who investigated this, is quite explicit in calling this as debt bondage, "where salary deductions are being used as a means to financially control workers". This is meant to be a crime in Aotearoa, but the way the RSE scheme is set up virtually guarantees it. Rather than being free to work for anyone, RSE workers are "bonded" to a particular employer, held captive to allow their exploitation. Effectively, we have a system of government-sponsored debt-slavery for the benefit of the horticultural industry.

We need to end this exploitative system. And the easiest way of doing it is to end bonding and give people real visas, so workers can move to non-exploitative employers. Of course, that would defeat the purpose - to provide the horticultural industry with cheap, captive labour to subsidise their profits. So I guess our chickenshit Labour government - supposedly a worker's party - will let this exploitation continue.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

In the past there's been a few interesting data points about the New Zealand Intelligence Community's desire to covertly manipulate public opinion through media and academic mouthpieces. In 2015 the Council for Civil Liberties revealed the existence of an NZIC "Strategic Communications Group" tasked with persuading the public that spying was necessary and that the spies could be trusted. And earlier this year, a briefing on data ethics - all about the need to build "social licence" for stuff the SIS wanted to do (or was already doing) with our data - talked about the SIS being provided with the contact details of "good external thinkers" who could be used to "amplify certain messages we would like to get out". Which again sounds like covert domestic political propaganda, rather than anything acceptable in a democracy.

Today we have another data point: someone used FYI - the public OIA request site - to request emails between the SIS and various media outlets, as well as "University of Waikato Law Professor Alexander Gillespie" (who has provided pro-SIS commentary in a number of media outlets). Today, the SIS finally responded. While they released (non-OIA-related) communications with journalists (which are as boring as you would expect), they refused to release anything about Professor Gillespie, and indeed refused to confirm or deny that such communications had taken place:

In respect of your request for emails between the NZSIS and Professor Alexander Gillespie, as provided for by section 10 of the OIA, I can neither confirm nor deny whether we hold this information. To do so would be likely to prejudice the interests protected by section 6(a) of the OIA, namely the security or defence of New Zealand.

You should not infer this to mean that we have any correspondence with Professor Gillespie. While correspondence between media and our organisation holds a public interest, this is not translated to private citizens.

Which is... interesting. If this was simply a matter of privacy (as suggested by the second paragraph), they would simply withhold under that clause. But hiding behind "national security" suggests something else. As noted above, Professor Gillespie has provided pro-SIS comment in a number of media outlets (for example. Or this). In the past, I've said that where the spies are confirmed, a refusal to confirm or deny is effectively an admission of guilt, and the same applies here. The allegation of covert propaganda is so damaging to the spies that they would deny it if they possibly could. The fact that they are conspicuously refusing to do so therefore tells us something, and something that is potentially very smelly indeed. In 1999 politicians and the public were outraged to find SOE Timberlands was covertly manipulating public opinion using lobbyists and PR companies. For the SIS to be doing so would be far, far worse.

Windfall tax now!

Inflation is through the roof, and "coincidentally" so is oil company profiteering. UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls it what it is: grotesque:

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has described the record profits of oil and gas companies as immoral and urged governments to introduce a windfall tax, using the money to help those in the most need.

Speaking in New York on Wednesday, Guterres said the “grotesque greed” of the fossil fuel companies and their financial backers had led to the combined profits of the largest energy companies in the first quarter of this year hitting almost $100bn (£82bn).

“It is immoral for oil and gas companies to be making record profits from this energy crisis on the backs of the poorest people and communities, at a massive cost to the climate,” he said.

“I urge all governments to tax these excessive profits, and use the funds to support the most vulnerable people through these difficult times.”

He's right, about both the problem and the solution. These companies are making mega-profits from destroying the planet. Those profits should be taken from them, redistributed, and used to reduce the harm they cause. Not only will this improve social justice, but it will also help reduce the incentive for such destructive behaviour in the first place.

So Labour, how about it? Do you stand with the people, or the oil companies? With the planet, or its killers?

Undoing Muldoon's crime

A little over 40 years ago, Falema'i Lesa won her appeal before the Privy Council, which ruled that she - and every other Samoan born under New Zealand colonial rule - was a New Zealand citizen. Then-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon didn't like that, so he had an urgent law passed stripping citizenship from all Samoans outside New Zealand. It has been called "New Zealand's most racist immigration law", and it is a permanent stain on our relations with Samoa.

And now the Greens are planning to fix it. Green MP Teanau Tuiono had a Restoring Citizenship Removed By Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982 Bill in the ballot this morning. The bill isn't online yet, so I'm not sure about the fiddly bits, but if it does what it says on the label and reverses Muldoon's racist law, then it will remove a stain from our history. The Greens have an open letter in support of the bill; you can sign it here.


A ballot for two member's bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Housing Infrastructure (GST-sharing) Bill (Brooke van Velden)
  • Prohibition on Seabed Mining Legislation Amendment Bill (Debbie Ngarewa-Packer)

Ngarewa-Packer's bill looks likely to start a shitfight with Labour, and not just because the latter seems to support seabed mining - the bill goes rather further than that, and would immediately end all offshore fossil fuel development as well. Which is something we need to be talking about and setting a concrete date for. Hopefully this bill will provide us with a vehicle to start that conversation.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Blowback on abortion

At the end of June, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, putting abortion rights in America under threat. The move was unpopular - abortion rights have had clear majority support for decades and only a tiny minority of religious bigots think it should be illegal in all circumstances - but Republican theocrats didn't care, and started enacting (or activating) abortion bans. One of these efforts was in Kansas, where Republicans ran a referendum to overturn a state supreme court ruling and remove abortion protection from the state constitution. Being Republicans, of course, they didn't want a fair vote - so they ran a physical vote parallel to the Republican Party primary (where Democrats and non-aligned voters wouldn't be voting), and pulled out all the usual scams to trick people into voting the way they wanted. And despite all that, they just had their arses handed to them:

Kansans secured a huge win for abortion rights in the US on Tuesday night when they voted to continue to protect abortion in the state constitution.

The race was called by a host of US groups like NBC News, the New York Times and Decision Desk HQ.

The move will be seen as huge a loss for the anti-abortion movement and a major win for abortion rights advocates across America, who will see the result as a bellwether for popular opinion.

And this is Kansas, about as red a state as you can get. If Kansas won't vote to eliminate abortion rights - by a margin of 60 - 40 - then it seems unlikely other states will if given the choice. And Republican legislators pushing for abortion bans may find themselves getting massacred at the ballot box come November.

A new standard for BORA consistency?

Golriz Ghahraman's Electoral (Strengthening Democracy) Amendment Bill will probably face its first reading today. And three months after it was introduced - pissing on the "as soon as practicable" requirement of Standing Order 269 - it has received a section 7 report from Attorney-General David Parker stating that its proposed donation cap is (potentially) inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act.

I say "potentially" above because Parker doesn't actually find that the bill is inconsistent. Instead, he makes the report because while

a donation cap is certainly capable of being a justified limit on the s 14 right [to freedom of expression], but I have insufficient policy information at present to conclude that the proposed cap is such a justified limit.
To which the natural question is "did he ask"?

The fundamental problem here is that, being a member's bill, there isn't a pile of background policy documentation analysing the choices made to demonstrate that the limit is proportionate to the limitation of the right. In the absence of such information, Parker has taken a conservative approach (as used by the Court of Appeal in the voting age case, and by Parker recently over the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill) that the absence of justification means a provision cannot be considered justified. I welcome that approach - we should be cautious about limiting human rights and demand that limitations be properly justified. And I look forward to it being similarly applied to government bills, Labour member's bills, and existing archaic law.

At the same time, we need to recognise that this imposes a greater burden on member's bills than on government ones. The easiest solution of course is to amend Standing Orders to allow sponsors of member's bills to make submissions to the Attorney-General on justification before a section 7 report is issued. This should prevent the government using this structural unfairness to unfairly target bills.

The IPCA wants teeth

There's an interesting select committee report out today, from the Petitions Committee on the Petition of Conrad Petersen: The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA). The petitioner raises some concerns about the slowness of the IPCA process and its lack of oversight, and suggests some solutions. The committee doesn't seem keen on them. But they did ask the IPCA what it thought, and the IPCA had some suggestions of its own...

The most boring one is greater oversight over the 75% of complaints they refer back to police, where basicly they don't get to say anything about it until the police get back to them with a "nothing to see here, guv". The IPCA expresses clear doubts over the police's ability to investigate themselves (which is basicly why the IPCA exists), but weirdly wants to keep letting them.

More interestingly, they want to be involved in police employment decisions following investigations; the power to conduct "own-motion" complaints rather than having to wait for an individual complaint or a referral from the police (who seem to drag their feet where they can); and, most explosively, the power to prosecute independently of police (which would require changes to the law to allow information given to the IPCA to be used in court).

This is basicly the agenda critics of the IPCA have been calling for for years. And now the IPCA supports it. The select committee meanwhile says "no hurry, eh?" and recommends that the government "consider the IPCA submission in due course", but it seems more urgent than that. Is there any MP willing to take a member's bill to give the IPCA what it wants?

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, but likely to be a boring one. There's no general debate today, and instead the House will move right into the third reading of the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill, which will add unelected, inherently conflicted Ngai Tahu representatives to ECan. Then there's a two hour debate on a boring Treasury investment statement, and together these items will eat most of the available time.It should be able to finish the first reading of Greg O'Connor law-and-order-bullshit Child Protection (Child Sex Offender Government Agency Registration) (Overseas Travel Reporting) Amendment Bill and Chris Baillie's Repeal of Good Friday and Easter Sunday as Restricted Trading Days (Shop Trading and Sale of Alcohol) Amendment Bill, and make a start on Golriz Ghahraman's Electoral (Strengthening Democracy) Amendment Bill. If the early debates went quickly, it should also be able to make a start on Jacqui Dean's Increased Penalties for Breach of Biosecurity Bill. There should be a ballot for three or four bills tomorrow.

27,000 employed under Labour

The quarterly labour market statistics were released this morning, showing unemployment has risen slightly to 3.3%. There are now 96,000 unemployed - 27,000 fewer than when Labour took office.

The media narrative around this release has been... interesting. Unemployment was predicted to be as low as 2.8%, causing panic from the rich. Unemplyment is Bad, it seems, unless there's "not enough" of it and wages are rising, in which case its time for the Reserve bank to throw people out of work and the government to attract cheap foreign labour to keep those uppity workers under control. Which tells you who policy is made for, and it isn't ordinary kiwis.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Plugging the loophole

A couple of weeks ago the High Court exposed a loophole in our electoral donations law, enabling corrupt parties to take in unlimited amounts of secret money and explicitly sell policy to the rich. Pretty obviously, this is unacceptable in a country which wants to call itself a democracy, and so now the government has promised to fix it:

The Government will close a “loophole” in electoral law exposed by the New Zealand First Foundation court case, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

Ardern, speaking to RNZ on Monday morning, said the court ruling in the case was an “unexpected interpretation” of electoral law that could be remedied in “quite a timely way”. Last week she cast doubt on whether the Government could legislate in response to the court ruling before the 2023 election.

“We have a piece of electoral law that covers issues of donation that is currently now in the process of going through the House.

“We believe there's a way that we can, without creating any unintended consequences, address this issue through that process.”

Good. Not that there's any virtue here on Labour's part - party officials are currently being prosecuted over Labour's own dirty financial dealings, and Ardern had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this (its as if the status quo parties are addicted to secret money or something). But the public is pretty firm on wanting big money out of politics, and I guess the focus groups were strong enough on this that Labour felt it had to listen. As for the "how", hopefully they'll give some indication in the House tomorrow afternoon before the Electoral Amendment Bill goes to committee.