Friday, February 12, 2016



No freedom of the press in Australia

In 2014, Guardian Australia journalist Paul Farrell revealed that Australia had intruded into Indonesian waters in its efforts to turn back refugees. The Australian government later admitted the incursion - but in the meantime they were having Farrell investigated by the Australian Federal Police in an effort to expose and punish his sources:

Sitting on my desk now are more than 200 pages of heavily redacted police files. Every journalist, in fact every Australian, has a right under the country’s privacy law to access personal information held on them by government agencies.

The files are made up of operational centre meeting minutes, file notes, interview records and a plan for an investigation the AFP undertook into one of my stories. Most concerning is what appears to be a list of suspects the AFP drew up, along with possible offences they believe they may have committed.

The documents show that during the course of an investigation into my sources for a story I had written, an AFP officer logged more than 800 electronic updates on the investigation file.

It’s a mosaic in document form of state surveillance of journalists by police. The files give an insight into the fragile state of journalism in Australia and the ease with which the police choose to take up these investigations because of poorly defined laws.


And Farrell is nowhere near the first victim of this anti-democratic attitude. The fundamental problem here is that Australia effectively still has an Official Secrets Act and criminalises all unauthorised disclosure of information. And in the hands of a government deeply embarrassed by its actions and desperate to hide them from the public, its easy to see how journalism is equated with espionage and journalists as spies who need to be investigated (and potentially prosecuted). But that's not how a democratic government is supposed to behave.

And fundamentally, if a government's actions can't withstand public scrutiny, maybe they shouldn't be doing them in the first place?

NATO is now an alliance against refugees

Back during the Cold War, NATO had the task of protesting Western Europe from Soviet Invasion. With the Cold War over for more than 25 years, they've struggled to find a reason to justify their existence. But now they have a new role: enforcing Europe's racist anti-refugee policies:

Nato has sent a patrol of three warships to intercept migrants trying to reach Greece by sea and send them back to Turkey, as Europe steps up efforts to contain the refugee crisis.

The mission has been agreed and ordered to the Aegean sea in less than 24 hours, an extremely rapid move for the alliance. Nato normally spends months deliberating over decisions and agreeing details.

The German-led patrol will be backed by planes that can monitor the flow of people attempting illegal crossings. Greece and Turkey have agreed that any migrants they intercept will be sent back.

“They will not be taken back to Greece. The aim of the group is to have them taken back to Turkey. That is the crucial difference,” said the British defence secretary, Michael Fallon.


So, Europe is basically going Australian, with Turkey as their Nauru - another example of how the European dream of a continent-wide federation committed to democracy and human rights is dying. As for NATO, no matter what you thought of the politics, their Cold War role was at least understandable; now they're just a jackboot stomping on the weak.

Thursday, February 11, 2016



Another starving watchdog

What is it with National and starving watchdogs? First, they under-funded the Ombudsman, meaning a huge increase in the amount of time it took for OIA complaints to be resolved. And now they're underfunding the Independent Police Conduct Authority, with predictable results:

Allegations of excessive force by police are going uninvestigated by the country's independent watchdog, due to financial pressures on the organisation.

[...]

The authority had been forced to abandon plans in some areas, such as assessing the standard of detention facilities and shifting its focus from "just blaming" to prevention.

While the IPCA could cut costs by reducing its investigations, Carruthers said that was not a desirable solution.

"We'll never be short of money because we can always decline to investigate independently, as we think fit ... but there comes a time when we then don't feel comfortable about actually doing the job that we're there for."

Speaking after the meeting, IPCA operations group manager Warren Young confirmed the authority had already passed up independently investigating some cases, instead referring them back to police to check themselves, because it was "beyond our resource".

"There have been occasionally matters that we've referred back to the police where if we'd had the resource, we might have investigated, including, for example, excessive force cases."


Which means the police are investigating their own (and of course finding nothing) - exactly the problem the IPCA was set up to solve in the first place. Either they need to be funded to do the job properly, or we should end this charade of independent oversight.

OTOH, given that the police simply ignore repeated IPCA recommendations, you really have to wonder if there's any point to their existence.

Failure

Why does inequality matter? Just look at the consequences:

Children living in poverty in New Zealand are at least six times more likely to struggle with maths than students from wealthy backgrounds, a new report has found.

The ranking was one of the worst in the developed world, with only Ireland, Israel and Poland doing worse.

The report from the OECD, Low-Performing Students: Why they fall behind and how to help them succeed found students from the poorest 25 per cent of households in New Zealand were more than six times more likely to be low performers in maths compared with those in the top 25 per cent.

Our figure was five times that of Australia.


And what that bland statistic means is poorer life chances, kids hobbled from birth by the economic status of their parents. Which means worse jobs and higher costs later on. It is profoundly unfair, an affront to our values.

Our education system is supposed to correct for economic inequality somewhat, to give every kid a good start in life. That's clearly not working. And with National talking of "reforming" the decile funding system to take money from the poor and give it to rich schools that their rich mates send their kids to, its unlikely to get any better. The other alternative, of course, is that we tackle the root cause: poverty. But National is even less likely to do anything about that.

Open Government: Learned nothing

The government has finally released its Open Government Partnership Mid-term Self-assessment Report, just four months after it was supposed to. They're so proud of it that they didn't even issue a press release on it - just a quiet change to the heading of a web-page. The major change? The addition of the promised "statement from the Stakeholder Advisory Group" on the Action Plan and contents. Which, stripped of its waffle, comes down to one sentence:

Because of the brevity of time since the Stakeholder Advisory Group was formed, it is [sic] not been able to provide collective detailed comments on the particulars of the actions.

This is dated "September 2015" - from before the draft was published. Which makes you wonder why it wasn't in the draft in the first place, and why it took them four fucking months to produce the final one.

But the SAG is "look[ing] forward to providing practical advice and leadership" on the development of the new Action Plan, and to "be[ing] transformational and to ensur[ing] civil society is actively engaged". So how's that working out for them? Likewise, how is the government's promises of learning the lessons of their disastrous first action plan and starting consultation sooner working out?

Badly. It appears they've learned absolutely nothing (or at least nothing they're willing to take on board), and gearing up to repeat the same mistakes they made last time.

The central problem is time: the second National Action Plan is due on June 30. But the SAG is only just meeting today to discuss it. Which means they're running on pretty much the same timeline as they were last time - the one which left no time for meaningful public consultation. As for "co-creation", there's simply no time allowed to assess proposed commitments from the public, let alone have them signed off by Ministers. In other words, it'll be the same "consultation" as last time, in which we will be invited to comment on a pre-determined slate of (almost certainly pre-existing) proposals, with no real prospect for meaningful input. That's what New Zealand apparently means by "open government". And its a crock of shit.

And it doesn't have to be this way. Its not hard to find examples of countries which are doing this right, which are providing meaningful consultation and co-creation of OGP commitments. Just look at the UK - or Australia. But the big difference in both cases is both an earlier start, allowing ideas to be received, assessed, and analysed for credibility, and a commitment to actually listen to the public rather than presenting us with a fait accompli. The government is well aware of these alternative processes they could have followed, and has chosen not to follow them. Which tells us that they are not committed to the Open Government partnership's values, and that our participation in it is simply a sham.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016



National erodes democracy

Another sign of the erosion of democracy under National: people who protest visibly and effectively against government policy have journalists asking their employers why they haven't been sacked yet:

The employer of a woman who threw a dildo at Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce refuses to say if she will be disciplined.

Josie Butler, a nurse at Hillmorton Hospital in Christchurch, leapt to international fame after flinging the toy in the face of Joyce at Waitangi

[...]

Canterbury District Health Board general manager of people and capability Michael Frampton said the DHB would not comment on whether Butler faced any disciplinary measures.


As if expressing your political views on your own time is something people should (or can) be sacked for.

And remember, you're probably paying for this Muldoonism, through taxpayer funding of National's dirty politics machine.

Of course, National could end this in an instant, by saying publicly that they respect the right of all New Zealanders to express their political opinions, and that political discrimination in employment is a crime. But their silence is deafening.

The death of open justice in the UK

Secret trials of enemies of the state are one of the hallmarks of tyranny. They were used by the tyrant Charles I, who was deposed for it; by Stalin; and by practically every tinpot dictator of the twentieth century. And now, thanks to a UK court ruling, they're entirely legal in the UK:

The court of appeal has refused to lift reporting restrictions following the secret trial of a London law student who was cleared of plotting a terrorist attack on the streets of the capital.

However, the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, said that only the director of public prosecutions (DPP) could ask a court to sit in secret, and warned that MI5 and MI6 must not in future threaten to withhold evidence in a bid to secure courtroom secrecy.

Following an appeal brought by the Guardian and other UK media organisations, Thomas invited the parliamentary intelligence and security committee to investigate the role that MI5 and MI6 played in decisions that were taken around the prosecution of Erol Incedal.

...who will of course whitewash the whole thing, because the British establishment is incapable of reform, and incapable of holding its criminal spies to account, even when they murder and torture. Violating basic democratic norms is just everyday business for them, what they exist to do.

As for the victim in this, Erol Incedal, I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent. But a verdict given in these circumstances, on secret evidence which cannot be heard in court, let alone shown to the public, simply can not be trusted.

As for the UK, they have pervasive surveillance, spies who collude in torture, and now secret trials. While they still have (unfair) elections, they're fundamentally a tyranny, and utterly unreformable by democratic means. If you're in the UK, my suggestion is to leave while you still can.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016



"Responsible economic management"

National likes to pitch itself as the party of responsible economic management. Yeah, right:

Prime Minister John Key has revealed a $17 billion hole in the economy from falling dairy prices but says the Government remains committed to tax cuts.

Outlining the Government's priorities for the year ahead in his opening statement to Parliament on Tuesday, Key said weaker dairy prices, along with other factors, were contributing to slower growth in the nominal economy, which was expected to be around $17 billion lower over the next five years than was expected in last year's budget. This flowed through to "slightly less tax revenue, slightly lower operating balances and slightly higher debt, compared to budget forecasts".

But the Government's overall fiscal strategy remained unchanged - that was "to keep a tight rein on spending, focus on results from public services, start to pay down debt and look to return any excess revenue on top of this to tax payers".


So, there's no money for anything, except for tax cuts for National's corporate donors and rich mates. And meanwhile, our schools will rot, our hospitals will be overcrowded, and kids will be living in cars because they can't get a state house despite their obvious need.

This isn't even ethical, let alone responsible. Instead National is just the party of crony capitalism, looting the state for the benefit of their rich mates.

New Fisk

After entering Aleppo with Russia's help, the Syrian army may set its sights on Raqqa
A plan must be made for ‘life after Isis’ in the Middle East

The user-pays Prime Minister

Radio New Zealand has a piece this morning on Auckland ratepayers having to pay to send council staff to hear John Key's big announcement on the City Rail Link - because the speech was a pricey private event. But its not the only one. In fact, according to Philip Lyth, Key has given only seven speeches in the last year, and only two of those (the Pukehau dedications) were open to the public:
KeySpeeches2015

The rest were all walled off from the public by expensive admission fees, despite policy being announced and public business being conducted. In other words, we have a user-pays Prime Minister who is afraid of the public and will only talk to rich people like himself.

Friday, February 05, 2016



Climate change: Pure fiction

The Ministry for the Environment released three reports on the Emissions Trading Scheme today, including an evalation of its performance against short, medium and long-term outcomes. So how is it doing? Unsurprisingly, in the executive summary, MfE declares that everything is going great:

The evaluation found that the NZ ETS has been successful in assisting the Government to comply with international commitments and to meet national targets. The NZ ETS has resulted in an overachievement of New Zealand’s first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol (CP1).

The reality in the body of the report is a little different. The key question for me is "has it reduced emissions". And the answer to that is "not really":
Research for this evaluation, and evidence from the interviews, found no sector other than forestry made emissions reductions over Kyoto Protocol Commitment Period One (2008–12)(CP1) that were directly caused by NZ ETS obligations. The 6NC identified that the waste sector was the only sector to have reduced emissions over CP1 other than forestry, but those reduced emissions were not due to the NZ ETS [they were due to Labour's direct regulation in 2004 - I/S].

Or, to put it another way, the ETS has not resulted in any reduction in pollution from the energy, industrial, or transport sectors. And that's not really surprising, given that the government has subsidised those sectors to continue polluting, while letting them use fraudulent Ukranian "credits" to meet their paltry obligations. As for forestry, the estimated impact of the reduction is 0.2% of our annual emissions, which is within the margin of error of business-as-usual.

So how does MfE turn this obvious failure into a success? Simple: because "reducing emissions" isn't the only metric they're reporting against. They're also assessing whether it assists in "meeting international climate obligations and maintaining international reputation" (whether it gives us something to write about in our UNFCCC reports, which it does), and whether it assists in "maintaining environmental integrity, equity and economic efficiency, at the least cost, in the long run" (for which they say outright that they have no measures, before proceeding for half a page about a 2008 report on possible impacts, before noting that post-2008 policy changes probably make that report useless). But even then, it seems to be a huge stretch to claim a failure, a success against a bullshit and purely bureaucratic target, and a "we have no fucking clue" equate to the ETS being "successful". As to their headline attribution of our Kyoto overachievement to the ETS, that seems to be pure fiction. And if policy is being "assessed" in this manner, and obvious failures being rebranded as "success", its no wonder that we're in such a mess.

Climate change: "Within the rules"

One of the core entries in New Zealand's political lexicon is "within the rules". Its politician-speak for "morally indefensible".

The Ministry for the Environment is now using that phrase to describe the way we paid our Kyoto obligations with outright fraudulent Ukranian "emissions reductions".

Following the release of the government's Kyoto CP1 "true-up" report (which revealed the use of these fraudulent credits), I submitted an OIA request for the Ministry for the Environment's advice on the composition of our Kyoto payment. The response claims that "New Zealand has met its Kyoto Protocol commitments within the rules, and in good faith". But the advice itself makes it clear that a deliberate decision was made to use the dodgy units - effectively laundering them - so as to maximise the number of units that could be carried over, and minimise the effort required to reduce emissions in future:

We recommend that you retain only units that can be carried over. If we find that New Zealand cannot carry any Kyoto Protocol units over into CP2, a domestic substitute would be needed to incorporate them in accounting for New Zealand's 2013-20 target.

This approach will facilitate the use of the Kyoto Protocol framework of rules in accounting for New Zealand's 2013-20 target, by ensuring that New Zealand's use of surplus units to comply with the target will be in line with Protocol rules.


This was done in clear knowledge that the units were environmentally worthless, as a later section on "Issues of credibility for imported units" makes clear:
Most of the ERUs now in New Zealand are from Ukraine, and come from projects that Ukraine registered and approved just in time for the units to be issued in 2012-13. The abatement claimed for these projects (in CP1) was therefore almost entirely retrospective. No international review was required. This will affect perceptions of environmental integrity.

And a Treasury proposal to retain some of these units was rejected on the basis of that low environmental integrity and because of
The perception that New Zealand's proposed contribution in the new agreement is devalued up-front by our proposing to offset it using carried-over CP1 project units.

So, instead they're proposing to offset it using carried over CP1 AAU - which we hav eonly because we used those dodgy, environmentally unacceptable Ukranian units to pay our CP1 obligation. Effectively, we've just laundered those "credits", without changing our actual position in the slightest.

As MfE notes, this is "within the rules". But it is neither credible nor moral. Kindof like our climate change policy as a whole.

Open Government: More foot dragging

The story of New Zealand's participation in the Open Government partnership continues to devolve into a farce. First, we dragged our feet on joining; then, after a deliberately farcical mockery of "consultation", we submitted an utterly unambitious list of "commitments" that consisted of things we were doing anyway. And now it turns out that we can't even meet our deadlines.

The OGP has a clear timetable for every country to develop its action plans and submit its self-assessment reports. According to this timetable, New Zealand's mid-term self-assessment report was due on September 30, 2015. But according to an email I received today from the OGP (under their disclosure policy),

The government of New Zealand is yet to send a final approved version of the self-assessment report, but it has submitted a draft which is also posted on their national site (https://www.ssc.govt.nz/open-government-partnership). We expect a final version to be submitted very soon. Once received, we will post to our site at http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/new-zealand.

I understand that an extension was negotiated to allow them to re-do their consultation, but they finished that process in October. So why have they failed to submit the final report for another three months? Again, its a sign that there's simply no commitment to or engagement with the partnership; that they signed up only for PR purposes and seek to do as little as possible (and even that begrudgingly).

Thursday, February 04, 2016



Criminalising basic humanity

Via Crooked Timber: The European Union wants to make it a crime to save drowning refugees by classifying it as "people smuggling". Its as monstrous as it is absurd; when confronted with a drowning person or a sinking ship, you don't stop and ask for citizenship papers before helping. And its clearly illegal, a violation of the right to life affirmed by the European Convention on Human Rights (not to mention Article 98 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). But this apparently is what the EU stands for now: letting people die rather than fulfill their basic obligation to provide humanitarian assistance.

Are the police spying on our democracy?

The TPP was signed today in Auckland, surrounded by massive protests. I've been watching it over Twitter, and there have been several reports from those protests of the police filming and photographing protesters. While there's obvious merit in filing or photographing people for evidential purposes if they are committing a criminal offence, there police seem to be doing far more than that. Which raises obvious questions about what will happen to those photographs, and about what they are using them for.

Someone has already used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask some of those questions, but I doubt we'll get real answers. But the obvious suspicion is that they're doing this for intelligence purposes, because they regard all protesters as dangerous, seditious criminals who need to be tracked and monitored (and, occasionally, intimidated).

We've seen this attitude before, in the UK. Police there conducted extensive surveillance of peaceful protesters, databasing them in an intelligence system for years and tracking their names, political affiliations and photographs - and all just for attending a peaceful protest. Our police may be doing the same thing.

In a free and democratic country, police have no business gathering or holding information on anyone not suspected of a criminal offence. And they certainly have no business photographing and potentially databasing people simply for exercising their legally affirmed right to protest. The police owe us some serious answers about what they're doing - and if they won't provide those answers, or if they are insufficient, Parliament should legislate to prevent them from abusing our democratic rights.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016



Priorities

How little does the National government care about disarmament? Here's a graph of government press releases on the topic for the last twenty years. The difference is obvious:

DisarmamentPR

[Source: Beehive.govt.nz; raw data here]

The dropoff in 2011 is when they disestablished the Minister and rolled the job into that of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Who clearly cared a great deal about it and made it a priority.

Disarmed

The Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control (PACDAC) is a stutory committee established by New Zealand's anti-nuclear law. It statutory functions include:

(a) to advise the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade on such aspects of disarmament and arms control matters as it thinks fit:
(b) to advise the Prime Minister on the implementation of this Act:
(c) to publish from time to time public reports in relation to disarmament and arms control matters and on the implementation of this Act...


But according to a recent OIA request lodged through FYI, the public OIA request site, it hasn't done any of those things for years:
With regard to the first two parts of your request, please find attached a copy of a 2009 letter from the then-outgoing acting Chair of PACDAC to then-Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control Georgina Te Heuheu outlining the range of recommendations made by PACDAC over the previous two years. This is the last written advice provided by PACDAC to the Minister and/or Prime Minister that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as Secretariat to PACDAC, has been able to locate. We are aware however that the Acting Chairs of PACDAC have periodic conversations with relevant Ministers. These conversations are not documented on Ministry files.

With regard to part three of your request, PACDAC commissioned research from former PACDAC member David Capie on small arms in the Pacific, which was published in 2003 by Victoria University Press as
'Under the Gun: The Small Arms Challenge in the Pacific'.

So essentially this statutory body has failed to perform its core statutory purpose for six years. Instead, they've focused on their subsidiary purpose: handing out grants from the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust (PADET).

So who is PACDAC? The National government hasn't announced any appointments (in fact, the last publicly announced appointments were in 2007), but the 2015 PADET annual report lists their membership as "Robert Ayson, Natasha Barnes, Nicholas Davidson, Hon. Wayne Mapp, Ross Miller, Paul Sinclair, Maui Solomon and Angela Woodward". Wayne Mapp of course is a former National MP and crony; as National Party defence spokesperson he advocated for New Zealand involvement in the Iraq war (even if it meant ignoring international law), and as Defence Minister he advocated against outlawing the international crime of aggression. Since leaving government, he has continued to advocate for war. With people like these on PACDEC, its no wonder it has been effectively disarmed.

But it does leave us with an obvious question: if a government committee is refusing to perform its core statutory function, why are we still paying them? And isn't it time we sacked them and replaced them with people who are willing to do the job?

28,000 unemployed under National

The Labour Market Statistics were released today, showing that unemployment has dropped to 5.3%. But while its (finally) a move in the right direction, there are still 133,000 unemployed - 28,000 more than when National took office.

When I started this series, it was out of a sense that unemployment statistics were a basic bullshit check on National's promises of prosperity. Six years on, its clear that they simply haven't delivered. There are more people out of work now than there were then. Sure, there was a financial crisis - but that ended four years ago. There were two earthquakes - but we're meant to be well into the "rebuild". And meanwhile, high unemployment just continues to drag on and on and on, while all the government does is make excuses.

New Zealanders expect more and deserve more than that. We need a government which will actually get people back into decent, high-paying jobs. National won't do that. Time for somebody who will.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016



Another reason not to sign the TPPA

The ink isn't even dry on the TPPA, and the US is already trying to renegotiate it:

Prime Minister John Key expects the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to be signed as negotiated, despite reports the United States will demand changes on certain next-generation drugs.

Opponents of the multinational trade deal are warning the US will try to strong-arm other nations into accepting longer monopoly protection periods for drugs known as biologics.

[...]

The director of US-based advocacy group Public Citizen Global Trade Watch, Lori Wallach, said US Trade Representative Michael Froman - under pressure from Republicans - would seek eight years' monopoly protection rather than five for biologics.

"Mike Froman has already said publicly that he will be asking the other countries to make the additional 'clarification' as he's calling it but in fact it's concessions - that it's eight years, not the five years in the text, for biologics exclusivity."


Its a perfect example of how you simply cannot trust the US in negotiations. Its also a perfect example of how "trade" deals are used to leverage and spread US political corruption. US pharmaceutical companies buy lobbyists, who buy politicians, who bully other countries on behalf of the people paying for it. And that's simply not something we should be a part of.

Fiji: This is not a democracy

Fiji is supposed to be a democracy again. They had elections in 2014, which elected a multi-party Parliament. But how does it work in practice?

Badly. On Saturday, Biman Prasad, the leader of the National Federation Party, published an opinion piece in the Fiji Times asking whether Fiji's democracy was really working. And yesterday his party was suspended by the electoral commission - meaning it can no longer issue public statements or operate as a party - and it is being investigated by FICAC, the regime's "Independent" Commission Against Corruption, supposedly for failing to have its accounts audited by a registered accounting firm. Which, it turns out, aren't registered anyway. It has all the hallmarks of a brutal political stitchup, punishment for speaking out. And that's how "democracy" works in Fiji.