Friday, December 02, 2016



The future of Canterbury

What will Canterbury's future look like? We're seeing it today with the death of the Selwyn River:

The signs say there's a river here, but no one's seen it in months.

A long stretch of the Selwyn River near Christchurch is barren. Its dry river-bed is snaked by tyre tracks, faint clues of its past as a river disappearing as it becomes a vehicle track.

A beloved swimming spot downstream is stagnant. Fish and eels die in their dozens, trapped in pools evaporating around them.

It's not new for some parts of the Selwyn to dry up, but the scale of this year's disappearance is unprecedented.


The causes? Prolonged low rainfall and over-extraction for irrigation. The former is a result of climate change, which is predicted to significantly increase drought in Canterbury. The latter is the result of the greed of the dairy industry. As for what to do about it, over-extraction is easier to control with policy, so if we want there to be a river for future generations, we should start by eliminating that.

What does Waikato DHB's CEO have to hide?

According to the Herald, Waikato DHB's Chief Executive Nigel Murray is two years late with his expenses disclosures:

A Government watchdog is "disappointed" that the Waikato District Health Board has not disclosed chief executive Nigel Murray's expenses since he took up the job in 2014.

The State Services Commission's expectation is that DHB chief executives disclose their expenses, gifts and hospitality at least once a year.

"Annual disclosures must now be published, containing information up to the end of the financial year (June 30), by the third week of July each year," the commission says.

Waikato DHB's latest disclosure on its website relates to former chief executive Craig Climo and covers the 12 months to June 2014.

Murray started in July 2014.


This sort of shit is unacceptable. It also doesn't happen by accident. Which invites the question: what does Murray have to hide?

New Fisk

Does Aleppo prove that we westerners should keep the world’s antiquities?

How is this a bad thing?

The switch of failed Wellington mayoral candidate Nick Leggett from Labour to National has caused the usual flood of articles from the press gallery trying to explain it. But instead of going for the obvious explanation - self-serving ambition - they're attempting to slot it into some political meta-narrative. Here's Rachel Smalley's attempt:

Labour and National have increasingly nudged to the Left, and that’s largely the result of Labour’s deal with the Greens. I thought, some time ago, it was a good move – but it’s pulled Labour further to the left, instead of dragging the Greens further towards the centre. And Leggett has echoed the mutterings of many long-term Labour supporters, accusing the party of losing touch with working kiwis.

I suspect National’s centrist position and popularity is now very appealing to Leggett.

And look at the policies that National has effectively snatched out from under the nose of Labour. National will build more affordable homes but crucially, more social housing too. The party's essentially introduced a capital gains tax -- of sorts -- on residential properties bought and sold within two years. And in terms of social welfare, last year National upped benefits for families by $25 a week. It's easy to see why Leggett felt he could transition into a National party that's positioned itself very much in the centre.


This is presented as if its a Bad Thing for Labour. And I suppose it is if you see politics through the lens of winners and losers and who gets the baubles of office - in other words, if you're a major-party MP or a gallery reporter. But when you look at it through the lens of policy, its an entirely different story. The Greens drag Labour left, and National shifts left to fill the gap, meaning they introduce, implement and retain a pile of left-wing policies instead of the vicious austerity shite they normally give us. In other words, it gets National to cement a (weak) social democratic consensus which can be strengthened by future left-wing governments. As someone who wants such policies, I struggle to see how this can possibly be a bad thing.

Thursday, December 01, 2016



"Land of the free"

One of the signs that a country is not a democracy is when it restricts the ability of the media to cover its crimes. The US is doing exactly that over what its doing at Standing Rock:

Award-winning Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou has had plenty of scary border experiences while reporting from the Middle East for the past decade. But his most disturbing encounter was with U.S. Customs and Border Protection last month, he said.

On Oct. 1, customs agents detained Ou for more than six hours and briefly confiscated his mobile phones and other reporting materials before denying him entry to the United States, according to Ou. He was on his way to cover the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline on behalf of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.


Because obviously, exposing militarised local police and oil company goons beating, shooting, and setting dogs on peaceful protesters trying to defend their land is a "threat" to "national security". Or at least, the ignorance of white Americans about where "their" country came from.

So much for the "land of the free". Trump is just the cherry on the top of a long decline into fascism.

OIA stats are coming

Last year the Chief Ombudsman announced that he was planning to release detailed statistics on OIA complaints in order to identify poorly performing agencies. The statistics were originally planned to be released in July, but they haven't appeared. So what happened?

The answer is in the latest Ombudsman's Quarterly Report. As part of an OGP commitment, the State Services Commissioner has asked the Ombudsman for assistance in ensuring greater transparency and compliance. As a result, the statistics project has been delayed, but we'll still be getting them:

Our plan is to publish the first statistical information by the end of January next year. But beyond that, just what we publish and when may depend very much on how this project with the State Services Commission proceeds.

So we'll get to have a public naming and shaming of non-performing agencies (and hopefully docking of bonuses) next year. But more importantly, this cooperation - if it is real - opens the door to full Canadian-style statistics on OIA requests, refusals and complaints. And that will help a lot to identify problems. You can't manage what you don't measure, and the fact that they haven't bothered measuring this information for over thirty years tells us a lot about how little the government cares about it.

Plain packs win in the UK

In 2014, the UK introduced plain packaging for cigarettes in an effort to destroy tobacco companies' last form of stealth advertising. Naturally, they went to court over it. And naturally, they lost:

The latest attempt by tobacco companies to prevent the introduction of mandatory plain packaging of cigarettes in the UK has been rejected by the court of appeal.

The judgment is a fresh blow to companies who face having to replace their current heavily branded distinctive packs with boxes that are indistinguishable from each other bar the brand name on the packet in standard typeface, colour and size.

[...]

In May, the high court rejected their arguments, the day before the tobacco products directive of the EU took effect. Some of the companies took the case to the court of appeal last month but, on Wednesday, the three judges, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, dismissed the challenge.

Lord Justice Lewison, Lord Justice Beatson and Sir Stephen Richards ruled that the health secretary had “lawfully exercised his powers”.


Big Tobacco has deep pockets and is desperate, so they'll probably try and take this to the Supreme Court. And hopefully they'll lose there too.

Meanwhile in New Zealand we've passed the law, but it hasn't yet been brought into force as they're still finalising regulations. But hopefully that will be soon.

Online schools should not be a dumping ground

Back in August the government introduced a bill to allow schools to be replaced with "Centres of Online Learning". The bill is currently before select committee, and in a rare move the Ombudsman has made a submission, raising concerns about them being used as a dumping ground for disabled students:

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has called for significant restrictions on online schools including legislation to stop them becoming dumping grounds for children with disabilities.

[...]

Online schools could become the default for disabled children that physical schools did not want to enrol, he said.

"I'm really worried about what the unintended impact of this could be on those who schools might wish to exclude because its convenient," he said.

"I'd want there to be, if you don't mind, if we're going to go this way, an actual statutory safeguard to guarantee the right of disabled people to attend physical schools if they wish to."

Judge Boshier said children in online schools risked social isolation and full-time attendance should be restricted to those who could not access a physical school because of illness or remoteness.


Online learning has a definite place in our education system, but this is also a real risk. Schools frequently try and deny entry to disabled children, or try to exclude them, despite a statutory right to free public education. And creation an online alternative means a real danger of those kids being forced into substandard education and denied social contact by discrimination.

The Ombudsman also points out other serious problems with the bill: online schools won't be covered by the Ombudsman's and Official Information Acts, and the Minister will purportedly have absolute discretion over their closure (the latter obviously being a reaction to the government's repeated losses in court over school closures in recent years). So in addition to being a discrimination risk, its a shift towards unaccountability and autocracy (which in turn invites poor governance and abuse of power). Neither move is welcome, and hopefully the committee will fix these problems.

Drawn

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

  • Domestic Violence—Victims’ Protection Bill (Jan Logie)
  • Housing Corporation (Affordable Housing Development) Amendment Bill (Kelvin Davis)
  • Student Loan Scheme (First Home Repayment Diversion) Amendment Bill (Gareth Hughes)
It looks like the Green ballot-mojo has returned from its holiday. It also looks like housing is seriously on the agenda - Davis' bill requires Housing New Zealand to build 10,000 affordable homes a year, while Hughes' allows people repaying odious student debt to divert those repayments to building a deposit for their first home. (Logie's bill ensures employment protections for victims of domestic violence and seems like a no-brainer). There were 76 bills in the ballot this morning. A complete list is here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016



This is what happens if you don't vet your list

Mt Roskill is having a by-election on saturday, and while Labour's Michael Wood is expected to win, he's not a certainty. But the National candidate Parmjeet Parmar is already in Parliament as a list MP, so if they win, the next person on the list gets elected. Who is that? Misa Fia Turner, who seems to be a crazy bigot:

Little has been written about Turner. She was the subject of a minor scandal in 2014 when it was alleged she had not earned the Samoan chief title 'Misa'.

Also in 2014, she told the Catholic website CathNews that gay marriage is "really against our moral values".

[...]

Turner also seems to be a fan of United States president-elect Donald Trump, who she refers to as "anointed [by God] for an assignment".

She has also posted about a young Samoan woman who claimed to suffer from stigmata, writing: "If God can use a donkey, then He can use anyone as He pleases."


Hating gay people and believing in stigmata and politicians being anointed by god is like something out of the middle ages. But I guess that's what you get if you don't vet your list candidates properly: crazy people.

Member's Day

Today is a member's day, unless the government bumps it for urgency. Assuming that doesn't happen, we'll see the third reading of Chris Bishop's Financial Assistance for Live Organ Donors Bill, followed by the first readings of Andrew Little's Our Work Our Future Bill and Metiria Turei's Residential Tenancies (Safe and Secure Rentals) Amendment Bill. If the House moves quickly, it might make a start on David Bennett's Private International Law (Choice of Law in Tort) Bill, but I think that's unlikely. There should be a ballot for two bills tomorrow.

A barrage of hate

Since the US election there have been a distressing series of reports of hate crimes against immigrants, African-Americans, and Muslims from the US. Now, a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center has explicitly linked this to Donald Trump's election:

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has counted 867 hate incidents in the 10 days after the US election, a report released Tuesday found, a phenomenon it partly blamed on the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

The advocacy group collected reports of incidents from media outlets and its own #ReportHate page. SPLC said it was not able to confirm all reports but believed the number of actual incidents was far higher, as according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics most hate crimes go unreported.

[...]

According to the report’s findings, anti-black and anti-immigrant incidents were the most commonly reported, with K-12 settings and colleges the most common venues.

Nearly a third of the incidents (289 of them) were motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, the report said. Assailants often invoked Trump’s promise to build a wall in their attacks and called for the victims to be deported. For instance, in Redding, California, a student brought “deportation letters” to school and recorded himself handing them out to Latino students. In Royal Oak, Michigan, students chanted “build the wall” in a school cafeteria the day after the election.

SPLC released a separate report on Tuesday detailing the impact of the election on schools.

Anti-black incidents were the second-most common, making up 23%, or 180, of the total. References to lynching were frequent, and pictures of nooses were used for intimidation. For instance, a black doll was found hanging from a noose in an elevator at New York’s Canisius College.

In a school in Orlando, students wrote “Yall Black ppl better start picking yall slave numbers. KKK. 4Lyfe.” followed by the line “Go Trump. 2016”.


This is what happens if you run a campaign based on hate (see also: Brexit). The problem, as Jim Bolger recognised, is that you have to govern the country in the morning. No matter how much Trump's racist supporters want it, non-white people aren't going to just suddenly disappear from the US, and if they try and make that happen, its going to lead to civil disorder. But the scary thing is that Trump might be quite happy for that to happen, provided his name is on the desk.

Beneficial ownership registers expose crime

Why do we need a public register of the beneficial ownership of companies and trusts? Just look at what the UK one has exposed so far:

On top of these data validation issues, we found a number of signs of non-compliance with the law. For example, 9,800 companies listed their beneficial owner as a foreign company. Now this is possible if the foreign company was listed on one of the stock exchanges deemed equivalent to the UK system (e.g. the US, EU and Japanese exchanges). However, we found almost 3,000 companies with tax haven addresses listed as beneficial owners. This is not allowed under the rules. We’ll be handing this list of companies over to Companies House to investigate further.

[...]

Initial findings suggest 19 senior politicians (known as politically exposed persons), 76 people from the U.S. sanctions list and 267 disqualified directors were listed as beneficial owners.

However, these matches were based on name and month and year of birth. This means that it’s hard to be certain that the matches are good ones. Any leads coming out of the new register will have to be followed up with more traditional investigative digging.


So that's 3,000 corporate and potentially 350 individual criminals right there. Plus, they can use the data to trace complicated the corporate ownership structures designed to cheat taxes and steal from the public as well.

These seem like excellent reasons to have a public register in New Zealand. So why doesn't our government implement one? Are they on our side, or the side of the criminals and tax cheats?

Oops

Last year, driven by panic around cyber-harassment, the government passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act. Among other things, the Act creates an offence of "causing harm by posting digital communication", punishable by up to two years imprisonment and/or a fine of $50,000. When it was going through Parliament, TechLiberty pointed out that the offence was so poorly defined that it would capture people exposing political corruption by politicians. Now, in the first defended case under the HDCA, a judge has supported that interpretation.

The critical questions are the definitions of "harm" and "serious emotional distress", which are not defined elsewhere. The judge interpreted them like this:
HDCA-Harm

"[A]nguish, anxiety or feelings of insecurity" (the prospect of damage to your political career and even imprisonment) are exactly the intent and expected effect of such a post. There's no public good defence, so the prima facie result is that exposing political malfeasance is a crime in New Zealand. You might hope that a judge would interpret the Act through the lens of the BORA to protect such speech, but that's a risky proposition. As for exposing the identity of a rapist or serial harasser online, you're pretty much fucked.

(In the particular case - a nasty case of someone posting intimate photos of their ex online in an effort to bully and control them - the charge was dismissed as the prosecution failed to provide evidence that such harm was actually inflicted. But the threshold has been set).

I doubt that this was National's intention. But its the law they passed. Now the problem is clear, they need to fix it, and quickly. Otherwise, they invite the conclusion that criminalising the exposure of corrupt politicians is something they're perfectly comfortable with.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016



More torture of autistic kids

Another school has been caught torturing autistic children:

Claims that staff at a Dunedin special needs school hit, sat on and force-fed children as young as five have led to three investigations - by police, an independent investigator and the Ministry of Education.

[...]

RNZ has been told there were 11 sworn affadavits from teachers and teacher aides about children being abused - including being hit, force-fed fruit, and having their wrists bent backward.

Another source said teaching staff had sat on children, pinched their nail cuticles, and tackled them to the ground.

Nearly all the eight or nine pupils of at the Sara Cohen junior class, aged between 5 and 10 and mostly with autism, are non-verbal.

Some were put in a seclusion room regularly, which appears to have been used for longer than two years.


This is just fucking wrong. The use of solitary confinement on adults has been found to be torture; its use on children is prohibited. The idea that a school, which is supposed to protect children, is intstead tortring them for its own convenience is simply monstrous. As for what we should do about it, we have a Crimes of Torture Act, and the police should use it.

More police intimidation

What is it with the police interfering in politics? First there was their attempts to intimidate people protesting against US ship visits, then their outright abuse of power to undermine the push to legalise death with dignity. The anti-democratic mindset is so ingrained that they're now attempting to intimidate people protesting on boring local government issues:

A Horowhenua woman planning to attend a protest in Levin next week has complained to the police watchdog about what she says was an intimidating phone call from an officer.

The protest, dubbed Don't Rumble Our Ross, is being organised against a push to strip the Horowhenua District Council deputy mayor of his title.

[...]

Bernadette Casey indicated on the protest's Facebook page that she was planning to attend in support of Mr Ross, but was shocked to receive a phone call from police asking about it on Monday morning.

"I get a phone call from the police asking me if I was the organiser, asking if I knew the organiser of the protest - I don't know who organised it - and then asking if I was going to it. I said to the constable who rang me I didn't think it was any of his business."


This is intrusive and intimidating. People should not be treated like criminals simply because they want their voice to be heard. The police need to be reminded that we have freedom of speech and assembly in this country, and that their job is to facilitate the exercise of those rights, not to try and shut them down.

As for the response, it was exactly the right one. You don't have to tell the police anything in this country, and you shouldn't.

Monday, November 28, 2016



This'll be fun

It turns out that the Scottish Parliament may have the legal power to block Brexit:

Not many people are familiar with section 2 of the Scotland Act of 2016, but it could give First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her government in Edinburgh the legal power to block the UK from triggering Article 50. Conservative MP Anna Soubry - in a wonderfully honest interview in The Guardian yesterday - mentioned it in passing:

The government is appealing against the high court ruling, but at the supreme court hearing, the Scottish government will argue that the consent of Holyrood is also required to trigger article 50. Soubry thinks it has a strong case. “Yes. I’m reliably informed that the Scotland Act 2016 section 2 says that you cannot interfere with devolved Scottish matters, they must be determined by the Scottish parliament.”


The application of EU law in Scotland is a devolved matter. Which means the consent of the Scottish Parliament is required if Westminster wants to remove it (just as the consent of the NZ Parliament used to be required if the UK Parliament legislated something which affected us).

Of course, the deal here is obvious: Holyrood will consent to Brexit if Westminster consents to Scoxit. And the two countries can then happily go their separate ways. Sadly, I expect the "English nationalists" (actually English supremacists) who backed Brexit won't be happy with that though...

Climate change: More bad news

Currently we're seeing unprecedented weather in the arctic, with air temperatures 20 degrees above normal delaying the usual winter ice formation. That's bad, but the real problem is that this could push us over some tipping points in the global climate:

Arctic scientists have warned that the increasingly rapid melting of the ice cap risks triggering 19 “tipping points” in the region that could have catastrophic consequences around the globe.

The Arctic Resilience Report found that the effects of Arctic warming could be felt as far away as the Indian Ocean, in a stark warning that changes in the region could cause uncontrollable climate change at a global level.

Temperatures in the Arctic are currently about 20C above what would be expected for the time of year, which scientists describe as “off the charts”. Sea ice is at the lowest extent ever recorded for the time of year.

“The warning signals are getting louder,” said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the lead authors of the report. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”

[...]

In the Arctic, the tipping points identified in the new report, published on Friday, include: growth in vegetation on tundra, which replaces reflective snow and ice with darker vegetation, thus absorbing more heat; higher releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the tundra as it warms; shifts in snow distribution that warm the ocean, resulting in altered climate patterns as far away as Asia, where the monsoon could be effected; and the collapse of some key Arctic fisheries, with knock-on effects on ocean ecosystems around the globe.


All of which means either faster climate change or worse consequences for us or both.

This is exactly why we need organisations like NASA's Earth Sciences Division (which President-elect Trump wants to shut down): to tell us what the hell we are doing to our planet and warn us of the consequences of our actions. But I guess that's precisely why Trump and the right want to kill it off: because a few people profit by fucking up the climate for the rest of us, and they don't want us to be able to measure the true cost of their vandalism.

Limiting electronic border searches

Last night the government introduced a new Customs and Excise Bill to Parliament. The bill would replace the Customs and Excise Act 1996 and one of the features is that it finally imposes some limits on Customs' unreasonable and invasive practice of electronic border searches.

The new provisions are in s207 of the bill. The short version is that Customs will only be able to search your electronic devices if they have reasonable cause to suspect "relevant offending" - defined strictly in terms of offences under the Act or the import or export of prohibited goods. And they won't be able to copy anything unless they have reasonable cause to suspect that evidence of that offending will be present. The search threshold is subject to some uncertainty as the new bill shifts prohibited goods largely to an Order In Council system, meaning we don't know exactly what is covered. But the bill includes objectionable publications and "goods that are for a dishonest purpose" (which ends up meaning a crime involving dishonesty in terms of the Crimes Act 1961). The upshot: unless the government passes some very dubious Orders In Council, Customs will not be able to abuse border searches to help police bypass the need for search warrants, they will not be able to abuse them to collect information for the SIS, and they will not be allowed to abuse them to search for pirated TV (which is the primary reason for such searches at present). They'll also be required to report annually on these searches - though not on the numbers of full vs initial searches, and not on what fraction of them actually result in finding anything.

The downside: Customs will be able to demand your password or that you assist them in unlocking any device. So, change your passwords before and after travel (better yet: don't travel with any devices or data other than "if you can read this you are a spying twatcock". Buy a burner at the other end, and get your data encrypted over the cloud).

On paper, this is still a huge advance. The problem is practice. To point out the obvious, Customs is an organisation which operates in near-total secrecy, with an entrenched culture of doing "favours" for police and foreign agencies. Do we really think the organisation which unlawfully harasses cyberactivists and harassed Kim Dotcom and his friends to earn "brownie points" with the FBI is going to change? Yeah, right. Unless this law is coupled with a purge of senior management to change the current institutional culture, I predict we will have a large number of unlawful searches, resulting in abuse of people's privacy and significant liability for the government.

The bigger problem is necessity. The new thresholds largely mirror the requirements for search warrants, sans judicial oversight. So if there's actual reasonable cause (rather than trawling and harassment), Customs could just get one of those. There's perhaps a timeliness argument, but I don't think its beyond Customs' abilities to get a proper warrant within 24 hours if they need to. Like the NZCCL, I think the intrusiveness of these searches requires proper oversight, not the suspicions of some jumped-up security thug at the border. If Customs wants to look at our devices, they should do what the police do and get a warrant for it.

New Fisk

Tougher tactics would have ended Syrian war, claims the country's top intelligence general