Monday, September 22, 2014



Deranged

Saturday's result was a shock for the left. And for some, it was apparently so shocking that it can only have been the result of fraud. So they're petitioning the head of the Electoral Commission for a recount.

Naturally, they present no evidence - just their feeling that "something doesn't seem right", and that the result "makes no sense". Scarily, over 7,600 people agree with them.

This is utterly deranged. Any fraud would have to be widespread, across multiple polling places and districts. There would be evidence. And the thousands of party activists who volunteered to scrutinise the poll and the count would be speaking up about it. As would the electoral commission staff, returning officers and poll workers. Democracy goes deep in New Zealand, and people of all parties would be affronted by attempts to undermine it. Its just not the New Zealand way.

But the dumbest thing: every New Zealand election already receives a full recount (during which special votes are counted and the rolls are scrutinised to detect dual voting and failed personation). Only after that do the results become official. And after that, there's a whole judicial recount process if anyone has any concerns.

Still, there's a small mercy: at least they're not petitioning the Governor-General int he misguided belief that they have any constitutional role on this...

The threshold has to go

Another election, and once again we've been reminded of the unfairness the two major parties built into MMP in an effort to stack it for themselves and prevent competition. ACT got 14,510 votes and one seat in Parliament, while the Conservatives got 86,616 votes - almost six times as many - and none. While I do not like the Conservatives, that is not fair and it is not right.

This is not about the "electorate lifeboat" (which this election benefited the Maori Party and no-one else). It is about the threshold. It is an anti-democratic measure whose sole effect is to limit political competition and silence small parties unless they are lucky enough to win an electorate seat (or, in the case of ACT and United Future, be patronised by a larger one). We've seen that small parties can function effectively in Parliament as a voice for their voters, and we've seen that this doesn't affect the stability of the government one bit (to the contrary - a plurality of options means the government has an easier time passing legislation). And the counterfactual cases show that there is nothing to be afraid of here (though of course people would vote differently in such cases, just as they voted differently when their votes counted under MMP). There is simply no reasonable argument for maintaining such an anti-democratic measure in a democracy. The threshold has to go!

New Fisk

John Kerry’s rhetoric on Isis insults our intelligence and conceals the reality of the situation in Syria

MMP, electorates, and misaligned incentives

Amongst the post-election entrail reading, I've seen a couple of people suggest that one of the reasons labour lost was due to a lack of tactical voting by Greens. If only Green supporters had held their nose and voted tactically in Auckland Central, Christchurch Central, Ohariu, and other close electorate races, the left would be better off.

These people do not understand MMP.

In MMP, there is one vote that matters: your party vote. Unless you live in Epsom, Ohariu, Te Tai Tokerau or Waiariki (electorates where strong candidates from minor parties could have brought in more MPs), your electorate vote is irrelevant to the outcome. All it does is select who your local representative is. But because the overall distribution of seats in Parliament is set by the party vote, it doesn't change the final numbers unless there's an overhang.

And to use some specific examples: Green voters voting tactically for Jacinda Ardern in Auckland Central or Clayton Cosgrove in Waimakariri wouldn't have changed anything. These MPs would simply have become electorate MPs rather than list ones. Green voters voting tactically for Labour candidates in Ohariu or Christchurch Central would simply have traded Virginia Anderson or Tony Milne for Andrew Little or Sue Moroney (the last two people elected on Labour's list). In Ohariu, it would also have got rid of Peter Dunne, but as he's not bringing any extra MPs in, that's really just a question of how much you dislike him.

Basically, under MMP, unless you live in one of a handful of seats, electorates don't matter to the outcome, so you might as well vote for whichever candidate you like best.

What electorates do matter for is the prestige, survival and political careers of individual electorate candidates. And in the case of Labour, with a mix of electorate and list MPs and a strong FPP heritage, this causes misaligned incentives. The party wants party votes, but candidates - and especially candidates who have a low list ranking, or who have refused to go on the list - want your candidate vote. And so Labour had the joy of seeing a bunch of its electorate candidates put themselves first and run electorate-only campaigns, while letting the party vote wither. Their "success" in holding or taking electorates made no difference to the outcome, but did cost their party new blood (and the ability to get it through mid-term retirements) through the list. In some cases, it would have been better for the party if those candidates had lost, because while their list replacements are mediocre, they could at least have been forced out to make way for the new blood the party desperately needs.

Sunday, September 21, 2014



A trifecta of electoral suck

This week has been a trifecta of electoral suck. First, Fiji voted for dictatorship. Then Scotland voted to remain subjugated to Westminster. And finally, New Zealand voted for a third-term majority National government.

The last boggles me. Not the fact of National's victory - that was expected, despite my hopes. But the fact that their vote went up, and delivered them an absolute majority on election night. The public appears to have endorsed National's dirty politics. And that's horrifying.

With a third term and an absolute majority (or, if they loose a seat on the specials, a de facto one from their ACT poodle), I doubt National will feel constrained by the moderation it has been forced to practice thus far. We've seen privatisation and assaults on the education system, the RMA and worker's rights. We can expect more. And we can expect the cuts to social support and working for families National has always wanted to make. Its not going to be pleasant to be poor or even middle class in New Zealand for the next three years. But it'll be great to be a millionaire banker like the Prime Minister. We won't get action on climate change. We won't get action on inequality and child poverty. We won't get measures to deflate the housing bubble and allow kiwis to own their own homes again. But the rich will get a tax cut in 2017, funded by increased misery for the poor. Because at the end of the day, that's what National stands for.

I don't expect Labour to provide credible opposition to this. They've had an influx of right-wing cuckoo electorate MPs to add to the usual suspects, and so they'll spend the next three years engaged in the same division and backbiting they've wasted the last three on. Instead, the heavy lifting will be left - again - to the Greens. They underperformed as well this election, but at least have held their own against the landslide. So they'll spend another three years winning the argument and reshaping the policy landscape in their image. Its not change, but it lays the foundations for the future. And hopefully, one day, we'll get to see those policies in action.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining: a majority National government means that I get three more years of easy bloggage. I'd rather I didn't though.

Friday, September 19, 2014



Noo!

Scotland went to the polls in a referendum on independence yesterday, and while the last results are still coming in, appear to have voted "no". Its not the result I wanted, but the people have spoken.

In the leadup to the poll, the British establishment promised that a "no" vote would result in more devolution to Scotland, and independence in all but name. Now they need to deliver on that promise. Sadly, I have no faith in the establishment to do the right thing here. The Tories are already backing away from it, and seem to want to use the referendum as an excuse to cut Scotland's funding and punish them for trying to leave. Which just means they'll find themselves facing another referendum in six or ten year's time - and this time people won't believe their promises.

Meanwhile, its worth reflecting on the positive here: on current results the referendum had the highest turnout of any vote in the UK since records began, just pipping the 1950 general election's record of 83.9%. Even if that drops, its a triumph for democracy and grassroots campaigning. It turns out that if you give people something worth voting for, they will. Hopefully, the UK's political parties will learn something from this too, rather than continuing to offer three different shades of the same NeoLiberal shit sandwich.

Vote

Today is Suffrage Day, the 121st anniversary of the day women won the right to vote in New Zealand. Its rightfully a day on which we celebrate our democratic heritage (and it should be a public holiday, dammit).

Its also the last day of the 2014 general election campaign.

Whatever the result, the campaign has already been a tremendous success for democracy, with over 550,000 advance votes recorded. Add in today, and we're looking at anywhere from 700 to 800 thousand - over 20% of the entire electorate. Its a tremendous level of engagement, and it shows the value of the New Zealand way of making voting easy.

In previous elections, I've pushed people to party vote left. It doesn't matter which of Labour, the Greens, or Internet-Mana you vote for, because any of them will support a change in government and a dramatic shift in policy. As for myself, I'll be voting Green again. I seriously considered Internet-Mana, because I want to see the internet freedom agenda (and Laila Harre's left-wing take on it) represented in Parliament. But in the end, I like the Green lineup better than theirs. I'll give my electorate vote to Iain Lees-Galloway, because I like him both as an electorate and Labour MP (and Jono Naylor is corrupt and dishonest). Your mileage may vary, of course. But no matter what your political opinions, vote. Your voice may be one in 3.4 million, but it still matters. As Kate Sheppard said,

Do not think your single vote does not matter much. The rain that refreshes the parched ground is made up of single drops

Keep that in mind on election day.

Because of the "no campaigning on the day" rule, I won't be blogging or tweeting on election day. I'll be tweeting after 19:00, and I'll probably post something on Sunday once the results sink in a bit.

Ending "scientific" whaling

Last night at a meeting in Slovenia, the International Whaling Commission closed the "scientific" whaling loophole, voting by a clear majority to enforce the International Court of Justice's ruling and require that such whaling actually be done for science. Future scientific whaling programs will have to be approved by the IWC's scientific committee to ensure that non-lethal methods are considered and that any killing of whales is done for valid scientific purposes rather than to fill Japanese freezers.

Its great news, but there's a problem: Japan has already declared that it will defy the ruling (and the ICJ):

But Japanese diplomats at the summit in Slovenia said that they would not be bound by the resolution because they took a different interpretation of the ICJ ruling, and would proceed with the new round of research whaling in the Southern Ocean that they had already declared.

“We are disappointed with their announcement,” Gerard Van Bohemen, the leader of the New Zealand delegation told the Guardian. “We thought it important that there was a strong statement agreed about the interpretation and application of the court’s decision but in the end it wasn’t possible to reach consensus on that.”


So, next year we're going to have a renegade nation murdering whales in the Southern Ocean in defiance of international law.

Shouldn't we do something about that?

Our democracy is at stake

Another day, another story about the National government's corrupt abuse of the OIA - this time from Customs:

A former high-ranking Customs lawyer says he resigned from his job after allegedly being told to bury information that could embarrass the Government.

Curtis Gregorash said he was told by senior Customs executives to refuse Official Information Act and Privacy Act requests, which he believed was at the direction of former Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.

[...]

"The direction came down (from the minister) through the CEO (Carolyn Tremain) and group manager (of legal services) Peter Taylor to me saying 'you don't release anything - I don't care what the OIA says, I'd rather fight it in the courts'."

Mr Gregorash said it was as if ministers were prepared to say: "F*** the OIA, I'd rather fight it through the Ombudsman because it takes three years."

Mr Gregorash said the alleged instruction came during a briefing from Mr Taylor to the legal team in which he referred to Ms Tremain and meeting with Mr Williamson.

"I resigned over it. I couldn't stare my staff in the face and say this is actually serious conduct that's being presented to you in a lawful way."


As the Ombudsman points out, our democracy is at stake here. The OIA is a vital tool for scrutinising politicians and holding them to account. But it, and its oversight mechanism, work on trust. As a requester, I have to trust that officials will apply the law and not ignore it. And the Ombudsman herself trusts officials to giver her the full information when someone complains, and to work in good faith with her in negotiating complaints. The idea that an entire department has been instructed by its Minister to just ignore the law strikes at the heart of that, and undermines the entire system. And what it shows is that a) we need a more robust OIA system, where agencies can be compelled to surrender information; and b) we desperately, desperately need to clean our democratic house.

Thursday, September 18, 2014



Scotland decides

The polls open in Scotland's independence referendum in a little over two hours. The British establishment has pulled out all the stops in an effort to terrorise and bully the Scots into staying part of the UK, even threatening that they wouldn't be able to watch Dr Who anymore (because people outside the UK apparently can't, and Hadrian's Wall stops TV broadcasts as well as invading Picts). Meanwhile, the "yes" campaign has run a positive campaign focused on appealing to people's hopes and aspirations. As a result, the Scots are hugely engaged in this decision, 97% of them are enrolled, and turnout is expected to be huge. Strangely, if you give people something worth voting for, rather than a choice of three "different" packs of corrupt NeoLiberals, they vote. Who'd have thunk it?

The result at this stage is too close to call - the polls have a narrow lead for "no", but its statistically insignificant, and with the turnout, its anyone's game. But no matter which way Scotland votes, the UK is going to be different tomorrow. The British establishment has united to offer Scotland further devolution, and this has put it on the agenda for other regions of the UK as well. Its also produced a nasty backlash from English imperialists, who want to punish the Scots if they vote "no" (no, I don't understand the logic either). The UK can't avoid discussing its constitution now, and that struggle will be fascinating to watch (but posisbly not pleasant for those experiencing it). And if Scotland votes "yes", a new country will be born, and a despised Tory Prime Minister will probably fall...

Right to the top

Thanks to the Ombudsman, we now know the identity of the staff member in the Prime Minister's office who was briefed by the SIS over its release of classified material to Cameron Slater: (former) Deputy Chief of Staff Phil De Joux.

Its unclear at this stage whether de Joux himself asked for the briefing or whether someone higher up did - but either way it suggests that dirty politics went right to the top of the Key government, and was almost certainly known about by Key himself. To point out the obvious, a deputy chief of staff doesn't receive a briefing on the release of classified material and not tell the Prime Minister. Which makes the next question what did Key know and when did he know it?

A hole in our democratic protections

There's been a couple of stories in the media over the last few days about voting by the intellectually disabled, focusing on the risk of abuse. The right, as always, are using this as an argument to limit the franchise by imposing a competency test (at which point we should keep in mind that many of them are quite open in their belief that anyone who doesn't vote for ACT is literally insane and cannot be trusted to vote "properly"). Meanwhile, they've missed the bigger problem:

In Hamilton, Bupa Rossendale and Dementia Care Hospital manager Adriana Ciolpan said their 90 residents were deemed incompetent by medical professionals and could not vote.

"Medically, they are not deemed able to vote. They are all under power of attorney," Ciolpan said.

"We follow legal requirements.

"We can't make them vote. We cannot accept voting papers for them because we don't want someone else to abuse them. They have been deemed incompetent and that's a legal document," she said.

"All the letters we receive, we send them back saying they're incompetent and can't vote. It should be the same everywhere," Ciolpan said. "But if they are not deemed incompetent by a doctor, we cannot stop them from voting."


Andrew Geddis thinks this is OK because those affected lack the requisite intention to vote. Which may or may not be true depending on the particular individual. But there's also the fact that electoral enrolment is compulsory and failing to do so is a crime. And by doing this, this hospital is making criminals of its residents.

And this exposes a bigger problem. I looked in vain for a clause in the Electoral Act which made preventing someone from registering to vote a crime, and could not find one. And this is a huge hole in our democratic protections. We rightly protect the right to vote with the secret ballot and protection from intimidation; we do this because in the past the rich have threatened to punish the poor for voting against them, or for voting at all. But they don't need to do any of that if they can just stop you from registering as an elector. Clearly, we need to protect the right to register in the same way.

Fiji: Voting for dictatorship

Fijians went to the polls yesterday in the first democratic elections in eight years. And with slightly more than half the ballots counted, it looks like they've given dictator Voreqe Bainimarama a clear majority. There's been no allegations of fraud, so it looks like the result is the clear will of the Fijian people.

I'm appalled. I thought Fijians were better than that. Bainimarama seized power at gunpoint, silenced the media, and used intimidation, beatings and torture to retain power. And Fijians voted for him? I guess you get the government you deserve...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014



Climate change: Saving the world might not cost anything

One of the core assumptions of the climate policy debate has been that stopping climate change will cost us. It might not be very much - a few percent less economic growth over twenty years - but the assumption has been that the economic effect will be negative. Now, a new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate suggests that that might not be true:

A global commission will announce its finding on Tuesday that an ambitious series of measures to limit emissions would cost $4 trillion or so over the next 15 years, an increase of roughly 5 percent over the amount that would likely be spent anyway on new power plants, transit systems and other infrastructure.

When the secondary benefits of greener policies — like lower fuel costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills — are taken into account, the changes might wind up saving money, according to the findings of the group, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.


There's some stuff in the article about the difficulty of estimating benefits and the supposed impossibility of assigning monetary value to lives saved. But governments do this all the time. In New Zealand, we work out whether it is worth fixing an accident blackspot by comparing the cost to the value of lives saved (which apocryphally we value at a million dollars each). We assess home insulation schemes by the value of lives saved, hospitalisations prevented, and sick-days avoided. And we do the same with air quality standards. You can quibble the precise numbers, but such cost-benefit analyses are widely accepted, and they're not exactly rocket science.

The bigger problem is that while benefits may outweigh costs globally, they may not locally. Greenhouse gases are overwhelmingly emitted by the rich world, but the resulting environmental damage will be largely inflicted on the poor. Which means that those lives saved simply may not be on the balance sheets of polluter nations. And that's the real problem right there.

Key admits the GCSB has broken the law

When on Monday Edward Snowden alleged that New Zealand data was held in the NSA's XKEYSCORE database, and that the GCSB had access to it, Key refused to comment. Now he's come clean and admitted that Snowden "may well be right". But its all OK because (according to Key) the information wasn't gathered by GCSB. Except then he says that it is:

"However, what I can say in terms of those kinds of Five Eyes databases... yes New Zealand will contribute some information but not mass, wholesale surveillance as people might say."
Parsing this, John Key is clearly saying that the GCSB is collecting (some) information on New Zealanders for intelligence purposes. The problem? That's absolutely illegal. While Key inserted a nice little loophole allowing metadata spying for cybersecurity purposes, his spy law still explicitly bans the GCSB from spying on New Zealanders for intelligence purposes. Which raises the obvious question: are the GCSB breaking the law by spying on kiwis for intelligence purposes, or are they breaking the law by spying for cybersecurity then using the information for intelligence purposes anyway? I think we deserve some answers on this.

Also note: if the GCSB has access to XKEYSCORE, and XKEYSCORE has information on New Zealanders, then arguably they've intercepted it even if that information has been collected by another agency, as they have "acquired" it. And if they actually look at it, there's no "arguable" about it. Acquiring or receiving a communication, or acquiring its "substance, meaning, or sense" (meaning a summary or translation) is legally intercepting it, and if done without a lawful warrant (and again, no warrant on a New Zealander for intelligence purposes is lawful) is a crime. So, GCSB staff trained in XKEYSCORE: congratulations, you're all criminals.

Taking a stand against dirty politics

A month ago, Nicky Hager published Dirty Politics, and set this election on fire. Today, over 2,100 people took a stand against the dirty politics he revealed, through a crowdfunded full-page ad in the Herald

dirtypoliticsad

(Image stolen from @DirtyPoliticsNZ)

Collectively, we're calling for a royal commission into dirty politics, the restoration of democracy in Canterbury, freedom of speech for academics and community leaders, better public broadcasting, and better freedom of information laws. Hopefully, the next government will listen.

New Fisk

Islamic State: Assad lures Obama into his web

Fiji votes

Fijians are heading to the polls today in the first elections since the 2006 coup. Good - Fiji deserves an elected government, not an unelected dictator. But the dictator is fighting hard to stop it. There's the weird ballot paper seemingly designed to frustrate voters, the disqualification of opposition candidates, and a pre-election media blackout which in practice applies only to the opposition. And of course, there's the ultimate threat: if voters don't rubberstamp the dictator, he'll just launch another coup.

The polls close at six, but full results could take up to a week. But hopefully we'll have an indication well before then of whether Fiji has voted to rid itself of its dictator, or entrench him.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014



Advance voting again

Another day, more incredible advance voting statistics:

advance_voting_stats_15_09

287,735 of us have already voted. And with four days to go, I think we can safely assume that it will reach 650,000. Which on current enrolment figures, means almost 20% of the potential electorate will have voted in advance.

Historically, advance votes have tended to swing right. But with twice as many as before, its anyone's guess. Its also anyone's guess how much of this represents increased turnout versus people getting it done early. But I'd guess that we're probably going to see a slight bump in turnout, perhaps as much as 5%. Which should be good news no matter who you support.

A solid policy

While National is teasing people with promises of tax cuts maybe sometime, the Greens have introduced another small but solid policy: a maternity box. Based on the Finnish maternity box (which reduced their infant mortality and is one of the reasons it is among the lowest in the world), its basically a start kit for new parents. If Finland is anything to go by, its likely to have a dramatic effect on newborn health, and all for a mere $15 million.

It also shows how cheap it can be to solve some of our pressing social problems. Baby boxes and food in schools don't cost the earth (on the government spending scale these are trivial policies, just above pocket change) but they can have a dramatic effect. National's refusal to implement them is purely a matter of choice and priorities, not cost. And when the cost is so low, and the evil they address so great, you really have to wonder how twisted and selfish our government's priorities are...