Friday, August 31, 2007

Gay marriage in Iowa

An Iowa county judge has struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, ruling that it does not serve any legitimate government interest and therefore violates due process and equal protection rights. His conclusion?

Couples, such as Plaintiffs, who are otherwise qualified to marry one another may not be denied licences to marry or certificates of marriage or in any other way prevented from entering into a civil marriage pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 595 by reason of the fact that both persons comprising such a couple are of the same sex.
Instead, Iowa's marriage law must be applied in a gender-neutral manner.

The case will now go to the state Supreme Court, but its unlikely to go further. As with the Massachusetts case, the deciding factor is the state, rather than federal constitution. So, if it wins on appeal, Iowa will become the second US state to allow full gay marriage.

The full ruling is here [PDF].

Labour is two-faced on climate change

Publicly, the New Zealand government is committed to action on climate change. After fifteen years of foot-dragging, they finally seem to be on the verge of implementing policy (of course, we've been there before), and have openly talked of bold targets such as carbon neutrality. In private - or rather, in international negotiations away from the public view - they seem to be pursuing a rather different agenda:

Industrial nations were deadlocked on Thursday about whether to set stringent 2020 goals for cutting greenhouse gases at a first U.N. session about long-term climate targets, delegates said.

A draft text at the Vienna meeting said rich countries should recognize a need for cuts of between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Russia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland objected that such goals would be too demanding after a first period of the U.N. Kyoto Protocol, the main plan for fighting global warming, ends in 2012, delegates said.

(Emphasis added).

Two-faced, lying, ratfink bastards. Having deliberately dragged our feet for fifteen years and repeatedly failed to implement policy, we're now using that failure as an excuse to further lower the bar. The problem is that the planet can't afford to - the Stern Report made it quite clear that we need to cut global emissions by at least 50% by 2050 if we are to have a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, and that this gets harder and harder the longer we delay. In the face of this, refusing to act is choosing to murder the world's poor. It means telling our Pacific neighbours to learn to swim. And that is not something any New Zealand government, let alone a Labour one, should be doing.

There will be consequences for this. It is simply untenable for a country to pimp itself internationally as "100% pure", and use its clean and green image to attract tourists and sell food, while deliberately and calculatedly working to destroy the environment and condemn millions to death. Hypocrisy just doesn't sell, and we can expect European companies to make full use of our government's cowardly and morally indefensible position in advertising against us. That is, if the EU just doesn't stick a carbon tax on our exports for being so dirty.

Why Gonzales resigned

He's under investigation by the Justice Department for perjury and misleading Congress. But no doubt Bush will simply pardon him, as he did for his other crony Scooter Libby.

Fiji: denial

There was no coup in Fiji, and Laisenia Qarase’s rights were not violated. Or at least that's what Fiji Human Rights Commissioner Dr Shaista Shameem is saying in a report [PDF] to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Which I think shows just how much of a bad joke she has become. In case people have forgotten, in December last year Commodore Bainimarama stood in an office and forced Fiji's President at gunpoint to illegally remove the duly elected government. He then had his troops close Parliament, evict MPs and Ministers from their offices, and force the Prime Minister into internal exile in the Lau islands. If this wasn't a coup, you have to wonder what would possibly qualify.

Election funding: changes

Radio New Zealand this morning is reporting that the government is planning changes to its Electoral Finance Bill, including changing the definition of an "electoral advertisement" to mirror UK law, and increasing the cap that third parties may spend. These are both good moves which will result in a better and fairer bill, and have been suggested by the Coalition for Open Government. They also strip National of its chief objection - that the bill unduly limits freedom of speech - thus exposing their bad faith and putting them under greater pressure to work towards improving the bill rather than mindlessly opposing it.

This now turns the spotlight very definitely on the main problem with the bill - the lack of controls on anonymous and laundered donations to political parties. As the Greens point out, the bill includes very effective controls on such donations to third parties. I suggest that if its good enough for third parties, its also good enough for the politicians.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 46th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Truth In Politics

Thursday, August 30, 2007


The US has made military preparations to destroy Iran's WMD, nuclear energy, regime, armed forces, state aparatus and economic infrastructure within days, if not hours, of President George Bush giving the order.
That's the conclusion of a study [PDF] by the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies released today. The Americans are ready to go: they've positioned three carrier battle groups withing striking distance and have special forces on the ground already conducting terrorist attacks. They're just waiting for cassis bellum, or failing that, for Bush to decide the Republicans need a bump in the polls. As for what they're planning, the study dismisses the idea of a narrowly targetted strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as too dangerous - given the lack of intelligence, it would likely merely delay rather than prevent an Iranian nuclear programme. This pushes the US inexorably in the direction of a widespread bombing campaign, aimed at destroying Iran's military capability, provoking regime change, or even reducing Iran to a failed state.

This is simply madness. Quite apart from the sheer immorality of it (in case people need reminding, military force can only morally be used in individual or collective self-defence, with pre-emptive action limited to cases of imminent attack. Iran has not attacked its neighbours, and no such attack is imminent), it is politically counter-productive. When George Bush included Iran in his "axis of evil" in 2002, the result was a resurgance of anti-American views and an increase in support for the conservatives and hardliners, which in turn led to the election of President Ahmadinejad. The consequences of an actual attack are likely to be much stronger. A bombing campaign might delay Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but it will guarantee that they will try, and make them much more likely to use it when they succeed. And internationally, it would make it very clear to every second- and third-tier state that nuclear weapons are a vital necessity to deter possible US attacks. As for the idea of bombing Iran into a failed state, we know how well that worked out in Afghanistan - and how well it is working out in Iraq.

Contrary to the opinion of the hawks and the NeoCons, there is no military solution to Iran. The only solution is long-term and political. And that solution gets further and further away the more Bush rattles his sabre.

American homophobia

In June, Republican Senator Larry Craig went to the bathroom at Minneapolis-St Paul airport. While there, he tapped his right foot several times - a move interpreted by the man in the next stall as "a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct". Unfortunately for Craig, that man was a police officer, and he was arrested, and ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge "in the hope of making it go away". Now his fellow Republicans have stripped him of his committee leadership posts, and are calling on him to resign.

There's a rich irony here in that Craig was one of the more bigoted Senators in the Republican Party, which supports the traditional rejoinder that bigots feel they have something to hide. But at the same time its a deeply uncomfortable story. In the US, apparently, they feel a need to stake out bathrooms in case a guy discretely suggests that he might want to have sex with another guy (something which isn't actually illegal, I might add), and they feel that being caught making such a suggestion is fundamentally incompatible with holding political office. They also feel that people's sex lives are a perfectly legitimate subject for investigative journalism. It's like the 70's over there, for Cthulhu's sake!

Senator Craig is a hypocritical bigot. But if the US wasn't so homophobic, maybe he wouldn't need to be.

Running to stand still

Secondary teachers are going on strike next month in pursuit of a 7.5% wage rise and improved conditions. This seems high, and the Ministry of Education is certainly working hard to spin it as greedy, but its not. Instead, like the EPMU a couple of years ago, the teachers are being forced to strike simply to keep pace with where they were.

Since the PPTA's last settlement in 2004, teacher's wages have risen 8.74%. Over that same period, inflation has been 9.2% - so they actually got themselves a pay cut. And median labour costs, which the original pay claim was benchmarked against, have risen 16.2%. So, if the PPTA get everything they're demanding, they'll be exactly where they were three years ago. They're running to stand still.

Against this backdrop, the government's outrage at teachers' "greed" looks a little self-serving, and their insistence on a multi-year deal looks like an effort to erode the real increases in teachers' salaries negotiated in 2002.


Submissions on the Electoral Finance Bill are due on September 7th. So you have just over a week to put something together.

Fortunately the committee allows online submissions, so you don't have to worry about getting it in the post in time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Tehran's murderous activities"

In a speech yesterday, George Bush revealed that he had ordered his commanders in Iraq to "confront Tehran's murderous activities". Today, they obliged by arresting seven Iranians from a hotel in Baghdad. So what murderous activities were these seven nefarious individuals involved in? Negotiating contracts for the construction of an electric power station.

Obviously, the Iranians need to be told that only Halliburton is allowed to do that.

Open for navigation

For hundreds of years following the discovery of America, European explorers searched for the North-West Passage, a hypothetical shortcut to Asia and the Indies which would save them the arduous trip around Africa or South America. They eventually found it (Roald Amundsen navigated it in 1903, before moving on to the South Pole), but it was blocked by ice year round and impassable to commercial shipping. However, global warming has changed that - the North-West Passage is now nearly ice-free and open for navigation for the first time in recorded history.

I'm sure the cranks will continue to claim that its nothing to do with us, though.

It's been done

Mike Moore opened his piece on a return to Muldoonism this morning with the following:

n the 1980s, a cruelly funny cartoon appeared of David Lange. It had four panels - the first displayed a smiling picture of David, then slowly, over the next two panels, David's face morphed into a picture of Roger Douglas.

I'm expecting a cartoon of Helen Clark to appear, morphing into an angry Robert Muldoon.

It's been done - by Bromhead, IIRC, and quite some time ago. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find an online copy.

Good news for the whales

Iceland has cancelled its commercial whale hunt on the basis that its uneconomic. Apparently, there's no domestic market for whale meat, and they can't export it as its covered under CITES.

Unfortunately, the lack of any market hasn't stopped Japan's "scientific whaling" program. But the primary "research" they now seem to be doing is measuring the shelf-life of frozen whale meat.

The politics of personal destruction again

"Mike Moore is a former Labour Prime Minister" was the byline on his opinion-piece in the Herald this morning. Having read it, the Herald should have added another bit: "who still hasn't gotten over being rolled by Helen Clark in 1993". While ostensibly criticising a return to Muldoonism and the politics of personal destruction, Moore immediately descends to them himself, and in a very nasty way. I mean, what exactly is this supposed to mean?

Exactly what does the "consort" Judith Tizard and the legion of Ministers outside Cabinet actually do?

Naturally, DPF is fawning over it.

As for the broader issue, the government has at least avoided attacking Key's personal life (something I take a very dim view of). But as with National's attack on David Parker, they've gone too far. As I said then, it's one thing to call people to account for malfeasance or incompetence in office, personal failings while actually in Parliament, or serious allegations which call into question their suitability to be a Minister or MP. It's quite another to dig up and inflate minor offences from long ago - or in this case, attempt to beat up things which aren't an offence at all. So John Key doesn't actually live in his electorate? Big deal - neither have dozens of other MPs over the years. It's perfectly legal, and his constituents seem quite comfortable with it. If this qualifies as "dirt", then its below even parking-tickets.

At the same time, the stench of rank hypocrisy from the right is overpowering. Where were their cries of anguish about the "politics of personal destruction" when they were going after David Parker, when their proxies were making allegations about people's partners and relationships, when Judith Collins was screaming "pervert" across the House at David Benson-Pope? (As much as I hate the guy, he didn't deserve that). But that was different because they were dishing it out rather than being on the receiving end. It would be nice if someone, anyone, over there showed just the slightest level of consistency and principle, rather than being merely a hypocritical partisan cheerleader.

And finally, despite the wailing from the right, it is and always has been perfectly legitimate to point out that a politician has been inconsistent in their views, has lied to the electorate about them, and adopts a deliberate strategy of telling people whatever he thinks they want to hear. This isn't about "personal destruction", its about whether a politician is being straight with the voters - and its something we in the electorate are entitled to expect.

New Fisk

The forgotten holocaust

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Time to extend paid parental leave

The Families Commission is recommending a significant expansion of paid parental leave, to a total period of 13 months. Having read their report, it's about time: towards a parental leave policy that gives New Zealand families real choice [PDF], they make a strong case. Currently, mothers are entitled to 14 weeks paid parental leave, with job protection for a year after giving birth. However, the period is too short, eligibility criteria too tight, entitlements inflexible, and payments capped at a derisory 80% of the minimum wage - meaning that 80% of mothers take a significant income cut. And internationally, we are one of the least generous developed countries in the world, both in terms of the duration of paid leave and the level of payments. Together, these put us near the bottom of a combined ranking based on income replacement:

The Commission is proposing reframing entitlements as maternity / paternity leave and family leave. The former would be 14 weeks for women and 4 weeks for men, non-transferrable except in cases of adoption, and payments would be capped at 80% of the average weekly fulltime wage. The latter would start at 12 weeks and be increased in stages to 38 weeks (meaning a full paid year off), with payments capped at 66% of the average weekly fulltime wage (the division between parental and family leave with different rates of payment is a common feature internationally). Eligibility would be extended, and they suggest greater flexibility in taking entitlements, to allow parents to use leave anytime within three years, transfer it, or supplement part-time employment. This would increase costs from $126 million (2007 / 08) to $306 million initially, and $451 million when the scheme is fully implemented, so it would be a fairly substantial policy. But at a time when we have a labour shortage and the government is trying both to reduce inequalities in the workplace and increase participation rates and work/life balance, its one which is well worth doing. And with the government running surpluses, its not as if we can't afford it; its certainly far preferable to tax cuts for the rich, in any case.

As for whether it will actually happen, I think the chances are good. Politically, this is a perfect wedge issue for Labour to use against National - most New Zealanders support it, while National is likely to reflexively oppose it as "bad for employers" and as money that could be used for tax cuts (though at the moment they are remaining noncommital). The smart thing for Labour to do then is announce it in the next budget, with implementation starting in 2009 so that it is effectively held hostage to their remaining in power. National can then either oppose it, thus pitting themselves against the majority of New Zealanders and painting themselves as the same old flinty friend of the rich, or accept it, in which case their space for fiscally prudent maneuvering on tax cuts is considerably narrowed. Either way, the left wins.

Another lockout

When we think of labour disputes, we usually think of strikes and workers walking off the job in pursuit of higher wages and conditions. But those tactics cut both ways, and employers can also prevent their employees from workign and earning a living in an attempt to force them to accept whatever terms are offered. This is known as a lockout - and with the labour shortage putting employers under increasing pressure to improve wages and conditions, it is being increasingly used in New Zealand.

For the past four weeks, the Airport Gateway Hotel in Auckland has locked out a dozen of its workers. They're paid minimum wage, and get no recognition for skills and experience, so they had done what workers the world over have done: organised in an attempt to get a better deal. In retaliation, the hotel locked them out indefinitely, and brought in illegal labour to do their work. Because trying to get together to ask for a better deal is akin to rebellion and must be punished by effective dismissal.

If you don't like employers treating their workers like revolting serfs and trying to starve them into submission, please contact the hotel's manager, Rakesh Sharma, at 0800 651 110, or email him here.

(Hat tip: The Standard)

Local body election info

Local body elections are being held in October, and now that nominations have closed, campaigning has begun. If you're looking for more information, there's a list of candidate sites and local body overviews here.

(Hat tip: Andrew Falloon)


The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has called for submissions on the Immigration Bill. Two copies, by Friday, 12 October 2007, to

Transport and Industrial Relations Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
The bill is basically a wish-list for officials, which massively increases powers of detention while reducing appeals and judicial oversight. It would also allow the routine use of classified evidence in immigration decisions (while declaring it true in some cases), thus replicating and normalising one of the worst aspects of the Zaoui case. It would be nice if we could get some of the more egregious features fixed by the committee.

Making a submission is not difficult - it can be as simple as writing a letter saying "I support/oppose the bill" and giving reasons why. If you're not sure, check out the Clerk's online guide here.

Gonzales goes

Alberto Gonzales has resigned as US Attorney-General. Good. The man was an excuser and enabler of torture, who provided legal cover for the CIA's use of waterboarding. He wasn't only unfit to hold office - he should be prosecuted as a war criminal. Unfortunately, that's a remote possibility, but like his fellow former Bush officials, I doubt Gonzales will be taking any foreign holidays any time soon.

Trivia and hypocrisy

If a country said outright that they were going to make immigration dependent on being able to answer a test on national trvia, they'd be a lauhing stock. But the Australian government is planning to do just that. And while the sample questions released today focus on politics and government, from the draft guide on Becoming An Australian Citizen [PDF], other questions may involve having to name battles Australian sporting heroes, or the football codes popular in each state, or battles Australians died in on behalf of their colonial masters. Meanwhile, as Talk It Out points out, its doubtful whether many Australians would know the answers to these questions; most New Zealanders certainly wouldn't have a clue about the kiwi equivalents (seriously. What year did we become a Dominion? Who was our first Prime Minister? If you can answer those off the top of your head I'd be surprised, unless you've been following Lewis Holden's nice little series about the former).

So, the whole thing smells like a bad and rather unfunny joke. But the worst bit is the list of "Australian values" this trivia is supposed to promote. The Australian government wants new Australians to believe in things like freedom of speech, the rule of law, peacefulness, and equality under the law. Which is a bit rich coming from an Australian government which attempts to discourage protests, overrules its courts by executive fiat, invades Iraq (and claims the right to unilaterally conduct military strikes in neighbouring countries), and has legislated against gay marriage while deferring indefinitely steps to improve equality. If John Howard wants immigrants to subscribe to those values, maybe he should start by setting a good example himself?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Utterly deranged

Wow. We knew the NeoCons are having problems now that their warmongering policies are now about as popular as striped pajamas in a Synagogue with the American (and global) public. But I didn't think any of them had gone so far as to decide that democracy itself was therefore the problem, and that "destroying freedom in order to save it" was a policy prescription rather than a criticism.

Unfortunarely, we were wrong. A NeoCon author has openly called for President Bush to "follow Caesar's example", commit genocide in Iraq, repopulate it with Americans, and then use the military to declare himself "President-for-Life" (and yes, that's an actual quote). Seriously:

If President Bush copied Julius Caesar by ordering his army to empty Iraq of Arabs and repopulate the country with Americans, he would achieve immediate results: popularity with his military; enrichment of America by converting an Arabian Iraq into an American Iraq (therefore turning it from a liability to an asset); and boost American prestiege while terrifying American enemies.

He could then follow Caesar's example and use his newfound popularity with the military to wield military power to become the first permanent president of America, and end the civil chaos caused by the continually squabbling Congress and the out-of-control Supreme Court.

President Bush can fail in his duty to himself, his country, and his God, by becoming “ex-president” Bush or he can become "President-for-Life" Bush: the conqueror of Iraq, who brings sense to the Congress and sanity to the Supreme Court. Then who would be able to stop Bush from emulating Augustus Caesar and becoming ruler of the world? For only an America united under one ruler has the power to save humanity from the threat of a new Dark Age wrought by terrorists armed with nuclear weapons.

There's more in there, including the traditional aristocratic critique of democracy as mob rule, and the chilling line that "modern weapons now mean a nation must practice genocide or commit suicide". It's a frightening insight into NeoCon thinking, and how utterly deranged these people have become (or perhaps, always were).

Note that this isn't some random isolated wingnut - the article was published on the website of Family Security Matters, a front for the Center for Security Policy, a respected NeoCon thinktank whose members include Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, and PNAC stalwarts Richard Perle and Frank Gaffney . It has since been pulled, and the site sanitised to remove all references to its embarrasing author, but neither group has yet repudiated it.

(Hat tip: Crooked Timber).

How effective is indefinite detention?

At the moment, Ali Reza Panah is being detained in Mount Eden Prison by the Immigration Departmnet in an effort to force him to sign travel documents permitting him to be deported back to persecution and death in Iran. In Ali Panah's case, the detention has been sepctacularly unsuccessful - he has been there for eighteen months. Three others are similarly detained under s60 (6) (b) of the Immigration Act, two of them for over a year.

This raises the question of how effective this sort of indefinite detention is generally. My efforts to find out have been unsuccessful - Immigration apparently "doesn't keep records" of the number of people they have detained in this fashion over the years. But the Greens' Keith Locke has been on the case, and through Parliamentary written questions has managed to get a partial answer out of the Minister. In response to his question (14105 (2007)) about the outcomes of indefinite detention under s60 (6) (b), the Minister replied:

As at 13 August 2007, of the people detained under Section 60 (6) as a whole, two have been removed in the financial year 2007/08, four are in detention, and eight have been released on conditions, awaiting either removal or a decision on an application with Immigration New Zealand.

So, it's been successful in only two out of fourteen cases in the last year. And against this dismal backdrop, the Minister wants to increase the use of indefinite detention and make it easier to keep people in jail for longer?

This policy isn't just wrong - it is also, on the evidence, ineffective - a hugely expensive exercise in pointless sadism. It should be scrapped, and the sooner the better.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Election funding: the biggest blunder

Writing in the Dominion-Post this morning, Tracy Watkins asks how Labour got the Electoral Finance Bill so wrong. DPF provides her with an answer: their "killer blow" was that they failed to crack down on anonymous funding and laundered donations. This not only exposed a yawning gap between what Labour promised and what they delivered (something Helen Clark has traditionally been very careful to avoid); it also meant that those who would normally support the bill found few reasons to do so.

IMHO this has been Labour's biggest blunder with the bill. As Raymond Miller pointed out in Party Politics in New Zealand, there is enormous opposition to anonymous donations from across the political spectrum. The 2002 New Zealand Election Study (Table WSOURFI F3) found that 78.3% of all voters agreed that political parties should be forced to fully disclose the sources of their income, with support ranging from 70% (for ACT voters) to almost 90% (for Progressive Coalition voters). Delivering on their promise to force full disclosure would have ensured widespread popular support for the bill while forcing National to choose between its shadowy, ultrarich backers and the voters. Instead, Labour put its narrow financial interests first, surrendering both political advantage and more importantly a golden opportunity to fix our electoral finance system once and for all.

But in addition to being a tremendous blunder for Labour, this is also an enormous opportunity for National. The bill already includes language limiting anonymous donations and laundering, in relation to third parties. It would be a simple matter to modify this language to apply to political parties and put up a Supplementary Order Paper to do what the government has refused to. The Greens are likely to support such a move, as are NZ First, so there's a majority there; all National has to do is take it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

New Fisk

Even I question the 'truth' about 9/11

Friday, August 24, 2007

You can't make this stuff up

Nominations for local body elections closed today, and so the Manawatu Standard finally revealed that one of the candidates for Palmerston North's mayoralty, Arshad Chatha, is in prison until the election on passport fraud and forgery charges. Naturally, he's planning to run on a law and order and moral issues platform.

Still, it could be worse. We could have John Banks.

John Key and democracy

In his speech on Wednesday attacking the Electoral Finance Bill, John Key cloaked his criticisms in a passionate defence of democracy. There's a number of ironies in this. Firstly, there's the obvious point that Key seems to have stayed silent when other New Zealanders were speaking up for democracy in South Africa, East Timor, and right here at home during the 1993 campaign for electoral reform; instead, his newfound interest only seems to have been sparked when the ability of his rich mates (those same rich mates who vigorously opposed MMP, I might add) to undermine our democracy by buying elections is threatened. But secondly, there's the example he used. In his speech, Key praised New Zealand's democracy, pointing out that we were one of only 27 "full democracies" in the world:

Next year, like many of you, I will be watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I want you to remember when you see the flags of almost 200 countries come marching past that only 27 of those countries are full democracies.

Only 27 countries, encompassing only 13% of the world’s population, are full democracies, with universal suffrage, with free and fair elections between competing parties, with freedom of association, and with freedom of speech. New Zealand is one of those countries, and New Zealanders are part of that 13% minority.

This 27 (actually 28) full democracies comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy [PDF]. Interestingly, the country whose election finance laws we are ripping off, Canada, rates higher than us. The country Key would have us emulate in the area of third-party spending, the USA, rates lower than us. So while claiming that he wants to defend our democracy, Key actually wants to move us down the rankings towards a US-style cloaked plutocracy - yet another example of National's "bait and switch" tactics, where the policies work in exactly the opposite directions to the slogans and PR.

But it's also worth exploring Key's new-found fervour for full democracy. Contrary to his assertions, it's not just about universal suffrage, free elections, free association, and free speech - it's also about whether there are effective checks and balances, distributed media ownership, and a government which refrains from invoking new threats such as terrorism to curtail civil liberties - all things we do badly at. Does Key has anything to say about this, or how we might improve our democracy? Another criteria is the level of public faith in political parties - something hardly helped by Key's continuing pursuit of a policy of strategic emptiness and unwillingness to be pinned down on what he actually stands for. Finally, there's also the level of faith in government - something the Electoral Finance Bill would enhance by preventing rich groups from buying power and influence, but which Key thinks should be shredded. Some democrat!

It would be nice if John Key was really interested in democracy, but from his past and present behaviour, it doesn't seem like he is. Instead, his only interest in it is as a rhetorical prop, a "yay-word" to distract the public from his real goal of allowing the rich to continue to buy elections. And that is a deeply undemocratic position to take.

Sedition back

The Justice and Electoral select committee has reported back [PDF] on the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill and recommended that it be passed without amendment. The committee was convinced by the Law Commission's report, and rather dismissive of the two groups who opposed the bill, saying

we consider that the issues these submitters raised were clearly considered and addressed in the commission's report, and are outweighed by the need to ensure certainty in the law and its application, and the need to ensure that free speech and impartiality in censorship are protected.
So much for the Maxim Institute...

When it passes will depend on the priority assigned to it by the government. Looking at the sitting calendar, the earliest it can have a second reading is September 11, but its more likely it'll be sometime after that. It will be interesting to see whether the bill goes through unanimously, or whether NZ First opposes it and tries to whip up Islamophobia again.

No streaking

The government's Major Events Management Bill passed its third reading yesterday. So, in a couple of days it will be an offence, on pain of three months imprisonment or a $5,000 fine, to streak at a rugby match the Sports Minister wants to attend. It's often joked that rugby is our national religion, but now it seems to have its own equivalent of blasphemous libel as well.

Closing Huntly

Genesis Energy announced today in passing that it is planning to move the 1000 MW coal-fired Huntly power station to reserve over the next ten years. This is a good move - Huntly was resonsible for 4,942 MTCO2-e in 2005 - 6.4% of our total gross GHG emissions. Shutting it down completely would solve our Kyoto CP1 deficit overnight. Unfortunately, it would also leave us with a major electricity shortage, so it will have to be progressively shut down as it is replaced by renewables and more efficient gas-fired generation. The question now is how quickly we can do that - how quickly we can get those consented windfarms built and generating.

A side-effect of this however is that the economic impact of a dry year on electricity prices is going to be much higher - if Huntly generates less, its electricity will have to cost more if it is to pay for itself. Major electricity users therefore have a big incentive to invest in energy efficiency, and in hedging. Unfortunately, that sort of forward thinking seems to be beyond our business community; instead, they'll wait for a crisis, then squeal loudly for the government to bail them out by approving cheap, dirty generation so they can enjoy their supposed right to environmentally subsidised electricity.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Abolish slavery for good

Today, August 23rd, is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The date comemmorates both Haiti's 1791 slave rebellion, and the passage of Britain's Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. This year, it also commemorates the bicentenary of the British Slave Trade Act 1807, which effectively outlawed the international slave trade and established the ban as a fundamental principle of international law.

In addition to remembering the abuses of the past and how they were overcome, we should also remember that the battle hasn't been won yet. Despite two hundred years of international effort, slavery still exists. Today there are an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide - more than at any other time in history. The price of a slave has dropped a thousandfold - from the equivalent of $40,000 in 1850 to $30 today. Which means that "maintenance" is a low priority - you don't need to worry about taking care of your slaves when you can just buy another one. Many of the goods we consume are tainted by slavery - including chocolate.

If you'd like to learn more about this, then here are three useful sites: Free the Slaves, iAbolish, and Stop the Traffik. If you'd like to do something about it, TradeAid has some suggestions here.

Slavery is a crime against humanity, and it needs to be stamped out - for good.

The cost of free trade with China

Last month, I asked how much is free trade with China worth, with a series of questions aimed at illustrating the price we are already paying in pursuit of economic gain. Now I have another question: is it worth allowing Chinese thugs to beat peaceful protestors on our streets? Because that is what happened today in Wellington:

On Tuesday 21 August at 10.30am Falun Gong practitioner Lena Zhang was attacked while protesting opposite the Chinese Embassy in Wellington.

Approximately seven Chinese (aged around 20 years old) emerged from the Embassy and began harassing and insulting Lena. One of the attackers tore down all the protest banners Lena had displayed on the wall and began trampling on them. They then surrounded her while a male began pushing her around. She endured over 15mins of irrate behaviour from the attackers. Afraid, and unwanting the attack to escalate, Lena began to call the police and the attackers left quickly while kicking stones at her.

This is simply unacceptable. This is a free and democratic country where people have a right to protest, and the Chinese government should accept that. They may be able to get away with this sort of abuse (and worse) in China, but they should not be allowed to export their oppression here.

Unfortunately, I don't expect the government to do much about this. The price of that free trade deal is silence on Chinese abuses, even if they happen here. And that is simply too high a price to pay.

Undermining Kyoto

APEC meets in Sydney next month, and climate change will be a key point on the agenda. But rather than using it to build consensus for a stronger post-Kyoto framework at the upcoming talks in Bali, John Howard is instead trying to use APEC to undermine Kyoto, with a draft declaration [PDF] which would turn the clock back 15 years. The bill would set no timetables and no targets, instead proposing an "aspirational" APEC-wide goal of reducing energy intensity (that is, energy used per dollar of GDP) by 25% by 2030 across the APEC region, against a 2005 baseline (!). This goal would allow greenhouse gas emissions to increase, just as they increased in New Zealand during the mid-90's when 30 of our largest companies signed up for similar targets (they increased efficiency, but also increased output). Finally, it proposes further investment in research, targetted at the coal industry. In other words, Howard's "plan" for tackling climate change is that we do nothing, while paying more money to polluters.

The Greens are right: we must oppose this. I don't know whether we'll win, but I expect Helen Clark and the New Zealand delegation to speak up to defend Kyoto and real action on climate change rather than Howard's greenwashing.

Meanwhile, this will also be an important test of the National Party's real position on climate change: do they reaffirm their newfound environmental principles by standing up for Kyoto, or do they return to their usual position of denial and craven subserviance towards the US and big business? Someone should try and get some answers out of them to see where they stand...

New Fisk

The Iraqis don't deserve us. So we betray them...

New kiwi blog

The Standard - aiming to provide another left-wing voice.


The government introduced its Misuse of Drugs (Classification of BZP) Amendment Bill to the House yesterday, and also introduced something else: a rare declaration from the Attorney-General that the bill is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF]. The reason? That the bill defines a limit beyond which posession is presumed to be for the purposes of supply, and imposes a reverse onus of proof on the defendant in relation to this. According to a recent Supreme Court ruling (R v Hansen [2007] SC 7 [PDF]), this violates the right affirmed in s25(c) to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This inconsistency is so great (and the right violated so important) that it can not be considered a justifiable limitation (though it is suggested that it might be if the limit was much higher).

As mentioned above, this isn't just a problem with the BZP bill, but with the Misuse of Drugs Act as a whole. The Law Commission is apparently taking a look at the Act, which will hopefully fix this problem in the long term.

Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder where the Attorney-General's concern for the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt was when the government introduced this atrocity...

Going after Key

Ouch. After attacking John Key's honesty over his flip-flopping and equivocation on Iraq, the government has upped the ante, alleging that he made fraudulent statements in official declarations under the Companies and Electoral Acts - something which, if proven, could see him kicked out of Parliament, or (more likely) significantly embarrassed. The core of the allegation is that Key made conflicting statements in a series of official declarations in 2002 and 2003:

- In March 2002 he declared he was living at Orakei Rd, Remuera for the purposes of the Companies Act.

- In October 2002 he declared to the Chief Electoral Officer that he was living at Waikoukou Valley Rd, Waimauku, Helensville.

- In April 2003 he again declared he was living at Orakei Rd, Remuera for the purposes of the Companies Act.

Now, it's perfectly possible that Key indeed moved several times in 2002 - 2003, though I doubt it - the government wouldn't be raising this if it was that easily explained (OTOH, assuming basic competence of politicians may be a mistake). Instead, it's more likely that he engaged in the long and honourable tradition in New Zealand of carpetbagging - that is, of standing as an MP in an electorate you don't actually live in. It's certainly what he's doing now: Key lives in Parnell, which is some distance from the Helensville electorate he officially represents. And legally speaking, this isn't actually much of a problem. While the Electoral Act requires that voters and electorate candidates register in the electorate they live in, it is actually surprisingly flexible about what that actually means. For example, s74 (1) (c) (i) says that people can only register in an electorate when it is

the last in which that person has continuously resided for a period equalling or exceeding one month
However, s72 clarifies this, by saying that where people live isn't changed by occasional or temporary absences, or even absence for any period due to occupation, employment, or study (or for that matter being an MP). The upshot is that, for the purposes of the Electoral Act at least, where you live doesn't have to be where you live - you can effectively register in any electorate in which you have a residential address (but only one, mind; registering in multiple electorates is a crime). And while someone's registration can be challenged on the basis that they don't actually live where they say they do, this doesn't actually affect their ability to stand as a candidate or serve as an MP.

So, the Electoral Act side of this is a bust; Key can have been "living there" even if he wasn't living there. The Companies Act stuff is more serious, but they'd need more to back it up than just a registration in a different electoral district. So this whole thing looks like a damp squib.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Election funding: easily fixed

Yesterday in the House, National's deputy leader Bill English pointed out that the definition of "election advertising" in the Election Finance Bill could cover newspaper websites and journalists' blogs. This is correct. However, as I've pointed out, it is also easily fixed; the definition can easily be amended to apply only to material which seeks to influence voters, and (for good measure) websites could be included in the "newspaper and periodocal" exemption. Strangely, though, English didn't promote that solution. In fact, he promoted no solutions at all, instead adopting a position of mindless opposition. Yet another example of National's bad faith on this issue...

Election funding: bad faith, and a challenge to National

In a speech today to the National Press Club, John Key launched a stinging attack on the Election Finance Bill, complaining that the length of the regulated period was too long, the definition of an electoral advertising was too broad, and that the bill imposed too many barriers to participation by "third parties". Hs conclusion was that the bill should be "ripped up".

I think this displays the overwhelming bad faith of the National Party on this issue. While publicly proclaiming in the wake of the revelations of The Hollow men that they wanted to see the system reformed, and complaining in wounded tones about the failure of the government to consult them, in practice, their position has been nothing but mindless opposition. "The bill is flawed, therefore it must be shredded" is not the response of a responsible party truly interested in reform. It is however the response of a self-interested party eager to rort and exploit the system to buy their way to power, just as they tried to do in 2005.

While the National Party may deny it, the 2005 election revealed several flaws in our current electoral finance laws, including the ability of wealthy parties to circumvent spending limits by starting the campaign early or using front groups to advance their agenda. These problems need to be fixed before the next election. A responsible party would therefore be working to fix the problems with the bill, rather than trying to shred it. Given the realities of MMP, there is significant opportunity in both the Select Committee and Committee of the Whole House stages to amend and improve the bill. National should take that opportunity. If it thinks the regulated period is too long, the definition of election advertising too broad, the barriers to participation too high, or that the bill shamefully neglects to address anonymous funding while setting third-party spending limits at a derisory level, it can put up amendments. It will have to convince other parties to back them, of course, but on some of these issues there should be a majority there to amend the bill for the better. This doesn't entail any commitment to support the bill at second or third reading, but it does entail a commitment to take the issue seriously and work with others to produce the best law possible.

So, that's my challenge to the National Party: to accept that the problems are real, and work to fix them. It will be interesting to see if they accept it, and behave like a responsible party which understands MMP, or continue to squeal childish denial.

Wanganui gang patch bill

The Wanganui District Council has publicly notified its Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill [PDF]. The bill will be available for inspection for 15 working days, after which it will be certified and introduced to the House.

The bill itself grants the Wanganui District Council the power to make bylaws banning gang insignia in specified public places, and creates an offence of displaying gang insignia in an area where it is prohibited. Police will be allowed to arrest those wearing gang insignia, and if convicted those arrested will face a $5,000 fine. This is a clear content-based restriction on freedom of speech, and it is difficult to see it surviving a BORA challenge. Certainly a prosecution for disorderly behaviour or intimidation solely on the grounds that someone was wearing a gang patch wouldn't. While the government has an interest in preventing intimidation, the blunt fact is that in a liberal society, people get to wear what they like. And that is something that the citizens of Wanganui will just have to accept.

Trotter on polls

In his Independent column today (offline), Chris Trotter lambasts the media for treating the polls (and next year's election) as a two horse race and ignoring the vital role of minor parties in coalition formation. But while this is true of recent polls (which have shown National with enough support to govern alone and have therefore been cast as Labour having a lot of ground to make up), I don't think its true overall. Earlier polls (which were not nearly so decisive) certainly talked of the ease or difficulty of the leading party in putting together a coalition to get the necesary 61 seats in the House, though they tended to ignore the same prospect for the other major party. And I expect this discussion to resume when the polls tighten closer to the election.

As for Trotter's contention that polls should be reported in terms of right, left, and centre blocs, I think the parties would quite rightly reject being pigeonholed in such a fashion. While they definitely have inclinations (the Greens are almost certain to back Labour, and ACT National), formally they are keeping their options open, though this may change closer to the election. Then there would be the inevitable disputes about which bloc parties would belong in - is the Maori Party left or centre? Finally, such reporting would inevitably shape expectations and lead to claims of betrayal if a party didn't conform to the media's judgement of which bloc they "belonged" in - something we saw in 1996, when NZ First was widely expected to go with Labour and chose National instead. That was Winston's fault - he had clearly cultivated that impression - but he'd have every right to be annoyed if the media kept reporting his party as being likely to form certain political alliances despite all denials to the contrary. So simply out of fairness to the parties, the media should stick to reporting polls by party rather than "bloc".

And that said, Trotter does at the end make a good point: that the right to form a government belongs not to the largest party, but to the party or parties able to command a majority in the House, and that under MMP parties tend to need friends in order to govern. It would be good if the media reminded us of that fact more often, if only to prevent constitutional wrecking behaviour if a party finds itself outnegotiated at some stage in the future.

I don't care

No, I don't care which politicians have or haven't visited strip clubs, any more than I care whether they're gay or straight, single or married, faithful or otherwise, or what position they prefer in bed. In fact, it's beyond not caring - I actively don't want to know these things. Sure, it's titillating, but it's hardly relevant to how well they do their jobs, and in some cases is positively SAN-wrenching (Gerry Brownlee jelly wrestling: resist Unnatural 4).

It would be nice if the media focused on things which were actually relevant rather than wasting our time with titillating court gossip. Unfortunately, it seems its the latter which sells papers and brings in the advertising revenue...

Haneef wins again

The Australian Federal Court has overturned Australian Immigration Minister kevin Andrews' decision to revoke Dr Mohammed Haneef's visa on character grounds, ruling that the decision was wrongly made and that the visa should therefore be restored. Better, the government has also been ordered to pay Haneef's costs. It's a stunning victory for Haneef and the rule of law - and a stunning defeat for the Howard government which sought to trample it.

Reading the full judgement [PDF], Justice Spender was also highly critical of the Minister's selective leaking of information, saying that there was

a certain piquancy in the present case, in that the Minister has chosen to give a selected part of what is said to be protected information to the public by way of press release, but has not sought to divulge to the Court any part of the protected information under s 503A(3) of the Act.

The Minister is, in a sense, presenting one case in the public arena, a case the accuracy of which cannot be challenged in any meaningful way, and a smaller and not the same case in the Court, in a way which does not permit explanation or challenge by way of cross-examination.

Unfortunately, instead of doing the decent thing and resigning after his appalling abuse of power, Andrews is instead promising to appeal. It seems the Howard government has discovered the same "no shame" exploit used by the Bush Administration in the US...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Let America clean up its own mess

Since late 2001, the US government has been holding 17 Uighurs in its gulag at Guantanamo Bay. Sold to the US by Pakistani bounty hunters, the Uighurs were originally suspected of being terrorists. However, in 2003 they were cleared of all charges by a US military tribunal and ordered to be released. Despite this, they have continued to be detained in isolation for 22 hours a day, on the grounds that the US can not return them to China as they would face a substantial risk of persecution. Instead, the US government has tried to dump their problem on other countries such as Canada and Albania. And now we learn that they even tried to dump them on New Zealand.

The request was refused, and rightly so. These people are currently in the custody of the United States, which has wrongfuly imprisoned them for almost six years. The US has already admitted that they have a well-founded fear of persecution and qualify as refugees under the Refugee Convention. It should therefore grant them refugee status and let them live in the United States.

Justice for 1991

Fifteen former Iraqi government officials go on trial today for their role in suppressing the 1991 uprisings in the wake of the first Gulf War. The uprisings were brutally suppressed, with artillery used indiscriminately against civillian areas, and helicopter gunships firing on those who tried to flee. In the aftermath, thousands were detained without charge, tortured, raped, or murdered. The overall death toll is estimated by the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry at between 100,000 and 180,000 in Southern Iraq alone.

Again, I hope that they make a better job of this trial than they have over the previous farces. Unfortunately, if the previous standard of Iraqi "justice" is anything to go by, they won't be interested in telling the story of these atrocities as a memorial to the world and proving the accused's guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt; instead they'll be aiming for a death sentance as quickly as possible.

Immigration Bill: truth through secrecy

One of the most egregious features of the government's new Immigration Bill is that it would massively increase the scope for the use of classified information, allowing it to be used in any immigration decision and essentially making its use routine. This is bad enough - the use of secret "evidence" kept hidden from an applicant violates the right to natural justice and is a recipe for official abuse - but reading through the bill last night, I discovered that its worse. The decisions classified information can be used in include those on warrants of commitment allowing potential migrants and deportees to be detained. When classified information is used, the decision is automatically escalated to the High Court. However, the section (s289) on how the High Court must handle such decisions includes the following rather Orwellian clause:

(2) In determinining the application [for a warrant of commitment]...

(b) it is not the role of the nominated Judge to determine the matters described in section 217 (1); and

(c) the classified information must be treated as accurate

(Emphasis added; s217(1) states that in proceedings involving classified information, the new Immigration and Protection Tribunal must decide whether the classified information is relevant and credible, and whether it actually needs to be secret. Clause 289 (2) (c) obviously overrides this).

So, according to the bill, if it is secret, it is true, at least when it comes to decisions on whether to keep people in prison. And it is easy to see how this clause will be abused. An important consideration in deciding whether to issue a warrant of commitment under the new bill is whether the subject is likely to make themselves available for deportation in the future - those deemed likely to may instead be released on conditions rather than being imprisoned. If Immigration alleges that someone is a flight risk, then that allegation will be decided by the judge. But if it is alleged secretly, not only must the allegation be kept secret from the subject, but it must also be regarded as true. At this stage, it is worth pointing out that "classified information" can come from any government agency, including Immigration, so Immigration officials have a perfect power to have people locked up indefinitely on secret "evidence", the accuracy of which is forbidden from being assessed. This makes an absolute mockery of the right to natural justice, and indeed of any notion of independent judicial oversight; we might as well just remove the judiciary from the process entirely and put it directly in the hands of immigration officials.

As for people who think Immigration can be trusted not to abuse this power, it's worth remembering that they are the deparment which lies in unison, and misleads the Ombudsman. I don't think they'll have any compunction about classifying ordinary allegations and evidence for which there is no need for secrecy in order to achieve a desired outcome and bypass judicial oversight.

Making the numbers look good

Last month, the government was trumpeting its success in tackling youth unemployment by highlighting the fact that there were no 18 and 19 year olds on the dole in Rotorua. But it turns out that this wasn't because they all had jobs or were in training. Rather, it was because local WINZ staff were refusing to let them apply. It's not clear how high up this came from - whether it is a local manager trying to make their stats look good, or whether there is a national directive to impede applications by young people - but either way it is unlawful. Quite apart from the fact that s89 of the Social Security Act 1964 makes it clear that those over 18 (or over 16, partnered and with children) are eligible, it violates the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of age in the Human Rights Act, and thereby (since this is the government) s19 of the Bill of Rights Act. And it looks like those affected are going to be suing over it.

Meanwhile, this is symptomatic of a sick culture within WINZ. Pressure to cut benefit numbers and an us-vs-them mentality mean that too often, WINZ sees its job as refusing applications. Instead, they ought to see their job as ensuring that every eligible person who applies receives exactly what they are entitled to. And if WINZ staff are not capable of doing that, we should replace them with people who are.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Slow progress in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan went to the polls over the weekend to elect a new Parliament under recently passed constitutional amendments. As expected, the election failed to meet international standards; Kazakhstan has never had free and fair elections since independence. This isn't good, and they should do better, but at the same time it would be a mistake to dismiss this as the usual Central Asian sham. Instead, Kazakhstan slowly seems to be making progress towards democracy.

Exhibit A is the OSCE observer's reports. In 2005, the OSCE observed Kazakhstan's presidential elections,and reported

[u]nauthorised persons interfering in polling stations, cases of multiple voting, ballot box stuffing and pressure on students to vote... during the count, observers saw tampering with result protocols and a wide range of procedural violations.
This time round, the problems were rather different. Instead of the overt fixing and thuggery, problems were primarily to do with media access and the legal framework imposing barriers to democratic participation and accountability. There were problems with the count, which was
assessed negatively in over 40 per cent of polling stations visited, mainly due to procedural problems and lack of transparency
But things seem to be a long way from the outright fraud seen last time. The OSCE was even cautiously positive, saying
Not withstanding the concerns contained in the report, I believe that these elections continue to move Kazakhstan forward in its evolution towards a democratic country.
The road to democracy is slow (it took us 500 years to get there), but the Kazakhs at least seem to be moving in the right direction. And with another 20 years or so, perhaps they'll manage to do it properly.

The OSCE's preliminary report can be found here [PDF].

Israel and refugees

The Guardian today has a piece about Israel's appalling attitude to refugees. A country which was founded by people fleeing genocide is now rejecting others who are also fleeing genocide (in the form of Sudanese from Darfur). This is contrary to Israel's obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Under the Convention, Israel is required to assess whether refugee claimants have "a well-founded fear of persecution", and grant them asylum if they do. In doing so, they may not discriminate on the basis of race, religion or country of origin, and they may not punish asylum-seekers for illegally entering the country. Israel is doing both, denying asylum to all people from "enemy states" (including Sudan) even when they are being persecuted by that state, and deporting anyone who enters illegally regardless of claims to asylum.

In light of the history of Jewish refugees fleeing to Palestine in the face of inhumane British restrictions on immigration, this can only be viewed as grossly hypocritical.

"The committee does not have to give reasons"

Following my post last week on the Government Administration Committee's lightweight report [PDF] on the Animal Welfare (Restriction on Docking of Dogs' Tails) Bill, I emailed the chair and deputy chair of the Committee seeking an explanation. Today I received the following response from the Clerk of Committee:

The committee has completed its consideration of this bill and therefore is not at liberty to enter a dialogue about its consideration as the matter is no longer an item of business before the committee.

For your information, there is no set format for a committee's report on a bill and the report can be as short or as long as the committee chooses. The committee is not obliged to give reasons for a decision.

In this instance, the committee considered all the information available to it and decided to recommend that the bill not be passed. The committee does not have to give reasons for this decision.

The report together with all documentation considered by the committee is publicly available in the Parliamentary Library.

(Emphasis added)

So, they can make any decision they like, but they don't have to explain why. No matter what you think of the particular bill, that stinks. Democratic government has a constant and ongoing obligation to justify its actions to the electorate so that it may be judged and held accountable for them. Unfortunately, it seems we have yet another holdover of monarchical unaccountability in our select committee processes.

(And if you think this isn't important, just consider that this principle of unaccountability also applies to the Election Finance Bill...)

The committee members have since come out and said that neither major party supported the bill, but they should really have said that in their report.

More on the UN CERD report

Peace Movement Aotearoa has put the concluding obsevations of the uN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination online here [PDF]. In addition to the points noted in my previous post about the treatment of Maori, they also makes some broader points about the New Zealand constitution. In particular, they express concern

that the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (NZBORA) does not enjor protected status and that enactment of legislation contrary to the provisions of that Act is therefore possible. The Committee considers that the requirement whereby the Attorney-General may bring to the attention of Parliament any provision of a Bill that appears to be inconsistent with the NZBORA is insufficient to guarantee full respect for human rights, in particular the right not to suffer from discrimination based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.

They also express similar concerns about the Treaty of Waitangi and the possibility of breaching Maori rights, and so recommend its "entrenchment as a constitutional norm", as well as making the decisions of the Waitangi Tribunal binding upon the government. At present, the government can breach the Treaty (and thus the rights of Maori under international and common law) in much the same way is it can violate human rights, and the UN thinks that this simply is not good enough (particularly in light of recent abuses e.g. the Foreshore and Seabed Act).

I hope the government willact on this. but given their prickly attitude towards the courts, I expect instead that they'll continue to stand on Parliamentary Sovereignty, without recognising that an absolute Parliament is as much of a danger as an absolute monarch, and needs to be similarly emasculated for the people to be safe.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

An adverse report

New Zealand went before the UN Human Rights Commission's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination earlier this month to make its periodic report on discrimination in New Zealand, as required by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Today, the CERD reported back. The actual report isn't online yet (it will go up here), but the Human Rights Commission has a summary, and it doesn't sound good. While the Committee was pleased with our progress in a number of areas (including the improved status of te reo), it expressed concern about far more, including the overrepresentation of Maori in crime statistics, the lack of information being collected on racially motivated crime, and the lack of constitutional recognition for the Treaty. It's particularly concerned about the continuing detention of refugees (a practice it wants to see ended altogether), and of the potential for the 2008 deadline on Treaty claims to unfairly bar legitimate claims. Worse, it wants us to report back in a year on four areas:

  • the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill, currently before Parliament;
  • the lack of references to the Treaty of Waitangi in the school curriculum;
  • restricted access for "undocumented" children to the educational system;
  • the foreshore and seabed.
In other words, we have failed to meet international standards in these areas (particularly over the foreshore and seabed), and so they're giving us a year to clean our act up. Hopefully the government will take this opportunity - but looking at their reaction to the report of UN Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen, its more likely that they'll engage in puerile nationalistic chestbeating instead.

More spies

Back in May, it was revealed that SOE Solid Energy was using private investigators to infiltrate protest groups. This immediately raised the obvious question: who else was spying? The Sunday Star-Times has been digging into this with the OIA, and today reveals that three two other public organisations have also been engaged in spying on their critics: AgResearch, the New Zealand Pork Industry Board, and Massey University. More disturbingly, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry refused to confirm or deny, which means that theyhave been spying but don't want to admit it. Expect Jim Anderton's feet to be held to the fire over this next week in Parliament.

This sort of spying is a threat to democracy, and it needs to be stamped out. Public bodies should not be trying to undermine the right of the public to protest and criticise. Any public sector CEO or board who does not accept that needs to be fired immediately.

Correction: Massey University used TCIL for "a security review and to help tender guard services for its Palmerston North campus", which is somewhat different from the other two.

Why we shouldn't deport Ali Panah

Man in Iran lashed for being Christian

Iranian authorities lashed a man 34 times after a copy of the Gospel was found in his car, according to an AKI report, filed Aug. 14.

The man, identified as “A. Sh.” on an Iranian website representing Christian converts, was found to be a Muslim convert to Christianity. He was arrested after police searched his car, which had been involved in an accident, and found the book printed in Farsi.

He was detained at police station Number 102 in Tehran for two days where he was lashed and suffered "other humiliations", the site said.

Meanwhile, I'm disturbed to see NZ First claiming that Panah's conversion isn't genuine and that he's simply faking Christianity in order to stay in NZ. He's certainly convinced his priest, and has apparently convinced the RSAA. The official problem isn't that he's not genuine, but that the New Zealand government believes that he can simply practice his religion in secret and so avoid persecution. This position is as morally untenable as telling a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany that they could simply hide.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

New Fisk

We admire those who went before us
Looking back at Lebanon

Friday, August 17, 2007

No freedom of speech in China

Chen Shuqing is a writer and member of China's banned Chinese Democratic Party (CDP). He has published articles highly critical of the Chinese government on numerous websites. Last September he was arrested, and today he was sentenced to four years imprisonment on charges of "inciting to subvert state power". To add insult to injury, his lawyer was disbarred for representing him.

In a free society, it should not be a crime to attack of the government or criticise state institutions. But CHina is not a free society. Instead, it is a totalitarian state where dissent is crushed. And we're chasing a free trade deal with them?

Ali Reza Panah

Ali Reza Panah has been detained without charge or trial in Mount Eden Prison for almost two years now. Like Thomas Yadegary, he is an Iranian refugee and a convert to Christianiy. Like Yadegary, he fears persecution as an apostate if forced to return to his native country, and so has refused to apply for the travel documents necessary to deport him. As a result, he has been detained under a warrant of commitment, and will be detained indefinitely until he agrees to sign his own death warrant.

Panah is currently on hunger strike protesting his indefinite detention. After 35 days, he is reportedly emaciated and on the verge of death. If it continues, there is every likelihood that he will die. New Zealand's Anglican Archbishops are appealing to the Minister of Immigration David Cunliffe to show some mercy and grant Panah residency. They have set up a petition for members of the public to show their support. You can sign it here.

No bail for bigamy?

The Herald today has a piece on a man being acquitted of the unusual charge of bigamy. But what's even more unusual is that he spent five months in jail awaiting trial. Bigamy is not a violent crime, and while the defendant had previously failed to appear, five months pre-trial detention seems to be wildly out of proportion to the seriousness of the alleged offence.

While we're on the subject, I'm also shocked to see that bigamy still carries a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment. This seems to be a relic of the past when the government tried to legislate social arrangements and a religious conception of marriage predominated (even if it wasn't the original reason for our marriage laws). But in a liberal and secular society, the government's sole interest in marriage is in keeping a register and enforcing joint rights for those who choose to share them. And under that conception, it's hard to see bigamy as justifying such severe punishment. The core of the crime lies in making a false declaration, and it should carry the same penalty, or that provided in the Marriage or Civil Union Acts for making a false statement.

(Oh, and while I'm talking about marriage, this should probably go as well. It's a clear content-based limit on freedom of expression, and I can't imagine any way in which it could be "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society"...)

An important question

Remember Jose Padilla? Arrested in Chicago in 2002, he was then detained as an "enemy combatant" in a military brig, denied access to a lawyer, and subjected to sustained psychological torture - despite the fact that he is a US citizen. Finally, after three and a half years detention without trial, Padilla was transferred to civillian jurisdiction and charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. Today, he was convicted, and now faces a possible sentence of life imprisonment. This was done in open court, under ordinary law, and by a jury of his peers. So why did the Bush Administration need to violate his human rights, detain him without trial, and torture him again...?

Dog docking

The Government Administration Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Animal Welfare (Restriction on Docking of Dogs' Tails) Bill and recommended that it not be passed. Unusually, though, the report doesn't give reasons for the decision, or even a summary of submissions. There's simply a summary of the bill, and then nothing.

This simply isn't good enough. This isn't the most important piece of legislation in the world, but a select committee should still give reasons for its decisions so that the public can tell whether they're doing their job properly. Otherwise people might think their "review" was just a matter of flipping a coin and seeing which way it lands.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sedition: making a case that didn't need to be made

Today I went to Wellington to appear with DPF before the Justice and Electoral committee in support of the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill. Like Morgue a few months ago, I found it nerve-wracking (actually, "absolutely terrifying" is my preferred description). I'd been allocated five minutes, and been told that the committee would take my written submission as read, so I should speak for about two minutes on the highlights and leave the rest of the time for questions. So I drafted a short piece summarising what my research on the topic had uncovered - over 40 cases all up, ranging from the dangerous to the absurd - and spent much of my effort working on what to say if I was asked any tough questions on e.g. where the limits lay around inciting violence. But I needn't have bothered. After mumbling my way through while doing my best impression of a stunned rabbit, I was asked only a couple of questions, and the main one (from Hone Harawira) was on the use of terrorism offences as a replacement for sedition, rather than on sedition itself. I guess this is what happens when you make a case that didn't need to be made - the committee was already convinced that the history of sedition was one of persecution and abuse (National's Chris Finlayson called past prosecutions "farcical", and that of Te Whiti and Tohu "disgraceful"), and didn't really need it pointed out to them again.

While there, I also watched the submission of the Maxim Institute. They argued that the sedition law protected an important interest - "legitimate authority" - and that it should be retained in amended form for its "symbolic value". This didn't go down well with the committee, with Finlayson challenging them to name a single prosecution really aimed at protecting democracy, and asking whether, if it was the symbolism that was important, how Maxim felt about the revival of laws banning heresy (something they did not want to discuss). Chris Auchinvole asked whether such a law would protect democracy any more than laws against heresy had protected religion, and suggested that sedition primarily prevented evolution rather than revolution. The overall view was summed up by Finlayson again, when he said that

If our democracy and constitutional system depends on a few silly offences like sedition, then I put it to you that we're in a very bad way

All of which suggests that Maxim's views are likely to get short shrift.

Despite not talking very much, I don't think my trip was wasted. Someone had to front up and support the bill, and I'm glad I did it. Meanwhile, given the low number of submissions and the seeming agreement among the committee, it is likely that the bill will be reported back far earlier than its December 18 deadline. Which means that hopefully this archaic law will be consigned to the dustbin of history by the end of the year.

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Sedition: Maxim, and last minute panic

The Justice & Electoral Committee will be hearing submissions on the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill tomorrow morning, and the Maxim institute has crawled out of the woodwork to defend sedition. According to Maxim, complete repeal would be "ill-advised and rushed", and it is important that the law protects order and traditional authority. But not even they can defend the current law, instead suggesting it be narrowed to cover

only words that deliberately incite violence against legitimate authority and which create a direct or immediate danger of this violence actually occurring.

Of course, the Crimes Act already forbids inciting violence where there is a direct or immediate danger of this occuring by various means, including the laws governing parties to offences, riot, or even treason (which includes conspiring to use force to overthrow the government of New Zealand). With these powers at the police's disposal, its difficult to see why they would need a narrowed sedition.

Meanwhile, I'll also be appearing before the committee, along with DPF (hence the flurry of Sedition by Example earlier in the evening as I got some of my evidence in order). I've been researching this issue for almost three years, and at the end of it all I get five minutes to make my case. I'll let you know how it went when I get back tomorrow night.