Friday, February 29, 2008

Just the facts

Keith Ng's new column, Just the facts, debuts in the Herald today, with pieces on house prices, electricity "shortages", and crime rates. It's a welcome introduction of hard data into the political discourse.

Naturally, I expect it to be completely ignored.

Ask and ye shall receive (if I feel like it)

Today is Leap Day, the International Day of the Frog, and in the course of suggesting how other blogs would be covering it, FrogBlog came up with this:

I expect No Right Turn to have detailed policy analysis on possible legislative action relating to the Maud Island Frog.
This was intriguing, so I thought I'd have a look at it. And it turns out there is legislative action to protect the Maud Island Frog, but its not what you think it is.

First, the Maud island Frog is one of the world's rarest frog species. Like the Tuatara, it's a living fossil, a remnant of proto-frogs from before the age of the dinosaurs:

It does not have webbed feet, but has atavistic tail-wagging muscles although it does not have a tail. The eyes are round, not slit, and there is no external eardrum. It does not go through a tadpole stage, but instead develops totally within a gelatinous capsule derived from an egg, and therefore does not need standing or running water for reproduction.
Currently almost the entire population of Maud Island Frogs - ~4000 out of less than 4500 individuals lives on (you guessed it) Maud Island, in the Marlborough Sounds (which they share with the Kakapo and Takahe). In an effort to prevent a localised environmental catastrophe from wiping out the entire species, DoC has transplanted a population on nearby Motuara Island, and more recently to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (where they seem to be doing well).

According to its entry in the IUCN red list, the major threats to the Maud Island Frog are habitat loss and degradation, predation and competition by introduced species, and its limited range and slow breeding cycle. The legislative framework seems to be dealing well with these threats. The frogs live in predator-free scientific or nature reserves, and as mentioned above steps are being taken to disperse and expand their population. But it also lists another threat: climate change. Climate change is killing frogs, by drying them out and allowing fungal diseases to spread. And with the Maud Island Frog restricted to such a small geographic area, they could very easily be adversely affected.

Which brings us to the legislation. Currently, the government's Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill is before select committee. The bill will help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and so in a small way help to fight climate change and thereby protect the Maud Island Frog - a point made by Meyt in her Leap Day press release here. So, support the climate change bill; do it for the frogs.

Prison nation

From the New York Times, the shocking news that 1% of all adult Americans are in prison. The New Zealand rate - itself appallingly high - is about a quarter of that. Then there's this bit:

Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
Crooked Timber links to the even more depressing statistics:
in the cohort born between 1965 and 1969, thirty percent of black men without a college education—and sixty percent of black men without a high school degree—had been incarcerated by 1999. Recent cohorts of black men were more likely to have prison records (22.4 percent) than military records (17.4 percent) or bachelor’s degrees (12.5 percent).
Which in many states means they don't get to vote. Convenient, right?

And the reason for all this? According to law professor Paul Cassell,

"One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense."
Where "serious criminal offence" equals minor non-violent drug offences, or petty crime resulting in permanent incarceration under a harsh and unforgiving three strikes law. This isn't about "protecting society", it's about social control and displaying your own viciousness.

And people want to bring this madness here?

"Returning neutrality to the state service"

The National Party, thinking itself the "natural party of government" with an inborn right to rule, are upset that they are not being consulted about who will be the next State Services Commissioner (something they have never done in the past, and which they are never likely to do in the future, but hey, what's hypocrisy when you can pretend outrage?). So, they're threatening people in an effort to discourage them from applying, with an implicit threat to fire them based solely on who they were appointed by.

They call this "returning neutrality to the state service".

Fortunately, the State Services Commissioner can only be removed for misbehaviour or incompetence, on a vote of the House. You'd think the National Party's spokesperson for the state sector would know that before mouthing off.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Climate change: more on offsets

In the wake of my post on the Flexible Land Use Alliance's proposal for offsetting deforestation emissions, someone out there is probably asking why I object so strongly to it. After all, a tree is a tree is a tree, and trees will be planted to replace those cut down. So why the opposition if it makes no difference in the long-term?

Because it matters in the short-term. And with climate change, the short-term matters. According to the Stern Review we have maybe 20 years to turn emissions around [PDF] if we want to stablise greenhouse gas concentrations at an acceptable level (somewhere between 450 and 550 ppm - and many would regard that latter figure as dangerously high). So, all other things being equal, a policy which encourages forest owners to not deforest, or to overcompensate for deforestation is much better than one which lets it continue by averaging things out over 25 - 30 years. Once emissions have stabilised, I agree that averaging out is a simpler way of doing things than rigid carbon accounting (and it can easily be implemented on top of such a structure - just net out the liability through a covenant on the replacement forest). But at the moment, I simply don't think we can afford to do that.

Unfortunately, both NZFirst and United Future - the government's majority - think we should, and so it is very likely to happen. And so once again we'll see policy weakened and undermined in order to pander to large emitters, just as we have in the past.

Climate change: offsets and land use flexibility

A group of large forestry interests has clubbed together to oppose the government's inclusion of deforestation in the Emissions Trading Scheme, arguing that it limits land use flexibility and could lock into forestry land which could be put to more economic uses (such as dairy farming). They're demanding that their forests be exempted, or at the minimum they be allowed to offset their deforestation emissions by planting an equivalent area of forest elsewhere. At first glance, the latter isn't a bad idea, except for one important fact: it's not a true offset. Forests accumulate carbon over time, but deforestation emissions are assumed to occur the moment the trees are harvested. While an equivalent area of forest will eventually hold as much carbon as the trees cut down, the key word is eventually. Given normal forestry cycles, it will take 25 - 30 years (or sometimes more). And in the meantime, we taxpayers would be carrying the can.

I agree that it makes little sense to reflect the Kyoto Protocol's artificial distinction between pre- and post-1990 land in policy - a tree is a tree is a tree, and it makes no difference where it is planted. But the way to do this is by imposing full liabilities on all deforestation (at the moment post-1990 forest is "opt-in"), not by undermining the ETS by giving pre-1990 forest owners a free ride.

(I should also point out that owners of pre-1990 forests will receive enough credits to cover expected levels of deforestation, which should allow large forestry companies like Carter Holt and LandCorp to easily manage their portfolios. They can also already offset with new plantings elsewhere, but those will accumulate carbon slowly over time - meaning that they will need to plant a larger area if they want to offset in a short space of time. OTOH, such overplanting would give them a long-term source of credits with which to offset future conversions - so why not just do that, rather than whining to the government for a handout?)

More generally, I take issue with the FLA's underlying concept of "flexible land use" as failing to properly acknowledge environmental costs. Any economic analysis of what activities land is best suited for must include all the costs - including the cost of carbon. And if its not economic to convert trees to cows when you include all the costs, then it's not economic - period. By trying to pretend these costs don't exist, forest owners and farmers are really demanding that the rest of us - the 95% of the country who don't work in those sectors and receive no benefit from them - subsidise their profits. And I really don't see any reason why we should.

Fiji: establishing a police state

A year after overthrowing a democratically elected government, Fiji's military regime is now working on establishing a police state, with plans to revive the Fiji Intelligence Services. Naturally, "terrorism" is the excuse, but it seems more likely that it will be searching for "espionage, sabotage, [and] sedition" among Fiji's people and media (both of whom the army now explicitly views as enemies) than combatting any real threat.

Meanwhile, in another example of its new Orwellian nature, the Fiji Human Rights Commission has released a report into Freedom and Independence of the Media in Fiji [PDF, slow link], in which it implicitly redefines "media freedom" to mean "freedom to print the government's version of the truth", and calls for Singapore-style controls on the media, the enaction of legislation to outlaw the publication or broadcast of material which can "incite sedition" or a breach of the Public Order Act. It also calls for the work permits of all foreign journalists in Fiji to be revoked or not renewed, and for no further permits to be issued (the latter in particular seems to be aimed at expatriate editors from Australia and New Zealand and fears from the military that those countries might seek to "control the Pacific Islands"). While it claims to be from a human rights perspective, there's no top-level discussion of human rights principles or international instruments around media freedom, why it is necessary, what other rights it must be balanced against, or how other countries have approached this balancing act. Neither is there any top-down discussion of journalistic ethics. Instead, the entire thing reads like an extended bitch against the Fijian media (many of whom had personally annoyed the consultant and his employers), with solutions pulled out of thin air at the end. I'd be embarassed to read this from a graduate student; to think that a government agency actually paid for such tripe is shocking.

Another foreshore and seabed deal

The government has signed another foreshore and seabed deal, this time with East Cape iwi Te Whanau a Apanui. An overview of the agreement is here [DOC]. Like the previous agreement with Ngati Porou, it will grant substantial control over specified areas of foreshore and seabed to the iwi, including management rights, an environmental covenant, and the power to block resource consents which adversely impact on recognised customary rights.

Left unspecified at this stage is the geographic extent of the settlement, but the government appears to be relying on the same test used in the now-discredited 90-Mile Beach case: uninterrupted occupation and use of the land adjacent to the foreshore. But while such a test would have been perfectly appropriate in the 1840's, I'm not sure that it works so well now, when most iwi have been almost entirely dispossessed by the crown, and occupation and customary use have been disrupted by land seizures. Instead, it seems to legitimise and reinforce past Treaty breaches (OTOH, so would the alternative of "was it owned and used in 1840? Was it subsequently sold or the rights legally extinguished?", because while despicable, most of the government's dispossession of Maori was entirely legal).

Still, it is good that they can get agreement and a long-term way of resolving the issue. But again, this reinforces the tragedy of the foreshore and seabed: that we'd likely be seeing the same deals if the government hadn't legislated, only without the bitterness and mistrust that the law has created.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Mike Moreu puts Family Fist's efforts to restore the "right" of parents to beat their kids in its proper context:

The ghost of the "Dirty War"

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina's military junta waged a campaign of violence against dissidents, students, and unionists known as the "Dirty War". Thousands were disappeared, tortured and murdered by government death squads, their bodies flung from the backs of planes over the Atlantic Ocean to prevent any evidence from coming to light. Argentina is now confronting its past, and prosecuting those responsible for these atrocities, but it is still haunted by the ghost of past terror. In two recent cases against former torturers, key witnesses have disappeared. One has still not been found. And now it has happened again. Lt Colonel Paul Navone, a former army officer, was scheduled to testify about the fate of two babies kidnapped by the regime and given up for adoption. He has just been found dead. While the circumstances suggest suicide, there's a strong suspicion that he was murdered.

Far from being over, it seems that Argentina's "Dirty War" will not end until the last of those responsible is behind bars...

Fiji: Qarase charged

Lost in the noise of the deportation of Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter is some other significant news from Fiji: deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has appeared in court on abuse of office charges. However, they don't relate to his time as Prime Minister, but to a share transactions in the early 1990's when he was acting as a company director.

This is what should have been done to Qarase all along: charge, prosecute, and (if the evidence is strong enough), convict. And that's not something you need tooverthrow a democratically elected government to do.

Fiji: deporting the media

on Sunday night, Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter was abducted from his Suva home by immigration officials, detained overnight, and summarily deported (in violation of a court order prohibiting his deportation). His crime? Publishing a series of stories accusing a Minister of Fiji's military regime of massive tax evasion. This was deemed "prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, security and stability of the sovereign state of the Fiji Islands", and so he was deported.

Unfortunately, the stories are not online, and the Fiji Sun's archives leave a lot to be desired. But you can get a good grasp of the issue from the rival Fiji Times. It seems former Prime Minister and current interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has been a very bad boy, systematically evading taxes for a number of years and receiving questionable payments to overseas accounts. Staff within the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority had been investigating this for some time, but were suspended after informing the interim regime of their concerns. The investigation was then buried, and its clear from FIRCA's response that they are now more interested in covering up for their Minister than in enforcing the law.

It's a very bad look for a regime which used corruption as its justification for seizing power, and in a democracy governed by the rule of law Chaudhry would already be out on his arse and facing prosecution. But Fiji isn't a democracy any more, and (as Russell Hunter noted) under Bainimarama the law "is what certain people say it is on any given day". And if they decide that holding their regime to account is a security threat justifying deportation (or worse), then there's precious little anyone can do about it, other than wait for elections which may never come.

Another victory for freedom of information in the UK

Last week, the UK government was forced to release the draft of the "dodgy dossier" after a ruling from the Information Tribunal. Now, the Information Commissioner has ruled they must also disclose the minutes of the cabinet sessions where Ministers discussed the legality of invading Iraq:

In an unprecedented ruling, Thomas said the papers about the controversial legal advice should be made public in part because "there is a widespread view that the justification for the decision on military action in Iraq is either not fully understood or that the public were not given the full or genuine reasons for that decision".

Thomas said the public interest in disclosure outweighed the principles that normally allow the government not to have to publish minutes of cabinet decisions.

The government is appealing, of course, and even if they lose they could sanitise the documents, but its an important victory for freedom of information nonetheless. Freedom of information laws exist to allow the public to delve into the workings of government, and so hold it to account - and in the case of the Iraq war, that's exactly what they're doing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ghandi comes to Palestine

Today 40,000 Palestinians formed a human chain on their northern border with Israel to protest against the latter's continued economic blockade. Israel's response?

Some areas on the Israeli side of the border were declared closed military zones and foreign journalists were prohibited from entering Gaza as 5,000 police backed up troops amid reports that the Israeli military had stationed an artillery battery and snipers close to the border fence.
In other words, prepare for a massacre. Fortunately it did not come to that, despite the doom-laden ravings from the Israeli right, but its indicitive of their attitude to the Palestinians that that would be their response to a peaceful protest.

As for whether these new tactics will work, I doubt it. Ghandi understood that nonviolent resistance requires that your enemy have enough shame to be reluctant to simply massacre people. And given Israel's longstanding inability to draw any distinction between combatants and civilians and its prediliction for collective punishment, I'm not sure that that can really be relied upon. OTOH, it's worth a try, and is a lot, lot better than killing people.

Snake oil

Anti-depressants are some of the biggest-selling pharmaceuticals in the world, taken by over 40 million people. But there's a problem: according to a major study published today, they don't actually work:

In the study, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of all 47 clinical trials, published and unpublished, submitted to the Food and Drug Administration in the US, made in support of licensing applications for six of the best known antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, Seroxat – which is made by GlaxoSmithKline – and Efexor made by Wyeth. The results showed the drugs were effective only in a very small group of the most extremely depressed.


Professor Irving Kirsch of the University of Hull, who led the study published in the online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine , said the data submitted to the FDA would also have been submitted to the licensing authorities in Britain and Europe. It showed the drugs produced a "very small" improvement compared with placebo of two points on the 51-point Hamilton depression scale.

That was sufficient to grant the drugs a licence but did not meet the minimum three-point difference required by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) to establish "clinical" significance. Yet Nice approved the drugs for use on the NHS in the UK because it only had access to the published trials, which showed a larger effect.

According to the Guardian's version, placebo produced exactly the same gain in all but the most depressed patients. Meaning that the drugs effectively did nothing for most people. There's a name for this: snake oil. And by not requiring pharmaceutical companies to hand over all their data when applying for a licence, our current pharmaceutical licencing system permits and encourages it.

These are good

A new variant on National's 2005 election billboards:

There's a rich vein of reversals, flip-flops, and shameless obfuscations to be mined there, and it should be just as amusing as the old style.

(Hat tip: The Standard)

The sitting programme and lazy journalism

Parliament is in recess this week, so there'll be less political news without Question Time and the ongoing work of legislating to drive it. Meanwhile, on his blog, Colin Espiner takes issue with the fact that the House will be sitting for only 61 days this year, making the usual snide comments about lazy politicians being paid for doing not much. To which one can only say that elections naturally disrupt the Parliamentary calendar. Not only is there the election period itself, but there is also a lengthy post-election break. Parliament must sit within six weeks of an election, but exactly when, or for how long, are issues within the purview of the new Parliament, not the old. I should also take the opportunity to point people at Poneke's piece about the punishing realities of Parliament's schedule; it's not just about sitting days, and the upshot is that our MPs work rather longer hours than the gallery journalists who so airily judge them.

Espiner's real problem though seems to be his inability read a calendar:

The official reason for the drop is of course the election. The number of sitting days is set by MPs themselves, and everyone wants maximum campaigning time this year. But a cut of 30 days, at three days a week, is a ten-week block out of the Parliamentary year. Does this mean we’re in for a ten-week campaign? Quite possibly.
According to the House sitting programme, Parliament will begin its final session in the week of September 23rd. The last possible date for the election is November 15th. Assuming the final session lasts only that week (and it may not - it can go longer), that leaves space for a seven-week campaign - or for the election to be held a week earlier, on November 8th (or indeed, for Parliament to run over for a week, as it did last year, if it has pressing business to get through).

Contrary to Espiner's insinuations, there's no conspiracy here for the government to avoid public scrutiny. Parliament's sitting programme is set around the reliable framework of the school holidays and the need for an election. It's sufficiently reliable that, if you have a mind to, you can pretty much predict it long before it is formally set. But why let facts get in the way of shallow and lazy journalism?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Four minutes for a death sentence

Last year, Sayad Parvez Kambaksh was sentenced to death in Afghanistan for distributing a paper to his fellow journalism students discussing the role of women in Islam. How long did it take the court to assess the evidence and come to judgement? Four minutes. Four minutes for a death sentence. To call this a travesty is an understatement.

Remember, we are supporting the government which did this. New Zealand has troops in Afghanistan, engaged in reconstruction work. But if the Afghan government does things like this, we should be reconsidering that support. We simply should not be supporting governments which fail to meet basic human rights standards and fundamental standards of justice. We already implicitly have such a policy - there's no question that we would not send troops to prop up the governments of North Korea or Uzbekistan because they fail to meet such standards. We should apply the same policy to Afghanistan.

Training wheels for a republic

Over at the Holden Republic, Lewis discusses the Australian Republican Movement's suggestion of an elected Governor-General as a transition to a republic. And thinking about it, it's not a bad idea. As a democratic society, our natural approach to a republic would be for an elected presidency, but one of the most commonly expressed concerns about such a system is that the head of state would feel they "had a mandate" and start throwing their weight around, sacking elected governments and trying to veto legislation. This is then taken as a reason not to shift to a republic.

The underlying concern here isn't really republicanism or election as such, but the fear that a transition would undermine the strong constitutional conventions which render the office of Governor-General utterly powerless. Governors-General can't refuse assent or appoint whoever they want as Prime Minister because those battles were fought and won by democracy long ago (in 1687 and 1834 respectively). But a Presidency would be a blank slate, at least in the public mind, and so would have a lot more room in which to manoeuvre and possibly ignore those conventions (not least because they'd also buy their own socks1)

But the answer here isn't to abandon republicanism or democracy; it's to manage the transition so that the convention of a powerless head of state utterly subservient to the elected Parliament survives. And electing the Governor-General while still retaining the monarchy strikes me as a good way of doing this. In the public mind, they can't throw their weight around because they're still the Governor-General. Then, when we twink out the monarch and turn the Governor-General into a President, they're still in the public eye the Governor-General. Election has been normalised, and we've got used to the idea of an elected ceremonial figurehead (of course, it would also help if we codified the head-of-state's powers into the bargain, but that applies whether we move to a republic or not).

There are two possible downsides. The first is that a strategy of bedding in incremental changes commits us to a slower move to a republic than I would like. The second is that it basically commits us to the "twink republic" model of retaining the present system but erasing the monarch. As an advocate of that system, I don't actually see that as a drawback, but those who favour different models, or who want a constitutional blank slate, might.

1 English constitutional history being a process of Parliament shifting power to itself by continually threatening to cut off the monarch's sock budget.

New Fisk

Dreams of becoming Hitchcock's hero

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bail is a human right

The man accused of murdering a teenage tagger has been bailed, causing the usual outcry over how he "should be stuck back in a jail cell". I'm constantly appalled by demands like this from people who let their anger at an offence overcome basic considerations of justice. As I've pointed out before, bail is a human right in this country. According to s24 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, everyone charged with an offence must be "released on reasonable terms and conditions unless there is just cause for continued detention". The only reasons for continuing to detain someone are a risk of non-appearance, a risk that they will offend further while on bail, or a risk that they will interfere with witnesses - none of which seems even remotely likely in this case.

This is as it should be. People are innocent until proven guilty, and it is unfair that they should be punished by a potentially long period of imprisonment (it can take up to two years for a case to come to trial) before the case has been proved. What the opponents of bail are demanding is that people effectively be punished without trial, merely on the suspicion of an offence. This runs contrary to all standards of justice. They would not accept such treatment if they or their loved ones were accused of an offence, and they should not demand that others be abused in this fashion.

The US lied to Britain over rendition

Several years ago, when the issue of extraordinary rendition - the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and their transport to third world countries for torture - became an issue, the UK asked the US for an assurance from the US that no rendition flights had passed through their territory. They received one. Now it turns out - surprise, surprise - that the Americans lied:

Britain acknowledged today for the first time that US planes on "extraordinary rendition" flights stopped on British soil twice.

The admission came from the foreign secretary, David Miliband, who apologised to MPs for incorrect information given by his predecessor, Jack Straw, and the former prime minister Tony Blair.

Miliband said the government had recently received information from Washington that two flights - one to Guantánamo Bay and one to Morocco – had stopped over at Diego Garcia, the British overseas territory in the Indian Ocean.

Each plane carried a single terror suspect and neither of the men had been tortured, the CIA said.

"Contrary to earlier explicit assurances that Diego Garcia had not been used for rendition flights, recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred," Miliband told MPs.

Of course, this immediately raises another problem: having lied blatantly in a previous "solemn assurance", how can we believe this one? In particular, how can we believe the US's assurances that these men haven't been tortured (particularly given the US's creative interpretations of the word to exclude acts like strapado and waterboarding), or their assurance that they have not been operating a "black site" torture-centre on Diego Garcia? We won't know unless the British actually go and look (Diego Garcia is after all UK territory, even if it was recently stolen from its original inhabitants). But sadly, that's the last thing I expect them to do. Instead, they'll just sweep this appalling abuse of human rights under the carpet, and make no efforts to bring those responsible to justice.

Wilson to retire

Labour's renewal continues, with Speaker of the House Margaret Wilson announcing that she will retire at the next election. She's done nine years in Parliament as well as three years as Speaker, which ought to be enough to make anyone thoroughly sick of both. And after the way she's been consistently treated by National's more misogynist MPs (who seem to have a real problem with a woman in the Speaker's chair), then who can blame her?

Washing their hands

For the past 18 years, the government has been attempting to settle Treaty claims on the central North Island's Kaingaroa Forest. However, multiple overlapping claims and unclear ownership has made it impossible, so the government has hit upon a new (or rather, old) solution: washing their hands of the matter. Rather than work out who owned what and complete a just settlement with each individual iwi, they have instead signed a deal to transfer settlement assets to a body made up of the claimants, leaving them to fight it out amongst themselves.

There's an obvious parallel with the 1992 "Sealord" deal here (which has already resulted in the settlement being dubbed "treelord") and there's a danger that it could go the same way, with a decade of expensive legal action and much bitterness all round. OTOH, direct negotiations between rival claimants might work (as it eventually did with Sealord). But either way, it's hard to escape the impression that rather than striving for justice, the government is going for quick solutions to show it is getting on with the job. And that's a rather disappointing attitude.

Update: Obviously, this isn't a bad Thing if all potential claimants are happy with the arrangement. But not everybody is. And the danger is that they will be sidelined while the government pursues headlines.


The government's Summary Offences (Tagging and Graffiti Vandalism) Amendment Bill passed its first reading in the House yesterday. But while the media is focusing on the debate and its attendant hatefest against the young, they've missed an important aspect of the story: the inconsistency of the bill's s7 advice under the Bill of Rights Act.

Back in 2005, Labour MP George Hawkins tried to pass a local bill targeting graffiti in Manukau City. And at the time, the Ministry of Justice (who provide advice on BORA-consistency for most bills) argued that the proposed law violated the BORA because it discriminated on the basis of age. While the prevention of graffiti was "a significant and important objective", the age ban was neither a rational nor a proportionate means of meeting it, and therefore could not be justified under the Bill of Rights Act:

15. On the evidence available, prohibiting the sale of spray paint to minors in Manukau does not have a strong connection to the stated objective of the Bill because it is not likely to minimise the incidences of graffiti. Offenders would still be able to purchase graffiti implements in nearby areas or through purchase on their behalf by an adult. Those committing acts of graffiti are likely to be determined and will find alternative methods of acquiring the necessary equipment. In addition to this, cans of spray paint are not the only graffiti implements identified in the Bill but they are the only ones subject to restrictions on sale. For example, implements capable of etching glass are also identified but minors would still be able to purchase such implements.

16. The restriction on the right is not sufficiently precise to ensure that it addresses only those matters that it is intended to address. Given the extent to which spray paint can be used for lawful purposes and the negative impact that the prohibition might have on law-abiding members of the public, prohibiting the sale of spray paint to minors is disproportionate. The Bill will cause disadvantage to those minors who are not the intended targets of the Bill and who will be unfairly prevented from purchasing spray paint because of their age. The Report of the Manukau City Council on Graffiti Control, produced in 2004, acknowledges that its own legal advice suggests that such restrictions would be found to be in breach of the Bill of Rights Act.

But now that the government has made a war on tagging a policy priority in a shameless effort to grub for votes, all that has changed. The new s7 report finds the discrimination to be both rational and proportionate - despite arguing that it punishes all teenagers to target a miniscule proportion of their number, and that it will be utterly ineffective:
8. On that basis, I note that not all people engaged in tagging are under 18 and, significantly, that tagging appears to be carried out by only a very small proportion of young people: for example, the Ministry of Justice has advised that a Christchurch study suggested that in that city there were only approximately 200 "casual taggers" and 30-50 "prolific taggers".


10. I note there is some reason to expect that the direct positive effects of the age restriction will be limited. Most widely, it will remain open to young people to use materials or implements other than spraycans and also to obtain spraycans through people aged over 18, including older people engaged in tagging. Further, a similar age limit provision in the Graffiti Control Act 2001 (South Australia) was apparently not effective in addressing graffiti problems.

(Emphasis added).

But these problems are simply blithely dismissed. As for the difference with the earlier bill, the report explains that it was a problem because it only targeted teenagers in Manukau. So, violating the human rights of young people in a limited geographic area is bad, but violating them across the entire country is fine. Do these people ever bother to actually read what they say?

What this shows is the flexibility of the supposedly neutral and objective advice the Attorney-General receives on BORA issues. If the government wants to pass a bill, it will get a clean BORA report, no matter how flawed or overt the violation (see for example the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act, or the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill working its way through Parliament). For this reason, the task of vetting legislation for consistency with the BORA should be taken away from MoJ and Crown law, and put in the hands of a truly independent organisation, such as the Human Rights Commission.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Don't shop at Bunnings

While John Key is talking about tax cuts and wage cuts to "close the gap" with Australia, there's a perfect example of the wage-gap and its causes happening right now. Bunnings Warehouse is an Australian-owned hardware chain. It pays its New Zealand workers the minimum wage of NZ$12 / hour. In Australia, it pays well above the minimum wage - NZ$18.44 / hour, which will increase to NZ$19/hour in July (the Australian minimum wage is A$13.74 or NZ$15.80 / hour). The reason for this difference? In Australia, they stil have unions, whereas in New Zealand collective bargaining was stifled by National's Employment Contracts Act.

As The Standard points out, no amount of tax cuts will close that gap in salary (particularly since, in the case of National, they'll be given to other people. Giving someone else a tax cut doesn't help low-wage workers one bit). The only way it is going to happen is by actually raising wages. Unfortunately, that requires employers to come to the party, and in Bunnings' case, they just won't. The NDU has been attempting to negotiate a wage rise for the past nine months, and Bunnings has refused to talk to them. The profit margins of their Australian owners trump paying their workers a decent wage.

Currently, Bunnings is facing low-level industrial action. But I think its at the stage where the public should show our disapproval. If we want wages to rise, then we need to stand together against the Aussie sweatshops who are pillaging our communities. You can start by calling Bunnings' hotline - 0800 HARDWARE - or emailing their New Zealand General Manager and telling them to negotiate with their workers. But most importantly, we need to vote with our feet and our wallets and refuse to shop there until they start paying their workers a decent wage.

We don't exist

Last election, National tried to buy their way to power by offering tax cuts for the rich. This election, they're promising to do the same. But since Brash's tax cuts (which Key helped design, and which would have been funded by borrowing) weren't big enough, they've decided to up the ante: on KiwiFM this morning, John Key indicated that his tax cut package would be on the order of "2 - 3 hundred dollars a month".

Firstly, I don't believe for a moment that Key is promising this to every New Zealand taxpayer. Yes, he's deliberately trying to give that impression ("vote for National and you'll be rich!"), but $3,600 a year is actually more tax than almost half of us even pay (Treasury: Who pays tax... and how much?). And if it was distributed evenly in that fashion, the cost would be utterly staggering: $11.5 billion - almost half of core output expenses (that's your basic government ministries in Wellington), or more than the entire health budget (Budget 2007 summary tables [PDF]). Not even ACT would be that insane. So what's Key playing at?

Simple: the figures are for his base. One of the things that is clear from the right's discussion of taxes is that they consistently show no interest at all in the 80% of us who earn less than $50,000 a year (see for example their criticisms of Kiwisaver, which are predicated entirely on its benefit for the richest 3.5% of the population). So, how much would you have to be earning to get Key's "2 - 3 hundred dollars a month"? If this election's bribe is anything like last one's, then the answer is more than $75,000 a year. As for the rest of us - the 90% who don't earn that much - we just don't exist as far as National is concerned.

The US supports dictatorship in Pakistan

Just days after the Pakistani people won a massive victory for democracy and swept President Musharaf's supporters from power, the US and their ever-reliable serveants, the British, are warning them "not to go to far":

The United States and Britain are pressing Pervez Musharraf's victorious opponents to drop their demands that he resign as President and that the country's independent judiciary be restored before forming a government.


"[The US] does not want some people pushed out because it would lead to instability. In this case that means Musharraf," said one Western diplomat. Officials say the policy is driven by concern about instability in the aftermath of the election in which the President's parliamentary allies were soundly beaten.

So, once again the US and UK expose their hypocrisy on democracy and their contempt for fundamental human rights standards we take for granted. The right of a people to choose their government? An independent and impartial judiciary? Both come second to their need for reliable proxies to fight their "war on terror". And they wonder why people don't take their claims to support democracy seriously...

National's sweatshop economy

John Key's "explanation" for his statement that he would like to see wages drop: "I was talking about Australia". Pull the other one, it has a symphony orchestra. The context of his quote is here [PDF] in black and white, and its immediately apparent that he's talking about New Zealand, and specifically about countering the trend of recent wage rises here caused by the labour shortage. I should also point out that this isn't the first time Key has made such statements - back in July he complained that the economy could not grow because it lacked "spare capacity" - which means unemployment. John Key's model of the economy is not one in which New Zealanders enjoy higher standards of living through productivity increases, but one in which business quarries a pool of cheap, disposable, low-skill labour - exactly as it does in China. In other words, a sweatshop economy.

Of course, this isn't new to Key, but longstanding National Party policy. Don Brash pushed exactly the same line: the way to "close the gap" with Australia was to reduce wages in New Zealand.

As for how it would be done policywise, I've noted for a long time that National's welfare policies have really been labour market policies, aimed at forcing people who are too sick to work into the workforce as a "reserve army of labour" in order to keep wages down. The second strand would be a crackdown on unions and a tilting of employment law towards business, for example through the introduction of probationary employment and the removal of protections against dismissal (all strong features of National's employment policy). But the main change will come from changes to monetary policy and the Reserve Bank's policy targets agreement, setting a tighter inflation band and removing the clause about disruption to the labour market, meaning higher interest rates, more unemployment, and (by the law of supply and demand) lower wages - just as Don Brash did for them in the 90's.

This agenda isn't about improving the living standards of ordinary New Zealanders. It isn't "ambitious for New Zealand". It's about transferring wealth from the many to the few, and ensuring that any benefits of economic growth flow exclusively into a very small number of pockets at the top of the pyramid - exactly has happened in the 90's.

(Billboard courtesy of The Standard.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Musharraf loses

The Pakistani elections seem to have turned into the mother of all victories for democracy, with President Musharraf's allies not just being swept from office, but a real chance that an alliance of opposition parties will reach the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach him. And even if they don't, he's just been politically castrated and has already resigned himself to a ceremonial role.

So, there will be change in Pakistan - and change for the better. Musharraf's restrictions on the media and judiciary are likely to be swiftly ended, and the new government is likely to negotiate with the militants in their border region rather than sending the army to wage war in the name of America (it makes sense - they have to live with these people in the long-term, after all). The US is not happy with this, which is why they are already raising doubts about the (no-longer) opposition parties and crying "corruption". But while Pakistan’s new elected rulers may be corrupt and incompetent, they are at least elected, and thus have something that the US's dictator will never have: popular legitimacy.

Imagine the applications

A US/Australian firm has invented a simple neural headset, allowing direct control of computers from the brain. It's crude - basically it does directions, as well as picking up basic emotions and facial expressions (the latter presumably through muscle signals) - but its a start. And it's cheap - they're planning to sell it for a mere US$300.

Naturally, they're aiming it at the online gaming market.

Yes, a miracle of engineering, with piles of applications (just think what it could do for the disabled, for a start), and their intended use is so your Orc can snarl realisticly while you insult your enemies in World of Warcraft.

Goodbye Castro

So, Fidel Castro has finally retired. While he overthrew a corrupt and brutal dictatorship which murdered and tortured dissidents, he simply replaced it with one of his own. Castro is a perfect example of the dangers of revolution; revolutions should make people free, not simply slaves to a different master.

While initially it looks like Fidel's brother Raul will replace him as President, the hope now is that Cuba will return to democracy. That may take a while - Castro will exert a powerful influence on his party even from the background, and we will probably have to wait until he dies. But the fact remains that Cuba now has a chance at freedom, and we should all be hoping that they take it.

Members' Day

Today is a Members' Day, the first of the new Parliamentary year. Unfortunately, the Order Paper is dominated by private and local bills (including the excreable Wanganui gang patch bill), which will delay proceedings somewhat. On the plus side, the government is finally advancing the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Bill, which is sure to meet with tough opposition from National (and which could be dragged out for the whole evening if they want). There's also the odd little Melanesian Trusts (Income Tax Exemption) Amendment Bill, the primary purpose of which is to make the rest of us pay for other people's religion - but sadly, that particular outrage seems unlikely to encounter any real opposition. And so church privileges dating back to the middle ages are further perpetuated...

The Wanganui bill will see a lot of chest beating about gangs and law & order, but will probably fly through, since no-one other than the Greens and Maori Party will want to be seen opposing it. Bill of Rights? Who cares when you can posture as "tough on crime"?

If we are lucky, we might see some debate on Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill from 21:00, but I wouldn't want to count on it.

New kiwi blog

Nevermind - politics and technology.

Why we must end child poverty

Paul Krugman uses his New York Times column this week to highlight this piece in the Financial Times last Saturday:

Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain, the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston heard on Friday.

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

This damage can effectively lock in disadvantage for the rest of a child's life, making a mockery of meritocracy. Krugman's response is that this is a powerful reason for the United States to work harder to reduce poverty - an effort it has shamefully abandoned since the 60's. I'd say the same applies here in New Zealand.

New Zealand has an appalling rate of child poverty, ranking fourth worst in the OECD in 2001, with 16.3% of children living in households earning less than half the median equivalent household income. This isn't just a matter of international league tables, but of blighted lives and a denial of opportunity. Fortunately, the Working for Families package is expected to reduce this dramatically, from 14.7% (2005) to 4.3% (2008) (or 29% to 20.5% if you use a 60% poverty threshold, the other international standard). But while that's impressive, it's not enough: Working for Families has a significant gap around assistance to those on benefits, which means that we are effectively condemning the children of beneficiaries - the very people who need our help the most - to lives of poverty.

This is not something we can afford to do, either morally or economically. A society which randomly chose 4% (or worse, 20%) of its children and poisoned them until they were brain damaged would be condemned as wicked and wasteful. But that is effectively what our economic system is doing right here, right now. If we are to meet even minimal moral standards, and make our attempts at meritocracy even remotely meaningful, we must ensure that every child gets a decent start in life. And that means ending child poverty, today.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Freedom of speech 1, China nil

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has backed away from its plans to gag Olympic atheletes, promising that the contract will be rewritten to bring the guidelines into line with those of other countries. It's a clear victory for the Green Party, who have kicked up a fuss about this, and a clear defeat for the "sport and politics don't mix" crowd and those who sought to appease China with silence. As the Greens' Keith Locke points out, one of the reasons the 2008 Olympics were awarded to Beijing was to shine a spotlight on its human rights record and give it a reason to improve. That would hardly be possible if athletes are forbidden from speaking out.

(OTOH, the IOC guidelines aren't that flash either, as they ban any political demonstrations at the games, explicitly to prevent any repeat of Tommie Smith and John Carlos's memorable and dignified demonstration at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Cthulhu forbid that athletes have something on their mind besides sport and making money for the sponsors...)

What's surprising in all this is that the Labour government, many of whom cut their teeth opposing the Springbok Tour and speaking out for human rights, backed the NZOC's cowardly censorship. But we know they've travelled a long way - in Helen Clark's case, all the way from protesting against Vietnam to sending SAS troops to kill for America in Afghanistan - and this is simply another sign that they have lost touch with their values.

As for the games themselves, I take it as axiomatic that we should not be attending a major sporting event in a country which supports genocide in Darfur, executes over 1,000 people a year, and has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. By doing so, we lend them mana, so the best thing we can do is stay away. Unfortunately, the NZOC is more concerned with winning medals than morality, so the best I can do is not watch and try and avoid the sponsors if I can.

Counterproductive and evil

What's John Key's solution to emigration to Australia? Lowering wages in New Zealand. Yes, seriously. Here's what he said to the Kerikeri District Business Asociation in December [PDF]:

Another point raised by Ms Brookes-Quan concerned the exodus to Australia by New Zealanders, lured by attractive wage compensation, and the recent call for employers to pay more.

Mr Key would like to see the opposite occur.

"We would love to see wages drop," he says.

"The way we want to see wages increase is because productivity is greater. So people can afford more. Not just for inflationary reasons, otherwise it's a bit of a vicious circle as it comes back at you in higher interest rates."

"We really want to drive that out," he says.

(Emphasis added)

There are two words which can describe this policy. The first is "counterproductive". Emmigration to Australia is primarily driven by the wage gap, so lowering wages here is only likely to increase it. And as decisions on productivity increases are firmly in the hands of employers and driven by the relative cost of capital and labour, it will also result in lower productivity growth, and hence a lower sustainable standard of living for kiwis in the long term. If we want to improve productivity, then we need to raise wages, not lower them.

The second word is "evil". Because there's just no other way to describe a policy of deliberately lowering the living standards of the vast majority of ordinary Kiwis so your rich mates can enjoy higher profits.

Barnett bows out

Labour MP Tim Barnett has announced he will not be standing at the next election. It's a shame - Barnett did excellent work on the Prostitution Reform and Civil Union Acts, and showed a lot of political skill in building and holding political coalitions behind both. Like DPF I can't understand why he was never promoted to Cabinet, but I can't blame Barnett for moving on when it became apparent that time-servers would be promoted and retained ahead of him.

Meanwhile, over on DPF, the Kiwiblog right are showing their homophobia. And they wonder why we call it a sewer...

Against political patronage

So, having first claimed that he was offered a cabinet position, Labour donor Owen Glenn is now claiming to be in line to become New Zealand's honorary consul to Monaco - a claim confirmed by the Prime Minister when questioned about it, according to Colin Espiner:

I’ve just got back from a brief stand-up with the PM at which she confirmed discussions are under way with Foreign Minister Winston Peters about his possible appointment.

She says Glenn expressed interest in the post, for purely altruistic reasons, and Peters is currently considering the idea. Currently we don’t have a consul or any other representation in Monaco, a tiny principality populated by the very rich on the Mediterranean coast.

Clark ran a mile from any suggestion that this was her idea, or even that she had ever discussed it with Glenn.

This stinks, even worse than Glenn being awarded a gong in the New Year's honours list. "Honorary consul" isn't much - I'm not sure if it even comes with a salary - but by even contemplating awarding such a position to their biggest donor, the government has created the impression that government office is for sale in this country. And in doing so, they've instantly dragged us back to the institutionalised corruption and patronage of the eighteenth century. FFS, that's what the Americans do, and we ought to at least think we're better than them.

Again, some might argue that it would be unfair to "penalise" Glenn for his links to a political party by passing him over for an honorary position. But again, the integrity of our political system is more important than people's sense of entitlement. We cannot allow corruption and political patronage to gain a foothold in our democracy - because once it starts, it never stops.

(As for Glenn's recent loan to the Labour Party, it shows a significant hole in past and present electoral finance law: while both require loans at better than commercial rates to be declared if the effective donation is above the declaration threshold ($10,000 and $1,000 respectively), there has never been any demand on parties to tell us to whom they are beholden and for how much. Which if the aim is to prevent wealthy and corporate interests exerting undue influence and exacting favourable policy from our elected representatives, seems to be a bit of a hole).

A victory for freedom of information in the UK

Five years ago, the British government went to war on the basis of a lie - Tony Blair's "dodgy dossier" which infamously claimed that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction against Britain "within 45 minutes". Ever since, people have sought to uncover the history of the dossier, to see where the lies came from. And now, thanks to the UK's Freedom of Information Act, they've been able to. Following a decision by the Information Tribunal, the British government has been forced to reveal the earliest draft of the dossier, revealing that most of its content was drafted not by intelligence professionals, but by a Foreign office spindoctor - explicitly contradicting Blair's efforts to hide behind the authority of the intelligence services. It also shows that - as suspected - the 45-minute claim was inserted later, almost certainly at the behest of Downing Street. Above all, it shows that the British government was dishonest from start to finish about the whole affair. Which is arguably the entire point of freedom of information legislation.

Obviously, this is a victory for those seeking to uncover the lies and deceptions around the Iraq war. But it's also a significant victory for freedom of information in the UK. The government had sought to withhold the draft on the basis that it would compromise the free and frank advice of officials, who might be less forthcoming if they thought their initial drafts would be released for public scrutiny. But the Information Tribunal ruled that those concerns were outweighed by the significant public interest in this case, in the process prising open a vital window on public affairs. This precedent will be used for years to come to examine the formulation of policy in the UK. This will no doubt make governments and officials uncomfortable, but as in New Zealand, the British political process will ultimately be better for it.

The draft dossier is here.

A war on kids

Over on Public Address, Keith Ng dissects the government's "war on taggers", pointing out that it's

a PR set piece designed to demonstrate to the country that Helen Clark is Doing Something. Doing Something about what? Oh, you know, those kids.
It's a sentiment echoed (prechoed? What is the word for someone who says the same thing independently a bit earlier?) by Linley Boniface in Monday's Dominion Post:
It is this completely natural state of affairs [the old hating the young] that is, I believe, behind the Government's current war on graffiti (in addition to it being a nice cheap way to gain a few extra votes). Graffiti is a young person's hobby that offends grown-ups' ideas of neatness, tidiness and social order, and therefore it must be crushed.

For confirmation of this view, check out the name of the anti- graffiti initiative: Stop Tagging Our Place. "Our place", understand? Not your place.

It is our place, you spotty, hoodie-wearing hooligans, and we want to keep it clean and pristine.

Boniface is being lighthearted, but the core point remains: this is not primarily about property damage or about some scourge of youth crime (which as Keith points out, is mostly illusory); it is about showing who is in charge, who "owns" our society, and making it clear that the young (and particularly the poor young) are excluded from it. It is in other words pure intergenerational warfare. Helen Clark's "war on tagging" is in fact a war on kids.

Last election, Don Brash picked out and demonised a section of our community for electoral gain, now Helen Clark is doing the same. I'd expected rather better from her and her party.

Correction: That is of course Linley Boniface. I plead decaffeination...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Not on the fence at all

In her post-Cabinet press conferance today, Prime Minister Helen Clark said that New Zealand would "neither recognise nor not recognise" Kosovo's independence. As intended, this is reported by NZPA as New Zealand being "on the fence" on the issue, but in fact it's nothing of the sort. The ugly truth behind Clark's obfuscation is that we are refusing to recognise, and it would be nice if she actually had the decency to be honest about it.

Sensible sitting hours

Poneke has a post about the ridiculous and inhumane hours our MPs (and by extension, their staff) work. While Parliament only sits three days a week, from 14:00 - 22:00 (and 14:00 - 18:00 on Thursdays), the demands of constituents, cabinet, caucus, and committees (and of course the media) essentially make it a 24/7 job, with no time at all for eating and sleeping, let alone relaxation or families. Throw in the ban on MP's leaving the parliamentary precinct on sitting days, and it's like 120 rats, stuck in a too small cage, with no escape - no wonder they're at each other's thoats all the time!

This is terrible, but believe it or not, it used to be worse. Browsing back through old Hansards when researching the history of the OIA, I was shocked to read that Parliament was routinely sitting till 3 or 4 in the morning (presumably it started later, but still...). No wonder Muldoon and the Revolutionaries seem utterly mad in retrospect - it was because they were psychotic and hallucinating from sleep deprivation! (Actually, that explains a lot...)

Poneke's proposed solution is to shift Parliamentary sitting hours to a more normal 10:00 - 18:00, with committees meeting while the House sits (something that already happens to some extent). This would be a lot more humane, and possibly allow our MPs to get a good night's sleep. The problem, as Poneke points out, is that politics is a game which rewards time invested - so even if sitting hours change, the demands of parties and the media may mean that there's not that much benefit to MP's. Still, there's no harm in trying, and our Parliament would I think be a lot better if our politicians were able to have lives as well as jobs.

Pakistan votes

Pakistan goes to the polls today in an election which looks to hand a significant defeat to dictator Pervez Musharraf's and his allies in the Pakistan Muslin league. The election campaign has already seen significant violence, include the assassination of former President Benazir Bhutto, several suicide bombings, and attacks by gunmen; the worry is that it will see more if (as expected) the government stuffs the ballot boxes and rigs the election to keep itself in power. Any allegations of vote-rigging are likely to result in widespread protests, which could see Pakistan's flawed democracy shut down altogether. Assuming, of course, the army stays loyal to Musharraf.

That's the problem there in a nutshell: in Pakistan, the people may vote, but the army ultimately decides. And that's not a democracy, it's a dictatorship.

OTOH, if things go well, the army stays out of it, and the opposition parties do as well as they expect to, then they could garner the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach the President. And if that happens, then Musharraf's days could be numbered.

Stop cluster bombs

An international disarmament conference aimed at hammering out a draft agreement to ban cluster munitions kicked off in Wellington today, with representatives from 100 countries and more than 100 NGOs in attendance. It's a good example of New Zealand working with likeminded countries to change international law for the better, and if successful should see a draft Treaty to be forwarded to a conference in Dublin in May, and signed in Oslo by the end of the year.

As for why we're doing this, it's because cluster bombs are a totally indiscriminate weapon which attack an area without any distinction between military and civilian targets. Worse, high designed rates of failure mean that every cluster bomb effectively creates a minefield, creating a lasting danger to civilian lives long after the conflict has ended. For example, Israeli cluster bombs left over from their war on Lebanon in 2006 killed over 200 Lebanese civilians last year, and until they are cleaned up will continue to exact a toll in human life and limbs. It's a similar story in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Vietnam, and 19 other countries around the world. Antipersonnel mines were banned in 1997 for being a long-lasting and indiscriminate threat to civilians; cluster bombs should be treated in exactly the same way.

If you'd like to show your support for a ban, then the Aotearoa New Zealand Cluster Munition Coalition has an online petition you can sign here.


After a guerilla war, ethnic clensing, a US bombing campaign and NATO occupation, the Serbian province of Kosovo has finally declared independence. The declaration has been denounced as illegal by Serbia and Russia, and has caused some minor violence in Serbian parts of Kosovo and in Serbia itself, but at this stage seems like it will go off relatively peacefully, and without triggering the wars other Balkan seccessions have. Of course, things could still go wrong, but I live in hope.

In the long-term, this will set a precedent for unilateral seccession, which could be problematic. OTOH, international law recognises a right to self-determination. Nation-states are cautious about this right, as it represents a final challenge to their power, but at the end of the day, if a large bunch of people no longer wish to be part of your country, it seems to me to be wrong to try and keep them against their will. Provided they respect human rights and do not oppress any internal minorities within their new state (things Kosovo has promised to do - but the proof will be in the pudding), then who cares what they call themselves?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

New Fisk

The remnants of war in the desert sands

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Five years of No Right Turn

Today is No Right Turn's fifth birthday. Most blogs don't make it past five posts, so to last five years is quite an achievement. In the past year I've written 1301 posts, totalling 276,863 words. And that despite severe distractions in December. In the past five, it's been 6,747 posts, and 1,231,125 words. Maybe I should just call this a job and be done with it?

We've also seen 235,198 unique visitors this year; with luck we'll hit quarter of a million this year.

Looking back, the big achievement for the year has obviously been the passage of the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act, which repealed the archaic offence of sedition. Having campaigned for repeal for three years, it was particularly satisfying to see the law changed. But in addition to changing the law, I've also devoted significant coverage to electoral funding reform, and the repeal of Section 59, as well as kept up my usual coverage of Parliament and my continuing analysis of climate change policy. And despite some poisonous efforts from the Kiwiblog right to bully me into silence, I intend to keep doing so.

Finally, I'd like to thank last year's guest columnists - Anita, Terence Wood, and Nicky Hager - and everyone who's emailed me with tips, links, or encouraging words. On the days when I'm wondering what to post, its nice to have something turn up in the inbox to give me a reason to keep going.


Back in 2006, the Greens secured a major policy coup of $15.5 million in funding to increase the use of solar water heating in New Zealand. A central component of this was the provision of $500 grants for homeowners installing a new solar water heating system. In its first year (2007), EECA expected to hand out 500 such grants. In fact, they handed out none [audio]. To call this embarassing is an understatement.

Exploring the reasons for this outright failure of policy, it seems the weak point in the chain is the installers, who simply have no incentive whatsoever to fill out paperwork to help their customers get a grant (some of them also seem to be unwilling to fill out the paperwork required to get resource consent for an installation, instead pocketing the cash and lying to their customers, but that particular small business dishonesty is a seperate issue). Which suggests that the point of application needs to be moved to the end customer rather than the installer. Upping the level of the grant, which is small compared to the total cost of installation, would help as well (and really, a quarter of a million dollars a year is chump change for the government). And of course letting people know about it would help as well; I'm aware of these grants because I pay attention to such things, but I doubt many other people are.

Overall, the rest of the policy seems to be in good shape. EECA has done a lot to reduce consent costs, train plumbers to do installations, and make it easier to install these things. But if they're going to rely on financial incentives to increase installations, then they clearly need to make it a lot easier for people to take them up.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Perversion of the course of justice

Last year, the British government turned a blind eye to corruption and shut down an investigation into allegations that BAE paid the Saudi royal family hundreds of millions of pounds in bribes to secure a multi-billion pound arms deal in the 80's. A coalition of NGOs is challenging that decision in the courts, and in the process revealing the full extent of the Saudi aristocracy's threats to preserve their corrupt kickbacks:

Saudi Arabia's rulers threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London unless corruption investigations into their arms deals were halted, according to court documents revealed yesterday.

Previously secret files describe how investigators were told they faced "another 7/7" and the loss of "British lives on British streets" if they pressed on with their inquiries and the Saudis carried out their threat to cut off intelligence.

Prince Bandar, the head of the Saudi national security council, and son of the crown prince, was alleged in court to be the man behind the threats to hold back information about suicide bombers and terrorists. He faces accusations that he himself took more than £1bn in secret payments from the arms company BAE.

He was accused in yesterday's high court hearings of flying to London in December 2006 and uttering threats which made the prime minister, Tony Blair, force an end to the Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery allegations involving Bandar and his family.

There's a name for this: perversion of the course of justice. And in the UK (as in most other jurisdictions), it faces a hefty jail term. And that is exactly what should happen to Prince Bandar.

Not that the British government comes out of this smelling of roses either. Rather than bothering to explain that it is constitutionally improper for the government to interfere in prosecutorial decisions, they simply buckled to the Saudis and pulled the plug - something the judges regard as extraordinary. Of course, they had other considerations as well - namely ensuring that BAE could make future corrupt deals with Saudi Arabia - and that probably made themmore willing to bow to threats.

But what's really extraordinary is that after all this, the UK and US still regard Saudi Arabia as an ally. A top official in the Saudi government explicitly threatens terrorist attacks to preserve his wealth, and they're still considered a friendly country? WTF is going on here?

Something to sign

A reader pointed me at this campaign. Basically, the United Nations Foundation (a charitable institution established by Ted Turner to help UN causes) will contribute US$1 to the UNIFEM-managed UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women for each of the first 100,000 signatures in their online campaign book. The trust fund funds projects around the world aimed at ending violence against women, such as campaigns for legislative change, data collection, judicial and police training, and women's networks (there's a list of their 2007 projects here [PDF]; most of it is small scale, but it makes a difference).

US$100,000 isn't a lot of money, but every bit helps. So, click today, and help in a small way to end violence against women.

The war on tagging

In an election year when it is trailing in the polls, you might expect a left-wing Labour government to aim high. You might expect it to focus policy on areas that really matter, declaring a "war on poverty", a "war on inequality", or maybe a "war on low wages". Instead, we have a "war on tagging", as nonsensical as its namesake "war on drugs". Talk about scratching every boil on the bum of the body politic.

The actual policy seems to be a resurrection of George Hawkins' Manukau City Council (Control of Graffiti) Bill, shorn of some of its more obnoxious features such as the violation of the right to silence or the offence of "carrying graffiti implements", and with a focus on community sentencing. However, it will retain the ban on selling spraypaint to those under 18. In case anyone has forgotten, the Ministry of Justice found that this violated s19 (1) of the BORA, which bars discrimination on the basis of age:

16. The restriction on the right is not sufficiently precise to ensure that it addresses only those matters that it is intended to address. Given the extent to which spray paint can be used for lawful purposes and the negative impact that the prohibition might have on law-abiding members of the public, prohibiting the sale of spray paint to minors is disproportionate. The Bill will cause disadvantage to those minors who are not the intended targets of the Bill and who will be unfairly prevented from purchasing spray paint because of their age. The Report of the Manukau City Council on Graffiti Control, produced in 2004, acknowledges that its own legal advice suggests that such restrictions would be found to be in breach of the Bill of Rights Act.

17. Prohibiting the sale of spray paint to persons under the age of 18 is discrimination within the definition of section 19(1) of the Bill of Rights Act. Although it has a significant and important objective (the reduction of graffiti), on the evidence available there is no rational and proportionate connection between that objective and the discrimination. Accordingly, clause 7 of the Bill cannot be justified under section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act and appears to be inconsistent with that Act. The Ministry recommends that you draw this inconsistency to the attention of the House of Representatives in accordance with section 7 of the Bill of Rights Act.

The new bill will face exactly the same problem, and will likely receive an adverse report (and if it doesn't, there will be serious questions to be asked about the consistency of MoJ's assessment). Not that the government will care - they seem quite happy to piss on the bORA when they think there's votes in it. But do people really think our Bill of Rights Act, which is there to safeguard us against government abuse, is something we should tear up to combat graffiti? If so, I'd suggest they seriously need some perspective.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

McCain votes for torture

Last night, the US Senate joined the House of Representatives in voting for a bill which would restrict the CIA to interrogation methods listed in the Army Field Manual - effectively barring waterboarding. This is good news, and represents a return to decency on the part of the US legislature, despite the fact that Bush is going to veto the bill. But the interesting story here is about Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. In the past, he's presented himself as a principled opponent of torture. But that apparently all goes out the window now that he's running for President:

Senate Democrats, sensing an opportunity to highlight a policy dispute between the White House and Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, had been hoping that Republicans would make a procedural challenge to the provision on interrogation methods.

Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war, has consistently voiced opposition to waterboarding and other methods that critics say is a form torture. But the Republicans, confident of a White House veto, did not mount the challenge. Mr. McCain voted “no” on Wednesday afternoon.

So much for McCain's "principles". When push comes to shove, he'll vote for torture, just like the rest of them.

(Hat tip: Think Progress).

The US proudly supports terrorism

Yesterday a Hezbollah leader was killed in a car-bombing in Syria. The US's reaction?

The US has said it welcomes the killing of a top Hezbollah commander implicated in numerous bomb attacks and a wave of hostage-taking in Lebanon in the 1980s.

A US state department spokesman said the world would be a "better place" without Imad Mughniyeh, whom he called a "mass murderer and a terrorist".

So, terrorism is bad, unless its directed at people the US doesn't like, in which case its just peachy. And the US wonders why its "war on terror" has no credibility?

(As for Mughniyeh, I agree, he was a mass-murderer and a terrorist. But that just not justify his murder in a terrorist attack. When states stoop to such tactics, or welcome them, they become no better than terrorists themselves)

New Fisk

Bloody end of man who made kidnapping a weapon of war

Not just about tax

In the Dominion Post today, Vernon Small points out a rarely-expressed fact of our political landscape: despite it utterly dominating the media narrative, some of us don't give a rat's arse about tax:

Living inside a political beltway where tax cuts loom so large on the agenda, it is easy to forget that for Labour's foot soldiers – if not its core constituency – other things may crank their handles.

Like social services and spending. Like the plight of the worst off. Like the upbringing and education their kids are getting.

But this isn't just true of Labour supporters, but of New Zealand as a whole. To point out an inconvenient truth, the vast majority of New Zealanders are completely unaffected by the top tax rate. Hell, the majority of us aren't even affected by the middle one. We pay 19.5% (or nothing, thanks to Working For Families), and the difference a tax cut would make to our lives is far less than the difference made by free schools, free hospitals, superannuation, and the security provided by a social welfare system. Our sole interest in the tax system is whether it collects enough revenue to fund the public services which insure all New Zealanders, rich and poor alike, against the vagaries of life. And we regard it as only fair that those with greater means pay more.

To us, tax cuts are an explicit threat to government revenue, and an explicit threat to the core public services we depend upon. And given that those services still have not been fully restored since the 90's (hospitals still have long waiting lists, schools want higher and higher "donations", benefits, while adjusted for inflation, are still at the sub-subsistence levels set by Ruth Richardson), cutting that revenue seems to be a fundamentally stupid idea. Instead, if anything, we should be raising taxes on the rich, not lowering them.

Against this, Labour's promise of tax cuts seems like a betrayal, a pandering to the rich which actively undermines its core principles and the interests of its core voters. But then, when the media reflects only the views of the rich, and refuse to acknowledge that most of us even exist, it's no wonder they have a distorted picture of electoral demand.

Unconvincing, unsatisfactory, and insincere

Which conclusions in the censored final chapter of the government's State of the Environment report caused it to be pulled because they were not supported by the facts? Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons tried to find out in Question Time yesterday; unfortunately the answers she got were less than convincing:

JEANETTE FITZSIMONS (Co-Leader—Green) to the Minister for the Environment: Does he agree with chapter 13, dumped from the report on the state of the environment, that “significant intensification of land use, particularly pastoral land use” is “arguably the largest pressure today on New Zealand’s land, freshwaters and coastal oceans, and atmosphere”; if not, what does he believe is the largest pressure on New Zealand’s land, freshwaters and coastal oceans, and atmosphere?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD (Minister for the Environment): As I am sure Dr Norman told the member, because he was there, both myself and the Ministry for the Environment officials spoke at length about the damning facts in the main body of this report and the summary document, which clearly showed that this was the case. If the member has not spoken to Dr Norman about it, could I recommend that she opens the report, just to the forward, and reads my comments in there where I say that the report highlights the decline in water quality in New Zealand “as a consequence of the increasing intensity of agricultural production.” Clearly, that is the case.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: In that case, which conclusions specifically was he referring to when he told the media on Monday that *chapter 13 was scrapped because it made a series of conclusions that were not strictly supported by the facts, and on what peer-reviewed reports is he basing that conclusion, or does he just disagree with the specialists who wrote chapter 13?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: That is the very area—because it is forward-looking rather than backward-looking, as the report is—that was outside the scope and actually not matched by the facts in the report.


Jeanette Fitzsimons: Was chapter 13 pulled because it clearly points the finger at agriculture and recommends a polluter-pays principle at a time when the Minister’s Government is subsidising the farming industry’s greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of $1 million every working day and allowing it to pollute our rivers for free?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: The chapter was pulled for two reasons: first, that the qualitative comments contained in the draft section were not backed up by the facts contained in the report itself; second, the substantive comments being made were actually right through the report.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Was the chapter pulled, then, because although the Minister’s Government proudly proclaims its biggest road-building binge in history, chapter 13 states that doubling the distance travelled by vehicles on our roads over the past 20 years is putting pressure on the environment and human health?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: The chapter was pulled because the qualitative comments contained in the draft report were not backed up by the facts contained in the report itself, and the substantive comments being made were carried through the report itself.

So, first the conclusions are supported by the facts, then they're not, but Mallard won't say exactly which conclusions are problematic. This is both unconvincing, and deeply unsatisfactory. If Mallard is going to say that there are unsupported conclusions there, he should be able to point to them and say why. The fact that he won't, and instead roboticly repeats his single talking point again and again when asked "was it this?", "was it that?", speaks volumes about the sincerity of his excuse, and suggests that the Greens' underlying accusation that it was pulled to avoid offending the farming lobby is entirely correct.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 58th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Liberal England.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

National's answer to housing affordability: privatisation

What's National's answer to housing affordability? The same as their answer on health, aged-care, education and privatisation: looting the state to enrich their donors and cronies. Here's what John Key had to say about the issue on Three News tonight [video]:

[Key] "The position is as its always been, which is that I don't agree with Housing New Zealand being the developer of the land at Hobsonville."

[voiceover] Key who was raised in a state house says National would dump Housing New Zealand as the developer and bring in the private sector to build and sell the homes.

[Key] "There's absolutely no doubt that the private sector can go in there and develop a range of housing. Some would be affordable, some would be high end, but it would be a very very successful development in West Auckland"

In short, privatisation. Get the government to do the hard work, then flick it off to some crony.

This is not a policy which will benefit ordinary New Zealanders in search of their first home. Instead, it is a policy primarily aimed at benefitting rich Auckland property developers. Not only will privatisation result in fewer affordable homes in Hobsonville (why would a private developer build an affordable home when it can aim at the higher end of the market instead and make a much higher profit?), it will also result in fewer affordable homes and state houses nationwide, as the profits which Housing NZ would have made from Hobsonville would instead be redirected into the private pockets of Key's cronies. And while ordinary New Zealanders are left shut out of the housing market and poorer New Zealanders scrabbling for affordable places to live, John Key and his rich mates will be laughing all the way to the bank.