Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our sick houses

The NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development has released a report [PDF] recommending major investment in home insulation. The report is backed by a ShapeNZ survey [PDF] revealing that almost a third of NZ homes have made people sick due to being too cold, damp, or drafty. While ShapeNZ's methodology is questionable, the report's analysis shows the scale of our problem: of NZ's 1.6 million homes, over a million were constructed before there was any requirement for insulation, and it is inadequate in almost all of the rest. While the previous government tightened the building code to finally ensure that new homes would finally be warm, that still leaves a backlog of over 1.5 million which need upgrading - homes which are costing us money and making us sick.

The BCSD suggests several solutions. The key ones to my eye are a home performance rating system, mandatory for rental accommodation, which would let homeowners and landlords gain some value from investing in energy efficiency, and a reduction in red tape around sustainable developments to make it easier to do the right thing (the latter is probably best addressed by a National Policy Statement under the RMA to ensure local government follows up - but that's a time-consuming process).

There's another solution as well: directly funding upgrades through e.g. the previous government's billion dollar home insulation fund. But National has just dumped that. As with the health system, National puts delivering tax cuts to its rich mates ahead of ensuring that all New Zealanders live in warm, dry houses that didn't make us sick.

New Fisk

The British should not forget the massive debt they owe the Irish

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Capitalism gone wild

How far are you willing to go to get a bargain? Are you willing to break into a shop and trample a man to death? Americans are:

A worker died and at least three people were injured after being trampled by a crowd of shoppers at a Wal-Mart in the New York suburbs.

The day after the Thanksgiving holiday is viewed as an important test of how willing consumers are to spend.

Police said a throng of shoppers broke down the doors to the Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, Long Island shortly after 5am, knocking the 34-year-old worker to the ground.

I've used the phrase "capitalism is red in tooth and claw", but that's supposed to refer to the aggregate social effects. This, OTOH, is simply retail murder.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Let's all laugh at the religious person

DPF has some amusing excerpts from Gordon Copeland's autopbiography. They make me very glad that this freak is no longer in Parliament.

It gets worse

So, what is "misconduct in a public office" anyway? The City of London Police have their definition here, and the Uk Crown Prosecution Service has their prosecution guidelines here. According to the latter, it requires:

a) A public officer acting as such.

b) Wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself.

c) To such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder.

d) Without reasonable excuse or justification.

It's a common law offence, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Technically the charge is "conspiring to commit" and "aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring" misconduct in a public office, so the penalty could be lower (that depends on UK conspiracy law; in NZ it would simply make him a party liable for the full penalty), so the underlying crime alleged here is that a Member of the Opposition encouraged public servants to leak to him - and that those leaks were misconduct. And to my mind, that is simply bullshit. Leaks are an essential part of democratic discourse, and using them to hold the government to account an opposition politician's duty. Threatening them with life imprisonment for doing so is simply Stalinism.

A reader also pointed me at a consultation paper from the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the issue, which pointed to a law Commission report calling it "wide-ranging and ill-defined" (now where have we heard that before?) and recommended that it be replaced with a statutory offence for clarity. They made this recommendation in 1997. I guess things move slowly in the UK.

Finally, a couple of further notes: the Independent reports that counter-terrorism officers were involved in the search (so, holding the government to account is now "terrorism"), while the BBC has this interesting line:

He was questioned, but has not been charged and was bailed until February.
Which is itself absurd. how can you be bailed if you have not been charged? What sort of a police state are they running over there now?

Don't be a Rodney update

900 visitors, 90 people signed up on Facebook, links from Public Address and other blogs, one letter blogged, another posted. Which isn't bad so far. But we want it to be even bigger. So please, tell John Key not to be a total Rodney...

A referendum on the occupation

The Iraqi Parliament has ratified a new status of forces agreement with the US, allowing US troops to stay in Iraq for three more years. However, they attached one significant condition: a nationwide referendum on the occupation, to be held by the middle of next year. So, the Iraqi people will get to decide after all. And hopefully, they'll decide to kick the US out early, rather than letting them stay.

Arresting the opposition in the UK

For the past few years, UK Conservative immigration spokesperson Damian Green has been publicising leaked information obviously passed on by Home Office officials. The revelations - including that the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it, and that an illegal immigrant had been working as a cleaner in Parliament - were highly embarrassing to the government. And now, he's been arrested for it.

The charge officially is "conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office". But passing on leaks isn't "misconduct" - it's a vital part of holding the government of the day to account. And arresting people for that is more redolent of Stalin's Russia or Mugabe's Zimbabwe than the supposedly free and democratic UK.

The UK police have really gone out on a limb here. And I don't think they can expect any mercy from the politicians if the case turns out not to involve actual, serious wrongdoing.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The writ for the election has officially been returned, and with no judicial recounts, the results are now final.

Next step: Parliament meets on Decmber 8th to swear people in and elect a Speaker. Then we have the speech from the throne, the address in reply, and a short urgent session before everyone buggers off to enjoy the sunshine.


Adultery is apparently still illegal in South Korea - and they're actually going to send someone to jail for it. This is simply barbaric. What consenting adults do in private is no business of the state, and people's relationships are a private matter, not something the government should be sticking its nose into.

Reinstatement motion

When Parliament expired in October, all the business before the House lapsed. Previously, this was dealt with by passing a "carry over" motion to send business to the next Parliament. But in recent years, this has been seen as Parliament attempting to bind its successor (particularly as the outgoing and incoming parliaments might be very different in their compositions). So now, we do it the other way round: when Parliament meets, it passes a motion reinstating expired business for the new Parliament to consider.

The list of list of business available for reinstatement is now up here. And there's an awful lot on it. It will be interesting to see what the new government decides to keep, and what it decides to dump. It will also be interesting to see what happens to the various private member's bills available for reinstatement. Will National respect Members' business, or abuse the reinstatement motion to dump it? And what will they do about the member's bills (such as Tariana Turia's Foreshore and Seabed Act (Repeal) Bill) which have had their first readings deliberately postponed - in some cases for years?

This will be one of the first tests of the tone of the new government. They've already shown a distressing desire to misuse urgency; will they trample all over the rights of smaller parties as well?

Climate change: sinking in

The sheer stupidity of the National-led government's plans to delay the ETS to allow for Rodney Hide's denialist grandstanding seem to be sinking in. The Herald, the Listener, the Independent (offline), Rod Oram, and Vernon Small in the Dominion Post all make the point that it has increased business uncertainty and stripped us of our mana and "clean and green" credentials. The immediate focus is on the UK's decision to increase a departure tax (a crude proxy for the carbon tax or emissions trading regime on international aviation fuel forbidden by international law), but we have a bigger problem lurking on the horizon. Next week, representatives from around the world will meet in Poznan, Poland for the UNFCCC / Kyoto Protocol COP 14 / MOP 4 which will hopefully establish a solid framework for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. New Zealand will be there, pushing for our interests: a low target for ourselves (because we're "clean and green"), the exclusion of agriculture, the continued inclusion of forest sinks, and some accommodation for plantation forestry (including wood used in construction as a long-lasting offset). Our ability to push that agenda depends on our mana and our "clean and green" image. And John Key and Rodney Hide have just blown that out of the water.

To put it bluntly, nobody is going to want to listen to a country which is refusing to act, and nobody is going to want to listen to a country which is questioning the fundamental science. They will simply shut us out and work around us, and as a result our interests will not be considered. Looking at how regressive those interests are, that's not actually a bad thing for the global climate. But it will be a bad thing for New Zealand. And the blame for that can be clearly laid at the feet of John Key and Rodney Hide.

New Fisk

'Nobody supports the Taliban, but people hate the government'

Terrorism on the cheap

Watching the news scroll in from Mumbai today, and seeing the death toll rise, and it occurs to me: this is not a sophisticated attack. It does not require complicated actions like making bombs or seizing aircraft. All it needs is a few Kalashnikovs, a pile of ammunition, and a group of people willing to die - terrorism on the cheap. It will be as effective at terrorising its victims as other, more complex plans - possibly more so because of its sheer randomness - and short of turning every city into a permanent armed camp, there is absolutely nothing any government can do about it. We are essentially helpless. And killing more people in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Somalia or wherever they're bombing this week won't stop that - rather, it will increase the risk, by providing more outrages to make people willing to die.

As with Beslan, there is only one way of defeating this style of terrorism: with justice. And if we do not pursue that path, we will see more and more of it.

Greenland votes for autonomy

Greenland went to the polls today in a referendum on its relationship with Denmark - and voted overwhelmingly for greater autonomy. It's not independence - the arrangement is more similar to Scotland's relationship with the UK, though with more control over mineral resources - but its close, and a full split is definitely on the horizon. So in another decade or so, if Greenland does well with its new freedom, the EU may find itself with a new member.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Old Fisk

One I missed recently:

Making movies the Afghan way

Climate change: a global mandate

A poll of citizens of eleven different countries has found a strong global mandate for action on climate change in both developing and developed nations:

About half of the respondents wanted governments to play a major role in curbing emissions, but only a quarter said their leaders were doing enough.

In developing countries, a majority of people were prepared to make "lifestyle changes" to reduce climate change.

The citizens of developed nations, who could more afford to make lifestyle changes, were more selfish - but even then just under half supported it. And 43% of all respondents rated climate change as a bigger problem than the global financial crisis, even though it was getting more serious during the survey period. Overall, there's a strong mandate from the people of the world for their governments to act, and act now.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand government is moving in the opposite direction. Given the strong feelings elsewhere in the world, this will inevitably have diplomatic, trade, and tourism consequences. But our Prime Minister would rather complain about other countries efforts to reduce emissions than make any effort to reduce our own. Which is simply going to mark him as obstructive and make the cost on the rest of us even higher.

Private sector doesn't want PPPs

For the past three years, National has been holding up Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) as the answer to New Zealand's problems. Need another hospital? Use a PPP. Need more roads? Get the private sector to build them and toll them. Want more prisons? The private sector is the answer.

Unfortunately, the private sector disagrees. Fletcher Challenge, New Zealand's largest construction company and the likely prime contractor for any privately operated roads, has criticised the concept, saying that many projects are too small, too risky, and the costs of bidding are likely to be too high to make competing for a PPP contract worthwhile. They also doubt that private sector funding would be available in the current economic climate. Instead, they think the government should just raise debt and do the project the usual way. Of course, this defeats the primary purpose of PPPs: hiding debt off the balance sheet, so politicians can present a rosier version of the government books. Which makes it a real problem for National. What if they offered a PPP and nobody came?

Sadly, I suspect National's answer will be to sweeten the pot by not fully transferring the risk - i.e. giving PPP contractors money for nothing. This would be a bad deal for the public, but one which fits perfectly with National's metapolicy of diverting public money permanently to the private sector. To them, PPPs are not about getting a good deal for the public; they are about looting the state for the benefit of their donors and cronies.

Tell John Key not to be a Rodney!

My friend Morgue is concerned about National's pandering to ACT on climate change denial. So, he’d like you to write to John Key with a simple message: don't be a Rodney, be like Barack:

When it comes to climate change, John Key is out of step. He's bowing his head to Rodney Hide and stalling on crucial emissions legislation. But this is no time for waiting around!

The world is watching. On Tuesday 18 November, Barack Obama made a powerful statement that was heard around the globe: "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious."

Delay? Denial? He's talking about Rodney!

It's time for the 96% of us who didn't vote for Rodney to speak up. We still have time to make things right - and in his first weeks in the job, we know John Key will be listening.

So give yourself a voice, and tell John Key not to be a Rodney - tell him to be like Barack.

As for what to say, he has the basic points here: a large select committee, so that every party is represented; no review of the basic science (that's just embarrassing); and a narrow focus on how best to meet our Kyoto and UNFCCC obligations and reduce emissions. Letters do make a difference, at the least by letting politicians know that their decisions will have a political cost. So bang something together, print it, and post a hardcopy to John Key, Prime Minister, Parliament Buildings, Wellington. You don't even need a stamp! Alternatively, if you'd rather save paper, you can email him at

Your voice makes a difference. So tell John Key not to be a Rodney today!


WEL Networks 84MW Te Uku wind farm has been granted resource consent by the Environment Court. Te Uku was granted resource consent earlier this year, but the consent appealed to the Environment Court; those appeals have now been resolved through mediation, and Construction will now start in October next year. So, the entire RMA process, with appeal, has taken just over a year from start to finish - so much for the claim that the RMA is a barrier to wind farm development.

A backwards step in Jamaica

After a twenty year moratorium, Jamaica's Parliament has voted to restore the death penalty. It's a definite backwards step. While Jamaica struggles with a 1,200 murders a year (more than 20 times the rate in New Zealand), the death penalty is no deterrent, and will simply add to the body count. Their problems centre on the low chances of being caught, rather than the severity of the punishment. But restoring hanging will make it look like the government is doing something, and appeal to the public's desire for revenge. And the Jamaican government may be re-elected over the bodies of the people it murders.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Empty managerialism

The government has unveiled its policy to solve A&E overcrowding: an A&E waiting-time limit. But what are they going to do if a patient exceeds it? Throw them out?

That's a flippant response, but disturbingly accurate. The policy is based on UK Labour's attempts to improve quality in the NHS by introducing these sorts of absurd targets, and Ryall claims that policy was a success, having led to a reduction in the number of patients waiting for than four hours from 23% to 3%. But that success was an illusion. As noted in Adam Curtis' documentary, The Trap, faced with pressure to improve their statistics, NHS managers created a new and unofficial post, the "Hello Nurse", whose sole purpose was to greet new arrivals to A&E so they could claim for statistical purposes that the patient had been "seen". Faced with a similar target aimed at reducing the number of patients waiting on trolleys in corridors, they simply removed the wheels from the trolleys and reclassified them as beds. The targets were met, but the underlying performance didn't change one iota. Mangers being managers the world over, the same is likely to happen here. It's a general problem with this sort of empty managerialism and obsession with statistical targets: the statistical goal - measured patient "waiting time" - ends up taking the place of the real goal - patient care. And doctors and nurses end up spending all their time filling in performance spreadsheets rather than doing what they're supposed to be doing: seeing patients. In business, that would simply be amusing. In the health sector, it is likely to be deadly.

Rather than clinging to the dead 80's cult of managerialism, National should target the real problem: lack of resources. The reason people have to wait so long in A&E is because hospitals cannot afford to employ enough medical professionals to deal with demand. The reason they are parked on trolleys in hospital corridors is because there is not enough space. But solving these problems would cost money, which National would rather give to the rich in tax cuts. It's just a question of priorities - and National clearly rates redistributing wealth to those who need it least well ahead of ensuring that every kiwi has decent access to healthcare. So instead, we get statistical games and another three years of excuses, while people wait in pain. Thanks, National!

Compare and contrast

The UK and NZ governments responses to the international financial crisis make an interesting contrast.

In the UK, Chancellor Alistair Darling has just announced a package of tax-cuts to stimulate the economy. But these are not your usual tax cuts. Instead of focusing on the rich, he is instead temporarily reducing the rate of VAT (the UK's version of GST) from 17.5% to 15% - a change that will primarily benefit the poor. And to pay for it he's hiking the top tax rate from 40% to 45%. This is not, as DPF is trying to spin it, another example of how NZ Labour was "out of step" on tax cuts. Rather, it is UK Labour finally finding itself and reconnecting with its left-wing roots. Taking a page from the neo-liberals book, they are using the crisis as an opportunity to shift the tax system in a more progressive direction, taking from those who can afford it to help those in need. I doubt DPF would welcome such moves if they were replicated here.

Compare this with the NZ response. National's tax package, signalled long before the election then spun as a response to the crisis, focuses on top-income earners. The half of New Zealand who earn below the median income get practically nothing, while the top 11% of taxpayers, those who need it least, get 40% of the package. In other words, it's the 90's "trickle down" theory all over again - and we saw how well that worked last time. But this doesn't just show that National is still in the grip of a dead ideology - they're also simply not interested in responding properly to the crisis. Instead, in classic neo-liberal fashion, they are trying to use it to enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of the rest of us. And it will be interesting to see how that flies with an electorate promised centrism and moderation.

A question of fashion

When John Key meets the Queen today, will he be wearing trousers? And if so, will people object? Or were the people who got so horribly upset at the thought of Helen Clark wearing sensible clothes simply archaic sexist jerks?

The end of Agenda

According to Dennis Welch on Radio NZ this morning, TVNZ has cancelled Agenda, New Zealand's top current affairs show. No word on what, if anything, they plan to replace it with, but it would be interesting to know their reason. Agenda is a successful show, which has been attracting record viewers in the leadup to the election. It is widely regarded as a vital part of our current affairs landscape, and its longer interview format provides a better way of holding our politicians to account than the traditional five-minute slot on Campbell Live. But I guess intelligent political discussion just doesn't sell advertising; easier just to use recycled reality TV instead.

The full audio is here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Foreshore and seabed: the initial reaction

One question which has intrigued me for a while is that of the government's initial reaction to the foreshore and seabed issue. How did they get it so wrong? Did they even consider letting the law take its course, or did they decide to legislate right from the start? Thanks to the Official Information Act - and more importantly, the Ombudsman's office, I finally have some answers on this. Not as many as I'd like - somehow, DPMC has managed to carve itself a sort of monarchical immunity to the OIA, while other Ministries managed to hide behind "free and frank advice" - but I have some. The most relevant document is a briefing from DPMC's Policy Advisory Group to then-Attorney General and Minister of Treaty Negotiations Margaret Wilson, dated 20 June 2003 (the day after the decision was announced). This began by reviewing the decision and history of litigation, then began to explore its possible effects on a number of policy areas. The main issue it identified was uncertainty:

The court process would be triggered by individual iwi applications, and can be expected to be slow as each application is likely to involve complex historical, factual and legal questions. It can be expected to take some years to reach decisions in individual cases. The result may therefore be uncertainty over the legal status of parts of the foreshore and seabed around New Zealand for many years as the process works through. If that process does produce a change in the legal status of the foreshore or seabed, there may then need to be further legal and/or policy processes to clarify the implications of that changed status for other users of the area.
The briefing also explored the consequences for specific policy areas:
  • The historical settlements process: No substantive implications, though some groups (e.g. Whanganui iwi) might withdraw from the process to seek redress through the courts instead;
  • Petroleum and economic development: Successful claims could "re-open the argument that Maori also have a customary interest in any resources in the substratum, e.g. petroleum" (which only the crown thinks is closed). Also some fear about access rights over privately-owned seabed for business, pipelines, telecommunications infrastructure, or mineral exploration;
  • Marine reserves: these assume the crown owns the underlying seabed, but the reserve status of the area over any successful claim could always be revoked.
  • Reclamations: A biggie - the crown couldn't award title in reclaimed land without possibly creating a contemporary breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, which would mean people wouldn't do it until the issue was settled (but would that be the end of the world?);
  • Aquaculture: The other biggie, primarily because the government at the time was attempting to find a way to incorporate Maori customary interests (identified by the Waitangi Tribunal) in its existing policy framework. Interestingly, on this issue DPMC thought continued exploration through the courts would help the process, and that it was consistent with the current approach (they even refer explicitly to the Marlborough Sounds litigation - which began because the local council was shutting Maori out of aquaculture);
  • Oceans policy: None; the proposed policy was based on serious consultation with Maori, and any changes could easily be incorporated.

DPMC also identified five possible responses: let the legal process take its course; see what happens after the first test case is resolved; appeal the issue to the privy council (delaying a decision for a year); legislate to override the ruling and clarify the issue on the government's terms; or start a settlement process. In the end, they chose the second to last option. None of their identified risks or consequences seem to justify that unilateral, dictatorial approach. unfortunately, without more documents, we'll never know why they chose to do things that way.

A real repeal?

So far, in my criticism of National's plans to amend the Bail Act to toughen bail eligibility criteria, I've been assuming that their amendments will have a real effect, that eligibility criteria will in fact be toughened, and that people who would be granted bail under the current law would be denied it and remanded in custody. They're certainly talking as if it will, as part of their sadistic "tough on crime" posturing. But as a commenter at Pundit points out, that may not in fact be the case. If all National does is change the wording from the current "real and significant risk" (of non-appearance, interference, or reoffending) to the older "risk" without making any other changes or inserting a "screw the BORA" clause, then it may not actually be a change at all - the reason being that the courts have already, in line with the BORA, ruled that that "risk" in the old law must in fact be "real and significant".

The relevant case is R v. Hines (CA384/02, 29 November 2002; not online AFAIK). In it, the Court of Appeal upheld an earlier High Court ruling that in order to justify continued detention, the risk of a defendant interfering with a witness had to be

more than nebulous and insignificant and should be a real and significant risk.
While technically only about the risk of interfering with witnesses, this standard has been consistently applied by the courts to the other grounds for denial of bail as well. Reflecting that ruling and providing clarity in statute was the primary reason why the law was changed.

As for whether the law change made any difference to how the law was interpreted by the courts, here's Justice Heath, in R v Kāhui, the day after the new rules came into effect:

“a real and significant risk”, must be regarded as one which can properly be inferred from established facts. The expression does not seem to me to put the test any higher than was under the previous legislation, but rather to emphasise the need for a proper inference to be drawn from proved facts; as opposed to the Court engaging in speculation or guesswork about the possibility of a risk.
(Emphasis added)

So, if the law is repealed and we return to the status quo ante of October 2007, we may very well find it is no change at all, and that National's "tough on crime" talk is just that: talk. But I guess that way they'll be able to palm the blame off on the judges, rather than take the hard road and stand up for decency and fairness in our justice system.

Bring it on

Iraq's Prime Minister has said that US troops will be forced to withdraw immediately if the Iraqi Parliament fails to approve a new status of forces agreement.

Sounds like an excellent reason to vote against it.

What would happen if we repealed the Foreshore and Seabed Act?

Four years ago today, on November 24 2004, the Foreshore and Seabed Act received the royal assent and became law. Now with the Act under review by the new National-led government, its worth asking: what would happen if we repealed it?

The Foreshore and Seabed Act was passed in response to the Court of Appeal ruling in Attorney-General v Ngati Apa ([2003] 3 NZLR 643). As a result of a long and convoluted dispute between a coalition of South Island iwi and the Marlborough District Council over customary fishing and aquaculture rights, the Court was asked to rule whether there was any legal barrier to land below the high water mark - the foreshore and seabed - being declared Maori customary land. It found that there was not. Whether a particular piece of foreshore or seabed was in fact Maori customary land was a question of fact, to be determined by the Maori Land Court - but the Court unequivocally had the power to make such determinations.

This rather narrow ruling was immediately misinterpreted by Maori and Pakeha alike as saying that Maori owned the beaches, and its limited scope and careful caveats were drowned in a tidal wave of hysteria and fear. The then-opposition (and now-government) engaged in an outright campaign of fearmongering, raising the spectre of a flood of claims and of successful claimants restricting public access and stopping people from going to the beach. It worked. Within four days the government announced its intention to legislate to "clarify that in fact the seabed and foreshore is owned by all New Zealanders in the form of the Crown". And they proceeded to do just that - without any serious attempt to consult Maori.

The resulting legislation did three things: it permanently and retrospectively vested ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the crown; it removed the jurisdiction of the Maori Land Court to hear claims for ownership of the foreshore and seabed, and limited the courts to granting only customary usage rights which could not amount to full ownership; and it created a system for recognising and managing those customary rights. While motivated primarily by a desire to avoid an electorally damaging backlash from Pakeha, the legislation was justified by two arguments: the need to preserve public access to what was generally assumed to be a communal space, and the need to prevent uncertainty to business. The possibility of repeal will no doubt raise these issues again. So how much of a problem are they?

While there is a great deal of fear over public access, it seems that it is largely unjustified. The heat and fury of the debate has masked a vital fact: it is not the actual beaches in question, but the intertidal zone - the sand that is wet by the tide. In its report [PDF] on the issue, the Waitangi Tribunal noted that there is a significant practical question of how access to this area could really be limited when the land above it is - and again, this has never been in doubt - public space. Regardless of who owns the foreshore, no-one is really going to be able to put up a toll-booth and charge anyone taking a dip in the water.

As for the legal question, the Court of Appeal noted that iwi would likely be able to show only limited usage rights, and that claims for full ownership would face "a number of hurdles in fact and law". Even if those hurdles were passed, many iwi have publicly stated that they have no intention of limiting access if their claims were successful - they are about the recognition of mana and kaitiaki, not the exclusion of others. While land successfully claimed could be sold to owners who were not so generous, this is even more unlikely, and would violate Maori cultural norms. The Waitangi Tribunal suggested the "threat" could easily be addressed by legislating to prevent such alienation - legislation which, if done properly, would be likely to enjoy the widespread support of Maori.

The business uncertainty argument is more interesting. In their "proposals for consultation" booklet, the government argued that allowing the legal process to proceed

also has the potential to create significant legal and administrative confusion and uncertainty, because it is not at all clear how private ownership of the foreshore and seabed would affect development and activity in the sea itself, and other legal rights. How would freehold ownership of the seabed under the Land Transfer Act be reconciled with the rights of commercial and recreational fishers? Or with tourist operators who have a licence to visit particular areas? Or with the internationally recognised right of innocent passage for vessels through New Zealand’s territorial sea?
This fear was echoed in responses from the public [PDF]
Business investors were concerned that recognition of customary rights may compromise the viability of some operations. The potential for there to be additional hurdles to overcome in the consent process, occupancy fees, requirements for partnership and profit sharing with Maori, and a breakdown in race relations that would undermine cooperation, were among the risks they identified.

In their report, the Waitangi Tribunal questioned whether these uncertainties were really significant, or so dire as to justify an instant fix which undermined the rule of law. While claims might take years to work their way through the courts, because of the way our legal system works nothing would change in the meantime. And because the courts would be highly reluctant to negate existing permits and usage rights which had been legally granted, they would not be immediately affected even if a claim was successful. The worst "uncertainty" commercial operators would face is that conditions could change when their permits or licences came up for renewal - exactly the same as they face now. This hardly seems compelling. And while nervous businesses could be more reluctant to invest in coastal development until the legal situation was resolved, that would hardly be the end of the world. As the Tribunal noted, the government had imposed a three-year moratorium on aquaculture development to allow it to finalise policy, without any real ill effects.

So what would happen then if the law was repealed and the situation returned to the status quo ante on November 24 2004? Nothing much. Iwi and hapu would file claims, and these would work their way through the courts. And as cases were decided and appealed, the courts would gradually establish a framework for granting customary rights and a threshold for full title. Local bodies and government departments would then work out and establish a consensus on how to recognise and protect those rights within the RMA and other legislation. The net result would likely end up looking similar to the deal just signed with Ngati Porou [DOC], which recognises and protects their customary rights by granting the iwi effective co-management of the coast, complete with consultation rights on fisheries and conservation decisions and a veto on resource consents which would interfere with customary activities. We would end up pretty much where we are now, but without trampling all over the rights of Maori.

This suggests that we have nothing to fear from repeal. It would result in a legal process which would take time, but that's hardly the end of the world. And if the government wants a quick resolution, it can always settle. That's what it did last time something like this happened - when the courts ruled that the government could not allocate fishing quota in the 1987 fisheries cases. In that case, the government had agreed an interim settlement within two years and a final one - the Sealord Deal - within five. It could do the same with the foreshore and seabed. Both government and iwi would benefit from the certainty of a settlement, which because of the inherently local nature of customary rights, would have to focus on creating a framework for their recognition and interaction with existing rights. The resulting legislation would likely look very similar to the existing sections 3 and 4 of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, allowing the acknowledgement of mana whenua, recognition of customary rights, and co-management. It could even include a public vesting, but the big difference is that it would all be done with the consent of Maori, rather than without it. And that would make all the difference in the world.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Bronagh Key wears is none of our business

The Herald today has a piece criticising Bronagh Key's fashion sense and the clothes she wore to her partner's installation. Like DPF and The Hand Mirror, I'm fairly annoyed by this. In case the shallow fashionistas at the Herald hadn't noticed, the people of New Zealand elected John Key, not his partner. And while Key now has a bigger job in which he will be subjected to much greater public scrutiny, that scrutiny does not and should not extend to his family or private life.

In New Zealand we have so far maintained an admirable consensus that the private lives of politicians are exactly that: private. This applies to their affairs and divorces, and it applies even more to their families. People's partners and kids aren't elected, don't draw a public salary, and aren't accountable to Parliament. And so what they do is simply none of our business. That applies to the big stuff like careers and business troubles and personal issues; and it applies even more strongly to the trivia like what they choose to wear. The fact that someone was elected does not make their partner public property, let alone the Herald's clotheshorse. If the Herald wants to dictate what people wear, they should either move to Saudi Arabia and take up Wahabism - or go back to high school.

New Fisk

Kabul 30 years ago, and Kabul today. Have we learned nothing?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Guantanamo: freedom for the Algerian Six?

One of the worst abuses in the war on terror is the case of "Algerian six". A group of Algerian-born Bosnian citizens, they were accused of plotting to blow up the US embassy in Sarajevo. The Bosnian courts ruled that there was no evidence against them, and that they should be released - but the US government, unwilling to accept the rule of law or little things like evidence, monstered the Bosnians into illegaly turning them over. They were then rendered to the US gulag in Guantanamo Bay, where they have languished ever since.

Now, a US judge has ordered five of the men freed, saying that there is no legal basis for their imprisonment. It's a victory for justice and human rights, and a defeat for the madness of the Bush Administration. The only question is whether the US government can finally admit it was wrong about these men, or whether it will appeal in another attempt to keep them imprisoned without charges, evidence, or just cause.

A misuse of urgency

And while we're on the topic of the government planning to legislate under urgency to toughen bail laws before Christmas, I should point out that I cannot remember the last time a government has used urgency to ram through this sort of policy decision in all stages with no select committee consideration. In the past two terms, at least, urgency has been rare, and typically given for three reasons: to gain extra sitting hours to pass ordinary legislation (as seen in the case of the ETS, or the regular pre-adjournment urgency motions allowing the government to clear the order paper before a break); to pass significant budget changes (as in the passage of Working For Families, KiwiSaver, or Labour's tax cuts earlier in the year; these are primarily financial bills, and so a select committee seems less important); or to pass urgent patch-up legislation (as in the case of the Appropriation (Parliamentary Expenditure Validation) Bill and Electoral (Vacancies) Amendment Bill, and less controversially, bills relating to biosecurity and immigration where court cases had demanded (in the government's eyes at least) an urgent clarification). Only in the latter two cases were bills introduced and passed in a single sitting; for "normal" urgency, bills were sent to select committee, or passed through their remaining stages after being scrutinised by one. Non-financial policy bills were never passed without a select committee phase and consequent public scrutiny.

In fact, you need to go back a decade, all the way to 1998, to last find a time where actual policy bills were being passed under urgency without select committee scrutiny (and then primarily because the National-led government of the time was deliberately requiring them to come into force very quickly). Even then, the policy was minor. You need to go back even further, to the early 90's, or even the Douglas Blitzkrieg of the 80's, to find significant policy being passed in this way.

Restricting bail is a significant policy with serious human rights implications. It deserves full select committee scrutiny. Ramming it through without that is a gross misuse of urgency - and something National would have been screaming about when in opposition. But its amazing how they change their position after merely changing where they sit in the house. What's bad for the goose, apparently, is not bad for the gander.

At this stage, I should point out that National's agreements with both ACT and United Future require the smaller parties to support "procedural motions" such as urgency. So we could be in for a very different style of Parliament - and one which gives full rein to National's authoritarian, dictatorial, anti-democratic instincts.

Repealing bail

National has announced that it plans to legislate under urgency to toughen bail laws before Christmas. Instead of requiring that offenders present a "real or substantial risk" to the public in order to deny bail, National will allow them to be imprisoned if they pose any risk at all. While this will no doubt thrill the sadists in the "hang 'em high" brigade, it should worry the rest of us, for the simple fact that it will lead to injustice.

The thing that people forget when discussing bail is that the people released on it haven't been convicted of anything yet. They have been accused and charged, but not proven guilty. They have not been tried, and the evidence against them has not been scrutinised by a jury. Denial of bail is therefore a punishment without trial, and requires the strongest of justifications. Simply being accused of a crime isn't enough (if it was, we'd dispense with the whole business of evidence and trials altogether). Neither are the police's fantasies about the risk the accused poses, or their desire to "keep them off the streets". To justify locking someone up, that risk must be (as the current law puts it) "real and substantial". Anything less, and we're imprisoning people unjustly. This interpretation is more or less demanded by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and the government may find it simply being enforced by the courts unless it makes it crystal clear that they are to lock people up regardless (an action which would violate both the BORA and the UN human rights instruments it implements).

The other thing that people forget is that it can take up to two years for a case to come to trial. In many cases, this will exceed the sentence likely to be imposed, which makes denying bail a recipe for excessive punishment (or a bludgeon to get people to plead out rather than make the police prove their case). Assuming of course the accused is convicted; if they're not, then they will be wrongfully imprisoned for a substantial period of their life - something which all of us would find utterly unacceptable.

As a liberal, I believe that people's freedom is paramount - and that includes the freedom of people accused of crimes. The state should face a high barrier before imprisoning people, and that barrier should be even higher in the case of pre-trial detention. While people get outraged at stories of yet another criminal offending while on bail, punishing people merely on the suspicion of an offence is contrary to all standards of justice. The critics of bail would recognise this immediately if they or their loved ones were abused in that fashion. They should have the consistency to recognise it for accused criminals as well.

Jobs for the boys

When he was in Parliament, John Tamihere was notable for his misogyny, which can be summed up in a single word: "front bums". So I guess it's not surprising that he would be the man to give acquitted rapist Clint Rickards a job. What is surprising is that he would give him a job which put him anywhere near young people (the original headline on that article was "Rickards may work with troubled youth"). In case anyone has forgotten, Rickards admitted in court repeatedly manipulating young and vulnerable people for his own sexual gratification. While he was acquitted of rape, his own "explanation" ought to give anyone serious qualms about letting him near vulnerable teenagers. And if some of those people come from an abusive background, Rickards is the last person who should be talking to them.

I'm also wondering how the Waipareira Trust's female staff (assuming there are any) will feel about sharing their workplace with a man like Rickards. I wouldn't work with him, and hopefully the Trust's staff will be organised enough to say that they won't either.

Drinking Liberally Palmerston North

Drinking Liberally will have its usual monthly meeting in Palmerston North next Friday, with guest speaker newly-elected Labour MP Jacinda Arden.

When: 19:30, Friday, 28 November
Where: Legends Bar (AKA Scarfies), 275 Main St, opposite Te Manawa

Note the change of venue; hopefully more people will be able to find us at legends.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Climate change: Fallow on the ETS backdown

The Herald's Brian Fallow hooks into the government's backdown on the ETS this morning, arguing that it will lead to a rise in uncertainty for business. Indeed, that uncertainty has already cost us, with carbon trader EcoSecurities Group suspending their plans to launch a new Zealand subsidiary in response to the government's decision. That's an extreme case, but there will be similar problems all throughout the energy and forestry sectors, with investment decisions being delayed until the costs of carbon - or whether there will be one at all - is again knowable. Which means we may see that tremendous revolution in our energy infrastructure, which has seen 500 MW of wind built or under construction, and another 2,300 MW in the pipeline, grind to a halt, as investors in clean energy fear being undercut by Gerry Brownlee's (dirty) "sexy coal".

Fallow also has some strong words on the idea of a select committee of politicians pretending to judge the science of climate change:

The committee should hear competing views on the science from internationally respected sources, it says. Apparently the careful processes of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, endorsed by the United States National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society and all the other guardians of the scientific method, are not good enough.

A few New Zealand MPs are more likely to get to the bottom of it.

That's laughable.

Laughable indeed. But that's the whole reason why ACT wants politicians rather than scientists to judge - because they're more likely to reach the right (or rather, wrong) conclusion.

Finally, he points out what the argument over carbon taxes vs an ETS is really all about: price. While it will fluctuate, the price of carbon in an ETS with international trading will converge on the international market price - currently over $30 a tonne. By contrast, advocates of a carbon tax, such as the Business Round Table, think it should be set at between $5 and $10 per tonne. In other words, the supposed advocates of the free market are simply sticking their hand out for a subsidy for their pollution. I for one see no reason to give them one.

New Fisk

Once more fear stalks the streets of Kandahar

The ASA does it again

Just before the election, the Advertising Standards Authority - the body responsible for regulating all non-broadcast advertising in New Zealand - upheld a complaint that a Labour party ad was "misleading". Now they've done it again, this time to ACT. ACT produced newspaper advertisements and flyers saying that they were the "only party totally opposed to an ETS", and the only party which would dump it and pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. An activist from the Family Party - to which most people would go "who?" - complained on the grounds that their party would do so as well (climate change obviously being the will of god or something). The ASA agreed with the Family Party, ruling that the existence of another party, no matter how tiny and unelectable, made the ads misleading, and a statement of opinion disguised as fact.

Media lawyer Stephen Price has attacked the Labour YouTube ruling as failing to properly allow for political advocacy and to apply the Bill of Rights Act. This ruling seems to suffer from the same flaws. Yes, technically ACT were wrong. But not in any way which mattered. No voters would have been misled about their position (quite the contrary), or about the positions of the parties they were competing with for votes - a group which did not, realistically, include the Family party.

This doesn't mean I think politicians should be allowed to get away with telling blatant lies. But politics is about rhetoric, and there needs to be some space for that and for the normal exaggerations they make. Applying a hyper-technical standard to political advertising may give the ASA their jollies, but ultimately it would prevent politicians from being able to properly represent their positions and contrast them with those of their opponents. And our political discourse would be significantly poorer as a result.

(As for the second complaint, ACT has only itself to blame if it doesn't respond properly. While international comparisons of crime statistics are a source of endless arguments, I'm surprised they didn't even bother to provide the stats backing up their claim - and under such circumstances, i can't blame anyone for concluding that there weren't any, and they were just making it all up).

Carnival of the Liberals

The 78th carnival of the liberals is now up at Greg Laden's Blog

Cheney and Gonzales indicted

For prisoner abuse, even. Sadly, it relates to prisons in Texas, not Guantanamo Bay:

Cheney is charged with engaging in an organized criminal activity related to the vice president's investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds financial interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers. It accuses Cheney of a conflict of interest and "at least misdemeanor assaults" on detainees because of his link to the prison companies.


The indictment accuses Gonzales of using his position while in office to stop an investigation in 2006 into abuses at one of the privately-run prisons.

I have no idea whether these charges will stick, and there seems to be a dubious political situation around them. At the same time, its nice to see someone is taking on the US private prison system and holding it - and its corporate officers - to account.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oh joy

Blackwater - the American mercenary company infamous for massacring civilians in Iraq - is now getting its own private navy, which they plan to use to deter Somali pirates (for a profit, of course).

I wonder how many fishermen they'll murder with it?

An answer from the Chief Electoral office

The other day I wondered whether the Chief Electoral Office was breaking the law in the way they were announcing the election results. The Electoral Act seems to assume progressive, immediate reporting of results by electorate as they come in, rather than a single declaration when everything is complete. So, I asked them what the reason was for the delay and what the practical difficulties were. This is the response:

There is no delay in the declaration of the official results. The target to declare them is 2pm Saturday 22 November at

The official results have been declared in this manner for the last three elections (when, in 2002, the Electoral Act was amended to provide for the issue by the Governor General of a single writ to the Chief Electoral Officer rather than individual writs to each Returning Officer).

It is not practicable to declare the results progressively because the results of the party vote (a nationwide result) cannot be completed until all electorates are completed.

As Returning Officers complete the official counts for each electorate the Chief Electoral Office undertakes its own checks before the Chief Electoral Officer declares the official results. This work will take until Saturday when the results will be released as scheduled.

Which seems reasonable - but doesn't seem to be entirely what was contemplated by the law. It seems that 2002 amendment should have made a few tweaks elsewhere as well.

And the Chief Electoral office definitely gets my openness award for quick responses to OIA requests - they had this one back to me in a mere 44 hours. Most requests aren't even acknowledged in that timeframe, let alone answered.

Climate change: Obama speaks...

Just when the New Zealand government is taking us back to square one on climate change with a denialist dog and pony show, US President-elect Barack Obama has committed his new administration to serious action:

So, a federal cap and trade system, a reduction to 1990 levels by 2020, a reduction of 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, and a significant investment in clean energy. The initial target isn't that impressive - the US's Kyoto target was a 7% reduction by 2012 - but the 2050 target would reduce US per-capita greenhouse gas emissions to only 2.4 T/CO2 per person - a level which would make them a true world leader (compare with the figures for other nations' proposed cuts here). Dirty America has just said that they intend to make "clean and green" New Zealand look like slackers. Is that really a reputation we want? Worse than the Americans?

If John Key really was "ambitious for New Zealand", he'd want us to be better than that. He'd cancel ACT's denier forum and commit now to a stronger ETS with legislated targets for a 75% reduction on 1990 levels by 2020. The earlier we commit, the easier it will be, and a steeper path now always gives us the option of backing off later if it looks like the problem is well in hand. But if we follow National's "plan", and sit on our hands for another couple of years while sending the wonks back to the drawing board for a completely new policy for the fifth time in 15 years, while having no long-term plan, then it is going to be much, much harder.

National's challenge

Jobless to near 6pc, says Key

A mid-December update of economic and fiscal forecasts is likely to show the unemployment rate heading up to just under 6 per cent, Prime Minister-elect John Key indicated yesterday.

He said figures in the half-year economic and fiscal update would likely be worse than those outgoing Finance Minister Michael Cullen had released last week.

To put that in context, that's a 50% increase on the levels we've enjoyed over the past nine years, so it's something the government should be concerned about. But from the Herald's brief piece, there's no expression of concern from John Key.

This isn't really surprising. Last time they were in government, National saw 6% unemployment as the floor, the minimum needed to keep wages down and profits high, and their pet Reserve Bank Governor Brashed the economy whenever it looked like people were feeling too economically secure. In opposition, Bill English denounced Labour's efforts to reduce it below that floor as a delusion. Reality has proved him wrong, and the electorate will now be judging National on whether they can keep people in jobs and prevent the misery of mass unemployment. But judging by the low priority accorded to the relevant portfolios in National's Cabinet, they're not very concerned about it at all.

It's official

John Key is now Prime Minister.

And while it was forced by circumstance - Government House is currently being renovated - I like the symbolism of the Governor-General going to Parliament to swear in the new Ministry, rather than them going to him. It gets things the right way round: Parliament is in charge, and the monarch's representative is merely a functionary who does the paperwork; it is the people, rather than the monarch, who make a government. Hopefully, when Government House is fixed, we'll continue doing things this way, rather than returning to the seventeenth-century charade which pretends that the monarch is still absolute, and that the opinion of her unelected representative matters any more than anyone else’s.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A question

Looking at how the appointment of Paula Bennett as Minister of Social Development has been greeted in the sewer, I have to ask: can we have a female Minister - or indeed, a female politician - without immediately sexualising her or judging her on her looks?

[Hat tip: Tumeke]

Rodney's pork problem

The other day, I noted that National's confidence and supply agreement with ACT [PDF] had a rather unusual clause:

To enable ACT to make a substantive contribution to the government's programme, it will have adequate access to funding, in a bulk form or for specific projects, to enable it to commission contract research or other consultancy assistance. The terms of such funding will be a matter for the Leadership Council to decide.
Why is this necessary? Won't ACT already be receiving money through Parliamentary Services for this sort of work?

The answer is yes. Parliamentary Services provides funding for MPs and parties not just to allow them to perform their duties, communicate with constituents, and function as legislators, but also explicitly for the purposes of research and policy development (the exact rules are here [PDF]; the purposes this funding can be used for are laid out in s4.12). However, parts of that funding (the leader's office budget and the entitlement to office support staff) are effectively reduced because ACT will have two MPs as part of the executive. In practical terms, that reduction will be more than offset by the greater resources provided by Ministerial Services, but those resources come with a catch: they can only be used for assisting those MPs to discharge their duties as Ministers and develop policy within their portfolios. They explicitly cannot be used for electioneering or "any work directly related to the administration or management of a political party" (full rules here [PDF]). And Ministerial Services staff are reportedly quite picky about that. For a party which has historically relied on its Parliamentary Services allocation to keep it running, that will be a real problem.

ACT's answer is special pork, a backdoor public funding scheme which applies only to them. But this is going to pose some problems. The money has to come from somewhere. It can't come from Ministerial Services, because then it would be subject to the same rules that limit it at present (unless the new Minister - John Key - changes those rules. But that would be public). It can't come from Parliamentary Services, unless the rules are changed to either favour parties in government (currently they don't), to allow inter-party transfers (fat chance), or to award more money to small parties across the board (which wouldn't be a bad thing at all, but I can't see them doing that either). It can't come from any other government department, such as DPMC, because the usual public service rules would apply. And if it comes from any organ of the government, it will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny through the annual appropriations review process, and public scrutiny through the OIA - plus the possible review of the Auditor-General (and I'm sure there will be people just waiting to hoist Rodney by his own petard with that weapon). While the exact details will likely be kept secret, we will at least be able to find out how much, and the terms on which it may be used - and whether those terms are adhered to. Which may be rather more than National or ACT want us to learn.

Unless they go completely private, and get National to pay ACT with its own rather than public money - something which smacks of outright bribery - ACT has just created a rod for its own back. And I think a lot of people will be looking forward to using it.

Trotter is back

Chris Trotter has a new blog: Bowalley Road. This time, he's trying to be a voice for "Old New Zealand" - a fondly remembered pre-1984 state shorn of its stultifying ignorance and vicious intolerance. One which, despite Trotter's claims of being a more progressive place, overwhelmingly elected National governments (twice despite them not even winning a plurality of votes), and for nine long years gave us our very own authoritarian demon. It's the New Zealand Winston Peters represented - and not a place I ever want to return to. A left-wing vision for modern New Zealand does not lie in this sort of rose-tinted nostalgia; we need to make our own place, a new place which acknowledges modern ideas of tolerance, diversity, and individualism alongside the traditional left-wing vision of equality and freedom for all. Otherwise we're just going to end up like Trotter - the old guy in the retirement home futilely shaking his stick in outrage at the young.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The new executive

National's list of cabinet positions is up here [PDF]. I'll let people who care wax sycophantic about Key's choices; instead I'll just point out what it says about his priorities. Social Development goes to a noob who seems to have never said a thing on the topic, while Labour is ranked bottom of the Cabinet. Both these portfolios will be absolutely crucial in dealing with the recession, but National and Key just don't seem to care about them.

Oh, and the absence of Lockwood Smith means he's probably Speaker. No doubt he'll spend his first few days telling all the Pasifika MPs how to use the toilets...

Is the Chief Electoral Officer breaking the law?

DPF notes that a change in the way we're releasing the results this election:

Unlike previous years, the Chief Electoral Officer will not be releasing the final count (including specials) progressively as each electorate is finalised. They will all be released this Saturday.
However, this may not be consistent with the Electoral Act. Section 179 (2) states:
As soon as practicable after receiving from a Returning Officer the information specified in subsection (1) [the results of the count for a particular electorate], the Chief Electoral Officer must declare the results of the official count for the district concerned by publishing in the Gazette a notice in form 14.
The clear intent here is for progressive, immediate reporting of results by electorate as they come in (hence the practice in past years). This is bound by practicalities - but there seems to be no reason why the release of the results should be delayed, other than a desire for tidiness in the final party vote totals. And I'm not sure that that's good enough.

A radical agenda

What might Rodney Hide do now that he is Minister of Local Government? The Standard has the lowdown, straight from ACT's Local Government Policy:

Commercial activities are best performed by the private sector because they have more incentive to innovate and deliver better services. Local government should progressively shed ownership of its commercial activities.

Local government should be confined to the core activities that produce general public benefits, such as regulation, flood control and roads.

Local government will be required to shed its commercial activity, thereby eliminating the need to separate regulatory and commercial functions between local and regional councils.

Roads and piped water will be supplied on a fully commercial basis.

Require councils to focus on their core functions.

Ensure there is much greater scrutiny of regulations that undermine property rights.

Lower the cost of complying with the Resource Management Act and other regulatory regimes.

Promote contracting out of many council services.

(Emphasis added).

And of course sticking local government in a financial straitjacket through his Local Government (Rates Poll Demand) Amendment Bill.

Some of this agenda may be constrained by National - but I wouldn't bet on it. Last time they were in government they forced privatisation on local authorities, and the same people are running the show now. Except this time, they get to use Rodney as a front and a blame-sink for their policies. Like The Standard, I have to ask: is privatised water and roads really the change people wanted?

Iraq to US: get out

The Iraqi Cabinet has approved a new Status of Forces Agreement with their US occupiers. But rather than permitting an ongoing occupation, it instead sends a clear message to the US: get out. According to BBC, the terms of the deal include:

  • placing US forces in Iraq under the authority of the Iraqi government
  • US forces to leave the streets of Iraq's towns and villages by the middle of 2009
  • US forces to hand over their bases to Iraq during the course of 2009
  • US forces to lose the authority to raid Iraqi homes without an order from an Iraqi judge and permission of the government.

And all US troops have to be gone by the end of 2011. That's not an "aspirational target", subject to further negotiation and bullying if the US wants to continue to threaten Iran past that date - it's a hard deadline. They're being kicked out on their arses.

The deal still has to be approved by the Iraqi parliament - who might reject it for being too generous (notably, it doesn't seem to allow prosecution of US troops or contractors who murder civilians). What's more interesting is whether the US will actually abide by it - particularly that last clause about not kicking in people's doors in the dead of night without a warrant - or whether they'll just ignore it... and what comeback the Iraqis have if they do.

The benefits of high taxation

Writing in the Guardian, Gwladys Fouché examines the UK's consensus on low taxation, and asks a subversive question:

But is this the best way to proceed in the long term, and would UK taxpayers get better value for money if they paid more, rather than less?

One way to examine the issue is to compare state help provided by the British government to one which traditionally charges much higher taxes: Sweden. Swedes support the second-highest tax burden in the world - after Denmark's - with an average of 48.2 per cent of GDP going to taxes. Yet Sweden, along with equally high-taxing Denmark and Norway, tops almost every international barometer of successful societies.

Swedes get a cradle to grave welfare system, hospitals that work, good schools, universal cheap early childhood education and generous paid parental leave which allows parents to better integrate work, life, and family, excellent unemployment benefits which provide security in the workforce, and at the end of it all, a generous pension which can be taken any time after age 61 (and is higher the later you take it). And their economy doesn't seem to suffer a bit: their per-capita GDP is the 8th highest in the world, and their real GDP growth rate seems pretty good. So why don't we emulate them, rather than the UK, or (worse) the US?

The answer, as usual, comes down to who benefits. Swedish style arrangements benefit ordinary people. UK-US arrangements (low taxes, and consequently poor public services, low welfare provisions) benefit the rich. And sadly, despite MMP, the latter still enjoy disproportionate political power in our society.

The third agreement

I've finally got round to reading National's confidence and supply agreement with United Future [PDF]. Because he's a one-MP party, and was so eager to crawl into bed with National from the outset, Peter Dunne gets few gains. He gets to retain his outside Cabinet positions of Minister of Revenue and Associate Minister of Health, and his pet project, the Families Commission. He gets promises to use the health system to direct more public money into private pockets by contracting operations out to the private sector (something National was keen on anyway) and to use PPPs for roads "such as the Transmission Gully highway" (ditto). He gets a Big Game Hunting Council for the gun nuts. And, most interestingly, he gets support for an income splitting bill to select committee, but not necessarily any further. These are small gains, but ones Dunne can feel proud of; for a small party leader, he's been a quiet achiever, and his willingness to cooperate with anyone has seen him having quite an influence over the years.

He also makes a stab at stealing Winston's Super Gold Card. Which means we can expect to see United Future reinvent itself as the centre liberal immigrant Christian gun nut sensible pensioner party forthwith.

As for the strings, he's agreed to support the implementation of National's manifesto, and is subject to the same "we tell you about it, we outvote you, so you must support it" bullshit as ACT. But this is unlikely to rankle much - Dunne is a cooperative guy, and National's policies are more to his liking anyway (he did, after all, support Roger Douglas in the 80's - something we should never forget). Interestingly, the agreement includes the same "cabinet manual" provision on Ministerial conduct and standards seen in the Maori Party agreement, which means the question is not why the Maori Party has such a clause, but why ACT doesn't. Is there something Rodney should be telling us...?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The other agreement

National has also released its confidence and supply agreement with the Maori Party [PDF]. Where their agreement with ACT was a coalition in all but name (even including a requirement for all ACT MPs to support policies the party had merely "participated" in developing - in other words, "we tell you about it, we outvote you, you support it"), the Maori Party is completely free to speak on other policy areas. They get a couple of minor policy concessions - no attempt to abolish the Maori seats, and a review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act (though one whose implied terms seem stilted towards National's preferred outcome of total dispossession) - but the real victory are two positions outside Cabinet (Maori Affairs and Community and Voluntary Sector) with

significant areas of responsibility within their portfolios, along with Associate Minister responsibilities, including service delivery, departmental support and funding
Those associate positions cover Health, Education, Social Development and Corrections, so if National lives up to its promise, there's potential for them to deliver real gains to Maori.

There's also an agreement to implement the recommendation of a 2007 report to provide greater electorate support to Maori MPs and those serving large electorates, which seems fair and reasonable.

On the down side, there's this odd little note:

Cabinet Manual

The Maori Party Ministers agree to be bound by the Cabinet Manual in the exercise of their ministerial functions, and in particular to be bound by the provisions of the Cabinet Manual on the conduct, public duty and personal interests of Ministers.

The ACT agreement didn't have such a clause, and neither I expect will peter Dunne's. Is it because they're brown?

It's a pretty good deal, especially given that National didn't need to sign it. The question now is whether National will live up to it - and whether it will deliver enough to Maori that they don't switch their support back to Labour in 2011.

The rest of the agreement

So what else is in National and ACT's confidence and supply agreement [PDF]? Some pretty nasty stuff:

  • National will introduce a bill for "three strikes and you're out" and support it to select committee;
  • ACT's Taxpayer Bill of Rights Bill will be introduced as a government measure "with the aim of passing into law a cap on the growth of core Crown expenses". So, national will kneecap government;
  • Advancing the Regulatory Responsibility Bill;
  • appointing a number of private-sector working groups to review government expenditure and improve its "quality" - i.e. cut social programmes. They will also examine "alternative means of achieving [government] objectives" - meaning privatisation and contracting out;
  • Appointing an inter-party working group to examine "policy options relating to the funding and regulation of schools that will increase parental choice and school autonomy" - in English, school privatisation and vouchers;
  • everything National promised e.g. gutting the RMA, privatising ACC, and building more prisons.
And of course killing off the ETS and taking us back to square one on climate change policy. This is not a centrist agenda. Instead, it is a radical right-wing agenda, aimed at permanently crippling government and shifting government revenue into private pockets.

Interestingly, those worries about controlling government expenditure don't seem to apply to the ACT party - National is directly giving them pork:

To enable ACT to make a substantive contribution to the government's programme, it will have adequate access to funding, in a bulk form or for specific projects, to enable it to commission contract research or other consultancy assistance. The terms of such funding will be a matter for the Leadership Council to decide.
So, government funding directly to a political party for going into coalition with you. And these parties have the gall to complain about proposals for publicly funding political parties? They're doing it themselves, right here. But again, it's just another thing which is OK if you're a tory...

Climate change: back to square one

National's confidence and supply agreement with ACT is now online [PDF]. And it includes some very bad news for climate change policy:

National agrees to a review by a special select committee of Parliament of the current Emissions Trading Scheme legislation and any amendments or alternatives to it, including carbon taxes, in the light of current economic circumstances and steps now being undertaken by similar nations.

National further agrees to pass forthwith an amendment to the ETS legislation delaying its implementation, repealing the thermal generation ban and making any other necessary interim adjustments until the select committee review is completed.

(Emphasis added)

Looking at the terms of reference, they're going right back to the start, including "hear[ing] competing views on the scientific aspects of climate change" and looking at whether we should do anything about it anyway (and of course float the idea of a carbon tax to further delay things). In other words, repeat the entire policy process of the past fifteen years (which has included several select committee investigations, as well as a national interest analysis [PDF]), only in a more politicised context, with a politically-dictated outcome on the science. After fifteen years, we're right back to square one.

Meanwhile, energy and industrial emissions - which were going to be covered by the ETS from January 1 next year 2010 - will be free to rise, and polluters will continue to be allowed to externalise the cost of their pollution. And we will be picking up the tab for all of it. Thanks, National!

New Fisk

There is no end to the centuries of savagery in Afghanistan

Habemus government

That was quick - just a week after the election, it looks like we officially have a government. The irony is that having warned of a "five headed monster", Key is now leading one himself. I guess that, like suppressing freedom of speech, it's OK if you're a tory. But the fact that he's got everyone onboard at the outset is a significant achievement, and a strong signal that National is finally learning to play the MMP game.

Unfortunately, the confidence and supply agreements aren't yet on the web. But the details announced so far - Heather Roy as Consumer Affairs, Rodney Hide as Minister of Local Government and Regulatory Reform - are worrying. Given ACT's hatred of regulation and support for the business community, the former is setting the fox to guard the henhouse. The Minister of Consumer Affairs is supposed to support consumers, not the businesses who want to lie to us. As for the latter, ACT has longstanding member's bills designed to do to local government and regulations what his Taxpayer's Bill of Rights Bill would do to central government: wreck them and stop them from being used as a tool for policy. While its unclear yet whether progressing these bills is a requirement of the confidence and supply agreement, he will certainly push policy in that direction. And the result will inevitably be poorer local government services and greater environmental degradation.

Friday, November 14, 2008


BBC: Bush defends free-market system

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

How they do prisons in Norway

While National and ACT look to be on the verge of finally implementing the "hang 'em high" brigade's screaming for ever more vicious and inhumane treatment of prisoners, its worth looking at how they do it in one of the societies we want to emulate: Norway. The Guardian's Erwin James - a former prisoner himself - visits a Norwegian maximum security prison, and is surprised by what he sees. It's a prison, alright - but its very different on the inside than those in the UK (or in NZ):

Lief beckons me to follow him. "Come, I show you where I work," he says. I follow and soon we are in what I recognise as the education department. It is very clean. He shows me a classroom. There are rows of wooden desks and chairs, like any classroom, except each desk has a computer on it. "Every prisoner here has a computer in the classroom," he says, "and a computer in their cell."
And those computers have internet access. Why? Because its vital to their education, and to keep them connected with their families (something recognised, even in NZ, as helping to prevent recidivism).

The sadists about to be put in charge of correctional policy in NZ would no doubt denounce this as "soft", but the Norwegians are clearly doing something right: their incarceration rate is less than half ours. But rather than acknowledging the fact that humane prisons work, we have for electoral reasons been driving in the opposite direction. Judging from the US, where mass-incarceration has caused widespread misery and made prison companies rich while having no effect on crime rates, those policies can only end in failure.


While Tariana Turia is clearly in denial, there is no question that her party's all-but-inevitable deal with National is a risky business. While New Zealand favours very loose coalitions, part and parcel of supporting the government on confidence and supply is that you get to carry the can to some degree for its policies. Even if you didn't actually vote for them yourself, support on confidence is seen as a general approval, and an active enabling of government policy. Which means that when National inevitably enacts policies that hurt Maori, the Maori Party is going to be asked some hard questions about why they are allowing it to happen - if not from their own voters, then from Labour, who will be trying to show that they can do a better job of representing and defending Maori interests. Phil Goff's warning of a backlash then is better seen as a signalling that Labour will be fighting hard for the Maori seats in 2011, and holding the Maori Party to account for the policies it is implicitly lending support to.

You can almost write the press releases now. When National attacks workers' rights, Labour will ask "how is this good for Maori"? When National removes iwi consultation from the RMA, they will ask "where is the benefit to Maori"? And when they enact even harsher sentencing regimes which will see more Maori locked away from their families for longer, they will ask - two-facedly, because Goff is a law and order freak himself - "how is this good for Maori"? Unless they have been able to veto all of those policies in their coalition agreement (and I will be mightily impressed if they do), they'd better start working on the answers to those questions now.

some influence is better than none, and the Maori Party's supporters clearly think that they're getting an acceptable deal given their poor bargaining position. It will be interesting to see if they feel that way in three years time.

Kneecapping government

On his Stuff blog, financial commentator Bernard Hickey suggests that ACT might try and push its Taxpayer Bill of Rights Bill during coalition talks. Hickey thinks that this is a "subtle" bill which would "take the politicians out of government". I covered the bill back in 2005 as part of my "In the ballot" series, and there's nothing subtle about it. Like ACT's other members’ bills, it is a piece of calculated Libertarian wrecking behaviour, designed to kneecap government so it can be drowned in the bathtub.

The bill would legally limit increases in government spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth. This sounds fine - until you think about it for more than five seconds. The consequences are incredible. By capping spending, it restricts the state to doing only what it does now, and no more. It locks in existing underpayments in the public service, so that education will be permanently underfunded, and frontline staff such as doctors, nurses, and teachers permanently underpaid. And because the cost of e.g. medical technologies is always rising, it ensures that public services will never get better - only worse. The overall goal is the same as that of National's health policy in the 90's - to make government suck, so that people lose faith in it and turn to the private sector, where they can be bled for a profit.

This bill would mean no new large government projects, unless something else was slashed to compensate. So, no new roads, or public transport - Auckland can kiss its rail network goodbye. No government solution to the housing market. No expansion of paid parental leave, or further assistance with childcare. And of course Labour's interest-free student loans and Working For Families packages would have been right out. But it gets worse - the bill would also effectively strip all flexibility from the government budget. So, no emergency flood relief, unless it was pre-planned (and if natural disasters don’t abide by budgetary rules, tough). No increases in pensions or education spending to allow for changing demographics. And - most insanely - no ability to increase welfare spending when a recession arrives and unemployment rises. Hide has had a long time to think about this bill - he's been pushing it for years - so these consequences will not be unanticipated. Instead, they are deliberate. It is wrecking behaviour, pure and simple.

(On the plus side, it also means no money for new prisons. So much for "three strikes and you're in"...)

The thousand or so radical libertarians in the country will think this bill is an excellent idea. But New Zealanders have historically preferred a government able to actually do things. Whether its building a railroad, making sure every kiwi family has a decent home, providing for the sick and the old, or enabling gender equality in the labour market, we have looked to government to provide a solution. Hide's bill would put an end to that. And that is why it must never be allowed to pass.

Our anti-democratic business community

Well, that didn't take long. Less than a week after National won the election, our anti-democratic business community is already calling on him to abandon the centrist policy and status quo platform he ran on and instead move hard hard right. In a piece in the Independent yesterday entitled (chillingly) "Unfinished business", editor Jenni McManus called on Key to "man up" and break his promises:

If forced to choose between breaking election promises and the country's economic survival, voters' intentions are clear. Key wasn't elected simply to implement his manifesto but to manage and lead the economy out of the crisis.
According to McManus, its all about business confidence. And the quickest way to boost it is to give Roger Douglas "a place in the inner sanctum". She also quotes approvingly from Douglas' infamous blitzkrieg strategy of ramming controversial policy through under urgency before anyone has a chance to object to it. Democracy? Clearly its a weakness, and a barrier to "necessary" "reforms".

If Key follows McManus' advice, the business community may very well be pleased. But at the end of the day, it is people that vote, not businesses. And we expect our politicians to be straight with us and keep their promises. If Key follows the 90's playbook, and treats his commitments like pretty lies for children, told simply for the purpose of securing election, he will not only suffer for it in 2011 - he will likely make his party unelectable for another decade.