Friday, January 30, 2009

Friedmanite garbage

While I'm on the topic of Treasury, the first half of their Briefing to the Incoming Minister [PDF] released before the holidays included this lovely little graph:


You get that? According to Treasury, passing laws is bad. But its sillier than that, becuse they don't care about the content of those laws - only their page count. It's a perfect example of a metric which completely misses the point, and if taken to its logical conclusion would see us in a state with no laws at all - a state adequetely summarised by Thomas Hobbes as

continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
It would be nice if the government had advisors who approached their task with a trace of intellectual seriousness, rather than peddling this sort of Friedmanite garbage.

(Oh, and for the curious, what's that spike in 2007? The Income Tax Act - all 3151 pages of it. And if you ask Treasury whether we should periodicly review and update our tax laws and close loopholes, they'll say "yes". So not even they believe the stuff they're shovelling...)

Meurant on police shooting

On Monday, former MP and police officer Ross Meurant called for the officer who shot and killed Halatau Naitoko to face trial. Today, he's written a much longer opinion piece in the Herald which makes a strong case. The money quote:

The law is very clear when police may kill a human being. They must fear, on reasonable grounds, death or grievous bodily injury to themselves or a third person and that the death or grievous injury cannot otherwise be avoided than by killing the offender.

I do not pre-judge the lawfulness of the police action on that fateful day. It is for a court to decide whether the police shooting was lawful and justifiable.

The fact that the police actually missed the "offender" and hit an innocent person introduces the question of whether or not they were reckless or negligent in their use of firearms. There is no question of the police deliberately hitting the wrong person - that would be an absurd assumption. But negligent and/or reckless use of a firearm is axiomatic and these elements form the basis of manslaughter. [the standard charge is careless use of a firearm - I/S]


Preservation of the rule of law is far more important than preservation of the police.

The place for the questions of culpability to be determined must be in a court of law.

This embraces the concept of separation of powers. It is fundamental to our democracy. Only then can the public have confidence in their police and only then can the police hold their heads high.

As should be clear from my posts on the matter, I think he's right; this is fundamentally a question of the rule of law and of public confidence that the police cannot kill with impunity. We won't get that confidence through the police exonerating themselves in a back room somewhere. We will get it through a public trial before a jury. And if the police fear that, then I think it says a great deal about how much confidence we can place in them.

Bad advice

Bill English has released the second part of Treasury's Briefing to the Incoming Minister [PDF] - the part focusing on the specifics of National's policies. He's released it on a Friday - the traditional time to bury bad news - and I can see why. There's a lot in here people should be interested in, either because it calls the government's programme into question, or because it raises significant questions about what exactly they plan to do. And our politicians and journalists should be asking those questions now.

On the first front, Treasury is surprisingly in favour of Labour's R&D tax credits and "Fast Forward" fund, both of which it sees as making a positive contribution to innovation (National has scrapped both to pay for its tax cuts to the rich - something which promotes only holidays in Hawaii for the few). They oppose National's changes to KiwiSaver on the grounds that there is no evidence that the 4% payments are a barrier to access, while reducing them could lead to inadequate retirement savings and lead to people's balances simply being eaten up by fees. And they oppose National's plans to "fund" infrastructure by having the Cullen Fund purchase government-issued infrastructure bonds is simply a financial merry-go round in which the government would be both the issuer and holder of debt. In other words, it is a way of effectively reducing contributions while disguising the fact that they are doing so - a pure PR scam. Treasury frowns on such Enron-style accounting, and the rest of us should too.

On the second front, Treasury continues in the vein of its triennial ideological burp, recommending more market fundamentalism in response to the economic crisis. So we have the usual calls for tax cuts for the rich, poorer working conditions for the rest of us, and no increase in the minimum wage. Then they get worse.

They recommend "fiscal consolidation" (spending cuts), to be achieved by setting a GDP target for government spending or revenue, "a commitment not to change the allocation once set during the Budget cycle", or just slashing departmental budgets and leaving chief executives to sort out the mess. At the least, they recommend the return of the "sinking cap" which caused so much damage to our public services under the last National-led administration in the 90's.

They recommend higher student loan repayment rates for those on higher incomes - a shockingly progressive move, but one which would effectively claw back National's tax cuts for (recent) university graduates. Then they suggest lowering the repayment threshold. It's already well below the full-time minimum wage - a situation which makes a mockery of the claim that it is repaying the private benefit of education - and they want it lower? This is simply madness.

In places, the advice is almost comical. They recommend against "opening the books on waiting lists" because this could create "unrealistic expectations" that the health system would be properly funded to deal with basic demand, and create a risk that "ministers could become responsible for fixing every vulnerable service or unmet need" (hint to Treasury: they already are, and we punish governments who evade that responsibility). And in response to National's plans for a "crime tax", they suggest replacing it with "targeted support for the 13% of victims (particularly victims of serious violent crime) currently reporting dissatisfaction with the support they receive". I believe that's what Treasury would call "creating an incentive"...

But the worst bit is their proposed response to the international financial crisis. Their proposal? Nothing. Treasury thinks the market is best left to sort itself out. A fiscal stimulus package could upset the markets and "work against the unwinding of imbalances in the economy that need to happen". In English, that means stop firms from going bankrupt and people being thrown out of work. Furthermore, the effects are not predicted to be that bad - we're only expected to see 6% unemployment, "which until this decade was seen as the lowest rate of unemployment before inflationary pressures emerged". I'd like to see them tell that to the 75,000 families they're saying we should do nothing for. Assuming they can see them from their corner office fifteen floors up on the Terrace, that is.

It's appalling advice, both in its laissez faire attitude (the financial crisis apparently not having done anything to Treasury's religious belief in rampant capitalism) and its sheer inhumanity. And it makes me wonder: if Treasury's advice on any significant issue is inevitably "do nothing; let the market sort itself out (oh, and give tax cuts to the rich)", couldn't we get that advice a lot cheaper? Currently, we pay them about $40 million a year for policy advice. Couldn't we save all that money and spend $10 (once!) for a "Treasury says..." sign on the Minister's wall?

Humour aside, we should be asking the government how much, if any, of Treasury's recommendations they plan to implement. They publicly rejected the other proposals in the BIM, and we should make sure they do the same here as well.

A monument to Bush in Iraq

When American troops invaded Iraq back in 2003, the Bush Administration expected them to be greeted as liberators with "sweets and flowers". And no doubt they expected the grateful Iraqi people to build monuments to their foreign liberators.

Well, now some of them have. But I don't think its quite what they had in mind:


Yes, really - a giant bronze shoe has been erected in Tikrit. OK, so technically it honours Muntazer al-Zaidi, the infamous Iraqi shoe-thrower - but every time someone looks at it, they're going to remember who those shoes were throw at and why (and likely wish they could throw a few of their own).

Carnival of the Liberals

The 83rd carnival of the liberals is now up at Doctor Biobrain.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A first

Johanna Sigurdardottir is currently Iceland's Minister of Social Affairs and Social Security. But thanks to the collapse of the Icelandic government due to the international financial crisis, she is about to get a promotion. Next week, she will be sworn in as Prime Minister in a caretaker administration which will govern the country until elections can be held. This will be a first on two fronts: Iceland will get its first woman Prime Minister - and the world will get its first openly gay head of government. And so another barrier to equality is broken down...

Scotland's government falls

...or at least it should have. Last night, the SNP minority government was defeated in a budget vote after failing to secure the support of the Scottish Green Party. In a Westminster system, this should mean the immediate resignation of the government, followed by either elections or an opportunity for other parties to put together a government of their own (a likely possibility in the Scottish Parliament). Instead, they're resubmitting their budget next month, and threatening elections only if it does not pass.

I'm not entirely up on the Scottish constitution, but normal practice in Westminster systems is for a budget to be an implicit confidence vote. The Scotland Act 1998 requires the First Minister to resign if defeated in such a vote. It would be odd if the implicit rule had not carried over. OTOH, confidence motions explicitly require the support of 25 MSPs to get on the business programme, and budget votes seem to be about altering spending priorities rather than appropriating and allocating money for a year, so it might not have. Either way, what happens next will be interesting, and could see a mid-term change of government. It will be fun to watch.

Canada: the Liberals chicken out

As expected, Canada's Liberal Party has chickened out, and will be supporting the Covervative Party's budget. They're demanding conditions - quarterly reports on the effects of the budget's stimulus package on the economy - but these are so weak as to be no real concession at all. Which begs the question: if the Liberals are just going to support whatever the Conservatives do in government, why are they pretending to be an alternative?

Stale Python

Something I missed when on holiday: Terry Jones: Where's the arm?

Fiji: ostracism is war?

Yesterday the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum met and demanded that Fiji tell them when it plans to return to democracy, or else they wouldn't be invited to parties anymore. Fijian dictator Frank Bainimarama's response? Compare the demand to "a declaration of war":

"I have never come across a situation where a country gives an ultimatum to another country unless, of course, there is a declaration of war," the self-appointed Fiji leader said.
Which is the sort of response you'd expect from a demented authoritarian used to ordering people around like slaves and getting his own way. But I don't think its going to convince the Forum that his band of self-appointed thugs is fit for polite company.

Unfortunately there is little the Forum can do to pressure Bainimarama beyond social ostracism. The solution is going to have to come from within Fiji. And with Bainimarama showing no sign of yielding power voluntarily, that means the Fijian people will have to take to the streets and remove him from office. That does not look like a realistic possibility any time soon; the regime is simply not unpopular enough yet for the sort of mass withdrawal of consent seen in Argentina or the Ukraine. But if the Fijians want their democracy back, they are eventually going to have to get out there and demand it by weight of numbers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged that he would protect Israeli war criminals from international justice. Since then, the Israeli government has been frantically trying to prevent charges from being laid, forbidding its Ministers and military officers from travelling overseas and censoring the media to remove all identifying information about military personnel who participated in or were responsible for the attack on Gaza. But its not just the international community who wants to see justice for Gaza; a group of anonymous Israeli human rights activists have launched a site outing the responsible parties and documenting their crimes. You can read it here.

Hopefully none of these people will ever darken New Zealand's shores. But if they do, NZ does claim universal jurisdiction over grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and we should exercise it.

Why the secrecy?

The Dominion Post reports that the family of Liam Ashley has received a secret payout from the Department of Corrections. Compensation seems appropriate - negilgence on the part of the department played a large role in Ashley's murder. But why the secrecy? If the government is righting a wrong, shouldn't they do it in public so that everyone can see they have acted appropriately?

The only reasons I can think of are a perverse desire to avoid publicly admitting their liability, and a desire to discourage compensation claims for future wrongdoing. Neither is a very good look for the government.

A threat to democracy

In 2003, the SIS adopted a new archives policy which saw material declassified and able to be released to the public for the first time. Since then, various people have taken the opportunity to gain copies of their records. And the results have revealed just how much of a threat to democracy the SIS is. A piece in the Dominion-Post today reveals details of their spying on CAFCA - the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa. CAFCA is a classic lobby group, issuing press releases, submitting to Parliament, organising petitions, promoting or opposing legislation, and issuing an annual "Roger Award" to highlight its cause. This is perfectly normal political activity in a democracy, and you would have to be absolutely demented to regard them as a "threat to security". So naturally the SIS spied on them for over a decade, invading the privacy of hundreds of people while doing so. And what did they find? The usual garbage:

"A lot of it is salacious gossip, with analyses of named people's marriage problems, drinking habits, etc, etc," Horton said.

"Some of it is laughable, like a report dedicated to the likely impact of feminism and different gender views on abortion on the marriages of named couples."

One report contained this reference to Horton: "He likes the sound of his own voice and keeps interrupting the other speakers."

Quelle horreur! Clearly a dangerous threat to national security!

Like the police SIG, this speaks of an organisation with not enough real work to do, which has turned its sights on ordinary political activists in order to justify its budget. By doing so, they have shown themselves to be a far greater threat to democracy than their imaginary "subversives". The scary thing is that their budget has tripled in recent years due to the "war on terror", but there is still nothing for them to do. There are no real terrorists in New Zealand, just as there were no Russian agents. Which raises the question: who are they spying on now?

The past history of the SIS shows that rather than protecting New Zealand's democracy, it has worked systematically to undermine it. That is not acceptable. The organisation should either be disbanded, or gutted back to a rump sufficient to its task (which is probably less than ten people). Either way, our democracy will be safer for it.

Crunch time in Canada

Two months ago, Canada's Conservative minority government lost the confidence of the House, after the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois formed an alliance to vote them out of office. In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament, undermining the key metarule of the Westminster system and allowing him to govern without a mandate for two more months.

Those two months are now at an end, and the Canadian Parliament has reconvened to consider a budget, after which there will be the obligatory confidence vote. Unfortunately, in the intervening time, the Liberal party has elected a new leader - who seems strangely reluctant to become Prime Minister:

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who succeeded Dion, has not appeared keen on that idea. He has said he wants to see what's in the budget, and won't say whether he will support it until Wednesday.
The other parties have already announced they will vote against the budget, so it is essentially down to the Liberals: will they vote to change the government, or will they chicken out again? We'll know today or tomorrow, depending on how long the debate takes. But the reports from Ottawa are not promising.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Coming in from the cold"

Over the weekend, Green co-leader Russel Norman gave the party's annual "state of the planet" address, in which he called for a "Green New Deal" and challenged National to adopt specific policies to improve housing, employment and infrastructure while also helping the environment. In doing so, Norman was doing what the Greens have always done: advocated for their policy line, and made it clear they will work with any party - even those they disagree with on pretty much everything else - to advance those policies. That's what they did on climate change, its what they did on waste management, and it's what they did on sedition. And yet somehow, this is being spun by the Herald's John Armstrong as the Greens "coming in from the cold" to support National.

It really makes you wonder which Parliament he's been watching for the past nine years...

A rotten house

Yesterday, we learned that four Labour peers had been caught asking for "consultancy fees" in exchange for proposing amendments to laws. Today, we learn that 139 peers act as paid consultants while performing their legislative duties. The conclusion is inescapable: the House of Lords is a rotten house, in which corruption is both pervasive and accepted.

Which is just one more reason to abolish it. It's not as if the UK needs an upper house - despite devolution, its still essentially a unitary state rather than a federal one, and the Lords do not represent regional interests in the same way as e.g. the US Senate. Instead, they represent hereditary privilege and cronyism - an anathema to democracy. That is reason enough to get rid of it; the fact that they are corrupting the legislative process for private profit is simply the icing on the cake.

Election funding: isn't this what they were complaining about?

When Labour passed the Electoral Finance Act, National spent the entire debate banging its shoe on the desk claiming that the law was being rushed. Now, it plans to repeal it by the end of February. And they have only just begun consultations on the interim regime which will replace it. Isn't this exactly the sort of rush they were complaining about?

This does matter. In case anyone's forgotten, we've just had an election, and final disclosure of expenses is due in early March. A rush job will mean mistakes, which could undermine that vital act of post-election transparency. Or, it could result in the police not being able to prosecute for any offences (not that they seem to give a damn about that anyway). If National's 2007 criticisms were sincere and they really are intent on ensuring we have a workable electoral finance regime, then they would show the care they claim was not taken the first time round, and ensure that their actions do not risk undermining transparency. Otherwise, they simply look like posturing hypocrites in a rush.

Fiji: another media deportation

In May last year, Fiji's interim regime deported Fiji Times publisher Evan Hannah in retaliation for a series of articles exposing corruption and tax-evasion by the quisling Minister of Finance Mahendra Chaudhary. Now, they've done it again, ordering the deportation of (new) Fiji Times publisher Rex Gardner. The reason? He has been

deemed by the Minister to be a person who is or has been conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security or good government of the Fiji Islands.
(Section 13 (2) (g), Immigration Act 2003)

So, according to the Fijian military, running a newspaper is a threat to security. It's nice to know where they stand...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Who funded the NZIER report?

Earlier in the month, we learned that Solid Energy was subverting democracy again by using public money to pay for a report aimed at undermining the government's climate change policy. In a defence unworthy of a four-year old, Solid Energy claimed that they were not the only government entity to do so, and that the report was funded by "a range of companies and organisations, including government departments". So, who were these other government departments?

Unfortunately, I don't know yet. But thanks to some SOE's respecting the statutory timeframes of the OIA, I can tell you who its not. Neither Timberlands, Mighty River Power, or Transpower helped pay for the NZIER's report on "The impact of the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme on New Zealand’s economy", and none had paid for any related research (Mighty River had however used NZIER to do an economic assessment of a windfarm project). LandCorp also denied having funded the report in question, but had contributed $1,875 (incl GST) for an earlier summary of ETS impacts on the pastoral sector (which sadly does not seem to be online). OIA requests with Genesis, Meridian, MfE, MED, Treasury, and various other government departments are still outstanding.

Disturbingly, none of the companies who have responded so far had any guidelines on this sort of lobbying, and one - LandCorp - denied that it handled public money (hint: they're on the government's balance sheet, and their profits go to the crown to pay for public services. That makes it public money). That's something which I think needs to be followed up on. While SOEs are meant to operate as businesses, they also need to remember that they are publicly owned and operate to generate revenue for the people of New Zealand. This requires a better standard of behaviour than applies in the rest of the corporate sector, and any SOE manger who cannot accept that should look for work elsewhere.

Pledging injustice

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised that he will protect Israeli soldiers from facing any charges for war crimes committed in Gaza:

"The commanders and soldiers that were sent on the task in Gaza should know that they are safe from any tribunal and that the State of Israel will assist them in this issue and protect them as they protected us with their bodies during the military operation in Gaza," he said.
Given the very serious questions which have arisen about Israel's behaviour in Gaza - behaviour which has included deliberately shelling schools full of civilians, ordering civilians into a house and then shelling it, and the use of white phosphorus to melt the skin off children - this can only be regard as complete and utter contempt for both international law and justice, not to mention its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Israel has basically announced itself to be an outlaw state. But they will no doubt be quick to claim the protection of the law should any offence be committed against them.

Corruption in the House of Lords

What's the price of amending a law in your favour the UK? Between 24,000 and 120,000 pounds:

Undercover reporters posing as lobbyists approached 10 peers and asked for help to get a planning Bill changed on behalf of a fictitious client who hoped to open a chain of shops. Four Labour members of the House of Lords allegedly responded to the approach.

According to The Sunday Times, Lord Taylor of Blackburn negotiated an annual fee of £120,000 for trying to amend the Bill and claimed to have helped changed the law for a credit card company that he represented.

Lord Truscott of St James, a former energy minister, allegedly quoted a sum of £72,000 for a similar service. According to the newspaper, he told its reporters that he was able to influence the Energy Bill to benefit a client selling "smart" electricity meters.

Lord Moonie, a former defence minister, reportedly offered to help for an annual fee of £30,000, adding that he could identify colleagues who would table an amendment to the planning Bill. Lord Snape, a former Labour whip, allegedly quoted a sum of £24,000 and also offered find someone to amend the Bill. Offering to amend Bills in return for cash is a breach of the "no paid advocacy" rules governing conduct in the Lords. Anyone breaking the guidelines can be "named and shamed" in the chamber but cannot be suspended or expelled from Parliament.

They should also be able to be prosecuted and jailed for corruption, and hopefully that is exactly what will happen. Lawmakers are there to represent their constituents, not sell legislation to the highest bidder.

Wearing a uniform should not put you above the law

I've had some responses to my call yesterday for the police officer who shot and killed Halatau Naitoko to face trial. In email, Graeme Edgeler (who usually knows better) suggested I was calling for a "malicious prosecution" because the killer was a police officer. DPF echoes the same line, claiming that I am "arguing for a trial regardless of the facts" and "for Police officers to have less rights than any other NZer". No, what I am arguing is for the police to have exactly the same rights as any other New Zealander, and for them to apply the same bloody standard to themselves as they apply to everybody else.

If an ordinary citizen shot someone in these circumstances, they would unquestionably be facing court. We expect a high degree of care from the people we trust with guns, to the extent that accidentally shooting someone is regarded as careless pretty much by definition. That standard is high, but it is not inherently malicious, and it does not become so simply because the shooter is wearing a uniform.

Consistency with past practice suggests the officer should be charged. If they are not, questions should be asked. It would suggest that those we entrust to enforce the law still think that they are above it. And that is not something we as a society should tolerate.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

New Fisk

Plots, sense and nonsense: the view from the post bag

Police shooter must face trial

On Friday, a police officer shot and killed courier driver Halatau Naitoko during a confrontation with an armed offender. It looks like a tragic accident. But regardless, the officer should be prosecuted and made to face the judgement of their peers.

Look at the precedents: hunters kill their mates in tragic accidents fairly frequently. They are usually made to stand trial for careless use of a firearm, or in cases where there is clear negligence, manslaughter. Some are discharged, some are convicted, some end up on home detention, some (in very serious cases) end up in jail. We do this, despite the tragic circumstances, because we as a society have decided that people who play with guns need to exercise the utmost care and responsibility when doing so.

The same rules should apply to the police. Otherwise, it looks awfully like there is one law for them, and another they enforce on us. And we've had quite enough of that already.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ending the global gag rule

One of former President Bush's first acts in office was to re-impose the global gag rule denying US-AID funding to health groups which talk about abortion. The policy has been disastrous, leading to closed clinics and reduced access to health services in third world countries - leading in turn to deaths and the spread of disease. Women die because of this piece of conservative callousness. So, I'm glad to see that President Obama is repealing it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mexico backsliding on the death penalty?

Mexico's congress has agreed to debate reinstating capital punishment in response to a recent crime wave. But fortunately that's as far as this knee-jerk response from paniced, scared people is likely to get - firstly, because Mexico's ban on the death penalty is entrenched in its constitution and would require a constitutional amendment to remove, and secondly because Mexico is a party to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a binding human rights instrument banning the death penalty which has no exit clause. So, even if they want to, they can't - or at least not without significantly undermining their international standing and making it clear that their signature on a treaty isn't worth squat. OTOH, the latter hasn't stopped Liberia...

Their turn now

For the past nine years, National has hammered Labour on law and order issues, exploiting every crime, every verdict, every parole decision and every prison escape to blame the then-government for the fact that crime happens. But now they're in government, the shoe is on the other foot (or should that be in the other hand?), and Labour has lost no time in serving them up a dish of their own fetid swill. Unfortunately the new Minister's response has been less than stellar:

But there has been no such response from the higher echelons, with Police and Corrections Minister Judith Collins refusing to answer Herald questions despite the National Party previously demanding accountability from Labour ministers over such failures.

"She generally doesn't comment on operational matters such as this," said a spokesman.

Funny how she's suddenly not so keen on accountability now she's the one carrying the can. But as much as I love to see politicians hoist by their own petards and forced to eat their own rhetoric, this sort of petty blame-game on law and order is a chief driver of the "auction", the incessant push for tougher and tougher (and more expensive) policies which undermine human rights while not doing anything to solve the underlying problem. And that's a madness Labour should be ending, not perpetuating.

Guantanamo: the end



By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to effect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (Guantánamo) and promptly to close detention facilities at Guantánamo, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice, I hereby order as follows:


Sec. 3. Closure of Detention Facilities at Guantánamo. The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order. If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantánamo at the time of closure of those detention facilities, they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States...

And with the flick of a pen, seven years of lawlessness and torture is brought to an end. That doesn't mean the struggle to restore the rule of law in the US is over - there's going to be a lot of screaming over there when they realise that the Bush Administration's mistreatment will mean that some of the most important prisoners will never be able to face trial. But its a good, solid start.

(Oh, and he's banned torture and closed the black sites too...)

Now all we need are prosecutions of those responsible for the revoked policies...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The people win

The British government has backed down on its attempt to exempt MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, the vote (which Labour MPs were being whipped into supporting) has been cancelled. So, the people won, and UK democracy campaigners will still be able to use the FOIA to impose accountability on MPs after all.

The MySociety blog has more, stressing the role of the internet in organising and coordinating opposition to the change. According to them,

there’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.
I think they're right. And its possible because people believe their voice counts and groups like MySociety have built the tools allowing those voices to be heard and allowing them to rapidly and effectively make their views known to politicians.

Now, if only the british government would be as reponsive on the big issues, like climate change and waging war, rather than just the little things like freedom of information...

Climate change: another denier myth debunked


(Image stolen from the Guardian)

As the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has steadily increased, climate change deniers have clung increasingly to a single claim; Antarctica is cooling, therefore the scientists must all be wrong, and we can continue to burn coal and pollute the atmosphere with wild abandon.

That myth has now been well and truly busted. A study published in Nature this week has combined satellite and ground station data to show a warming trend across the entire continent over the last 50 years, which has been partly offset in East Antarctica by the (now shrinking) ozone hole:

Temperature records have been taken on the ground since the first weather stations were built in 1957. But all but two of the 42 are very close to the coast and therefore give no information on the vast interior of the continent. Satellite data, in contrast, can take the temperature of the entire region by measuring the intensity of the infrared radiation reflected from the snow pack and has been available since 1980.

Steig's team found the mathematical relationships between the weather station data and satellite data, tested them, and then used them to go back in time to estimate temperatures across the continent back to 1957. Their statistical model has now been validated by an ice core drilled into the Rutford ice stream in West Antarctica by the British Antarctic Survey, from which temperature records can be measured. That independent work also came up with a warming of 0.17C a decade for the region, and stretched the trend back to at least 1930.

According to the full article, the effect is "difficult to explain" without the effect of rising greenhouse gas concentrations.

So much for the myth of Antarctic cooling. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to stop the deniers from appealing to it. Like sunspots, "the world is cooling", and a host of other nutty theories disproved by the empirical evidence, it will simply hang around as a "zombie fact", regardless of its falsity. Which begs the question: if they're just not interested in the empirical evidence, why does anyone even pretend to pay attention to them?

New Fisk

So far, Obama's missed the point on Gaza...

Banned in Thailand

What did Australian author Harry Nicolaides write which so offended the Thai government and caused them to jail him for lese majeste? Thanks to the Streisand effect, the relevant excerpt is now available on WikiLeaks:

From King Rama to the Crown Prince, the nobility was renowned for their romantic entanglements and intrigues. The Crown Prince had many wives "major and minor" with a coterie of concubines for entertainment. One of his recent wives was exiled with her entire family, including a son they conceived together, for an undisclosed indiscretion. He subsequently remarried with another woman and fathered another child. It was rumored that if the prince fell in love with one of his minor wives and she betrayed him, she and her family would disappear with their name, familial lineage and all vestiges of their existence expunged forever.
(The entire novel is also available here [PDF]. Given that it only sold seven copies, I don't think anyone is going to be losing money over it...)

So, basically establishing that the (fictional) Crown Prince has absolute power and uses it in his self-interest. You can see how the Thai government (who through the monarch have absolute power and use it in their self-interest) might be upset by that - but the fact remains that in a democratic society, nothing is held sacred, and you are allowed to say these sorts of things.

Unfortunately, as we've seen in recent years, and in recent use of the lese majeste law, Thailand isn't really a democratic society...

Fox to investigate henhouse massacre

Israel is reportedly launching an investigation into its illegal use of white phosphorus in civilian areas in Gaza. Well, I'm sure that will get to the bottom of it. Clearly, the best person to investigate a crime is the person accused of committing it. And if they conclude that there was no crime, that it was all entirely legal, and that any evidence to the contrary was planted by Palestinians and spread by anti-semites, we should just accept that and ignore their obvious self-interest in acquitting themselves of any wrongdoing. After all, its what we'd do if someone was accused of, say, murder...

Guantanamo: keeping his word

Barrack Obama has lived up to his word, and requested the suspension of Guantanamo's kangaroo courts pending a full review of the military commission process. It's not an immediate closure, but its the first step, and will end at least one of Guantanamo's injustices: the unfair show trials under a process designed to secure conviction. The next step is to move those inmates against whom there is credible and admissible evidence into the normal justice system, and try them before normal courts under normal laws and the usual rules of evidence. As for inmates who do not meet those criteria - including those whose cases have been irrevocably tainted by torture and abuse - they are simply going to have to be released. That is what US law and US values require, and it is what the US would demand for one of its own citizens overseas in the same circumstances; they can do no less for those they hold themselves. And if the NeoCons complain, well, they should have thought about that before they started torturing people...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Blinding the public

One of the big differences between the UK's Freedom of Information Act and our own Official Information Act is that the UK law covers Parliamentary expenses. This has been used to great effect to reveal exactly what MPs are spending their various allowances on, and in some cases uncovered dubious behaviour which in some cases verges on fraud. Faced with this level of public oversight, UK MPs essentially have two choices: they can change their behaviour and cease abusing the public purse, or they can remove their spending from the spotlight by exempting themselves from the FOIA. Guess which one they chose?

Ministers are poised to exempt all MPs and peers from having to publish details of their expenses, only weeks before MPs were due to be forced to disclose more than 1.2 million receipts covering claims for the last three years.

The move next week will allow parliament to nullify all the long-fought victories by campaigners and journalists to force MPs to publish details of all their individual receipts for their second homes, including details of what they spent on furnishings, maintenance, rent, mortgage payments, staffing, travel, office staffing and equipment.

The changes will be retrospective and all pending requests for more information under the Freedom of Information Act will be blocked.

What really stinks is that this is being done by a Parliamentary order, essentially backdoor regulation, rather than openly through legislation. And naturally, it was buried in the hope the public wouldn't notice. So, they know its wrong and that the public will disapprove, but they're going to do it anyway. And then they have the gall to complain about the public's cynicism and lack of faith in politicians? Perhaps if they weren't so transparently self-serving, people would have a higher opinion of them. But as it stands, any MP who votes for this squalid act of self-interest (or rather, doesn't vote against it) is little better than dogshit.

Change, and rhetorical pyramids

And so its done. President Obama has been sworn in, and Bush and Cheney consigned to the dustbin of history. And so a village in Texas gets its idiot back. Couldn't they have reclaimed him sooner?

As for the speech, I'm struck by the sheer weirdness of American political rhetoric. It reads like something from the nineteenth century or Battlestar Galactica - all Bible quotes and historic mission and shaping our destiny and tested by god. It's difficult to imagine any New Zealand politician saying anything like this with a straight face - or a New Zealand audience not simply gawping at its purple pomposity. But then, we see our country as a place we live in, not some great historical project. We know our unimportance, so we are not obsessed with its "greatness" and whether it will wax or wane. And whether it "continues" or not we see as a decision for outside forces, or (on a sufficiently long time scale) geology - not the politician d'jour.

Basically, we don't care about leaving a mark on history. New Zealanders aren't the sort of people to build pyramids (though we have built a henge). Americans are. And that's what their political rhetoric is best seen as: rhetorical pyramids. Don't they understand we have Google now?

New Fisk

Posturing and laughter as victims rot

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

2009 Treaty debate series

It's coming up to Waitangi Day, and Te Papa and the VUW centre for public law are once again holding their annual Treaty debate series exploring the role of the Treaty in modern New Zealand. The first debate will be held next Thursday (January 29), and feature Robert McLeod and Roger Kerr on the place of Māori in economic Development. Though since they're both from the Business Round Table, there probably won't be much of a debate. Then the week after, on Thursday 5 February, it will be Professor Philip Joseph (who has recently worked for the BRT - is there a theme here?) and Derek Fox on the role of Māori in Parliament and the future of the Māori Seats.

Both debates will take place in Soundings Theatre, level 2, and start at 18:30. Entry is free.

National's "do nothing" philosophy

Early in the first episode of Dead Like Me, slacker-protagonist George sums up her philosophy as follows:

I'd say I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not. I excel at not giving a shit. Experience has taught me that interest begets expectation, and expectation begets disappointment, so the key to avoiding disappointment is to avoid interest...
According to John Armstrong in the Herald last week, National is now applying this same philosophy to the economic crisis:
The pressure to "do something" is only going to intensify in coming months as the dole queues lengthen.

That is one reason why the Government is not going to be panicked by Labour into coming up with a mini-Budget or some other "big bang" package of initiatives in the short term.

No sooner had such a package been unveiled then there would be cries for more. The policy cupboard stripped bare, the Government would find itself being castigated for doing nothing at the time the recession was really biting.

The danger is that the Government would lose all momentum and start to drift. When governments drift, things really start going wrong internally. Such an eventuality would be fatal in the depths of recession.

So, they're going to deliberately fiddle while Rome burns as a political strategy. And John Armstrong thinks this is a good idea. But that, I suppose, is the sort of twisted logic you get when you focus exclusively on the game rather than the stakes. Which, for the real people who will suffer from National's inaction, are fairly high. While I'm under no illusions about the New Zealand government's ability to manage the international economy, it sure as hell can manage and reduce its impact on ordinary New Zealanders. And we expect them to. And if they don't - and in particular if they deliberately dick around and do nothing in the hope of getting a greater political payoff later for the SFA they are going to do - then they deserve to be given the boot as quickly as possible.

The last day of Bush

So, after four long years of war, torture, and domestic spying, we're finally here: the last day of Bush. In a little over seventeen hours, George Walker Bush will formally leave office and become former President Bush. The madness of King George will finally be over.

The change is welcome, and even if Obama fails to live up to the hype and is only as bad as Clinton, he'll still be a vast improvement on the Bush Administration. But the big question is what happens next. Because the Bush Administration has unquestionably committed crimes against both US and international law. It has repeatedly admitted it, sought to justify it, been proud of it. If the US truly is a nation of "laws, not men", then the policymakers, lawyers and officials responsible for those crimes - including the (soon-to-be former) President, Vice-President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence, as well as the torturers themselves - must be publicly held to account. They must be investigated, prosecuted, and if convicted, sentenced to appropriately long jail terms.

While there is always the chance of a last-minute pardon, a final "fuck you" to the world, it is looking unlikely (and will simply shift the burden of prosecution to international courts while confirming guilt). So, the question for Obama is how will he deal with this: will he stand up for American values and American law, confirm that the law applies even to kings presidents, and ensure that these crimes are properly investigated and prosecuted? Or will he play the usual Washington political game of sweeping it all under the carpet in the name of "unity" (and having your own indiscretions similarly ignored in future)? That, ultimately, is what I will be judging the new President on. And I am hoping that he will not screw it up.

New Fisk

So, I asked the UN secretary general, isn't it time for a war crimes tribunal?

No freedom of speech in Thailand

Harry Nicolaides is an Australian author living in Thailand. In 2005, he published a novel, Verisimilitude, which included a short scene discussing the personal life of a fictional Thai prince and suggested some sort of abuse of royal power. For this, he was detained when leaving the country, and has just been sentenced to three years imprisonment for "slander[ing] the king, the crown prince and Thailand and the monarchy".

So, not only can the Thai government not distinguish between fiction and reality - they're also unable to recognise that this actual abuse of power does far more damage to the reputation of their sacred monarch than anything written in a bad novel. But pointing that out is probably the sort of thing which gets you arrested.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Protesting Rakon

Rakon Limited is a New Zealand electronics firm. Specialising in crystal oscillators, its makes critical components for GPS systems. Unfortunately, those systems, and the components Rakon produces, are also used in the guidance packages for the precision-guided weapons Israel has been throwing around in Gaza. Along with other weapons manufacturers, Rakon is therefore an enabler of Israel's collective punishment and murder of the Palestinian people.

On Saturday, Aucklanders let Rakon know how they felt about that, protesting outside their building, paintbombing it and altering their slogan to make it clear that their business is killing. If you missed it, you can watch the video here.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 82nd Carnival of the Liberals is now up at the Accidental Blogger.

Going too far

I've been meaning to post in support of Naomi Klein's call in the Guardian for an international boycott of Israel (a move that seems to be having some effect). But while I support refusing to buy Israeli goods as a way of pressuring the Israeli government, I can't support the actions of the cafe owners in Invercargill and now Kaikoura in banning Israelis from their premises. Quite apart from the obvious illegality of the move (nationality is a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Act, as is political opinion), its also pointless, counterproductive, and just plain shitty. Random Israeli civilians on holiday aren't representatives of their government; punishing them makes about as much sense as, oh, bombing random Palestinian civilians in response to the actions of Hamas. And of course it gives the Israeli PR machine more grist for their "it's all anti-Semitism so we can murder whoever we want" spin job.

(See also: The Hand Mirror)


So, Israel's war on Gaza appears to be over. Which raises the question: what was it all for? What has been gained? And the answer seems to be absolutely nothing. The war has not improved Israel's security one iota - that is simply geographically impossible. Neither has it "destroyed Hamas" - unless you think that giving them a new outrage to appeal to and a new flood of recruits is "destruction". Instead, 1300 people, mostly Palestinian civilians, have been killed and another 4000 or so maimed solely so that Israel's current leaders could look tough in the leadup to an election. Murdering people to win votes is the ultimate in political cynicism, and if it is what Israelis regard as a "just war", then they clearly have no idea what the term actually means.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New Fisk

Tin-pot rockets won't open a second front
When it comes to Gaza, leave the Second World War out of it

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Just when everyone is getting back from holiday, I'm off again. Posting will resume next Monday. Hopefully there'll be some more news then...

An unequal voice

An article in the Independent about the UK Conservative Party's plans for an immediate review of electoral boundaries if they become the government alerted me to a horrifying fact: not only does the UK have an unfair electoral system - it doesn't even have equal-sized electorates to lend that system a veneer of credibility. Instead, the size of electorates varies hugely across the UK, with a consequent variation in the value of a vote.

How bad is the problem? Mucking around with a spreadsheet, the list of constituencies for the next UK election, and the electoral quota for England (69,934 - based weirdly on the current electoral population and the number of seats at the last election) shows tremendous variation. In New Zealand, the acceptable variation for a seat is plus or minus 5% (and most vary by far less). In the UK, 326 seats - fully 50% of the Parliament - vary by more than that. 115 seats - 18% of the House - are out by more than 10%, and a substantial fraction of seats are out by 20% or more. Two seats - both in Scotland - are shockingly out by more than 50%.

(I should note that there are actually separate quotas for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; I've used the English one here for convenience).

This simply makes a mockery of democracy. Democracy doesn't just require one person, one vote, but also that those votes count equally ("one vote, one value". as the Australians put it). But in the UK, the vote of someone in Na h-Eileanan an Iar is worth three times as much as that of a voter in a typical electorate, and five times as much as one on the Isle of Wight. It's not as bad as the US Senate gerrymander (in which Wyoming gets as many Senate seats as California), but at least that's justified by a federal system. This is simply the product of outdated rules [PDF], an archaic obsession with county and borough boundaries, and no hard and fast requirement for equal size. They don't even know how many seats there should be - which makes it surprising that they manage to set electorate boundaries at all.

Back in the nineteenth century the UK passed the Great Reform Act to eliminate Rotten Boroughs. It's time they did that again to eliminate their modern incarnation and ensure that everyone's vote is of equal value. Of course, the best way of doing so would be to ditch their archaic system and move to proportional representation...

Not our values

One of claims monarchists use to defend that archaic institution is that the royal family symbolises our values. I'd like to go on record and say that this is not one of my values, and neither is this (and neither is the fawning obsequiousness of Britain's aristocratic system, which means that the victims of this abuse cannot be seen to complain about it. "True humility" indeed...)

If we want a head of state which reflects our values, then we should elect our own, rather than continuing to be reigned over by this family of racists.

More on the domestic violence bill

Luddite Journo weighs in on the government's proposed Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill, examining the origins and evolution of the bill and the need for on-the-spot protection orders. Labour's original bill included both a shorter duration for the orders, and extensive provisions bringing domestic violence legislation into alignment with other legislation and improving access to education and support programs for both victims and abusers. The latter would have been highly beneficial, and helped both victims move on with their lives, and abusers to change their behaviour; it sadly comes as no surprise to me that National would abandon it in favour of a simple-minded punitive approach. After all, there are no votes in actually helping to reduce crime, and those programmes cost money which could be given to their rich mates as tax-cuts...

Luddite Journo also points out that in many ways, changing the law fundamentally misses the point:

The main difficulties in keeping victims safe from domestic violence according to every major piece of research since the Domestic Violence Act 1995 is however, not legislation at all.

The problem with justice sector responses to domestic violence in Aotearoa New Zealand is implementation, which is inconsistent, and at times, poor. And this has literally cost women and children their lives.

Reading the Waikato University study [PDF] she linked to, the core problem seems to be that neither the police, or (surprisingly) the courts really care about protection orders:
While getting a protection order was a psychological boost for most women, any relief was, in the majority of cases, short-lived. That is, most women experienced multiple and repetitive breaches of their orders. In some cases, respondents embarked on sustained campaigns of stalking and harassment. Some of this was by electronic means. Telephone calls, text messages and emails were all used to harass, threaten and intimidate women in breach of protection orders. Seldom were men subject to any meaningful consequences for such breaches.

Indeed, the same could be said about breaches generally. That is, the women in our case studies often experienced a quite inadequate response from the police when they reported breaches of their protection order. This was particularly the case with breaches of the non-contact provisions which did not involve physical assaults. Such breaches were often trivialised as “technical”, but to the women involved they were frightening and worrying reminders of the respondent’s ability to track them down...


Inadequate enforcement of protection orders extended to the criminal courts. Few men who breached their orders were ever convicted of such offences, and even fewer received a meaningful sentence...

(Emphasis added)

All of which begs an obvious question: if the police and courts won't enforce the existing system of protection orders, why do we think they will effectively enforce the new ones? Instead, it seems likely that the same attitudes will prevail, and these new powers will simply become a way for police officers to get a problem "off the books". Turn up to a domestic violence incident, issue an on-the-spot order (with no hearing, no evidence, and no possibility of judicial review), mark it as "resolved", and head on their way. No enforcement, no followup - and therefore no effective protection. Draconian powers are simply an enabler for police disinterest and laziness.

It also points at a solution: eventually, if we want to deal with this problem, we are going to have to change the attitudes of the police and judiciary to get them to take it seriously. And that applies regardless of the legal framework. The problem is that it takes time, and money. And a quick-fix, cost-free legislative solution will always be more attractive to headline-seeking politicians.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Guantanamo: the end?

Since being elected in November last year, the pressure has gone on Barack Obama to put his money where his mouth is on change, and signal the US's change of direction by closing the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. And now, it looks like he is actually going to do it:

President-elect Barack Obama is to issue an order to close the Guantánamo detention centre in his first week in office, according to his advisers.

Obama, who takes over the presidency next Tuesday, will make closure one of his first decisions, two of his advisers told the AP news agency.

The logistics of closure will undoubtedly take a while, but the important thing is to signal a quick end to the current policy of lawless detention and kangaroo courts, and a return to civilised (or alternatively, American) values. The US's court system and its commitment to the principle that everyone deserves a fair trial is one of its great achievements, and it will be good to see America living by its values again.

Unworthy of a four year old

"But they did it too" is one of the lamest excuses ever created, and is unworthy of most children. So naturally, Solid Energy is using it in an attempt to justify its subversion of our democracy with our own money:

Other government agencies also helped bankroll a highly critical report into the economic impact of the previous government's emissions trading scheme (ETS), Solid Energy says.


A briefing from Solid Energy to then energy minister Trevor Mallard last year said the other $1.1 million of NZIER's research was funded by "a range of companies and organisations, including government departments".

The briefing note, released today, does not identify which departments contributed.

What Solid Energy fails to realise is that this is not a justification for its behaviour, but evidence against its co-conspirators. And by refusing to name them, they've simply ensured that thousands of dollars of public money will be wasted processing the required Official Information Act requests.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Nearing their military goals"

Israel has announced that it is nearing its military goals in Gaza. Given that they seem to have accomplished nothing of military significance in their campaign - they have not destroyed Hamas, and the rockets they claim to want to stop (but in fact provoked with their invasion) are still falling - this raises the obvious question: what is Israel's goal?

At this stage, I can't help but notice that they've killed 900 Palestinians so far. Which makes me wonder: is a thousand dead all they're after? An object lesson written in civilian blood? Because their military spasm seems utterly pointless otherwise.

The domestic violence bill and the BORA II

Last week, I highlighted some problems with the government's Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill. The bill would allow police officers to respond to domestic violence by issuing alleged offenders with "police orders" exiling them from their homes for up to five days, on suspicion. There is no hearing, no review of the evidence, and no effective ability to challenge the orders; a fairly substantive penalty is imposed simply on a police officer's say-so, and we just have to trust them that its justified. In short, Ahmed Zaoui rules for those accused of (but for whom there is not enough proof to arrest, let alone prosecute or convict for) domestic violence.

While protecting families from domestic violence is an important goal, it does not override basic considerations of justice or fairness, or excuse this sort of draconian policy. I can see how a "cooling off" period is desirable and likely to be effective, and that restricting people's movements is less of an infringement of liberty than the current practice of sticking people in a cell, but there has to be a better way to do it, which respects our fundamental norms of fairness, justice, and the rule of law. And this concern is widely shared. While Deborah's post on the Hand Mirror supports the policy (though with a 72 hour duration rather than the proposed five days), she recognises that they need to be able to be appealed quickly, and that the courts, legal aid and police need to be properly resourced to ensure that the orders work properly and everyone has a fair go (which I think is a laughable proposition under a National government intent on cutting services saving money to fund tax cuts for its rich mates). Meanwhile, over at KiwiPolitico, Anita suggests an alternative framework:

I think that the Police should have the ability to ban the abuser immediately from the house for five days. The first day that courts are open the Police should then go before the court and have the order reconfirmed with everyone involved able to be heard. The court can then either confirm the order, reject the order or, potentially, issue a normal protection order. The order itself should be subject to the normal review process.

That way victims of domestic violence are protected, abusers are not unnecessarily arrested, and the standard judicial processes and reviews are available to all involved.

This seems to me to be a far better way of doing things. It ensures that the evidence is tested. It ensures that unjustified orders can be speedily overturned. And it ensures that the penalty is imposed by the courts, not a police officer acting as judge, jury and executioner in the middle of the night. I'll likely push for this sort of framework in my submission to the select committee.

In the meantime, I'm left wondering: if its so easy to come up with a framework which protects the rights of everyone involved, why couldn't the government do it?

New Fisk

Who killed Mr Lebanon?: The hunt for Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's assassins

Opting out

The Dominion Post on Saturday reported that the Human Rights Commission is working on guidelines on how to run religious education in state schools. Its about bloody time. While state primary schools have been covered by a legislative scheme for years, secondary schools have not. And this has led to abuses.

The proposed scheme, allowing students to opt out of religious classes and reminding schools of their duties under sections 13, 14, and 15 of the Bill of Rights Act, is good - but guidelines are a weak instrument. The freedom of (and from) religion of primary school students is protected by law. Shouldn't this strong protection apply to all state schools?

The sticking point, of course, are the explicitly religious schools integrated into the public education system. But if, as the Catholic Bishop of Palmerston North claims, "the whole point of a Catholic school is to teach the Catholic faith", then the question needs to be raised: why the hell are we funding them? If parents want their kids indoctrinated into a particular faith, fine, that's their right. But that's not something which should be paid for by the taxpayer, any more than we should be paying to build churches. Some integrated schools do respect freedom of religion - the Dom Post article gives the example of Wellington's Jewish Moriah School, which seems to run a standard opt-out scheme for secular students - but those that can't or won't should not be receiving public money to preach their particular faith.

SOEs subverting democracy again

Back in the 90's, we learned that Timberlands was using PR firms to subvert the interests of the New Zealand public in favour of its executives' interests in clearfelling large swathes of the West Coast's native forests (and incidentally, keeping its executives in their fancy offices and fat salaries). So far, so normal - business will lie and cheat and trick to protect its profits, and we shouldn't be surprised that it happens in New Zealand. But Timberlands wasn't just an ordinary business - it was a state-owned enterprise, wholly owned by the New Zealand government, and its campaign against the people who were effectively its own shareholders was conducted with public money.

When Timberlands' behaviour was exposed in Nicky Hager's book Secrets and Lies, the newly elected Labour government made it clear that these tactics were unacceptable within a public sector organisation. But now its happening again, with SOE Solid Energy paying quarter of a million dollars to fund a report aimed at undermining the government's climate change policy. So, once again, we have SOEs running rampant, spending public money to subvert the interests of their owners, the New Zealand public. But its not just an attack on democracy - it's also theft. That money would otherwise have been returned to the government as dividends and used to pay for public services such as roads, schools, and hospitals. Instead, it has been used to promote the self-interest of Solid Energy's executives in keeping their cosy jobs.

This should not be happening. Contrary to Solid Energy's claim, SOEs are not ordinary businesses. They are owned by us, and they should accept the policy set by us through Parliament and the government of the day. Any manager or board member unable to accept that should resign and seek employment somewhere else. Unfortunately, there's little hope of that standard being enforced under National; duty Minister Anne Tolley has dismissed it as "an operational matter for each SOE board". Which means we are likely to see even more of these attempts to undermine public ownership in the future.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New Fisk

Wherever I go, I hear the same tired Middle East comparisons

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An execution

We know US police are trigger happy thugs. But this incident really takes the cake:

The police chief for BART, Gary Gee, said that transit police detectives were still compiling clues in the shooting, which occurred after Mr. Grant and a group of friends were removed from an eastbound train in the wake of a fight among two groups leaving a New Year’s Eve celebration in San Francisco.

At least four cell phone cameras held by passengers on the train idling next to the platform captured images of Mr. Grant lying face down when Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle, 27, pulls his gun and fires a single shot. Mr. Mehserle looks up at another officer, and then handcuffs Mr. Grant.

Grant died seven hours later in hospital. Mehserle has not been arrested, let alone charged, despite the shooting occuring in front of dozens of witnesses and being captured on video. But that, I guess, is America: where police can kill a man in cold blood, and then act as if nothing had happened.

It's a war crime II

Is Israel's calculated murder of civilians in Gaza a war crime? Right wing bloggers say its not. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories says it is. And now, to that, we can add another voice to the chorus: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, singled out the killing this week of up to 30 Palestinians in Zeitoun, south-east of Gaza City, when Israel shelled a house where its troops had told about 110 civilians to take shelter.

Pillay, a former international criminal court judge from South Africa, told the BBC the incident "appears to have all the elements of war crimes". She called for "credible, independent and transparent" investigations into possible violations of humanitarian law.

So again, which do you believe: random ranters, or internationally renowned legal experts, tasked by the UN with assessing exactly these sorts of incidents?

(I am now waiting for the post from DPF where he says we should ignore her opinion because she fought apartheid in South Africa and opposed torture...)

Friday, January 09, 2009


This speaks for itself about the "care" Israel is showing for civilian lives in Gaza:

"According to several testimonies, on 4 January Israeli foot soldiers evacuated approximately 110 Palestinians into a single-residence house in Zeitoun (half of whom were children) warning them to stay indoors," the OCHA report said.

"Twenty-four hours later, Israeli forces shelled the home repeatedly, killing approximately 30."

The repeated nature of the shelling makes it clear this was not a "tragic accident", but deliberate - making it calculated, cold-blooded murder. And those responsible should be held accountable, like the criminals they are.

Now they're shooting at the UN

Not content with shelling Palestinian children and dropping white phosphorus on civilians, the Israeli military is now also shooting at the people attempting to minimise the suffering of their victims, causing the UN to suspend all aid operations until their safety can be guaranteed:

The UN's move came shortly after it said one person had been killed and two hurt when a fork-lift truck on a UN aid mission came under Israeli tank fire at Gaza's Erez crossing.

The UN's relief agency Unrwa said it was "with great regret" that it had been forced to make a difficult decision.

"We have suspended our operations in Gaza until the Israeli authorities can guarantee our safety and security," said Unrwa spokesman Chris Gunness.

"Our installations have been hit, our workers have been killed in spite of the fact that the Israeli authorities have the co-ordinates of our facilities and that all our movements are co-ordinated with the Israeli army."

The UN said the movements of the truck hit at the Erez crossing had been co-ordinated and cleared with the Israeli military.

But that I guess just tells them where to shoot.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Atheists and buses

The UK press is full of reports of the Atheist Bus Campaign, which has raised 140,000 pounds to fund ads on buses saying "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". The campaign is now spreading to Spain, Australia, and the US. So why not here? I can think of two reasons. Firstly, while religious belief holds on in all sorts of odd places, we're a country where secularism has won, at least in our public culture. Religion is widely seen as a private matter, and seems to be quietly dying out (particularly among the young). Secondly, in the absence of the kind of public fightback / death spasm from religion against secularism currently seen in the UK, there seems to be little reason to give a damn - and every reason not to. After all, the whole point of godlessness is not giving a shit. There's no point being an atheist if you're going to waste all your time talking about the god you don't believe in. And talking about it simply boosts the belief amongst the godful (God-ed? Begodden? Godly has certain implications...) that their imaginary friends are somehow relevant to people's lives. Better to avoid that, and let their delusions die a quiet, demographic death, than waste breath on it and in the process give them oxygen.

Sanity over crime in NSW

Last month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the failure of "tough on crime" policies in New South Wales. Twenty years of government and opposition competing to see who can be more vicious to criminals has resulted in spiralling costs, a new prison every two years, increased recidivism rates and no positive effect on crime. By any empirical measure, these policies have been a failure - and now, NSW's opposition justice spokesperson has been sane enough to admit it and pledged to abandon the law and order auction:

Mr Smith likened his move to "Nixon in China". Just as it took an anti-communist US president, Richard Nixon, to open relations with communist China in 1972, it might take a politician with Mr Smith's conservative credentials to push for a bipartisan position on criminal justice.


"I think you need to be, society needs to be, conscious of the fact that unless you do something for them after they get out of jail, the more likely they are to hurt society again and commit more crime.

"That's where my pragmatic view comes in. Our recidivism rates are far too high and this harsh line that we have been taking, with the Government almost proud of the size of the prisons, and proud to build more, in my opinion, shows a lack of care for people in prisons, their families and the community generally, because it is short-sighted."

It's a welcome breath of sanity in a policy area characterised by emotive appeals and counterproductive sadism. Unfortunately there seems little chance of it being echoed here. National is instead promising to pack the prisons even tighter, with major changes to home detention, bail, and parole. This won't do a thing to reduce crime; all it will do is make our prisons even more unpleasant, and even less likely to change prisoner behaviour. But National seems willing to just keep on pouring money into that black hole, regardless of its effectiveness.

New Fisk

Why do they hate the West so much, we will ask

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Climate change: submit!

The Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee has called for submissions on its review of the ETS. Two copies, by Friday, 13 February 2009, to:

Committee Secretariat
Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee
Parliament Buildings
This is an important review, which will decide the fate of New Zealand's climate change policy: whether we protect our environment and live up to our "clean and green" brand, or sacrifice both so that a few dirty businesses can enjoy a few more years of artificial profits extracted by dumping their costs on the rest of us. I encourage everyone to submit and speak up on it. The terms of reference of the committee - which are a useful guide to the issues a submission should address - are here. A guide to making a submission can be found here [PDF]. Unfortunately, you don't seem to be able to submit online anymore, but postage to Parliament is free, and I encourage everyone to abuse it mercilessly.

Like Soviet Russia

One of the hallmarks of authoritarian states is that they don't like people taking pictures. A classic example of this is the old Soviet Union, which reportedly got very antsy about tourists photographing anything in case it undermined "state security". Unfortunately, the same now seems to be true of the UK. While there is no law banning photography in public places, thousands of people - tourists, trainspotters, planespotters, professional photographers and journalists - have been harassed or even arrested by police for pursuing their job, their hobby, or documenting the society they live in. An example:

"The car skidded to a halt like something out of Starsky & Hutch and this officer jumped out very dramatically and said 'what are you doing?' I told him I was photographing the building and he said he was going to search me under the Anti-Terrorism Act," he recalled.

For Powell, this brush with the law resulted in five hours in a cell after police seized the lock-blade knife he uses to sharpen his pencils. His release only came after the intervention of the local MP, Simon Hughes, but not before he was handcuffed and his genetic material stored permanently on the DNA database.

Just another example of how the "war on terror" is the UK into the sort of state it ostensibly struggled against for 40 years during the cold war. And at this rate, there will be no need for the terrorists to destroy western democracy - our governments, police, and security forces will have done it themselves, "for our own protection", of course.

Proving they're tough

Israel has continued its campaign against "terrorism" in Gaza by shelling a school full of children:

At least 30 people were killed and 55 injured when Israeli artillery shells landed outside a United Nations-run school in Gaza, UN officials have said.

A number of children were among those who died when the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp was hit, doctors at nearby hospitals said.

Israel said its soldiers had come under fire from militants inside the school.

Of course they had - just as all those wedding parties the US bombs in Afghanistan are really groups of militants. They can hardly admit they've made a mistake, can they?

Meanwhile, I wonder if this is what Abraham Rabinovich had in mind when he said that Israel had to devastate Gaza to show its foes they have teeth and rebuild its reputation after its loss in Lebanon? But the only reputation they seem to be enhancing is their one as child-murdering monsters, who are no better (and a lot worse in terms of body count) than the terrorists they claim to be fighting.

New Fisk

Bring in the peacekeepers? It's not as easy as it sounds

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The domestic violence bill and the BORA

The government's BORA analysis for the Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill went up a few days ago - a mere two weeks after it passed its first reading in the House - and with the bill currently being open for submissions, its worth taking a look at.

For those who don't know, the bill would allow police officers to respond to domestic violence by issuing alleged offenders with "police orders" exiling them from their homes for up to five days, on suspicion. Crown Law at least recognises that this is prima facie inconsistent with numerous sections of the BORA:

First, an order made under cl 7 is of very broad and intrusive effect and limits the rights of the person against whom it is made to expression (s 14 of the Bill of Rights Act) and movement (s 18). Further and more significantly, an order necessarily limits various significant legal rights of the person against whom it is made – notably, in denying that person access to land or buildings that he or she may own or otherwise be entitled to enter or use – by decision of a non-judicial officer and without procedural safeguards either at the time or by way of subsequent review or appeal, and so raises an issue as to compliance with the right to natural justice affirmed by s 27(1). Further, there is also limited immunity for the Crown and Police, under which there is no substantive redress for an order that is made or implemented in an unjustified manner, albeit in good faith and with reasonable care.
Unfortunately, it falls down on the analysis. In order to be a "justified limit" under the BORA, a policy must be rationally connected to an important public goal, and it must be proportionate to achieving that goal. There's no question that preventing and punishing domestic violence is an important public goal, and this is pretty clearly a policy aimed at addressing it. But on the key question of proportionality, Crown Law simply fudges. The fact that the police are "only" kicking people out of their own homes for five days, and that the orders are made by senior police officers (who of course are not steeped in a police culture of unaccountability and punitiveness) apparently makes everything OK. The fact that this is a very substantial limitation of freedom is simply not addressed. No comparison is made with existing police powers of summary punishment (a standard "infringement fee" or instant fine is on the order of $200, though they can go far higher for serious speeding offences) or to limit freedom (the police cannot hold you for more than IIRC 24 hours without charging you - meaning they need to put up some evidence; even when they have a compelling public purpose to limit freedom, such as detaining illegal immigrants for immediate return, this still requires judicial oversight within 72 hours). And its clear why: the proposed orders are far in excess of existing police powers. The fact that they may be issued without any form of hearing or review of evidence, simply on a police officer's suspicion, makes them very troubling indeed.

These police orders may very well be an effective means of dealing with domestic violence - but so is summary execution. That of course would clearly be disproportionate - not to mention violating some pretty fundamental human rights. And so are these proposed powers. I don't like wife-beaters, but even they have a right to fairness, to due process, and to checks and balances to ensure they are actually guilty of what they are accused of and that the police are not abusing their powers. The best way of ensuring those rights - and the right of their victims to justice - is by arresting, charging, and prosecuting them. And given that issuing an exile order requires exactly the same evidentiary barrier as arrest - "reasonable grounds to believe" - there seems to be no reason why that cannot be done. That is, after all, the police's job.

This bill threatens a dangerous expansion of police powers of summary justice, and a dangerous erosion of the principle that no-one should be punished without trial. Parliament should reject it.