Thursday, April 30, 2009


Voting has opened in the 2009 NetGuide people's choice web awards. You can vote for the "best blog" category here

Climate change: the latest inventory

New Zealand's latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions is now available. Unusually, it is not online at the Ministry for the Environment website; instead, you have to get it direct from the UNFCCC [ZIP]. The headline data is shown in the graph below (stolen from p. 16)


That's right - emissions actually fell! And unlike National's juked stats in the net position, it's a real reduction. Drought in 2006 / 2007 reduced agricultural emissions by a million tons (showing again how dirty those cows are), while the switch from coal to gas at Huntly and good weather accounted for a further 1.7 million tons. Some of this was offset by a small rise in transport emissions, however.

So, superficially good news - but its worth noting that none of it was due to actual policy. And with the ETS on hold and all other policies repealed, there's little hope of real reductions in the future.

New Fisk

Is this the price of America's new friendship with Syria?

Labour steps up on the Maori seats

Before the election, there was a debate on the future of the Maori seats, driven by the Maori Party's desire for entrenchment. The Maori Party gave the issue away in their confidence and supply agreement with National [PDF], but now Labour's Mita Ririnui has stepped up with a bill:

Labour list MP Mita Ririnui is to lodge a Member’s Bill seeking the entrenchment of the Maori seats in Parliament.

“The Bill will go into the next ballot and will ensure that the Maori seats in Parliament will not be able to be abolished unless 75 per cent of MPs in any Parliament vote in favour of such a move.

“The only other way the seats would be able to be abolished under the Bill, would be if a majority of Maori electors voted in a referendum to support such a step, Mita Ririnui said.

The latter is a good move - of course it should be up to Maori. The idea of silencing a distinctive Maori voice with Pakeha votes is as monstrous as it is untenable. But the formulation will require a separate entrenching clause. And of course as a proposal for entrenchment, the bill would have to pass its third reading committee stage by 75%. That will be difficult - basically, passing it will require National's agreement - but as with many member's bills, the aim isn't really to pass it. It's to signal future policy, and to wedge the Maori Party against both National and its own membership. And the latter is achieved simply by acting where the Maori Party won't.

Correction: Corrected entrenchment procedure. Maybe I should read the things I link to, rather than relying on my faliable memory of what thye say?

Tu Quoque

When they were in opposition, National constantly accused the government of "politicising the public service". They kicked and screamed especially about the Minister for the Environment's grossly improper and utterly unacceptable suggestion to bypass normal hiring procedures and employ Clare Curran in a communications role. So naturally, now that they're in government, they're doing exactly the same thing, helicoptering in hand-picked "purchase advisors" to key ministries, employed by the ministries on the public payroll, but not public servants and answering directly to Ministers:

Ministers are being told to hire private sector advisers, with departments being required to pay for them, Labour says.

Labour MP Chris Hipkins said Finance Minister Bill English had instructed ministers to use the contractors and was heavily involved in deciding who was used. Mr Hipkins said the process circumvented usual hiring processes.


"Bill English is the one who is naming all of these purchase advisers, he's the one who is approving, he was the one who instructed ministers to engage them, he chooses who they should be and has given instructions to departments about how much they should be paid," Mr Hipkins said.

The Minister of Justice has one. So does the Minister of Social Development. And the Ministers of Education, Infrastructure and Finance.

But it gets better. Newsroom [Paywalled] quotes OIA'd documents showing that Bill English isn't just telling Ministers to get their departments to hire these non-public servants, he's also giving them shortlists:

The papers also contain ministry advice to Mr Mapp about Mr English's request that his office engage a purchase adviser.

"You indicated that [the ministry] should progress this and that the Minister of Finance had suggested some names," the ministry adds.

The names of Mr Mapp's preferred candidates are blacked out.

In other words, Clare Curran, all over again. The hypocrisy is rank. So is the violation of the State sector Act's duty to act independently in employment matters.

As for why English is doing this, it seems he trusts neither the public service, or his newer Ministers - so he's planting personal spies in their offices to micromanage them and ensure that they "[produce] outputs that align with government priorities". And he is apparently planning to make this a permanent arrangement. So under National, we'll have the public service, and a parallel bureaucracy of handpicked hacks overseeing them. And all at taxpayer expense, of course.

If this is what National calls a "cleanup", I'd hate to see what they think is a "problem"...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009



That's the latest piocture of the Wilkins Ice Shelf, courtesy of the ESA. In the month since the final collapse of the ice-bridge holding it back, much of the main ice-shelf has shattered. And they're expecting a lot more breakup to come...


Today in Question Time, Opposition leader Phil Goff attempted to take the government to task over its expected decision to cancel its now unaffordable tax cuts to the rich. Goff's aim was to contrast Labour's record of keeping its promises with National's record of breaking them. But in the process he simply looked stupid. Why? Firstly, because Labour opposes those tax cuts. And secondly, because cancelling them is a sane and pragmatic response to the recession. When the government is predicting three years of no growth, spiralling deficits, and enormous pressure on government spending, the last thing they should be doing is bankrupting the country to hand out money to those who need it least. In fact, they should be doing the opposite: raising taxes on the rich to ease the burden and properly fund public services.

Demanding the government follow through on a stupid policy you fundamentally oppose is mindless oppositional FPP politics at its worst. I had thought the shift to MMP had moved Labour away from that political culture. Sadly, it seems I was wrong.

Rudd sides with the bigots

Whenever I look at Australian politics, I'm constantly reminded that the Australian Labor Party is neither as progressive or liberal as its New Zealand equivalent. I've had another such reminder today, with Kevin Rudd categorically ruling out any move to introduce civil unions in Australia. His reason? American-style bigotry:

The Government’s response equated the proposal with same-sex marriage equality, saying the no gay unions policy "reflects the widely held view in the community that marriage is between a man and a woman".
The furtherest they'll go is to officially recognise gay de facto couples. And this in a country which has not yet outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation at a federal level.

Civil unions are not full equality - they are "separate but equal", which never is. At the same time, they are a marked improvement, and a step on the road to full equality. Rejecting even this half-measure is the sign of a party - and a country - which is still deeply bigoted, and does not yet accept the fundamental principle that everyone is born equal and should be treated as such. We expect that from the right; to see it from the left is deeply troubling.

Fiji: great news if its true

Last night Australian Prime Minister claimed that the UN was going to ban Fiji from future peacekeeping missions. It hasn't been confirmed yet by UN authorities, but its great news if its true. This is a measure which strikes directly at the Fijian military - at its prestige, and its income. It sends a clear message to every Fijian soldier that the regime has cost them a pile of tax-free US dollars. And it deprives the military of an income stream they use to both justify their excessive size and build up their capabilities for oppression. In short, it would be a highly effective measure; the real question is why they didn't do it sooner.

Something to go to in Wellington

Climate change activist and founder of Bill McKibben is currently touring the country talking about climate change. He's already appeared in Dunedin, and this Friday he'll be hitting Wellington:

When: 18:00, Friday, 1 May
Where: Lecture Theatre 2, Rutherford House, Victoria University, Wellington (next to the train station)
How much: Free!

People in other cities don't miss out - he does Dunedin again tomorrow night, Christchurch on Friday morning, and Auckland on Monday.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Select committee supports medical THC

The Health Committee has reported back [PDF] on a petition from NORML asking them to change the law to allow medical use of marijuana. Despite strong evidence from the Ministry of Health of its efficacy and safety, and a submission from the New Zealand Drug Foundation in support, it shied away from backing them, and instead recommended that THC-based medicines be listed under the Medicines Act, making them easier to prescribe.

Even that mild recommendation is likely to be controversial with the anti-drug wingnuts - but it shouldn't be. We're happy to use opiates as medicines, despite the fact that they also have recreational uses. Why shouldn't we also use THC if it has proven medical benefits? But sadly, the degree of hysteria about drugs in our society means that what should be the key question - whether it is safe and effective as a medicine - is drowned out in the noise.

New Fisk

Obama falls short on Armenian pledge

Reminder: Drinking Liberally Auckland tomorrow

Drinking Liberally is on in Auckland tomorrow. The guest speaker is Manukau mayor Len Brown, who will talk about the government's Auckland SuperCity proposal.

When: 19:00, Wednesday, 29 April
Where: London Bar - corner Queen and Victoria Streets, Auckland CBD

Be there or be thirsty.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Legislating for equality in the UK

Yesterday the UK government introduced its Equality Bill, which updates and collects the UK's scattered anti-discrimination legislation into a single, comprehensive Act. The bill is being hailed as a tremendous step forward for equality, and it does contain some landmark measures - starting with the opening clause imposing a duty on public bodies to reduce socio-economic and class inequality (meaning that every Minister, department, local authority and school would need to allocate resources to the poor rather than the rich). It also requires large employers to publish statistics on pay equity (though shies away from comprehensive pay audits), bans secrecy clauses in employment contracts, gives employment tribunals powers to recommend general rather than specific solutions in discrimination cases (effectively turning every such case into a free class action), and extends protection to transgendered people. It is a bold push, though as Polly Toynbee notes, also too late - if New Labour had done this at the beginning of its term, rather than the end, it would have had a decade to bed itself in and produce a better society. Now, thanks to New Labour's "caution", much of it will likely be gutted by the next Tory government.

Many of these measures could and should be adopted in New Zealand. There has already been one attempt to protect the transgender community by adding them to the Human Rights Act, though it was dropped before it ever came to a vote after Labour panicked over "moving too fast". And the measures around gagging clauses and pay statistics would make an easy member's bill (the equality measure I think needs a more comprehensive look - but it could be something for labour to run on in 2011). At the same time, I'm struck by the differences in the UK's legislation compared to our own. Firstly, the UK does not include family status, employment status, or political opinion in its list of protected characteristics. Secondly and more importantly, it takes a completely different approach to discrimination. In New Zealand, the prohibited grounds of discrimination include both the traits and their absence - so for example it is discrimination on the grounds of marital status to refuse someone a room because they are married (or civil unioned or de facto) - or because they are single (or divorced, widowed, whatever). In the UK, only the listed trait is protected - so while it is illegal to discriminate against someone because they are married, it is not illegal to discriminate against someone because they are single, divorced, or de facto. It's a glaring hole, and one they need to fix immediately.

This is what racism looks like

This piece of garbage from cartoonist Jim Hubbard was splashed across the opinion pages of the Manawatu Standard today:

Jim Hubbard political cartoon - 26 April 2009

(Image stolen from NZPA).

I can only conclude that Hubbard is an ignorant redneck who has no clue about the history which underlies Treaty settlements, or how little we spend on them. That, or he is deliberately trying to incite racial hatred (a quick test: ask yourself what it would look like if it was about Jews. This one definitely fails). Either way, I'm surprised a respectable (albeit provincial) newspaper would publish it. Or did they have the Don Brash in to edit for the day?

(I'm also strongly reminded of another vile cartoon a few years back, showing health, education etc as starving dogs watching on while a fat dog labelled "Maori" was fed in front of them. Was that one by Hubbard as well?)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Extremely weak

Over the weekend, United Future leader Peter Dunne began the push for a republic, arguing that the public is clearly ready for the debate, and we should be allowed to have it through a two-stage referendum process. He also attacked the common delaying tactic of "passive denial", saying

I am tired of politicians who say it is probably inevitable we will become a republic at some stage, but who are unwilling to do anything to bring it about – that is extremely weak.
Prime Minister John Key immediately scotched the proposal. How? By attempting passive denial:
As I have always said in the past one day it's likely New Zealand will become a republic but, I don't think anything is going to happen under my watch.
Unfortunately, the denial is no longer passive when there's an actual concrete proposal which you then reject. Instead, it becomes active opposition. And trying to hide this with mealy-mouthed sentiments about inevitability is indeed "extremely weak". Key should have the courage of his convictions and tell us what he really thinks, rather than trying once again to bullshit us and please everyone.

Meanwhile, to those of us who want a republic, the message is clear: if we want one, we're going to have to vote for it. And that means ditching Key.

A project of national significance

The Manawatu Standard had a major scoop on Friday, uncovering evidence that the Minister for the Environment's call-in of the Turitea windfarm proposal did not meet "national significance" criteria. The project - an ordinary mid-sized wind farm contentious because it was being built in a reserve - was called in in December, ostensibly as a "project of national significance". But the Minister was advised before making the decision that it met only two of the eight criteria in the law: it involved more than one district, and affected our international obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The former is usually uncontentious - plenty of projects (including several previous Manawatu wind farms) cross district boundaries, and local authorities handle it by holding joint hearings; the latter, as MfE noted, "is true of all proposals for the use and development of wind farms". But rather than take his ministry's advice that it was a local project which could be handled locally, Smith called it in because it was

consistent with my intention to amend the RMA to provide for priority consents for larger-scale infrastructure.
In other words, local democracy was trampled so the Minister could show the business community his desire for "reform". Our rights as citizens to control local development came second place to the Minister's ego.

Hopefully Smith will be forced to answer some tough questions about his decision-making process in Parliament tomorrow. Meanwhile, we might all want to consider what this tells us about National's RMA reform plans, and how low it is setting the bar for call-ins. This is, as noted above, an ordinary, mid-sized windfarm. If this makes the threshold, then so does pretty much every major project, and local government will have no control whatsoever. Instead, decisions on local matters will be made in Wellington, and local communities will be left out in the cold.

Swine Flu

Some years back, I read a couple of books on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. One of the things they were very clear about was that it would happen again. A common virus, which most years lurks in the background killing a "mere" hundred thousand or so people, but which can evolve rapidly, spread easily and turn deadly quickly, combined with unprecedented global mobility, equals the potential for a global plague. Which is why the WHO and medical authorities keep a serious eye on it, and warns people when there's some danger of it heading that way. This has led to regular false alarms - such as the 1976 swine flu outbreak (where vaccination killed more people than the actual disease), or more recently "bird flu" (which still hasn't made the big leap to human-to-human transmission yet). But in the face of such danger, it is wise to be cautious.

This time round its swine flu, which has already killed 80 people in Mexico and has spread to the US, UK, Canada, and New Zealand. 80 people doesn't sound like a lot, but its enough to classify the disease as an epidemic (meaning: "a lot more cases than expected"), and its virulence, spread and contagiousness is enough to classify it as a potential pandemic (meaning: "a lot more cases than expected over a large area"). For all that, it might be another false alarm - it could just peter out. Or it could be 1918 all over again. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing until it is too late.

What's interesting to me is that for all our advances in medical technology and disease monitoring, we are now more vulnerable than we were in 1918. Back then, countries could close their borders (we did - then made an exception because Bill Massey, the Prime Minister, was too important to wait with the hoi polloi. 8,000 people died as a result). Now, thanks to globalisation, we can't. Oh sure, the legal power exists, but the economic disruption it would cause means that no government (and particularly a "pro-business" government) would do so until it was already too late. Though with travel times now generally being shorter than incubation periods, its questionable whether such measures would be effective anyway.

Stupid as well as wrong

The critiques of US torture have generally followed two strands: that it is morally and legally wrong, and that it is ineffective. To this, we can now add a third: that it is actively counterproductive. That's the assessment of Major Matthew Alexander, a former US interrogator who served in Iraq. In his view, the US's torture program has likely killed more Americans than 9/11. How? By recruiting people to the resistance:

Before he started interrogating insurgent prisoners in Iraq, he had been told that they were highly ideological and committed to establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, Major Alexander says. In the course of the hundreds of interrogations carried out by himself, as well as more than 1,000 that he supervised, he found that the motives of both foreign fighters joining al-Qa'ida in Iraq and Iraqi-born members were very different from the official stereotype.

In the case of foreign fighters – recruited mostly from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and North Africa – the reason cited by the great majority for coming to Iraq was what they had heard of the torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. These abuses, not fundamentalist Islam, had provoked so many of the foreign fighters volunteering to become suicide bombers.

(Emphasis added)

American torture was also a reason for Iraqis joining the resistance. And it is undoubtedly a reason for others to join al Qaeda or allied groups to conduct terror attacks against Americans and their allies. Which makes it (to paraphrase Talleyrand) not just a crime, but a mistake.

Iceland settles the score with neoliberalism

Iceland went to the polls yesterday to replace the government the people drove from office after it had destroyed the country's economy. The result was a resounding victory for the left, with the Social Democrat Alliance and Left-Green Movement collectively winning 34 seats in the 63 seat Parliament. The neo-liberal Independence Party, whose deregulation of the financial sector had caused the mess, were decimated, losing nine seats. Talk about political chickens coming home to roost...

Johanna Sigurdardottir, the Social Democratic leader and Prime Minister, said that the country was "settling the score with the [sic] neoliberalism". Other neo-liberal governments should take note. If they don't change their policies, the people may want to settle a score with them too.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Fisk

Everyone wants to be an author, but no one is reading books

Friday, April 24, 2009

Geeking on electricity

This is cool - live stats on power usage and how it is being generated. At the moment they're burning a lot of coal while the North Island's hydro capacity lies idle. Which is one of the things that will change when we start pricing carbon properly.

[Hat-tip: Kyle Matthews on PASystem]


Below is the draft of my submission on the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, which I'll be emailing away later this afternoon. It is based on posts here and here.

  1. I oppose the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, and ask that it not be passed.
  2. The bill would create a “three strike” regime for repeat violent offenders and allow judges to deny any possibility of parole to those convicted of murder. Both changes violate the rights affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and our binding commitments to the international community under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In addition, there are a number of practical difficulties with the bill.

    Bill of Rights Problems

  3. The problems with the proposed “three strikes” regime are well-covered in the Attorney-General’s section 7 report [PDF] tabled in Parliament. The mandatory sentences imposed for second or third strikes are likely to constitute disproportionately severe punishment, in violation of s9 BORA and article 7 of the ICCPR, in that they are likely to be grossly disproportionate to the offence. An offender who commits a crime which would otherwise receive a sentence of five years, would receive a mandatory life sentence with a mandatory 25 year non-parole period if it is their third strike. This is grossly disproportionate, and destroys any pretence of a rational connection between the offence and the punishment.
  4. Official advice has highlighted the risk that such grossly disproportionate sentences provide a strong incentive for offenders to commit more serious offending to avoid arrest. This may result in victims and police being killed. Overseas, three strike regimes have been linked to a 16-24 percent increase in the long-term homicide rate. In New Zealand terms, that works out to an extra ten deaths a year. Members of the committee should ask themselves whether they are willing to be party to ten extra murders a year just to show they are “tough on crime”.
  5. While the Attorney-General’s report disagrees, official advice has also noted that mandatory life-sentences without parole for second-strike murderers may also constitute cruel or disproportionate punishment in violation of the BORA and ICCPR, as they “do not provide for any consideration of a change in the offenders' circumstances”.
  6. Though its recognition of Parliamentary sovereignty in s4, the Bill of Rights Act makes Parliament the ultimate guardian of our human rights in this country. I ask that the committee take that role seriously, and either reject the bill in its entirety, or amend it (if that is possible) to make it consistent with the BORA.

    Practical Problems

  7. In addition to creating incentives on offenders, the bill also creates perverse incentives on judges to reduce sentences to avoid manifest injustice in the future.
  8. It also removes incentives for good behaviour from prisoners subjected to the regime. To point out the blindingly obvious, if there is no hope of release from prison, then there is no incentive to moderate behaviour, let alone reform. This endangers both other prisoners, and prison officers.
  9. These incentives are inherent in the nature of the regime, and cannot be moderated. They are another argument for the bill’s rejection.

    Proposed ACT amendments

  10. The ACT Party has proposed several amendments to the bill, including expanding the list of strike offences and making the law retrospective. I oppose these amendments, and urge the committee to reject them.
  11. ACT propose to expand the list of strike offences [PDF] to include “Assault on a child, or by a male on a female contrary to section 194 of the Crimes Act”. This creates an extremely strong and perverse incentive against the reporting of domestic violence, as victims may not want to see their abuser imprisoned for the rest of their natural life. For this reason, I urge that if the bill proceeds, the committee not expand the list of strike offences to include such offences.
  12. ACT also proposes making the three strikes regime retrospective, and treating those already convicted as having 1, 2 or even 3 strikes already for the purposes of subsequent offences. This comes dangerously close to retrospective punishment, and defeats any pretence that this bill is about improving deterrence. I urge that such amendments also be rejected.
  13. I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.

Goff backs a referendum

Labour's Phil Goff has come out in support of a referendum on the government's undemocratic SuperCity plans:

The National-Act Government should seek a mandate from Aucklanders before fundamentally restructuring local government in Auckland, says Labour leader Phil Goff.

"Section 49 of the Local Government Act 2002 provides for a poll of electors to be held before reorganisation of local government occurs," he says.

"If the National-Act Government has the courage of its convictions, it will seek a mandate for what they are proposing rather than simply ramming changes through by special legislation.

It's a good, principled move. National's plans would rob Aucklanders of their voice and gerrymander local government in favour of the Remuera business elite and John Banks. Aucklanders deserve to be given a say on this. As I've argued repeatedly, their local government belongs to them - not to politicians in Wellington.

A competitive by-election II

So, the Greens are making a serious push to win Mount Albert by standing co-leader Russel Norman as their by-election candidate. I'm expecting a tidal wave of Labour outrage at the thought of another left-wing party standing in "their" seat, but I have just two words to say in response: "screw them". Seats don't belong to parties - they belong to the voters who live in them. And if Labour wants to win that seat, they should have to fight for it against whoever puts their name forward.

If they're that concerned about "vote splitting", then here's a suggestion: rather than seeking to limit voter choice, they could enhance it by pushing for preferential voting in the electorate vote.

Anything but Sweden!

The Standard highlights the first part of the Daily Show's trip to Sweden to uncover the horrors of a socialist society. Part two screened last night. In case you missed it:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Free education, free healthcare, well-paid and well-treated workers - I can see what American elites have to be afraid of. As for the rest of us...

Scandanavian socialism seems to be a theme on US television at the moment - just before I saw that, I'd caught the tail end of 20/20 boggling at Denmark, where a strong social safety net and a high level of equality had led to the country being the happiest place on Earth. Cthulhu forfend that Americans - or kiwis - end up like that!

South Africa votes

South Africa went to the polls yesterday in national and provincial elections. Now the results are beginning to come back - no thanks to the Independent Electoral Commission's crap election results site - and it looks like the ANC is just going to miss getting the two-thirds majority which lets them change the constitution. Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Alliance has done well and managed to win control of Western Cape province. Both are Good Things, in a big picture sense - its always good for parties to have limits on their power, and to have to compete strongly for it.

But beyond the big picture, the election participants are somewhat uninspiring. The ANC's presidential candidate is Jacob Zuma, who some may remember from his messy rape trial a few years back (he was ultimately acquitted, after running the usual defence of accusing his victim of being a slut and a liar and arguing it was all consensual anyway. She was forced to seek political asylum in the Netherlands to avoid retaliation from Zuma's supporters). Then there's the corruption allegations which just don't seem to go away. OTOH, the opposition's attacks on Zuma seemed to cross the line into thinly-veiled racism, despite their anti-racist roots. As for the grandly-named Congress of the People, they're just a patronage network without a patron anymore. I wouldn't consider any of them to be worthy of my vote - but fortunately I don't live in South Africa, so I don't have to make that icky decision.

Update: It's now looking like the ANC will make two-thirds after all. Damn. It's not that I'm particularly worried about constitutional amendments - they had an amending majority last term but didn't use it - but more the principle of the thing. Governments should be weak and divided and unable to make such changes without having to seek and gain the consent of others.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The ugly face of bigotry

BBC: Gay marriage row at Miss USA show

The runner-up at the Miss USA beauty pageant says her outspoken opposition to gay marriage cost her first place in the competition.

During the televised event, Carrie Prejean - Miss California - said she believed that "a marriage should be between a man and a woman".

She had been asked for her views on the subject by one of the judges, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton.

"It did cost me my crown," said Ms Prejean, after the competition.

Maybe someone should tell her: bigotry just ain't beautiful.

(Blogging about beauty pagents - does this mean I've sunk to DPF's level?)

"A very big terrorist plot"

Two weeks ago, UK police launched raids across Northwest England following the inadvertent display of a secret document by a security official. According to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the raids had foiled "a very big terrorist plot" - but they uncovered no evidence of terrorist activity. No weapons, no bombmaking materials, no plans, no target lists, no suspicious documents, nothing. Now it turns out the whole thing was based on a single cryptic email and a handful of ambiguous phone conversations (which, for some reason, the government was listening to - I guess being Muslim is enough now as far as the UK is concerned). And the government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, Lord Carlile - is investigating.

Not that it will help those arrested. Detained for two weeks without charge or trial under draconian anti-terrorism legislation, all twelve have now all been released without charge. But eleven face deportation, ostensibly on "national security" grounds - despite the raids having uncovered no evidence. The inescapable conclusion is that, having screwed up and ruined these people's lives, the government now wants to dispose of the evidence of its mistake before any of them get to talk to the media and voice their outrage. Just another example of how Britain's authoritarian government in action...

An alternative to cutting spending

As the National government slashes government spending in an effort to balance the books and offset the disastrous effects of their unaffordable giveaway to the rich, its worth remembering that there is another alternative: we could increase revenue by raising taxes on the rich.

The state of New York is doing this, hiking state income taxes by 1% on those earning over US$300,000, and 2% on those earning over half a million (a relative increase of about 30%), while the UK government has just hiked the top tax rate to 50% and eliminated various dodges the rich use. We could do the same, and introduce, say, a 45% rate on those earning over $100,000. From Treasury's 2008 detailed model data, this would bring in over $750 million a year (unfortunately as the table only goes up to $100,000, I can't model higher thresholds). That's $750 million we won't have to cut from our spending on health, education, welfare and roads - and $750 million we won't have to borrow.

This move would not be contractionary, because the rich tend to stick their money in the bank (or in a housing bubble) rather than spending it. And while they will squeal and posture and spam tiresome homilies and bogus graphs and threaten to leave, those threats are vastly overstated. Very few people will leave the country over an extra 8% marginal tax rate. Labour's imposition of a new top tax rate in 2000 did not cause the threatened crash in revenue, and neither will this. Instead, it will help balance the books while helping to reduce the inequality which is fundamentally harmful to everyone in our society - and that can only be a Good Thing.

Compare and contrast

Next year too late for govt action on recession, IMF warns, New Zealand Herald, 23 April 2009:

The International Monetary Fund has urged governments worldwide to make contingency plans for spending immediately, warning that the economy is likely to lurch into reverse this year.

The IMF's World Economic Outlook report predicted a shrinking global economy would lead to trillions of dollars in lost business, surging unemployment and more people thrust into poverty, hunger and homelessness.

It called for called for more stimulus projects from world governments, including money for public works projects.

Budget to tighten Govt spending , New Zealand Herald, 20 April 2009:
Prime Minister John Key is planning to tighten the belt on government spending, not loosen it, in the Budget next month.

The government has decided against any fresh fiscal stimulus in the May 28 Budget because it cannot afford to provoke ratings agency Standard & Poor's into downgrading New Zealand's AA+ sovereign credit rating, Key told the Financial Times in an interview over the weekend.

New Zealand "cannot afford" to provide fresh fiscal spending for its embattled economy and was instead planning to cut government expenditure, the Financial Times reported Key as saying in the article.

So, in the face of what is now openly being described as the worst crisis since the great depression, our government is doing exactly the opposite of what it should, contracting the economy by penny pinching rather than stimulating it with public works. And the result will be a deeper, longer recession and moe kiwis out of work for longer.

But what do they care? Most of them earn more than most of us could possibly imagine, and as Big News points out, the Prime Minister's salary - unlike the median income - has more than doubled in the last ten years (the CEO of Air New Zealand's salary doubled in the last year alone). These people are simply not in the same boat as us anymore. So its no wonder that they simply don't give a shit.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 89th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Johnny Pez.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Aucklanders deserve a referendum

A couple of weeks ago, I floated the idea of a referendum on the SuperCity. Now The Standard has taken up the cry, calling for Aucklanders to be given a vote on the massive changes proposed to their local government:

[C]ouncils have referenda on whether to put fluoride in the water. How can we not have a referendum on creating a supercity? How dare the Government trample over our right to decide?

It would be simple for the Government to write the referendum into the legislation. There is no reason not to do it. If they won’t it’s because they don’t give a damn about democracy.

It’s not Key’s city. It’s not Hide’s city.

It’s all Aucklanders’ city. All Aucklanders should get to decide.

The Standard is right. Government belongs to the people. Significant changes to its structure should be decided by the people. In 1992 and 1993 we all got to vote on changes to our electoral system. The changes proposed to Auckland's local government, to its powers and duties and the manner and level at which citizens are represented, are at least as significant on a local scale. Aucklanders must be allowed to vote on this. Anything less is an abrogation of our democratic principles.

Conserving our natural heritage

According to the Department of Conservation website, its mission is

To conserve New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage for all to enjoy now and in the future.
It's a noble aim, but unfortunately the new Minister of Conservation, Tim Groser, doesn't seem to believe in it. He's just altered the boundaries of a conservation park so that Solid Energy can dig a dirty great lignite mine in the middle of it in the future. Not only is this bad in itself - it's also part of Solid Energy's grand plan to build for a lignite-to-diesel plant in Southland - a dirty process which will pollute the local environment and send our greenhouse gas emissions soaring, devastating the natural heritage DoC is tasked to protect.

Someone needs to tell the Minister that open-cast coal-mines are not part of our natural heritage.

The consequences of three strikes

The Herald this morning sounds another warning about the government's draconian and cruel "three strikes" policy, pointing out that it could have some pretty ugly consequences:

"One response, consistent with the three-strikes experience in the USA, is that offenders facing a second or third strike offence, would have little qualms about committing further violent acts to escape apprehension or conviction.

"A recent USA study found that in cities with three-strikes laws, homicide rates increased on average 13-14 per cent in the short term and 16-24 per cent in the long term, compared with cities without the laws.

In New Zealand, that equates to an extra five to ten murders a year, all so the government can show it is "tough on crime". Seems a bit counterproductive, neh? But that's not all: All the good work we've been doing on getting people to report family violence could go out the window:
"But what it also showed, was that victims of family violence would be less likely to report violence against them from their partners, if they knew it would be followed by imprisonment without parole, in the case of a second strike, or 25 years in prison on the third strike.

"The common reaction of the partners was, `I don't want to put my old man away in prison for a long time; I just want him to stop hitting me'."

And no doubt this reduction in reported crime rates would be hailed as proof the law was having a deterrent effect. Dickheads. (See note below)

ACT's David Garrett has responded, as usual, by spewing ink, pointing out that in California "Homicide and robbery have decreased by 50 percent since 'Three Strikes' became law". What he doesn't mention is that the reduction was part of a broader, demographically-driven reduction in crime across the US and Canada, and the difference "three strikes" made is entirely unclear. But Garrett isn't about the empirical evidence; as we've seen before, he's just the crime-equivalent of a climate change denier.

Note: It has been pointed out to me that the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill does not include domestic violence in its list of qualifying offences. However, I should also point out that it is included in garrett's draft bill [PDF], and that ACT is pushing for its re-inclusion - so it is a problem we need to worry about if they get their way.

New kiwi blog

Life and politics - occasional comment on life and politics in New Zealand.

[Hat-tip: Just Left]

Reminder: Drinking Liberally Wellington

Drinking Liberally is happening in Wellington tomorrow, with guest speaker Sue Bradford.

When: 17:30, Thursday, 23 April
Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith St

[Hat-tip: The Hand Mirror]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Foreshore and seabed: Labour admits it was wrong

Labour has released its submission [DOC] to the government's review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. And in it, they do a surprising thing: admit they were wrong. When it passed the Act, Labour was adamant that iwi would not be allowed to win customary title through the courts, and certainly not through the (expert) Maori Land Court. Instead, even if iwi had a cast-iron case for continuing customary ownership, the most they would be able to get would be one-sided "negotiations" with the crown, or the creation of a foreshore and seabed reserve over which they would exercise kaitiakitanga. Now they're arguing that the ability of the courts to award customary title should be restored, and that it should be done in the first instance by the Maori Land Court, rather than making iwi waste tens of thousands of dollars on unnecessary High Court action.

Its nowhere near a complete reversal - they still want a ban on such customary title being converted to freehold title, a ban on its alienation, and a ban on charges for access and passage. But its still a tremendous change, and for all those limits, having the courts able to say "this is your land" is a significant and meaningful difference. All along iwi have said that what they wanted was the recognition of their mana and kaitiaki. This is a step towards doing that.

If Labour had pushed for this in the beginning, rather than panicking in the face of National's race-baiting, there's a chance the tragedy of the last five years could have been avoided. Instead, thanks to their short-sightedness and pandering to racists, we got five years of bitterness and injustice. And for what? To get where we would likely have ended up anyway. At least now they seem to be making an effort to rectify their mistake.

No freedom of speech in Kuwait

Nasra Alshamery is an Australian citizen. In January, while on a trip to Kuwait with her family, she was involved in a dispute with Kuwaiti immigration officials. Her husband and family were beaten, and she was threatened with rape, before being arrested. She has now been sentenced to two years' imprisonment for insulting the country's ruler.

Like Thailand's lese majeste law, this would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. A woman is looking at two years jail for something which should not be a crime in any civilised country. The fact that the charge seems to be a punishment for talking back to a self-important official just makes it worse. But I guess that's Kuwait for you - a despotism from top to bottom.

Perverting the course of justice

Last year, we learned that MI5 had colluded in the torture of Binyam Mohamed. This year, we found out that they'd further colluded with the US to fabricate a threat that intelligence cooperation would be withdrawn in an effort to cover up that abuse. And now, to cap it all off, we find out that they gave false evidence in court in an effort to downplay their responsibility:

Lawyers for the government have admitted that a senior MI5 officer gave false evidence to the high court in the case of former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Binyam Mohamed.

The admission, combined with an apology, is contained in a letter from Treasury solicitor David Mackie to Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones, who tomorrow will hear fresh demands from lawyers representing Mohamed, and the media, for the disclosure of information about who was complicit in his interrogation and torture.

The letter reveals that an MI5 officer, referred to as Witness A, gave "incorrect" evidence to the high court about when the CIA kept British security and intelligence officers informed about Mohamed's secret interrogation.


Mackie also apologised to the high court for not handing over 13 documents which he says should have been passed to the judges. They included six MI5 documents and MI6 documents identified originally by the security and intelligence agencies but subsequently not "selected for disclosure".

This is all symptomatic of an organisation which feels that it is above the law. It is time they were shown they were not. And the first step should be to prosecute their witness for perjury, and their superiors for conspiracy to pervert of the course of justice.

Failed already

It seems National's policy to manage the impact of the recession has failed already. Their "jobs summit" in February produced three "big ideas": a nine-day fortnight, a cycleway the length of New Zealand, and a $2 billion equity fund from the banks to keep businesses running. But now two of these three ideas have collapsed before they even began - the cycleway (a joke to begin with) will not be funded and has turned into a collection of small local tracks, while the $2 billion equity fund has collapsed amid squabbling between the banks and Treasury. Meanwhile, the much-vaunted nine-day fortnight has saved all of 123 jobs in five companies (one of which was allowed to impose massive pay cuts and dump half its workforce before signing up for the scheme). As economic recovery plans go, the results are somewhat underwhelming.

New Zealanders expect more from their government than this. National had better start delivering, otherwise people are going to get very angry, very quickly.

A way to go yet

The Republican Movement has just released the results of its annual poll on whether we should become a republic, and it shows we have a way to go yet before putting the issue to the people. The poll of 1,018 New Zealanders asked which they would prefer when the Queen dies - Prince Charles as monarch, or a republic. 45% said they wanted Charles, 43% a republic, and 13% wouldn't answer or didn't know. But while its good that a republic is now level-pegging with the monarchy, we need that number to be consistently well over 50% before we can start pushing for a referendum; there's no point pushing it to a vote if we're going to lose.

So what can we do in the meantime? Keep talking obviously, and working to change minds. But also we can push for constitutional reform which lays the groundwork for a republic, while also producing a more democratic monarchy - things like codifying the reserve powers, expressly eliminating the Royal Assent, or even electing the Governor-General. Unfortunately neither of the major parties has much stomach for constitutional change (National because they conservative traditionalists, Labour out of fear of "rocking the boat" too much), which mans we will have to work through member's bills. Fortunately there are plenty of MPs with republican sentiments we can lobby to advance such bills.

Monday, April 20, 2009

We have a date

The Mt Albert by-election will be held on 13 June. Candidates must be nominated by 19 May.

Let the by-election begin!

A giant gay storm

US conservatives have been doing their nut recently about the "threat" of gay marriage (because obviously, gays being treated just like everybody else is a threat, rather than basic human decency), and have recently released an internet ad called "the gathering storm" in an effort to organise opposition against it (into a "rainbow coalition" of bigots, no less). The ad is hilarious, and cries out for parody. Fortunately, Stephen Colbert has risen to the occasion...

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Colbert Coalition's Anti-Gay Marriage Ad
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest

Deepening the recession

Back in 1990, a newly-elected National government faced a financial panic over a recession and spiralling debt levels. They responded by slashing government spending to the bone. But rather than cutting their way out of recession, they deepened it. Now National looks set to make the same mistake again in next month's budget:

Prime Minister John Key is planning to tighten the belt on government spending, not loosen it, in the Budget next month.

The government has decided against any fresh fiscal stimulus in the May 28 Budget because it cannot afford to provoke ratings agency Standard & Poor's into downgrading New Zealand's AA+ sovereign credit rating, Key told the Financial Times in an interview over the weekend.

This is simply madness - you don't respond to a failure of demand by cutting demand even further. But National's focus isn't on the economy, but about repairing the damage done to the government's books by their unaffordable giveaway to the rich, in the hope of being able to give more away in future. They don't care about us, but only about their rich mates...

Worse, we don't hear about this through the local media, but from a foreign source, because once again John Key is telling them things he won't tell us. It's another example of his habit of telling different stories to different people in the hope of keeping everyone happy. But in the age of the internet, where foreign news is as accessible as the New Zealand Herald, its simply unsustainable - and instead of keeping people happy, it makes Key look deceitful and two-faced.

Calling National on its "centrism"

After nearly six months of easy government, National is finally being called on its new "centrism", thanks to the US formally requesting NZ troops to fight its losing war in Afghanistan. The majority of kiwis want nothing to do with the US's war and hate the idea of kiwis killing and even dying to defend theocracy and spousal rape, but National's base is reflexively pro-US and sees our role in the world as being a loyal little US vassal, willing (and eager) to die on demand for the profit of their American overlords (and possibly kiwi farmers - the vile old "blood for butter" mindset that saw us die for Britain too). Whichever way they decide, one of these groups is going to be seriously pissed off, so its no real surprise that they're prevaricating. But eventually, they're going to have to make up their minds and choose: between the centre and the right, between New Zealand and America. And they'll have to suffer the electoral consequences of that decision in two and a half years time.

Unfortunately, judging by their decision on the United Nations conference on racism, they'll be backing the US. Let's just hope no-one gets killed as a reuslt of their cowardly subserviance.

Taito on trial

Former Labour MP Taito Phillip Field has gone on trial in the High Court today on 12 charges of corruption and bribery as an MP and 23 charges of perverting the course of justice. It's the first such trial in New Zealand's history, and so cause for shame and pride in equal measure. Shame, because its a sign that our political system isn't as squeeky clean as we thought, and pride because unlike certain other countries, at least we're prosecuting him. As we should - there is no place for corruption in our political system.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New Fisk

The wars come and go but the enemy remains the same

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Yes Vote

In a little over three months, New Zealand will be voting in a referendum on child-beating. Rather than ask us directly whether the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 should be repealed and the law returned to the status quo ante, the child-beaters have come up with the usual motherhood question designed to both mask their goal and elicit agreement:

Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
Which means that, paradoxically, if we want to defeat them, we have to vote "yes". Now, a group of child-protection and advocacy agencies - Plunket, Save the Children, Barnardos and Unicef NZ - have come together to argue for exactly that, with a website called The Yes Vote. Here's the short version:
A ‘yes’ vote is a vote to retain a law that is working well.
A ‘yes’ vote is a vote to protect children from assault.
A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for positive parenting.
And to that I'll add "a 'yes' vote is a vote against sadism". Which pretty much clinches it for me. While like others I am tempted to spoil my ballot in protest at such a stupid question, this issue is far too important for that. So I'll be voting 'yes' in August. I hope you will too.

[Hat-tip: The Hand Mirror]

Damian Green cleared

Last year, UK shadow Immigration minister Damian Green was arrested for passing on leaked information embarrassing to the government. His Parliamentary office was searched, and he was told he faced life imprisonment for the archaic offence of "conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office". Now, the charges have been thrown out after prosecutors decided that the information leaked was not secret, did not affect national security, and did not put lives at risk. It was not even considered "highly confidential".

This is all good news - the idea that people, let alone MPs, might be arrested for publicising leaked information is as chilling as it is absurd. Leaks are the lifeblood of democracy, a vital means of holding the government to account. Arresting people for that is more redolent of Stalin's Russia or Mugabe's Zimbabwe than the supposedly free and democratic UK.

Now that Green has been cleared, attention must focus on those responsible: the Speaker of the House, who allowed police to search a Parliamentary office without a warrant, the Home Secretary, whose complaints led to the raid, and the Cabinet Office, which inflated the importance and sensitivity of the information in order to force a police response. These people have all either deliberately attempted to undermine the UK's democracy, or (in the Speaker's case) failed to do their duty to defend it. And they should be held accountable.

Obama protects torturers

Today, President Obama released the evidence needed to convict Justice Department lawyers John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Stephen Bradbury of conspiracy to torture, in the form of previously classified memos authorising torture and providing guidelines for its use. But in the same breath, Obama also ruled out any action being taken against the torturers who implemented those techniques. They had acted "in good faith" and on legal advice, and therefore should not be held accountable. In other words, Befehl ist Befehl - "they were only following orders". The US rightly rejected this attempt at blame-shifting at Nuremberg, and the hypocrisy of them accepting it now to protect their own who have been involved in crimes under US and international law is astounding. but its worse than that - because Obama didn't just promise to protect the US's torturers - he praised them. From his statement:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.
Oh yes - unknown heroes who have Sacrificed To Save America - by torturing people, waterboarding them, threatening to rape and murder their children, and in some cases even killing their victims in the process. So, I guess Obama approves of torture after all. And then, to cap it all off, he says this:
The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. excusing those who violate those laws and ideals from any threat of justice. That noise was my hypocrisy meter overloading.

This just makes it clearer: the US will not act to uphold its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, so the international community will have to do it for them. There is universal jurisdiction for torture, and any CIA torturer who sets foot outside the US should expect to be arrested and tried. And the same should apply to President Obama - because by taking a stand to protect his torturers, he's just made himself a co-conspirator.


Yesterday the government "consulted" Auckland's mayors on the proposed Auckland SuperCity plan. Unfortunately that "consultation" wasn't all it was cracked up to be:

But Mr Hide made it clear those who opposed the plans for the Super City and how it was being structured should prepare to be disappointed.

"The mayors will have an opportunity to contribute, like the rest of Auckland, to the legislation, but Parliament will ultimately decide it, not me, not the Government, not a particular party - Parliament will decide it.

"We're open to the engagement but what we don't want to hear is particular self-interested groups talking about it."

Translation: "we've already made up our minds, so don't bother disagreeing with us". Where have I heard this sort of autocratic top-down talk recently? Oh, that's right...

It's also more than a little disingenuous of Hide to say that the decision will be made by Parliament. While true in a legal sense, National and ACT hold a majority in the House, and will present and pass the options they want. As under FPP, the legislature will be treated as a rubber-stamp for a decision pre-ordained by Cabinet. Which is what happens under a majority government (and given the high level of agreement and virtual coalition deal between National and ACT, that is effectively what we have). Parliament only performs its proper role as a scrutineer of legislation when the House is divided and the government lacks a majority and so must negotiate with multiple parties in order to secure the passage of legislation. The situation we have now is simply a return to the old FPP elected dictatorship - with all the arrogance that that implies.

New Fisk

How can you trust the cowardly BBC?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Seriously deficient"

In a post on Tuesday, Scoop's Gordon Campbell hooks into the Fijian Court of Appeal's judgement [PDF] in Qarase vs. Bainimarama:

Apparently, under that latest reading of the 1997 Constitution, there was no prerogative power held by the Fijian President, no matter what breakdown in good governance or civil society had occurred. At the very least, this reading would seem to render the 1997 Constitution seriously deficient.
Hardly. Instead, what's "seriously deficient" is Campbell's unspoken assumption that such breakdowns must be dealt with by the prerogative power of the President. Because while the Court found that there was no prerogative power to deal with emergencies, it found such because that power had been explicitly assigned to the elected government under the direct and immediate supervision of Parliament by sections 187 - 189 of the Fijian Constitution:
In our opinion, the existence of s. 187 is as clear an indication as there can be that national security matters were not matters which were left to the prerogative. The existence of an implied right in the President arising from the prerogative, acting otherwise than on the advice of the Prime Minister to dismiss the government, to dissolve the Parliament and establish an Interim Government in the face of an emergency, is inconsistent with that provision.
Under the constitution, Fiji's President can only declare a state of emergency and suspend certain human rights on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and then only if it is confirmed by Parliament within a very short space of time (and if there is no Parliament - e.g. they are in the middle of an election campaign - it is immediately recalled). Doing things that way - rather than on the whim of one man - is not a "deficiency". it is a strength. Unless, of course, you have some fundamental problems with democracy...

The court also found that there was no prerogative power to dismiss the Prime Minister, that having been (very firmly) nailed down by sections 98, 108 and 109. while the British monarch once had the power to dismiss "their" Prime Minister and appoint whomsoever they chose to advise them, any residue of that power which had survived William IV's unsuccessful dismissal of Melbourne (the last gasp of absolute monarchy) had been thoroughly eliminated by the Fijian Constitution's explicit codification. But beyond that, they also asked:

[W]hy does a matter of national security call for the dismissal of a Prime Minister and his Ministers and the dissolution of Parliament? Under the Fiji Constitution it is he and his Cabinet who have the responsibility to lead the country through a crisis, and to advise the President in relation thereto. It is entirely unclear to us why the first thing called for in a time of national emergency is the dismissal of the Prime Minister and his government.
It's a question the supporters of Fiji's despotism like Campbell and Trotter might want to ask themselves. Because as the court noted, once you ask that, it exposes what has really occurred: "a military coup or an unlawful usurpation of power".

(Oh, and in response to Campbell's latest, I have just one question to ask: if an election conducted under a system which, while imperfect, is still found to be "free and fair" by both international (Commonwealth, EU) and domestic observers (USP - sadly, the report does not seem to be online) is not "an over-riding litmus test of political legitimacy", then what the hell is? I knew Chris Trotter had problems with democracy; I had expected better from Campbell...)

Afghans stone women protesting against rape-law

Last month, Afghanistan passed a law legalsing spousal rape within the country's Shia community. Some Afghan women were unhappy with this, so they did what you do in a democracy and organised a protest. In return, they were stoned:

Afghan women protesting against a new law that severely undermines women's rights were pelted with stones in the country's capital Wednesday, say reports.

About 300 mostly young women gathered in Kabul to show their opposition to a recently passed law that forbids women from refusing to have sex with their husbands and requires them to get a male relative's permission to leave the house.

The demonstration, organized by women's rights activists in the country, occurred in front of a Shia mosque recently built by a cleric who helped craft the law. Critics of the law say it effectively legalizes rape within marriage and is a return to Taliban-style rule.

About 1,000 people opposed to the protest surrounded the women and threw gravel and small stones as police struggled to hold them back. The group of counter-protesters included both men and women.

Again, I have to ask: why are we supporting this? Why are we supporting them? We're propping up Afghanistan's government - the government which passed this law and enables this behaviour - with armed troops. We might as well be propping up the Taliban.

Definitely not OK

What happens in New Zealand if you brutally assault your partner, kick the shit out of her, break her back in two places, and stick her in a wheelchair for months?

If you're poor and brown, you go to jail. If you're a rich white TV celebrity like Tony Veitch, you get community service and a possible anger management course (plus no doubt a fat new TV contract).

Equal justice for all? Yeah, right.

But what's most offensive isn't the sentence as such - its the fact that Veitch was allowed to plead down his serious assault charges to "reckless disregard causing injury". So instead of having to admit that he assaulted someone and It's Not OK, he gets to further minimise his actions, just as he did in his "apology". He didn't mean to hurt her - he was merely being reckless when he beat her to the floor and kicked the crap out of her. This is the worst sort of self-justifying bullshit from an abuser - but thanks to a desire for a quick "win", our courts and justice system are now a party to it. Maybe someone should tell them that It's Not OK...

The world's biggest election

India, the world's biggest democracy, goes to the polls today in the first round of its five-stage parliamentary elections. Voters across 17 states will elect MPs for 124 constituencies. Other parts of India will follow every week until mid-May. The scale is staggering - all up around 400 million people (out of 714 million eligible voters) will cast a ballot, choosing between 200 parties. Unfortunately, there's a down side: they use FPP, with wildly varying constituency sizes. Looking at the 2004 results, winning a seat takes anywhere from 150,000 to 700,000 votes, depending on which state its in and how well they did in the struggle for federal representation. It's broadly democratic (and the realities of a federal system means that disproportionality is unavoidable) - but its a long, long way from modern best practice.

While the elections will take a month, all the votes will apparently be counted on May 16th, with Parliament reconvening shortly afterwards. So the people who vote today will have to wait a month to see how it went. But the alternative is the US problem of people's votes being influenced by the results of earlier elections - except lasting a whole month rather than the few hours between New York and Hawaii.

As for who will win, the answer is "no-one". In a country as large and diverse as India, no single party can win an overall majority (at least not anymore - Congress used to win majorities in the 80's, but the rise of the BJP has ended that). So inevitably there will be a coalition. The three major groupings are the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and a "third front" of communists and regional parties. As for which will come out on top, we'll have to wait a month...

Dirty money

On Tuesday, I had a quick poke at candidate donation returns in an effort to find out who is buying our politicians. Now the Herald has got into the game - and with their superior resources, they've uncovered all sorts of interesting donations. For a start, it seems Climate Change Minister Nick Smith wasn't the only recipient of the Road Transport Forum's largesse - they've been spending up large with the explicit goal of

getting one [MP] in each of the different parts of the country so that our members in that area can go and talk to them about issues that affect our industry.
The RTF calls this "assisting the democratic process". I call it corruption. They're specifically trying to buy influence over political decision making, and that is corrupt. And I suppose it was just a coincidence that their "assistance" happened to land in the laps of the two major parties' spokespeople on climate change, an area of policy of particular interest to them, right?

While we're on the topic of corruptly buying influence, its also not a good look for Chris Carter, who at the time was Minister of Education, to be accepting donations from the principal of a private college. When are our Ministers and MPs going to get it through their thick skulls that accepting money from people they will be regulating or making policy decisions about publicly compromises their integrity?

The other big news is that National is still up to its dirty trust tricks:

A mystery entity called Toorak Chambers also gave $3000 each to National MPs Simon Bridges, David Bennett, Todd McLay, and Lindsay Tisch.

When questioned, one of the recipients said it was linked to the National Party and referred the Herald to the party's headquarters.

However, phone calls to general manager Mike Oldershaw and president Judy Kirk were not returned.

National's response to the Electoral Finance Act, or any attempt to regulate political donations, is to claim that transparency is enough. Then, in practice, they evade and undermine that transparency, using corporate fronts to shield the identity of donors. These are the actions of a dishonest, hypocritical, dirty party with something to hide.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unite wins again!

I'd been planning to post about the Synovate lockout, but got increasingly distracted by Fiji. Now the lockout is over, and it seems the union won, getting everything they wanted (a pay rise of $1 an hour and 12 hours notice of shift changes). As for the multinational corporation trying to screw NZ workers, hopefully they've learned that they can't use those sorts of tactics in New Zealand. And if they try, people will go straight after their clients...

Help for the rich but not the poor

One of the few good moves in National's pre-election welfare policy was the decision to raise benefit abatement thresholds from $80 to $100/week. The move would have significantly improved the lot of those on benefits by enabling them to earn extra money through part-time work, and transition gradually into the workforce. It was also fundamentally fair - the threshold was set in 1996, and had not been changed since, leading to significant erosion over time.

I use the past tense in the above because National seems to have decided to shelve this plan. A cheap but effective move to help the poor in a time of economic recession is apparently no longer a priority for them. Instead, they'd rather spend the paltry amount it costs - a mere $17 million a year - on tax cuts for their rich mates instead.

(Oh, and also in the article, they're apparently "reviewing" MSD's Social Policy Journal, a key forum for the publication of debate and information about social policy in this country. I guess "social policy" really is a dirty word to National. Besides, closing it down means one less place to publish the inevitable reports into the harmful impacts of their policies. Expect them to shut down the annual Social Report as well. After all, who really needs annual statistics on key social indicators so we can track how well the government is doing...)

Climate change: the cost of abandoning biofuels

One of National's first acts on gaining the government benches was to abandon the previous government's Biofuels Sales Obligation, which would have seen oil companies required to sell an increasing percentage of biofuels as a way of pushing a change in transport infrastructure. The move cost jobs as existing biofuels producers shut their doors, but it also cost us in higher transport emissions. The release of the Net position report quantifies that loss: 1.1 million tons over CP1. At current carbon prices, that works out to be $27.6 million. With the government scraping for every penny, the decision looks more stupid by the day.

Climate change: the net position

The government has released its Net Position Report 2009: New Zealand’s projected balance of Kyoto Protocol units during the first commitment period, which shows a dramatic improvement in our situation. From a projected Kyoto deficit of 21.7 million tons, we're now looking at a surplus of 9.6 million tons. So how did this happen?

Two words: methodological changes. The entire change - all 30 million tons worth - is due to shifts in how we project and calculate agricultural and forestry emissions. Some of this - for example, better projections of animal numbers, predicting 400,000 fewer dairy cows in 2010 as a result of drought and lower dairy prices - is good, and adds significantly to the accuracy of the projections. But some of it is very dodgy indeed. Dodgiest of all is MAF's decision to halve a number called Fracgasm, to do with the amount of animal excrement that turns into nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas). This "eliminates" 3.8 million tons of emissions - but the change has not been approved by the IPCC, and my sources inform me that the international reviewers might have some problems with NZ simultaneously claiming lower numbers for leaching, denitrification and volatilisation, which taken together means the nitrogen in that waste goes... nowhere. Also on the dodgy pile is the claim for 0.3 million tons due to the use of a nitrification inhibitor, which is similarly not IPCC approved (though this is small potatoes compared to the previous change).

There have also been big changes in how we calculate forest sinks and deforestation. They're now assuming a much higher rate of carbon absorption from post-1990 forests, based on the assumption that their owners never thin them or trim their trees. They assume that a large part of expected deforestation is immature forest which releases less carbon. And they're claiming that the rate of ineligible planting is lower than previously expected (again, that will need to be recognised by the IPCC).

Meanwhile, projected energy, industrial and transport-sector emissions are largely unchanged - because you can't twiddle the maths on those.

There are real changes: those 400,000 fewer cows make a massive change to our emissions, and the ETS really does seem to have significantly reduced deforestation. But the overall picture is of mathematical manipulation and juking the stats. But while they can do this for an (internal, NZ-only) net position report, they are going to have a much harder time doing it for our external, internationally peer-reviewed annual inventory reports. Those reports have a two-year lag-time, so we'll get our first real look at whether National's projections are worth the paper they're written on in early 2011 - just in time for the next election.

Simply wrong

Apparently Chris Trotter has a sense of embarrassment. That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from his attempt to flush his recent column praising Fiji's military dictatorship down the memory hole. The problem for Trotter is that the internet - or rather, Google - never forgets. Once it's up, its up forever - which makes owning your words and admitting your mistakes not just good blogger ethics, but pretty much mandated by the technology.

As for the substance, there are a lot of things I could say in response, but I'll settle for one: simply wrong. Take this bit, for example:

Especially when the government overthrown by Commodore Frank Bainimarama was itself the product of a coup d'etat staged by para-military forces bought-and-paid-for by external commercial interests, and facilitated by a reactionary gaggle of self-serving hereditary chiefs and right-wing Methodist fundamentalists.
I think Lefthandpalm says it best: "Qarase [is a] corrupt, homophobic, fundamentalist jerk, but he was, none the less, duly elected. Twice." And that's what matters: not whether you meet Trotter's test of being sufficiently "progressive" (but only in the right way; being against child beating or pro Civil Unions apparently doesn't count) - but whether you are the choice of the people, as expressed in free, fair, and regular democratic elections. Qarase was, Bainimarama wasn't, end of story.

(And that's without even getting into Trotter's rather peculiar characterisation of Bainimarama and his clique as "progressive", because fundamentally I don't care. No matter what I think of either of them, the fact that one was elected and the other wasn't settles it. Qarase was Fiji's mistake to make...)

But Trotter's grasp of Fijian history isn't the only thing that's wrong here. Fundamentally, the problem is his entire political philosophy. Society doesn't "progress" by revolutionary cabals seizing power and ramming their "progressive" ideas down everybody's throat at gunpoint - it progresses by the slow and uncertain process of winning hearts and minds. Real change comes from below, not above. Good political leadership can help - leaders can change minds, and legislation can show that the world won't end if we e.g. treat gays like human beings. But force solves nothing. The failure of various military dictatorships to suppress the left in now solidly left-wing South America shows that. Like his South American predecessors, Bainimarama hasn't changed minds - at the best, he's got sullen acceptance and a desire he'll go away soon. Which means all his efforts are likely to be in vain...

Update: I somehow managed to leave off the planned hat-tip to Tumeke. So, consider it tipped.