Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Official Secrets Act for schools

Trevor Mallard has posted the text of his member's bill to amend the OIA to prevent the public from using it to compile school "league tables". The relevant section:

6A School level assessment information must not be publicly released.

(1) Despite any other provision of this Act, organisations including, but not limited to schools, the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office, must not publicly release school level assessment information.

(2) Nothing in subclause (1) prevents the release of information:
a. relating to an individual child to the parents or guardians of that child
b. the sharing of information between teachers and staff within a school environment
c. the sharing of information between schools, the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office.

("School level information" is defined elsewhere).

There are a number of problems with this. In addition to being "class-based" (that is, targeting information based on its content or type rather than the interests its release might prejudice), it also categorically forbids release. And that has never been part of our OIA regime. While the OIA allows information to be withheld if there are good reasons for doing so, it doesn't make it mandatory, and an organisation can always just release information if they feel like it. This amendment would forbid them from doing that. It effectively recreates the Official Secrets Act specifically for schools. The "justification" for this - that the public might "misunderstand" or "misuse" the information - is decidedly authoritarian.

This is a nasty regression from Labour, and one which undermines a fundamental part of our freedom of information regime. Fortunately, it doesn't have a hope in hell of passing. Unfortunately, given mallard's seniority in the caucus, it has a real chance of becoming policy in 2011 - and that would be a real step backwards.

"Boy racers": Submission I

Below is the draft of my submission on the Land Transport (Enforcement Powers) Amendment Bill, which I'll be emailing away before Friday. It has been informed by posts here and here.

  • I oppose the Land Transport (Enforcement Powers) Amendment Bill, and ask that it not be passed.
  • The primary purpose of the bill is to create a bylaw scheme targeting “cruising”, punishable by automatic seizure of the vehicle on a second offence. This scheme has numerous problems, undermines the rule of law, and is contrary to the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

    Definition of “cruising”

  • The bill defines “cruising” as:
    driving repeatedly over the same section of a road in a motor vehicle in a manner that—
    (a) draws attention to the power or sound of the engine of the motor vehicle being driven; or
    (b) creates a convoy that—
    (i) is formed otherwise than in trade; and
    (ii) impedes traffic flow
  • The definition is potentially applicable to protest action, such as the 2008 “big rig” protest against increased road-user charges, which shut down the centre of several cities with organized convoys of large trucks. It thus potentially violates the freedom of expression affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
  • Recommendation: the definition of “cruising” should be amended to explicitly exclude political protests.

    Bylaw regime

  • New sections 22AB – 22AE would allow local authorities to enact bylaws banning “cruising’. New section 22AF provides that any vehicle breaching such a bylaw be issued with a warning notice for 90 days. Section 16 amends the Land Transport Act to require that any vehicle with a warning notice contravening such a bylaw must, if practicable, be impounded. This scheme has numerous problems and violates the Bill of Rights Act 1990 in numerous ways.
  • The bylaw regime prima facie violates the freedoms of assembly, association, and movement affirmed in the BORA. Simply put, if someone wants to waste petrol by driving round and round a particular piece of road, they should be allowed to. If they are not driving unsafely (as tested by whether they are obeying speed limits and other relevant traffic regulations), then there is no harm to anyone but themselves, and no justification for state intervention. If they are joined by friends, then again provided it is done safely, there is no harm, and no justification for intervention. As John Stuart Mill noted, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”. There is no such case here.
  • A case can be made for limiting vehicle noise, as this may do harm to others when it is excessive. But that is not the primary purpose of this bill.
  • The punishment is grossly disproportionate. The proposed punishment for this “offence” of driving round and round in circles is (on the second offence) mandatory impoundment of the vehicle for 28 days. This is a significant punishment, which imposes significant costs. By way of comparison, a penalty of mandatory impoundment is only applied at present to disqualified drivers and drunk drivers who are grossly over the limit and already have multiple convictions for drunk driving. Here, it is being imposed for driving which is not unsafe, but which can at best be described as “annoying”. Such disproportionately breaks down the proportionality of offences and encourages (no, incites) disrespect for the law.
  • It may be argued that impoundment is not a punishment. This is simply ridiculous. It is performed by agents of the state, using the coercive power of the state. It is inflicted explicitly for violation of a bylaw. Unlike the existing reasons for impoundment, it serves no safety purpose – driving round and round in circles within the road rules is not any sort of risk to safety. It is explicitly intended as a deterrent. These are all the hallmarks of a punishment, and it will be understood as such by those it is inflicted upon.
  • The punishment is imposed without trial. Impoundment is performed by a police constable at the roadside. There is no hearing, and no need for evidence beyond their “reasonable belief” that a law has been violated. While this may be acceptable for a speeding ticket, it is entirely inappropriate to impose such a significant penalty as vehicle impoundment without proper judicial oversight.
  • Recommendation: this section of the law should not be passed.

    Information requirements

  • Section 24 would amend existing provisions of the Land Transport Act 1998 requiring drivers to provide identifying details (name, address and date of birth) to include occupation and telephone number. This seems totally unnecessary, and simply an information grab on the part of police. It prima facie violates the freedom of expression (which includes the freedom to say nothing), and so must be justified. No such justification is provided, and no evidence is submitted that there is a problem with identifying drivers which would be solved by requiring them to submit further information. The police do argue that there is a problem with drivers providing false details, but it is difficult to see how requiring further details which can be easily falsified will solve this.
  • There are significant concerns in a democratic society around any compulsion to reveal information or prove your identity to police. “Papers, please” is widely taken as the hallmark of totalitarianism. Requirements to prove identity establish a power relationship with police and the state in which citizens are forced to be subservient – the exact opposite to what should prevail in a democracy. Such requirements should therefore be kept to an absolute minimum, and ask only for information that is strictly required to meet an important public purpose. A policeman by the side of the road may need to know my name (and address, and date of birth, as names are not exclusive) in order to verify that I do have a driver’s license and am not currently the subject of an arrest warrant – but they do not need to know what I do for a living, or what my phone number is. And they certainly should not be able to imprison people for refusing to reveal what is fundamentally private information.
  • Recommendation: this section should be removed.
  • I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.

Who doesn't care?

Last week, the opposition took the government to task for its appointment of Christine Rankin as Families Commissioner. The government responded by accusing them of not caring child abuse. Today, the government announced another slash and burn exercise at the Ministry of Social Development, with two hundred job losses - including a specialist CYFS team devoted to child abuse education.

So, who is it who doesn't care about child abuse again...?

Celebrating withdrawal

Today is a red-letter day in Iraq. US soldiers have withdrawn from Iraqi cities, retreating to base pending their ultimate departure over the next two years. And Iraqis, funnily enough, are celebrating:

Iraqis have held a giant party in a Baghdad park as US troops approach their deadline for withdrawing from cities and towns to their bases.

Thousands flocked to the capital's Zawra Park to be entertained by musicians and poets, as police patrol cars were festooned with flowers.

US-led combat operations in Iraq are due to end by September 2010, with all troops gone by the end of 2011.

Iraq has declared Tuesday National Sovereignty Day, a public holiday.

No more foreign thugs on their streets, no more casual murders by US troops in the name of "force protection", no more invaders kicking in people's doors in the middle of the night, smashing up their houses, and dragging them off to Abu Ghraib to be tortured. That's certainly worth celebrating. And it'll be an even bigger party when they finally go home for good.

No action from National on depleted uranium

Depleted uranium is a very dense, toxic, and weakly radioactive metal. While perfectly fine if left in large lumps, certain countries such as the US make weapons and armour out of it. When used, the uranium is aerosolised, causing contamination over a wide area. This contamination has been linked to birth defects and health problems.

As a result, in 2007 the Belgian Parliament banned the manufacture, use, storage, sale, acquisition, supply and transit of Depleted Uranium weapons and armour. Some people here thought that was a good idea, and so they petitioned our Parliament asking for it to institute a similar ban here. Unfortunately, it looks like they will be disappointed. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has just reported back on the petition, and has not recommended a ban. Instead, they recommend further monitoring of research on the effects of DU, and the presentation of a report to the UN General Assembly as part of that body's gradual moves towards an international convention banning DU. In other words, do nothing. Which is what you'd expect from a National government on a disarmament issue.

But there is hope: both Labour and the Green Party presented a minority report favouring a ban. As with their recent comments on sow crates, this is an issue where they should put their money where their mouth is. There's a bill on ProgBills here. Someone from the Labour caucus should adopt it.

Reminder: protest for pay equity today


Just a reminder that the Pay Equity Challenge protest kicks off outside Parliament at 12:30 today. If you are in Wellington and want to show your support for equal pay, please head along.

The aim of the protest is to get the government to step up to the plate and explain how it intends to close the 12 - 15% gap in women's hourly wages. From its shutdown of pay equity programmes and the comments of the Finance Minister, the government does not regard it as a priority. A strong showing today - and the implied threat of de-election in 2011 - will help make it a priority for them and secure action.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"An absolutely legal transition process"

That is how the new President of Honduras is describing how he came to power. I have to ask, though: in what democracy in the world do armed soldiers seize the sitting President or Prime Minister and forcibly exile them to another country as part of a "legal transition process"?

The answer, of course, is "none".

Mallard vs the OIA

Earlier in the year, National moved to introduce standardised testing in primary schools "to improve standards". But they've run into a problem: teachers, principals and schools are refusing to cooperate with the new regime because the information will inevitably be used to construct school "league tables", if not by the government then by the public using the Official Information Act. Now Labour's education spokesperson, Trevor Mallard, is proposing a solution: a "minor tweak" to the OIA, preventing the release of school-level data. This would undoubtedly solve the problem and give the schools the secrecy they desire. But in the process it would do immense damage to our freedom of information regime.

Why? Firstly, because the purpose of members of the public in requesting information, and the use they will put it to, has never been a legitimate part of the consideration of OIA requests. Secondly, because it would be a remarkable shift in the regime from considering the interests which might be prejudiced by releasing information (e.g. privacy, justice, national security) to exempting specific classes of information entirely. And of course it would set a terrible precedent for a bunch of bureaucrats to get secrecy (and hence unaccountability) just because they whined for it. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of league tables (and I agree that what they primarily show is the socioeconomic status of the intake), this "cure" is worse than the disease. For very good reasons, to do with democratic participation and holding officials to account, we have enacted a law whose basic principle is that

information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it
The fact that information might be "misused" (in the eyes of those seeking unaccountability), misinterpreted, or misunderstood has never been a good reason for denying access under the law. And if the government or anyone else is concerned about those possibilities, then the correct response is for them to stand up and explain properly, not hide behind secrecy. More information, not less.

Reminder: Drinking Liberally in Christchurch tonight

Drinking Liberally is on in Christchurch tonight, with guest speakers Charles Chauvel (Labour) and Kennedy Graham (Greens) speaking on climate change.

When: 18:00, Monday, 29 June
Where: Goodbye Blue Monday, Poplar street, Christchurch

Private prisons are worse prisons

Currently, National is planning on privatising most of the prison system. Its justification for this is that it will supposedly lead to better management, fewer escapes and assaults, and a lower rate of recidivism. But does it actually work? Not in the UK, it doesn't:

Britain's private prisons are performing worse than those run by the state, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The findings, based on the overall performances of 132 prisons in England and Wales, appear to undermine claims by ministers that the greater use of private jails is raising standards for the accommodation of more than 83,000 prisoners held across both sectors.

Separate figures, also released under the right-to-know law, show that nearly twice as many prisoner complaints are upheld in private prisons as they are in state-run institutions.


[The Ministry of Justice's Prison Performance Assessment Tool] ranks the prisons out of four gradings using a wide range of measurements, including escapes, assaults and rehabilitation. In the second quarter of last year, the average overall score for prisons in the private sector was 2.7. For the 123 public sector prisons the average was 2.83.

In the following quarter this gap had widened to 2.6 and 2.85. This is a difference of almost 10 per cent. No private prison attained the top mark of 4, defined as "exceptional performance."

The evidence is clear: private prisons are worse prisons. But they make private prison companies such as the GEO Group and G4S a large amount of money. And that's the primary purpose of the exercise: looting the state for the benefit of their foreign friends.

Unfortunately, given the government's effective contracting out of the OIA in its private prison legislation, we will have great difficulty uncovering such evidence of non-performance here. Unlike the public prisons they will be "competing" with, the private prisons will not be subject to the OIA, while Corrections, which will presumably gather such data as part of its performance management, will be able to hide behind "commercial sensitivity" to keep it secret. The upshot is that we will have private prisons with no independent means of monitoring them. And that is simply not good enough.

Honduras coup II

More developments from Honduras: President Manuel Zelaya has been exiled to Costa Rica, not Venezuela as reported last night. Following the coup, the Supreme Court announced that they had ordered it:

"Today's events originate from a court order by a competent judge. The armed forces, in charge of supporting the constitution, acted to defend the state of law and have been forced to apply legal dispositions against those who have expressed themselves publicly and acted against the dispositions of the basic law," the country's highest court said.
The Honduran Congress has since voted to accept a "resignation letter" of dubious provenance, then voted to oust Zelaya anyway and installed its Speaker, Roberto Micheletti, as President (he's next in line anyway, the Vice-President apparently being just someone who gets a fancy title). All of which begs the question: why didn't they do this before kidnapping the President in his pyjamas and forcing him onto a plane? Why did they do that at all, rather than simply lawfully and constitutionally removing the President from office? Again, the military's efforts to "defend" the constitution and rule of law have instead undermined them.

Reported back

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Bill . The bill would establish a system of "police orders" (now "police safety orders") allowing the police to respond to alleged domestic violence by kicking people out of their homes for up to five days with no evidence, no hearing, and no right of appeal - effectively a parallel system of summary justice handed out by police with no judicial oversight. The Law Commission thought that this was over the top, and I echoed those concerns in my submission in the hope of shortening the duration of the order or getting some judicial oversight. Instead, the select committee has made the bill worse, significantly lowering the (already pathetically low) threshold for imposing an order:

We recommend removing the condition that an order can be issued only if it is necessary to safeguard the “immediate” safety of a person. This would ensure that the decision whether to issue the order took into consideration the safety of that person over the next few hours or days, and not just at the time that the police were called to the domestic violence incident.

New section 124B(2) sets out the matters to which the constable must have regard when considering whether to issue an order; one is whether there is a serious likelihood that domestic violence might be used. Because of its imprecision, we recommend that “serious” be deleted.

If this goes through, we will have a situation where the police can effectively sentence someone to internal exile for five days, making it a criminal offence for them to enter their own home, based on a constable's reasonable belief that it is necessary to ensure the safety of their partner, and a "likelihood" that they will use domestic violence. With no right of appeal.

This is not how justice is supposed to work in a free and democratic society under the rule of law. Instead, it smacks of Mega City One - authoritarian, instant, arbitrary. Giving such power to our police is a recipe for abuse. And given the lack of oversight, there will be no effective remedy for it.

A coup in Honduras?

BBC reports that the Honduran military have arrested the country's President. While no-one has announced anything, a coup may be underway.

There is some interesting background to this: the Honduran constitution specifies a one-term limit on the Presidency, which the incumbent, Manuel Zelaya, wants to repeal. He's been pushing for a referendum on the matter to coincide with this year's presidential election, and was planning to hold a pre-referendum on the issue this weekend. The sticking point: changes to the term limit are themselves banned by the constitution. As a result, the Attorney-General, Congress (dominated by Zelaya's own party) and most importantly the Supreme Court have all declared the poll illegal. The military, who apparently help to run elections in Honduras, have consequently refused to do so. Zelaya has responded by sacking the head of the armed forces and leading his own supporters to a military base to seize the ballots and ballot boxes so they can run the referendum themselves.

So, at first glance the military's actions seem to be aimed at enforcing the rule of law against a President who is flagrantly violating an order from the Supreme Court. Except that that is not the role of the military in a democratic state - it's the role of the police. By doing things this way they are undermining the very constitutional order they seem to be trying to protect (and a constitutional order which looked to be protecting itself anyway - the Honduran Congress had already begun moving towards impeachment).

Reports about what is going on are still confused - according to the Guardian Zelaya has been put on a plane to Venezuela - but one thing is clear: this is not the way to "defend" democracy. Instead, the Honduran military have undermined it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

This takes the cake

Chandrasiri Bandara is a Sri Lankan astrologer. Last week he was arrested by the police and questioned for three days. He is currently in the custody of the country's Criminal Investigation Department. His "crime"? Using astrology to predict the downfall of the government. Yes, really:

Police told the AP news agency that Mr Bandara told an opposition meeting that the prime minister would take over as president on 9 September and the opposition leader would become prime minister.


The astrologer predicted that a planetary change on 8 October will be inauspicious for parliament and the government may not be able to contain rising living costs - a forecast which correspondents say has already been made by private economists.

It would be absurd, if someone wasn't in jail for it. But apparently Sri Lanka is so superstitious that they take such "predictions" seriously. In which case you wonder what benefit they see in arresting the predictor...

Back in the Middle Ages, it was treason to cast the monarch's horoscope, as this supposedly gave knowledge of their death. It seems that Sri Lanka is still stuck there.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

New Fisk

The jury is out on the Iranian model of religion and politics

Friday, June 26, 2009

The case for divorce

A constant meme among conservatives the world over is the idea that problems in society should be fixed by "fixing" families and reducing divorce. If we ignore the gross illiberality of this argument for a minute - people's social relationships are their own business, not the state's - there's is a sliver of an empirical case for it: children of divorced parents do badly in all sorts of social measures. So, the thinking goes, their lot will be improved by stopping their parents from splitting up in the first place, using either bribes (for soft authoritarians) or by making divorce much harder or even impossible (for the radical Christian right).

Now that sliver has gone. Why? Because there's one group which does consistently worse than children of divorced parents on all social measures: children of parents who stay together "for the sake of the kids":

If you are raised by arguing parents who stayed together only for you, then you are 33 per cent more likely to become a binge-drinking teen than if you have a single parent, for example. Having parents locked in live-in combat damages children more than having separated parents, or just one single parent – and the damage lasts well into adulthood. The offspring are more likely to have bad marriages themselves, and more likely to have children at a very young age.

It makes sense. Would Jimmy rather have a happy mum and dad who live apart, or depressed, stressed, angry parents sharing a bed?

In other words, the conservatives' preferred solution would actively make things worse. Now there's a surprise.

Smart meters

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Commisisoner for the Environment released a major report on smart meters [PDF]. The report was highly critical of electricity retailers for installing "dumb meters", which enabled them to impose time-of-use charging, while not giving any information or control to customers. According to the PCE, proper smart meters, which interfaced with smart appliances to enable automated demand-response to pricing would lead to more efficient electricity usage and lower costs to consumers.

Which is true to some extent - we all benefit by e.g. shifting non-immediate loads like a dishwaser or dryer to the middle of the night when demand is low. But the primary means by which this efficiency is expected to occur is through price signals - that is, by exposing residential customers directly to the spot market. And that means being gouged for up to $500 / MWh at peak times such as breakfast and dinnertime - exactly when you want to be using electricity. The theory is that people will respond to higher prices by shifting their demand to when it is cheaper - by, for example, having dinner at 4am, or heating the house during the day when no-one is home. The sheer insanity of this is yet another example of economics' complete disconnection from reality.

Despite the delusions of economists, residential demand isn't that flexible. Exposure to the spot market will mean that people don't use electricity, but they'll do it by not doing things they probably ought to - like eating, showering and keeping their homes warm (remember, failure to do the latter kills people, and the incentive to not do it will be highest precisely when it is most needed: the depths of winter. So we'll pay for "more efficient" electricity usage in sickness and healthcare costs instead). Mercury Energy recently ran a large trial of residential time-of-use metering in Auckland; they found that people responded to high prices not just by reducing demand at peak times, but reducing demand overall. In a country which already has a serious problem with cold homes, that's probably not something we want to happen - especially in the South Island.

This doesn't mean I don't want smart meters - I have occasional geeky thoughts about managing my home's electricity network over something like SNMP to turn various things on and off at set times or establish default usage profiles (for example, "going on holiday") (these are then usually followed by geeky nightmares about the prospect of someone hacking said network and turning my computer off - or of the thing running on Windows). But the key "benefit" of the technology - time-of-use pricing - is not really a benefit at all to residential users. Instead, its just another way for electricity companies to gouge us for more money, and another way of exposing yourself to financial disaster (just think what would happen to your power bills in a dry year. And yet, you still can't cook your dinners at 4am, because of the rigid patterns imposed by the workplace). While it might result in lower costs in ordinary times, it is at the price of massively reduced security (hmm... where have we seen that before?) And that equation just doesn't work out for the vast majority of people (though a few greedy stupid ones might disagree, until they get whacked with a dry year).

And all that said, I still support the PCE's conclusion: if electricity retailers are going to be installing smart meters, the government must regulate to ensure they can work for customers as well as retailers. But it needs to do more than that. In particular, it needs to ensure that time of use charging is not mandatory, and that there are always competitive flat-rates available for residential users. It may be more expensive, but it beats going bankrupt every winter.

"Confidential advice"

Yesterday the government released Cabinet papers and advice relating to Budget 2009. The release has already resulted in some flak for the government, but browsing through it, there is a systematic pattern: just when things are beginning to get juicy, it is deleted:

in order to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by ministers and officials
A good example of this is Treasury's report on Vote: Tourism [PDF], which deletes information relating to "ideas arising from the job summit" - which means the cycleway. Given how shoddily Ministry of Tourism handled that project, I would love to see what Treasury thought of it. But Treasury clearly thinks I should not be allowed to.

So how good is their reason? While a public release is not an OIA request, they are clearly using the same grounds for deletion, both out of habit and anticipation of future requests. If it was an OIA request, the clause relied upon would be s9(2)(f)(iv). Here's what the Ombudsmen's Practice Guidelines [PDF] have to say about that clause:

In general terms, this section is often relevant where there is concern that release will prejudice the ability of decision-makers to consider advice. It will often arise where a decision-maker has an expectation that advice which has been tendered for consideration will remain confidential for a certain period of time.
(Their emphasis)

And of course it must be weighed against the public interest in release [PDF] (which, in the case of the Ministry of Tourism, is particularly high given their shoddy handling in the past)

If this document had been requested before the Budget, this reason would hold water. But now the Budget given, the decision has been made, and (most importantly) the advice considered. In other words, their "justification" for withholding information isn't. They may be able to hide it on other grounds ("free and frank advice" is a perennial favourite, senior policy advisors apparently being the sorts of people whose policy mojo will wilt forever if exposed to the light of day), but not on this one.

Unfortunately, a public release of information is not an OIA decision, and can't be appealed to the Ombudsmen. If we want this information without deletions, we have to OIA it, then (if necessary) appeal any deletions. I'm starting that process today, and other interested parties might want to do likewise.

More collusion

A year ago, we learned that the UK had actively colluded in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, forwarding questions to the Pakistani, Moroccan and American interrogators who systematically and repeatedly tortured him, while turning a blind eye to the abuse. But it turns out he wasn't the only one. Now a second UK man has come forward, alleging that he was detained and tortured in Bangladesh at the request of British intelligence after the London bombings:

The former civil servant from south Wales said he emigrated to Bangladesh in 2005 to marry and was arrested by the Bangladeshi Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) in December of that year.

He claimed two MI5 officers ordered his arrest, and that when he was subsequently subjected to mental and physical abuse they were aware of his treatment. He said he was taken to an interrogation centre where he was assaulted by Bangladeshi officers.

"They stripped me naked and said that if I didn't say what they wanted me to say, they would rape me and my wife and burn her and other family members," he told the BBC. "They told me to say I was al-Qaida and the organiser of the 7/7 bombings."

He claimed an intelligence officer told him they "were only doing this for the British". Rahman said he was initially held for three weeks but after being released his mistreatment continued at sporadic interviews for two years.

He's now suing the Home Office for this maltreatment. He shouldn't be suing them - he should be prosecuting them for conspiracy to torture.

And it gets worse. We'd thought this policy of collusion in torture was a recent phenomena, a product of Bush and Blair's "war on terror". But it seems its been going on for a long time:

A parliamentary inquiry into allegations of British collusion in torture is set to investigate whether counter-terrorism chiefs ordered the repeated torture and rendition of a former British resident.

Speaking for the first time about his ordeal, Farid Hilali told the Guardian that during his detention in the United Arab Emirates a British secret service agent turned up at the prison where he was being abused and interrogated him, knowing that he had been tortured.

Hilali says he was then rendered to Morocco, where he was tortured for a further 22 days.

Hilali says that throughout this he was questioned extensively about alleged extremists living in the UK, and about surveillance photographs that had been taken in London. He says he believes his torturers were supplied the pictures by Britain.

Hilali's detention took place in 1999, and if the allegations prove true it would make him the first known victim of Britain's alleged complicity in torture, indicating that the practice started before the 9/11 attacks that led to George Bush declaring a "war on terror".

Something is clearly rotten in the UK security services, and has been for some time. The unaccountable spies - the UK's own "deep state" - seem to feel they are above the law and can ignore the clear policies of their government. It is long past time Parliament brought them to heel.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The cycleway joke continues

The government's plan for a "national cycleway" is coming under scrutiny at select committee. And unfortunately, they're again turning up a gaping informational void:

“Associate Tourism Minister Jonathan Coleman today confirmed that there is no information available regarding the Prime Minister’s cycleway.

“After 20 minutes of questioning at a select committee today, Mr Coleman confirmed that so far no jobs have been created, no great rides have been selected and that no criterion for the selection of great rides is available.

“He also confirmed that no thought had been given to funding any promotion of the cycleway once it was finally established, that there was no money for any ongoing maintenance and that the Government may be required to put in further funds down the track.

Remember, the government is spending $50 million of your money on this monument to John Key's ego - money it could be using for better things like health care and education - but it seems to have no plan beyond getting the initial headlines. It hasn't done any cost-benefit analysis (something which should be the starting point for any significant funding decision), and now it seems to have abandoned its own timetable for beginning the project. Either that, or the Prime Minister is going to pull the initial selection of "great rides" out of his arse, like he has the rest of the policy.

Guest column: Anti-smacking FAQs

By Conrad Reyners

"The law is confusing, it doesn’t define what a smack is or isn’t – parents don’t know what to think, we should just repeal it."

The law is very clear. Section 59(2) clearly states that it is illegal to smack your child for the purpose of correction. The law does let you grab your child to stop them from harming themselves, others, engaging in a criminal offence, or engaging and continuing to engage in disruptive behaivour. This means that parents can still be parents; they can still ensure that their child is behaving and isn’t a danger. But they cannot use force to punish a child after the fact. They can’t try and correct a child’s poor behavior by beating it out of them.

"The law isn’t working – good families are going to become the targets of police investigations and some already have been!"

Again, the law is very clear. Section 59(4) clearly states that the police have discretion to prosecute, and they will only prosecute when there is a clear public interest in doing so. But let’s look at the evidence that family first will try and raise: when Larry Baldock was asked by Sean Plunket on Radio NZ National of a case where he thought someone had been unjustly prosecuted – Baldock could only provide an example of where a grandfather had pushed a child out of a chair. Add that to the father who punched his child in the face, and the father who pushed his son over repeatedly at a rugby game – and you start to see that the NO vote really doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

"The numbers show that parents are getting a raw deal"

Don’t be fooled by their spin of the numbers. Using their own evidence found on their website, we can show that after a rise (indicative of extra police attention and reporting) total incidents of smacking, minor violence and child abuse have gone down, and are continuing to go down, since the passing of Bradford’s bill. Furthermore, the accompanying Police Press release (that Family First doesn’t mention) states "Activity remains "business as usual" for Police and confirms Officers are continuing to use a common sense approach to child assault events." It is true that there has been an increase in police investigations for Child Abuse – but surely this is a good thing? Especially given the No vote’s focus on attacking child abuse at its core, if anything they should be praising this statistic.

"Smacking is not assault, therefore its ok for parents to smack their children for the purposes of correction."

Wrong. Smacking is assault. It’s the physical and intentional application of violence towards another human being. A vulnerable, trusting and defenceless human being. The law is also very clear on what assault means. Section 2 of the Crimes act defines assault as follows:

assault means the act of intentionally applying or attempting to apply force to the person of another, directly or indirectly, or threatening by any act or gesture to apply such force to the person of another, if the person making the threat has, or causes the other to believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose; and to assault has a corresponding meaning.
A smack quite clearly fits into this definition. If that doesn’t work – then pose the question; is smacking my wife assault? Is smacking a stranger assault? Is smacking my pet animal abuse? These questions nicely illustrate the absurdity of this Family First argument.

Lastly, Family First may argue that smacking is only light and transitory and is not meant to bruise – and therefore, it’s ok. But this again is a fallacious argument. The whole reason for smacking is that it is an infliction of pain, and the threat of further infliction acts as a deterrent. Smacking is designed to be violent, forceful and coercive; because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t “work”.

"I got smacked, and I turned out fine – why should I not be able to smack my kids?" (Also known as the “I’m a good parent” argument).

There are two reasons why this argument is terrible. Firstly, societies change. One hundred years ago women were the property of their husbands, and until 1985 it was also legal for a husband to rape his wife. Just because something was once legal doesn’t mean its right.

Secondly, as a society, we want to protect children, and the prevailing academic wisdom is that in the long term children respond best to non physical correction. Hitting your kids because they won’t do what you say is archaic, outdated and brutal. Civilized society has moved on.

Lastly, just because you may have not been adversely affected by smacking doesn’t mean that everyone wasn’t. Just because you think you are a good parent, doesn’t mean that all parents adhere to the same high standards that you assume you live by. Some children live in fear of their parents – for whom a smack is a daily occurrence. Anyone who was smacked as a child will have felt the threat, fear and coercion of physical punishment. Knowing that someone who is supposed to protect you, but is larger than you, and more physically powerful than you – is about to physically “correct” your behaivour creates an unforgettable relationship of fear and distrust, regardless of how much “love” they profess to have for their children.

Parenting through fear is not good parenting.

"We want to tackle the root causes of child abuse; this law is a massive diversion."

For starters this position is hypocritical. Smacking a child is assault. It is child abuse by definition. So supporting this law is a damn good way of tackling child abuse. Trying to point out that child abuse is abhorrent but smacking is not is misleading and morally dishonest. It assumes that the person’s definition of what smacking is, is the only definition. But we can quite clearly show (and the case law supports us) that people under the old law, did not hold the same views as to what smacking was. For some people it was the application of force with a horse whip – others defined it as a few clouts with a vacuum cleaner pipe. If Family First really did want to help stop child abuse – then they would be supportive of increasing the tool kit that the police wish to utilize when they suspect child abuse. As we’ve already shown, this law does not stop good parents from being good parents. With that the case, surely people would want to support this law. Lastly, there is no reason why the root causes of child abuse can’t be steadfastly tackled with this law in place anyway. It seems unbelievably contradictory for someone to argue, I want to stop child abuse, but first you have to let me hit my kids.

"The law hasn’t stopped child abuse"

Well for starters, it was never claimed that the law would stop all child abuse straight away. The laws forbidding murder, rape and robbery haven’t stopped those crimes from occurring, but they sure have helped reduce the number of offences that occur. What this law does do, is it tries to protect children who were at risk of being abused, or who were being abused outright. Family First is correct to say that this law could probably not have saved the life of Nia Glassie – but this law can damn sure put in place a system whereby we can try to never let a situation like Nia’s happen again. Furthermore, it sends a clear message to families that violence is never a way of solving problems, dealing with stress or coping with family breakdown. Family First on their own website admit that domestic abuse and family breakdown are major causes of child abuse. However they fail to make the connection between children who are smacked – and then grow up to smack. Banning smacking for the purpose of correction helps to drive a wedge into the vicious cycle of domestic violence that is endemic in our country – and affects us all, not just our children.

So, by looking at the arguments above, and by looking at the responses below each one – we can quite clearly see that Family First, The Sensible Sentencing Trust and other ultra-right wing groups are trying to pull the wool over our eyes once again. There’s nothing new here, just violent, conservative individuals who don’t represent New Zealand, and who don’t represent the hundreds of thousands of decent, loving, and non-violent parents that New Zealand desperately needs more of. Please, VOTE YES in the coming referendum.

Election funding: reminder

Submissions on the government's election funding issues paper [PDF] are due in tomorrow. I'm five pages into mine (and I'm only halfway), but you don't need to go overboard. A simple note highlighting the key points is probably sufficient. If you need ideas on what to say, The Standard have a few here.

Submissions can be emailed to electoralfinancereform@justice.govt.nz.

Transmisison Gully not worth the money

Today in Question Time (link to come) Transport Minister Steven Joyce confirmed that the benefit-cost ratio of the proposed Transmisison Gully motorway was "less than one". In other words, even including their strapped chicken "benefits" from reduced travelling time (which assume that the time saved is spent working rather than sleeping in in the morning), the benefits are less than the cost of construction. Sue Kedgely's question, which prompted this revelation, suggested that the benefit-cost ratio was on the order of 0.3 to 0.5 - meaning that the motorway would cost two to three times as much as the benefits it would produce. In short, this motorway is a lemon and a billion dollar waste of money. And yet, the government still seems committed to building it.

Opportunity lost

With the country in the grips of recession, the government has an opportunity: it could use the fact that people will be out of work to push for a significant upskilling of the workforce, funding industry training and education so that when economic conditions improve, people will be able to take advantage of it and productivity will be higher.

Is it doing this? Hell no. At a time when education and training are vital and people actually have the time to do it, they are forcing polytechs to turn people away. Their alternative? flipping burgers - a minimum wage job with no skill, no training, and no potential for improvement. McJobs today, a McEconomy tomorrow...

Dirty air, dirty water

Earlier in the month, we learned that the government was "reviewing" air quality standards, with the aim of weakening them to allow more air pollution. Now they've followed up by attacking drinking water standards, delaying the date by which local authorities must provide clean drinking water to their citizens by up to three years.

This is a basic health issue. Small rural communities in particular frequently have unsafe water supplies, while even some large cities have problems in some areas (ESR has a drill down map here so you can check; the data is 2006/07). The previous government was working towards fixing that by imposing new standards and putting up $137 million to help communities meet them, but the current government has just thrown it into the "too hard basket". The real motive here seems to be avoiding rate rises in rural communities - but what farmers save in rates, people will pay for in illness. It is a remarkably short-sighted policy.

One country at a time...

Togo's Parliament has votd unanimously to abolish the death penalty. They hadn't executed anyone in over thirty years, but it is still good to see them take that final step.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Be afraid. Be very afraid

The government hasn't even finished turning Auckland into a rich-boy's oligarchy, and Peter Dunne is already arguing that it should do the same to Wellington:

UnitedFuture leader and Ohariu MP, Peter Dunne, says the establishment of an Auckland supercity makes it inevitable and necessary that Wellington would go down a similar path.


Mr Dunne proposed a Wellington supercity extending as far north as Waikanae, but excluding Wairarapa, with one elected council and mayor, supported by a network of community boards, to replace the Wellington, Hutt, Upper Hutt, Porirua, and Kapiti councils, and the Greater Wellington Regional Council.

“We cannot afford to delay unduly on this, and ought to be starting now to develop a comprehensive regional plan, ideally capable of being implemented for next year’s local body elections,” he said.

Such centralisation of power inevitably means silencing a local voice. The result will be a more remote and unaccountable "local" government. And that is not something we need, in Wellington or in Auckland.

Sounds like Wellingtonians who want to keep control of their local council need to de-elect Dunne at the first opportunity.

Another reason to vote "yes" next month

Girl 'strung up' for refusing bath:

A Waimate man "strung up and suspended" an 11-year-old child by her hands because she wouldn't have a bath when told to, the Timaru District Court was told.

Christopher William Hunt, 48, appeared before Judge Crosbie yesterday on a charge of ill-treating a child.

The offence occurred in January this year.

The court was told that the victim, who was not Hunt's child, had been spreading pig manure over paddocks throughout the day so Hunt told her to have a bath.

When she refused, Hunt grabbed her by the arm, tied a rope around her hands and pulled her arms up above her head so that she was virtually suspended above the decking.

Another child pleaded for the victim to be let down but Hunt ignored them.

The incident continued for at least a minute. After the incident the victim phoned her mother but was too distressed to talk, so the other child repeated what had happened.

This is the behaviour (along with repeatedly shoving over seven-year-olds) the child-beaters are implicitly defending. Two years ago, this bully would have been able to claim a defence of "reasonable force" for the purposes of correction, as the law applied not just to parents, but to "every person in the place of a parent of the child". And as a result, he might never have faced charges. Removing the defence allows abuse like this (and this, and this) to be properly prosecuted. And that is a Good Thing.

Judith Collins thinks Labour were too tough on crime

The past decade has seen a political auction on law and order, with the major political parties competing to pander to an increasingly vicious and bloodthirsty revenge lobby. This has seen sentences rise, bail reduced, and the human rights of prisoners attacked, all so parties could gain the valued moniker of "tough on crime". But those policies have a cost: soaring rates of incarceration means more prisons means more money wasted which could be spent on better things.

Yesterday in the House Corrections Minister Judith Collins was quizzed on this. Her response was startling:

Hon David Parker: Does the Minister take pride or shame in the fact that New Zealand has the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the developed world after the USA, and how will keeping prisoners in containers reduce reoffending rates?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS: Actually, it is a national disgrace for this country to have the second highest rate of incarceration after the United States. I have to say that it is a bit rich for that member to ever try to say anything about it, because when his party took power there were 5,000 prisoners in our prisons and now there are 8,500. That is the legacy that Phil Goff left us with.

You get that? During its time in office, Labour was too tough on crime. And all that screaming and howling from National and Collins that no matter what the government was doing it was not vicious or punitive enough, did not stick people in jail for long enough, allowed them to be released "too early", and was generally "too soft"? It apparently never happened. Meanwhile, at the same time the government is still trying to lay claim to the "tough on crime" mantle by revoking bail and instituting a draconian "three strikes" regime. But this of course has nothing to do with the staggering rise in projected incarceration rates.

The dishonesty is appalling (so are the contortions required to claim that you are tougher on crime than people you claim were too tough on crime). National had a "tough on crime" policy in opposition, and that policy has continued in government. It should own up to that.

But I forget: National doesn't have policies anymore - it has spin. And if dodging one question in the House means repudiating a decade of consistent policy, then that is what happens. After all, they can always de-repudiate it tomorrow - its not as if the goldfish in the gallery will notice.

A suggestion

The opposition has spent a lot of effort in Question Time over the last week trying to excavate John Key's reason for sacking Richard Worth, and been frustrated by the ability of Ministers to refuse to answer if it is not in the public interest. While I favour transparency, even I must admit that there are times when a Minister should not answer - for example, where a question concerns a court case - but at the same time, there is an unavoidable suspicion in this case that the Prime Minister is abusing this power and refusing to answer in order to protect not the public interest, but his private interest in not being politically embarrassed. He is aided in this by the (absolutely correct, IMHO) ruling from the Speaker that the question of whether an answer would be in the public interest is a question for the Minister and the Minister alone to decide.

As I have noted before, there is an oddity in that thanks to the OIA, random members of the public seem to be more entitled to a straight answer out of a Minister than an MP who asks it in Parliament - and when a Minister attempts to withhold information from us (but not MPs in the House), they must give reasons (which can then be assessed and if necessary investigated by the Ombudsmen). Which suggests an obvious amendment to Standing orders: echoing the OIA in requiring Ministers to give a reason for their refusal.

This would be relatively easy to do: simply amend SO 377 (which governs contents of replies) to insert a new section:

(1A) If an answer cannot be given as it would be inconsistent with the public interest, the Minister must say why.
If this was in force, then John Key would still be able to refuse to answer questions about his sacking of Richard Worth - but he would have to say why. His reasons could then be publicly assessed, and we could call bullshit if they do not measure up. Which is why the government (and the opposition, who expect to be government one day) will never agree to it...


Below is the draft of my submission on the Local Government (Auckland Council) Bill, which I'll be emailing away before Friday. Since I don't live in Auckland, I'm not sure how much right I have to comment on the structure of their local government, so I have confined my comments to the proposed electoral system.

  • I oppose parts of the Local Government (Auckland Council) Bill, and ask that it be passed with amendments.
  • My concerns focus on three areas: the size of the council, use of at-large voting, and Māori representation. While I also have concerns about the use of the undemocratic FPP voting system, I recognize that that is properly a decision for the people of Auckland.

    Size of the council

  • The bill sets the size of the council at 20 members. This is approximately one elected representative per 65,000 residents – a worse ratio than for parliamentary representation. While there are additional local boards, their powerlessness means the entire burden of representing Auckland will fall on these 20 people. The result will be distant and unaccountable local government.
  • A local authority is not a corporation, and its council is not a board of directors. Its primary purpose is to be a representative body, elected by and accountable to voters, and responsive to their interests. This requires that councilors be easily accessible, rather than remote figures.
  • Recommendation: the size of the council should be increased, perhaps as much as doubled, to allow proper representation of voters.

    At-large voting

  • The bill presently provides for 12 members of the Auckland Council to be elected from wards and 8 to be elected at-large from across the entire city.
  • This sort of at-large voting, known as the multi-member block vote, is known for systematically producing undemocratic outcomes. According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s handbook on Electoral System Design, the system “tends to exaggerate most of the disadvantages of FPTP, in particular its disproportionality”. It consistently and reliably transforms narrow pluralities into sweeping majorities, while ensuring that minorities receive no representation whatsoever. It is an electoral system designed to produce undemocratic outcomes.
  • In addition, at-large voting may produce a large slate of candidates, similar to that seen in some DHB elections today. Such competitions will disproportionately favour candidates with name recognition, such as incumbents and celebrities. While this is an issue under every electoral system, at-large voting across such a wide geographic area will magnify it to an absurd degree.
  • Finally, while many may stand, the costs of running an effective campaign across the entire Auckland region are likely to be prohibitive. The result will be to disproportionately favour wealthy candidates. Again, while this is a potential issue in every electoral system, it is particularly pressing in this case.
  • Recommendation: there should be no at-large election, and individual candidates should be elected from wards.

    Māori representation

  • The bill makes no provision for Māori representation, and ignores the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance’s recommendation for specific Māori seats.
  • The size of the council and proposed electoral system will almost certainly result in Māori being poorly represented on the Auckland Council, if they are represented at all. In a city where the Treaty partner makes up 11 percent of the population, that is simply untenable.
  • The New Zealand Parliament currently has Māori seats to recognize the mana of the tangata whenua and ensure there is a Māori voice in our highest representative body. That institution should be mirrored in the Auckland Council.
  • Recommendation: the bill should provide for parallel Māori wards, according to the numbers on the Māori electoral roll, to recognize the mana of the tangata whenua and provide a guaranteed voice.
  • I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Committee.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Downright shifty

Today in Question Time, Pete Hodgson continued in his attempt to excavate the reasons for John Key's sacking of Richard Worth. The result was revealing:

Hon Pete Hodgson: When the Prime Minister came to the view that he had lost confidence in Dr Richard Worth, was he in possession or not in possession of substantive information that is not yet available to the public?

Hon JOHN KEY: When I did that, that was the point at which I lost confidence in Dr Worth. I did not believe that his conduct befitted that of a Minister. I will not go into the specifics of the information, but I think members can rest assured that in losing confidence in Dr Worth I was satisfied that I could make that case.


Hon JOHN KEY: I will not go into the specifics of the information I had when I lost confidence in Dr Worth, because I do not believe it is in the public interest to do so.

It's a simple question, and Key's avoidance of it looks downright shifty. If he had additional information, he could simply say so (he would not actually have to reveal it). The fact that he is trying to hide behind the public interest on this suggests that he does not - and that he is conflating the public interest with his private interest in avoiding political embarrassment.

But while Key can hide in the House, he cannot hide from the OIA, particularly where the question is for information concerning the existence of information. The public are legally entitled to answers on this, and on that question at least, we will get them. Which means that Key's dodging in the House today will come back to bite him when the truth inevitably comes out.

A thousand a week

A thousand people a week are signing up for the dole, and the NZIER estimates the recession will see a further 60,000 out of work over the next year.

Today in the House the Prime Minister attempted to pin this on Labour. But he cannot escape responsibility for long. He is in charge, and he is responsible for dealing with this economic catastrophe. And so far, he has done nothing. His grand plans from the jobs summit have failed already, leaving the government with no plan to protect the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary New Zealanders.

This is simply not good enough. We expect the government to act. Instead, they are refusing to out of blind adherence to a dead ideology which says that government can do no good and that the fate of ordinary people should be left to the market. Which probably looks fine from Treasury's ivory tower on the Terrace - but we are talking about real people's lives here. Real people, real jobs, real poverty - and real anger if the government continues to refuse to act.

Time to make Matariki a public holiday

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey is calling for Matariki to be a public holiday. I agree. Unlike the irrelevant Queen's Birthday, Matariki is something truly kiwi and worth celebrating. And as a bonus, it happens at exactly the right time of year - June to July, where there's a massive gap in the public holiday schedule.

MP's are already moving on this. The Maori Party's Rahui Katene had a Te Ra o Matariki Bill/Matariki Day Bill in the ballot last week, which fixes the date on the day of the next new moon after the Matariki constellation has risen, and Mondayises it if it falls on a weekend. Hopefully it will be drawn soon.

A fringe party

Meanwhile, while Westminster is busy confirming its corruption in the election of a new Speaker, the UK Conservative party has announced that it is withdrawing from the European People's Party - the Conservative pro-Europe bloc it sits with in the European Parliament - to head a new European Conservatives and Reformists Group. In the process, it has gained some new friends. For example:

So, Latvian Nazis and Polish bigots, the lunatic fringe of Europe. No decent political party should be seen dead with these people. But the Tories are embracing them. Which just shows: on Europe, they're a fringe party.

Westminster gets a new Speaker

The UK House of Commons has elected Conservative MP John Bercow as its new Speaker. The election was caused by the resignation of Michael Martin, who was irrevocably tainted by his mishandling of the Parliamentary expenses scandal and his shameless response to it.

So, at a time when the UK Parliament's mana is at rock bottom after systematic corruption and abuse of the expenses system, who did they elect? An MP who used his expenses to commit tax fraud, enriching himself by stealing from the public. And UK MPs wonder why the public regard them as rotten to the core...

Looking at the Guardian's spreadsheet of candidate's expenses, it seems that none of the top candidates were clean, while those who had not abused their expenses were the first eliminated. I think that tells us very clearly where the Parliament's sentiments lie - and it is not towards honesty or transparency. This is a corrupt House, and it needs to go - and the sooner, the better.

New Fisk

Symbols are not enough to win this battle


So, just a week after John Key told her publicly that she could not campaign on the anti-smacking referendum, Christine Rankin is campaigning against it in the pages of Investigate. The Prime Minister's response? To wibble and backtrack on his earlier position, of course:

Neither Mr Key nor Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was told of the interview, but yesterday the PM said he did not believe Ms Rankin had contravened his edict.

"I don't think it's particularly provocative. I made it clear I wouldn't want to see her campaigning on the 'no' vote, and I think she's honoured that, so I'm pretty relaxed about it."

This simply makes the Prime Minister look weak. He's sent a clear message (and one that is consistent with and reinforces expectations of political neutrality from Crown Entity board members), and then when it is ignored, does nothing. Yeah, that'll enforce standards in the wider state sector...

As for Bennett, the State Services Commission has washed its hands of Crown Entity board members, leaving them in the hands of Ministers. It is her duty to enforce proper standards on those responsible to her and ensure they are meeting their statutory obligations to act with honesty and integrity and in good faith and not at expense of entity's interests. Rankin clearly is doing neither; rather she regards her position as a bully pulpit to push her own political views in opposition tot he considered position of the Commission. the fact that she's doing this at a time when we expect the stat sector to be silent and leave the decision in our hands is just icing on the cake.

Peter Dunne is right: Rankin must resign. She is abusing her position, and that is not acceptable.

(I should note that the Commission can enforce those duties on its members independently of the Minister by seeking a court order requiring compliance. That would of course cost a lot of money, and be tantamount to a declaration of no confidence in Rankin. But if the Minister won't act - and a second warning in two days isn't 'acting" - then they will have to).

Better than the ballot mojo

Green MP Sue Bradford is one of new Zealand's most successful backbenchers, having successfully navigated three member's bills - including the highly controversial child discipline act - into law. And now it seems she will be able to add another one to her tally, having apparently persuaded National to adopt her Citizens Initiated Referenda (Wording of Questions) Amendment Bill.

This is a good move on both parties' parts - the bill is a sensible measure which will remove one of the major problems with our system of citizens' initiated referenda. If enacted, it will not only mean we voters are faced with clearer questions - it will also mean politicians will be more accountable for obeying referenda as they will no longer be able to wriggle out of them. And that's a good thing no matter which side of the political spectrum you're on.

Meanwhile, its another victory for Bradford. She has a remarkable ability to find issues which advance Green party goals while drawing wide support from across the political spectrum (remember, the child discipline act was supported by all parties except ACT and NZ First). Long may it continue!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Correction: Rankin not bound by state sector neutrality

In a post last night, I argued that Families Commissioner Christine Rankin could not front the child-beaters' "no vote" campaign because that would be a gross violation of the State Services Commission's Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Sector. This was incorrect - a reader has pointed out to me that the Code explicitly does not apply to Crown Entity board members. The reason for this is that board members are directly accountable to Ministers, bound by statutory duties to act with honesty and integrity and in good faith and not at expense of entity's interests, and may be easily dismissed by the Minister if they fail to abide by those standards. The SSC sees this as a similar degree of accountability to that required under the Standards of Integrity and Conduct (there is more discussion of the issue here).

I was wrong, and I apologise for the inaccuracy. However, it is worth pointing out that those statutory duties - in particular the duty to act in good faith "and not pursue his or her own interests at the expense of the entity's interests" - put Rankin on very dangerous ground on this issue. Now that she is a Families Commissioner, she is (rightly or wrongly) seen as representing the Commission. She has a legal duty not to abuse that perception for her own political interests.

Of course, the mere existence of a legal duty does not mean it will be enforced. But if the Minister for Social Development will not hold Rankin accountable, then she will be held accountable - by Parliament, and the public.

A desire for unaccountability

One of the fundamental rules of policing in the UK (and in NZ), going right back to the Peelian Principles, is that police must be identifiable so they can be accountable to the public:

Every police officer should be issued a badge number, to assure accountability for his actions.
The UK police however seem to be increasingly unwilling to abide by this principle, and the regulations which enforce it. And they are willing to use unlawful tactics such as assault and false imprisonment to defend their impunity:
After challenging a police officer over his failure to display a badge number at a protest against the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, the two women were wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and placed in a police van. They were held in custody for four days, three of which were spent in HMP Bronzefield.

Swain, 43, was arrested for assault and obstruction and Apple,33, for obstruction. The charges were later dropped.

Fortunately, the whole incident was caught on the police's own surveillance video, and the incident has now been referred to the UK's "Independent" Police Complaints Commission.

This is indicative of a wider problem among the UK police: an increasing desire for unaccountability and impunity. And that must be stamped out. The UK's out of control police force must be brought to heel and made to understand that they are accountable to the public and subject to the law. Otherwise, they are no better than any other gang.

Racist as well as sexist

Over on GBlog, Toad reports on more of ACT MP David Garrett's "colourful" antics - this time making racist comments to a Green Party staffer. Meanwhile Scoop's Gordon Campbell points out that Garrett's excuses for his misbehaviour - that he's a former oil rig worker - don't wash: after a fifteen year career as an employment lawyer, he knows exactly how unacceptable sexual harassment is. The guy is simply a racist, sexist bigot. ACT should be ashamed to have him in their party, let alone their caucus.

From the horse's mouth

Bill English was in Dunedin over the weekend, where he was faced by some angry young women protesting Nationals scrapping of the Department of Labour’s Pay and Employment Equity Unit. His response? "Pay equity is not a priority".

And there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth: National does not care about women. It regards an issue of fundamental fairness as something which is merely "nice to have", and ranks it behind "more important" government business such as building cycleways and giving more money to rich people. Those women in Dunedin were right to be angry at that attitude.

English also repeatedly called the protestors "out of touch". I'd suggest the opposite: that it is English and his party of dead white males who are out of touch - with the modern world. Because this sort of systematic gender discrimination is simply not acceptable in the modern era - and neither is defending it.

New Fisk

Battle for the Islamic Republic

Rankin, the referendum, and state sector neutrality

NZPA reported earlier this evening that Families Commissioner Christine Rankin was planning to front the "vote no" campaign in the upcoming referendum on the Child Disciple Act. This is now being reported as a dreadful mistake on the part of the organisers, with Rankin reassuring the Minister that she will not be appearing. Why did she have to? Because openly taking such a position would be a gross violation of the State Services Commission's Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Sector.

Back in Rankin's day, when she ran WINZ as her own personal fiefdom (complete with its own Cult of Personality), the Public Service Code of Conduct applied only to public servants - those working for government departments. But following a review this was replaced in 2007 by the new Standards of Integrity and Conduct, which applied to the state sector as a whole - including Crown Entities such as the Families Commission (but not, I should add, CRIs, SOEs, or school boards of trustees). As with the old PSCC, the SI&C requires state servants to be politically neutral - or, as they put it, they must:

  • maintain the political neutrality required to enable us to work with current and future governments
  • carry out the functions of our organisation, unaffected by our personal beliefs
  • support our organisation to provide robust and unbiased advice
  • respect the authority of the government of the day.
And as with the old PSCC, the requirement to be seen to be neutral, impartial and unbiased gets stronger the higher up the food chain you are. And as a Families Commissioner - essentially a board member of a Crown Entity - Rankin is at the very top of that food chain.

Publicly campaigning on a highly politically contentious referendum would be ruled out for any senior state servant. It should be absolutely unthinkable for someone like Rankin. The fact that she let this happen (and she did - NZPA would not have gone to press without confirming the accuracy of McCroskie's statement) displays extremely poor judgement and an utter lack of professionalism.

(The same applies BTW to her continued membership of the Family and Child Trust. She's a senior state servant, FFS! She should not be publicly (some would even say privately) involved with a political organisation, particularly one which advocates in the area of policy she is involved in. If she wants to do that, then she can't be a Families Commissioner. It really is that simple).

Correction: As a borad member, Rankin is not bound by the SI&C. See the correction here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

David Garrett: Sexist as well as Bigoted

It seems that ACT MP David Garrett is a man of many talents. Not only is he a drunken bigot - he's also a sexist who sexually harasses female Parliamentary staffers:

The Herald on Sunday learned that Hide was approached by a staff member who expressed concerns about comments made by Garrett. The comments were to another staff member inside the party office, and about her elsewhere in the Parliamentary complex.

Those comments allegedly included one made when the MP saw the woman filling a drink bottle at a water cooler. The comment described an oral sex act.

Hide said he had not heard of that comment but confirmed that Garrett had made "off-colour remarks". He had not sought details of the incidents as it was not his role to act as "judge and jury".

Instead, he spoke to Garrett "about the need to maintain high standards at all times".

Hide said the matter could be escalated to the Parliamentary Service - which employs the staff member - if there was a formal complaint. He had met with the staff member to assure her any complaint she made would be handled properly.

Two comments: firstly, no-one should have to put up with this in the workplace (or anywhere else, for that matter), and the woman was right to complain. And secondly, unlike John Key, who ignored Richard Worth's serial harassment and apparent offer of government appointments for sexual favours, Hide seems to have handled this correctly, disciplining his MP and reassuring the complainant of her rights. Unfortunately, the normal solution - sacking the harasser - isn't really available in this case, so I'm not sure what happens if a formal complaint is made and it is upheld.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

New Fisk

Khamenei is fighting for his own position as well as Ahmadinejad's
In Tehran, fantasy and reality make uneasy bedfellows

"Boy racers": arbitrary detention

The government-directed police crackdown on "boy racers" seems to have developed a new tactic: arbitrary detention:

Police corralled 120 boy racer vehicles in a Kaiwharawhara car park while the cars underwent thorough road-worthiness checks.

The four-hour police operation ended early yesterday morning with 15 cars ordered off the road and 38 infringement notices issued.

It happened in the Spotlight car park at the bottom of Wellington's Ngaio Gorge, from 10pm on Thursday to 2am yesterday.

I am struggling to see a legal basis for this, and it seems to constitute arbitrary detention. Detention because, while the police claim in the article that the drivers were "free to come and go as they pleased", the drivers clearly did not feel that that was the case, with one quoted as saying
"We were prisoners in the car park until they finished inspecting our vehicles."
The test for detention is a reasonably held belief induced by the conduct of police or officials that someone is not free to leave. That is clearly the case. Contrary to the claims of the police, these people were detained.

Was that detention arbitrary? Yes, on two grounds:

  • While the police unquestionably have powers to stop motorists in order to inspect vehicles and if necessary order them off the road, that requires a reasonable belief that a specific vehicle does not comply with the regulations. This was clearly not true in this case - the police applied a blanket policy of testing every vehicle in the area, based solely on its location. And that is a prima facie case for arbitrariness. Where the law provides for the exercise of a power to detain, then the appropriateness of exercising that power must be assessed in each case. Detaining someone as part of a blanket policy is an unlawful abdication of discretion (Attorney-General v Hewitt [2000] 2 NZLR 110, which found that a blanket policy of arresting all suspects in domestic violence cases and detaining them overnight to "cool off" was unlawful).
  • Initially lawful detention can become arbitrary if its duration becomes excessive. This is most famously seen in the case of Ahmed Zaoui, but it applies in other circumstances as well. Here, the power of police to incidentally detain while enforcing the road regulations is limited to only as long as is reasonably necessary to complete the exercise of the power or duty concerned (interestingly, in the case of a roadside stop to establish the identity of the driver this is limited to 15 minutes, which suggests that such incidental detentions are expected to be brief). Here, people were detained for four hours. The police might argue that that was the quickest the seven officers involved in the operation could inspect the vehicles - but I would suggest that if they planned to detain 120 cars, then they should have provided the personnel to conduct the inspections quickly enough not to infringe upon the civil liberties of the drivers.
There is a further question of whether the detention was for an improper purpose - not enforcing road safety, but intimidating "boy racers". The fact that fully two-thirds of the vehicles detained were found to have no problems supports this.

In their zeal to get "tough on crime" headlines for the Minister, the police seem to have overstepped the bounds of the law. They should be held to account for it.

New Fisk

The dead of Iran are mourned – but the fight goes on

Friday, June 19, 2009


Yesterday, the government unveiled the second half of its home-insulation policy: getting banks to waive extra fees on loans for insulation. Colour me underwhelmed. Unlike the first half - the grant scheme - this will not encourage anyone to install insulation, and it will not significantly ease the burden on those who have already decided to make the right choice. The incentive is minimal to nonexistent.

But I forget: the real purpose of the policy is not to increase uptake of insulation. The real purpose is to get the government positive media coverage through greenwash headlines. And on that front at least, it seems to have succeeded.

Image-driven control freakery

Last month, the Herald revealed that National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi was suspected by the Immigration Service of paying off a woman at the centre of allegations he had made bogus job offers. The information - a report on the investigation from the Immigration Service - was obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act. Now Immigration Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman has started a witch-hunt to find out why the information was released without his permission.

This is absolutely outrageous. The department has applied the law, weighed the grounds for withholding information against the public interest, found that none of them applied, and released the information. Coleman wants to second-guess that, on explicitly political grounds: preventing information embarrassing to the government from coming to light. Worse, he expects this to be a permanent part of how OIA requests are handled by his department:

Dr Coleman yesterday said the internal inquiry was called because "that OIA didn't come through my office as every other OIA should".
This is expressly contrary to the spirit, intent and letter of the law. As the Danks Report pointed out way back in 1980,
The fact that the release of certain information may give rise to criticism or embarrassment of the government is not an adequate reason for withholding it from the public.
Unfortunately this sort of image-driven control-freakery over OIA requests is par for the course for this government. But that's what we have an ombudsman for.

Protest for pay equity in Wellington

Since coming to power, National has dumped on the basic right of women to be paid the same as men, shitcanning two inquiries into pay equity in the public sector because they might cost money and disestablishing the Department of Labour's Pay and Employment Equity Unit, which conducts research on the gender-pay gap and how to reduce it. Now you can do something about it. The CTU is holding a protest at Parliament in two weeks time to challenge the government to close the pay gap and do more about pay and gender equity issues.

When: 12:30, Tuesday 30 June
Where: Parliament.

Be there, and show your support for fair pay for women.

Did they claim for the black marker too?

UK MPs finally released their expenses in response to a court order yesterday - but with crucial details blacked out. The upshot: if we'd been forced to rely on this, and never had the leaked version, we would never have learned about the worst of the scandal - the property flipping, the tax evasion, the outright fraud. As Julian Glover puts it in the Guardian, this is a two-fingered salute to voters, from an arrogant and unaccountable political class which has not learned. And they call this "restoring faith in democracy". Showing that we can have none in them, more like it.

Meanwhile, another Minister has been forced to resign in the last few days after she was revealed to have flipped her place of residence to avoid capital gains tax. And the police are reportedly planning a criminal investigation. I don't expect much from them - the UK police have always been reliable servants of the establishment, willing to overlook wrongdoing from those in positions of power (especially themselves) - but it shows how serious the allegations MPs sought to hide are.

They all need to go. Every last one of them. The entire House of Commons needs to be bulldozed into the Thames, with its occupants inside it. The politicians elected to replace them will no doubt be petty and venal and possibly even corrupt - but at least they won't be these fuckers.