Friday, October 30, 2009

Bradford's valedictory

Transcript here.

Parliament - and the Greens - will be very different without Bradford. She was a voice for the poor and downtrodden, a fighter for those at the bottom of the heap. And despite being a centre-left party, the absence of any similar voice in Labour is glaringly obvious. But Bradford wasn't just a voice - she also got results, which beneficiaries of her bills abolishing youth rates and child beating will be thanking her for for some time to come. I look forward to seeing what she will do next - and I hope it will make as much of a difference.

[Hat-tip: Frogblog]

A disaster for human rights

The government's Immigration Bill passed its third reading yesterday. The government is naturally praising this step; as someone who care about human rights, I disagree.

The bill entrenches and regularises the most egregious features of the Ahmed Zaoui case. Secret "evidence" will be allowed to be used not just in cases where there are security concerns, but in any immigration decision, with no oversight, and no review. Detention powers will be massively extended, and judicial oversight reduced, allowing a return to indefinite detention. Immigration will get to run its own prisons, creating a serious problem of abuse by untrained and hostile staff. More generally, decisions will be made by faceless officials with far less scrutiny and oversight, with fewer rights of appeal (or even to natural justice - the basic presumption, enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act, that decisionmakers must give reasons for a decision is overturned). The upshot is a crueller, more vicious, less accountable immigration system. And it is a disaster for human rights in this country.

While National passed the bill, it was Labour's creation, and they deserve the blame for it. Despite all their talk, the Labour Party cannot be trusted to defend fundamental human rights. We should remember that at the next election.

Zombies for workers rights!

From Unite's latest ad for its minimum-wage march tonight:

SHOCK! Zombified minimum wage workers awaken and achieve class consciousness, pouring out from the shopping malls to choke the bloodsucking vampire capitalists who exploit their surplus value as profit!

HORROR! Zombie workers march en masse on citadels of the elite vampire bosses in Auckland city centre- Massive vampire Boss staked in public and then burned in a bonfire!

All that, plus Sue Bradford. Be there, or have your brains eaten.

For a four-day week

As an advocate of time-sovereignty and leisure, I naturally favour a shorter working week. Our time is valuable, and the more of it we get to spend on ourselves rather than waste working for other people having to earn a living, the better. Unfortunately, the economy is structured around a five-day working week, and bosses are highly resistant (I would say "hidebound") to efforts to change this. But two things have combined to shift work patterns to a four-day working week: climate change (and the desire to improve energy efficiency) and the recession. Together they have provided a natural experiment on its effects. And according to New Scientist, the preliminary data is good:

In August 2008, the state of Utah moved all of its employees, apart from the emergency services, to working 4/10, as it has become known. The hope was that by shutting down buildings for an extra day each week, energy bills would be slashed by up to a fifth.

The full results of this experiment won't be published until October, but an ongoing survey of 100 buildings suggests energy consumption has fallen by around 13 per cent. The survey also found that 70 per cent of employees prefer the 4/10 arrangement, and that people took fewer days off sick.

Meanwhile, surveys of firms which simply cut a day as a response to the recession show workers overwhelmingly voting with their feet for shorter hours, despite the 20% pay cut (something mirrored strongly in New Zealand). They also show that these arrangements improve morale and productivity. Less work is better for us.

The challenge now is to keep our time when the recession ends - and to some extent we have the upper hand. Where shorter hours are based on voluntary agreement, we can simply so "no" to efforts to return to the traditional regime. The recession is thus also an opportunity to regain some control over our lives. And we should take it.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]


Earlier in the month the Irish agreed in a referendum to EU expansion - prompting a wave of stories in the UK media about how of course this meant that war-criminal Tony Blair would be the EU's first president. Now it looks like Europe isn't so keen:

Tony Blair's hopes of becoming Europe's first sitting president were receding fast tonight as Britain admitted his chances of success were "fading" after the continent's centre-right leaders made it clear one of their own must have the post.

Hours after Gordon Brown delivered his strongest statement of support for Blair – disclosing that he had spoken to him earlier this week – British sources indicated that the former prime minister was unlikely to assume the high-profile job.

"It would be right to describe Tony's chances as fading," one British source said. "Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are not terribly enthusiastic. Silvio Berlusconi remains his strongest backer."

"One of their own" means someone from the European People's Party grouping, the EU-wide group of national-level centre-right parties, currently dominant in Germany, France, and the European Parliament. But reading on, they make it clear that the European left doesn't want Blair either. In fact, the only people who seem to want Blair are... the UK. Who for some reason - a legacy of Imperialism? - seem to believe that the rest of Europe will just naturally conform to their whim. Fortunately, Europe doesn't work like that.

So, Blair seems to have been stopped. Is it too early to celebrate? Or do we have to wait until the stake is finally hammered into his chest?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

March for a $15 / hour minimum wage in Auckland tomorrow night

Unite is holding a march tomorrow night in support of its campaign for a $15 / hour minimum wage:

When: 19:00, Friday, October 30
Where: Aotea Square, Queen Street, Auckland
Wear: Halloween costume

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Absurd oaths

The Herald this morning reports on "Bishop" Brian Tamaki's latest move to transform his church into a wacky personality cult: forcing a personal oath of loyalty on his followers. Garth George - writing in his own words this time - denounces the move, exclaiming

how 700 Kiwi men could accept this nonsense and swear lifetime fealty to a mere fallible mortal is quite beyond me.
Meanwhile, sometime in the next few weeks, new Green MP David Clendon will be forced by law to swear lifetime fealty to a mere fallible mortal. And George - a royalist - will regard this as entirely natural and unproblematic. He is nothing but a hypocrite.


Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith has gone into bat for Bill English, saying that it is "unfair" that public pressure means English is no longer being paid accommodation expenses.

No, it's not.

We do not pay accommodation expenses to MPs who live in Wellington. And Bill English certainly does. He has lived there for over ten years with his family. His partner has her business there. His kids to go to school there. His residence in Dipton is purely nominal, for electoral purposes - just like John Key's residence in Helensville.

What would be unfair would be paying an MP who lives in Wellington expenses as if he did not. What would be unfair would be allowing MPs to rort the taxpayer to line their own pockets.

If Smith cannot see this, he has been in Parliament too long. he has become a symptom of the cosy culture of self-interest and corruption among our MPs. In its reaction to English's rort, the public has sent a clear message that we will not tolerate that culture. If Smith will not take that message to heart, then perhaps it is time he moved on.

New kiwi blog

New Zealand Employment Law - inspired by the government's recent moves in this area.

Its about ethics

One other point I should make while venting my spleen about Bill English's Ministerial housing rort and what the Auditor-General's findings say about our system of Parliamentary expenses: in all of this, the question has been very narrowly focused: "was it within the rules?" In the process, the real question - "was it ethical?" - has been ignored.

That question matters. The Cabinet Manual requires Ministers not just to act lawfully, but also "to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards." This reflects a public expectation. Bill English's behaviour in this matter does not meet that standard.

An ethical person would not expect to be paid to live in their own home.

An ethical person would not structure their affairs to maximise their eligibility for "expenses".

An ethical person would not hide behind legal advice to pretend that they had no financial interest in their own family trust.

Bill English did all of those things. Bill English is therefore not an ethical person. He does not meet the high standard demanded of Ministers. He cannot be trusted with our money.

"It was all within the rules" or "other people did it too" are not excuses; they are simply a wider indictment. If other MPs and Ministers mirror English's arrangements, or see them as unproblematic, then they too are unethical people.

Ethics is the real issue here, and a "can't be bothered" from the Auditor-General is not going to make it go away.

Not acceptable

The Auditor-General has reported back on their inquiry into Bill English's Ministerial housing rort. English, you may remember, was charging the taxpayer $700 a week for living in his own house, on the fiction that he had no financial interest in it (and he really lived in Dipton anyway, despite having actually lived in Wellington for over a decade). The Auditor-General concludes that there is no need for a further inquiry - something English is attempting to spin as exoneration. But reading the report, it is anything but. The Auditor-General actually found that English's legal advice was "not applicable to this situation and was based on too narrow a test" and that Ministerial Services should not have accepted it:

Ministerial Services accepted Mr English’s declaration, although it was aware that the advice attached to it might not be directly applicable. It proceeded to get a market evaluation of the rent and to finalise a lease between Ministerial Services and the family trust for the house. The result was that the Crown was renting a property for Mr English from a trust in which he had an interest, and the arrangement was explicitly based on a view that he did not have an interest. Clearly, this was unfortunate. We emphasise that the Minister’s declaration was based on advice. However, in our view, the advice was not directly relevant to this situation. We consider that Ministerial Services should have raised this with the Minister.
So why did they recommend no further investigation? Because the changes to the system make the point moot. Now Ministers will be paid $37,500 a year to live in their own houses, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, the real question - whether it is acceptable for taxpayers to pay MPs and Ministers to live in their own houses - has been ignored. I think it is not acceptable, and I regard the Auditor-General's statement that English's arrangement of renting his own home from his family trust - an arrangement which coincidentally allowed him to work around the limit on paying only interest on mortgages, and get taxpayers to buy him a fancy new home in Wellington - were "not exceptional" to be an indictment on our current system for Parliamentary expenses. It is one thing to give MPs the actual, reasonable and necessary expenses required for them to do their jobs properly; it is quite another to pay them to live in their own homes or give them a free leg up on the Wellington property ladder (and taxpayer-subsidised capital gains) as a perk of office. These are simply rorts, ripping off the taxpayer, and they bring our entire political system into disrepute. But as we've seen time and time again, our political "leaders" are quite happy to do that to feather their own nests.

According to the Speaker, the system will be reformed. I await those reforms with interest. But I don't expect much. Given the precedent set for Ministerial expenses, where the accommodation allowance is basically a stealth pay rise of about twice the present average cost [PDF], I expect the Speaker to rubberstamp similarly greedy and non-transparent arrangements. And then politicians will wonder why the public does not trust them and regards them as lower than dogshit and less trustworthy than Nigerian spammers or used-car salesmen. They will have only themselves to blame.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whoops they did it again

For the second week in a row the government called urgency, ate Member's Day - and then rose early after running out of business.

Can't Brownlee count? Or is it being used as a deliberate tactic to prevent Member's Bills from being heard?

Some facts on urgency

Over on Kiwiblog, DPF is spinning frantically, trying to defend the government's indefensible and undemocratic use of urgency. His key argument boils down to "Labour did it too", and he makes much of Labour's use of urgency in its first term, trying to equate this with National's abuses. Having just spent the afternoon trawling Hansard, I think its time for some facts.

Firstly, DPF is correct on the numbers: Labour used urgency 22 times in its first term. But this disguises very real differences in how it was used. National, you may recall, hit the ground running, immediately using urgency to ram through key election promises, many of them without the scrutiny of a select committee. Since then, it has regularly called urgency to introduce major legislation without scrutiny and then advance it without public debate. It's a classic example of the Roger Douglas blitzkrieg principles: moving quickly to pre-empt opposition and present the public with a legislative fait accompli.

Labour's pattern was very different. They did not "hit the ground running" and use urgency to ram through their promises. Instead, these were advanced through the normal Parliamentary process. Only four times was urgency used to advance policy (twice for the ERA, once for income-related rents, and once for ACC renationalisation) - and each time it was to speed the committee stage. Urgency was not used to introduce "policy bills" - things the government wanted to do - at the last minute without debate as National has done.

(In both cases I am ignoring the "normal" uses of urgency, for the Budget, urgent "patch-up" legislation (e.g. in response to drafting errors or court cases), and pre-holiday rush. Those are perfectly legitimate uses of urgency; it is when governments go beyond that and use urgency to push their agenda that democracy suffers).

Another measure of abuse of urgency is the number and type of bills passed through urgency without select committee hearings. So far, in less than a year, National has passed the following without select committee scrutiny (thanks to Phil Lyth for excavating this list):

  • Crown Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme Bill
  • Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill
  • Electoral Amendment Bill
  • Electricity (Renewable Preference) Repeal Bill
  • Employment Relations Amendment Bill
  • Energy (Fuels, Levies, and References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill
  • Local Government (Tamaki Makaurau Reorganisation) Bill
  • Parole (Extended Supervision Orders) Amendment Bill
  • Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment Bill

From grepping Hansard, Labour in its entire first term passed just three:

  • Local Government (Prohibition of Liquor in Public Places) Amendment Bill
  • Local Government (Rodney District Council) Amendment Bill
  • Tariff (Zero Duty Removal) Amendment Bill

(In both cases I have excluded budget bills to do with taxes etc as these do not normally go to select committee. Labour's tariff bill arguably falls into that category, but I'll be charitable to National here and leave it in).

There's an obvious difference between the two lists (apart from one being much smaller than the other): National's list deals with core policy. Labour's is a pair of urgent patches (the local government and tariff bills) and one knee-jerk reaction.

These are very different patterns of use of urgency, and DPF is being duplicitous to equate the two. But then, that is what they pay him for, isn't it?

Something to be proud of

The World Economic Forum has released their annual Global Gender Gap Report, showing that New Zealand ranks fifth in the world for gender equality, just behind the usual Scandinavian suspects.


It's good, but as the country profile [PDF] shows, its not good enough. We still have a large gender pay gap, leading to serious economic inequality, while women are still significantly under-represented in the political sphere. We can - and should - do much better in both.

Challenging the government on inequality

Yesterday the Greens did something we don't see nearly enough of in our Parliament: challenged the government on inequality. Highlighting the finding of the UN Human Development Report 2009 that New Zealand had the sixth-highest level of inequality amongst developed nations, they asked what the government was planning on doing about it. The answer, after a lot of denial and spluttering, was essentially "nothing".

The government needs to do better than this. Inequality isn't just a political concern of the left. As the Greens pointed out, it is the cause of numerous social ills. According to The Spirit Level, a recent study of the effects of inequality,

Almost every modern social and environmental problem—ill-health, lack of community life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours, big prison populations—is more likely to occur in a less equal society.
Don't believe it? See the evidence for yourself.

Reducing inequality should be at the heart of an evidence-based social policy. It is the key to improving those social indicators, to having better health, safer communities, and wasting less money on prisons. Those are things even the right purports to care about. Its time they acted.

The Greens will be pushing the government more on this today, asking the Social Development Minister what she thinks of our awful level of inequality. Hopefully she'll have a response beyond shrugging her shoulders this time.

(More from jeanette Fitzsimons here)

Urgency again

Its Wednesday - and scheduled to be a Member's Day - and surprise, surprise, the House is in urgency. The "urgent" business? Bills on DNA samples, gangs, a Treaty-settlement related reserve transfer, and technical bills fiddling with the ETS, dairy industry pricing and biosecurity. Most of this is anything but urgent, and could easily be delayed for a pre-holiday rush. But then Gerry Brownlee wouldn't get to feel like he was In Charge...

I've been told that it will be urgency from now until christmas - two whole months. This dwarfs anything Labour did; their pre-holiday rush tended to last a couple of weeks, and dealt mostly with the buildup of technical bills which had to be passed but nobody really cared about. National is using urgency as a matter of course to ram through more contentious, policy-based legislation, and to thwart the normal democratic process of Member's Day. And it is simply grossly abusive of the Parliamentary process.

Election funding: Put your money where your mouth is II

In Parliament tonight, during the debate over the (hopefully uncontentious) Electoral (Administration) Amendment Bill, Labour's electoral reform spokesperson David Parker took the opportunity to highlight the hole in our transparency regime, pointing out that National could have taken money from the insurance industry in exchange for its ACC policies:

"Before the election, Merrill Lynch said if ACC was privatised...there would be $2 billion of ACC levies up for grabs and $200 million of additional profit could be earned by Australian insurers," he said.

"We all know that the private insurers stand to gain from the privatisation of ACC. There's no doubt about that. But what we don't know is whether those same private insurers were contributing to the National Party.

"I can never prove that they were, but it is wrong for our democracy to be tainted by that accusation.

"It is also wrong if it didn't happen and yet our election process is tainted by the implication that it may have."

Mr Parker said the lack of transparency around donations was "a glaring problem" in the electoral system.

The problem here is the $10,000 donation threshold, which allows parties to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in "small" (to rich people) donations, without having to declare a thing. Parker thinks it should be reduced to $1,000. I've previously suggested that Labour should put its money where its mouth is, and voluntarily disclose their smaller donations to shame the other parties into action (in the same way that the Greens' voluntary disclosure of their expenses forced greater transparency on Parliament). But that's not the only thing they can do. They could, for example, put up a member's bill on the subject. To save them the effort, I've drafted it for them:
Electoral (Transparency) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Electoral (Transparency) Amendment Act 2009.

2. Commencement
This Act comes into force on 1 January 2010.

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Electoral Act 1993 to reduce the threshold for the disclosure of party donations from $10,000 to $1,000.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Electoral Act 1993.

5. Section 210 Amended
(1) Section 210(1)(a) of the Principal Act is amended by omitting “$10,000” and substituting “$1,000”.
(2) Section 210(1)(b) of the Principal Act is amended by omitting “$10,000” and substituting “$1,000”.

So, the question is: are Labour serious about this issue, or are they just talk? Sadly, their previous hypocrisy doesn't give me much hope.

Unimpressed III

Back in June, I received some Cabinet papers on the government's "boy racer" laws from Minister of Police Judith Collins. While the papers did show that Treasury thought the proposals would not work, they were riddled with deletions, almost all made under s6(c) of the OIA, potential prejudice to the maintenance of the law.

Given Collins' past record of information control-freakery, I complained to the Ombudsmen, challenging the deletions on the basis that there was no prejudice. Under the Ombudsmen's Practice Guidelines [PDF],

It is not sufficient to simply assert that disclosure of the information will have a prejudicial effect. The public sector agency must be able to identify, with sufficient particularity, the nature of the prejudicial effect and explain how such prejudice will occur in order to meet the tests for withholding in section 6.
Furthermore, there must be "a real and substantial risk" that the prejudice will occur. Based on other releases, I suspected that the Minister was censoring material which undermined her preferred policy or made the police look bad - a clear misuse of the Act.

My suspicions were correct. A new version of one of the documents I received today - sans deletions - showed that the Minister had attempted to remove material showing:

  • Police were reviewing their operational procedures to managing public disorder associated with street racing - implying that those procedures were flawed (and arguably a significant cause of the problem in Christchurch);
  • The large numbers of people involved in street racing events presented "practical difficulties" for police;
  • Increased demerit points were more effective than fines in handling noise offences, but police had explicitly ruled out such an approach;
  • Police have had persistent trouble enforcing the graduated driver licensing system;
  • Amendments to the bill would close a loophole around enforcement of fines and sale of confiscated vehicles. This was obvious the moment the bill hit the House, but it was censored from documents released after the bill was introduced;

The common theme here is anything which makes the police look bad or ineffective. But while that may be an embarrassment for the Minister and the Police, it is hardly a prejudice to law and order, and not a reason for withholding information under the Act. Hopefully the Ombudsman will have educated Collins about this. otherwise, she'll be getting a lot more complaints.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Giving the finger to the labour movement

So, the day after Labour Day, the government introduces legislation to steal your meal and rest breaks. Talk about giving the finger to the labour movement.

The bill will replace the existing statutory rights to meal and rest breaks with a vague requirement for "reasonable" and "appropriate" breaks which may in fact require the employee to continue working, are taken at the time specified by the employer, and which may not in fact be provided at all if "compensatory measures" (such as a later start time, an earlier finish time or accumulated time off) are provided. Given that the length of the work day is purely nominal and that such time off may be unpaid, the result is to remove the right entirely.

And that's National's approach to employment relations in a nutshell: turning enforceable rights into grace and favour which we must beg for, like a peasant to a lord. And while it will make no difference in most workplaces, the workplaces where it is necessary - where employees are denied the basic dignities of not feeling hungry or thirsty or not having to piss themselves while working - will have just got themselves an abuser's charter. By changing the law, national is explicitly supporting these abusive employers.

The bill was, according to the explanatory note, "developed at speed and without significant consultation". And it will be passed under urgency. The Regulatory Impact Statement (such as it is - this is another bill which bypassed the normal requirements) notes that it is expected to become law by the end of the year, meaning no real time for select committee consideration. That is assuming they don't ram it through without a select committee stage at all to get it in by 1 November to avoid having to negotiate properly with regional air traffic controllers. But that just seems to be the way this government operates: legislate in haste, and leave us to repent at leisure.

Climate change: $225,000 per job?

Carbon News this morning reports that the government's pollution subsidies to the Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter sum to an enormous $209 million - or $225,000 per job (more than an MP's salary) for each of the 930 workers the smelter employs. It's a massive indictment of the subsidy scheme. Or is it?

Delving into the figures, it seems they are based on not just the direct subsidy to Rio Tinto, but also the opportunity cost of their exclusive use of the power from Manapouri - power that could instead be used elsewhere, allowing the dirty inefficient coal-fired Huntly Power Station to be closed down. And unfortunately, the latter massively outweighs the former:

Replacing the emissions-intensive Huntly with Manapouri would result in a net decrease in liabilities to taxpayers of $209 million per annum, made up of the non-payment of the Rio Tinto subsidy ($14 million) and the non-payment of the Huntly subsidy ($195 million),” he said.
This is I think an unfair loading of costs when we're talking about a per-job subsidy. Besides, its not as if $15,000 per job in direct subsidies for Tiwai Point's emissions is anything to be sneezed at. So on that front I think Carbon News massively overstates the case. But they have made a very good argument for shutting down Tiwai Point entirely. After all, Rio Tinto's own figures show a maximum annual benefit to New Zealand of $121.2 million per year. With current carbon costs of $209 million per year - and it is fair to count the opportunity cost of running Huntly when we're looking at an overall cost-benefit analysis - we're looking at being at least $88 million a year better off if we close the place down, which increases to $100 million once you remove the "benefit" of deferred grid upgrades (which we are already paying). This rises to over $300 million a year post-2012 when carbon prices are expected to be higher and Tiwai Point's output lower.

What this shows us is that Rio Tinto are just leeches. Once the environmental costs are counted, their presence makes us actively worse-off as a society, and significantly so. We should not be paying these people pollution subsidies; instead we should be shutting them down. And the sooner that happens, the better off we will be.

MMP means representation

One new addition to the Social Report this year is a section on representation of ethnic groups in government. The graph speaks for itself about what MMP has meant for ethnic representation:

Members of Parliament identifying as Māori, Pacific peoples or Asian 1984–2008, and Māori, Pacific peoples or Asian share of the total population

The bars are percentages of MPs, the dots (taken from census data) are percentages of the population. So, we have a way to go yet, but MMP has still resulted in a massive improvement and given us a Parliament that looks a lot more like New Zealand. That will likely disappear if the electoral system is changed - a tremendous loss to the legitimacy of our political system, and to New Zealand.

Social Report 2009

The 2009 Social Report has finally been released. Normally it would have come out by August, but this year was unaccountably delayed, Cabinet not signing off on it until last week. I guess they just didn't view it as a priority. Unfortunately, it has also fallen victim to some extent to the government's drive to cut costs, so instead of it being published as a hardcopy (and available for future researchers in libraries), it is now a web-only publication. Which is so much more fragile. Important government data like this should not be published only in a digital medium.

Most of the data in this report dates from 2006-2008, so its Labour's legacy that is being reported on: lower (though now rising again) income inequality, increased median hourly earnings, and the stubborn persistence of ethnic gaps in life expectancy. It also shows the consequences of their education policies, with decreased participation in tertiary education (particularly among Māori and Pacific Peoples) thanks to their racist stomping on the wānanga. Meanwhile, housing unaffordability is at an all time high, with a flow-on effect on child poverty which has unravelled all the good work done by Working For Families. But you won't read any of this in the key findings: their focus is relentlessly long-term, concentrating on improvements since the 80's and 90's rather than recent (and politically attributable) changes.

Next year's report - if it happens - will begin to show the effects of National's policies. Unfortunately, the 2009 data in this one on unemployment, employment participation and incomes is not good. In their first year, the standard of living of the average New Zealander has dropped. While they're not responsible for the recession, they are responsible for dealing with it and reducing the impact on New Zealanders - and by these statistics, their reaction has so far been a failure.

You can download the full report here [PDF].

The consequences of double-bunking

When the government first floated plans to use double bunking to overcrowd prisons, criminologists warned that it would lead to rapes, bullying and violence. And now we can add suicide to that list:

A prisoner, who had been raped by another inmate, killed himself after learning his attacker was being brought back to the same prison, prison sources say.

The Corrections Department says an independent review into Michael Graham Maxwell's death means it cannot comment.


Maxwell's funeral was held on Tuesday in Hoon Hay.

He died in Christchurch Hospital on Friday after being found in his Christchurch Men's Prison cell on October 10.

Maxwell was repeatedly raped in Christchurch Men's Prison in 2005, after being placed in the same cell as Noble, a violent gang member.

A prison source said Maxwell, 24, committed suicide after other inmates taunted him that Noble was being brought back to the prison.

There's more in today's papers about how Maxwell had sought help - including ACC counselling - for psychological issues caused by his rape, and how he had pleaded with the Prime Minister to be allowed into a proper rehabilitation programme. Those pleas were ignored. As a result, a man is dead.

No doubt the Sensible Sentencing Trust will soon issue a press release saying "good riddance", but there are two points we should remember. Firstly, the protection of the law extends to everyone, even to convicted criminals; that is what differentiates the state from a gang. There has been a clear failure in their duty of car eon the part of Corrections which has led directly to a man's death, and they need to be held accountable for it. Secondly, despite the Sensible Sentencing Trust's urgent fantasies, we do not have the death penalty in New Zealand. At least, not in law. But double bunking will give us one de facto. And that is simply unacceptable in a civilised society.

We're paying for Rodney's fundraising trip

Last week we learned that Local Government Minister Rodney Hide was treating his job as a corrupt little fiefdom, giving speeches within his portfolio and charging stakeholders a donation to the ACT party if they wanted to hear them in clear contravention of Ministerial guidelines. That's bad enough, but the response to an urgent OIA request has added insult to injury - we're paying for his travel as well:

On Wednesday 4 November, Mr Hide will be in Christchurch on business related to his Ministerial portfolios of Local Government and Regulatory Reform. The purpose of this trip is to deliver a keynote address to the Canterbury Manufacturers Association on the principles behind his Regulatory Reform programme. While he is in Christchurch he will also be making site visits to a local engineering firm and the University of Canterbury. Mr Hide will also be meeting with members of the press and conducting other Ministerial duties.

There will be no additional costs to Vote: Ministerial Services related to Mr Hide's address to the ACT Party at the Heartland Cotswald Hotel.

Sure, there's no additional costs to the taxpayer, and it is of course all within the rules, but it is an unacceptable mingling of public and private business. Thanks to some clever scheduling, we're effectively footing the bill for Hide's attendance at his little fundraiser. And we simply shouldn't be. The Ministerial travel budget is to pay for travel as part of Ministerial duties - not for Ministers to zip around the country touching up donors for cash.

More generally, Ministers need to be able to maintain a rigid separation between their public duties and their private business. But like some feudal lord, Hide seems unable to tell the difference. If he cannot distinguish between the two, then he is simply unfit to be a Minister.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Guest column: Labour Day

By Stephen Day

I've always thought that there is something counterintuitive about unionists organising activity around Labour Day. Labour Day has come to mean, for most New Zealanders, a day off because, well, we deserve to have a day off. It's nice to have a place in our year dedicated to not needing to do anything, just taking a break.

Sure, during our early Labour Days we had big festivals, parades and sporting occasions. But these days Labour Day can quite happily be about little more than sleeping in, hopefully sitting about in the sun and maybe spending more time than you might usually with friends or family.

This year hasn't been the best one for workers and union members. Most employers, including the biggest employer of them all, the one we elect, have responded to the global recession by zipping up their wallet and bunkering down. It's tough times for employers as well as workers. On the whole workers, through their unions, have tried to work cooperatively with their employers within these new financial constraints. However some employers, who haven't faced tough times, who are in fact continuing to make large profits, are exploiting the situation to batter their workers and generate more profits. Many workers are still after all theses years still not getting paid enough to look after a family and live a decent life. Many face working conditions that are unnecessarily harsh, lacking in respect or dignity, or even downright dangerous.

But despite all that there are still things to celebrate. We now have paid parental leave. We have legislated meal breaks, breastfeeding breaks, four weeks annual leave and regular increases to the minimum wage. We achieved all these things in the recent past. We achieved all theses things by working together and campaigning for them.

Not everyone will get a holiday on Monday but most will, and another recent victory by working people and our unions means that those who don't still get a day in lieu.

My advice is don't spend Monday thinking about unions and working conditions. It's a holiday so enjoy it doing stuff you want to do. But the next day, Tuesday, go to say hello to the union delegate at your worksite and ask if there is anything simple you can do to help to win the next small improvement for workers and our families.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Fisk

End of an era for Lebanon's free press
Beirut's history can't be reduced to a mere 'heritage trail'

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Busy today and tomorrow, so nothing more from me today. Sorry.

"Financial discipline"

Since getting elected and giving away over a billion dollars a year to their rich mates, National has spun hard on financial discipline, lying about "cutting waste" (there wasn't any), being left "unfunded commitments" (wrong again), and being left a "financial mess" (no net debt and the strongest books in two generations) by the previous government in an effort to tar Labour's legacy of good economic management and paint themselves as the financially respectable party (Yeah, right). So you'd expect that having made all that noise, when they propose major changes to ACC with significant financial flow-on effects to other departments (e.g. Health and Social Development) and private individuals, they'd bother to cost those changes, right?


The Treasury’s adequacy statement in the [ACC] Bill says it does not contain required cost information and the Government’s analysis is incomplete. The cuts to ACC entitlements will shift costs to other government departments or onto workers and there is no quantification of these costs.

Treasury stated: “The proposal to introduce experience rating and risk sharing in the ACC Work Account will increase administrative and compliance costs for business and for the ACC scheme, yet these costs have not been investigated.”

Why haven't they been? Because of the hurry. Having talked up a crisis in ACC, National wants to be seen to be "acting decisively" to "solve" it. And of course, if they wait too long, the moment of low interest rates (and therefore of imbalance in ACC's books) could pass - and the "need" for "reform" with it. So we get policy made in a mad rush, with no thought, no costings - and certainly no checks and balances.

(This of course assumes that National is serious in its proposals. A more cynical person might say that they haven't costed it because the costs are irrelevant; the goal is privatisation to give their insurance industry mates a $200 million windfall, and they don't care who pays for it...)

This is no way to run a country. But sadly, we're stuck with it for at least the next two years.

Some stats on urgency

How bad is National's abuse of urgency? I've just obtained some hard data from Parliament, and it speaks for itself:

  • The 48th Parliament sat for a total of 1503.75 hours between 2005 and 2008. Of that time, 148.75 hours - 9.9% - were under urgency.
  • The 49th Parliament has sat for 545 hours since its election in 2008. Of that time, 183 hours - 33.6% - have been under urgency.

So there you have it. Not only is National using urgency more than three times as often as Labour - they've already sat for more hours under urgency than the previous three years of Labour-led government. Quite an achievement.

Labour's low use of urgency wasn't due to any virtue on their part; rather, they simply didn't have a majority for it except for the rare cases where it was actually necessary, or the pre-holiday crush. By contrast, National's rubberstamp support partners give it an easy majority, which they are abusing in full autocratic style. The result is a return to the "elected dictatorship" of old, when the government does whatever it wants and Parliament is reduced to a rubberstamp "fastest legislature in the west".

This autocratic approach to government is one of the reasons people voted for MMP: to hamstring government, slow it down, and thereby bring it back under control. Clearly, we didn't do a good enough job last time round...

Not so urgent after all

So, having called urgency yesterday, the House rose early tonight when it ran out of business. Which suggests that said business wasn't so urgent after all - and certainly not urgent enough to justify eating Wednesday.

Trevor Mallard suggests its a sign of poor House management, and I agree. Really, can't Brownlee count? Or did they not have the numbers for the un-named bills they were planning to introduce?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another ACT rort?

A trio of ACT MPs were in Dunedin last month, holding a forum on "The hard questions - and some answers". Attendees were charged $10, or $5 if they were under 25, with the money going to the ACT party.

What's the bet they travelled there on the public tab, courtesy of Parliamentary Services? Unfortunately, thanks to self-serving politicians excluding their expenses from the coverage of the OIA, we'll never know.

Climate change: Designed to fail

How much will the government's massive subsidies for pollution cost us? The submission of Dr Christina Hood [PDF], a former analyst for MfE and current climate change advisor to the Kapiti Coast Distrct Council, has the answer: $105 billion by 2050:


Its a staggering sum, over 50% of present GDP. And it will go straight from our pockets into the pockets of polluters.

Note that after an initial dip, the number of units allocated - and hence emissions allowed - does not decrease, and in fact increases to 2050. This is a consequence of intensity-based allocation and projected growth in the farming sector. Its also worth noting that the government's proposed allocation scheme makes it impossible to meet their oft-proclaimed "50% by 2050" (i.e. about 30 million ton) target. Instead, they are committing our emissions to being at least 70% of 1990 levels in free credits alone.

This isn't even "do nothing". Instead, it's "announce target - set policy to ensure it cannot be met - hope that no-one notices". It is a policy designed to fail. And it makes crystal clear that all the government's talk of a 2050 target is simply spin.

Is it a crime?

Is Rodney Hide's corrupt abuse of office to line the pockets of his party a crime? Section 102 of the Crimes Act 1961 outlaws "Corruption and bribery of Minister of the Crown". The relevant subsection reads:

Every Minister of the Crown or member of the Executive Council is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years who corruptly accepts or obtains, or agrees or offers to accept or attempts to obtain, any bribe for himself or any other person in respect of any act done or omitted, or to be done or omitted, by him in his capacity as a Minister or member of the Executive Council.
(Emphasis added).

Is Rodney a Minister of the Crown? Check.

Has he asked for money for himself or any other person? Check.

Is the act he has asked for money to perform - the promotion of policy - one done in his capacity as a Minister? Check.

Is the money a "bribe"? Arguable. Hide calls it a "donation". Whether political donations are bribes or not tends to depend on whether you are a politician or a member of the public.

The latter almost certainly rules our prosecution. But its an awfully thin thread to hang a defence on, particularly when we are talking about public faith in the political system. Regardless of whether you think political donations are bribes or not, this doesn't pass the smell test. Ministers must be seen to uphold the highest ethical standards in the exercise of their office, and they must properly distinguish between their Ministerial and party-political capacities. Hide has failed to make that distinction, and in a way which undermines public faith in our political system. He is simply not fit for Ministerial office.

A perk of office

One of the expectations in our modern, non-corrupt democracy is that government is a free service. If you want your MP to do something for you, you won't be charged a fee, and if you want to know what the government is planning to do, you won't have to give a backhander to a Minister for the privilege. Access to government is not for sale in this country.

Not according to Rodney Hide. He's running a roadshow on his plans for local government - explicitly government business, the sort of thing we expect Ministers to do as a matter of course - as an ACT party fundraiser. If local body members in Christchurch want to know what the Minister has planned for them, they have to pay a fee to his party for the privilege.

This is a gross abuse of office. Promoting policy is explicitly listed in the Cabinet Manual as being something done in a Ministerial capacity. And the rules on how Ministers conduct themselves in that capacity are very clear:

accepting additional payment for doing anything that could be regarded as a ministerial function is not permissible;
The payment is to Hide's party, but I don't think that lets him off the hook, any more than paying a partner or relative or business associate would. He profits indirectly through increased election chances, and the perception is that the party is being paid for his services as a Minister. This absolutely fails to meet the requirement that
In all these roles and at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards.
Rodney Hide has failed to meet that standard. He has behaved in a way which is frankly corrupt. But I guess he just regards it as a perk of office.

The 2008 election inquiry

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on its inquiry into the 2008 election. The inquiry is a standard part of the electoral cycle, a regular review to see how things went and whether any changes should be made. This year a lot of stuff - reform of the electoral agencies, the Electoral Finance Act - was off the table due to reviews already in process, and so they focused heavily on the electoral process. The most significant change they recommended was to remove the requirement for voters to establish grounds to vote in advance, a change which would allow much wider use of advance voting. The driver here is a massive increase in advance voting - 35% in the last electoral cycle - which they attribute to lifestyle changes and shifts in working patterns which mean it is no longer convenient for everyone to vote on a Saturday. The Chief Electoral office described it as people voting with their feet, and they want to support it. IMHO its a good suggestion, which will make voting more accessible to more people - a Good Thing in a democracy.

The Greens raised an interesting question about "authorised witnesses" - party hacks who are authorised by the returning officer to go round e.g. old-age homes on election day and witness and collect special votes. We have no information on these people, how they operate, or the number of votes they collect. None whatsoever. The Chief Electoral Office simply doesn't collect it. Given the obvious potential abuses here, its something there should be a lot more scrutiny of; our electoral system is too important to simply take it on trust.

One other interesting point is that the Electoral Enrolment Centre is working on plans to allow full online enrolment. This would make it much easier for young voters to enrol, and getting them to enrol is the key to getting them to participate. Its a good move, and hopefully it'll be ready for the next election.

No Member's Day

Today is Tuesday.

Yes, of course its not - but it is in Parliament. Yesterday the government put the House into urgency just because they could, meaning that it is nominally Tuesday until they decide it isn't (which will likely happen sometime on what we in the real world would call Thursday evening, or maybe Friday morning). Tuesday lasting all week means that Wednesday doesn't happen, which means that there is no Member's Day. Yes, once again the government has just walked all over the (already extremely limited) rights of Parliament and eaten the valuable and limited time of Members so they can get a few extra hours for such staggeringly important legislation as the Subordinate Legislation (Confirmation and Validation) Bill and Social Assistance (Payment of New Zealand Superannuation and Veteran’s Pension Overseas) Amendment Bill. Interestingly, by doing so they've avoided a messy debate on John Boscawen's child-beating bill. But I'm sure there's no connection at all. Really.

The government's legislative style is increasingly looking like a re-run of the 80's, with legislation introduced under urgency to avoid public debate, and rammed through in minimal time with little scrutiny. They can do this because they have an easy majority, thanks to compliant support parties willing to rubberstamp urgency in exchange for a seat in the back of a Ministerial Limo. Its a perfect warning of the danger of such arrangements - and of the need to hamstring government in future.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Irony is dead

Family First's Bob McCoskrie on the upcoming MMP referendum:

“The question ‘do voters want to retain MMP’ is confusing because a voter wanting change in the Electoral system will have to vote NO,” says Bob McCoskrie. “It's a pretty weird referendum when yes means no and no means yes.”
Yes, it is - but I didn't notice him complaining last time.

But snark about McCoskrie's obvious hypocrisy aside, the questions haven't actually been decided yet. As for what they should be, in 1992 voters were presented with two options: "I vote to retain the present FPP system" or "I vote for a change to the voting system". Repeating that, with the obvious change, seems to be the best and fairest solution.

Maori Party supports gutting ACC

The Maori Party will vote for the government's bill to gut ACC, even though they explicitly acknowledge that the bill will further restrict entitlements and be bad for Maori.

When the Maori Party first entered Parliament, they had a simple clear criterion for judging policy: "is it good for Maori"? Today, they have betrayed that principle.


Not content with wanting to give massive subsidies to the nuclear industry, the UK government also wants to insulate them from the true costs of their activities by weakening standards around the disposal and storage of nuclear waste. The highlight? Letting them dump nuclear waste in local landfills.

This is simply insanity. At a time when western countries are shitting themselves over the risk of a "dirty bomb" (to the extent that in 2004 they robbed Iraq of all its medical radiation sources, leaving Iraqis to die of cancer), the UK is now proposing that the materials required to create one be left lying around with the trash. But its not just about terrorism - we've already seen the consequences of this sort of dumping in the third world and the former Soviet Union. Dumping this stuff in landfills means it will be found, scavenged, played with, and people will be contaminated and die as a result. But I guess the UK government doesn't care about that as much as it cares about the profits of the nuclear industry.

MMP referendum

So, its 2011, and with a two-stage process that mirrors the original referendum. Which is a lot better than what MMP refuseniks Graeme Hunt and Peter Shirtcliffe wanted, but there's still plenty of scope for the government to strap the chicken. Notably, the list of possible alternatives and the precise wording of the question has not yet been determined, meaning they could try to stack the vote by offering a unequal choice between MMP and an alternative with fewer MPs.

Either way, if we want to protect MMP, its not enough simply to vote for no change in 2011 - we also have to chuck out National, just to be on the safe side. Unfortunately, Labour's plans for MMP aren't much better (being led by a man who opposed its introduction doesn't help), so we need to make it clear to both parties: our democracy is non-negotiable.

National on ACC

Just in case anyone has any doubts that National will give ACT what it wants and use them as an excuse for ACC privatisation, here's their ACC policy [PDF] and policy backgrounder [PDF] from the 2008 election. The latter is quite explicit:

The experience of competition in the late 1990’s was healthy for ACC. Levy rates are now substantially lower as a result of that experience, and the ongoing prospect of competition. The current Government has retained the facility by which larger employers are able, as accredited employers, to opt out of the state monopoly, self-insure, and use a private administrator as the case manager.

It would not be possible now to replicate the large levy reductions that characterised the 1998 reforms. However, the National Party believes there is further scope to improve delivery of the scheme through the introduction of competition and choice.


The National Party is committed to the principles of competition and choice as the appropriate means of ensuring efficiency of ACC provision, and increasing incentives for improved workplace safety and better rehabilitation of accident victims.

Note that National admits that this will not be any cheaper for the public of New Zealand - there will be no "large levy reductions". The move is purely ideological, the benefits accruing solely to the insurance industry. Fairytales about employers "choosing" to pay more to provide greater cover to their workers (yeah, right) don't change that one iota.

Interestingly according to the policy backgrounder National opposed part-charges. Now they're considering a universal $50 or $100 excess to discourage claims. So much for consistency.

National will give ACT what it wants

The news today (insomuch as there is any) is that National is negotiating with ACT over privatising ACC to get its preferred changes through. The grumbling about a party which won 3% of the vote getting to dictate policy has already started, but its worth remembering that during the election National campaigned on exactly ACT's policy: privatising the work account for the profit of the insurance industry - something John Key was thoughtful enough to remind the press gallery of yesterday. So, while everyone is distracted by the dance, the outcome isn't really in question. National will give ACT what it wants, because they want it too.

Meanwhile, there's a telling omission from Key's criteria for privatisation:

Mr Key said if the ACC work account was opened up to competition, National would "need to be convinced that there were benefits both to the Government and the private sector".
Who's missing? Only the most important stakeholder: the people of New Zealand, who depend on the scheme for cover. But the reason we're missing is because we're the group that won't benefit. An independent review in 2008 found that there were no gains to be made from privatisation. That means that any benefits to the government and the private sector - and Key's former employers Merrill Lynch are on record as estimating they'd make $200 million from privatisation - have to come out of our pockets, in the form of higher premiums and lower entitlements. Key and ACT are plotting to screw us over, while their rich Aussie mates laugh all the way to the bank.

This is not something we should tolerate. Like Auckland's assets, ACC is not theirs to sell - or to privatise, "open to competition", or however else they want to spin it. It is there to provide a service to the people of New Zealand, and it is the governments job to ensure that it keeps providing that service. There is no question that we can afford it - the current "crisis" is entirely manufactured, born of temporary changes to interest rates rather than any real problem (the scheme notably is still taking in far more per year than the long-term cost of claims; at worst the current problems threaten the date at which it is considered to be fully funded, not whether it will be, and certainly not its ability to provide cover). National's moves to undermine and privatise ACC are a fundamental betrayal of trust and a theft from the people of New Zealand. And we should hold them accountable for it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Labour's new nadir

UK postal workers are going on strike this week over privatisation and plans to "modernise" the postal service - which means them working harder and longer for less money. In response, the postal service - with the full support of the "Labour" government - has announced plans to hire 30,000 scabs to crush the strike.

And UK Labour wonders why its core voters have given up on it...

Drinking Liberally this week

Drinking Liberally is on in Auckland and Wellington this week:

When: 19:00, Wednesday 21 October
Where: The London Bar, upstairs cnr Queen and Wellesley Streets, Auckland CBD
Who: Greenpeace Executive Director Bunny McDiarmid on climate change and the Sign On campaign.

When: 17:30, Thursday 22 October
Where: The Southern Cross, Wellington
Who: Wellington City Councillor and mayoral candidate Celia Wade-Brown on the threat of a Wellington supercity

[Hat-tip: The Standard on the latter]

A new entry in the political lexicon

Kicking the tyres: to promote radical change for the benefit of the few.

We've seen National try this little piece of spin twice now, first on MMP, and now on ACC. In both cases they clearly have a specific plan in mind - rolling back MMP in favour of an unfair and non-proportional system of plurality rule and rolling back core ACC entitlements and privatising the scheme so as to transfer wealth to their donors and cronies in the insurance industry respectively - and in both cases the public of New Zealand is the loser. But National isn't there to serve the public of New Zealand - they're there to serve the interests of their big business buddies, and they have absolutely no shame about it.

Meanwhile, it seems that ACC Minister Nick Smith has acquired a habit of trying to lie his way out of trouble. On Sunday, he was denying that the proposals uncovered by the Sunday Star-Times were even being debated; today, he admits that they are under active consideration. Quite apart from the merits of the proposal (and I agree with the ACC schemes architect, Owen Woodhouse: there aren't any), that sort of deceitful attitude is simply unacceptable in a minister and unacceptable in a government. But I guess the reality of their plan is so unpalatable - "we want to make you worse off so our friends will get richer" - that deceit is their only option if they want to get elected.

Provocation repeal gets a step closer

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Crimes (Provocation Repeal) Amendment Bill, and recommended that it be passed with a minor tweak to clarify that the common law defence of provocation is also abolished. The bill will now go back to the House, and will hopefully be law by the end of the year.

The select committee report does deal briefly with some of the myths of provocation - primarily that it protects battered or mentally ill defendants, rather than violent bigots and misogynists - and dismisses them. There is simply no justification for this relic of the past to continue in New Zealand law, and the sooner it is expunged, the better.

New Fisk

You don't need colour to see the full bloody horror of war

Friday, October 16, 2009

Surely this is contempt?

Not content with trying (and failing) to forbid the Guardian from reporting on the fact of an upcoming debate in Parliament about their work on behalf of one of their clients, UK solicitors Carter-Ruck are now trying to prevent Parliament from having the debate.

Surely this is contempt of Parliament. Yes, Parliament respects the courts and does not debate matters which are sub judice. But they do it out of politeness, not because they can't. And purporting to forbid a Parliamentary debate seems to me to be trying to interfere with the conduct of Members in their duties - a classic case of contempt.

Climate change: We are all terrorists now

Worried about the environment? Want the government to actually act on climate change? That makes you a terrorist, according to the UK police:

Terror legislation was used to stop a British climate change activist from travelling to Denmark, it has emerged.

Chris Kitchen, 31, said he was prevented from crossing the border on Tuesday at about 5pm when the coach he was travelling on stopped at the Folkestone terminal of the Channel Tunnel.

Mr Kitchen told the Guardian that police officers boarded the coach and, after checking all passengers' passports, took him and another climate activist to be interviewed under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, a clause which enables border officials to stop and search individuals to determine if they are connected to terrorism.

He was asked what he intended to do in Copenhagen and also about his family, work and past political activity.

Mr Kitchen said he pointed out that anti-terrorist legislation did not apply to environmental activists but said the officer replied that terrorism "could mean a lot of things".

And so the UK has now joined the list of countries - like Fiji and the former Soviet Union - which restrict their people's freedom of movement based on their political views. Meanwhile, the conflation of democratic participation and public protest - already well-advanced in the UK - continues.

Climate change: The PCE on the ETS

The government's proposed changes to the ETS lack transparency and will remove any incentive to reduce emissions.

That was the opinion of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment - an independent officer of Parliament (like the Ombudsmen) with the task of "hold[ing] the Government to account for its environmental policies and actions" - at the Finance and Expenditure Committee yesterday. Their submission [PDF] takes the government to task for its move to unlimited intensity-based allocation, pointing out that they would effectively remove the price signal altogether for some sectors, and result in no reduction in emissions:

My greatest concern with the proposed amendments is the changes to allocation after 2012. The allocation of free carbon credits to industrial processes, industrial heat generation and petroleum refining sectors is extremely generous. Using the industry average baseline for allocation instead of aiming for better, the lack of a limit to the number of credits given away, and the increasingly slow phase-out, all result in allocation at very high levels. This essentially removes the price signal to this emissions-intensive sector, where New Zealand needs a carbon price signal the most.

Removing the price signal doesn’t remove the cost of emissions, since the taxpayer must pick up the tab. And without the incentive to invest in low carbon-intensive technology, emissions will continue to rise. This is not consistent with the stated purpose of the ETS.

The lack of a cap will allow emissions to grow, the phase-out rate is incompatible with the government's stated goal of a 50% reduction by 2050, and there is no justification for the allocation to agriculture. As for "protecting jobs", they point to research that the cost could be as much as $109,000 per job saved. Which is simply utter madness. Again, if we're willing to pay that much, then we can find something for these people to do which does not involve destroying the environment.

The second big problem is transparency. Allocation involves giving away billions of dollars of government money, yet it will all happen in secret. All the public will get is a total number. The PCE recommends that this be broken down by sector or industry, and with the free allocation justified in each case. I'd go further and break it down by firm - that way we can tell if we are really getting our money's worth (and whether the government's claims of "protecting jobs" are holding up). Screw commercial sensitivity - when they're sticking their hand out for millions of dollars a year in pollution subsidies in perpetuity, we have a right to know.

The PCE also pointed out that the allocation scheme is not politically durable as the Labour Party does not support it. I think that for the sake of the environment, Labour needs to be making a lot more noise about that. Business needs certainty on carbon costs to make investment decisions; denying them that certainty means they will not invest in pollution. Labour needs to be crystal clear: polluters may get a free ride under National, but that will end the moment the government changes, and large polluters will be paying the full cost of their activities. As for the Greens, they need to be making it clear that they will be demanding this as a bottom line in any future confidence and supply deal. And if business stupidly makes dirty investments in the face of such statements, they deserve to lose their money.

More wind

Mighty River Power has been granted resource consent for its proposed 12.5 MW windfarm at Long Gully near Wellington. Its a small project, but one of the advantages of wind is that it does not have to be big. And looking at the New Zealand Wind Energy Association's list of operating and under construction wind farms, it seems that there are several of these small clusters planned around the country.

Also looking at that list, it looks like we will pass 500 MW of generating capacity soon. meanwhile, there is over 2500 MW currently working through the consent process. Not all of this will be built, and the financial crisis has put some of the projects on hold, but its a good illustration of the potential we have available. We can have a renewable, sustainable future if we want; all we need is the right policy framework.

No freedom of speech in Russia

Back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, Russians could not talk about the crimes of their government, and if they did, they got arrested.

Sadly, nothing has changed:

A Russian historian investigating the fate of Germans imprisoned in the Soviet Union during the second world war has been arrested, in the latest apparent clampdown on historical research into the Stalin era by the Russian authorities.

Mikhail Suprun was detained last month by officers from Russia's security services. They searched his apartment and carried off his entire personal archive. He has now been charged with violating privacy laws and, if convicted, faces up to four years in jail.

It seems the former KGB thugs who now run Russia want to establish an official version of history which whitewashes their crimes and cases Stalin as a hero, and are turning back to their own habits to achieve it. This isn't just a gross violation of freedom of speech - it is actively dangerous. Remember Orwell: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future".

Rubberstamping pollution

The Tarawera River is one of our most polluted waterways. While the upper reaches are crystal clear, the lower parts are stained black due to pollution from the Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill in Kawerau. The mill dumps 150,000 tons of polluted mill waste into the river each day; as a result, the river is too filthy for most fish to live in, the water cannot be used by local orchardists or recreationally, let alone the local iwi for kaimoana.

The RMA explicitly rules out such pollution. Section 107 states that no resource consent shall be granted for discharging contaminants into water if it results in "any conspicuous change in the colour or visual clarity" of the water, renders it unsuitable for consumption by farm animals, or has a significant adverse effect on aquatic life. However, just this week, Environment Bay of Plenty granted the mill resource consent to continue polluting for the next 25 years.

How? Because section 107 also includes an exemption allowing consents to be granted in "exceptional circumstances". What's "exceptional"? Whatever the council wants it to be, of course. And so we're now in the Orwellian situation where the ordinary business-as-usual situation - pollution - is considered "exceptional" in order to please a powerful regional employer too cheap to run a clean operation.

This isn't good enough. The RMA is supposed to protect our waterways, not act as a rubberstamp for pollution. Green MP Catherine Delahunty has suggested tweaking the law to make it clear that consents granted in "exceptional circumstances" must be strictly temporary and require the polluter to clean up their act. It sounds like a bloody good idea to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Smith undermines accountability

Today in the House Speaker Lockwood Smith decided to dock the opposition of a supplementary question as punishment for misbehaviour.

Quite apart from questions of bias (which is becoming apparent; Smith is very good at forcing Ministers to actually answer questions, but he is terrible at enforcing standards on his own party, and his consistency on this is woeful), this is a terrible way of enforcing discipline. Since Smith has so obviously forgotten, I'll remind him: Ministers are accountable to the people of New Zealand through Parliament. The chief day-to-day mechanism by which that accountability is enforced is supplementary questions in Question Time. By docking the opposition of a supplementary question, he punishes not them, but us.

This isn't good enough. By all means, he should throw misbehaving MPs out. But he should not protect his colleagues from scrutiny and undermine the government's accountability to the public.

Climate change: National loses

This morning I posted about National's attempts to limit hearing oral submissions on the Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill. National had planned to hear all oral submissions today, restricting the number heard to 27 (out of 160 who had asked to make an oral submission). Submitters were to be given just ten minutes each on what is the most significant change to the economy since the introduction of GST, and those contacted had been given the impression that if they did not take the opportunity to speak today, they would never be heard at all.

The good news is that National lost. First, the opposition pushed for everyone who had asked to be heard to be given a slot, then for the committee to sit next week to hear them. Both motions passed with the support of Labour, the Greens, the Maori Party and ACT, with National voting against. It is still a pathetic amount of time to hear submissions on legislation this complex, but it is far better than the fake process National was proposing.

Celebrating Labour Day

Next weekend is labour weekend, when we celebrate the achievement of the eight-hour day in New Zealand. To remind people of what its all about, the Tertiary Education Union has stuck up a site, with information on the history of labour day, the achievements of unions in winning better conditions for ordinary kiwis, and what still needs to be done.


Back in World War I, the British government was concerned about the "reliability" of Italy as an ally and its commitment to the war. So they paid a small-time journalist to publish pro-war propaganda in his newspaper and organise groups of veterans to beat up anti-war protestors. His name? Benito Mussolini.

Well, that worked out well, didn't it?

Climate change: A mockery of the select committee process

Last month, the government's Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill, which guts the ETS and pays enormous, financially unsustainable subsidies to polluters, passed its first reading and was sent to select committee. Submissions to the Committee closed on Tuesday, and on an important bill like this you'd expect the Committee to spend a fair amount of time chewing them over.

Apparently not. Carbon News reports that National will move to have the Committee hear all oral submissions today, giving them just 10 minutes each (and 4.5 hours in total) on legislation which would make the most important change to the economy since the introduction of GST. As for what happens to submitters who wanted to make an oral presentation, but aren't available to do it on two hours notice in Wellington, I guess its just tough shit.

This is a mockery of the select committee process, and it turns any pretence of "consultation" on the changes into a bad joke. The government is simply not interested in people's views on this legislation. Instead it wants to ram it through in as short a time as possible, so it can start writing cheques to its corporate polluter cronies. Which makes you wonder why they bothered having a select committee at all...

Update: I hear ACT is demanding more time for submissions, which means it all comes down to the Maori Party. Will they support democracy or betray it?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lockwood Smith: Freedom of speech for some but not for others

One of the core principles of Parliament is freedom of speech. Parliament is meant to be a place of open debate, where all views can be expressed.

Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith does not agree with this principle. Today, he ruled that labour MPs must remove signs calling for fair pay for Parliamentary Services workers (IIRC, he has previously asked them to remove badges). Meanwhile, he does not consider badges in support of breast cancer research to be disruptive of order. When pressed on his ruling, he claimed that Labour MPs should be able to tell the difference between one cause and the other. In other words, he thinks causes he thinks are important should be allowed, while causes he does not think are important - such as worker's rights - should not be.

This is a clear content-based restriction on freedom of speech. And its worth pointing out here that the Speaker has an interest: as de facto Minister for the Parliamentary Service, he is responsible for the wage dispute. So, he is effectively abusing Standing Orders to prevent criticism of his own position.

This stinks. It is dictatorial and authoritarian. But exactly what I've come to expect from National's "feudal overlord" style of government.

National sticks it to the poor again

National has announced its changes to ACC to "restore" financial sustainability (which was never under threat). So, what are they? First, the usual assortment of headline-grabbing but inconsequential changes which will make no real difference (strengthening disentitlements for criminals, and removing entitlements for suicide and self-inflicted injury, even when the latter is inflicted as a result of mental-illness). Secondly, introducing a threshold for hearing loss, effectively allowing employers to gradually deafen their employees and making us wear the cost for their unsafe practices. But most importantly, they plan to reverse the 2008 changes which extended greater (and fairer) cover to part-time, casual and seasonal workers.

The latter is important. A quarter of the workforce is now part-time, casual or seasonal. They pay premiums. But under National, they won't get as much cover, and will have to bear far more of the cost of workplace injury themselves. And they are the people worst-placed to do so - insecure employment arrangements are more common at the bottom end of the labour market, where people are less likely to have savings to fall back on. The upshot: at the bottom end, workplace accidents will drive people deeper into poverty - exactly what the ACC scheme was intended to prevent.

This will decrease compensation costs, meaning reduced premiums to employers. But it will effectively shift the burden of paying for ACC's beaten-up accounting crisis onto the poor. That is not fair and it is not just, and we as a society should not accept it.

A victory for freedom of speech in the UK

Yesterday, UK libel law hit a new low when a law firm representing corporate criminal oil-traders Trafigura (who some may remember were responsible for the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast back in 2006, killing 17 people and injuring over 30,000) sought to prevent the Guardian from reporting on Parliament. The good news is that Trafigura's lawyers have now backed off, following mass violation of their suppression order on the internet. So, freedom of speech appears to win for the moment. But the bad news is that judges are still handing out these "super-injunctions", preventing not just publication of the material in question, but any mention of the case at all.

Open justice in the UK is under threat, and being twisted towards secrecy by the rich and powerful. its a disturbing, authoritarian trend. But hopefully Trafigura's overstepping of the mark yesterday will help put a stop to it.

Bringing on the republic

Republicanism has been a sleeping issue for the past decade or so. Most politicians freely acknowledge that it is "inevitable" that New Zealand will grow up and become a republic, but none seem willing to do anything to bring that about.

Today, that changed, with the drawing of Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill from the ballot. The bill would establish a two-step referendum process on whether to become a republic. In the first referendum, we would be offered a choice of the status quo, a republic with a President elected by a supermajority in Parliament, or a republic with a President directly elected by the people using STV. If any option gets a majority (unlikely, given that republican support will be split on the issue of election), then we go with it. If none does, then there will be a run-off between the two strongest options.

The important thing to note is that this bill makes the absolute minimal changes to create a republic. It would not see a powerful executive President with powers to veto legislation. Instead, if we go republican, the President would have exactly the same powers and be bound by convention in exactly the same way as the present Governor-General. All that would change is their method of appointment and who they work for: us, or a foreign monarch.

The Republican Movement has a guide to the bill here. If you want to show your support, you can join them here.

Drawn: the Republic

A ballot for member's bills was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Head of State Referenda Bill (Keith Locke)

So, we get to have the debate. It will be interesting to see which way people will jump.

There were only two new bills in the ballot this week: John Boscawen's KiwiSaver (Contribution Flexibility) Amendment Bill and Raymond Huo's Local Government (Auckland Council) (Asian Advisory Board) Amendment Bill. While the Greens and ACT are continuing to make full use of their ballot slots, National and Labour continued to underuse theirs, with only 5 and 13 bills (out of a possible 35 and 43) respectively.

The full list of bills is on Red Alert here.

Can the Greens work with the right?

A favoured meme on the right is that the Greens are "too far to the left", and that a true environmental party would lend confidence and supply to National to advance their environmental goals. The underlying assumption is that what stops the two parties from cooperating closely is that most of the Green MPs are lefties. That's part of the picture - though the commitment to "social responsibility" in the form of a "just distribution of social and natural resources" in the Green Charter is more important than the present MPs - but it misses the real problem: National's present anti-environmentalism. There is very little ground for cooperation with a party which wants to dig up our national parks. Or not pull our weight on climate change. Or weaken environmental standards. Or gut the RMA. National is an anti-environmental party which thinks coal is "sexy"; supporting them in power harms the environment rather than helps it. And now that National has revealed its "dig it up and burn it" policies, that cooperation deal the Greens signed back in April (and which I thought was worth trying on the narrow slice of common ground they could find) is looking like a big mistake, simply a chance for National to greenwash itself a little while in reality destroying our environment.

Overseas, its a different story. In Germany, the recent Saarland state elections have resulted in the first ever CDU-FDU-Green coalition (called a "Jamaica" coalition due to the colours of the parties). Partly, this is because of a conservative local Green party, and partly its because the CDU-FDU offered them a very good deal (two important ministries - education and environment/energy/transport - when the Greens have only three MPs). But what ultimately makes it possible is that the German right is simply far greener than its New Zealand equivalent. The coalition won't be trouble free - the Saarland Greens are already coming under fire for a backdown on nuclear energy - but its at least contemplatable. But with National's current anti-environment stance, the same cannot be said of New Zealand.