Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Israel is still starving the people of Gaza

Six months ago, following its murder of civilians on the MV Mavi Marmara, Israel announced that it was "easing" its economic blockade of Gaza.


There has been "little improvement" for people in Gaza since Israel announced it was easing its economic blockade of the territory six months ago.

That is the verdict of a new report by aid agencies and rights groups working inside the Palestinian territory.


"Only a fraction of the aid needed has made it to the civilians trapped in Gaza by the blockade," said Jeremy Hobbs, Director of Oxfam International.

"Israel's failure to live up to its commitments and the lack of international action to lift the blockade are depriving Palestinians in Gaza of access to clean water, electricity, jobs and a peaceful future," Mr Hobbs added.

Meanwhile, the BBC reminds us all of why the blockade was imposed: not (as Israel claims publicly) to "prevent terrorism", but "as part of a policy of 'deliberately reducing' basic goods for people in Gaza in order to put pressure on Hamas" - that is, starving the Palestinians because they voted for a government the Israelis didn't like. That's their own government's policy, BTW, released under Israel’s freedom of information law; they condemn themselves out of their own mouths.

Starving civilians in order to achieve your political aims is immoral. When thugs like Mugabe do it, we rightly accuse them of perpetrating a crime against humanity. The same should apply to Israel.

More Fisk

Now we know. America really doesn't care about injustice in the Middle East.

Positive transparency

So far, we've only seen minor mentions of NZ in the WikiLeaks cablegate archive. A kiwi band entertaining Colonel Qadhafi; mention of our FTA negotiations with South Korea in a briefing to a US Congressional delegation; and a specific request for information on our position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a nuclear-free Middle East buried in the scandalous request for diplomats to spy on the UN. But there's another one which has popped up today: a June 2009 report of a discussion between a US political officer at the London embassy and Commonwealth Political Director Amitav Banerji, which mentions us in passing in its discussion of the Commonwealth's approach to Fiji:

Noting that the Commonwealth had past the deadline set at the May CMAG meeting to re-consider full suspension of Fiji (reftel), Banerji said he was very “frustrated” that CMAG had not yet met to discuss Fiji, especially as the Commonwealth’s credibility could be damaged by not taking a decision as indicated at the last meeting. He said CMAG had not met purely for scheduling reasons, and that the Secretariat hopes to hold the meeting by the end of the month, though he was not confident it would be possible. He thought CMAG would move for full suspension of Fiji, intimating there had been difficult discussions at the previous CMAG meeting on Fiji with New Zealand pushing hard for full suspension and Malaysia wanting to ensure that Fiji did not withdraw from the Commonwealth to pre-empt a full suspension a la Zimbabwe.
(Emphasis added)

This doesn't actually add anything new - we'd all been told that our government has pushed for Fiji's suspension - but its good to have it confirmed. We know that on this issue at least, our government has been straight with us, and isn't simply bullshitting us in public while pursuing another agenda in private. And that's a Good Thing, an example of how transparency can help us maintain oversight of the government and hold it accountable if necessary.

An attack on secrecy

The US has responded hysterically to WikiLeaks' airing of its dirty diplomatic laundry, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton branding it as "an attack on the international community".

Bullshit. Oh, its certainly an attack on the reputation of the US, in that it exposes their double dealing and those embarrassing little free and frank comments that all diplomats make. But American is not the world, and its hard to see how this harms the rest of us. Oh, the secret positions and embarrassing behaviour of some governments will be exposed. Big deal. Those are arguably positions and behaviour that should have been exposed anyway.

Some people have talked about secrecy being necessary for diplomacy. Possibly - but only insofar as it allows governments to hold positions unacceptable to the people who elect them, and to make deals we would never agree to if given a real choice. Diplomatic secrecy lets governments negotiate treaties like ACTA among themselves, in their own interests, and then present them to us as a fait accompli which must be accepted for fear of going back on "our" (meaning their) word. It allows governments to behave in a two-faced manner, pretending to us that they oppose torture while enabling it behind closed doors. In extreme cases, it allows them to plan and perpetrate crimes against humanity in secret - such as the war in Iraq.

In short, secrecy allows governments to get away with shit. And as a voter, I don't like that one bit. I want my government to be honest with me. And I want it to be honest with the world. I understand the need for diplomats to avoid topics in order to maintain a relationship (in the same way that I understand it with political parties in coalition - you talk about what you can work together on, not on what you can't), and that they will have opinions on the people they deal with which are as unflattering as my own. But on the big stuff - e.g. if the government is telling us that it will not negotiate away Pharmac in any FTA, while doing exactly that - then I want it exposed so I can hold those responsible to account. And that's the real problem: not that some American diplomat thinks (rightly) that Andrew Windsor is an arse, but that there is not enough democracy in our foreign policy. That's the real thing which has to change here. And hopefully, this leak will help it a little.

New Fisk

Egypt's election magic turns the opposition almost invisible

Monday, November 29, 2010

Victorian state elections

The Australian state of Victoria went to the polls over the weekend to elect a new state government. The result seems to have been a narrow victory for the coalition over the 11-year government of Premier John Brumby. At the same time we also have yet another demonstration of what is wrong with Australian politics. From the ABC's election results:

Party%voteSeats% Seats
While there are half a million postal ballots still to be counted, which could make a difference to the outcome, that massive disproportionality and the lack of any real connection between the votes cast and the seats gained shows that the system is deeply unfair. This has to change. Australia needs proportional representation, and the sooner, the better.

Charging schoolkids

Two hundred years ago, the British government responded to protests by riding them down with cavalry.

Nothing has changed:

(The relevant bit is at 1:10, and shows a group of horsemen charging the crowd).

What has changed is that the government can't lie about it, or pretend it didn't happen. Though oddly, that message doesn't seem to have gotten through to the UK police, who are still in full denial mode about charging down schoolkids with mounted police, despite clear evidence to the contrary. But just as they're stuck in a mindset which equates protest with sedition, they also seem to be stuck in a mindset where things are true just because they say they are, because the word of the powerful cannot be challenged by the powerless. That may have been true in the Middle Ages, but its certainly not true now.

Disappearance Convention update

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance is an international treaty aimed at outlawing disappearance and bringing its perpetrators to justice. It requires its parties to outlaw and punish disappearance (and assert extraterritorial jurisdiction if necessary), as well as take specific measures (such as tracking prisoners) to ensure it does not happen. Opened for signature in December 2006, it has languished for the last four years, waiting for enough countries to ratify it to bring it into force.

Until now. Last week, Iraq became the 20th country to ratify the Convention. Meaning that it will come into force on 23 December.

Sadly, New Zealand has not been part of this human rights achievement. Instead, we've refused to sign or ratify the Convention, using minor (and easily resolvable) inconsistencies with other international law as the excuse. The real reason, of course, is that the Convention outlaws the American practice of rendition; signing it would be seen as criticising America, and apparently no New Zealand government wants to do that.

The big leak

This morning, WikiLeaks dumped 251,287 secret US diplomatic cables on the world. They've led to a number of interesting revelations, both of the US's dirty dealings (and what it really thinks of its "allies"), and those of foreign governments. One of my favourites so far is 07BERLIN242, about the US government's efforts to avoid international arrest warrants being issued for the CIA kidnappers of Khalid El-Masri, an innocent German man who was rendered and tortured by the US. But there's a lot more; read any newspaper to find it.

But obviously, we're interested in New Zealand. No full cables from or about NZ have been published yet, but there are 1610 tagged as being from or about us, most of them from the US embassy in Wellington. If you are curious, there's a spreadsheet of the headers here. The oldest dates from 1993, and is from the US Embassy in Rome (tags: PREL, VAT, TU, NZ, US - that's political external relations, the Vatican? and Turkey). After that there's one from December 1997 from Wellington, which given the tags and timing is almost certainly about Jenny Shipley's backroom coup against Jim Bolger. Everything else is between 2004 and early 2010. In terms of subjects, I've done a frequency list, as has Danyl; most cables are about "external political relations", "internal government affairs", "foreign trade" and "economic conditions". Which is the bread and butter of any embassy - reading the newspapers and reporting back on what's going on, so their government doesn't get any nasty surprises. There may be some amusing free and frank assessments of our politicians in there (possibly even what they thought of Winston Peters), but there's unlikely to be anything serious.

More interesting are the 62 cables tagged "MARR" (Military and Defense Arrangements) and the 69 cables tagged "PTER" (Terrorists and Terrorism). The former will have some information about the US's wheedling to get us to send more kiwis to die in their stupid wars (and likely some criticism of our reluctance to do so), while the latter will be fascinating for the light it may shed on the war on terror locally, and its biggest local casualty, Ahmed Zaoui. Maybe we'll get to see the information that got SIS director Richard Woods' panties in a twist after all...

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for it. Only a tiny fraction (less than 0.1%) of the cables have so far been released. But that's been enough to make the governments of the world tremble. And this is going to drag on for months...

New Fisk

Oceans of blood and profits for the mongers of war

Friday, November 26, 2010


Palau is trying to ban all forms of contraception. The reason? To boost the country's population. Too many Palauans have been choosing to have smaller families, and those who measure the success of their country by the size of its population (the ideology of a cancer cell) want to put a stop to it.

Quite apart from the obvious liberal grounds for objecting to this decision - what people do in their bedrooms and how many kids they have are simply none of the government's business - there's also a large degree of simple revulsion at such barbarism. Contraception is a fundamental, transformative technology which frees us from nature. Banning it is taking people back to the dark ages and making them slaves to circumstance again. Its like banning sewage systems. Or literacy. If people want to live like that, or live in impoverished parts of the world where such technologies are out of reach, that's one thing (and the latter, we can work to fix). But forcing them to is simply abhorrent.

The chickens come home to roost

Between 2003 and 2006, the National Party waged a divisive, racist campaign against the then-Labour government's attempts to settle the foreshore and seabed issue. That campaign ended the moment John Key toppled Don Brash to become party leader. But it energised National's base in addition to polarising the nation. And now those chickens are coming home to roost:

National MP Allan Peachey is warning the Government that the foreshore and seabed saga is polarising the party's support, and many core voters feel betrayed and will never vote for National again.

A draft report, obtained by the Herald and written by the Tamaki MP, warns that the Act Party's campaign against the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill is "gaining traction".


"Many of the people in touch with me are threatening to resign from the party and to never vote for National again. We kid ourselves if we don't think we have a major issue on our hands among some of our core and loyal supporters," the report says.

National has no-one but itself to blame for this. They whipped their base into a racist frenzy, without thinking of how they'd have to govern the country (and make deals with Maori) in the future. Now, they're reaping what they sowed.

But amusement at National's self-inflicted suffering aside, this is not actually a good thing. One way or another, we are going to have to reach a settlement over the foreshore and seabed. National's descent into electoral racism under Brash has made that job much harder.

America's plutocracy

Why are the US Houses of Congress so unrepresentative of America's people, and so eager to ignore the issues (such as jobs and healthcare) which matter to them? Simple: because they're all rich. Almost half of the US's elected representatives are millionaires, compared to just 1% in the overall population. 55 of them - 10% - are worth more than US$10 million. And this doesn't include the value of their homes, which would inflate things even more.

This isn't a question of Republicans vs Democrats. Its a bipartisan plutocracy. But the result is that the US's "House of Representatives" isn't - it represents only a narrow slice of people at the very top. They're just not in the same boat as the people they purport to represent. Which explains why they're so obsessed with top-end tax cuts (which they benefit from) while refusing to roll over unemployment benefits (which they cannot imagine themselves or anyone they know ever using, even in the worst recession in 70 years).

It would be interesting to see similar statistics for New Zealand; unfortunately our declarations of pecuniary interests are designed to obscure rather than cast light. But I suspect that we're nowhere near as bad. We have higher social mobility, fewer intergenerational political dynasties, and a flatter social structure which means that the wealthy lead largely the same sorts of lives as the rest of us. Our MPs are drawn from us, and largely in the same boat. The high pay of MPs puts them in the top 3% of income earners, but that happens after they've been elected. Which means the barriers grow up in office rather than existing from the start.

Jim Anderton doesn't understand MMP

Progressive party leader Jim Anderton has a bold piece in the New Zealand Herald today, declaring that History shows a change of government is on the cards. Despite polls showing National and its allies consistently polling above 50%, Anderton thinks Labour can do it. How?

Marginal seats are often pivotal to election victory and that's where New Zealand's election next year will be won or lost. Currently, the National-led coalition Government of four parties has 16 more seats in Parliament than the Labour-led opposition of three parties. How many more seats does Labour have to win to be in a position to form the next government by having more seats than National?

The answer is only nine seats - if the nine seats are won by Labour off National and Labour wins all its current seats.

In Labour's favour, National has nine "marginal" seats which would be lost to Labour with a swing of less than 3 per cent.

Which may very well be true, but at the same time it is totally irrelevant to the question of who forms the next government. Under MMP, electorates don't matter, except around the margins of low-polling parties and overhangs. What decides governments is the party vote and coalition formation. Rather than showing how Labour can win the next election, all Anderton has shown is that he doesn't understand MMP.

So how can Labour win? Firstly, by boosting their party vote, something which requires them to campaign nationwide rather than just in a few marginal seats. That sounds hard, but they'll have inertia on their side; incumbent governments rarely get more popular, especially in a recession. National is unlikely to improve on its result from last election, and those votes will have to go somewhere. Labour needs to make sure they go to them.

Secondly, there's the coalition process. If National's vote drops by only a few percent, they face the prospect of being reliant on the Māori Party, either in an ungainly three-way coalition with ACT (assuming they stay in Parliament), or alone. In either case, that opens the way for Labour to form an alternative government by wooing the Māori Party away from National and into coalition with them and the Greens. And that's their real challenge. As for whether they can do it, given their legacy of bad blood and the current way they're treating them, I'm doubtful.

Democracy wins in Tonga

Yesterday, Tongans went to the polls in the first properly democratic elections their country has ever had. I was concerned, like many people, that the remaining undemocratic element in their Parliament - the nobles - would use their power to appoint an illegitimate Prime Minister to maintain the status quo. I needn't have been. According to Radio New Zealand, Akilisi Pohiva's Democratic Party has won 14 of the 17 people's seats, and an absolute majority in the Parliament. Pohiva looks likely to become the country's first democratically elected Prime Minister. As for the king's "wish" that the nobles appoint a "commoner" as Prime Minister, the people have made their own decision on the matter. They will rule in their own right, not by the grace and favour of their monarch.

Tonga still has a way to go on its path to democracy. The king must be disarmed, the noble seats abolished and the royal veto over legislation removed. But with an elected government with an overwhelming mandate, that will go much easier. The Tongan Parliament can simply use its control of the purse strings to extort the required concessions from the king - exactly as happened in the UK. The difference is that in Tonga, the process will go much faster, and take only a decade or so rather than two hundred years.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kettling the kids

The UK government is currently trying to balance its budget by shifting costs onto the young, through a trebling of university fees. This will prevent many kids from poor families from going to university, and they're not happy about it. High school and university students walked out of their classes across the UK today in protest, marching in the streets and occupying university buildings (usually with the support of staff). Deputy Prime Minister David Clegg was hung in effigy outside The Guardian offices, where he was due to speak. In London, the students tried to march on Parliament, but the police, having learned nothing from last year's G20 protests and still locked in a mindset which sees the public as the enemy and protest as sedition which must be violently suppressed, kettled them. Thousands of children were trapped in the freezing cold for hours, denied their freedom of speech and their freedom of movement. The result was entirely predictable: broken windows, fires, a vandalised police van, and more than a dozen arrests for violent disorder.

That's the thing about kettles: they raise the temperature and pressure. That's why both the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and the UK's Independent Police Complaints Commission recommended the tactic be discontinued. The London police have ignored those recommendations. And they have only themselves to blame for the results.

Cunliffe backs privatisation

David Cunliffe signalled Labour's new economic policy today. Unfortunately, its bad:

Labour will make bold changes to the economy including allowing public-private partnership for transport, considering an "inbound transactions tax" and allow private shareholders to own shares in subsidiaries of state owned enterprises, finance spokesman David Cunliffe said today.

In a speech to the Institute of Policy Studies in Wellington Mr Cunliffe said Labour would not go on a spending spree, but would reduce net debt and build a stronger capital base.

He said private equity in SOEs' subsidiaries would not dilute taxpayer equity or lead to wholly or partially privatising the SOE.

Which is technically correct - instead we have a partially privatised subsidiary. But by permitting that, he effectively gives away the farm. To point out the obvious, Kiwibank is not an SOE, but a subsidiary of one (NZ Post). And this policy means he has no objection to selling it to rapacious Aussies. More generally, by allowing part-privatisation of SOE subsidiaries, he removes any grounds to prohibit it in the SOEs themselves. The result is to open up space for National to do exactly that.

Cunliffe has just undermined the excellent work his fellow MPs have been doing in deterring any attempt by National to privatise our state assets and give away our national wealth to their cronies. He's made hypocrites of every Labour MP who has spoken out against it. And he's also just alienated everyone in his voterbase who hates privatisation and thought that Labour stood clearly and unequivocally against it. Heckuva job there. You'd almost think he was trying to lose the next election, so he can become leader...

New Fisk

The man who dares to take on Egypt's brutal regime

Democracy comes to Tonga

Today is a historic day in Tonga. After over a century of autocratic rule, its toy Parliament is being transformed into a real one. For the first time, Tonga's people will elect a majority of seats, under democratic reforms passed earlier in the year. Which means that if all goes well, Tonga will finally have a government which can claim to be legitimate and have the consent of its people.

I say "if all goes well" because there is still a significant flaw in Tonga's new system. Tonga's hundred thousand people are represented by 17 People's Representatives, elected by FPP from territorial constituencies. But its 33 nobles are represented by 9 MPs. They already operate as a bloc, and there's a real danger that with the support of a handful of collaborators, they will be able to install one of their own as Prime Minister, perpetuating the illegitimate form of government these reforms were supposed to end. If that happens, then Tonga's democracy will be tarred as a sham from the outset.

Of course, even if the people win, there is still a long way to go. The noble seats must be removed, the royal veto ended, and the king disarmed so he can't just threaten to restore his rule by force of arms. In the UK, that process took hundreds of years. In Tonga, it will go faster. And today is hopefully the beginning of that process.

Suspending democracy

Yesterday 29 miners were confirmed dead after a second explosion at the Pike River coal mine. The government's response? Suspend Parliament! While intended as a mark of respect, it will also have the result that the government is not held to account today, as well as justifying abuse of urgency later "to make up the lost time". And the message it sends is that our democracy cannot survive this disaster.

I think our democracy is stronger than that. And I think our politicians have already shown, earlier in the week, that they can show their respect and express the grief of the nation while still doing their jobs. They all understand that today isn't the day for sniping at each other over this issue - if necessary, that will come later, when the full facts are known. There is no reason they couldn't show their respect, then continue with the ordinary daily business of passing legislation and holding the government to account. Instead, they will have a motion of respect, then all go home for the weekend.

This is virtually unprecedented. I cannot recall a single occasion where Parliament has suspended itself in response to a disaster. It has met despite wars, earthquakes, cyclones, and plane crashes, because our democracy is strong and goes on regardless. The closest thing to such a suspension was in August, when National suspended Question Time (but not other business) in response to the death of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan. That also was unjustified. Rather than showing respect, what it shows is National's autocratic tendencies - their first response to any problem is unaccountable dictatorship. And that is not something we should accept.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Asset forfeiture: Insanity

When the government's asset forfeiture scheme was first being pushed back in 2006, I highlighted some of the problems such schemes had caused overseas - including the danger of giving asset forfeiture revenue to police. This creates a perverse incentive for police to seize more assets, which in turn creates incentives for corrupt and criminal behaviour. We can see the effects of such perverse incentives in the US, where people have been framed, tortured, and even killed by police eager to seize their assets. Two examples from Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness:

In California, thirty-one state and federal agents raided Donald P. Scott's 200-acre ranch on the pretext that marijuana was growing there. Scott was inadvertently killed by a deputy sheriff. No evidence of marijuana cultivation was discovered, and a subsequent investigation by the Ventura County's District Attorney's Office found that the drug agents had been motivated partly by a desire to seize the $5 million ranch. They had obtained an appraisal of the property weeks before the raid.

In New Jersey, Nicholas L. Bissell, Jr., a local prosecutor known as the Forfeiture King, helped an associate buy land seized in a marijuana case for a small fraction of its market value.

Any sane person would conclude that allowing police to profit directly from asset seizures is insanity. So naturally, that's exactly what the government is doing. From Question Time today:
Sandra Goudie: How are the funds gained from confiscated assets likely to be used?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS: The Government is planning to put the money to good use. Police are working with other agencies on plans to expand alcohol and drug treatment and extra law enforcement initiatives to fight organised crime groups.

(Emphasis added) So, the police can get more money by going out and taking it off suspected "criminals" (I use the quotes there because the standards of proof for seizure are so low that we cannot safely conclude anything about its victims). And its only going to be a matter of time until they steal some innocent person's house.

Still, it could be worse - they could link individual officer's pay and promotion prospects to seizures. OTOH, given that they already do that for traffic tickets, its probably only a matter of time...

Wong didn't just abuse her Parliamentary perks

Two weeks ago, Pansy Wong resigned as a Minister after abusing her Parliamentary travel perks. It turns out that those aren't the only perks she's been abusing. In Parliament today, Pete Hodgson started asking questions about her use of Ministerial travel as well. And it turns out that she was under investigation by the Prime Minister's Office for misusing a Ministerial trip for "family business".

(Hodgson will have the answer to that question by now, but Parliament is quite slow in putting them online for us peasants to read)

The trip in question is likely to be her trip to the Shanghai Expo with the Prime Minister in July (the authorisation for which is in her Ministerial credit card expenses [PDF]), on which she took two days personal leave "at her own expense". If she did business during that leave, then we effectively paid for her to do it (OTOH, if she didn't, then we merely paid for her to take a holiday, which isn't much better).

Those questions in Parliament also revealed that Wong has been on 11 Ministerial trips since she became a Minister - about one every two months. Last quarter, she was the fifth highest-spending Minister on international travel. Which seems a little odd. And some of those trips do seem a little dodgy - for example, in April she detoured from a trip to Hong Kong for the signing of the New Zealand - Hong Kong Closer Economic partnership, in order to travel to China to open a Fonterra plant. Hardly the sort of thing you think should require Ministerial attention, let alone it being well outside her portfolio responsibilities. And all of this was signed off by John Key.

Lockwood Smith's investigation will cover only Wong's Parliamentary perks. It looks like there needs to be another thorough going-over of her use of Ministerial expenses as well. And if it turns out that she stole from us, she should not just be forced to repay the money and resign from parliament - she should be prosecuted. We can have no pity for thieving politicians.

The same old shit

Earlier in the year the government appointed a Welfare Working Group to review the welfare system. Today, it reported back. Unfortunately, its just the same old shit:

Strict time limits on benefits, work-for-the-dole and forcing solo mothers to work based on the age of their oldest child are among a raft of radical suggestions for reforming the welfare system.
The first is certainly a radical suggestion, and one guaranteed to further entrench poverty and inequality in this country. As for the second two, they're equally radical, but have also been tried before. And the results of that experiment were disastrous: work for dole made people less likely to find work, while work-testing solo parents meant they did not have enough time to spend on their children. But the last thing you should expect from NeoLiberals is paying attention to the empirical evidence. Instead, its the same old dogma, trotted out again and again, because apparently if you keep doing it harder, the results will be different. But then, these people don't actually care about the results; or rather, the only result they think is important is cutting costs, which will allow lower taxes on the rich.

If Key has any sense, he'll consign this report to the same rubbish bin as Don Brash's senile ravings about catching Australia. Unfortunately, its more likely that they'll kick some beneficaries in an effort to shore up their core vote before the election. And the human consequences? Well, its not like National gives a fuck about them, is it? After all, its not as if rich white people will be the victims.

Fiji: Would it make a difference?

I've just seen a rumour via Twitter that Fiji's dictator, Voreqe Bainimarama, died overnight in China. His trip there is certainly mysterious - neither the Chinese government nor the Fijian Embassy there have anything to do with it, and there have been ongoing rumours about his health. Earlier in the week, Coup 4.5 reported that he was secretly undergoing treatment for a heart condition, and that he had collapsed at the airport on the way out. And OTOH, rumours of the dictator's demise are not an uncommon occurrence in Fiji, and this may just be another one.

So instead of speculating on the accuracy of the rumour d'jour, I think its more interesting to ask "would it make a difference"? And the answer is "yes". Not because I believe the American fallacy that bad government is solely the result of the person in charge, and that if you remove them you get spontaneous democracy, happy kittens and a sparkly pony - that's just bullshit. Governments and regimes are institutions, not men. The coup wasn't just Bainimarama's project; he has the backing and support of his senior officers. If he dies, then one of them will simply step forward and take over. But at the same time, political leaders do matter. And Bainimarama has been the biggest obstacle to the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, because he's personally invested in pushing his vision through. If he dies, his replacement won't be so personally invested, and may be more willing to negotiate a peaceful end to this mess, rather than sticking to an arbitrary timetable because he doesn't want to be seen to back down to the international community.

And that said: I doubt the Fijian military will voluntarily relinquish power out of the goodness of their hearts. If Fijians really want democracy, they are going to have to stand up and demand it, rather than just meekly submit to whoever proclaims themselves to be in "authority". The rest of the world can provide support, but ultimately Fiji's government is up to Fijians, not to us.

Update: Yep - he's still alive, according to TVNZ.

The sitting programme

The Business Committee has recommended Parliament's sitting programme for the next year [PDF]: 27 weeks, starting just after Waitangi Day, and wrapping up on 17 November, a week before the House formally expires. There's the usual gaps for school holidays, which also gives the politicians time off to attend some religious event in late October. What's the bet there's heavy use of the travel perk around those times?

(Still, it could be worse: they could be abusing it to attend similar events overseas, at far greater cost to the taxpayer, but still: watching a bunch of people play with a ball is not "Parliamentary business").

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pulling the plug in Ireland

The Irish Greens have just pulled the plug on the Irish government, forcing an election in January. Its about time. Faced with the challenge of the global financial crisis, the Irish government has done the wrong thing at every turn - bailing out the banks on insanely generous terms, refusing to raise corporate taxes to make companies pay their fair share, and imposing vicious cuts which drove the economy even further into recession. And now, as a result of that mismanagement, they're having to be bailed out by the EU. Which is better than the IMF, but is still going to mean another round of cuts and more suffering. Meanwhile, the criminal bankers who caused this mess in the first place have fled the scene, pockets full of bailout money.

People are angry - last night a group even attempted to storm the Dail. I don't blame them. Their politicians are corrupt fools who have driven them to bankruptcy and given them a future of debt. They'll pay for that at the ballot box, but its not enough. The politicians will simply lose their jobs. Their victims will lose their homes and their livelihoods to the recession, and their children to emigration.

Climate change: We're doing it wrong

Two years ago, after more than a decade of dithering, New Zealand finally got an all-sectors, all-gases Emissions Trading Scheme. Last year, National effectively gutted it, turning it into a pollution subsidy scheme instead. Today, a Review Existing and Proposed Emissions Trading Systems [PDF] by the International Energy Agency points out that on core issues such as allocation and supplementary measures, we're doing it wrong.

On allocation, the IEA is quite clear: free allocation to existing polluters, as seen in the NZETS, is a Bad Thing. It blunts prise signals, encourages high-emissions activities, produces windfall profits, and leads to over-allocation. More importantly,

if there is overly generous support for emissions-intensive industries, this runs the risk of preserving the status quo, whereas revolutionary change is required.
Instead, the IEA promotes allocation by auction, something which avoids all of these problems as well as providing a revenue stream allowing government to fund further supplementary measures. The NZ government, and the National Party in particular, would prefer to hand out free credits to polluters than have a fair mechanism.

The IEA argues that supplementary measures, such as energy efficiency regulations and support for the deployment of low-carbon technologies, are necessary to address pervasive market failures. Thanks to the legacy of Roger Douglas, we don't do that, instead relying on the purity of the market mechanism. So instead of regulating the fuel-efficiency of cars (for example), we expect consumers to work out the long-term costs and benefits for themselves - something we know they're remarkably bad at. Its a recipe for failure, and for preserving the status quo of high emissions. If we want to actually address this problem, we will need to introduce such measures. The sooner we do it, the lower the long-term costs.

The one bright spot is that Nationals' ETS changes are themselves unsustainable. They will cost $105 billion to 2050, something no government can afford. As a result, the next government will be forced to remove those pollution subsidies. Which will mean we will have a second chance to get it right. And the sooner we do it, the better.

"A workable compromise"

That's what Labour is calling National's electoral finance bill. Well, they would. The bill would raise the donation disclosure threshold by 50%, from $10,000 to $15,000, allowing parties to receive more money in total secrecy, without having to tell us who is buying them. And as a big party, Labour loves big money.

That's the problem with leaving this issue to politicians: they will put their own interests before those of the people. Instead of letting National and Labour work it out between themselves in a smoke-free backroom, we should have sent this issue to a citizen's jury, and let us decide what is acceptable for politicians, rather than letting them make their own rules.

Not about protection

Today National's Environmental Protection Authority Bill will receive its first reading. The bill will achieve one of National's long-term goals: gut the Ministry for the Environment (which they don't trust) by shifting most of its functions to a new "Environmental Protection Authority". From its name, and National's "blue-green" spin on the issue, you'd expect that a core function of such an agency would be protecting the environment. But you'd be wrong. Instead, its objectives are to:

(a) [contribute] to the efficient, effective, and transparent management of New Zealand's environment and natural and physical resources; and
(b) [enable] New Zealand to meet its international obligations.
So there you have it: thanks to National, we're going to get an Environmental "Protection" Authority which isn't actually interested in protection. Instead, its about "efficient management", which means rubber-stamping coal mines. Just another example of how National pretends to care about the environment, while in fact enabling its destruction.

Wong in hiding

Two weeks ago, Pansy Wong was forced to resign as a Minister after abusing her Parliamentary travel perks. She immediately took leave from Parliament to avoid answering media questions. Now, two weeks later, she's meant to be back - but instead John Key has told her to stay away for longer, until Speaker Lockwood Smith's inquiry (which has now been extended well into the xmas silly season) is complete.

Key's "justification" is that Wong won't be able to answer questions properly until the Speaker reports, but that's just bullshit - she of all people should know how many trips she has taken and what she did on them. The real reason is that by keeping Wong out of the spotlight, National can preserve its reputation and manage the fallout from whatever is uncovered. The government's desire to manage its image is being put before a fundamental democratic principle: accountability.

This isn't acceptable. Wong should front up and explain to us what she's been doing. If she's not willing to do that, then she's refusing to do her job as a politician, and she should resign.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Mana result

Over the weekend Kris Faafoi was elected MP for Mana, becoming New Zealand's first Tokelauan MP. Predictably, the spin is flying thick and fast, with National spinners claiming Labour is the loser (despite actually winning the seat) because its majority fell. And to that, I think its worth quoting Audrey Young in today's Herald:

Some in Labour who should know better are creatively suggesting that Labour actually did better in the byelection than the last general election, despite having its majority slashed from 6155 to 1080.

From three senior figures has come the suggestions that Kris Faafoi winning 47 per cent of the candidate vote on Saturday was a better result than the 43.9 per cent party vote that the party got in 2008, when Winnie Laban stood.

That is like comparing raisins and sheep droppings.

And the same applies to those talking about the size of majorities. This was a by-election with a 54% turnout, where Labour's voters stayed home because they (foolishly, IMHO) felt they didn't need to vote in such a safe seat. Pretending that the results will carry through into a general election, making Mana a marginal seat, is an exercise in self-delusion. Except of course I doubt National's spinners believe one word of what they're spouting - its us they're trying to delude, into believing a narrative of government invincibility. Convince us of that, and the next election is already half-won for them.

Meanwhile, after a drought in the early years of MMP, we have potentially three more by-elections to go this term, depending on the actions of Chris Carter, George Hawkins and Pansy Wong. None of these can affect the stability of the government, but its still going to be an interesting six months...

Climate change: The cost of doing nothing

In August last year, the government announced its climate change target: a 10 - 20% reduction from 1990 levels, so hedged with conditionalities that it might end up being nothing. It was a weak, pathetic target, which abdicated any pretence that we were even doing our bit to prevent climate change, let alone leading as a small, clean and green country should. But what's worse is that the policy by which this target would be achieved - the ETS - is even weaker, excluding agriculture, our biggest polluter, while subsidising other polluters for the next century.

Today, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan White, called bullshit on that approach, pointing out that this weak policy mean that rather than cutting our emissions by 10 - 20% by 2020, they are instead going to increase to 26% above 1990 levels. And that massive gap between promises and policy is set to cost us a billion dollars. That's the price of National's inaction right there. And we're paying it because they want to subsidise farmers to pollute.

The only thing more pathetic than the government's policy is Smith's response. Faced with the size of the bill, he said that Copenhagen isn't legally binding. In other words, he is saying that we have made this promise to the world with no intention of keeping it. So why does he expect anyone else to keep their promises then? Or is he admitting that for his government at least, the whole thing is just an exercise in spin, a fob-off to make it look like they're acting, while in reality its just business as usual?

National's health cuts bite in Taihape

In the 2008 election, National promised "better, sooner, more convenient health care", with cuts to "back office" staff to "boost the front line". Even when they've been delivering sub-inflation funding rises, effectively cutting health funding in real terms, they've stuck to this mantra, promising that none of it would hurt the front line or result in reduced services.

To the people of Taihape, that must seem like a cruel joke. They're losing their hospital, including elderly, community health and maternity services, thanks to government health cuts. In their case, "better, faster, more convenient health care" will mean having to travel one and a half hours to Whanganui for basic services.

This is what National does: cuts services to fund tax cuts for their mates. Today, the people of Taihape are paying the price. Tomorrow, it could be you.

A declaration of intent

The Electoral Legislation Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill. The bill is National's "permanent solution" to the Electoral Finance Act, the result of a long process of public consultation. Unfortunately, while that consultation has been obeyed in one significant fashion, it has been ignored in another, to ram through changes to benefit political parties (and National in particular) with no public mandate.

First, the good: the original bill proposed to remove any real limits or transparency requirements on third-party spending, allowing wealthy special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts in secret to buy our elections. This resulted in a public outcry, and so third parties are now subjected to a $300,000 spending cap. In addition, if they spend more than $100,000, they will have to file an expense return with the Electoral Commission. While both the cap and disclosure threshold are too high, and there is no requirement to disclose who is funding such campaigns, we have won on the principle: private money must be regulated to protect democracy. The challenge now is to make that regime more robust.

(The same change has been made for the MMP referendum, BTW, so its a double victory. Take that, Peter Shirtcliffe!)

And now the bad: firstly, National is boosting candidate spending caps and the electorate component of the party spending cap by 20%, to $25,000 per electorate. So, we'll have more money in our politics. Secondly, they're raising the disclosure threshold for donations by 50%, from $10,000 to $15,000, so more of that money will be secret.

Transparency around political donations is vital to protect our democracy. It allows us to have confidence in our political system by ensuring that people can't buy influence. Its something we need more of, not less. Instead, National has slammed the doors. They can no longer funnel secret money through trusts, so they've simply decided to raise the threshold, allowing them to keep their backers secret again. This can only be taken as a declaration of intent on their part to behave corruptly, and it is not something we should accept.

As for how to fight it, I suggest using the same tactics which have forced open Parliamentary expenses. While the law may not require donations under the threshold to be declared, nothing prevents a party from voluntarily disclosing such information, and a party which publicly practiced such transparency would immediately force the other parties to do the same or suffer politically. So, Greens, how about it? You actively promote yourself as the clean party. Time to earn that reputation for real, and change the world for the better at the same time.

New Fisk

An American bribe that stinks of appeasement
Lebanon, my Lebanon: A stirring new photography book sparks Robert Fisk’s memories

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fraud is fraud II

While Lockwood Smith is spouting bullshit to protect his own perks, he is at least doing one thing right: He'll shop Pansy Wong to the police if she is found to have abused her travel perks:

Speaker Lockwood Smith said he will not hesitate to refer Pansy Wong to the police if a Parliamentary Service investigation into her travel perks comes up with serious misuse.

Dr Smith said he did not wish to discuss Ms Wong's case specifically but promised the investigation would be thorough.

"You'll be aware there was a case of a former member I put in the hands of the police and I will do that if I find serious issues."

Good. The sort of abuse we're talking about is fraud, and it should be prosecuted and punished as such. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for politicians, and another for everyone else.

Myth busted

Yesterday I highlighted Lockwood Smith's reliance on the myth of unfunded electorate offices as "justification" for his travel perks. It turns out that in Smith's case that myth is even more tenuous justification than I though. Here's what the first edition of McGee's Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand has to say (p. 59):

From the 1 December 1984 all members (including Ministers) were entitled to assistance from the then Legislative Department for the operation of an electorate office. This included a part-time secretary and a contribution towards rental, office establishment and running costs. Members in adjacent electorate offices were allowed to share offices and where this was done they were entitled to a full-time secretary.
[Thanks to the Parliamentary Library for pointing me at this; I hadn't noticed it in my quick browse the other day]

So, Lockwood Smith's "justification" for a lifetime of subsidised air travel - an approximately half million dollar benefit at today's prices - is that for the four and a half months between his election in July 1984 and the funding of electorate support on 1 December of that year, he had to lick his own stamps. And he wonders why people see him as grasping and greedy...

The cost of contracting out

For the past two decades we've seen a concerted push to contract out central and local government services to the private sector. Transport. Cleaning. Water. Prisons. Today, we saw where that push leads, as 28 Christchurch buses were ordered off the road for safety defects:

Police are "staggered" by the state of Christchurch buses and fear for the safety of passengers after ordering 28 vehicles off the road in a sting operation.

Officers stopped and inspected 114 buses over three days, with 60 per cent needing repair, including 24 per cent with safety problems so serious a new Certificate of Fitness (COF) was required.

Four were "pink-stickered", meaning their defects were so significant failure was "imminent".

Police ordered 28 buses immediately off the road and a further 34 buses were ordered out of service until they could be repaired, but were allowed to complete their route.

Many of these problems were serious enough to kill people, yet bus companies were putting the buses on the road after skimping on maintenance. But that's what happens when you tender services out to the lowest bidder: they cut costs, and inevitably it comes out of something important.

Blame for this can be sheeted straight back to ECan and its contracting policy. But they don't want to talk about it:

ECan commissioner with responsibility for public passenger transport, Rex Williams, would not discuss the issue and said The Press was looking for "an easy story".
Williams, remember, is not elected, but was given his job by the government after it sacked the elected ECan and cancelled this year's elections. And it shows in his attitude. He doesn't feel at all accountable to the people of Canterbury, only to his government paymasters.

An anomaly

On Wednesday night, the Parliamentary Services Commission rejected a bid to establish an independent review of MPs pay and perks. How do we know? Because Green co-leader Metiria Turei, who sits on the Commission, told us. But there's a catch:

The proceedings of the commission are usually secret, so Mrs Turei could face censure.
You understand that? The problem in our MPs' eyes isn't that they clung grimly to their perks like a dying man to a taxpayer-subsidised first-class return flight to London, but that some naughty person told us that they did.

But this highlights a serious anomaly: the PSC is a statutory body, yet its proceedings happen in secret. Its even less open and accountable than Auckland's notorious anti-democratic boards. Unlike them, it is not subject to the Official Information Act; it doesn't even have to publish minutes of its meetings or decisions, only an annual report.

This isn't just a deliberate oversight - its worse than that. Trawling the legislative history, the PSC used to be scheduled in the Ombudsmen Act (grep for it), meaning it was subject to the OIA. But it was removed in 2000 when the present Parliamentary Service Act was passed. In other words, it used to be transparent and accountable, but MPs decided to take that transparency and accountability away from us.

And they wonder why we think they're dogshit...

The cost of the Supercity

When the National government foisted SuperAuckland upon us, it claimed it would save money. The Auckland Transitional Agency even put a number on this saving: $37 million, net of transition costs.


The cost of running the new Auckland Council has risen despite 1200 jobs being cut when eight councils were merged into the one super-city.


However, figures from the new council show that even after cutting the jobs, the merger costs alone will add nearly one per cent to rates, Radio New Zealand said this morning.

So, congratulations, Aucklanders - you're paying an extra 1% in rates to pay for Rodney Hide's failed attempt to wrap your city up in a big blue ribbon and give it to John Banks. And now you'll be treated to the sight of him disclaiming all responsibility, and saying that its all your own fault for being "wasteful", despite the fact that it was his handpicked crony in charge of the transition.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The effects of a National government

Last month I blogged about the New Zealand Income Survey, which showed that median weekly earnings had declined for the first time since the survey began. Today, Kis Faafoi points out that the burden of that decline has not been equally shared, and that some are suffering much more than others:

“Media European incomes have dropped by 3.4 per cent, or $21, over the last two years when adjusted for inflation.That is bad enough, but for Māori and Pacific the situation is much worse,” Kris Faafoi said.

“Since 2008 Maori incomes have dropped 11.5 per cent, or $50, on average, while Pacific Island wages have sunk by a staggering 19 per cent, or $89.

19 percent. Imagine that sucked out of your pay packet. And at a time when ACC, GST, childcare, and other costs are increasing due to government cuts.

So much for "taking the hard edges off the recession". National is letting people fall into poverty, and doing nothing to help. I expect better from a New Zealand government, and so should you.

A small victory for equality in Australia

Today, the Australian Parliament passed a motion on same-sex marriage. Not to allow it, sadly, but simply to encourage MPs

consistent with their duties as representatives, to gauge their constituents’ views on ways to achieve equal treatment for same sex couples including marriage.
Its the smallest of victories. But given the ALP leadership's opposition to any discussion of the subject, getting them to vote for it was at least something. And hopefully it will pave the way for bigger things to come.

Meanwhile, it again raises the question: where is New Zealand on this issue? While we passed civil unions five years ago, there hasn't been any movement since. And as a result, there's a real chance that we'll be beaten by Australia on abolishing this fundamental form of discrimination.

And another

While we're on the subject of perk myths, we've been told repeatedly (usually by MPs who stand to reap lifetime benefits when they retire) that we can't possibly abolish the former MPs' travel rort, as it formed part of their conditions of employment.

This is simply bullshit. Here's what McGee's Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, the definitive source for anything to do with Parliament, has to say on the issue:

members are in law neither employees nor self-employed
Which I think pretty much blows that myth out of the water.

To the extent that this rort was ever justified, it was so far in the past that almost no-one still in the House can claim any moral right to it. In the case of former members, most never had any right to it. In the case of those who did, it should have been cut off back in the 70's or 80's. I think its fair to say that 20 or 30 years of travel has been more than enough to compensate them from what they didn't get back then. We can cut them off with a clean conscience. They may have expected a lifetime of subsidised travel once they retired, but that expectation wasn't a legitimate one, and we're neither contractually nor morally bound to uphold it.

Another perk myth

There are several myths floating around about the "justification" for former MP's international travel perk. One - wheeled out by Doug Graham last year - is that the perk was in lieu of a pay rise. But as I've showed, MPs have never been poorly paid, and their salaries have risen at twice the rate of inflation, even in years when those of ordinary kiwis was remaining stagnant. Besides which, the perk was instituted, and the pay rise forgone, in 1972, long before most current beneficiaries of it entered the House. If that's the justification, then there is only one current MP who can claim any sort of moral right to it: Roger Douglas, who was first elected in 1969. And even then, you'd think that subsequent pay increases had made up for it, and that (in his case) 50 years of subsidised travel was worth far more than the amount he didn't get back then.

Today, on Morning Report [audio], Lockwood Smith trotted out another myth: the perk

relates back to the days when there was no taxpayer-funded support for members of Parliament.
In other words, its compensation for MPs and their families having to do electorate business out of their own homes, lick their own stamps etc. But again, we're talking about the distant past. IIRC electorate offices have been fully funded since the mid 80's, thanks to Geoffrey Palmer. And if that's correct, then only a handful of sitting MPs dating from before that era have any sort of moral right to the perk: Phil Goff, Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne, Lockwood Smith, and Roger Douglas. And even then, their entitlement should be capped at the level they would have received when those offices were funded - which except for Douglas means nothing.

We've been rorted for 20 years on the basis of these myths, passed down from MP to MP as justification for their self-interested behaviour. Its time it stopped.

Credit where credit is due II

The Speaker has agreed to abolish the international travel perk for sitting MPs, and instead establish a new system for the funding of work related travel. That's good, and MPs deserve credit for it. The perception of self-interest and entitlement around this unjustifiable rort has seriously undermined public confidence in our Parliament. By ending it, they've restored some of that confidence.

Unfortunately, its somewhat tarnished by the fact that they didn't go all the way. While sitting MPs will no longer be able to enjoy subsidised holidays on the taxpayer, former MPs still will. This is even more of a rort, in that there's no suggestion whatsoever that such travel serves any Parliamentary purpose. But as noted yesterday, senior members of the Parliamentary Services commission, including the Speaker himself, benefit from this rort, as do 29 32 sitting MPs across the entire house. And they seem to have put their self-interest before the public interest in refusing to surrender it. They'll give up their perk, it seems, when we pry it from their cold, dead hands.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What the Parliamentary Services Commission should do

The Parliamentary Services Commission will be meeting tonight to discuss the issue of MP's international travel. But there's a problem: the commission is composed entirely of MPs. While the membership isn't publicly listed on Parliament's website, it currently consists of

  • Lockwood Smith (90%)
  • Gerry Brownlee (90%)
  • Darren Hughes (50%)
  • Annette King (90%)
  • Chris Tremain (25%)
  • Heather Roy (50%)
  • Metiria Turei (50%)
  • Te Ururoa Flavell (25%)
  • Jim Anderton (90%)

In case you were wondering, the numbers after their names are the level of discount they are currently entitled to; Smith, King, and Anderton are also entitled to a 90% lifetime discount once they retire, while Brownlee is entitled to a 75% lifetime discount. Which is a roundabout way of saying that they have an enormous conflict of interest over this decision.

Basic principles of ethics say that people should not make decisions in which they have conflicts of interest. To do so creates a risk (and guarantees the perception) of corruption. The Cabinet Manual requires Ministers to declare such conflicts, and stand aside if necessary. But no such rules apply to the Parliamentary Services Commission. And MPs wonder why we think they're all corrupt...

The PSC cannot make this decision - not if it wants to retain a shred of public confidence in Parliament and our politicians. Instead, it should do what it should have done a long time ago: establish an independent review outside Parliament to examine (and take public submissions on) the whole issue of MPs and former MPs expenses and allowances. In the meantime, it could suspend the rebate, or require its use to be approved by party leaders, until new rules are established after the review reports back.

Anything less than this, and Parliament will again earn its reputation. And they will only have themselves to blame for it.

Correction: Corrected membership - Heather Roy replaced John Boscowen when he became a Minister, and Chris Tremain replaced Nathan Guy when the latter became an Associate Minister.

Fraud is fraud

A story in the Manawatu Standard just caught my eye: a woman has been sentenced to three months home detention for $10,000 of benefit fraud. Normally, I wouldn't pay any attention to such a story (I hate crime news, and I hate beneficiary-bashing crime news even more). But $10,000 is about the amount Pansy Wong defrauded from the taxpayer through her latest business trip.

In both cases, we're talking about people who abused the rules to line their own pockets. In both cases the value defrauded is similar. So, if you think it is appropriate for benefit fraudsters to be prosecuted and (if convicted) sentenced to three months home detention for this scale of offending, then you should think the same thing about Pansy Wong. Conversely, if you don't think Wong should be prosecuted and (if convicted) given such a sentence, you can't consistently think that about benefit fraudsters. Not unless you're willing to forgo the principle of equality under the law, that is.

Fraud is fraud. If we are equal under the law, then it should be treated the same way. But if Wong is found to have deliberately violated the rules (and having been an MP for 14 years, she can hardly claim to be ignorant of them), but gets to simply repay the money and walk away, then I think we'll all be entitled to ask some serious questions about class and justice in this country.

The Rod Donald memorial lecture

Rod Donald, the former Green co-leader, died five years ago. The Green party has established an annual memorial lecture in his honour. This year the topic is "Democracy is New Zealand: Lost, Stolen or Just Misplaced?", and the speaker is Jeanette Fitzsimons, Rod's co-leader.

When: 16:30 - 18:00, Sunday, 21 November
Where: Christchurch Art Gallery Auditorium
RSVP: chchgreens@greens.org.nz

Some need for international travel

The Herald's piece on the impending demise of MPs' international travel rort makes a case that some international travel for MPs is justified:

While there is broad consensus over scrapping the perks for holidays, Labour MPs at least are expected to argue in favour of retaining some funding for MPs to go on trips related to their parliamentary work, such as meeting MPs overseas or attending conferences. If their wish is granted, it is likely to make any compensatory salary increase lower than if the perk is completely wiped.

Labour leader Phil Goff has made it clear he sees the use of the rebates for holidays as unjustifiable but legitimate work-related trips were important. Opposition MPs and backbenchers are limited to official parliamentary delegations and there are few opportunities to take trips of their own initiative.

The Speaker has previously said allowing opposition MPs the travel rebates was important for democracy and changed the rules for the perk to specifically say it could be used for parliamentary purposes.

I agree with Smith on this - some international travel (e.g. conference attendance, fact-finding trips) does enhance our democracy, and this should be publicly funded. But that doesn't require a blanket discount for all MPs which is open to gross abuse. Instead, we can use the existing model of the Leader of the Opposition's travel allowance, and simply give each party a funding pool for it. Alternatively, we could have a flat discount, which does not depend on experience, and require party leaders to sign off on it every time it is used. In both cases, however, there must be transparency, to protect the public from further abuse. If MPs are taking expensive international trips on the public purse, we have a right to know how that money is spent.

(Its worth noting here that Labour MPs taking such trips have gone to some lengths this year to let us know what they're doing, typically via a daily blog on Red Alert. This is a Good Thing. And what these posts show is that these MPs are actually working, rather than just taking a taxpayer-funded junket).

But while a case can be made for work-related international travel for sitting MPs (with an appropriately high threshold for "work-related"), there's still absolutely no justification for the lifetime benefits to former MPs. Those have to go. And if the Speaker (who stands to enjoy 90% off his holidays for life) doesn't abolish them, it will simply be another example of MPs earning their reputation.

No freedom of speech in Singapore

Alan Shadrake is a British author. This year, he wrote a book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which was highly critical of Singapore's use of the death penalty and argued that its application was not impartial, but political. For that, he has been jailed for six weeks and fined S$20,000 for "scandalising the court".

For those who don't know, "scandalising the court" is a judge-created offence similar to contempt, used to punish those who strongly criticise the judiciary. Its basically sedition for judges. New Zealand (and most other countries) still retain this feudal relic - but in a democracy, the judiciary understands that it is subject to public criticism, and that this is a check on judicial abuse. The problem is that Singapore isn't a democracy, but an authoritarian state where those in power are not accountable, and instead abuse the law to punish critics and suppress all opposition. And sadly, this disease extends to its judges as well as its politicians.

Ministers troughing it

While everyone is watching the slow crucifixion of Pansy Wong and the government's squirming over trying to protect her future travel entitlements, another rort has gone unnoticed. Last year, we learned that John Key's right-hand man, Bill English, had structured his affairs so he could be paid $36,000 a year to live in his own home. John Key's response, as Minister for Ministerial Service was to legalise the rort, and pay "out of Wellington" Ministers $37,500 a year in accommodation expenses, no questions asked.

This would supposedly "save thousands". It hasn't turned out that way. Ministerial accommodation expenses have risen 8% since the change was announced.

Previously accommodation expenses were actual, reasonable, and necessary. The fact that almost all MPs have increased their claims since (while living in exactly the same houses) shows us that the new level is neither reasonable nor necessary. Its just a stealth pay rise, another rort by self-interested Ministers intent on lining their own pockets at taxpayer expense. And because its a block grant, there's no transparency anymore, so if others are doing the Double Dipton, we'll never know.

Just to make this clear, I support paying MPs their actual, reasonable and necessary expenses, so that they can do a good job as legislators and democratic representatives. But this is just Ministers troughing it, while covering up their greed. And we shouldn't put up with it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Settling over Guantanamo

During the war on terror, the Americans have held nine UK citizens and another nine UK residents in their Caribbean gulag at Guantanamo Bay. All but one of them have since been released without charge. Following their release, many have begun legal proceedings against the British government, alleging that it condoned their rendition, torture, and abuse. Now, the government is set to pay them millions of pounds in a confidential settlement.

Obviously, this is a victory for the detainees, who have gained a de facto admission of guilt from the government. At the same time, its a defeat for the public. Think about it for a minute: what does it say about the British government that they're willing to pay millions of pounds to avoid public scrutiny of their actions? What does it say about their case that they're willing to shell out to avoid a trial?

While the government is saying that this will allow a full public inquiry to be held, that is likely to be the usual cosy whitewash aimed at protecting the establishment. Meanwhile, evidence of British collaboration in torture and rendition will be swept under the carpet. Those responsible will avoid criminal charges. And then, when they do it again, we'll wonder why nothing has changed.

Given what they've gone though, I can't begrudge Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, and the rest their settlements. At the same time, though, I want to see justice and accountability for what was done to these men. And that's just not going to happen with a government whitewash.

National supports travel rorts

Today at the beginning of Question Time, Green co-leader Metiria Turei sought leave to move a motion without notice calling on the Speaker to establish an independent review of MP's expenses and allowances.

National objected.

I guess we know where they stand on perks then: they support them. And they'll keep gouging for as long as possible.


Yesterday the government introduced its Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill, which would restrict the right to trial by jury and force defendants to admit to elements of their crime, to Parliament. Today, Attorney-General Chris Finlayson declared it to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF]. But not the bits you'd expect him to. Instead he focuses on minor issues around in absentia trials and retrials of acquitted defendants. On the core issue of the right to jury trial, he says it is "necessarily inconsistent", but doesn't seem to regard this as an actual problem, while he seems to have no problem with forcing defendants to identify issues in dispute i.e. admit some elements of a crime pre-trial.

On both issues, he relies heavily on UK law and jurisprudence that these limits are justified. This is a mistake. The UK is not a country anyone should hold up as a model for human rights. The fact that they restrict jury trial rights and allow retrials in high-publicity cases is simply further proof of this. The UK is what happens when an authoritarian, centralising government pursues a knee-jerk law and order agenda. It should not be used as justification for our government to do the same.

No freedom of religion in Pakistan

Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian. Last June she got into a fight with some women in her village. In retaliation, they accused her of desecrating the Koran. As a result, she has now been sentenced to death for blasphemy.

She's not the only one. Pakistan's blasphemy laws are routinely used against non-Muslims as a tool of religious oppression. According to Human Rights Watch, that is exactly how they are intended to be used:

"The laws are discriminatory and intended as such and are used for precisely that purpose. So, the issue is not of their misuse but of the laws being on the statute books at all. Vague all-encompassing wording allows the laws to be used as an instrument of political and social coercion, legal discrimination and persecution."
Even where cases result in acquittal, defendants and judges have been murdered for their "offence" against religious values. While the government is reportedly considering reform, they have been sitting on the issue for years, too afraid of the fanatics to act to protect people from discrimination. As a result, there is no real freedom of religion in Pakistan.

But its not just Pakistan's problem. New Zealand still has a blasphemy law on the books, which outlaws any offence to Christians (and specifically Anglicans). And while the government doesn't use it anymore, religious fanatics occasionally do in an effort to punish speech they deem "disrespectful" of their imaginary friends.

Pakistan shows where such legislation leads, and what its purpose is. Such laws have no place in a modern, secular, liberal society. Our blasphemy law must be repealed.

A useful resource

I love using legislation.govt.nz, but I keep running into a problem: sometimes I need to look at an older Act which has been repealed. And these just aren't in the database. KnowledgeBasket has some, but it doesn't include anything repealed before 1987 or so. Which means there is a vast gap in our online law.

Parliament has just filled that gap, putting the entire corpus of historical Acts back to 1841 online. You can access them here. So if you want to see what the Electoral Act 1893 (which gave women the vote) or the War Regulations Continuance Act 1920 (which extended wartime sedition laws into peacetime) or the Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowering Act 1982 (which granted permission for the Clyde Dam by legislative fiat) looks like, now you can.

Ending the rort II

Politics moves fast these days, doesn't it? On Friday, Pansy Wong was sacked as a Minister for abusing her MP's international travel rebate. And today, it looks like those rebates will be abolished, at least for sitting MPs. Good. As I've said before, there is no justification for them. International travel for Parliamentary purposes (e.g. conferences, inter-Parliamentary exchanges, and the odd fact-finding mission) is already fully-funded by the Speaker's Office. while cheap holidays in Hawaii might be very nice for MPs, it serves no Parliamentary purpose. It should have been abolished long ago.

As Tracy Watkins points out in the Dominion-Post this morning, the question now is how much MPs get in exchange - and that is set to get very ugly. Earlier this year the Parliamentary Services Commission - a collection of senior MPs - recommended a blanket 10% salary increase if the perk was removed. Which is almost three times its cost in 2008-2009, and four times its cost in 2009-2010. The public won't stand for that; hell, we won't stand for anything which smacks of paying MPs to stop stealing from us. The good news is that some of them seem to have finally got the message. John Key suggests any pay rise as "compensation" should be "modest", and he is happy if they get nothing. So am I. MPs have been rorting us for years, writing the rules so they can steal from us. We shouldn't have to pay them to stop it.

The other battleground, unaddressed by Watkin, is over senior and former MPs. Key proposes retaining the perk for them. But as Russell Brown points out this morning, this means that if Pansy Wong resigns today, then we get to pay for 75% of her international travel for the rest of her life. I don't think the public will stand for that either.

The legend of the perk, which senior and former MPs like to fall back on to justify their rorting, is that it was granted in lieu of a pay rise at some time in the distant past. When was that pay rise forgone? 1972. If that's the case, then there is exactly one sitting MP who can claim any sort of moral right to it: Roger Douglas. But really, our MPs have never been badly paid, and Parliamentary salaries have more than kept pace with inflation since (in fact, they rose at twice the rate of inflation in the 80's and 90's, while many other people's pay packets were standing still). Any justification there was has long since disappeared. As for former members, I think 40 years of rorting the taxpayer is enough. We should end this perk now, for everyone - no ifs, no buts, no exceptions. If former MPs want to visit their grandkids in the UK, they can pay for it themselves, rather than enjoying a lifetime of subsidised travel at our expense.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ending the rort

So, how do we end MPs travel rort? Its actually very simple. The entire system is established by a Speaker's Direction [PDF], so all Smith has to do is amend it or issue a new one with the offending sections removed. He can do it with a flick of his pen. As for why he doesn't, well, one can't help but notice that as an MP first elected before 1999, Lockwood Smith is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the perk, and will receive it for the rest of his life. There's just a teensy bit of self-interest here...

In the longer term, the Parliamentary Service (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Act 2009 defines "funding entitlements for parliamentary purposes" as including:

the provision of benefits or privileges of a specified kind for former members of Parliament and members of their families in accordance with an appropriation by Parliament of money for that purpose.
This needs to be changed to have a strict three-month limit (required to allow final payments to former MPs and the limited travel entitlement to allow their final relocation). If any MP is interested in taking a principled stand, then a bill to do it is here. If you want to highlight the issue, then asking for leave to introduce it every day would be a good start.

Key wants to retain the rort

This afternoon, John Key announced that he would be writing to the Speaker to ask that MP's international travel perk be abolished. This is good, but at the same time I can't help but notice that he's not going all the way. Firstly, he would retain the perk for MPs first elected before 1999 - meaning that both Bill English (the man who rorted us for half a million to live in his own home in Wellington) and Pansy Wong would get to keep abusing it. Secondly, he would retain it for former MPs as well.

The "justification" in both cases is that the perk formed part of older MPs' remuneration package, and so cannot be renegotiated after the fact. Firstly, as I have already pointed out, that's just bullshit - MPs have always been extremely well paid. Secondly, its always been a rort - there has never been any justification for the perk, and it serves no Parliamentary purpose. It should never have been given out; the reason it was is of course because MPs get to set their own perks through the Parliamentary Services Commission, and have always been happy to vote themselves more at taxpayers expense. There is no injustice in ending this rort; the injustice is that these parasites have been allowed to steal from us for so long.

If we want to end the perk, we should do just that, not enact some pissy little half-measure. MPs have been stealing from us for long enough. Its long past time it stopped.

Against justice "reform"

This afternoon the government announced its plans to "reform" (in the 80's sense) the justice system. Ostensibly, this is aimed at making trials more efficient. In practice, it means a serious assault on the human rights of people accused of a crime.

The two most serious changes are a move to restrict the right to trial by jury and a requirement that the defence identify "issues in dispute". I've dealt with the former here, and I have not changed my mind on it. Anyone who thinks that three years' imprisonment is a "minor" penalty is smoking crack. Anyone who advocates that the right to trial by jury be restricted is clearly incapable of imagining that they might one day end up on the wrong side of a courtroom. And while the government can claim that

A fair trial is just as likely to occur before a judge alone as before a jury.
The fundamental problem is that people will not believe it. And that's obvious the moment you think about what happens on a jury. For a miscarriage of justice to occur in a jury trial, 12 (well, 11 with a majority verdict) people would have to be completely wrong. For it to occur in a non-jury trial, it needs only one: the judge. And if I'm ever in a courtroom, that's why I'll be wanting a jury: because it means there are that many more eyes on the case, looking for the holes. Juries are the ultimate bullshit detectors, and the ultimate check on state power, as the Waihopai Three's acquittal showed. And that is why the government wants to get rid of them.

The requirement that the defence identify issues in dispute OTOH is a gross violation of the right to silence. It forces the defence to effectively give evidence against themselves, in that areas not disputed are effectively admitted. It is also a recipe for lazy prosecution and potentially unsafe verdicts. Remember, in this country the prosecution has to prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Focusing only on "issues in dispute" will inevitably mean the crown fails to do that.

The Bill of Rights Act is very clear: no-one shall be compelled to be a witness or to confess guilt. That's exactly what Simon Power is proposing they be forced to do. It will be more "efficient" of course. So would forgoing trials entirely and assigning verdicts at random. But the court process is not supposed to be about efficiency and saving money - it is supposed to be about justice. And what we are seeing here is an erosion of justice so that National can give away more tax cuts to its rich mates.

But then, this is a party who can't even design a liquor control bill without turning us into a police state. So I guess we shouldn't really expect anything better from them.

Measuring happiness

This year The Social Report added a new "life satisfaction" metric. This is part of an international trend to start measuring life satisfaction or happiness, born of the recognition that economists' simplistic equation of GDP with happiness or utility was largely false once the economy provided for people's basic needs.

The UK is the latest country to follow this trend:

The UK government is poised to start measuring people's psychological and environmental wellbeing, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor happiness.

Despite "nervousness" in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week's riot in Westminster, the Office of National Statistics will shortly be asked to produce measures to implement David Cameron's long-stated ambition of gauging "general wellbeing".

It will be interesting to see what the results are, especially given the Conservatives' program of cuts. At the same time, its easy to be cynical - Cameron wants satisfaction measured quarterly rather than annually, meaning he will effectively be getting the Office of National Statistics to do a big chunk of his political polling for him (in that sharp decreases in satisfaction probably spell bad news for the government in a democracy). And on the gripping hand, if it results in a government which pays attention to satisfaction, rather than just growth, and goes out of its way to avoid making people unhappy, then that is a Good Thing, in that it will be giving people the government they want. Which means we should be asking why our government doing the same? We'll only be measuring life satisfaction every three years or so. Surely, if its a meaningful indicator, we should be measuring it more often than that?