Monday, October 31, 2011

Meet Jack

Its Halloween, my favourite holiday of the year. And as usual, I have carved a pumpkin, to sit at my gate and invite people in to receive chocolate:


If Jack doesn't do his job, then I get all the chocolate. This is probably a perverse incentive.

The Royal veto

The terms of the constitutional bargain underlying the Westminster system are pretty simple: the monarchy leaves government to Parliament and stays out of politics, and in exchange they get to keep their socks (and their heads). One of the great benefits of the UK's Freedom of Information Act has been exposing how much the royals piss on that bargain, with Prince Charles in particular furiously lobbying Ministers on his pet crank theories. And now it gets worse: it turns out he's being allowed to veto legislation:

Since 2005, ministers from six departments have sought the Prince of Wales' consent to draft bills on everything from road safety to gambling and the London Olympics, in an arrangement described by constitutional lawyers as a royal "nuclear deterrent" over public policy. Unlike royal assent to bills, which is exercised by the Queen as a matter of constitutional law, the prince's power applies when a new bill might affect his own interests, in particular the Duchy of Cornwall, a private £700m property empire that last year provided him with an £18m income.

Neither the government nor Clarence House will reveal what, if any, alterations to legislation Charles has requested, or exactly why he was asked to grant consent to such a wide range of laws.

So, an unelected inbred is getting to dictate legislation to the UK's elected representatives. And the country calls itself a democracy...

But before we get too smug, its worth noting that such a power exists here. Standing Order 304 provides that

No Member’s bill, local bill, or private bill that contains any provision affecting the rights or prerogatives of the Crown may be passed unless the Crown has, by message, indicated its consent to that provision.
And its not just a irrelevant relic. Sue Bradford's Minimum Wage (New Entrants) Amendment Bill, which effectively abolished youth rates, needed royal permission because it changed the statutory powers of the Governor-General (those powers had been granted by Parliament, but that apparently didn't matter). Conceivably, a more active monarch could interfere in a lot more. The only thing that saves us from that fate is that they live on the other side of the world.

This has to change, both in the UK and New Zealand. The government doesn't ask any of us when it changes the law affecting our rights. Why should it ask the monarch? Its an affront to egalitarianism as well as democracy, and it should be stamped out.

Shorter anti-MMP campaign

"People we disagree with should be disenfranchised to prevent them from having any influence over politics".

No, they don't say it explicitly. But its what their concern about "king-makers" and push for a less proportional electoral system boils down to. And it is a deeply, deeply undemocratic idea.

Democracy is about majority rules. But if you don't win a majority, the voting system shouldn't construct an artificial one for you. Instead, you should look for partners to get you over the line. This necessarily requires compromise and accepting that you're not going to get your own way on everything.

"Vote for change" and their wealthy backers don't want to do this. They want their own way all the time, regardless of what the majority thinks. And their solution is to discount the votes of those who don't support them to make it easier. Whatever you call it, that isn't democracy, and we should not accept it. Nobody likes Winston, but I'd rather live in a democracy with Winston Peters than a dictatorship without him.


That's the only way to describe John key's plan to sell our state-owned enterprises and use the money to pay for schools and hospitals. To point out the obvious: these things are part of ordinary government spending, normally funded from ordinary taxation. Funding them from asset sales is the equivalent of selling your car to pay the weekly grocery bill.

It doesn't make any sense economically either. At best, Key would swap profitable assets for unprofitable ones. If that's the thinking of our business class, then its no wonder their businesses are failures, no wonder the banks are falling over.

But what it really shows is the vacuity of National's asset sales agenda. Privatisation has never been a good idea; instead, its always been a solution looking for a problem. First they tried to sell it to us to pay off debt, then to give the poor dears on the NZ stock exchange something decent to invest in (building profitable companies something the government apparently does best), and now a way of paying for basic services. But all along, its been about privatising the dividend stream, diverting that public wealth into the private pockets of the few. And that is not something we should accept. These assets are ours, and they should stay that way. We should not allow John Key to steal them for himself and his rich mates.

New Fisk

What the killing of Gaddafi means to Syria

Friday, October 28, 2011

Support locked out meatworkers

Last week I blogged about the CMP Rangitikei lockout, which has seen CMP Rangitikei lock out most of its staff in an effort to extort a 20% pay cut. The lockout is still going on, and those workers have now been unable to do their jobs and earn any money for nine days. If you'd like to help them then the CTU has set up a disputes fund for donations. The details are:

NZCTU – Disputes Fund
If CMP Rangitikei gets away with this, then other employers will try it. So, protect yourself, and support the meatworkers.

Justice for torture in Argentina

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina's military junta waged a campaign of violence against dissidents, students, and unionists known as the "Dirty War". Thousands were disappeared, tortured and murdered by government death squads, their bodies flung from the backs of planes over the Atlantic Ocean to prevent any evidence from coming to light. Yesterday, former naval officer Alfredo Astiz was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity for his part in those killings. Astiz worked in an intelligence unit operating from the Naval Mechanical School (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, a notorious torture centre and death camp. He specialised in infiltrating peaceful opposition groups, identifying their leaders, then disappearing, torturing, and murdering them. Among his proven victims were French nuns Alice Domon and LĂ©onie Duquet, and the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group which protested against disappearances. None of these people committed any crime; they were murdered because they spoke out against the crimes of the government and people like Astiz.

Fifteen other former military officers were also jailed for their crimes at ESMA, eleven of them for life. They're not the first, and they won't be the last. Argentina is settling its score with the dictatorship and their torturers, finally providing justice for their victims.

Maori seats in the Waikato

Environment Waikato will introduce Maori seats at its next election. Its a good move. Maori make up twenty percent of the region's population, but haven't had any representation on the council for twenty years. Maori seats will fix that problem, and guarantee representation for an excluded community. No democrat should be against them.

New Fisk

'The army was told not to fire at protesters'

National wants to cut pay for the young

One of Sue Bradford's great achievements as an MP was eliminating discriminatory youth rates, which saw young people paid less for doing the same work as older people, simply on account of their age. National opposed that reform, and now they're making restoring youth rates a central part of their election platform:

National has released its employment policy, pledging to cement a lower-paid "starting out" wage, and pay cuts for striking workers.


Speaking to an employers and manufacturers breakfast in Auckland, Prime Minister John Key said the rate would apply to 16 and 17 year olds in their first six months with a new employer, 18 and 19 year olds entering the workforce after being on a designated benefit and 16-19 year olds training in a recognised industry course worth at least 40 credits a year.

Key says this is all about getting young people into jobs. In fact, its about cutting labour costs, and allowing employers, particularly employers in the service industry, to make bigger profits. All part of his "we would love to see wages drop" plan to reduce wages and living conditions for ordinary kiwis.

How can Key get away with this? Because his victims can't vote, or are less likely to. Which is another reason we need to lower the voting age: so young people can defend themselves democratically against the politicians who would victimise them.

Rotten to the core

Last week we learned that British police spies had perjured themselves in court and passed on legally privileged material in order to secure the conviction of peaceful protestors. Today, we have the amazing sight of Britain's top police officer defending this practice as "there's no law against it":

Britain's most senior police officer has defended the practice of undercover officers using fake identities in court, claiming there is no specific law forbidding it.


Hogan-Howe appeared before the Metropolitan Police Authority on Thursday facing increasing pressure over allegations that two police spies used their false identities as political activists when they were prosecuted in court.

He told the authority: "There's no law that says it can't happen. The fact that someone has concealed their identity doesn't mean the crime didn't happen. In absolute terms, the criminal law does not make a crime of it. If you are dealing with more serious crimes, we have to seek all options."

So, Britain's police don't know the meaning of "perjury", and support it if it helps them bang people up. Their police force really is rotten to the core.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The other half of the policy

Labour has announced the other half of their retirement and savings policy: compulsory KiwiSaver, with gradually increasing employer contributions. That's not a terrible idea, and the latter is something they should have been doing from the beginning. The question is why they decided to tie it to a third rail increase in the retirement age. Its not as if the two parts go together, after all. You don't need to increase the retirement age to boost KiwiSaver, and neither half adds anything to the other. So why?

And again, I'm drawn to my earlier conclusion: this is simply a cynical political ploy to wedge National and boost Winston, an empty threat designed purely to be vetoed. You can admire the Machiavellian evil of it, but I prefer my political parties to be less deceitful in their promises.

Key to voters: You're stupid

John Key was trying to sell his privatisation policy in Kapiti yesterday. His pitch? If voters object, its because we're too stupid to understand it:

Prime Minister John Key has tried to sell the Government's proposed asset sales policy to senior citizens on the Kapiti Coast, saying voters do not fully understand it.


He conceded some would always be concerned about asset sales, but said later that it was important to understand what the Government wanted to do.

"They don't fully understand what we're doing. My experience is when I take audiences through it, like I did just before, no-one actually put up their hand and asked a question."

To the contrary, I think we understand things very well. We own those assets. National wants to take them off us and give them to their mates. The dividends will flow into the private pockets of the rich - or offshore - rather than being used to pay for schools and hospitals which benefit us all. There's nothing in it for us, and it makes us poorer rather than richer.

Opposing that isn't "stupid". Instead, its the only sensible course of action. Calling us "stupid" for correctly assessing our self-interest simply shows how arrogant Key and his rich mates are.

New Fisk

Syria slips towards sectarian war

Calling bullshit

Labour is trying to spin its threat to raise the retirement age as a "hard and ballsy" decision to do what is necessary to balance the books. But this is bullshit. To point out the obvious, we are running deficits now. Labour is threatening to raise the retirement age starting in nine years. This does nothing to help us now (but may give people like Don Brash a thrill).

So, its not about getting us out of our current fiscal hole. So what is it about? I can think of two obvious options. One is that raising the retirement age in the future will provide political cover to loot the Cullen Fund now, providing free money to balance the books by spending our savings. The other is that its a cynical, calculated ploy to wedge National against their own base while driving voters to Winston, who is Labour's only hope of government. Winston, of course, will veto any increase as the price of his support, so its an empty threat, purely for show, dishonest as well as evil.

(Meanwhile, Labour hacks are telling me to shut up because I "don't know the whole story", which will be released this afternoon. Sorry, but if you leak stuff to the media, you can't complain if people take it at face value and comment on it. If those media reports are wrong, then I'll happily post a retraction. But until then, I call it as I see it - which is Labour betraying the young for the benefit of its aging frontbench)

Dancing on the third rail

Like a capital gains tax, superannuation has been regarded as a "third rail" of New Zealand politics. John Key has famously pledged to resign rather than raise the retirement age from 65. So naturally, Labour is now dancing all over it, promising to bite the bullet and raise the retirement age to 67 to balance the books.

I'm of two minds about this. Yes, we live longer now, and stay healthy for more of those years, so a small raise doesn't seem to hurt that much. Life expectancies have increased by five to seven years since 1985, so is it really so harsh that we'll be expected to work for another two? Treasury has told us that the current system is unaffordable in the long-term (prompting the creation of the Cullen Fund), and the Retirement Commissioner has recommended a gradual rise to keep the system sustainable.

And against that, it doesn't help that the primary advocates of a higher retirement age are either transparently selfish rich pricks or crazed ideologues wanting to loot tax cuts for themselves and their rich mates by slashing social services. Or that all the analysis ignores the most obvious option to fund superannuation: higher taxes. Or that the proposed solutions are all about further entrenching the intergenerational inequities which began in the 1980's and have continued ever since. Then of course there's the fact that we have significant ethnic disparities in life expectancy, with an overall gap of nine years between Maori and Pakeha. The Maori male life expectancy in 2005 - 2007 was just 70 years. In that context, raising the retirement age will impact disproportionately on Maori and effectively rob them of a benefit they pay their taxes to receive.

And then at the end of it, I come back to a simple thought: our retirement system may be generous, but isn't protecting generous social services the sort of thing a Labour Party is supposed to do? If they're willing to give this away, say to young kiwis "you will have a worse life than your parents because we fecklessly looted the state for them and are too chickenshit to tell them to pay their bills", then what fucking good are they? If this is what Labour stands for now, then good riddance to them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writ day

The Chief Justice has signed the writ, meaning the election is officially underway. Nominations open tomorrow and close next Tuesday (Monday for party lists), and we'll have a complete picture of who's running where by 14:00 next Wednesday. After that, its 24 days of campaigning, and then we vote.

New Fisk

Assad's army remains defiant as it buries its dead

Beating the law and order drum

One month until the election, so of course National is beating the law and order drum, announcing changes to bail laws to appear tough on crime. If National gets their way, people accused of murder and class-A drug offences will face a reverse onus of proof to be granted bail. This is "justified" in the name of "public safety", but a vanishingly small number of accused murderers reoffend while on bail, while only a third of drug offenders do. In both cases, those who actually pose a risk can already be denied bail. So what National is proposing is a blanket presumption against bail for people who present no serious risk to public safety - something which is blatantly contrary to the Bill of Rights Act's guarantee that

Everyone who is charged with an offence... shall be released on reasonable terms and conditions unless there is just cause for continued detention
It is also contrary to Article 9.3 of the ICCPR, on which the BORA clause is based, and which is interpreted by the United Nations Human Rights Committee as requiring that pre-trial detention be "an exception and as short as possible". But clearly, our domestic and international human rights obligations are less important to National than further othering the accused and whipping up fear and hate of "crims" to win votes.

Nothing to do with us

Murray McCully is off to CHOGM in Perth this week, where the British will try and gain agreement for a change to their archaic and discriminatory rules on the royal succession (though not too much change, mind - women are OK, but Catholics aren't. They're eliminating sexism, but retaining bigotry). On the one hand, any reduction in discrimination anywhere in the world is welcome. But at the same time, its worth asking: what does this have to do with us?

While New Zealand retains the Queen as our de jure head of state, the blunt fact is that its Britain's monarchy, not ours. The Queen is British, not a kiwi. She doesn't live here, and we don't elect her. And the same will be true of whoever succeeds her. If the UK wants our "permission" to change their rules on their monarch, then of course we shouldn't stand in their way - they're an elected government, and it would be unthinkable to exercise a foreign veto on their wishes. But we shouldn't pretend that its really anything to do with us. The British monarch is just another colonial relic we haven't got around to ridding ourselves of yet - rather like our flag.

Tunisian elections

Tunisia went to the polls on Sunday to elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution - the first Arab state to do so after the "Arab Spring". Results are slowly trickling in, but it looks like the An-Nahda Party has won a clear majority. An-Nahda, or Renaissance, is a "moderate Islamic" party, a Muslim equivalent of Europe's Christian Democrats. They have been quite clear that they are not seeking to impose a theocracy, but are instead seeking "a democratic society built on Islamic values". And they're happy to cooperate with Tunisia's secular parties to do it.

So, so far it looks like democracy has been the winner. Of course, it is early days yet - but Tunisia's revolution hasn't failed at the first hurdle, and we've got reason to hope that things will turn out alright there.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Choices: Afghanistan

On Thursday, I attacked Labour for failing to mention Afghanistan in their foreign policy. Today, they've corrected that omission in spades, announcing they would withdraw the SAS within 90 days of taking office. Again, I think that's a pretty clear choice for the electorate: sacrifice kiwi lives to defend a corrupt, torturing regime - or not. Decisions in the box on November 26.

Choices: Water

Now that the circus is over, the election campaign has begun. And the Southland Times has started out by trying to make water quality an election issue. Southland is on the sharp end of the dairy boom, and it shows:

89 per cent of all rivers and streams in Southland have a water-quality rating of poor or very poor. We have only one "clean" river, the Monowai in Fiordland.

20 per cent of all water bores in the province had bacteria levels, mainly nitrate, exceeding guidelines in the most recent study done, two years ago.

Residents in some outlying towns are regularly warned to boil water before drinking it, because of high pollution levels.

A foul taste, from increased nitrate levels, afflicts the Invercargill water supply in high summer.

The Mataura and Waikaia rivers regularly carry excessive E. coli bacteria.

Nitrate leaching into our waterways has become so prevalent that two years ago Environment Southland tests showed 65 per cent of the sites it was monitoring had elevated nitrate levels.

Waituna Lagoon, once a shining example of our clean, green environment, is now so polluted that scientists fear it is irrecoverable.

This isn't just an abstract environmental issue. People can't drink the water because it smells. They can't swim in the rivers because it makes them sick. That matters, even to people in Invercargill. While Environment Southland recognises the problem, and is cracking down on new dairy farms, they're wondering what, if anything, central government will do to help.

So, what are the major parties' policies in this area?

  • National doesn't regard the environment as a priority. What little information they have is buried at the bottom of the page, just ahead of "Supporting our Pacific Communities" (who rank last in National's hierarchy of policy needs). And the policy itself? Water gets as much space as the picture of John Key, and its all about what they've done in the past (largely gutting the Land & Water Forum's proposed National Policy Statement in favour of one more acceptable to their farmer-cronies). Unmentioned: turning Canterbury into a dictatorship to prevent it from cracking down on farm pollution, establishing an irrigation fund to make the problem worse, promoting dairy expansion. They stand for more of the same, not greater protection.
  • Labour has a specific water policy, which emphasises their commitment to water quality. They want a stronger National Policy Statement, restrictions on damming rivers for irrigation, and for water to be regulated by elected regional councils. They also want to make farmers and other large users pay a resource rental, with the funds going towards improving water quality within the relevant region.
  • The Greens also have a water policy, which is similar to Labour's (because Labour got it from them). A resource rental, a stronger NPS, and more power for regional councils. They differ on the strength and details, but the general thrust is the same.
That's a pretty clear choice then, between pollution and protection, between using a public resource for the benefit of the few and protecting it for the benefit of all. If you care about being able to swim in our lakes and rivers, then you should vote accordingly.

More heroic assumptions

Treasury released its Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update today, and its all bad news. The economy has worsened since the Budget, and while they're still projecting a government surplus in 2015, that comes at the cost of self-defeating austerity measures. But what's even scarier is that even that dismal forecast depends on the same sorts of heroic assumptions about wage growth they were making back in May.

According to the PREFU [PDF; table 1.2], Treasury expects 4% wage growth next year, dipping slightly to 3.3% in 2013, then rising again to over 4% every year after that. In reality, the only time in recent memory we've had such sustained high wage growth has been 2006 - 2009, when we had an engineered labour shortage, unemployment below 4%, and more favourable labour laws than at present. So where does Treasury expect unemployment to be while employers are having enormous wage rises screwed out of them in spite of the 90 day law and union-busting? 5.8% next year, dropping slowly to 4.7% in 2015. And if you think those things go together, then I have a Brighter Future to sell you...

This isn't just a minor nitpick; Treasury's promised surplus is built on the higher tax takes produced by these assumptions. Which means they are understating the amount of pain we will have to suffer to balance the books. This suits their current political masters very well indeed. But it raises doubts about whether Treasury really is using its best professional judgments (as required by law and claimed in the PREFU's statement of responsibility [PDF]), or pushing their own agenda again.

Something to go to in Auckland

The annual Bruce Jesson lecture is being held in Auckland tomorrow. This year its Professor Paul Dalziel on "Recreating Full Employment":

Bruce Jesson’s last book, Only Their Purpose is Mad, tracked the destructive impacts of what he termed “the open slather approach to economic reform”. Twenty years after the reforms, New Zealand still lives with the legacy of that period in the form of unemployment and poverty. The government’s response is to blame the social welfare system and to propose policy reforms that will take us along the same failed path of the 1990s. Bruce Jesson finished his book by arguing that “the challenge facing New Zealand is to redefine the role of the nation in the modern global economy”. He called for nation-building understood as “creating a cohesive society that can act internationally with some sense of purpose”. This lecture will address Jesson’s challenge. It aims to set out a concrete programme for nation-building built on strategies to recreate full employment.
When: 18:30, Wednesday 26 October
Where: Maidment Theatre, Auckland University

New Fisk

Lessons in humanity from a Libyan family, a tale of Dickens from Cairo – and the wrong shark

Imposing NeoLiberalism by the backdoor

Back in March, the government introduced the Regulatory Standards Bill to the House. Part of ACT's coalition deal, the bill will require all legislation to conform to (a highly ideological definition of) "good regulatory practice", and allow any legislation that does not to be overturned by the courts (providing greater protection for property than for fundamental human rights). Ironically, the bill did not meet its own criteria, and was too NeoLiberlaism much even for Treasury to swallow. It looked likely to die at Second Reading, unless ACTs votes are required next term.

Enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ostensibly a trade treaty, the US government wants to use it to boost pharmaceutical-industry profits by banning us from saving money by bulk-buying pharmaceuticals through Pharmac. So, they're pushing for a Regulatory Standards Bill-style process, allowing laws to be challenged and overturned on cost-benefit grounds, as a way of tying Pharmac up and making it afraid to make decisions. This is a fundamental constitutional change for us. And our government looks like they will impose it on us not through a public discussion followed by a referendum or Parliamentary vote, but by stealth, through a treaty negotiated in secret and presented to us as a fait accompli.

This is undemocratic in the extreme. But its what happens when you let your foreign policy be conducted in secret: it ends up being used to launder radical domestic policy, which no-one would ever vote for, and ram it down our throats. And its just another in the long list of reasons why we need total transparency in our foreign policy: so our government and officials can't betray us by pulling stunts like this.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Marriage should be for all

Writing in the Dominion-Post this morning, Deborah Russell argues that marriage should be for all. Her core argument:

The state has no business in the marriage game. It does have a legitimate interest in noting who is in a committed relationship. As a society, we want to be able to tell which people happen to be sharing accommodation as mere flatmates, and which have amalgamated their interests for the foreseeable future.

We allocate rights and responsibilities on the basis of those amalgamations, such as welfare entitlements and tax credits, and obligations to support other people. But why should the state care about whether those committed relationship households are based on male/female couples, or same-sex couples, or trios, or whatever?

It is unfair the state gives a certain status (marriage) to some households but not others. Either the recognition ought to apply to all, or none. Anything else represents the state picking and choosing among citizens, saying some are more worthy than others. That ought to be anathema in an egalitarian society.

I should point out that the government's decisions over the allocation of resources are already required to be non-discriminatory, and thanks to the Relationships (Statutory References) Act 2005, largely are (the notable exception to this is adoption rights). What's at stake here is the status of marriage itself, where the government is elevating different-sex couples over same-sex ones.

This is not something it should be doing. Social arrangements are the private domain of the people concerned, not of the state. The state's interest in the matter begins and ends at "preventing the perils of clandestinity" i.e. stopping people from misleading prospective partners about their relationship status. There is no state interest in telling adults that their relationships aren't "good enough", or trying to steer them towards some idealised family structure preferred by old bigots. That's a gross intrusion into the private domain, as squicky as telling people how, and how often, they are allowed to have sex.

The good news is that 60% of kiwis recognise this. The question we should all be asking of candidates this election is why our politicians don't.

Against interoperability

I've finally finished reading Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars. The takeaway lesson from it? We need to oppose our military's dangerous desire for interoperability.

If you ask kiwis what we want our military to do, you'll get an answer along the lines of "defend New Zealand, help out in the South Pacific with disaster relief, and do our bit in UN peacekeeping". Because we have no enemies, and sheep don't have guns, in practice the latter two are more important than the first. So we want a military that is good at keeping the peace and rebuilding schools.

Interoperability helps with none of these things. Instead of being about reducing conflict and giving aid, it is about being able to seamlessly integrate our military into that of the US and UK. It is about the air force's expensive planes and the navy's expensive frigates and the GCSB's expensive spies being able to "drop in" to a foreign command structure, without any problems. And the only purpose of that is so we can help fight their wars.

Other People's Wars has concrete examples of this in practice. The Orion we sent to the Persian Gulf to "hunt Al Qaeda" slotted straight into the US command structure and was used to provide surveillance cover for their invasion of Iraq. The frigate we sent there for the same purpose ended up doing escort duty for US troop transports, against explicit NZ government instructions. The GCSB spies we sent to Afghanistan walked into positions in the US headquarters, plotting targets for US drones to kill. Its about making us better vassals, not about protecting New Zealand.

And its expensive. The latest upgrade to the Orions, whose sole purpose was to make it easier to integrate them into the US command structure, cost upwards of half a billion dollars. That's half a billion dollars that could have been spent on military equipment that actually served our interests. Or on schools and hospitals.

We should not be doing this. Our military should work for us, not the US. It should be designed around our needs, not America's. As for how, the best way to remove the problem is to remove the capability. Parliament holds the purse strings; it should refuse to fund further training and purchases by our military which directly undermine our foreign policy in this way.

New Fisk

You can't blame Gaddafi for thinking he was one of the good guys

Worse and worse

At the beginning of the year, we learned that British police had engaged in extensive, long-term spying on peaceful protestors, infiltrating undercover police officers into groups such as GreenPeace for years at a time who acted not just as spies, but as agent provocateurs. That's damning enough, but now the scandal has got worse. The government was poised to release the usual whitewash report this week, but were forced to pull it at the last minute after the Guardian revealed that at least one of these spies had been instructed to perjure himself in court in order to protect his undercover status:

Documents seen by the Guardian suggest that an undercover officer concealed his true identity from a court when he was prosecuted alongside a group of protesters for occupying a government office during a demonstration.

From the moment he was arrested, he gave a false name and occupation, maintaining this fiction throughout the entire prosecution, even when he gave evidence under oath to barristers. The officer, Jim Boyling, and his police handlers never revealed to the activists who stood alongside him in court that he was actually an undercover policeman who had penetrated their campaign months earlier under a fake identity.

But it gets even worse. In addition to perjuring himself, Boyling continued to spy on the defence case, sharing the same lawyers and passing on privileged material to his superiors. And they were doing all of this to stop... cyclists. Clearly a dangerous threat to society.

Boyling isn't the only one. Other agents also perjured themselves at the behest of their superiors. What we are seeing here is a police force which is rotten to the core and out of control, using police state tactics to undermine fundamental democratic rights. That has to change. That will be a long process, but a good start could be made by bringing charges against those senior police who have suborned perjury, to make it clear that it is not acceptable in a modern, accountable police force. Because if the police aren't subject to the law, they can hardly expect anyone else to take it seriously.


So, Gaddafi is dead, apparently lynched after being captured in Sirte. This is traditionally what happens to dictators - witness the brutal death and post-mortem hanging of Mussolini. But that doesn't make it right. Criminals, even those who have committed crimes on a vast scale like Gaddafi, should be given a fair trial, and if convicted, imprisoned. Summary execution, show trials, and state-sanctioned murders are the tools of tyrants, not of a democratic society based on justice.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A glaring omission

Labour released its foreign affairs policy [PDF] today. Can you spot what's missing?

That's right: Afghanistan. We're involved in a war over there, our troops are killing people and dying for the sake of a corrupt, torturing kleptocracy, and Labour has absolutely nothing to say about it. They have policy on Fiji, but not on our longest-ever overseas military deployment.

A charitable explanation would be that it will be addressed in another policy release, perhaps Defence (climate change is also unmentioned, but we know that's its own policy area now). Uncharitably, they're chickenshits, unwilling to make withdrawal from Afghanistan an election issue. Time will tell.

Apart from that glaring omission, the policy is fairly good, if vague. Labour would pursue an independent foreign policy, seeking new allies in the global South while trying to retain our friendships with the North. They'd build on our role as "peace-builders" and try and become a mediator in the Asia-pacific region. They'd aggressively pursue disarmament, and support both an Oslo/Ottawa-style treaty banning nuclear weapons and the Arms Trade Treaty. And they'd restore the autonomy of NZAID, and have it focus on actual aid rather than just being another way for National to subsidise its cronies. All good stuff, and cheap or free, so not constrained by the current financial crunch. But the lack of commitment on withdrawing from Afghanistan (or any mention of their attitude towards it at all) somewhat undermines all of that.

Update: Maryan Street explains on Red Alert: they didn't think they needed to mention it. But it will be in their defence policy anyway.

The march for equality

Legalise Love had its "march for equality" in Wellington today. I wasn't able to make it down to support my friends, but it looks like the turnout was good, with Three News reporting hundreds of marchers. They also report that

“The most common response from people is, ‘What? Isn’t it already legal?’ Sure, people don’t know what the law is, but it speaks to the fact that people really think that the law should be the other way and they are surprised by the fact that it’s not.”
Which shows that we've already won the battle for public acceptance. The challenge is getting the politicians to admit that.

Scoop has photos of the march here.


Parliament has been dissolved. Let the election begin!

Undermining the public service

Meanwhile, while National is slashing the public service and sacking and driving our professional, politically neutral public servants, they're also building their own parallel one, staffed with handpicked cronies. The latest example of this is the new Defence Amendment Bill announced yesterday, which provides for the establishment of a "Defence Advisory Board":

91B Defence Advisory Board

(1) The Minister may appoint a board of suitable persons to be called the Defence Advisory Board (the Board).

(2) The function of the Board is to provide independent and specialist advice to the Minister on matters relating to defence that the Minister from time to time refers to the Board....

Of course, they'll be paid as if they were a crown entity - which means lots of juicy crony appointments to hand out to former MPs. And for what? There's no justification given for the creation of such an entity; the 2010 Defence White Paper [PDF] which recommended its creation simply says there will be one, without making any case for it. And its hard to see what that case would be. After all, Defence already has a body to provide independent and specialist advice to the Minister: the Ministry.

This isn't an isolated case. Under National, these boards are springing up all over the public service (for example, in Treasury). And they are a threat to our professional, neutral public service. Public servants are employed to provide free, frank, and impartial advice. "Independent" boards, consisting of handpicked cronies employed at the whim of the Minister, won't. At best, they'll be a sinecure for former hacks, a waste of money. And at worst, they'll be there simply to tell the government what it wants to hear, and impede the actions of whoever comes after them. Either way, it undermines public service neutrality, and the quality of the advice the government receives.

The cost of public service cuts


Since National came to power, public service funding has been frozen, then cut, all against a backdrop of galloping inflation. The price of this has been an erosion in public service capability, as key staff have been sacked, or have moved on in search of an employer who values them. One example of this? Thanks to cuts, we can't respond to an oil spill quickly:

Two top oil spill experts who quit New Zealand for jobs in Australia have been brought back to help with the Rena crisis, prompting Opposition claims they could have prevented a five-day delay in responding to the ship's grounding.


Former marine pollution response manager Nick Quinn left Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) last year for a job as response manager at the Australian Marine Oil Spill centre.

Ian Niblock, who was national on-scene manager as well as the Northland regional harbour master, also left to take the harbourmaster's position in Darwin.

On October 11, Quinn took over from Rob Service as on-scene commander for the Rena crisis and Niblock replaced Alex van Wijngaarden as his deputy.

That loss of key staff cost us five days of response time - five days in which MaritimeNZ sat on its hands, and in which the consequences of the accident could have been mitigated. On a bean-counting level, that probably cost us millions of dollars of cleanup costs.

MaritimeNZ is just one example, but this issue affects the entire public sector. National have been cutting, but those cuts are a false economy. As we saw in the 90's, and are seeing now, they simply shift costs elsewhere. National have been gambling that none of those bills would come due on their watch. In the case of the Rena, they turned out to be tragically wrong.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The police are at it again

Back in 2008, we learned that the police had been engaged in widespread domestic spying, infiltrating and spying on protest groups, unions, political parties, even legal cases against them. Now, it looks like they're at it again. A protest by Greenpeace against deep-sea drilling on Monday attracted an unusual amount of police attention, and has raised questions about their sources:

A police launch from outside the region was brought to Port Taranaki in readiness for the protest, and intercepted five protesters on paddleboards as they approached the survey ship Polarcus Alima on Monday. The ship is about to begin seismic testing for oil in the Deepwater Taranaki Basin.

Greenpeace claimed yesterday that a van bringing protesters to Taranaki was stopped by police near New Plymouth. Five police cars and 10 officers were at the scene.

Mr Boxer said it was apparent police were aware the five people in the van were from Greenpeace and why they were heading to New Plymouth.


Mr Boxer said Greenpeace did not publicise its intentions to protest at the port and was suspicious of how police got wind of the plan. "They knew that we were coming.

"The police response was much greater than to anything we've been doing in the past, to be honest," he said.

So, are the police bugging Greenpeace, or have they simply hired more spies to infiltrate them? Either way, its an attack on the right to protest, and on our democracy.

Locked out

So, its actually happened: Canterbury Meat Packers has locked out its staff at CMP Rangitikei in an effort to extort a 20% wage cut. Meanwhile, their executives collect fat salaries, which are apparently off-limits. The pain for their poor decision making must be heaped on their workers, not the people responsible.

This is the sharp end of what the people in the global occupy movement are protesting about: the systematic inequality which sees the 1% make out like bandits while the rest of us pay the price.

(Sadly the Meat Worker's Union is not very web-aware, and doesn't have a link up to enable the public to contribute to their lockout fund. I'll post a link when I find one).

Oh Joy

The grounding of the Rena has exposed our total lack of preparedness to handle even an average-sized oil spill, but that's not the only thing its exposed. According to Three News last night, there's something else Port of Tauranga isn't prepared to handle a spill of: Uranium:

documents obtained by 3 News show Tauranga harbour authorities had plenty of concerns about uranium just last year.

The harbour master warned:

- “It is not specified who would be responsible for cleaning up a uranium spill.”

- “There are no means of detecting radioactive materials in this port.”

- “The Tauranga fire service does not have any specialised detection equipment”.

The harbour authorities from the Bay of Plenty regional council today admitted nothing has changed.

In other words, no plan, no capability, not even a Geiger counter. And yet yellowcake transits the port all the time, on its way from Australia.

This isn't good enough. Our port authorities and government bodies should be able to respond to accidents in their area. And if they can't, and the consequences of an accident are severe enough, we need to think seriously about whether we should allow such materials to transit New Zealand waters.

How it works in Tonga

Tui’ilakepa, Tu’iha’ateiho, and Lasike are all Tongan nobles, and Members of the Tongan Parliament. They are all also facing firearms charges after a series of drug raids last year (Lasike is facing charges over a separate incident). So they did what any corrupt, self-serving aristocracy does when faced with being equal under the law: changed it:

In a year that has seen a dramatic increase in armed robberies in Tonga, parliament voted to massively reduce the penalties for the illegal possession of firearms - slashing the maximum penalty from $5,000 to only $1,000 and from five years imprisonment to only one year.

Tonga's first fully elected parliament voted 12-9 to stop public consultation on the Private Bill to reduce the penalty on the illegal possession of firearms, before going on to pass the Bill 10-8 on Tuesday, 11 October.

The House bypassed public consultation by defeating a motion that the Bill for the reduction in firearms penalties should go to public consultation first.

Naturally, those facing charges voted on the bill, and without their support it would not have passed.

This shows how far Tonga has to go before its a real democracy. Yes, they have elections (though the continued presence of noble representatives undermines this) - but they do not yet have democratic norms and respect for the rule of law. But hopefully this incident will cause enough outrage to force change in that direction as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Labour's work and wages policy

Labour released their work and wages policy today. A lot of the policy [PDF] is the stuff you'd expect: repeal of the 90-day law, immediately raising the minimum wage to $15/hour, and Mondayized public holidays - all stuff they've been talking about for the last three years. They're also promising to implement the recommendations of the 2008 Ministerial Advisory Group report on redundancy and restructuring, which recommended a statutory right to redundancy, and to give us better pay equity legislation. But the core of the policy, and the aspect which is likely to be most controversial, is for a return to award bargaining.

They don't call it that, of course; instead its "Industry Standard Agreements". But its the same thing: minimum contractual conditions, applying across an entire industry, set centrally by negotiation between unions and peak employer groups, backed by a quasi-judicial Workplace Commission. Individual contracts in a covered industry could of course exceed the minimum standards, but could not be below them (collective contracts, OTOH, apparently will be able to). The actual terms would be based on the clauses of existing collective contracts, unless that was short-circuited by negotiation. No-one would have to join a union, and it would effectively legitimise the current practice of passing on union-negotiated pay and conditions to non-union staff.

The framework is based heavily on that used in Australia. It seems to work there, and the fact that they have these industry-wide agreements and we don't is one of the reasons for the wage-gap between our two countries.

National will no doubt try and attack this as a blast from the past. I think its better seen as a return to normality. This sort of collective bargaining is common in the rest of the world. Its the norm over the Tasman. We are the outliers here, and the highly ideological framework we use has given us poverty wages and no security. If we want ordinary kiwis to be better off, then we need to change that. This seems to be a good stab at doing so.

National's economic record

One of National's core myths is that, as businessmen, they are naturally better economic managers. Last election, they used this myth to campaign on the promise of a "step-change" in the economy. So, how'd that work out?


Well, they delivered, I guess. Its definitely a "step-change". Its just a shame it was in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, this election they're "running on their record" and promising us a "brighter future" (for which they supposedly have a Plan). But the policies they are offering are the same as those which have given us this failure: austerity, wage cuts, letting the market sort itself out. Albert Einstein once said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And that is exactly what National are doing on the economy.

[Hat-tip: Red Alert]

National's New Zealand

A stagnant economy. 154,000 unemployed. Record high inflation. And now, record food-bank use, driven by WINZ erecting bureaucratic barriers to people accessing assistance.

This is National's New Zealand: where the poor are denied assistance because it might cost the rich money. But it is the government's job to help those in need - and National is simply failing to do this.

New Fisk

Assad, his raids on Lebanon, and Syria's slow slip into civil war

Urgent, my arse

When the government rammed through the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill, it told us that the legislation was urgent. When it refused any amendments designed to ensure that future police surveillance required warrants for the invasion of privacy as well as property, they said there was no time. The government had to be allowed to do what it wanted, immediately, with no questions asked, because the police had been forced to turn off surveillance cameras in ongoing investigations, and needed to turn them on again as quickly as possible.

As usual, they lied.

The bill was passed by Parliament during its last sitting on October 6. It was only given the Royal Assent yesterday, and became law today. Some urgency. I guess the police weren't in as much of a hurry as they said they were.

And so now we're saddled with a bad law which gives the police a blank cheque to film in our bedrooms for the next six months, all because the government lied and MPs were too fucking lazy to do their jobs properly. They really have earned their reputation with this one.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Our fishing industry is morally bankrupt

Now there's a surprise: the Seafood Industry Council, which represents operators of slave fishing-boats, thinks we need more of them, not less. Apparently, they can't get kiwis to work on their dangerous boats for weeks at a time for the pittance they're offering. Of course, there is a very simple solution to that problem: pay higher wages. It speaks volumes about the SIC and their members that they are unwilling to pursue that solution, and instead contract out their quota to foreign-crewed vessels not subject to New Zealand labour standards (or, apparently, basic human rights).

Meanwhile, its worth noting that these foreign-crewed vessels the SIC are so keen on are regularly breaching New Zealand fisheries law. They're not just screwing us on wages, but on the environment as well.

Its time Parliament put its foot down. If you want to fish in New Zealand waters, then it should be by New Zealanders, on New Zealand registered boats, and fully subject to New Zealand labour laws, safety standards and environmental regulations. Anything less, and we're allowing our country to be pillaged for the private profit of a few.

No scrutiny of police in France

France has a problem with police brutality. Lax oversight and failure to investigate complaints against police has led to an environment where they are effectively a law unto themselves, free to beat abuse and even kill with impunity. France also has a solution to this problem: a website where evidence of such abuse could be posted for the world to see. Now, that website has been ordered to be blocked by a French judge. Why? Because in France, showing the public what the police are doing to people is apparently an "incitement to violence". And so power protects itself...

In case you are wondering: yes, it is perfectly legal to film and photograph police in public places in New Zealand. If any police officer tries to tell you differently, you can show them this letter from their own legal team on the subject [PDF].

Sedition in Fiji

Back in August, anti-regime graffiti calling for dictator Frank Bainimarama to go started appearing all over Fiji. Last week, five men, one of them a kiwi, were arrested for it, and charged with sedition. The arrests are the usual story we have come to expect from Fiji: the suspects were detained for a week without charge (the legal limit is 48 hours), during which they were threatened with torture by police. They have now been remanded in custody - quite unusual for a crime of speech rather than violence. The chances of them receiving a fair trial in Fiji's post-coup court system (where the government handpicks judges and sacks those that show any commitment to the law) are remote.

Just another example of how Fiji has turned into a tinpot little shithole under Bainimarama. Decent countries don't prosecute people for expressing their dislike of the government. Decent countries don't have to. But then, its been obvious for a while that Fiji isn't a decent country any more, is it?

New Fisk

Great War secrets of the Ottoman Arabs

Thwarting the OIA

The Official Information Act is one of our great constitutional achievements. It lays down a very clear basic principle for all government information: that information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it. Various things can count as good reason, including prejudice to foreign relations or the fact that the information is legally privileged (and that privilege has not been waived), but those reasons must be assessed individually for each request in the circumstances when it is made. No information is excluded from this assessment; it is a harm-based regime, not a class-based one.

Now MFAT, one of the last bastions of feudalism in our government, have a new way of preventing scrutiny of the actions they take in our name: agreeing to secrecy with the other countries they negotiate with. One example of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where MFAT have just agreed to keep all documents except the final text secret for four years.

This agreement is not expressly contrary to New Zealand law - but it is certainly contrary to its spirit. And it undermines that harm-based regime and perverts it into a class-based one. It doesn't matter if a TPP document will cause harm to our international relations or not; the fact that it is a TPP document is now reason enough to keep it secret until 2015.

(Alternatively, you can view this as MFAT creating reasons to keep things secret, in that having agreed to secrecy, release would be seen as breaking our word and harm our international relations. But that's only the case because MFAT agreed to it in the first place. If they didn't, then there would be no harm (or rather, it would depend on the document and the circumstances at the time)).

Its just another example of MFAT's undemocratic mindset and the way it locks us out of our own foreign policy. By doing this, they undermine the legitimacy of any deals they make. But MFAT still seems to operate in a monarchical world where the only opinions that matter in international relations are those of governments, not the people they purport to represent.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Still dirty

TheTimaru Herald reports that a third of South Canterbury dairy farms are still not complying with effluent restrictions, and 10% of them are in serious non-compliance. That's slightly better than last year, but its still not good enough, and to their credit even Federated Farmers acknowledges this. The question is what Environment Canterbury is going to do about it. Despite the drop this year, its clear that a significant portion of farmers are still running dirty operations and externalising their costs onto the public. ECan's strategy of giving practical advice to those not in compliance isn't producing the desired change quickly enough.

Fortunately, they have options. The RMA allows regional authorities to issue abatement notices to consent-holders and prosecute them for non-compliance. The penalty is $600,000, plus $10,000 per day, plus the potential review or cancellation of consents. That's nothing to an international shipping company, but enough to make a dairy farmer take notice. The question we should be asking is why ECan are not using these tools to enforce the law. Are they soft on pollution, or simply lazy?

We have a choice

Writing in the Herald, Tracey Barnett reminds us that the Rena disaster is a warning. If you think its bad that there is oil on the beaches from Tauranga to Opotiki, with all that implies for fish, wildlife, and the environment, just remind yourself: this is just a container ship. What if it had been one of National's proposed deep-sea oil wells? The damage would have been ten, a hundred, a thousand times as bad.

The government can reassure us that they will protect the environment. Drillers will be required to use "world's best practice". But "world's best practice" is just business-speak for "letting polluters do what they've always done, and pretending its good enough". It didn't protect the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon spill, and it didn't protect us from the Rena.

This election, we have a choice: do we drill offshore, or not? Do we risk our own Deepwater Horizon, or not? The parties are already lining up to tell us what they think. The Greens, Mana and Maori Party of course oppose offshore drilling, and Labour has now joined them. The government OTOH still supports it, but could be persuaded to change its mind if there is a big enough backlash. So, when you vote this year, think about what is happening in Tauranga, to one of New Zealand's most popular beaches, and think about which parties will let it happen again and which won't. As Barnett says, "deep water drilling is a choice. It doesn't have to be our future".


The Rena disaster has produced some moments we can be proud of, such as ordinary kiwis showing up to clean their beach when the government won't. But its also given us something shameful: a racist backlash against the Filipino community, based on the ethnicity of the ship's crew.

This is absolutely shameful. To point out the obvious, local Filipinos are not responsible for the oil spill. Hell, most of the crew aren't responsible either. And those that are are being prosecuted.

We are supposed to be a better country than this. It would be nice if the residents of Tauranga started acting like it.

Compare and contrast: Sport vs environment edition

Maximum fine faced by the Captain of the MV Rena for operating his ship in a dangerous manner: $10,000

Maximum fine faced by someone who uses the words "Rugby World Cup" without paying the IRB for the privilege: $150,000

I think that speaks volumes about our priorities as a society.

Racism fails in Australia (temporarily)

Last month, in a victory for human rights, the Australian High Court ruled that the Australian government's plans to transfer refugees to Malaysia in order to exclude them from the protections of the Refugee Convention were unlawful. In response, the Australian government drafted legislation which would have reversed by decision, by effectively repudiating the Refugee Convention, removing any trace of it from Australian law. The bill was meant to be voted on yesterday, but it was clear that it did not have the numbers to pass the House (and would have been rejected in the Senate in any case). As a result, Julia Gillard has now been forced to abandon the plan and accept that refugees must be processed in Australia.

But while this is a good result, its not victory. Its clear from the government's response that they are still committed to using racism and fearmongering over refugees as a political weapon, as is the opposition. Which means we will likely see this law, or something very much like it, passed the moment someone has the numbers to do so - likely after the next election. Still, a two-year window of court-enforced decency is better than none at all.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kicking criminals for votes

Back in 2005 the then-Labour government passed the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act. The law was a response to a prisoner winning compensation for being treated in a cruel, inhuman or degrading manner while in Corrections' custody, and was designed to prevent prisoners from suing for mistreatment in future. In addition to erecting a number of procedural hurdles designed to prevent cases, the law tried to make them pointless by requiring that any compensation awarded be diverted to the prisoner's victims. But apparently this wasn't enough - victims weren't coming forward to claim the money, while some mistreated prisoners were imprisoned for victimless crimes. So, in an effort to get some cheap "tough on crime" headlines in the leadup to the election, National has announced that it will be amending the law to ensure that any residual money goes to the government's victim support fund rather than abused prisoners.

There are a number of problems with this. The most obvious one is that it continues Labour's policy of placing prisoners outside the protection of the law and allowing them to be abused and victimised with impunity by the state. Worse, it creates a perverse financial incentive for such abuse: beat a prisoner, and victims benefit! But it is also contrary to our international human rights obligations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR and Convention Against Torture all require people to have an effective remedy or explicit compensation for violations of fundamental human rights. In the case of the latter two, that can be enforced by international oversight mechanisms. This law will put us in breach of those obligations and further undermine our international reputation as a defender of human rights.

But since when has National (or Labour) cared about that? There's an election to win, and hate to whip up. And since they can't victimise Maori anymore, they just have to kick criminals instead.

Sometimes you win II

last year, Green MP Catherine Delahunty's bill to establish a full-time disability rights commissioner on the Human Rights Commission was drawn from the ballot. The government responded by adopting the proposal, appointing Commissioners Rosslyn Noonan and Dr Judy McGregor to jointly hold the position pending proper legislation. Now, that legislation has arrived, as part of the government's Human Rights Amendment Bill (which includes various other patch-ups and moves the entire Commission to a full-time basis).

Its a good example of how minor parties and member's bills can provoke change - and of the positive changes the Greens have managed to achieve despite never being in government. And hopefully there'll be a lot more of that in the future.

New Fisk

Democratic governments don't deal with terrorists – until they do

Labour's hypocrisy on homophobia

DPF has a post today on Labour's rainbow policy [PDF]. The policy itself is good - allowing same sex adoption, removing the last vestiges of discrimination in law, eliminating homophobia in schools - and its what I'd expect to see from any political party. At the same time, you can't help but notice the irony. Labour points out that

Every New Zealander should be able to live a life of safety and dignity. Many GLBTI New Zealanders continue to be subject to insult, verbal and physical abuse, and to be made to feel inferior, most damagingly in schools. Too often, this results in high rates of self-harm and suicide amongst young GLBTI New Zealanders.
Meanwhile, prominent Labour MPs Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove engage in exactly this sort of homophobic abuse in the House [video; start at 2:30]. Other MPs, who I normally respect, will not condemn them, and even go so far as lying in public to deny this abuse takes place.

This is simply gutless. Labour needs to own its shit, recognise that eliminating homophobia begins at home, and start by eliminating its bigots. Their failure to do so undermines their credibility, and their entire policy. After all, how can politicians prohibit homophobia in schools, when they allow it amongst themselves? How can we say "its not OK", when Labour pretty obviously still thinks it is?

Update: Now that this is receiving media coverage, Labour's Grant Robertson is willing to stand up and condemn Mallard, though in fairly weak terms:

"Of course I don't think it's a good thing for Labour MPs to call Chris Finlayson Tinkerbell. It's silly statement. Just as it was for Tau Henare to give a prepared speech when he talked about Driving Miss Daisy with Charles Chauvel.

"I would not endorse them at all."

Good to hear it. If you want to make homophobia unacceptable, then you actually need to stand up against it in public - even when it comes from your mates.

First, we take Manhattan...

Then we take Auckland? The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have spawned its own local imitators. First, we have Occupy Auckland, which is planning to occupy Aotea Square starting from Saturday. Then we have Occupy Wellington, which is planning to do the same to Civic Square and then the Reserve Bank. Other protests are apparently planned for Hagley Park in Christchurch, the Octagon in Dunedin, as well as New Plymouth and Invercargill. So, if you want to protest against inequality and economic insecurity and for greater democracy, then turn up, if only for a little while.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The policy response

With the Rena now likely to sink and spill the rest of its fuel and cargo across one of our busiest ports and favourite holiday spots, its worth thinking about the future. Beyond the immediate cleanup, what policies can we put in place to prevent or mitigate such messes in the future?

I asked the Greens over Twitter, and their response was

For a start: 1. No deep sea drilling 2. Invest in infrastructure & capability of Maritime NZ... Also better engagement with communities when disasters do happen.
All of which seem like good ideas. The Rena has exposed the sheer inadequacy of Maritime NZ's oil spill management plans, which are gone into in some detail by Brian Rudman in today's Herald. Their three-tier response model places a significant part of the responsibility on organisations which either do not care (polluters) or are not properly equipped to deal with serious spills (regional councils). Equipment needed to deal with severe spills is stranded in Auckland and takes significant effort to transport. The result is that they are effectively helpless when a big incident comes along. Which in turn make the government's plans to allow deep-sea drilling, with all the risks that that entails, pure madness. As for the public, as we saw on Monday morning when oil began washing up and was left to locals to clean up (with no warning or guidance from officials, let alone organisation or reassurance that something would be done soon), the government's communication has been... lacking.

But there are other things we can do too. For example, its hard to understand how a ship can run aground on a charted reef in calm weather, unless the crew were negligent. The ship's captain has already been charged with operating a ship in a dangerous manner, and the penalties there are appropriate for individuals. But clearly there's a regulatory problem here as well. There are also issues around penalties for spills - the Maritime Act allows for a fine of up to $200,000 for a discharge of a harmful substance from a ship, while the RMA allows for fines of up to $600,000 for discharging contaminants without a resource consent, with strict liability. But that's SFA to a shipping corporation, and likely to be lower than the cost of running a ship safely so that it does not leak oil everywhere. So we need far better regulation of shipping, and far higher penalties for breaches, with actual enforcement so that captains and companies know they will face those penalties. Anything less is just inviting this to happen again.

The March for equality

Legalise Love, an organisation promoting same-sex marriage and equal adoption rights in New Zealand, will be holding a "march for equality" in Wellington next week:

When: 12 noon, 20 October
Where: Starts Civic Square, marching to Parliament

For more details, check out their FaceSpy event.

Careless about torture

On Monday the UN released a report on torture in Afghanistan, showing that 50% of prisoners held by the Afghan National Directorate of Security had been tortured. The NZ SAS, currently deployed in Kabul, hands prisoners over to these monsters, and yesterday Defence Minister Wayne Mapp was forced to admit that he could not rule out that those prisoners had been tortured:

The SAS train and partner the Crisis Response Unit in Kabul, who commonly transfer people they capture to the NDS.

Dr Mapp said some ended up in the facility known as 17/40 in Kabul, which is one of a number of centres where torture has been alleged, although the UN is still investigating.

He said the CRU have captured 58 suspects with the help of the SAS since their rotation started in September 2009.

"I've been advised by the Defence Force that they have no reports of anyone who's been arrested by the CRU having been tortured."

But the Defence Force did not track each person to ensure that was the case. "Anyone arrested by the CRU, their names are supplied to Nato/ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). We then essentially leave it to Nato/ISAF to do further tracking."

This is simply careless. The NDS have been dogged by torture allegations for years, to the extent that the UK were banned by their courts from handing prisoners to them. And yet we've been handing prisoners to known torturers without taking any real steps to ensure their safety - in clear contravention of our duties under the Geneva Conventions and Convention Against Torture. And by doing so, we've exposed New Zealand soldiers to possible war crimes charges.

The NZDF has responsibilities, both under international law and to the people of New Zealand. If they help capture people, they have an obligation to ensure they are well treated. Until Afghanistan ends torture, that should rule out any further transfers to Afghan authorities. It is that simple.

Why the Rena is an issue

On Monday night, the Dom-Post's National Affairs editor Vernon Small asked on Twitter why the government was so worried about the Rena disaster: "Am I missing some thing or symbol?" His column this morning repeats his bafflement:

Not for the first time the Government is facing a possible backlash from events largely not of its making, but which test its crisis management.

But for the first time, in the case of the Rena, it is looking extremely nervous about the possible toxic spillover.

It is not immediately clear why.

Small is supposed to be a political journalist. If its not immediately clear why the Rena is a problem for the government, then I can only suggest he's been recycling government press releases too long. It comes down to basically two issues: competence, and priorities.

On the first, the government of course did not crash the ship, and (contrary to Hekia Parata's repeated claims) are not responsible for the weather. They are, however, responsible for how they have responded to those things. And on any assessment, that response has been lacking. Maritime New Zealand treated it from the beginning as a traffic accident, not a potential environmental disaster. They made no moves to contain the initial spill, and turned down offers of inflatable barges to offload the Rena's oil to prevent a larger spill. They squandered four days of good weather in which they could have minimised the consequences of the disaster. And the results of that dithering can now be seen all over Tauranga's beaches.

This feeds into the second problem: the government's inaction highlights the gulf in values between them and ordinary kiwis. Ordinary New Zealanders regard the environment as a priority, especially where recreation opportunities are concerned. National does not. Witness their enthusiasm to dig up our national parks, their erosion of environmental standards, their foot-dragging on climate change. But now, that attitude is going to bite them, hard. People understand that a government which shared their concerns about the environment would have acted sooner. While this would not have prevented the disaster, it would likely have mitigated it somewhat. Which means that Tauranga residents wouldn't be needing masks to walk on the beach.

Finally, this has happened somewhere very visible. Tauranga is one of New Zealand's iconic spots; tens of thousands of people go there every summer and to celebrate New Year. Which means that the impact extends far beyond the local population. Lots of people have been there, and can imagine what the disaster means - and lots of people who were planning to go this year will be making alternative plans as a result. And they'll all be thinking that if the government had done a better job, they wouldn't be having to do that.

That's why the Rena matters. And any political journalist who doesn't immediately understand that should hang up their notepad in shame.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

NZ vetoes the last ocean

The Ross Sea is the last significantly unexploited ocean on the planet. It is free of pollution, invasive species, mining and overfishing. Currently, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body in charge of Antarctica's marine resources, is planning a series of marine protected areas to keep it that way. But there's a fly in the ointment: New Zealand:

New Zealand is set to veto any attempt to completely protect the world's last unexploited ocean - so a lucrative fishing industry can continue operating.

An official New Zealand document leaked to Fairfax reveals Wellington, backed by the US, does not want the whole 650,000 km2 Ross Sea declared a marine protected area (MPA), despite a 25-nation convention saying it is "of high global importance".

Maps in the document written by the Ministry of Fisheries show a large area of the Ross Sea is excluded from a marine park. It means the fishing industry can keep taking toothfish, discovered by New Zealand in 1996, worth $18 million a year.

And so National pisses away a bit more of our environmental reputation, in order to protect the "right" of a few to make money by ruining our last pristine marine environment and fishing a species to extinction.

New Fisk

Violence shows uneasy place of minorities after Arab Spring

Bad news from Tauranga

The Rena has sprung another leak, and the size of the spill has increased by a factor of ten, to between 130 and 350 tonnes. As one Tauranga resident noted, that's pretty much their summer gone. The oil will foul the beaches and make them unswimmable for months. The ship owners are responsible for the reasonable cost of cleanup, but they're not liable for the cost of the wider damage their pollution will cause to the local economy. And the legal penalties come nowhere near those costs: a paltry $200,000, plus $10,000 a day. Pretty obviously, that needs to be substantially increased.

At this stage its worth reminding people of our capability to respond to an oil spill. Below is exactly one third of our national oil recovery fleet:

Fills you with confidence that they'll be able to handle it, doesn't it?

On the positive side, this should be a death-blow to National's plans for offshore oil drilling. The public were already dubious in the wake of Deepwater Horizon, and now with a demonstration of exactly what a major oil spill means for our way of life, offshore drilling will be about as popular as mining in national parks.

What we're fighting for in Afghanistan

New Zealand currently has around a hundred troops in Afghanistan - 38 with the SAS in Kabul, and the rest as a Provincial Reconstruction team in Bamiyan. So far the deployment has cost us three lives: Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell, Corporal Doug Grant, Lance Corporal Leon Smith. So, what have they been dying for?


Prisoners have been systematically tortured while in the custody of Afghan security officials, according to a UN report which described abuse including ripping detainees' toenails out and twisting their genitals.

Nearly half of prisoners interviewed by Afghanistan's intelligence agency said they had been tortured while a third of those arrested by Afghan police reported abuse.

The report, based on interviews with 379 randomly selected prisoners including teenage boys, says torture was systematic at five locations around the country and was designed to obtain confessions, which are often the only form of evidence against a suspect.

Abuse had occurred in 47 facilities across 24 of the country's 34 provinces, although it was not "institutional or government policy", the 74-page report says.

SO, our soldiers are propping up a government which permits this. Worse, when they take prisoners - and the SAS takes prisoners, laundered under their own version of Australia's "Afghan model" - they are turned over to organisations who torture and sent to these facilities. Given the widespread nature of this torture, it is highly likely that prisoners taken by kiwi soldiers have been mistreated in this way. Doesn't that make you proud to be a kiwi? To know that our soldiers are over there, capturing people and turning them over so they can be electrocuted, threatened with rape, have their toenails ripped out with pliers?

The Greens are right: we need a full review of what the SAS has been doing in Afghanistan, including tracing the fate of every prisoner they have captured. But more importantly, we need to bring them home. Our government should not be propping up torturers, let alone supplying them with victims. The longer we stay there, the more complicit we become.