Friday, June 29, 2012

Property rights should not trump human welfare

This week, Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples suggested that Christchurch's growing number of homeless squat in abandoned red-zone properties rather than sleeping in their cars. The response with swift, with an outraged Gerry Brownlee saying that Sharples' suggestion was "not appropriate" and "completely out of order". Bullshit.

Despite the government's denials, there is a growing housing crisis in Christchurch. The earthquake has damaged homes, meaning that there are not enough to go around, and this shortage has been exacerbated by price-gouging landlords eager to make a quick buck off other people's suffering. Meanwhile, hundreds of homes lie empty in the red zone.

Contrary to Brownlee's fearmongering, these homes are not unsafe. They have been condemned as part of a policy of managed retreat, because the land cannot be quickly remediated and public services cheaply restored - not because they are structurally unsound. And while they are cold, unheated, and lack power and sewage, they're still enormously better than a tent or a car.

Squatting in these abandoned homes does no-one any harm, while delivering significant benefits to the homeless. Demanding that those in need eschew this, and instead continue to suffer, is privileging property rights over basic human welfare. And that is simply obscene.

The policy of prescription charges

In the Budget this year, the government announced it would be raising prescription charges from $3 to $5 an item, causing serious concerns around access to healthcare. Today, in their post-Budget dump, they released the policy documents around that decision, and they tell a very ugly tale.

The idea was, of course, cooked up by Treasury, driven by a desire to cut health spending [PDF]. Their initial report on the matter, T2011/2570: Improving the Targeting of Co-payments in Primary Care [PDF], pushed for cuts in both prescription charges and subsidised doctor's visits. However, that paper also noted the potential downsides - that it could decrease use of health services, and that this could increase costs elsewhere (for example, if people stop getting their statins or asthma inhalers and instead end up in hospital). it presented two options: an increase to $5 and to $10, with savings of $45 - $50 and $160 - $170 million a year respectively. In a subsequent paper on Savings Options in Health [PDF] they pushed for an even higher increase, to $15 or $20. Their estimated savings for these options "assume no behavioural impacts i.e. no reduction in prescription volumes", but presented such a drop largely as a saving due to reduced pharmaceutical costs, offset marginally by greater subsidies to high-volume users.

That's right: in Treasury-land doubling or tripling the price of something, or even increasing it sixfold does not reduce demand. Which is some very interesting (but convenient, in that it lets them completely ignore the obvious negative consequences) economics.

(There's a more explicit version of Treasury's methodology here [PDF]: take the number of prescriptions last year, multiply by the cost increase, and that's the "saving". Given that the primary purpose of increased charges is to influence behaviour, this suggests that they are either being highly dishonest, or do not believe in the supposed benefits of their own policy).

In April, Treasury recommended [PDF] an increase to "the lesser of $10 or the cost to the pharmacy for each prescription item", with reduced exemptions. The health budget could then be cut by $50 to $75 million "to return the savings to the centre". It seems to have taken some "Free and Frank advice on increasing the pharmaceuticals co-payment" [PDF] on the problems of such a system (both implementation difficulties, and the negative side-effects) to talk them out of it.

So, it looks like we got off lightly. But like rust, Treasury never sleeps; I'm sure they'll be back pushing for an even greater increase next year.

New Fisk

Western agreement 'could leave Syria in Assad's hands for two more years'

Our day, not theirs

One of the great things about New Zealand elections is the ban on campaigning on the day. Originally enacted in 1905 to prevent harassment of people going to the polls, it has become a fundamental feature of our democracy. Election day is the one day when we are free from politicians and their attention-seeking behaviour.

So naturally, Labour wants to get rid of it, so they can harass people all the way to the polling booth, and again when they come out.

No thanks. Election day is our day, not theirs, and the politicians should leave us to vote in peace.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Dotcom decision

Today the High Court handed a significant victory to Kim Dotcom, ruling that the warrants to search and seize his property were invalid and that the transfer of data to the FBI was unlawful. The full judgement is here [PDF]. Its not pretty reading. It shows that both the police and the District Court were incompetent in their handling of the original warrants, and that the police disobeyed a clear direction from the Solicitor-General not to transfer seized data.

I'm not sure what this will mean for the extradition case. That's really about whether a valid request was presented, not merits or evidence. I'm also not sure whether the US courts will permit the use of "evidence" unlawfully obtained overseas. If not, then the FBI's entire case could collapse due to the servile attitude of kiwi plods. But what is clear is that Dotcom has a strong case that his right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure was violated, and is still being violated as his property has not been returned to him. And that means that the taxpayer will probably be paying him a large amount of money, again due to the servile attitudes of the police.

What's also clear is that the police owe us some answers about this. Why did they present a blatantly invalid warrant? Why didn't they act immediately to return irrelevant seized material? Why did they disobey a direction that nothing be handed over to the FBI and hand stuff over to the FBI? We deserve answers, and failing that, heads on spikes. Sadly, I expect our unaccountable, incompetent police force will refuse to give us either.

Blatantly unlawful

When the government introduced National Standards for primary schools, there was a lot of concern about league tables. The government is not compiling them itself, but as schools are required to collect information, the door is open for media organisations to OIA it and compile their own tables. The Dominion-Post is currently doing this in the Wellington region, causing the NZEI - the primary teacher's union - to advise schools to simply refuse OIA requests for such information, and instead refer them to the Ministry.

This is of course blatantly unlawful. The information exists. It is official information. It is held by the schools. They therefore have an obligation to answer. As for transfers, they are only lawful when another body holds the information or is better suited to answer it. Neither is true in this case.

If schools follow the NZEI's advice, I expect the cases will be very easy for the Ombudsman to decide.

Meanwhile, I think the possibility that statutory bodies would deliberately and wilfully ignore the OIA shows the need for criminal penalties for such breaches. This is a core New Zealand law. And public officials need to be held to account when they violate it.

Don't reform the Lords - abolish them!

The UK government has published its House of Lords Reform Bill, designed to shift the archaic House of Lords to an 80% elected chamber over the course of three elections. This is a slight improvement over the current situation of a 100% unelected chamber - but not much of one. Firstly, while elected, the term of ~15 years means that members of the new house will be completely unaccountable to voters. Secondly, 20% of them, plus the bigot Bishops, will still be unelected, appointed by a "neutral" appointments commission (who will stack it with the donors and cronies of the government of the day). Finally, the government will be able to appoint people to the Lords to be Ministers - meaning Ministers who are unelected and absolutely unaccountable to the people.

As with the Alternative Vote, this isn't enough to interest anyone who wants real democratic reform, while being far too much for conservatives. The reforms are thus destined to fail.

As for what should happen, I think we should start by asking what purpose the Lords serves in the modern UK. And the answer is "none". The idea of privileged representation for the aristocracy and their cronies is intolerable to a democracy. It has no place in a modern democracy. As for alternative upper houses, they have no place either. Who would they represent? While devolution has moved the UK away from being a purely unitary state, they're not yet federal, and there's not really a need for regional representation separate from the population-based Commons. And in any case the English are unlikely to admit that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish (oh, and the tax-cheats of Jersey and Guernsey) are equal partners in their state and thus deserving of an equal voice in an upper house.

Elected or otherwise, an upper house simply serves no purpose in the modern UK. Which means there is only one "reform" worth doing: abolition.

More cronyism

It seems that last week's appointments to the new Health Promotion Agency included a third crony I hadn't noticed: board chair Dr Lee Mathias. Dr Matthias is a former nurse and deputy chair of the Auckland DHB - but they are also electorate chair for National MP Sam Lotu-Iiga. This taints their appointment, and makes it seem like it is yet another case of "jobs for the boys". While there's a chance that he was appointed on merit, its instantly suspicious, and the onus is on the Minister to show that they are not engaging in cronyism. This means leaving a detailed paper trail showing a demonstrably fair and transparent appointments process, rather than a murky soup in which the appointed crony was nominated by the Minister and nodded through by Cabinet with no proper checks. We ought to know that in twenty working days.

Its difficult to spot cronies at this level. Its easy to recognise former MPs and high party officials, but electorate chairs are not particularly public positions. I'm glad the media are paying attention and identifying dodgy appointments; hopefully the next step will be Ministers being held to account for such appointments.

In the ballot XLIX

Another batch of Member's Bills currently in the ballot. Previous batches are indexed here:

Maritime Transport Amendment Bill (Phil Goff): would incorporate the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims and the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage into New Zealand law, increasing shipowner liability for oil spills and other pollution, and requiring them to carry greater insurance. In the wake of the Rena disaster, this looks like a very good idea.

Public Broadcasting Foundation (TV 7) Bill (Clare Curran): would establish a Public Broadcasting Foundation, funded by TVNZ, to run TVNZ 7 as a public broadcasting channel.

SuperGold Health Check Bill (Barbara Stewart): would entitle SuperGold Card holders to three free doctor's visits a year, and require Parliament to appropriate money for the purpose.

As usual, I'll have more bills as I acquire them.


A ballot for four member's bills was held today and the following bills were drawn:

  • Overseas Investment (Restriction on Foreign Ownership of Land) Amendment Bill (Russel Norman)
  • Habeas Corpus Amendment Bill (Chris Auchinvole)
  • Local Government (Salary Moderation) Amendment Bill (Annette King)
  • Prohibition of Gang Insignia in Government Premises Bill (Todd McClay)

All four bills have been previously covered in "In the ballot".

This was a massive ballot, with 65 bills in total - the largest for a long time. Labour had an almost-full slate, with only Lianne Dalziel not having a bill in (hers was drawn in the last ballot, and she is still working on a new one).

The full list is on Red Alert, here.


Last night, Phil Twyford's Depleted Uranium (Prohibition) Bill, which was drawn from the ballot almost two years ago, finally came up for debate. It was rejected by the smallest of margins: a 60 - 60 tie (which means the status quo prevails and the bill fails). The reason? Because the Maori Party's Pita Sharples was away from the House and therefore unable to vote. The rest of his party had supported the bill, and it was likely he would too.

Sharples had a good reason to be away from the House - he was at a tangi for a respected New Zealander, not down on Courtney Place getting pissed - but its still disappointing to see such a worthy bill fail in this manner. Still, it does suggest that there is a Parliamentary majority for at least investigating taking a stand against depleted uranium, and that the bill is likely to succeed the next time Labour puts it up.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The NZEI calls bullshit on ECE targets

On Monday, the government announced a set of targets for "better public services". Some of these "targets" are simply unambitious extensions of current trends. Some are pure magical thinking. According to the NZEI, the goal of increasing the ECE participation rate to 98% falls into the latter category:

The Government’s goal of lifting early childhood education rates may be thwarted by a lack of investment in the sector.

NZEI Te Riu Roa says the Government should consider lifting the freeze on early childhood education funding if it wants to achieve its goal of increasing participation rates to 98 percent in the next four years.

The core problem? They're cutting funding to most ECE centres, increasing costs to parents - something unlikely to result in higher participation. Again, its a total disconnect between goals and policy. But I guess it would be too much to expect National to actually put their money where their mouth is, rather than simply engaging in PR gimmicks.

A good sign in Egypt

Egyptians went to the polls last weekend in presidential elections, and after some disturbing delays in announcing the results (which suggested that the military was preparing to ignore them), elected the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as their first democratically elected president. The election of an Islamist candidate has worried some people, who seem to think that it automatically means a religious dictatorship (strangely they have no such fears of western Christian Democratic parties such as that currently ruling Germany). But it looks like Morsi is not going down that path:

Mohamed Morsi's first appointments as president-elect of Egypt will be a woman and a Coptic Christian, his spokesman has told the Guardian, as he moves to allay fears of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sameh el-Essawy said that although the names of the two choices had not been finalised, they would be Morsi's two vice-presidents.

When the appointments go through, they will constitute the first time in Egypt's history that either a woman or a Coptic Christian has occupied such an elevated position in the executive branch.

This is a good sign, but not entirely unexpected. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have generally pushed parliamentary democracy, not theocracy. That may change now that they've gained power, but that will be a problem for the Egyptian people to solve at the ballot box.

Blatant discrimination

Stuff reports on a case of a Blenheim backpacker's hostel refusing accommodation to a Christchurch earthquake refugee on the grounds that he is a kiwi. Unmentioned anywhere in the article: that this is blatantly illegal. Discrimination on the basis of "ethnic or national origins, which includes nationality or citizenship" is prohibited by the Human Rights Act. While there are exceptions allowing retirement villages, same-sex accommodation and so forth, none of these allows discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or nationality. You can't refuse accommodation to kiwis, any more than you can to tourists, or Maori.

Hopefully, the Human Rights Commission will be educating the hostel about their legal obligations. And if they still don't get it, I look forward to them being driven into bankruptcy by the resulting legal action.

Its not over

Yesterday Parliament passed its privatisation bill, and in a few days it will become law. But the battle against asset sales isn't over. Firstly, there will almost certainly be a court case, as North Island iwi contest the government's right to give away their water (or their redress for the theft of their water). This looks like a straight re-run of New Zealand Māori Council v. Attorney-General, and its hard to see it having a different result: an order prohibiting any sale of contested assets until a settlement (either a proper one, or a deal protecting that redress) is reached. Any such settlement will significantly undermine the economic case for a sale - not that the government seems to care too much about that.

Secondly, there will be a referendum. The petition already has a hundred thousand signatures, and at this rate it will be ready for certification in three to six months, with a vote within a year after that. It is unlikely that National will win that vote, and its important that it is used to put the fear of the electorate into their long tail of low-ranked time-servers in marginal seats. These MPs are unlikely to be happy at the thought of John Key's gamble ending their political careers, and enough voter pressure could easily turn into political pressure inside National to halt any future sales.

Finally, of course, there's an election in 2014. And at that election, the parties who voted to sell us out need to be punished, and punished so thoroughly that they are either forced from politics or are scarred for life by the experience. Labour suffered this sort of annihilation in 1990, and it scarred an entire generation of their politicians, and caused them to reverse their position on asset sales (and NeoLiberalism in general). We need to do the same to National, to permanently drive out this toxic idea that they can loot the state for the benefit of their rich mates.

Member's Day

The House is currently in extended hours, working all morning in the place of traditional urgency. But when they get back from lunch it will be a Member's Day. First up is the second reading of a private bill, which should whizz through, but after that its on to the real stuff. Today we'll see Michael Woodhouse's Fair Trading (Soliciting on Behalf of Charities) Amendment Bill deservedly become law, giving us better oversight of charity collectors. We should also see Kennedy Graham's Register of Pecuniary Interests of Judges Bill sent to select committee, and the first reading of Phil Twyford's Depleted Uranium (Prohibition) Bill. The latter is particularly timely given that kiwi soldiers returning from Afghanistan are being tested to see if they have been poisoned with uranium by our American "allies". Finally, if things go particularly quickly, the House might make a start on Jacqui Dean's Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Waitaki Easter Trading) Amendment Bill.

All of which sets us up for the mother of all ballots tomorrow. There are almost 60 bills in the ballot, including two on marriage equality. I wonder what we'll see drawn?

Update: Today's Order paper is finally out, and the private bill has been combined with a government one (and thus will be read in Government time). We're still not likely to get much beyond Dean's bill, however, but we'll see a ballot for three bills tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Intrusive, degrading, humiliating - and ineffective

The government is currently progressing a bill through Parliament which would, among other things, remove restrictions on Corrections' use of strip searches, while making them more invasive and humiliating. So is this bill actually necessary? A recent OIA request publicised by FYI suggests not.

According to the OIA response [PDF], Corrections conducted 208,661 strip searches last financial year. Of those, a mere 511 resulted in finding unauthorised items. That's a success rate of a stunning 0.24%. The conclusion? Very few prisoners hide things in a fashion which requires a strip search to find.

Corrections notes that

The importance of strip searches as a deterrent to prisoners smuggling contraband into prisons cannot be underestimated.
Which is undoubtedly correct. At the same time, what matters for a deterrent is certainty (you will be searched) and effectiveness (anything you are hiding will be found). There are undoubtedly technological solutions which will provide the necessary deterrent without the need for the mass use of intrusive, degrading, and humiliating strip searches. But sadly, I think that for Corrections, that humiliation is a feature, not a bug.


Mighty River Power has been granted resource consent for its proposed 159MW Puketoi wind farm. As with other recently-consented projects, it is unlikely to be built until electricity demand picks up - but it is at least now in the pipeline, and can be constructed on two year's notice.

Looking at the list of proposed wind farms, there are now 2.75 GW of consented wind generation waiting to be constructed. That's more than four times the current installed capacity, and if built, it would mean we easily make our 90% renewable energy target. The trick now is making that happen. And the easiest way to do it is to reinstate the thermal ban and focus development purely on renewable sources.

Who benefits from privatisation?

The government's privatisation bill will go through its final reading today. So who benefits from it?

Firstly, there's the rich, who will purchase the SOEs, redirecting the dividend stream (and any capital gains) from the public purse into their own private pockets (this category includes many MPs, including John Key).

Secondly, there's the financial industry, who will be paid $120 million by the government to sell us our own assets, and who will clip the ticket on every share sale into the bargain.

And thirdly, there's the SOE directors themselves, who stand to see their fees double simply because of the change in ownership structure. Those fees, of course, will be paid for by higher power prices paid by ordinary kiwis.

Note who doesn't benefit: ordinary kiwis. We'll be facing reduced public services due to the loss of the SOE dividend stream, while being charged higher prices to meet the new owners' rapacious demand for profits. And then, in a decade or so, when they've run it into the ground and asset stripped it, we'll have to buy it back.

Sounds like a shit deal to me.

New Fisk

Egypt has no constitution, parliament... or control

More orcishness

So in addition to conducting mineral surveys in a World Heritage Area (behaviour one Tweeter has compared to a child saying they want to count the sweets but not eat any), the government is now permitting mining in Marine Mammal Sanctuaries:

The Government is permitting petrol and mining exploration in marine mammal sanctuaries – home to rare dolphins, whales and seals.

Six sanctuaries around New Zealand's coastline are meant to provide a permanent refuge for marine mammals in fisheries waters.

But Green Party MP Gareth Hughes has branded them "sham sanctuaries" as oil companies have been granted 10 permits in four of the protected areas.

He said the exploration would threaten rare sea creatures such as the endangered maui's and hector's dolphin, as well as sea lions, fur seals and southern right whales.

The dolphins protected by these sanctuaries are the rarest in the world, and a national taonga. They are already regarded as critically endangered. Allowing mining in their habitat will further endanger them, and may result in further deaths - something we cannot afford when there are only 55 of them remaining.

But our orcish government doesn't care about any of that. All they see is profits for their cronies in the mining industry. And if they have to expunge a unique species of dolphins to get it, well, that's just the cost of doing business (and a bonus for the fishing industry as well).

We should not permit this to happen. The existing exploration permits should be cancelled, and the sanctuaries added immediately to Schedule 4.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Targets are not a substitute for action

Faced with a tough week in which it will take the unpopular step of passing privatisation legislation against the will of the New Zealand people, National has pulled its usual trick of announcing another crackdown. This week they're targeting the unemployed, promising 20,000 fewer long-term beneficiaries by 2017.

The obvious response is to point out that this sounds an awful lot like what they did at ACC, and it will have a similar result: people arbitrarily dumped from benefits, denied their entitlements so that WINZ can meet an arbitrary government quota. But if we take this target seriously, its simply magical thinking on National's part. Long-term benefit numbers don't drop because the government decrees it; doing that requires policy. And the most effective policy to do it? Long-term job creation, either directly, or by engineering a labour shortage by manipulating monetary policy (which is what Labour did when it was in power). But National has no plan to create jobs, and doesn't even want to think about it. Mention it to them, and they stick their fingers in their ears and start chanting "lalalala the market will provide". As with climate change, targets without policy mean failure.

Of course, that's taking it seriously. And I'm not sure it deserves that. 2017 is two elections away, and National simply won't be in power then. So as with climate change, this is setting a target to make it look like they're doing something, while really doing nothing.

Petition progress

A little under two months ago, the Keep Our Assets petition was approved by the Clerk of the House. This means that the campaign has until 27 April 2013 to collect the ~310,000 valid signatures required to force a referendum. So how's it doing? Pretty bloody well, according to the Herald on Sunday:

Spokesman Roy Reid said 95,000 people's signatures had been counted so far, and he estimated up to 50,000 more were on petition forms that had not yet been returned to be counted.
95,000 signatures in just two months. That means that we're already between a quarter and 40% of the way there (depending on whether you include those 50,000 outstanding or not), and we're looking at having enough signatures in three to six months, and a referendum at most 15 months after that.

The government may pass the law this week, but there will be a referendum, and we will revoke any claim they have to a "mandate". The question is how much they can flog off to their cronies before we do that - and how bad a deal they'll accept in order to shift that wealth into their cronies' hands.

Government of orcs, Act II

Back in 2010, the government tried to dig up our national parks. We defeated them. Now they're back for another try, with a plan to conduct mineral surveys of the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand world heritage area.

This is an area we have made an international commitment to protect. It should be in Schedule 4 and protected against such activity, but oversight by previous governments has left it unprotected. The only reason to survey is so it can be dug up - something which would breach that commitment and destroy our already shaky international reputation. But National clearly doesn't care about that; all they care about is profits for their donors and cronies.

Again, this is not something we should accept. National should keep its hands off our natural heritage. And it should protect Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand immediately by adding it to Schedule 4.

New Fisk

Morsi is no revolutionary and not much of a nationalist. The army elite has already laid traps for him
Late for the revolution, Muslim Brotherhood take over Tahrir Square

Getting what they paid for

Last week, we learned that ACC was giving staff bonuses for cutting long-term clients from the scheme - effectively incentivising denying claimants their full entitlements. Over the weekend, we learned that they were getting what they paid for, with long-term client numbers slashed by a quarter since 2009 and an increase in long-term clients dumped onto benefits. But we're not looking at a rogue department, pursuing its own agenda out of a toxic internal culture; this has all been official government policy:

ACC'S policy of ridding itself of thousands of long-term clients is laid bare in agreements the corporation signed with the Government revealing that a far tougher quota system was adopted two years ago.


In June 2010, then ACC minister Nick Smith and outgoing ACC chairman John Judge signed a three-year agreement that stated as a "priority" that the corporation would get rid of 1150 long-term clients a year. It had 13,157 such clients when the service and purchase agreement was signed.

For the first year of the agreement, ACC beat its target by "exiting" 1542 clients. The agreement was then amended, and last year aimed to reduce long-term client numbers by 406. ACC again beat that figure by cutting 843.

Yes, that's right: National's official ACC policy, signed off by its Minister, is to deny claimants their full entitlements. Anyone remember them saying that while running for election?

This is simply evil. There is no other word to describe it. ACC exists to provide people with universal, no-fault accident cover. There is no fallback system. If you get booted, you end up in penury. But that is exactly what National's policy is designed to do: to drive people into poverty, so that it can give a few more dollars to its rich mates in tax cuts. But on a more mundane level, its simply theft. We pay for ACC, through levies and taxes, in the expectation that we will receive cover if we are unlucky enough to be the victim of an accident. National is denying us cover. So they are taking our money while refusing to provide the service we have paid for. That may be normal in the insurance industry (let's be honest: that's how they make their profits) - but it is absolutely unacceptable in a government service.

However you think of it, we should not tolerate it. This policy must be reversed, and those responsible for suggesting and implementing it cleaned out. We need a fair system of ACC, and that means one that pays accident victims what they are entitled to - not one which looks for reasons to deny cover so management can get a bonus.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Another crony appointment

The government has announced the membership of the new Health Promotion Agency, the successor to ALAC and the Health Sponsorship Council. And naturally, they couldn't pass up this opportunity to give a job to a crony, so they've appointed former National MP Katherine Rich.

But it gets worse. Rich is also CEO of the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council, which "represents the manufacturers and suppliers behind New Zealand's favourite food, beverage and grocery brands". She thus has a direct conflict of interest when serving on a body whose purpose is to advertise for public health (and therefore against some of those brands). A person with that sort of conflict should never have been appointed. But I guess that for National, "jobs for the girls" trumps integrity in our public agencies.

Another bad sign

It looks like Egypt isn't the only place where an unelected regime is using the courts to nullify election results it doesn't like. Back in February, Kuwait's Emir dissolved the National Assembly and called new elections after his government was undermined by corruption scandals. Those elections were handily won by the opposition, who have since held the (unelected) government to account much more than their predecessors. And so Kuwait’s Constitutional Court has nullified the elections and reinstated the previous Parliament, causing a constitutional crisis.

The good news is that not even those MPs who kept their seats think this is OK. Over half of them have already resigned, saying that they do not want to serve in a parliament rejected by the people. From the look of it, this renders the Assembly inquorate and unable to effectively function (quorum for passing laws is apparently 33 members out of 50). The obvious solution is new elections, which will likely produce a similar outcome to the previous ones - but there's no guarantee that the regime won't simply pull the same trick, rather than be subjected to proper Parliamentary scrutiny.

A victory for justice

In 1973, 19 year-old Liam Holden was detained by the British Army in a midnight raid in Belfast. He was taken to a military command post where he was waterboarded into confessing to shooting a British soldier a month earlier. he was subsequently convicted of murder on the basis of that confession, and was sentenced to death - becoming the last person in the UK to be given a death sentence.

Fortunately, Holden wasn't hanged. But he did serve 17 years in prison before his release in 1989. Now, his conviction has been overturned by the Court of Appeal, after a recommendation from the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The reason?

The CCRC referred Holden's case back to the court of appeal three years ago, saying it had unearthed new evidence that cast doubt upon "the admissibility and reliability" of the confession that led to him being convicted of murder and possession of a firearm. There was a real possibility, the body added, "that the court will conclude that they are unsafe and quash them".

At the insistence of the Ministry of Defence, however, key passages of the CCRC's file were concealed from Holden and his lawyers. Even when the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast said that it was planning to oppose the appeal, the MoD refused Holden all permission to see the bulk of the contents of the secret file that supported his claims of innocence.


When Patricia Coyle finally won permission to see the contents of the closed CCRC file, the reason why the MoD did not want it to see the light of day was immediately apparent.

Within the file were a series of documents which showed that by the second half of 1972 British soldiers had been warned that they could not lawfully detain any suspect for longer than four hours. Furthermore, in July that year, government lawyers had warned the MoD that the practice of questioning prisoners at length at army posts – "which has apparently grown up without the authority of Whitehall" – was completely unlawful: prisoners must be handed over to the police at the earliest opportunity, must not be taken to army posts under any circumstances, and must not be questioned by soldiers once detained. All this was incorporated into a simple written order, known as the Blue Card, which was issued to every British soldier serving in Northern Ireland.

And the, of course, there's the torture. Faced with the prospect of evidence of its unlawful detention and torture of criminal suspects being entered into the court record, the government dropped its opposition to the appeal. Its a victory for justice (albeit 40 years too late), but it does raise a horrifying question. Holden's treatment was not unusual; it was standard operating procedure. So how many people did the British government hang as a result of confessions extracted by torture?

In the ballot XLVIII

Another batch of Member's Bills currently in the ballot. Previous batches are indexed here:

Climate Change Response (Low Carbon Economic Development) Amendment Bill (Gareth Hughes): would amend the Emissions Trading Scheme to prevent subsidies for using lignite. It would also establish a Clean technology Advisory Group to advise on how to promote low carbon technology.

Electricity (SuperGold Cardholder Discount) Bill (Andrew Williams): would require SOE electricity companies to provide SuperGold card holders a 10% discount on electricity prices during winter.

Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Amending Primary Function of Bank) Amendment Bill (Winston Peters): currently the primary function of the Reserve Bank is "price stability" (AKA low inflation). This bill would also require the bank to target the exchange rate, maintaining it at a level "conducive to real export growth and job creation".

As usual, I'll have more bills as I acquire them.

Europe rejects ACTA?

Back in January, the European Union signed up to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a US-driven international agreement designed to impose American-style intellectual property laws (such as the hated s92A) on the rest of the world. Unlike New Zealand, the EU has democratic control of its foreign policy, and ratification requires the consent not just of the technocrats of the European Council, but also of the European Parliament. They've been taking a hard look at it for the last few months, and the assessment has been negative. It has now been rejected by the Development, Civil Liberties, Industry, and Legal Affairs committees, and now the International Trade Committee - the lead committee on this treaty - has done the same:

European lawmakers rejected the global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta) on Thursday, signalling that the European Parliament may soon use new-found rights to derail an international agreement for the first time.

"This vote is the penultimate nail in Acta's coffin," Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green politician in the legislature said, after the European Parliament's International Trade Committee (Inta) recommended 19-12 that the European Parliament reject the treaty in its upcoming vote on 4 July.

The treaty has already been rejected by several EU member-states, including Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania. So it seems highly unlikely to take effect in Europe.

Meanwhile, wouldn't it be nice if our Parliament got a real vote on treaties, rather than simply rubber-stamping the decisions of MFAT?

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Apparently a member of the foreign monarchy will be visiting Nw Zealand later this year. We'll be paying for the visit, so you'd think we have a right to know how much it will cost, right?

Wrong. The Department of Internal Affairs won't tell the public how much it will cost, and now they won't even tell Parliament:

Officials are refusing to say how much the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall's visit to New Zealand will cost.

Prince Charles and wife Camilla will visit in November as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year celebrations.

Ministerial Services, the organisation in charge of logistics and funding for the trip, appeared before a select committee yesterday but said it was too early to say how much the visit would cost taxpayers.

No extra funding has been allocated to cover it. It is understood that the cost of the royal visit would be high because Prince Charles refuses to fly on scheduled commercial flights.

This is deeply disturbing. Parliament authorises and reviews all spending. They have an absolute right to know how public money is spent. And yet here we have a government department refusing to tell them, not even to give them a best estimate. From here, it looks like outright Contempt of Parliament, and the head of Ministerial Services needs to be reminded of who he works for.

As for their reasons, the Stuff poll attached to that story may have something to do with it. Currently, around 80% of over 6000 people say that we shouldn't be footing the bill for this visit. That's a pretty strong rejection, and its only likely to get stronger when the actual figures emerge.

Bad incentives

Its been apparent for a long time that ACC has a goal of throwing people off ACC and onto benefits. And now we have the proof: a performance pay scheme which explicitly rewards staff for cutting long-term claims:

ACC staff were paid bonuses for cutting long-term claimants' entitlements, Green Party MP Kevin Hague says.

Documents released under the Official Information Act show staff were set targets of ending payments to long-term claimants within certain time periods.


The "exit targets" identified in the documents formed part of the key performance indicators that managers and staff must meet in order to qualify for remuneration bonuses.

As well as specific targets for reducing the number of days claimants were paid, staff were expected to achieve a "net change in long-term pool" claimants and keep the social rehabilitation spend within budget.

Pretty obviously, this gives staff a direct financial incentive to cut claims regardless of their merits. And that is a very poor incentive for any claims-management organisation to have.

Its clear now that like WINZ in the 90's, ACC's culture is absolutely toxic. That needs to change. And the best way to start is to sack the managers who established this perverse incentive system.

Bribing their cronies

Not content with stealing our assets, National are planning to give an extra $400 million of our money to the thieves who buy them:

The Government is offering sweeteners to keep the investing public and coalition partner United Future on side as its partial assets sales bill approaches its final hurdle today.


But with Mighty River shares to be offered to the public and fund managers some time from September onwards, Prime Minister John Key and his Finance Minister, Bill English, have stoked expectations that so-called "mum and dad" investors will be offered a loyalty scheme to encourage them to hold on to their shares.

A recent example was the Queensland Rail float in 2010 where investors were given the chance to buy further shares at a discounted price if they held them for a set period.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said such schemes were a transfer of wealth from all taxpayers to those wealthy enough to buy the shares. As such they were probably unlawful and, in the case of the $5 billion to $7 billion mixed-ownership model programme, could cost the taxpayer up to $400 million.

That's $400 million we won't get to spend on schools, hospitals, and public transport. And it will flow straight into the pockets of the richest New Zealanders.

If you were in any doubt, this should make it clear. Privatisation is not about "freeing up capital" or "getting a good deal for New Zealanders". It is about wealth transfer, pure and simple. It is about taking something which belongs to everyone, and giving it (and its monopoly power and dividend stream) over to the 1%. And then to add insult to injury National is going to give them an extra $400 million on top, just to reward them for buying in.

Privatisation is theft. It is looting the state. And we should not tolerate it.

New Fisk

Only the military are guaranteed victory in this Egyptian election

"Dangerous terrorists"

When the government descended on Ruatoki, Auckland and Wellington on the morning of October 15 2007, they justified their enormous use of force - 300 armed offenders squad members - with the claim that they were arresting dangerous terrorists. As the years dragged on and charges were dropped or rejected by a jury, that claim became more and more untenable. And now, with the sentencing of Urs Signer and Emily Bailey, we get to see just how laughable they were.

Signer and Bailey were sentenced to nine months home detention. To point out the obvious, that's not the sort of sentence you give to "dangerous terrorists" who seriously plotted to overthrow the state and wage war against their fellow citizens.

So what have the police got at the end of it all? After five years, unknown operational costs, and at least $4 million in legal costs (with appeals still pending), they have two people in prison on highly-appealable sentences, and two on home detention. That doesn't seem like very good value for money to me. If the government wants savings, then cutting the police body which dreamed up and pursued this case would seem to be the first place to start - because all they do is piss away taxpayer's money on deranged fantasies.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


The Local Government and Environment has called for submissions on the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill. Submissions are due by Thursday, 26 July 2012.

You can submit online at the link above, or you can send two copies to:

Local Government and Environment Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
This bill is a recipe for local body dictatorship which would allow big communities to swallow smaller ones. if you value your local democracy, its worth having a say on.

NZ First steps up on asset theft

For a while I've argued that if the opposition wants to stop asset sales, they need to make it clear they will buy back stolen assets at a loss to the thieves. For all its rhetoric, Labour has refused to do this, putting the interests of the 1% ahead of those of ordinary kiwis. But now New Zealand First has stepped up to fill the leadership gap:

New Zealand First will use its influence on the next coalition Government to buy back our state-owned power companies which are being flogged off by National.

Rt Hon Winston Peters says New Zealand First is committed to buying back the shares at no greater price than paid by the first purchaser.

Currently, it is looking likely that NZ First will be involved in some way in the next government. Asset thieves might want to take that possibility into account before giving the government what will effectively be a zero-interest loan.

(Meanwhile, this is another example of Labour's failure to lead. And in their absence, other parties are doing it for them and will reap the benefits of doing so).

No-one wants whale

The Japanese insistence on hunting whales for "science" has led to the joke that what they're really investigating is how many Japanese people like to eat whale. Well, now we know the answer: hardly any of them:

Japan's failing appetite for whale meat left three-quarters of meat from whales caught in the north-west Pacific last summer unsold, according to a report.

Junko Sakuma, a freelance journalist, said the body responsible for selling meat from Japan's controversial "scientific" whaling programme had failed to sell 908 tonnes of the 1,211-tonne catch, despite holding 13 public auctions since last October.


The Institute of Cetacean Research blamed low demand on the complicated auction procedure and reluctance among food suppliers to attract criticism from anti-whaling groups such as Sea Shepherd.

Which, if correct, is another feather in Sea Shepherd's cap.

Meanwhile, you really have to ask why the Japanese bother.

Assange flees justice

Faced with the prospect of extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault, Julian Assange has done a runner, hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy and applying for political asylum.

Its a very weak case. Assange is not facing persecution in Sweden; he is facing justice for his alleged crimes. There's no suggestion that he won't receive a fair trial or that he would face cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. As for the fear that he will be subsequently extradited to the US, he will have the full protection of the ECHR on that. And the ECHR will not allow him to be extradited to face the death penalty or torture. Finally, despite his claims today, Assange has not been "abandoned" by the Australian government; they have made it clear that they will continue to offer consular assistance in the normal manner [PDF].

It is of course up to Ecuador who they grant asylum to and on what terms. But under the normal international law criteria, Assange wouldn't qualify. He's not a refugee with a well-founded fear of persecution; he's just an alleged criminal trying to escape justice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

PPPs are a waste of money

Back in 2010, he government announced that it would be using Public-Private Partnerships in the education sector, with schools built and operated by for-profit companies, paid for by an annual charge. Over in the UK, such arrangements have been a disaster, with government massively overpaying for the infrastructure it buys. So how does it stack up in New Zealand?

Labour's Chris Hipkins asked just that in Question Time today, focusing on the trial PPP school in Hobsonville:

Chris Hipkins: What is the estimated saving in dollar terms from using a public-private partnership to build the Hobsonville school, instead of using regular public sector processes?

Hon CRAIG FOSS: In notional terms, I think the net present value was $111 million, which is about $2 million less than the public sector comparator. The absolute notionals, from memory, are something like $125 million or $128 million.

Firstly, 2% on a $100 million-plus NPV is a highly marginal saving, and will depend greatly on the methodology used. But then there's this:
Chris Hipkins: How much has been spent over the last 2 years developing the business case for the Hobsonville schools project?

Hon CRAIG FOSS: I do not have that answer to hand, but the costs for the partners associated with this—of course, those partners have to bear those costs themselves.

Chris Hipkins: Is he aware that Budget 2011 documents show that the Government spent $3.5 million over the last 2 years simply to prepare that business case—significantly more than the $1.98 million saving the public-private partnership is supposed to produce?

That's right: once you take into account the cost of the prep work, those "savings" are entirely illusory. As with SOEs, the government is privatising at a loss.

But as with SOEs, this isn't about getting a good deal for the taxpayer - its about looting the state for private profit and forking over government assets and revenue to National's donors and cronies. And that isn't something we should accept.

No surplus II

Last week, Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard forecast that the government would not make its target of a surplus by 2014/15. Now the government seems to be doing the groundwork for a formal abandonment of the target:

Prime Minister John Key says the European debt crisis is the biggest threat to the New Zealand economy.

He said he was less confident now than at the time of the May 24 Budget that New Zealand would get back into surplus by 2014-15 but insisted: "We won't let that target slip lightly."

Key's words were repeated by Bill English in Parliament today, so this isn't just one of his blurts. The government is preparing to back off. So what do they have left? Returning to surplus was the core of their 2011 election strategy. What do they stand for now? Ministerial salaries and perks for Bill English rather than David Shearer?

So much for "common sense"

The privatisation bill is back before the House today for its committee stage, and the opposition are planning to filibuster with hundreds of amendments. But not all of those amendments are delaying tactics. The Greens have promoted an amendment to preserve the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman and OIA over part-privatised companies. Its a sensible move, supported by the Ombudsman and her predecessor, and it preserves the basic principle enshrined in the OIA and LGOIMA: if we own it, we have a right to see what it is doing.

So what does Parliament's self-appointed Captain Sensible, Peter Dunne, think of this move? He opposes it, of course. Why?

"I'm not interested in supporting anything the Greens are putting forward on this."
So much for "common sense".

Dunne has always promoted himself as a sensible, reasonable centrist, who assess policy on its merits. Clearly, that's not true. Opposing this amendment is neither sensible nor reasonable. But it speaks volumes about Dunne that he would sacrifice our core democratic principle of open government simply out of partisan animus.

Parliamentary funding and petitions

The Herald reports that the Greens are spending $75,000 of their Parliamentary funding on signature gatherers for the referendum against privatisation. Shock! Horror! Rorting the system!

Well, no. As the article points out, it is "within the rules". Of course, so supposedly was Bill English rorting us for his Wellington housing costs, so that's not much of a defence. But what about the merits?

Party support funding is allocated to "fund the leader's office". That's a bit vague, but the Directions by the Speaker of the House of Representatives 2011 [PDF] gives more detail: it is to be used (among other things) to help parties with "discharging their responsibilities as legislators and elected representatives", "developing, researching, critiquing, and communicating policy" (which is really part of the first), and in communicating with constituents both about how to contact your MP and about what those MPs are doing and what their views are on public issues. What this means in practice is that it gets used for press releases, electorate newsletters and "issue advertising". The latter frequently involves a call for democratic engagement and participation, either by contacting a Minister, submitting on legislation, or (and this one is a biggie) signing a petition to Parliament.

Frankly, I don't see any real difference between promoting a CIR petition and a normal one. They're both going to the same place: the House of Representatives. The House differs in its handling of the petitions - those pre-notified under the CIR Act are handled by the Clerk under a statutory process, those which aren't are considered by a select committee - and a CIR is likely more effective than an ordinary petition. But that doesn't seem like much of a difference to hang a funding restriction on. Meanwhile, both petitions are doing exactly the same thing: letting the public have their say.

But I guess, to those objecting, that's the problem, isn't it?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Austerity and democracy

When people think about austerity, they think about cuts to headline government services. But it has more pernicious effects than that. Long-term zero increases to budgets mean the erosion of quite basic functions, things we take for granted in our democracy.

There's two examples of this on Parliament's website today. Firstly, the Privacy Commissioner has basically given up responding to media inquiries, and is "increasingly is providing minimal responses". Why? Because they're just not funded for them, and the number has increased by 50% in the last year. Faced with a choice between doing something which is a core statutory function and something which is merely expected of every public body in a democratic state, they've simply given up on the latter.

That's bad enough, but what's happening at the Electoral Commission is even worse. They've been forced to fund the MMp Review - a major undertaking - out of their reserves, with no additional money, and so are expecting to be short of funds over the next few years. And then there's this:

We heard that the additional funding required for the 2014 election has not yet been allocated, and the commission is concerned because it cannot therefore make the planning assumptions needed to organise the election.
Yes, that's right: money is so tight in the justice sector that they can't scrape up the funds required to hold the next election (something they do need to start planning for now if it is to go smoothly). Chasing dope smokers and getting "tough on crime" headlines by shining torches up prisoners' arses is apparently more of a priority.

Democracy is such a fundamental in this country that we take it for granted, and don't think about it. Clearly we need to start. Otherwise we might wake up one day and find its been inadvertently cut as a cost-saving measure.

A bad sign

Egyptians also went to the polls over the weekend to elect a new President. But just after the polls had closed, the military made it clear that regardless of who was elected, they would be running the show:

Egypt's ruling military has issued a declaration apparently granting itself sweeping powers, as the country awaits results of presidential elections.

The document by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) reportedly says new general elections can not be held until a permanent constitution is drawn up.

It also allegedly gives the Scaf legislative control.

No new elections means the people cannot overturn last week's judicial coup, which saw Mubarak's judges dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament. Meanwhile, the army has also said that it does not have to obey the President and can arrest people. So what's their source of democratic legitimacy? That's right - they don't have any.

It will be interesting to see how the Egyptian people respond to this, whether they will stand up for the rights they seized in Tahrir Square, or whether they will meekly submit themselves to the gun again.

Why are we training Indonesia's murderers?

Indonesia's Kopassus special forces have an extremely unpleasant reputation, being linked to torture, disappearances and murder in West Papua, in East Timor before independence, and in Indonesia itself. To pick one example, in 2010 a group of them filmed themselves torturing people in West Papua. And we're helping to train them:

Major Edwin Sumanta recently attended New Zealand's premier military educational institution, the Command and Staff College at Trentham, near Wellington.

Kopassus conducts special operations for the Indonesian government and has been widely accused by human rights groups of violating human rights in Papua and Aceh.

Radio New Zealand International was told by a Defence Force spokesperson that the involvement of Major Sumanta in the college's course is too sensitive for public comment.

Meaning "it might look bad", I guess. And so it should. Kopassus are murderers. And we shouldn't be helping them to become better at it, or to further oppress the people of West Papua. The only reason we should ever allow one of these murderous thugs into our country is to put them on trial for the crimes they have committed.

New Fisk

Assad will breathe a sigh of relief at death of Arab Spring
Mubarak's 300,000-strong army of thugs remains in business despite elections

The Greek election

Greeks went to the polls today in their second election in two months, and appear to have finally got themselves a government. The bad news is that it is a right-wing quisling one, dedicated to imposing austerity on ordinary Greeks for the profit of foreign bankers. The good news is that they are going to have a very difficult time doing that.

Current results show the pro-austerity parties with 162 seats between them in the 300-seat Parliament. In Greek terms, this "majority" is wafer thin, and will evaporate through defection and rebellion the moment the government tries to impose any serious pain (exactly as happened last term). And there's no-one else for New Democracy and PASOK to turn to - every other party in the Parliament is opposed to austerity.

In short, its the sort of government Greeks know how to roll - and I expect that to happen within a year or two (and quicker if it tries to impose serious pain).

Looking at the longer term, SYRIZA - the Coalition of the Radical left - has eaten PASOK for breakfast, and has now become the default left-wing party. They're younger and far more radical than PASOK, which means Greece's next left-wing government is going to be very interesting indeed.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Wellington's water

The Greater Wellington Regional Council has released its State of the environment reports. Not all of them are online yet, but they paint a dismal picture of degraded water, polluted rivers, and toxic lakes:

Overuse, pollution and "degradation" of Wellington's water has been exposed in new research evaluating the region's natural resources.

Greater Wellington regional council has documented the health of the region's air, land, freshwater and coastal resources in a series of reports published today.

They identify serious concerns with the quality of waterways and show many streams and aquifers are heavily depleted from the upsurge in dairying.


Urban streams and rural waterways in intensive farming areas are badly degraded, with high levels of nutrients and faecal bacteria.

Streams in Kapiti, Porirua, Waiwhetu, Upper Hutt, Carterton and Masterton are among the worst affected.

Average levels of nitrogen and phosphorus have increased on dairy pasture since the intensification of Wairarapa dairying, threatening waterways.

There are other problems: poor quality sewage systems contaminating beaches, and residual industrial pollution and stormwater runoff polluting urban streams and Wellington harbour. But the core problem for most waterways is dairy farming. The drive to irrigate more land for cows has drained the rivers, refilling them with piss and shit. As for the lakes, the region's three largest lakes - Lakes Wairarapa, Onoke and Waitawa - are all highly degraded, which is attributed to "the large component of agricultural land use in their catchments" and intensive farming of the lake margins.

These problems can be solved, but it requires local authorities to limit irrigation and stock numbers and crack down on dirty farming practices. And that it turn requires political will and the support (or punishment, depending) of voters. The question is whether GWRC can do that, or whether they will continue letting Wellington's waterways degrade.

More wind

Last year, Meridian Energy's proposed Mill Creek wind farm was granted resource consent by the Environment Court. Meridian has just confirmed that they will be beginning construction by August, with the project scheduled for completion in 2014.

It's a small wind farm - only 60MW - but every bit helps. And as long as we keep pushing new investment into wind and geothermal, we have a good chance of making that 90% renewables target by 2030.

Spamming the ballot for marriage equality

Two weeks ago, Labour MP Louisa Wall released her Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill [PDF]. Today, the Greens' Kevin Hague has got in on the act, with his Marriage (Equality) Amendment Bill [PDF]. While the two bills have the same goal, they achieve it by slightly different means, and Hague's bill additionally does some consequential legislative tidy-up. Which should be enough to avoid SO 277(2), meaning double the chances for a marriage equality bill being drawn.

If anyone else wants to spam the ballot, and make it three bills out of sixty, there's another version here which ought to slip through (on the basis that it changes the law in a different way from either Hague or Wall's version).

No freedom of religion in Indonesia

Alexander Aan is an Indonesian civil servant. In January, he created a page on Facebook on which he declared himself an atheist and said that he did not believe in angels, devils, heaven and hell or other myths. As a result, he was arrested for "blasphemy", and has just been sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment and a US$10,000 fine.

Freedom of religion? Freedom of speech? There's no such thing in theocratic Indonesia.

No surplus

Its official: the government will not achieve its entirely political target of surplus by 2014/15 - and John Key has admitted as much:

Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard has dealt a blow to the Government's hopes of returning to surplus by 2014/15, with a new forecast tipping the books will not be back in the black until two years later.

Prime Minister John Key yesterday conceded the bank was using "slightly more up-to-date data" than the Treasury used in the May 24 Budget.

These were "volatile and uncertain" times but the Government believed it was on the right track.

"It is an extremely difficult time to be forecasting," he said.

So what will National do now? Will it tighten the austerity screw harder in an attempt to meet its self-imposed target (and thus crash the economy even harder), or will it accept the reality that its just not going to happen? Either way, it doesn't look like they have any good ideas to get us out of this hole. According to Key "[t]here is nothing different we would want to do at this time".

Time for some better economic thinking. Time for a new government.

The Assange decision II

As predicted, the UK Supreme Court has rejected Julian Assange's appeal of his appeal, dismissing it as "without merit". Which effectively ends his journey through the UK courts. He now either appeals to the ECHR (though I'm not sure what grounds he could have), or faces extradition to Sweden to face questioning on sexual assault allegations.

Meanwhile, I think its quite disturbing how Assange has morphed from an internationalist into the worst sort of "Little Britain" Eurosceptic over this. Yes, Sweden (like most of Europe) allocates the responsibilities in its justice system differently from the UK. But that doesn’t mean its an unfair system (that would have to be judged on its merits), and its not a reason to refuse extradition.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

No privatisation without a public vote

Parliament has just started the second reading of the government's asset sales bill. Meanwhile, there is an active referendum petition campaign, which looks almost certain to meet its target. This raises the prospect of the government passing a bill, while there is a referendum in train to stop it.

This would be deeply undemocratic, and would further undermine public faith in Parliament and the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. The Greens have proposed a solution: delay the commencement of the bill until after the referendum is resolved (either by a vote or the petition lapsing) (SOP here [PDF]. Note that this doesn't make the outcome contingent on the referendum; it simply requires the government to stop and listen before proceeding. Parliament should not pass the bill without this clause. Sadly, I expect National will ram it through anyway.

Meanwhile, for those wondering about the point of a referendum when the government is going to press on anyway, firstly, this government has shown that they will back down if there is enough public opposition. 50,000 people marching along Queen Street convinced them to give up their plans to dig up the Conservation estate; the anger of every parent in the country convinced them to give up on their education cuts. If we get enough signatures on the petition, then they will rightly fear for their political futures. Secondly, even if it doesn't convince this government, it will convince the next one, providing a moral mandate for any thefts to be reversed at a loss to the thieves and for our remaining assets to be protected by a built-in referendum requirement. That's the real benefit: ending this policy forever. And its precisely why National is in such a hurry: because this is their last chance to steal these assets for their donors and cronies.

What superannuation crisis?

Labour chose this week to resume the attack on its toxic superannuation policy, promising its younger supporters to fuck them over in exchange for their vote (and then they wonder why people give up voting or switch to the Greens). Meanwhile, an analysis from the University of Auckland's Retirement Policy and Research Centre shows that we don't actually face a crisis [PDF]. Sure, the cost of superannuation will double in the long-term, from 4.7% at present to roughly 8% in 2050 (pretax; taxation reduces that by about 1%). But we might want to look at that in historical perspective:


So, in 2050, we're projected to be paying only 1% of GDP more in superannuation than we were paying in 1990. Quelle horreur! This is not a difference to be terrified of, and it is easily manageable with a modest increase in taxation, either now or in the future (though that perhaps is exactly what those pushing for change are frightened of: higher taxes).

The international comparison is equally non-terrifying:


Yes, that's right: in 2050, we will be spending as much on superannuation (as a proportion of GDP) as most European countries - you know, the ones Labour supposedly aspires to make us like - spend now. Again, this is nothing to be afraid of, and nothing that can't be dealt with by having a slightly larger state. The fact that Labour is afraid of that prospect is a telling indicator of what sort of a party it is at the moment.

Catholic homophobia hits a new low

The Ugandan Parliament is currently debating a bill which would allow the death penalty for homosexuality.

The Catholic Church normally opposes the death penalty. But not, apparently, when the victims are gay:

In the rest of the world, the Catholic Church has always maintained that they are not against homosexuals, just homosexual acts, and that they are for human rights. Of course, the Church once supported the move by the Mussolini government to inter gays on concentration camps and kill as many as possible. So, it is not surprising that the Church, while saying one thing in, say, the United States is saying something else in, say, Uganda.

There, at the Uganda Joint Christian Council, Catholic Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga was joined by Anglican Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi and Orthodox Metropolitan Jonah Lwanga in backing the “Kill The Gays” bill.

The Catholic Church has marked itself as a deeply bigoted and homophobic organisation over the years, but this really is a new low, even for them.

National lies to us over the TPPA

Back in 2010, when criticisms first emerged of the possibility of an "investment clause" allowing foreign companies to sue governments in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, John Key was unequivocal. Such a possibility was "far-fetched", and New Zealand would not sign up to any such clause.

He lied. The latest leaked draft [PDF] shows exactly such a clause, with the full support of New Zealand. As for what it will mean in practice, we have only to look across the Tasman, where tobacco companies are suing the Australian government under their investment treaty with Hong Kong to prevent the implementation of that country's plain-packaging law.

This is an obscenity. It is also an explicitly anti-democratic move, allowing foreign corporations to overturn the decisions of democratically elected governments simply because they potentially cost them money. But beyond that, the mere existence of such a clause and threat of such lawsuits will have a chilling effect on public interest regulation. Want to raise environmental standards? Increase the minimum wage? Protect public health? Some bunch of greedy, psychopathic Americans might sue.

The New Zealand government should not sign up to this treaty if it includes this clause. If National does, the opposition should make it clear that they will withdraw from it. It is that simple.

Meanwhile, its worth remembering that the only reason National can get away with this two-faced duplicity of telling us one thing while telling foreigners another is because the negotiations are conducted in secret. We need more transparency in our foreign policy, so that our government can be properly held to account for it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Another crony appointment

Back in April, Pita Sharples and Bill English jointly appointer former National MP Georgina te Heuheu to the Board of Māori Television, with the explicit expectation that she would become chair. This seemed like a fairly blatant case of cronyism, so I submitted the usual OIA request seeking background details of the appointment.

After a lengthy delay, I received the response today. Sadly, in this case, there isn't much of a paper trail - no briefing to the Minister of the need to make an appointment to fill an upcoming vacancy, and no paper requesting the Minister to choose between several nominated and interviewed candidates. The only formal documentation is a paper to the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee [PDF], seeking approval for te Heuheu's nomination, and a subsequent appointment letter. The Minister does give an outline of the process in their response letter [PDF], but it is deeply unsatisfactory:

In response to your request, I can advise you that this position was not advertised. While there is scope for it to happen, state sector board positions are not usually publicly advertised. various state sector agencies manage registers of qualified candidates who are interested in being nominated for boards, and departments usually seek nominations from these registers...

In line with the usual appointment process as outlined above, I requested a list of candidates from Te Puni Kokiri for consideration for this position. Candidates for this position were nominated from the registers held by the treasury's Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and Te Puni Kokiri. Te Puni Kokiri provided a list of five nominees. the successful candidate was nominated for the position by me and the Minister of Finance, as jointly responsible Ministers for the Maori Television Service.

From this, and the lack of supporting documentation, it appears the Ministers simply imposed their shoulder-tapped candidate on the Maori Television Service, without even considering those other candidates. And again, that's simply not how things are supposed to happen. Appointments should be made on merit, not on political connections.

Quite apart from pissing on our reputation for clean government, Sharples and English have done te Heuheu a disservice. She's not Wayne Mapp, and its not inconceivable that she would have won a competitive appointments process. By not running one, English and Sharples have forever tainted her as a crony, who gained her position by favourtism rather than merit. And she deserves better than that.

When is a subsidy not a subsidy?

When its handed out by National to its cronies, of course!

Today in Question Time, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce attacked the whole idea of green growth as being all about subsidies (which is simply wrong). Then he turned around and denied that the $1.2 billion a year the government hands to polluters under the ETS, the billions it spends on unnecessary roads, or the undercharging of heavy transport were subsidies. Finally, to add insult to injury, the next question was a patsy so the government could spout about its recent seismic survey of Northland - a direct subsidy to the mining industry.

(As for green growth, one of the most effect ways of kickstarting it is to make industry pay the true costs of polluting activities, thus forcing innovation. This is not a subsidy, but the direct elimination of one. It is telling that National is simply unable to tell the difference).

A necessary inquiry

The Auditor-General will investigate John Key's corrupt SkyCity deal. Good. What we know of the bid "process" is appalling, and John Key's dirty fingerprints are all over it. According to his own official paper trail, Key "directed officials to stop work on the business case development for the ICEC and to wait for the proposal from Sky City" [PDF]. He then approached Sky City directly, offering to prostitute New Zealand law if they built the thing. And once he'd sealed the deal, he restarted the bid process [PDF] to provide an illusion of process and fairness - despite the fact that he'd already picked a winner.

Stopping this sort of cronyism is exactly why we have an Auditor-General. I look forward to the eventual report and finding of malfeasance. Meanwhile, I'm also looking forward to some journalists asking Key the obvious question: will he resign if the Auditor-General finds he behaved inappropriately?

A bloodbath

That's the only way to describe the "resignations" at ACC in the wake of the Bronwyn Pullar saga. Chairman John Judge, board members John McCliskie and Rob Campbell, and now the CEO. It looks like the entire sewer is having a thorough cleanout.

But will it be enough? ACC's core problem is a toxic institutional culture which sees clients as cheats and fraudsters and claims as something to be reflexively denied. While some of that comes from the top and its relentless focus on cost-saving, it has seeped in throughout the organisation over decades. And as we saw with WINZ, it takes more than just a change of leadership to correct that sort of cultural dysfunction and change the mindset from seeing clients as the enemy back to ensuring people receive their full entitlements. Assuming of course the new leadership is even interested in making such a change - and given that its Paula Rebstock, I think that is very much in doubt.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, though it is unlikely to be an exciting one. The top of the Order paper is dominated by three local bills, which are unlikely to be controversial. After that, there's the third reading of Michael Woodhouse's entirely uncontroversial and widely supported Fair Trading (Soliciting on Behalf of Charities) Amendment Bill. If the House manages to whizz through all of those speedily, it might get to discuss Kennedy Graham's Register of Pecuniary Interests of Judges Bill - which likewise has broad support.

And if they manage all that, we will finally have a ballot tomorrow. It will be a biggie - almost 60 bills - and include some controversial legislation (e.g. marriage equality) that I'd love to see drawn. Otherwise, I guess we'll just have to hang on for two more sitting weeks before giving the fun stuff a chance to come out.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


The Attorney-General has issued a section 7 report on the Lobbying Disclosure Bill, on the basis that it is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression [PDF]. The core problem is poor drafting: the bill currently captures employees of crown entities and non-public-service departments (e.g. the Police and NZDF) communicating with Ministers in the course of their duties, as well as "people who send a one-off email to their Member of Parliament on behalf of their incorporated farm or small business". The former point is obviously a problem, but equally obviously easy to fix. The latter point is more troublesome. The clause is targeted at lobbyists who are partners or directors of a firm rather than mere employees, and it is vital to capture them. But how to do it without going too broad? Finlayson implicitly suggests using the Canadian formulation of requiring lobbying to be a significant part of someone's duties before requiring registration - but the Canadian Lobbying Act has just been reviewed, and its registrar found that requirement was too narrow and allowed lobbyists to evade oversight (she also had problems getting people prosecuted, because the RCMP just didn't care about the law. Kindof like our police and the Electoral Act...)

Hopefully National won't use this as an excuse to vote for secrecy. This is not a problem with the core aim of the bill, but with its details. Those can be fixed, and the place to do it is in select committee.

(Meanwhile, I'm curious: did anyone lobby Finlayson on this? I'd love to know...)