Thursday, April 30, 2015

This stinks

In 2014 the UN high commissioner for human rights commissioned a report into allegations of child sexual abuse by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. The report confirmed that the allegations were true, with graphic reports of the rape and sodomy of starving and homeless young boys by the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them. But rather than acting on the report, the UNHCHR buried it. When someone blew the whistle and passed it to French authorities so they could investigate crimes by their soldiers, the UN tried to sack them:

A senior United Nations aid worker has been suspended for disclosing to prosecutors an internal report on the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic.

Sources close to the case said Anders Kompass passed the document to the French authorities because of the UN’s failure to take action to stop the abuse. The report documented the sexual exploitation of children as young as nine by French troops stationed in the country as part of international peacekeeping efforts.

Kompass, who is based in Geneva, was suspended from his post as director of field operations last week and accused of leaking a confidential UN report and breaching protocols. He is under investigation by the UN office for internal oversight service (OIOS) amid warnings from a senior official that access to his case must be “severely restricted”. He faces dismissal.

The treatment of the aid worker, who has been involved in humanitarian work for more than 30 years, has taken place with the knowledge of senior UN officials, including Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights, and Susana Malcorra, chef de cabinet in the UN, according to documents relating to the case.

This absolutely stinks. And it stinks in exactly the same way as the Catholic Church's systematic coverup of child-sex abuse by those within its ranks does. In both cases, a powerful organisation has put its reputation ahead of justice. But as the Catholics learned, and the UN is going to find out, covering this sort of thing up is far worse, and taints the entire organisation as co-conspirators. And the UN, of all institutions, should be fucking better than that.

GCHQ's spying on lawyers broke the law

At the end of 2013, we learned that Britain's GCHQ had been spying on the lawyers of a man they rendered to torture in Libya. Today, the investigatory powers tribunal ruled that that spying was illegal:

GCHQ, Britain’s national security surveillance agency, has been ordered to destroy legally privileged communications it unlawfully collected from a Libyan rendition victim.

The ruling marks the first time in its 15-year history that the investigatory powers tribunal has upheld a specific complaint against the intelligence services, lawyers have said. It is also the first time the tribunal has ordered a security service to give up surveillance material.

The IPT says GCHQ must destroy two documents which are legally privileged communications belonging to a former opponent of the Gaddafi regime, Sami al-Saadi, who was sent back to Libya in 2004 in a joint MI6-CIA “rendition” operation with his wife and four children under 12.

The tribunal, chaired by Mr Justice Burton, ruled that GCHQ must give an undertaking that parts of those documents must be “destroyed or deleted so as to render such information inaccessible to the agency in the future”. The agency has to submit a secret report within 14 days confirming that the destruction has been carried out.

Good. But shouldn't those responsible for this illegal spying also be being prosecuted?

Meanwhile, its worth remembering that the IPT has only ruled because we learned about this abuse. But GCHQ operates in total secrecy. While they now have rules protecting legally privileged communications, that secrecy means that we have no way of knowing whether they're actually following them. And with no individuals being held accountable, there's simply no incentive for them to do so.

New Fisk

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

For a lower voting age for the flag referendum

The Justice and Electoral Committee is currently hearing submissions on the New Zealand Flag Referendums Bill, which might one day give us a new flag. And one of the submitters has suggested allowing children to vote in it:

New Zealand could be recognised as the first country in the world to give children the vote, starting with the flag referendum.

The Justice and Electoral select committee heard from submitters on Thursday about the referendum and their views on whether a new flag is needed.

Michael Gibson told MPs that all school-age children should be given the vote and be involved in the decision-making process.


He said giving children aged 5-and-over a vote on the flag referendum would be "giving a vote to those who will be living the longest with the consequences".

He's got a point: its their flag too; shouldn't they (or at least as many of them as we can possibly accomodate) have a say in it?

I've long advocated for a lower voting age on democratic grounds. While five may be taking it a bit far at present, the flag referenda would provide a perfect testbed for a lower voting age. And this would have useful spinoffs as well - after all, someone who enrols at 16 for the referendum will still be enrolled when they're 18 for the next general election. Since our declining turnout is in part a story of youth non-enrolment leading to a pattern of non-voting, it may also help reverse that trend.

New Zealand once led the world on democracy. We're not world-leaders anymore - Brazil, Argentina and Austria have beaten us to lowering the voting age - but the least we can do is be fast followers. This is an opportunity to give young people the say they deserve. And we should take it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A ludicrous proposition

When is a worker not a worker, and not subject to the basic protections of the Minimum Wage Act, Employment Relations Act, and Health and Safety in Employment Act? Apparently, when they're Chinese. At least, that appears to be the position of MBIE and the New Zealand government in the case of KiwiRail's foreign contracted workforce:

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse is satisfied that Chinese rail engineers contracted by KiwiRail are probably not subject to New Zealand law.

On April 17 the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment released its investigation into alleged mistreatment of the workers employed by a Chinese company to remove asbestos by locomotives used by state-owned KiwiRail in Lower Hutt.

Last August Labour's Trevor Mallard, the MP for Hutt South, alleged that the workers were earning well below minimum wage, and colleagues were so concerned they were providing them food and hosting them for meals.

The report cleared the Chinese company, CNR Dalian Locomotive, of any wrongdoing, but the ministry admitted that both the employees and employer had blocked its attempts to gain wage records.

"[I]t is more than likely New Zealand employment law does not apply to these workers as they are based in China and here only temporarily for work," the ministry said.

Bullshit. They're not here overnight, or for a one-week trip. They're working here, in New Zealand, for months. And when they work in New Zealand, they should be entitled to the same protections as the rest of us: the minimum wage, holidays, sick leave, protection against discrimination. We adopt this position at sea, both for coastal shipping and for fishing vessels. We should demand that land-based workers enjoy the same protection as well. And unions shouldn't have to take the government to court to enforce protections this basic.

Boycott McDonalds

McDonalds has walked away from negotiations with its workforce about ending zero-hours contracts:

Fast-food giant McDonald's has walked away from negotiations aimed at scrapping controversial zero hour contracts.

The snag in negotiations with the Unite Union comes after hundreds of fast-food workers and supporters took to the streets earlier this month to demand more secure working hours.

Burger King, Hell Pizza and Restaurant Brands -- which operates KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Carl's Jr -- have all moved to ditch the so-called zero hour contracts.

That leaves McDonald's, the country's biggest fast-food company with 9000 workers, as the only major restaurant chain to retain the contracts.

Zero-hours contracts are immoral and exploitative. They offer workers no security while keeping them in virtual peonage. No decent business should use them. And no decent person should provide their custom to the indecent businesses which do.

New Fisk

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The death penalty and legal cooperation

Indonesia murdered eight convicted drug smugglers this morning, including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It was a barbarous act, a symptom of a legal system focused on sadism rather than justice. It shows that Indonesia is not the sort of country we should call a friend, or encourage New Zealanders to visit. But it also raises serious questions about the degree of cooperation on law enforcement matters we can have with them.

We already have limits. New Zealand law allows the government to refuse extradition in death penalty cases. While that seems weak, the subsequent affirmation of the right not to be deprived of life by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act - a right to which there can be no "justified limitation" - strengthens it significantly, effectively turning the "amy" into a "must" (though it would still be good to have that set in statute, just to remove any wiggle-room for the government). But extradition isn't the only form of legal cooperation. In 2011 the NZ Police signed an "Arrangement on Cooperation in Preventing and Combating Transnational Crimes" with Indonesia. While the text isn't publicly available, it likely includes information sharing on crimes such as international drug smuggling. NZ Customs likely have similar arrangements. The problem is that given Indonesia's demonstrated use of the death penalty, sharing information with them on death penalty offences or people accused of such crimes is almost certainly illegal.

Why? Because the BORA applies to all actions "by the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of the Government of New Zealand", regardless of where they take place. And the right to life isn't restricted to New Zealanders, but applies to all persons. The net result: providing information or assistance to overseas agencies which would reasonably result in them being arrested, convicted, and executed violates their right to life and therefore violates New Zealand law. In Indonesia's case, that means that we simply cannot talk to them about drug smuggling, or any other crime for which they have the death penalty, anymore.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fear and loathing in the UK

It is now only 9 days until the UK election, and having failed to win any public support for their policies, the tories are trying to frighten the electorate instead. Their core tactic has been an attempt to delegitimise Scottish MPs - only one of which is a conservative. The latest spin? Scottish support for a labour government would cause a "constitutional crisis":

Britain will face its biggest constitutional crisis since Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 if Ed Miliband runs Britain with Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May has warned.

In a dramatic intervention in the Election campaign, the Home Secretary questioned whether English voters would accept the 'legitimacy' of a Labour Government backed by Scottish Nationalists.

And she compared the effects of such a pact to the way Britain's governing class was paralysed for months in the 1930s because of King Edward VIII's affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson.


By questioning the 'legitimacy' of a Miliband Government backed by Sturgeon, Mrs May has raised the stakes in the row over the prospect of Labour teaming up with the SNP to rule the UK.

She believes that English voters would not accept Sturgeon's party having vital power over their lives.

These remember are the same people (both the politicians and the English voters they're attempting to appeal to) who argued that Scotland should remain in the UK because they were "better together". But apparently "better together" only extends so far, and doesn't extend to Scottish MPs being allowed any say in how their country is governed or who it is governed by. And then they get upset when the Scots respond by talking about a second independence referendum...

If the English want the Scots to stay in the UK, they need to treat them as equal citizens, with an equal voice in the running of the place. And if they don't want to do that, they have only themselves to blame if the Scots decide that they'd rather be their own nation than be treated as a subject people by the English.

(Meanwhile, as for "English votes for English laws", the solution is for the English to have their own Parliament with its own devolved powers, rather than trying to use the UK Parliament as the vehicle of their devolution. But then I suppose people would wonder what the UK was actually for...)

New Fisk

Armenian genocide: Turkey's day of denial amid remembrance for a genocide in all but name
On an Istanbul street, have I just witnessed a positive step in history?

Climate change: Good news on agriculture

New Zealand's policy on climate change has been one of inaction, justified by excuses and special pleading. A key plank in this is our emissions profile. Roughly 50% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. We can't do anything about them, so we don't (and in practice we encourage farmers to convert land to dairy farms, increasing emissions even further, while turning our lakes and streams into toxic sewers).

But that excuse may not last for very long:

A team of AgResearch scientists has identified five compounds that reduce methane emissions from livestock by up to 90 percent in initial short-term trials, providing a technology that could significantly reduce New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.


AgResearch principal scientist Peter Janssen, who co-ordinates the methane research programme, said the findings were the culmination of five years work, during which the team screened more than 100,000 compounds through computer-based searches and in laboratory experiments.

The screening process identified five compounds that have now been tested successfully in sheep, showing a significant reduction in methane production over a two-day period.

"The programme has been looking for new types of inhibitors of methane production from the rumen. This can be regarded as a first step in the process towards developing something that can be used on the farm."

They expect to have a product within five years. Its great news, which promises to significantly reduce our agricultural emissions while improving farm productivity. To give an extent of the possible impact, last year enteric fermentation was responsible for 28.4 of the 81 million tons of emissions we produced. If they are as effective as suggested, then widespread use could knock 25 million tons off our national emissions, a cut of almost a third. In terms of targets, this is almost 40% of 1990 emissions, so when we're aiming for a target cut of 50% by 2050, its a huge hit.

The problem, as always, is adoption. Because we've got a lot of technologies which would make a difference to our greenhouse gas emissions: biofuels, more fuel efficient vehicles, wind power and other renewables. And yet we haven't adopted them on the scale that we need to. The market doesn't work for this; from looking at uptake of energy efficiency, we know that polluters don't adopt cleaner technology voluntarily even when its financially advantageous to do so. They need to be pushed (and pushed hard if we want rapid change). But our government and policy community are ideologically opposed to the sorts of policy tools which could do that. Hence why we're still driving inefficient cars running on dead dinosaurs rather than wood waste, and why energy companies are still looking at building gas-fired power stations.

Our government spends money on climate change research. Now that that research has been successful, it needs to follow through by pushing for rapid adoption of the solutions it has found (and this time, ticking the food safety boxes properly). Anything less, and it will be clear that they were never really after solutions, but were just doing it as another PR exercise, a substitute for real action.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why are we paying Louise Upston?

Louise Upston is the Minister for Women. As a Minister, we pay her $268,300 a year, plus slush fund - at least $120,000 more than she would get as a backbench MP. Astonishingly, we're paying her this money to not advocate for women:

But while Women's Minister Louise Upston released a statement repeating Key's apology, she refused to comment on issues of women's rights in the workplace.

"As the Prime Minister has said his actions were intended to be light-hearted. It was never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable," she said.

"He said that in hindsight it wasn't appropriate, and that is why he apologised."

Which invites the question: if the Minister for Women isn't going to advocate for women, why are we paying her?

If Louise Upston doesn't want to do her job, she should resign and make way for someone who will. It is that simple.

National's hand-wringing on housing

Auckland house prices have exploded again, and are at the silly stage where the houses actually earn mor ein capital gains than their inhabitants do in salaries. So what is the government doing about it? Nothing:

The Government has effectively left nothing "undone" to tackle sky-rocketing house prices in Auckland, Finance Minister Bill English says


"The best thing we can do for low and middle income families in Auckland is to allow the place to grow - growing up or growing out, that's the choice for Auckland to make," English said.

"You see in the media every day now commentators ranting about how the Government should do something about the housing market. Well I think Mayor Len [Brown] would agree there's pretty much not really anything left undone that can be done that happens fast enough.

Bullshit. There are two very obvious policies the government could pursue to end this rampanat inflation:
  • They could tax capital gains, and so make house price speculation unprofitable.
  • They could address the underlying supply issues with a mass building programme aimed at increasing the supply of decent, affordable homes.
So why don't they? For the obvious reason that a) government ministers and MPs are benefitting from the boom themselves; and b) any real action to curb Auckland's insane house-price inflation would see a lot of paper wealth evaporate and over-leveraged house-buyers trapped with negative equity - something unlikely to endear government to house-owning Auckland voters. So instead we get hand-wringing and claims of powerlessness. But those claims are false. The government is not powerless; it simply chooses not to act.

A serial creep

Yesterday we learned that Prime Minister John Key is a creep. But it also quickly became clear from photos splashed across twitter that he's a serial creep. First there's this:
That's from Justice Minister Amy Adams' website, no less (that's Adams grinning in the background). The caption on that is "Prime Minister John Key jokes with [NAME REDACTED] about cutting her hair".

Then there's the video, on the Herald here, of Key tugging another schoolkids hair while John Campbell asks her if she knows who he is.

And then there's this:

My 12-year old daughter watched the TV news last night and exclaimed ‘that’s what the Prime Minister did at Te Papa to my two friends”.

She was talking about the NZ Prime Minister John Key pulling the ponytail of a cafe worker, and previous footage of him touching a young girl’s ponytail.

So, the Prime Minister hasn't just attacked a waitress like this, but at least four schoolkids as well. And while he appears to think its all just a big joke, its not: its assault. And he should be prosecuted for it.

And again, you have to wonder what the Prime Minister's police bodyguards (who accompany him at all times) were doing during all of this: as police officers, shouldn't they be stopping him from assaulting children? Or does their job of intimidating the public and making the PM feel like a big man trump keeping us safe from him?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

National wants to jail people who expose politicians

Today, thanks to a post on The Daily Blog, we learned that Prime Minister John Key is a creep.

The post performed a valuable public service, exposing unacceptable behaviour from a person in a position of power. But the government is currently in the process of passing a law which would make similar posts in future illegal.

The law is the Harmful Digital Communications Bill. Section 19 of the bill creates a crime of "causing harm by posting digital communication":

A person commits an offence if—

(a) the person posts a digital communication with the intention that it cause harm to a victim; and
(b) posting the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim; and
(c) posting the communication causes harm to the victim.

For the purposes of the law, "harm" is defined as "serious emotional distress". TechLiberty's pointed out last year that this clause applied perfectly to the exposure of corrupt politicians, something which an ordinary reasonable person would think would cause them serious emotional distress. And it applies equally to exposing creepy ones as well. And no, there's no public interest defence. The kicker? The National-dominated select committee has increased the penalty for this offence from three months to two years imprisonment.

The message is clear: if in future you expose the Prime Minister as a creep using the internet, you'll be facing jail. So much for our democracy.

Save Campbell Live rallies

The Coalition for Better Broadcasting has organised a series of nationwide rallies to Save Campbell Live this Friday:

The Auckland rally starts on the corner of Karangahape Rd & Symonds St at 11.30. It will march to TV3/Mediaworks in Flower St.

The Wellington rally is at 4.30pm at Te Aro Park

The Christchurch rally is from 12 noon in Hagley Park (455 at the south end, next to the tennis club)

The Dunedin rally is at 4.30pm in the Lower Octagon.

If you want to stand up for decent journalism, then now is the time to speak out.

Another British coverup

Organophosphates are dangerous chemicals. Their best known use is probably in nerve agents, but they're also used as pesticides. As you might guess, the latter are dangerous, and can lead to some fairly unpleasant effects if not handled carefully. Which is why they're now banned in the EU. The British government, which used to require the use of organophosphates on farms, has always maintained that it had no idea of the dangers before it banned them. They lied:

Government officials knew of the dangerous health risks to farmers using a chemical treatment in the 1980s and 1990s but still refused to end its compulsory use, documents reveal for the first time.

At least 500 farmers across the UK were left with debilitating health problems after using organophosphate-based (OP) chemicals to protect their sheep against parasites, whose use was mandated by government until 1992.

Successive UK governments have claimed they did not know about the dangers farmers faced using the OPs for sheep dipping at that time and also dispute any link between repeated, low-level use of the chemical and chronic ill health, including serious neurological damage.

It has now emerged that government officials were privately warning of the dangers of exposure to even low doses of the chemical and criticising the safety measures offered by manufacturers, prompting calls by senior political figures for a Hillsborough-style inquiry.

From poisoning to pedophilia, the British establishment's default response to any problem is to lie and cover it up.

Meanwhile, I'm curious as to whether organophosphates were ever mandated in NZ. They've certainly been used here - there was a requirement for sheep dipping until 1993, which has covered the country in toxic sites, but the factsheets on that seem to worry mostly about arsenic and organochlorides like DDT, and there's no mention of specific chemicals being required as they were in the UK.

The Prime Minister is a creep

So, it turns out that John Key is a creep:

Prime Minister John Key has apologised to an Auckland waitress who accused him of harassment and bullying after he pulled on her pony-tail on repeated occasions.

In an anonymous article on the left-wing website The Daily Blog, the waitress said Mr Key behaved like a "schoolyard bully" when visiting her unnamed cafe in the past six months.

She said he later apologised by giving her two bottles of wine.

Key claims to have "apologised", but its the usual minimisation practised by bullies and creeps: "light-hearted", "never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable" etc. Which is bullshit. Invading someone else's personal space without their consent is the sort of thing which tends to make them uncomfortable. And only creeps do that. In the workplace, it'd be straight-out sexual harassment resulting in dismissal. When it comes from the Prime Minister, a person in a position of power who is surrounded at all times by armed bodyguards, its fucking scary.

(Speaking of those bodyguards, where the fuck were they? They're police officers, and someone was committing an assault right in front of them. Shouldn't they have done something about that? Or are they just part of the toxic police culture which sees sexually bullying young women as acceptable?)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Australia wants to beat refugees to death

Australia's Pacific refugee gulags are already brutal places, home to sexual abuse and institutionalised torture. And now the Australian government wants to make them even more brutal, by giving its hired goons the legal power to beat refugees to death:

A new law giving security guards in detention centres power to cause grievous bodily harm if they "reasonably believe" it is necessary to protect life or prevent injury is likely to encourage abuse of and violence against asylum seekers in detention, a Senate committee has been told.

Former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal Stephen Charles QC said the law allowed security guards to use lethal force "with impunity" because it would be "almost impossible" for them to face prosecution in the courts.

"These amendments will authorise detention centre guards to beat asylum seekers to death if they reasonably believe it is necessary to do so to save either themselves or another person from serious harm," he said.

As the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre points out, giving untrained goons the right to beat people is a recipe for abuse. But then, that's the point, isn't it? To "deter" refugees from seeking refuge in Australia by making their life a living hell of abuse and hopelessness. That's not what decent countries do, but its been clear for a long, long time that Australia isn't a decent country anymore. They ethnicly cleanse their indigenous people, they torture refugees, they detain children indefinitely. Beating refugees to death pour encourager les autres just seems like more of the same.

As for what to do about it, rather than spending ANZAC Day celebrating a century of shared military servitude to foreign powers, maybe we should use it to reassess our relationship with Australia - and tell them to fuck off until they are willing to behave like decent human beings.

That perks SOP

Last month, the government tried to double the travel rort of retired former MPs by stealth via an SOP to the Statutes Amendment Bill. Fortunately they backed down in the face of overwhelming public opposition, but I was curious about the process behind this stealth amendment, so I asked Simon Bridges, the Minister responsible for it, for all advice and correspondence relating to it. I received the response last week. Great chunks of it have been withheld as legal advice, but its still illuminating for what's not in it. Notably:

  • There is no assessment of whether the amendments meet the "technical, short, and non-controversial" requirement for inclusion in a Statutes Amendment Bill. Given the subject matter of the amendment, you'd expect it to have raised multiple red flags for controversy, and as Graeme Edgeler pointed out at the time, it wasn't "technical" either. But there's simply no mention of this. Were all those Ministerial Advisers and Policy Advisers asleep at the wheel? Or are their heads so far in the Thorndon Bubble that they no longer recognise political asbestos when they see it?
  • Simon Bridges, the Minister in charge of the SOP, only consulted government support parties. Its a requirement for anything to do with a Statutes Amendment Bill to be consulted on with all parliamentary parties (because it takes just one person objecting to sink it). But there's no evidence that Labour or the Greens were ever consulted. The parliamentary Counsel's Office did query this in early March, and were informed by Ministry of Justice that "we were informed by Minister Bridges office that we did not need to attend to this". There's a later email saying that "all parties confirmed support for the amendments", but there's no documentation of this whatsoever. The emails imply that Ministry of Justice would normally hold formal support letters, but there's no indication of these being sought or received by Bridges.

Which looks like a significant end-run around the normal procedural protections on this sort of bill.

As for the origins of the amendment, it came from Parliamentary Services, who had originally been planning to put it up in this year's Statutes Amendment Bill. So we may see them make another attempt. Unfortunately, parliamentary Services is immune to the OIA, so we can't delve any further into where this harebrained scheme to give Roger Douglas a stealth pay-rise came from.

New Fisk

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

"We do not comment on security matters"

When brave leakers and journalists have revealed the dirty deeds of "our" spy agencies, the government's response has been to consistently stonewall. "We do not comment on security matters", they say. Unless, apparently, they think they have a success story to tell us:

Prime Minister John Key says the SIS has talked would-be jihadists in New Zealand out of joining Isis after their parents approached authorities.

"There are some people we believe we have actually talked down from wanting to get engaged and leave [New Zealand]," Mr Key said at his post-Cabinet press conference.

"Often family members are involved in discussions that lead to the SIS having discussions with those individuals."

There are two points to make here. The first is obvious: so much for not commenting. But I'm sure that if anyone tries to OIA the SIS for further details, it'll be back to the stonewall. Protecting "national security" apparently means the spies telling us only what they want us to know, while hiding everything else - including whether they're doing their job properly or acting lawfully.

Which brings us to the second point: if John Key is telling the truth, the SIS have broken the law. Why? Because their governing Act says explicitly
It is not a function of the Security Intelligence Service to enforce measures for security.

The Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence has previously found that warning people not to pursue certain courses of action is a measure to enforce security and violates this clause. When the SIS detect evidence of serious crime - and participation in a terrorist group certainly qualifies, as does attempting to do so - they should turn that evidence over to the police. And this makes sense: spies are there to gather intelligence, but its the police who are supposed to protect public safety. Letting spies - who regard evidence of criminal wrongdoing as leverage with which to extract more intelligence - make public safety decisions leads to the sort of shit we're seeing in the UK, where they cover up for pedophiles to protect their intelligence sources (and their budgets).

As for what to do about this, it sounds as if Russel Norman is going to have to make another complaint to the Inspector-General asking them to investigate the lawfulness of spy actions. And if an investigation confirms that they have broken the law, again, after being specifically warned not to do this sort of thing, then it would suggest an entrenched culture of lawlessness within the agency. Given the hideous dangers posed by lawless spies, slow reform is not an option; the only cure would be disestablishment or a full-on purge.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off down to Wellington for Hydra larp convention. Over the course of the weekend, I expect to be gunned down like a dog, die tragicly of an alien plague, murdered by my neighbours, machine-gunned by gangsters (or eaten by a dragon - who knows in Chicago?), and be beheaded by a friendly lumberjack, before subjecting my friends to the horrors of a quasi-totalitarian state.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unlawful and possibly criminal

Today's Snowden leak: the GCSB has been spying on Bangladesh and sharing information with Bangladeshi torturers:

Secret documents reveal New Zealand has shared intelligence collected through covert surveillance with Bangladesh despite that country's security forces being implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses.

The documents shine light on the major role played by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in electronic spying operations conducted in the small South Asian nation.

The surveillance has been used to aid the United States as part of its global counter-terrorism campaign, launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001.


The intelligence gathered by the GCSB staff was also being forwarded to foreign intelligence agencies, including Bangladesh's state intelligence agency. In recent years, human rights groups have issued several reports documenting Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies' disregard for international prohibitions on torture and alleged involvement in politically motivated killings. In 2014, a case was filed in the International Criminal Court accusing the Bangladesh Government of committing crimes against humanity.

As with other GCSB spying, this raises the usual questions: how does this contribute to New Zealand's international relations and national security? And it has the usual answer: it doesn't. The GCSB isn't spying on Bangladesh because it poses some threat to New Zealand, but because the NSA has told them to and they want information to trade to their American masters. Whether that is in New Zealand's interests is left as an exercise for the reader.

But it also raises serious questions about what is done with the information the GCSB collects. Bangladesh's spy agencies are deeply unsavoury people who engage in torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial killings. There's an obvious political question here about whether we want our spies passing information to an agency which goes around kidnapping, torturing and murdering people. But beyond that, there are serious legal questions as well. Its hard to see how the GCSB's sharing of information with an agency known to torture and murder is consistent with the agency's obligations under sections 8 and 9 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which affirm the right to life and the right not to be tortured, which apply to any actions of the government, anywhere in the world, and for which there can be no "justified limitation".

But in addition to probably being unlawful, sharing information with known torturers and murderers is probably criminal as well. The Crimes of Torture Act 1989 imposes a penalty of 14 years imprisonment on anyone who
(a) commits an act of torture; or
(b) does or omits an act for the purpose of aiding any person to commit an act of torture; or
(c) abets any person in the commission of an act of torture; or
(d) incites, counsels, or procures any person to commit an act of torture.

There's no suggestion that the GCSB is itself torturing people, or that they're deliberately procuring it (unlike the CIA and MI6, who seem to do that all the time). But passing information to known torturers seems to fall squarely within clauses 3(1)(b) and 3(1)(c). And that means that the GCSB staff who do it are potentially on the hook for a very long jail spell. If you work for the GCSB on the Bangladesh desk, you should really be talking to your lawyer about now.

As for what we can do about it, a complaint to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security asking them to investigate on their own motion whether the GCSB has violated the BORA and/or the Crimes of Torture Act by sharing information with foreign agencies would seem to be the best bet.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Our glorious leader

NZ troops reportedly departed today for Iraq. Meanwhile, our glorious leader can't even name who they'll be fighting:

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, like the Australian Defence Minister, is unable to name the leader of Islamic State.

"Look I'll get it wrong if I actually name his name - it's al-Jabiri something - but whatever I mean, but yeah," Key said on Wednesday.


[T]he Islamic State's leader is universally recognised as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has declared himself the Muslim world's Caliph, is solely named leader by Islamic State supporters and is regarded as the leader by Western countries.

Yes, its lazy and cheap - an Australian minister screwed up, so someone thought it would be easy to ask Key the same question - but at the same time its deeply telling. Key is sending kiwi soldiers to die in Iraq. If he took that decision seriously, you think he'd at least know the basics of who they were fighting against. The fact that he doesn't shows how little regard he has for his job - and the lives of those he is sending to die for him.

Mass surveillance goes to the ECHR

The UK is a member of the Five Eyes and engages in mass surveillance. The UK is also a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, which affirms rights to privacy and expression. These two things don't seem to go together - so a coalition of human rights and privacy groups are taking the UK to the ECHR to see whether its conduct is legal:

Amnesty International, Liberty and Privacy International have announced today they are taking the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights over its indiscriminate mass surveillance practices.

The legal challenge is based on documents made available by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden which revealed mass surveillance practices taking place on an industrial scale.

"The UK government’s surveillance practices have been allowed to continue unabated and on an unprecedented scale, with major consequences for people’s privacy and freedom of expression. No-one is above the law and the European Court of Human Rights now has a chance to make that clear," said Nick Williams, Amnesty International’s Legal Counsel.


“Mass surveillance is a violation of our fundamental rights. Intercepting millions of communications every day, and secretly receiving millions more from the NSA by the back door is neither necessary nor proportionate,” said Carly Nyst, Legal Director of Privacy International.

“While the IPT sided with GCHQ and against the rights of millions of people, Europe’s highest human rights court has a strong history of ensuring intelligence agencies are compliant with human rights law. We hope that the Court continues this tradition and GCHQ is finally held accountable for its unfettered spying on the world’s communications.”

Here's hoping that they succeed. And if they do, it is likely to be influential in how our own courts interpret our laws.

A failure to deliver

National is very keen on announcing new funding for special education, because it sounds positive. Who doesn't like the idea of helping kids in need? Sadly, they're not so good at actually delivering on those promises:

More than $32 million of funding for children with special needs has languished in government coffers for two years, leaving schools to foot the bill.

The Ministry of Education says the underspend is because of the delay between announcing special education programmes and implementing them - a practice that isn't "unusual".


One of the programmes responsible for the education budget underspend is Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L), which has been championed by Education Minister Hekia Parata.

It has received annual cash injections since 2009, including more than $63m of an $80.5m budget in 2013.

This is despite the ministry revealing it didn't fill the staff vacancies needed to implement it.

Because why would you? I mean, its only kids who desperately need help, after all. But the side effect of this slackness on the part of the Ministry is not just that those kids don't get help, but that the funding disappears forever - because they're only allowed to spend the money appropriated in the particular year it was appropriated for. So, that $32 million isn't sitting in a bank account somewhere, just waiting for the Ministry of Education to get its shit together - its gone. One way of meeting your artificial surplus target, I guess.

Having it both ways

Yesterday I highlighted Rob Salmond's excellent work in digging into National's Northland bridge bribe, which revealed Transport Minister simon Bridges broke Cabinet Manual rules by requesting information from his Ministry for party political purposes. john Key's response when asked about this by the media was to deny that it was a breach and claim that

"You're allowed to use resources of the officials in terms of what would be Government policy."

But as Salmond points out today, this is exactly the opposite of what he was telling us a few weeks ago. When asked about the policy in Question Time back in March, he refused to answer on the basis that he had been wearing his National Party hat, not his Prime Minister's hat, and so he had no Ministerial responsibility for the issue. Which raises the obvious question:
if there’s no ministerial responsibility for the Northland bridge bribe, then why was Simon Bridges using his ministerial privileges in putting the bribe together?

Key can't have it both ways. If this is really a matter of government policy, then he should be answering questions about it in Parliament. If its a National Party matter, then Bridges abused his office and should be sacked. The current situation, where which hat a Minister is wearing depends purely on the political consequences seems designed to thwart accountability and encourage abuses of power. And that's not something we should tolerate from our government.

Off to Iraq

And they're off. But as usual, we have to hear about what our soldiers are doing from the Australians:

The first Kiwi troops going to Iraq to help in the fight against Islamic State (Isis) militants will reportedly deploy on Wednesday.

New Zealand is sending 143 troops to train the Iraqi military as part of an international coalition to defeat Isis.

The Australian Federal Cabinet on Tuesday signed off on that country deploying about 330 additional troops to Iraq.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra the deployment would start on Wednesday, and the force was expected to be operational by the middle of May.

It would be nice if we could learn about the deployment of kiwi troops from our own government, not a foreign country. But that might lead to accountability, which is the last thing that this government wants when kiwi lives are on the line. Make no mistake: this is an unnecessary deployment in someone else's religious civil war, and we should have no part of it. And if any of those soldiers come back in a body bag, it will be John Key's fault, and we should hold him accountable for it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

National on surpluses

Bill English, 2010 budget speech:

It is projected to improve steadily in each subsequent year, and to reach surplus in 2015/16, three years ahead of last year’s projection.

Bill English, 2011 budget speech:
The projected operating deficit will fall dramatically over the next three years. It will be in
significant surplus from 2014/15.

Bill English, 2012 budget speech:
This Government’s discipline means New Zealand is on track to return to fiscal surplus in
2014/15, and then to start reducing debt.

The forecast fiscal surplus in 2014/15 is $197 million. This surplus is forecast to grow to
$2.1 billion in 2015/16 and $4.4 billion in 2016/17.

Bill English, 2013 budget speech:
We are on track to get back to surplus by 2014/15.

And we are on track to reduce government debt to 20 per cent of GDP by 2020.

Budget forecasts show an operating surplus before gains and losses of $75 million in 2014/15.

Bill English, 2014 budget speech:
There will be a small surplus next year, and incr
easing surpluses are forecast over time.

Key maintains he can hit "artificial" surplus ahead of pre-Budget speech, Stuff, 13 April 2015:
Ahead of his first major Budget speech John Key is refusing to rule out the Government hitting a surplus this year, while at the same time dismissing the target as "artificial".


Key said New Zealand was a $220 billion dollar economy, the Government spent about $70 billion, meaning a deficit of a few hundred million dollars was irrelevant.

"It's really like trying to land a 747 on a pin head. It's just not that possible for the Treasury to get that right."

And just like that, National's major goal, the thing it has constantly said it (and opposition parties) should be judged by, is dimissed. And tomorrow they'll no doubt be telling us that they never promised a surplus and that Helen Clark had nine long years to balance the books (and she did, every year).

[Hat-tip: David Slack]

Here we go again

In 2013, the foreign owners of Tiwai Point scammed us for a $30 million handout to keep the smelter going. And now a key contract decision point is approaching on whether to continue operations, they're sticking their hand out again:

NZAS chairman Brian Cooper said the smelter was one of the most efficient in the world but currently pays one of the highest power prices paid by a smelter anywhere in the world, outside of China.

Only smelters in Eastern and Southern Europe pay similar prices.

NZAS also paid one of the highest transmission charges, faced by a smelter, in the world, he said.

Costs had dramatically increased, by $25 million per annum, over the past seven years – last year the smelter paid $64 million in transmission costs.

A transmission costs system, where the grid user pays for what they actually use, would deliver a better outcome for NZAS, he said.

"No decision had been made about the future of the smelter, and we are doing everything we can to secure a long-term commercially competitive electricity price for the smelter."

Translation: "give us more money or we'll leave". To which the government's response should be "here's the door". The smelter makes a profit. There's no need to subsidise a profitable business, and no point subsidising an unprofitable one. And if it shuts down, we can deploy the resources it currently wastes - 13% of the country's total electricity supply - to more profitable uses.

A contrast in justice

On September 16, 2007, Blackwater mercenaries ran amok in Nisour Square, Baghdad, indiscriminately firing at civilians. Today, they were sentenced for that crime:

Three former employees of the US private military contractor once known as Blackwater were sentenced to 30 years in prison on Monday and a fourth received a life sentence, closing a sordid chapter of the Iraq conflict relating to the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad.

Judge Royce Lamberth denied a request by the defense for leniency in sentencing on Monday, and, as expected, his sentences followed the 30-year mandatory sentence guidelines for the crimes.

The four, who were part of a tactical support team called “Raven 23”, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians from an armoured convoy with machine-guns and grenade launchers in September 2007.

In October 2014, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were found guilty of 13 charges of voluntary manslaughter and 17 charges of attempted manslaughter, while Nicholas Slatten, the team’s sniper who was the first to open fire, was convicted on a separate charge of first-degree murder.

But while these mercenaries have met with justice, it simply highlights the fact that so many other American war criminals haven't. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr was convicted of negligent homicide for torturing a captured Iraqi general to death. His sentence? A reprimand. Marine Trent Thomas was convicted of kidnapping and murdering an Iraqi civilian. He got 14 months. The difference? Those sentences were passed by military courts. When soldiers have been tried in civilian courts, they've received normal justice. The upshot: US military courts clearly condone and excuse war crimes by their own (see also: the laughable sentences they give out for torture, not to mention all the cases they didn't even bother to bring to trial). The US military simply cannot be trusted to judge its own.

National's bridge bribe and public service neutrality

The core idea of our public service is that it is a professional, politically neutral body. Its there to advise the government of the day on its options and how to implement policy. Its not there to help them win elections. This is reflected in the Cabinet Manual, with rules around government advertising, and an explicit warning to Ministers that

Before and after an election, the incumbent Ministers should ensure that any requests they make for advice or information from their officials is for the purposes of their portfolio responsibilities and not for party political purposes.

Over on Polity, Rob Salmond has been excavating how these rules were broken by Transport Minister Simon Bridges in the leadup to the announcement of National's Northland bridge bribe.

The core documents are here. Bridges claims that:
I did not seek any advice from the Ministry of Transport or the New Zealand Transport Authority on the commitment to upgrade 10 single-lane bridges in the Northland region.

However, general information concerning single-lane bridges in Northland was received over a period of time.

But the material released shows that he did. The same day that a 3News poll showed that Winston Peters was ahead (so, when it was being circulated for comment and hinted at over Twitter by Gower), Bridges received advice from NZTA on single land bridges in Northland. Unfortunately the requests for that advice were outside the scope of the OIA request, but the response gives some information about what was requested:
You also asked questions about the Draft Northland Regional Land Transport Plan.
  • What projects does the “Bridge Replacements” include (page 38 of draft RLTP)? We can’t answer that – would have to get more info from council.
  • Are the Matakohe, Kaeo, and Taipa bridge replacements likely to make the NLTP, and are the costs in the RLTP NZTA estimates or local estimates? We can’t answer that at this time. The RLTP hearings are on now. The Board will decide on the confirmed list on 30 June.
You asked for a priority list of bridge replacements. We don’t have such a list as all of the state highway bridges are currently structurally sound.
A second email the next day starts with "Here’s the info requested on bridge replacement costs" and notes that
You asked the following: Could you also find out everything you can on the FNDC Bridge Replacements 2015-18, and the WDC HPMV Bridge Upgrades, and send this through as fast as you can.
[Their emphasis]. Which makes it pretty clear what was being requested. The result was an extensive list of possible bridge upgrades and their costs. And three days later, once the weekend was over, National announced its bridge bribe. Connecting the dots, Bridges misused the public service for party political purposes, effectively to formulate a pork-barrel policy in a failed effort to sway the voters of Northland. That appears to have violated the Cabinet Manual. The question is whether John Key will hold him to account, or whether he condones this abuse of Ministerial power.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Below is my submission on the question of privilege regarding use of social media to report on parliamentary proceedings:

  1. I am submitting to oppose any proposal to restrict the use of social media to report on parliamentary proceedings.

    MPs and Twitter

  2. I watch Question Time every sitting day. Like many others, I also livetweet proceedings over my twitter feed to my 4,500 followers using the #nzqt tag. Tweets about Question Time are regularly retweeted and favourited. The commentary appears to be both informative and popular with the online community.

  3. MPs also contribute to this collective commentary. Their comments provide a vital inside view on the workings of the House and help fill in the gaps where comments are missed by the videofeed. They are vital in bringing poor behaviour which may have been missed by the cameras to public attention.

  4. While Parliament is broadcast, it is poorly watched outside of question time. The comments of MPs are especially valuable in these other debates, and are often the primary source of information on them. MPs tweet vote results, and summaries of speeches. Their tweeting is useful in alerting readers when to watch, or what to review on InTheHouse.

  5. In short, online engagement by members provides a valuable service to the public and is vital to informing us of what is going on in our parliament.

    Electronic devices and social media

  6. With regard to the use of hand-held electronic devices by members, Standing Orders exist solely to ensure the good order of the House. From my viewing of Question Time, the use of such devices does not disrupt the House.

  7. Likewise, member's use of social media from the chamber does not lead to disorder in the House. In my years of watching Question Time, I have seen only one occasion where that could even remotely be argued, and that was when a government member disrupted the House to complain about tweeting by the opposition. It has otherwise been a parallel commentary which simply does not impinge into the chamber.

  8. Some MPs have used Twitter to question rulings by the Speaker, or to highlight questionable rulings. While this may upset the Speaker, neither disrupts the order of the House. Silencing them would simply be an abuse of power, and would be seen as such by the public.

  9. To the extent that such tweets are believed to disrupt the order of the house this must be balanced against the right to freedom of expression affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This right covers not just the freedom of MPs to impart their views, but also of the public to receive them. Gagging MPs from tweeting would be a prima facie violation of this right, and would need to be shown to be necessary, proportionate, and the least restrictive means of ensuring order.

    Reflections on members

  10. With regard to the rules on reflections on members or accusations against the speaker, while there is a clear reason for these applying to MPs in the chamber, they do not appear to be justifiable in a free and democratic society with regards to speech outside the chamber, whether by MPs or members of the public. They do not affect the order of the house, and therefore there is no justification for restricting them under Standing Orders. Insofar as they are believed to affect order, they are neither proportionate or the least restrictive option.

  11. If a member or the Speaker feels that a reflection or accusation has unfairly maligned them, they can bring defamation proceedings just like any ordinary member of the public. And that is exactly what they should do. Using parliamentary privilege to punish and silence critics would again appear to be a gross abuse of power.

  12. The mere existence of this purported power to punish public critics undermines the legitimacy of parliament. Its the sort of thing Kings do. We're better than that, and we should do away with it. And we certainly shouldn't be applying it to social media.


  13. There should be no restrictions on the use of social media by MPs, and the rules on reflections on members and accusations against the Speaker should be repealed or restricted to apply only to speech inside the chamber.

  14. I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.

Frivolous, vexatious, or trivial?

Just before FYI went down, someone submitted an OIA request asking whether ACT MP David Seymour was a hologram. Now that FYI is back up, the response has appeared, and the request has been declined on the basis that "the request is frivolous or vexatious or that the information requested is trivial". But which is it? And is the decline lawful? According to the Ombudsman's guidelines, in order to be declined under this clause,

a requester must be patently abusing the rights granted by the legislation for access to information, rather than exercising those rights in good faith.
By analogy with court processes, this means that the request must be so clearly frivolous that to put it forward would be an abuse of process, or such that no reasonable person could properly treat it as being made in good faith. But I'm not sure that that's the case. I mean, have you looked at Seymour?
And then he practically admits it:

So, maybe they're really refusing the request as trivial, because the answer is bloody obvious.

(And seriously, while we'd all like to think that its obvious that someone isn't a hologram, or indeed a "David Icke style shapeshifting reptilian alien ushering humanity towards enslavement", sometimes it isn't. For example, when the Prime Minister laughs off the Auckland housing crisis (which has no doubt added significantly to the value of his property portfolio). If the Prime Minister doesn't want people asking whether he's an alien here to destroy our way of life, maybe he shouldn't act like one so often).

FYI is back

A month ago FYI, the public OIA request site, went down, leaving dozens of requests in limbo. But now its back, bright green, and supported by the New Zealand Herald.

So, if there's anything you want to know from central or local government (including all their agencies such as Crown Entities and CCOs), you can ask here. Just remember: keep it short, keep it focused, and be polite - you'll get a better response that way.

The silver lining

On Friday MBIE released a report on the future of New Zealand's electricity industry, which highlighted the massive effect of Tiwai Point and the back in profit - but they're uncertainty it creates in the market:

The future of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters at Tiwai Point near Bluff has been thrust back into the limelight in a report by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.

Meridian Energy's generation from Manapouri supplies NZAS with the equivalent of 13% of New Zealand's electricity, but there is ''considerable uncertainty'' about its future, the ministry says, with a July deadline looming for a decision by smelter owner and Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.

Until Rio Tinto announces a decision, other power generators around the country are in limbo over issues of maintenance, upgrading, expansion or closing some of their respective assets, and then how the sector will respond to changes in electricity supply and demand.

All of which sounds bad, but given that we have an oversupply of electricity at the moment, its not that big a deal. Meanwhile, it highlights the wider cost of maintaining those 3,500 jobs in Southland: its not just the direct $30 million subsidy they extracted from the government last time they threatened to close, but the fact that they use 13% of our total electricity supply and don't pay full cost for it. Which means that every single one of us is indirectly subsidising Pacific Aluminium through our power bills.

If Tiwai Point shuts down, we get that 13% back. Which means not just cheaper short-term power prices due to oversupply, but also being able to shut down or mothball thermal plants, meaning reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It would be very bad for Southland, but pretty good for the rest of us.

New Fisk

Ten years later, and we still don’t know who assassinated Lebanon's leader

Friday, April 10, 2015

Climate change costs jobs

A Christchurch mussel plant has closed due to climate change:

Seafood processor Sanford has linked warmer sea to the likely closure of its mussel plant employing 232 people in Christchurch.

Chief executive Volker Kuntzsch said higher ocean temperatures had affected the growth of its farmed mussels in the Marlborough Sounds and its supply of wild, young mussel spats that it harvests from other places for future stock.

All fishing companies operating along the northern South Island coastline were finding and growing fewer mussels and it seemed to be linked to different weather, he said.

New Zealand is highly dependent on the primary sector, and as the climate shifts, we're going to see more and more of this. Which is why we need a response a bit better than just twiddling the numbers to make the stats look good.

Climate change: The benefits of methodological revisions

When we signed the Kyoto protocol, we agreed to hold our average net greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012 to the same level as gross emissions in 1990. When we nailed down that figure, sometime in the 2000's, it was 61.9 million tons of CO2-equivalent.

But since then, we've changed the way we calculate our inventory. All in accordance with international best practice of course, but conveniently this has reduced our current net emissions against that fixed baseline. In the process, it has also hiked our estimate of 1990 emissions to 66.7 million tons - an increase of about 7%.

Here's where it gets interesting: our government has set itself a 2020 target of a 5% reduction on 1990 levels between 2013 and 2020. And thanks to that baseline readjustment - which hiked 1990 emissions while lowering 2012 ones by ~5 millions tons compared how we calculated them last year, it appears to have scammed itself nearly an extra 10 million tons in the last year alone. Which I guess is why they focus on research on inventory work rather than actually reducing emissions: because it is far more effective at making the numbers look good.

Climate change: The latest inventory

The annual inventory report [PDF] of our greenhouse gas emissions has been released. The headline data:

Gross emissions have declined slightly, continuing the trend of remaining fairly static, but somehow growth in net emissions has ceased entirely. There doesn't seem to be any reason for this - there's certainly been no policy change - but somehow the growth in deforestation we were seeing after National gutted the ETS magically stopped in 2013, despite plummeting carbon prices.

What there has been is a significant change to calculation methods which has seriously altered the entire forest removals time series so a 10 million ton increase in deforestation since 1990 has suddenly become 2 million (I guess MPI really got value for money there). All the data in this year's report has been recalculated using the new methods, so its all internally consistent - but the differences with what the inventory was telling us last year, and the year before, are striking. Which makes it pretty hard to plan policy if what seems to be a problem changes so dramatically from year to year. Should we target deforestation or the energy sector? Whichever we choose, the numbers will have changed before we can bring a paper to Cabinet. No wonder we have policy paralysis.

Save Campbell Live

John Campbell is one of NZ television's best journalists. This year the show he heads, Campbell Live, has broken major stories around zero-hours contracts, hungry kids, and EQC. And he produces change, as this weeks scrapping of zero-hours contracts at Restraunt Brands shows. Its exactly the sort of campaigning journalism which holds the powerful to account that we need. So naturally, TV3 wants to scrap the show and replace it with mindless pap.

If you don't like this, there's a petition on ActionStation here. Its currently on 35,000 signatures, and has become ActionStation's fastest-growing campaign. I'd suggest emailing Mark Weldon at TV3, but I don't know his address.

Meanwhile, like many net.people, I get my news when it happens from the internet and my TV from the same source. Broadcast to me is a dead medium, running on someone else's schedule and packed with intrusive, unfilterable ads. Campbell live is the last show on broadcast TV I actually watch. If it goes, then I might as well just toss the receiver box entirely and rely on the intertubes for everything.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

What should be done about privatisation

News that National's donors and cronies have made a 125% return on their party's corrupt privatisations should fill people with anger - and all the more so because, as capital gains, these returns are tax free. But what should be done about it? As I said at the time, the answer is simple: re-nationalise all privatised assets at a loss to the thieves:

all the opposition has to do is announce that the deals will not be respected, and that "investors" (parasitic speculators seeking a stream of monopoly infrastructure rents) will lose money. Announce that any stolen company will be fully renationalised, at either the sale price or market value, whichever is lower, less any unreasonable dividends extracted in the meantime. Suddenly, buying SOE shares becomes at best a low-interest loan to the government (or a loss, if the companies subsequently perform poorly). Institutional investors will seek higher returns elsewhere.

What? Investors won't trust future privatisations for fear that the same will happen? That's a feature, not a bug.

"Our" government has stolen from us, looted the state for the benefit of their supporters like some third-world kleptocracy. That injustice needs to be righted. And the thieves who received those stolen goods and were planning to profit from them need to be sent a message that there will be no profits from stealing from the people.

The only question is will Labour have the backbone to do this, or will they prove themselves part of the establishment by refusing to?

National's corrupt privatisations ripped us off

In the Herald, Mark Lister reports on what a bad deal the supposed master dealmakers National got for our state-owned power companies:

Since listing at $1, Meridian shares have more than doubled, providing investors with a return of more than 100 per cent in less than 18 months. If dividends are included, this return jumps to 125 per cent over the period.


The Crown received $1.8 billion (including the 50c a share due shortly) for the 49 per cent of Meridian sold, and that stake is today worth over $3.2 billion. The 49 per cent of Genesis sold down a few months later for $760 million is now worth almost $1.2 billion.

Lister blames the opposition for this by creating regulatory uncertainty over power prices (and hence monopoly profits). But the sale prices were set by the government, not the opposition. And they set them to ensure that floats were over-subscribed and that their donors and cronies got shares cheap, not to maximise the return to the government. Its just another example of National being bad at business and acting corruptly to enrich their cronies. And if it had happened in the third world, we'd have no qualms whatsoever about calling it that.

The OIA is not a petition mechanism

Last year, we saw an organised campaign using FYI [down, but will be up again] to lodge OIA requests with Tim Groser demanding the release of the draft text of the TPPA. The aim was to show support for release, effectively using the OIA as a petition mechanism. All it resulted in was 50 form-letter refusals.

And now there's another similar campaign, this one over EQC. Unlike the previous one, which asked people to lodge their own requests, this one asks people to "add their electronic signature in support of an Official Information Act (OIA) Request". The implication is that this will lend the request more weight. It won't. Instead, its a pointless exercise which mistakes the OIA for a petition process. But that's not what the OIA is about. The purpose of the Act isn't to help people voice their grievances about the government, but "to make official information more freely available". Whether information is released is (supposed to be) decided on the merits and in accordance with the principle of availability, not on how many people want it. So unless you're the first person to request something, or you have another angle which might excavate different information, "adding your signature" to an OIA request or submitting duplicate requests has no effect whatsoever - and to the extent it results in form responses, it actually undermines the latter.

As for the request itself, it falls into all the usual pitfalls: a political preamble which invites the responding agency to treat it as correspondence rather than a request; a question-and-answer format; trying to get all the answers at once. These are pretty much guaranteed to result in an unhappy OIA experience:

The UK establishment as a boy band

The UK is going to the polls next month in the most uncertain election in decades. This has already produced some great political ads. and now its produced this one:

[The good bit starts 20 seconds in]

While its structured as a gag, its a pointy one. The UK has a political establishment. All the major political parties belong to it, because they all went to the same private schools and posh universities and came out of them sharing the same world view. As a result, it doesn't really matter who you vote for - with a few tweaks around the edges, you'll get the same package of war, racism, austerity, privatisation, vilification of the poor and grovelling subservience to the bankers of the City. And with an unfair electoral system shutting out alternative voices, its no wonder that a third of UKanians no longer bother to vote. What's the point, if the only real decision is which colour tie the toff who fucks you over will be wearing?

With a Parliament that no longer represents its people, the UK desperately needs electoral reform. But that seems absolutely impossible under the current system.

A battle, but not the war

Unite has won a significant victory in the war against zero-hours contracts:

Zero-hour contracts have been abandoned for workers at a group of fast-food chains, who will now be guaranteed hours of work.

Restaurant Brands has committed to end zero-hour contracts by July, in a collective agreement struck with Unite Union. The deal covers workers at KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Carl's Jr.

Under the controversial zero-hour contracts, workers had to be available for work but had no guaranteed hours per week.

Unite Union said its bargaining team unanimously supported the proposal, which guaranteed a worker at least 80 per cent of the average hours they had worked over a three-month period.

Its not full job security, but its far better than they've had before, and gives these workers some predictability about their income. But the war isn't over - McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are still fully committed to these unfair labour practices. As usual, Unite is working through public pressure, with a mass-mailing campaign to show public opposition (you can sign that here). Boycotts are likely to be next (and I'll be noting that in my letter), and if these businesses value their public reputation, they'll be following Restaurant Brands in guaranteeing hours.

But while it will be great to eliminate zero-hours contracts from the fast food industry, that's still not the war. These contracts are pervasive throughout the retail sector, driven by employers desire to cut costs and keep workers insecure and under control. And we won't eliminate them entirely except by legislation. The government is promising to do that, but we know it'll be half-arsed and full of loopholes. There are currently two members bills in the ballot to eliminate zero hours contracts and give workers certainty. While there's a chance they'll be drawn and passed with the new anti-National majority in Parliament, the only way to guarantee the passage of such legislation is to change the government.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A cover-up in Ireland

Ireland has a problem: its refugee system doesn't work. Asylum seekers face long delays in having their claims processed. But the Irish government has a solution: exclude information from refugee agencies from their Freedom of Information Act:

The Irish Refugee Council has expressed its “concern” at the manner in which restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act, as it applies to bodies dealing with asylum and refugee issues, were “rushed” through the Oireachtas before Easter.

Both Houses debated and approved the restrictions on the date from which the records of two refugee bodies - Refugee Appeals Tribunal and the Refugee Applications Commissioner - can be now be accessed under the Act.

While the Act applies from April 21st, 2008, and the public can apple for records dating form then, the new restrictions mean records from these bodies can only be applied for from October 14th, 2014.

Needless to say, this won't solve any of the underlying problems with Ireland's refugee agencies. But it will stop anyone from finding out how bad those problems really are. Which is clearly all the irish government cares about.

Who will end the former MPs travel rort?

Last month, in another example of MPs earning their reputation, the government tried to double the travel perks of retired MPs by stealth. They backed down, but it brought the matter to public attention again. Last night, Campbell Live did a detailed piece on it, which showed how completely unjustified these perks are. The poll at the end was unsurprising: 99% of respondents thought that these perks should be abolished.

That's a pretty overwhelming public endorsement, and it suggests that whichever MP or party wants to do it will reap some political rewards. So, who wants to do it? I've drafted the bill. Is there any MP in the House brave enough to stand up for the public against their senior colleagues (including the Speaker, who is a member of the 75% club) and put it in the ballot? Or will the cosy conspiracy of silence around these rorts continue?

(As for the chances of success, National and Labour - dominated by members of the 90% club - have said they would vote against abolition. But we've already seen how they fold on the issue when confronted with public pressure, and I expect them to again. After all, the cost of protecting Goff, McCully and the rest will be high, and I don't think their backbenchers, who don't get these perks, have any appetite whatsoever for paying it).

Ending the UK's biggest tax rort

The UK is going to the polls next month, and Labour's Ed Miliband has finally offered a genuinely left-wing policy among all the promises of even harsher austerity and harder kicking of the poor: eliminating the UK's biggest tax rort: "non-dom" tax status:

Ed Miliband will promise to end a colonial-era symbol of inequity in the tax system by announcing that, if he wins the election, he will abolish the non-domicile rule that allows many of Britain’s richest permanent residents to avoid paying tax in the UK on their worldwide income.

Labour will say the rule, introduced by William Pitt the Younger in the late 18th century, has been wide open to abuse and offends the moral basis of taxation. Everyone who has made the UK their permanent home should pay full UK tax on all their income and gains, he will argue.

In a speech in Warwick on Wednesday, Miliband is expected to say the non-dom rule, believed to be used by more than 110,000 wealthy people in a system unique to the UK, is born of a discredited belief that “anything goes for those at the top and that what is good for the rich is always good for Britain”.

Non-doms pay UK income tax and capital gains tax on their UK sources of income and gains, and whatever income generated overseas they choose to remit to the UK. By contrast, UK domiciles have to pay tax on all of their income and gains, wherever in the world they are made – Britain or overseas.

This isn't about immigrants or permanent residents, but about people born in the UK who pretend to live overseas for tax purposes, based on "links" as tenuous as a foreign newspaper subscription or a grave plot (which can of course simply be purchased). They use this to dodge their taxes while the money piles up, enjoying all the benefits of living in the UK, but none of the costs.

Naturally, the tories are screaming that these people who aren't paying tax in the UK will all flee and not pay tax somewhere else, to which any sensible person would say "good riddance". After all, they're not paying tax, so what's the supposed loss? Their good company? They're sociopathic parasites, and the UK is better off without them.

Meanwhile, on the same day Miliband announces this, he gets endorsed by tax-cheating war criminal Tony Blair. I wonder how many more seats the SNP will get out of that?

Justice for drone strikes?

In December 2009, a US drone strike killed the brother and son of Pakistani man Haji Abdul Karim Khan. Since then, he's been fighting for justice through the courts. And now it seems he might finally get some:

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) directed on Tuesday the Secretariat police station to register a case against former CIA station chief Jonathan Banks for his alleged role in a surgical strike that killed the family members of an anti-drone activist.

The court directed Islamabad Police Chief IGP Tahir Alam to register a case against the former CIA official for killing innocent civilians in drone strikes.

Haji Abdul Karim Khan, a native of Mirali, North Waziristan, had requested the court to register an FIR after his relatives, including his son Zahinullah and brother Asif Iqbal, and other civilians were killed in a drone attack in December 31, 2009.

The Pakistani government have apparently been dragging their feet on this, refusing to open a case because it would harm diplomatic relations. Earlier this year they even had him disappeared to prevent him from testifying to the European Parliament about drone strikes. But they're running out of places to hide. Hopefully this means that the law will be enforced, and that we'll soon see an extradition order so this CIA murderer can stand trial.