Friday, March 16, 2018

New Fisk

Al Jazeera did a hard-hitting investigation into US and Israeli lobbying – so why won't they air it?

MBIE conspires with spies

The State Services Commissioner has just appointed former Deputy SSC Doug Martin to investigate Southern Respones use of Thompson & Clark Investigations to spy on earthquake victims. Meanwhile, it emerges that despite being banned from hiring them, MBIE has an unhealthily cosy relationship with TCIL, and for some reason routinely gets sent intel on anti-mining groups and protests:

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show a close relationship between Thompson and Clark and MBIE going back five years.

"When you read these emails, it's amazing how friendly it all is. 'Let's go for a beer. Let's go for a coffee.' There's discussion of skiing together," Mr Norman said.

In 2015, Thompson and Clark began supplying MBIE with weekly intelligence reports it was pulling together for the oil and gas industry on protest groups.

Thompson and Clark then started using MBIE to drum up more work with foreign oil and mining companies.

Which is guess was the payoff for all the work they were doing: being sent customers. But none of this is ethical,and it all falls well below the standards we expect from a government agency. The SSC inquiry will apparently have discretion on whether to include MBIE's use of TCIL in their terms of reference; hopefully they will. Otherwise, it will effectively be saying that the standards it seeks to apply to Southern Response don't apply to a core government department, which is simply nonsensical.

Ministerial briefings: Energy & resources

What's the Minister for Energy and Resources been up to? I submitted an OIA request for their weekly ministerial briefings. They responded by claiming they were "confidential advice" and refusing to release them. I complained to the Ombudsman, and the Minister has issued a partial release. But she is still withholding all briefings from December as "confidential", even though a quick glance at the released material makes it clear that much of it (e.g. lists of meetings, lists of briefings received, lists of mining permits approved) is not advice and is not covered by that section. So I guess its not just a matter of waiting for the Ombudsman to educate the Minister about the law and the requirement to assess everything line by line on its merits and weigh the interest in withholding against the public interest in release, rather than trying to pretend that there's a class-based exemption allowing Ministers to keep secret anything they've seen for three months.

Meanwhile, while we wait for that, here's the Minister's briefings for November 2017:

Again, its an interesting look at what's happening in the portfolio, but there's also some real news buried there, in that Oceana Gold has apparently applied to extend some of its existing exploration permits in the Coromandel to cover Schedule 4 land. I don't recall seeing anything about this in the media, and unfortunately the briefings which would presumably contain further information have been withheld. I guess that's what the Minister didn't want us to see then.

The flip side of new taxes

The government's Tax Working Group is currently considering a range of new taxes, including taxing capital gains, land, pollution or wealth. The mouthpieces of the rich are outraged of course, and trying to present it as an attack on ordinary kiwis savings (instead of their hoarded wealth), but there's a flip side as well: taxing these new things opens up space to other taxes such as GST:

GST could fall if the Tax Working Group recommends new environmental taxes, its chairman Sir Michael Cullen has suggested.

The working group is considering changes to the tax system that could apply after the 2020 election.

Although the group will consider a variety of possible new taxes, Cullen has maintained its focus will be on changing the balance of taxation rather than increasing it.

There could be a case for reducing GST if the working group recommended new resources taxes to improve people's environmental behaviour, he said.

Good - because GST is effectively a regressive tax, which falls far more heavily on the poor (who have to spend their money) than the rich (who don't). At the same time, you'd need a significant tax to be able to reduce GST noticeably. Treasury's Revenue Effect of Changes to Key Tax Rates, Bases and Thresholds for 2017/18 estimates that a 1% change in GST costs about $1.5 billion. So in order to reduce GST by 1%, you'd need something like a fully functioning carbon tax capturing all emissions sources at a rate of at least $25 a ton. Or an annual land tax of ~0.2%. The first would really just swap one consumption tax for another (though I guess as ~50% of emissions are exported as milk powder, kiwis would be better off). The second would be a double-whammy against inequality. And of course, there's always the option of doing both...

The first thing John Key did in government was rejig the tax system to benefit rich people like himself. Its long past time we rolled that back.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Unlawful and unaccountable

The Independent Police Conduct Authority report on the police's use of a fake breath-testing checkpoint to collect the names and addresses of members of political group Exit International has been released, and it makes the expected finding that the checkpoint was an unlawful use of police power, and interfered with the right to freedom of movement. Oddly, though, it concludes that the police's subsequent visits to Exit International members - which the Privacy Commissioner considered to be an unlawful use of personal information - were justified as they were consistent with police policy. In other words, the IPCA thinks that it is just fine for the police to act on unlawfully obtained information.

And then we wonder why the police keep violating the law. The answer is right in front of us: because the IPCA consistently refuses to hold them to account for it.

Meanwhile, there's further disturbing information in the full report: the police didn't just spy on the meeting from outside and use a fake checkpoint to identify people - they also obtained a surveillance warrant to listen in on the meeting itself. That's right - they bugged a political meeting. The police are now directly intervening in politics.

The officers involved justified their subsequent actions on the basis that they believed attendees of the meeting were more likely to commit suicide afterwards. But suicide is not a crime, and has not been for over a century. The police were well outside their bounds here, and had moved from investigating and preventing crime to interfering in people's lives. And that's simply not acceptable.

There's no mention in the police's press release that the officers involved have been subjected to any disciplinary action whatsoever, despite abusing their powers and exposing the police to significant costs for BORA violations. Until individual police officers are held to account, this sort of abuse of power is going to continue.

Planning to fail

Two years ago, Environment Canterbury introduced Plan Change 5, which introduced restrictions on nutrient runoff and set ambitious targets for cleaning up the region's rivers. But it turns out that just like central government on climate change, they've set targets without any effective policies to reach them:

Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy says Environment Canterbury's proposals to clean up Canterbury's rivers lack teeth and won't stop the ongoing decline.

Dr Joy's comments come in the wake of ECan's plan to make 92 per cent of all rivers in the region swimmable by 2030.

He was sceptical that ECan's approach would achieve the goals, particularly with its apparent reliance on farm environment plans.

"The plans are nothing if they're not adhered to and properly monitored. It's like saying having a crash plan will stop drivers from crashing."

Joy said the levels of nitrate allowed in ECan's plan would simply lead to more degradation.


ECan declined to give specific information as to how much meeting those targets will cost the ratepayers, and what specific projects it will undertake to ensure it meets the targets.

And he's right. Restrictions mean nothing unless they're monitored and enforced, and targets are just hot air if they're combined with allowable levels of pollution which will result in them not being met. While any improvement in Canterbury's water is welcome, this is just the council failing to do its job of protecting the rivers for everyone.

The scary thing is that even these weak, unmonitored restrictions are too much for farmers - Federated Farmers and a host of irrigators are challenging the new rules in court. And if they get their way, they'll get to keep on destroying Canterbury's rivers and turning them into toxic sewers for their private profit.

"Unlawful and unfair"

That's the view of the Privacy Commissioner on the police setting up a fake breath-testing checkpoint to collect the names and addresses of members of political group Exit International:

In June 2017, OPC completed their investigation and advised the parties of its final view. It found the collection of personal information at the checkpoint to be both unlawful and unfair. The way information was collected breached principle 4 of the Privacy Act 1993.

“Police used an unlawful checkpoint to take advantage of the public’s trust in them and collect information from people who were not legally required to provide it,” Mr Edwards said.

“The primary function of Police is to maintain the law and there is an expectation that they will follow the law and their own policies at all times. This is especially the case when they engage with members of the public or use their powers to investigate offences.”

Some complainants said the visits from Police made them feel uncertain about their ability to speak freely and anxious that more visits would follow.

“Police approached them after unlawfully collecting their information, and questioned them about a socially and politically sensitive subject. It is fair to say that the actions by the Police officers caused those complainants harm,” Mr Edwards said.

The police have said they will delete the information they collected, though whether they really have is an open question. The only way we'll know is if Exit International is exposed to further persecution in future.

Meanwhile there was also an Independent Police Conduct authority investigation into the police's actions and use of the information. Hopefully we'll be seeing the results of that soon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The United States of torture

When he was running for election, Donald Trump said openly that he wanted to torture suspected terrorists as revenge for terrorist atrocities. Now, he wants to appoint a torturer as his new CIA director:

Donald Trump’s pick for head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, reportedly oversaw a black site prison in Thailand where terrorism suspects were tortured. She briefly ran the prison in 2002, anonymous officials told the Associated Press.

If the US Senate confirms Haspel, she would be the first female director of the agency, but the historic significance of her nomination was immediately overshadowed by her reported link to the black site, where two suspected al-Qaida members were waterboarded.

“The fact that she’s been able to stay in the agency, rise in the agency and now is in line to be director should be deeply troubling,” Larry Siems, author of the Torture Report, a book analysing government documents relating to Bush-era torture released in 2014, told the Guardian.

Haspel also drafted a cable ordering the destruction of CIA interrogation videos in 2005.

Haspel should have been prosecuted and sacked for her crimes. Instead, she's been repeatedly promoted. And now, a torturer is going to be positioned to implement Trump's psychotic dream. And the price will be paid by the entire world - because if there's one thing we know about torture, its that it produces more terrorists.

So much for lese majeste in Spain

In 2007, two Catalans set fire to a life-sized portrait of Spain's monarch to protest a royal visit to their town. For this, they were charged with "insulting the monarchy" and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment - though this was later reduced to a 2,700 Euro fine. But the European Court of Human Rights has just ruled that they should never have been prosecuted:

The European Court of Human Rights said on Tuesday that Spain had wrongfully condemned two Catalans for publicly burning a photograph of the king and queen, saying that the act was justifiable political criticism.

In their unanimous ruling, the judges said they were “not convinced” that the burning “could reasonably be construed as incitement to hatred or violence.”


In its ruling, the court said that the photo burning “had not been a personal attack on the king of Spain geared to insulting and vilifying his person, but a denunciation of what the king represented as the head and the symbol of the state apparatus and the forces which, according to the applicants, had occupied Catalonia.”

And just like that, Spain's archaic lese majeste law is dust. Spanish courts are bound to obey the ECHR, and its effectively just ruled out any prosecution for political criticism. Hopefully this will lead to a review of the cases of those currently jailed (including rapper Valtonyc) and compensation for the victims of this unjust law.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

NZDF admits they lied

In 2017, Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson published Hit & Run, an investigation into an SAS raid in Afghanistan which suggested that NZDF troops had committed war crimes. NZDF's response was crystal clear: the entire book was wrong, and the SAS were in a completely different village than the one Hager and Stephenson suggested:

He said he is not aware of any other attacks on the other two villages that could have been confused with Operation Burnham. Lt Gen Keating insisted that “it is irrefutable that we operated in a different place” than what was described in Hit and Run.

And now, thanks to an Ombudsman's investigation, they've been forced to admit that they were lying:
The New Zealand Defence Force has admitted that the photographs of an Afghan village shown in the book Hit and Run – the site where six civilians were killed and 15 civilians seriously injured during an NZSAS raid – are indeed the same place where the SAS conducted a raid that night.


Now, a year later, the Ombudsman has ordered the Defence Force to release more information, including on the subject of whether the photos in the book were the same location where the NZSAS was operating that night (22 August 2010). The Defence Force has finally admitted that the “three photographs in the book are of Tirgiran Village”, the NZDF's name for the place where the SAS conducted the raid.

This looks like a deliberate attempt by NZDF to mislead the public about the location and actions of our troops. The only question is whether Lt Gen Keating did it knowingly, or whether he was passing on lies crafted by his subordinates. Either way, someone has lied to us, and they need to be fired. And even if it wasn't Keating himself, he bears command responsibility for that lie and fostering an environment where soldiers felt it was acceptable - so he needs to go as well.

More on ministerial briefings

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about weekly Ministerial briefings as a really good target for OIA requests. Since then there's been another release, from Climate Change Minister James Shaw. And as with the Conservation briefings released earlier, its a treasure-trove of what's happening in the portfolio and what direction the government is taking. Progress on getting the Zero Carbon Act out for consultation, significant actions by other countries, international meetings - the latter with significant redactions for "negotiations" whenever carbon trading seems to come up, because MFAT wants to get us back into international carbon markets. They're well worth reading, and may suggest followup requests if you're interested in climate change.

Several people have got in on requesting these through FYI (example), but there's also been some pushback from Labour Ministers trying to withhold everything as "confidential". I've had a similar response to one of my own requests. But such responses don't seem consistent with the Ombudsman's guidance, and hopefully I'll get a formal ruling on that to wave at uncooperative Ministers in future.

And again, given how informative these are, they seem like a prime candidate for proactive release. Shouldn't the Minister for Open Government be doing something about that...?


Last week, we learned that government insurance agency Southern Response had been using New Zealand's most infamous private spy agency to spy on earthquake victims. Last night, Thompson & Clark got what was coming to them, with an effective ban on government contracts:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has banned all Government departments from using a firm of private investigators for spying.

It follows a Newshub investigation that found state-owned insurers Southern Response got the investigators from Thompson and Clark to snoop on victims of the Christchurch earthquake at the taxpayers' expense.

Ms Ardern says this was "totally inappropriate" and other Government departments should not be using them.

"Absolutely not. In fact, we had a brief discussion amongst a few Ministers this morning, to make sure that none of their departments are engaging Thompson and Clark in the same way," she explained.

"Their behaviour around spying and so on is totally inappropriate."

Good riddance. T&C are scum who have repeatedly engaged in infiltrating and suppressing civil society groups. No government agency in a democracy should have anything to do with such an organisation.

But while Ardern's actions looks decisive, note that she only mentions government departments. But there are other types of government agency, including Crown Entities, State-Owned Enterprises, and CRI's. Does the ban extend to them too, or will Southern Response still be able to spy on its victims?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Why are we still letting the police kill people?

Three people died in a police chase over the weekend. It was the usual story: someone fled a routine stop, the police chased them like rabid dogs until they crashed into another vehicle, killing two people in the fleeing car as well as a random member of the public.

Those three deaths were completely unnecessary. And if the police had listened to their own "Independent" Police Conduct authority on the issue, they would never have happened. Back in 2009, after 24 people had died in the previous 6 years, the IPCA took a look at police pursuit policy and found that the risks almost always outweighed any justification. They recommended a complete change to the way decisions to pursue were made:

“Pursuits can begin over relatively minor offending, or general suspicion, and end in serious injury or death,” said Authority Chair Justice Lowell Goddard. “In such cases, the benefits from pursuing and stopping an offender do not appear to have outweighed the risks.

“In our view, the Police pursuit policy could provide clearer guidance for officers on when they may pursue. We have recommended that they reconsider the policy, and have suggested that the risk to public safety from not stopping an offender should be the principal factor justifying a decision to pursue.”

The Authority has also recommended that the Police consider requiring that the decision to pursue should be based on known facts, rather than speculating about a driver’s reasons for failing to stop. Drivers who failed to stop may not have committed serious offences, but rather may be committing minor traffic offences and panic when confronted by the Police.

Naturally, the police ignored this, pursuing their theory that anyone who runs must be guilty of something, and that catching them justifies any risk to innocent lives. Gordon Campbell characterises this as an entrenched toxic culture of macho bravado and contempt for suspect's lives - and he's right. And it has to change.

Fundamentlaly, the police are there to protect public safety. Police officers who risk people's lives because they're angry at being disobeyed or afraid their dicks will look small have no place in the police force. They need to go. And if their superiors won't sack them to give us the safe police force we deserve, then they are part of the problem and need to go too. Just as they were on police sexual violence...

More generally, if the police can just laugh at the recommendations of the IPCA, then it serves no purpose other than perpetuating a public lie that the police are accountable to the law. Either it needs to be given teeth, or we might as well just end the pretense.

Friday, March 09, 2018

It really is an Auckland housing crisis

How bad is Auckland's housing crisis? This bad:

It takes Aucklanders on an average weekly income a punitive 16 years of hard slog to save for a house, new research from the Real Estate Institute has revealed.

"The average Auckland household looking to purchase a house that costs $670,000 - the price that 25 per cent of the houses in Auckland fell below - may have to save for 832 weeks, exactly 16 years, in order to have a $134,000 deposit for that property," REINZ said this morning.

The figures are based on an average weekly income, weekly tax payments and average weekly expenses required by couples in our largest city. REINZ then calculated any weekly surplus left over.

And of course the amount you need for a deposit will increase over that time, so you'll need to save for even longer. Meanwhile, in Wellington or Christchurch, you only need to save for three or four years for the same lower-quartile house. No wonder young people are fleeing Auckland to buy elsewhere.

But it also reinforces just how much the housing crisis is a primarily Auckland problem, which is going to need an Auckland solution. The problem is that any effective solution (e.g. building masses more houses) means lowering prices, which those who have already bought into (or expect to profit from) the bubble will hate. But if we want to ensure that all kiwis can own a home of their own, that's what we've got to do.

A meh deal for New Zealand

Trade Minister David Parker has signed the successor to the TPPA, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, in Chile. Meh. What I really hated about the TPPA (other than the secretive and undemocratic manner in which it was negotiated behind our backs and without our consent) was US copyright bullshit and ISDS clauses. The former has been "suspended", at least until the US wants to join up, and the latter has been weakened slightly and further limited with respect to New Zealand by side agreements with other countries, but is still there. Meanwhile, the deal is worth $1.2 - $4 billion a year in 20 years time - which is basicly nothing. While being praised as economic salvation by farmers, its net effect when fully implemented is so small as to be lost in currency fluctuations.

So colour me unimpressed. Sure, it could be a lot worse. We could have a 70 year copyright term and US pharmaceutical companies destroying Pharmac, for example. But given the meagre gains and the damage getting them has and will inflict on our democracy, I'd really rather we hadn't signed the thing at all.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Farmers ruin another lake

Farmers have ruined another New Zealand lake, flooding it with nutrients and causing a toxic algal bloom:

Another lake in the Far North has succumbed to algal bloom, with health warning signs going up at Lake Waiparera, north of Kaitaia.


Northland Environmental Protection Society president Fiona Furrell said the bloom was entirely preventable.

"Cattle graze both the DoC reserve and the council strip margin surrounding the lake, and cattle sunbathe themselves and cool off in the lake regularly. So if cattle defecate in a perched lake, that's exactly where it stays, because there is no river to flush that lake."

Ms Furrell said the Department of Conservation and the Far North District Council never bothered to fence the land around the lake.

I think the answer here is obvious: keep the cows out. But its a little late for Lake Waiparera.

New Fisk

If I were the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, I'd be cynical about this state visit

More government spying

Southern Response is a government agency responsible for settling claims arising from the Christchurch earthquakes. They've made a pretty shit job of it, but now they've done something even worse: instead of settling those claims, they've instead been using government money to hire New Zealand's most infamous private spy agency to spy on claimants:

A Newshub investigation has found Christchurch earthquake victims trying to settle insurance claims with the Government were spied on by private investigators, in operations paid for by the taxpayer.


The operation, running from February 2014 to April 2017, cost $177,349 of taxpayers' money. It's not known how many people were spied on, but hundreds of people were involved in protests following the Christchurch quakes.

Cam Preston, a father, chartered accountant, and victim of the Christchurch earthquake, was also deemed a "threat" who needed to be monitored.

Mr Preston was one of the main targets of an operation set up by Southern Response using "protection agency'' Thompson and Clark Investigations.

Yes, that Thompson and Clark Investigations. The ones who have previously been caught spying on Greenpeace and anti-coal activists, and which used illegal tracking devices on animal rights activists. You'd think that after all of these high-profile cases of democracy-suppression, no government agency would touch them with a barge pole. Instead, they're a recommended provider on MBIE's all-of-government procurement site.

Hundreds of people could have been spied on, because they quite rightly wanted what they were owed by their insurance company. The State Services Commission has already launched an inquiry into whether Southern Response breached government ethical standards, but I think we also need to be asking why we allow a company to provide democracy-suppression services in New Zealand, and why our government continues to hire it. We also need to ask who was spied on, what information was collected, and how many other people T&C falsely reported to the police in an effort to discredit them (which is what they did to Preston). Then, we need to hold Thompson & Clark accountable for those crimes.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Another failure of "collaboration"

When they were in power, National liked to use "collaborative processes" to deal with environmental issues. In theory, this means getting environmental advocates and environmental destroyers together in a room, to try and find common ground. In practice, it meant using the collaborative process to silence and suborn "critics" while increasing social licence to pollute. The process used for water fell apart messily, when environmental groups figured out it was a sham, publicly called bullshit and abandoned it. And now another of National's sham collaborations has fallen apart:

The group set up to get agreement for the first marine reserves on the Otago coast has failed to get consensus and handed in two different plans.

Representatives of the fishing industry and environmental lobby say the process has failed and they are bitterly disappointed with the outcome.

The South-East Marine Protection Forum has been meeting for four years to identify areas to protect on the coast between Timaru and Waipapa Point in Southland.


The report spells out two separate proposals, one by the environmental and tourism representatives to protect 14 percent of the coastline (covering 1267sq/km), and the other led by the commercial fishing industry for 4 percent (366sq/km) of the coast.

Neither proposal meets the aim set for the forum of reaching a single proposal to protect parts of all the marine habitats found along the coast, though the first, dubbed Network 1, is much closer.

The central problem here is that there really isn't any middle ground to find. Environmental advocates and the fishing industry have opposed goals, and so "collaboration" was always pointless. All it did was potentially boost social licence for the fishers. And why would anybody want to do that?

The decision on Otago marine reserves is now in the hands of Ministers. Hopefully we'll see something closer to Network 1 than Network 2.

Climate change: The PCE on a climate commission

Before she retired last year, former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright recommended that New Zealand enact a UK-style Climate Change Act, with a legislated long-term target, regular carbon budgets laying out a pathway to meet it, and independent advice and reporting on those targets by a climate commission. The new government has seized on this, and is promising to enact a Zero Carbon Act to implement it. But what would such an arrangement look like in New Zealand? A report from new PCE Simon Upton, A Zero Carbon Act for New Zealand: Revisiting 'Stepping stones to Paris and beyond', gives his views on the detail.

Firstly, Upton is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. But New Zealand is not the UK, and while all parties are in theory committed to stopping climate change, the blunt fact is that we have a less supportive environment for far-reaching change than the UK did when it enacted its legislation. In particular, the new leadership of the National Party has not yet gone on record as supporting strong action, rather than the lukewarm, farmer-protecting foot-dragging it engaged in in office. So this is likely to mean problems both in setting a long-term target, and with the shorter-term budgets.

Institutionally, Upton supports a primarily advisory body, with recommendatory and advisory functions. This seems weak, but the central problem here is one of getting future governments (e.g. a future National-ACT government in 3 - 9 year's time) to do things they do not want to do and which will hurt them politically. The way to do this is to make it institutionally unthinkable not to. It also respects a proper division of responsibility between unelected advisors telling us what we need to do and whether we are doing it hard enough, and democratically elected politicians making the actual decisions and being held accountable at the ballot box for it. While Greenpeace wants the climate change commission to have more teeth and direct executive powers to change ETS settings, what that does in practice is incentivise governments to appoint commissioners who will not exercise such powers - effectively undermining both action and the independence of advice. Its also strongly undemocratic for unelected agencies to be able to act without a democratic mandate in that manner (and the same applies to the Reserve Bank too).

There's some interesting technical suggestions in there about different targets for different gases, and for a six year budget period with an interim report to better align with New Zealand's three-year electoral cycle, and I expect these will be taken seriously by both the government and Parliament in considering the legislation when it eventually emerges.