Friday, May 31, 2013

The end of Peter Dunne?

United Future has been deregistered after failing to attract 500 members. While the party claims it is "temporary" and that it can re-register any time before the next election, no party has come back from de-registration yet. And while Dunne will still be able to contest the Ohariu seat, unregistered parties cannot contest the list vote - which means that there is no prospect of him bringing anyone along with him, and therefore no reason at all now for National to stand aside for him. In other words, we may just have seen the beginning of the end of Peter Dunne's political career.

But while it brings a warm feeling to my heart to see Dunne's demise, the political landscape is now looking a little thin. All told there are now only a dozen registered parties, and three of those - the Alliance, Democrats for Social Credit, and Libertarianz - do not look long for this world (having each received just over a thousand votes last election). While one party (FocusNZ) might possibly gain registration this election cycle, overall we are looking at a pattern of long-term decline. Which isn't exactly healthy for our democracy.

Time for an inquiry into police search and seizures

Another victory for Kim Dotcom, with the High Court ordering police to return the material they had unlawfully seized:

A judge has ordered the police to sift through all digital material taken illegally from Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom and to return anything irrelevant to their investigation- at their own cost.

Clones of hard-drives already sent to the United States must also be returned if they contain personal information, while any further copies must be destroyed, the court ruled.

Dotcom and his co-accused will then receive clones of devices deemed to be relevant to the case.

Good. The police broke the law here, using a search warrant essentially to mount a fishing expedition rather than seize specified items of evidence. Being forced to return what they unlawfully took is the least they should have to do - they should also be compensating Dotcom for their trespass, unlawful search and seizure, and invasion of privacy. But before we cheer too loudly, think about this for a minute: the police apply for thousands of search warrants a year, and the vast majority of people targeted are not wealthy millionaires with high-powered lawyers. How many other cases have they done this on, and how many other people's rights have been violated? Sadly, with the way our police work, we'll never know: they're hardly going to look at the problem themselves, because they don't want to find anything.

..which means the Minister has to do it for them. The Dotcom case has exposed severe problems in how our police go about their everyday business. We deserve to know whether this is an isolated case, or symptomatic of a wider problem. The Minister must call an inquiry into the police's use of search powers, just to make sure they are following the law. And if they are not, then heads must roll.

Foodbanks are a symptom of social disease

The Guardian reports that foodbanks now feed half a million people in the UK. Its a shocking indictement on their welfare "reforms", which have seen benefits slashed and people arbitrarily denied support or pushed off benefits to meet management quotas. But it should also make us wonder how many people in New Zealand are in a similar situation.

Data is hard to come by. Back in 2011 the Herald used stats from the Salvation Army and Auckland City Mission to show rocketing foodbank use, and more recent stories suggest it has increased even further. Part of the story is the recession, and part of it is National's benefit cuts and drive to kick people off benefits in a time of record unemployment, but the truly awful fact is that (on the Herald's conservative numbers) thousands of people - including thousands of children - were dependent on foodbanks even during the boom years when Labour was in power and unemployment was low. Which means that this isn't just about temporary unemployment, its about the adequacy of long-term benefits such as the sickness and domestic purposes benefits, and about low wages. The fact that people were forced to use foodbanks even during a boom tells us that both are stingy and inadequate. And that is an indictment on our society, that we do not properly care for those at the bottom of the heap, and that (contrary to right-wing myth) having a job is not enough protection against poverty.

If John Campbell is looking for a new crusade now he's won the argument on school food, he could do worse than take this on. There is no place for foodbanks in a decent society. The fact that they still exist is a sign of our indecency and squalor. They are a symptom of a social disease of poverty and inequality. Our government should eradicate that disease, and in doing so, put the foodbanks out of business.

There are other honours that need to be stripped

Now that Doug Graham has lost his appeal against his conviction, talk is turning to stripping him of his knighthood. Its a no-brainer - a convicted criminal isn't worthy of recognition, and of course it should be revoked (along with his "Right Honourable" too - though given that that's a reward for a completely foreign institution, its really up to the foreign monarch). But while we're on the topic of stripping honours, there are other undeserving people who have been granted high honours despite (or rather, because of) committing grave crimes against this country: Roger Douglas, Michael Fay, Rod Deane, and the rest of their ilk. If we're going to start stripping honours, we should start with them.

National: Selling out our democratic rights

When National rammed through an emergency law under urgency last month outlawing protests at sea, critics accused them of selling our democratic rights to the oil industry. They were right:

Documents released to Labour under the Official Information Act show Mr Joyce had back-to-back meetings last September with Shell New Zealand chairman Rob Jager, business advisor Chris Kilby and chief executive of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association David Robinson.

Labour energy and resources spokeswoman Moana Mackey said the papers showed the ban on protesting at sea was forged in a meeting with Shell.

"Shell provided a paper to Mr Joyce expressing concern that there was 'insufficient legal authority' to clamp down on offshore protests and that the Government 'has no teeth beyond 12 nautical miles to protect legitimate commercial activity'.

Within a month work began on the changes.''

The government also apparently withheld the Regulatory Impact Statement from Parliament despite being advised to release it, leaving MPs to vote in the dark on this issue.

Just another example of how National is selling out New Zealand - and our democratic rights - to its corporate cronies.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Barbarism in PNG

Over the weekend Papua New Guinea moved to implement its long-dormant death-penalty. Meanwhile, their police are randomly mutilating criminal suspects:

The Papua New Guinea police have arrested an officer over accusations that police used bush knives to sever Achilles tendons of suspects as they were lying on the ground.

Three policemen are claimed to have carried out the violence on suspects who were apprehended in Port Moresby on Saturday.

The police were investigating a violent death and asked the suspects to walk to the Gordon police station because of transport problems.

On their way, the group was allegedly made to lie down and three officers cut the men's tendons.

This is utterly barbaric. But its what you get when your police force is little better than a criminal gang itself. And the PNG government thinks they can be trusted to cope with death penalty cases? I wouldn't trust them to solve a burglary, let alone with the effective power of life and death.

Not doing her job

Back in March, Susan Devoy was appointed as Race Relations Commissioner. From the salaries paid to other members of the Human Rights Commission, she is being paid over $200,000 a year for it. And she's not doing her job.

Devoy's response to Al Nisbet's racist cartoons is basically to shrug her shoulders and say that as it does not meet the threshold for criminal prosecution for inciting racial disharmony, it is not racist and she can (and should) do nothing. Bullshit. This conflates the standard for criminal prosecution - justifiably high in a free and democratic society - with that of social disapproval. But as Race Relations Commissioner she is primarily responsible for the latter, and it is her job to express that disapproval where necessary. But instead of fulfilling her statutory duty to be an advocate for human rights, she's making excuses for racists:

A lot of people agreed with the cartoons, Dame Susan said.

It would be nice if Devoy actually did the job we were paying her for. If she's not willing to do so, she should resign and repay the money we've paid her.

Disproportionate and stupid

So, the government has considered refusing to renew the passports of student loan debtors:

Yesterday appearing before the finance and expenditure committee, Dunne was asked if he had considered going so far as to refuse to renew passports.

"The issue has been considered," Dunne said.

"No firm decisions have been reached on that. There are some obvious potential advantages.

"There are also some disadvantages about what you might describe broadly as human rights issues - the rights of New Zealanders to a passport, but it certainly has been looked at, yes."

No shit. Effectively it would deny freedom of movement - including the right to leave New Zealand, and by implication their right of residency in their host nation - from these people. While that right is subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, that's a very high bar in this situation. How high? Currently the government only claims the right to cancel or refuse to issue passports on the grounds of national security (and that requires an actual case, not just suspicion). Those powers have been used just once in twenty years. Applying them to student loan debtors would be grossly disproportionate.

...not to mention stupid. The existing policy of threatening to arrest student loan debtors at the border already risks turning ex-pats into permanent exiles. I can't think of a better way of cementing that process, of getting them to renounce their citizenship and become permanent citizens of another nation, than to threaten to remove their passports.

Putting the game before the stakes

There were questions in Parliament yesterday over whether United Future leader Peter Dunne had leaked the Kitteridge report into the GCSB to the media. While initially raised by Winston Peters, it is Labour which has been doing most of the questioning in the House, and they're running with it again today, with Chris Hipkins attempting to dig into the investigation into the leak.

Which invites the question: why? After all, this leak was a Good Thing. It exposed malfeasance and possibly criminal behaviour by a government body, putting them under the spotlight and creating some unaccustomed accountability. And Labour wants that punished?

While exposing (or merely tarring) Dunne as the leaker would create discomfort within the government's coalition, it would do so at the cost of chilling further leaks. Its putting politics before policy, the Game before the stakes. Sadly, Labour's apparatchiks no longer seem to know any better.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Britain's Guantanmo

The American disease is spreading: now the UK is holding 80 to 90 people in indefinite detention without trial in Afghanistan

The UK is holding up to 90 Afghan nationals in a facility at Camp Bastion, the Defence Secretary has revealed as lawyers claim unlawful detention of the prisoners.

UK lawyers acting for some of the men said their clients had been held for up to 14 months without charge and compared the revelations to when the public became aware of Guantanamo Bay. They are campaigning for the UK High Court to free them but Philip Hammond has denied that the men were being held illegally, claiming that detentions in Afghanistan are legal under the UN mandate.

But the question isn't whether its legal under the UN mandate - it is whether it is legal under UK law. The UK's Human Rights Act includes the right to be free from arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial, and there is caselaw from the Iraq war making it clear that those rights apply to everything done by British government, no matter where in the world it does it. Which highlights the key difference from Guantanamo: this is not a "legal black hole", beyond the reach of the courts. And it speaks volumes about the government's case that they tried to keep this secret and held these men incommunicado without access to lawyers in an effort to prevent exactly this sort of legal challenge.

The "snooper's charter" wouldn't have helped

The British political establishment is crudely using the Woolwich murder in an effort to revive the "snooper's charter", a plan to tap and store everyone's phone calls and internet traffic "just in case". They say it would have prevented the attack and will keep people safe from terrorism. But it seems the security services disagree:

A Conservative-backed plan to allow police and the security services unprecedented access to people’s internet communications would not have helped prevent the murder of Lee Rigby, M15 officers have indicated.

Senior security sources have told The Independent that attempts to cite last Wednesday’s killing as a reason to push forward with the controversial “snooper’s charter” was a “cheap argument”.

The remarks will be seen as a rebuke to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who suggested at the weekend that the Draft Communications Bill was “essential for the intelligence agencies” to combat the threat of terrorism.

Rather than a useful tool, this is just a naked power grab, an attempt to roll back hard-won rights. They should not be allowed to get away with it.

New Fisk

‘We ran up to the roof. That was when the second missile killed Loulou’: Lebanon is counting the cost in human lives of the Syrian conflict

A backward step in PNG

Papua new Guinea is one of many states which retain the death penalty on their books, but does not ever apply it. Now that may be about to change, with their parliament voting to implement the death penalty and extended it to new crimes:

PAPUA New Guinea will start executing people for aggravated rape, armed robbery or murder, following parliament's passing yesterday of a succession of bills aimed at combating the country's law and order crisis.

The Governor-General will announce the form of execution in each case, on advice from the cabinet - with a choice between electrocution, hanging, lethal injection, suffocation following anaesthetic or firing squad.

Yes, that's right - they're going to smother people and call it justice. A perfect example of how utterly barbaric the death penalty is.

This is a backwards step. Yes, PNG has a crime problem, but mindlessly increasing penalties isn't the solution. "Deterrence" is ineffective when criminals do not fear getting caught. PNG needs to invest in its police force so that they can actually do their jobs, rather than just posturing about being "tough".

Meanwhile, New Zealand currently gives $27 million a year in aid to PNG. I think we should be reconsidering that about now. We should not be supporting murder-states. If they want to kill people, they can pay their own way.

Blaming the Governor-General

Judith Collins' latest excuse for her dodgy appointment of Dr Jackie Blue as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner? Blame the Governor-General:

Collins stressed yesterday that the appointment was made by the governor-general under advice from the minister.

But the important part of that sentence is the last part: the Governor-General acts on the advice of the Minister. He has no discretion in this; the constitutional principle in New Zealand is that if the government handed the Governor-General his own death warrant and advised him to sign it, he must. So, he's not someone you can blame for government decision-making. instead, the person responsible is the Minister who actually makes the decisions - which in this case would be Judith Collins.

I'd expected someone like Judith Collins to own her own decisions. Sadly, it seems that the "individual responsibility" she so often preaches only applies to other people. When push comes to shove, she's just another blame-shifting coward - just like her former colleague Aaron Gilmore.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Blue appointment

Labour is alleging that Judith Collins ignored proper process to appoint Jackie Blue as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. having received the appointment documents last week and gone through them, I wasn't so sure - Collins seems to have followed a normal process (for her) of approving an appointments process, sitting on her arse for months, selecting the shortlist herself, and appointing the recommended person. But then there's this:

Responding to Labour's written questions about National MP Ms Blue's appointment last month, the Justice Minister initially said she didn't discuss the job with Dr Blue until after October 13. She later changed her answer, saying Dr Blue approached her about the job in September and gave her a CV.

"I agreed to find out whether it was appropriate for a sitting MP to put her name forward and, if I was satisfied, then the CV would be submitted to the ministry," Ms Collins said.

Which puts things in a rather different light. The public advertisement said applications closed on 13 October 2012. Blue didn't formally apply until mid November. That in itself isn't a problem - I've looked at a lot of appointment paper-trails over the last few years, and it is quite common for departments to accept late applications. But then there's this: when Collins finally gets around to selecting a shortlist, she indicates Jackie Blue should be interviewed (pg 6), and then just to make sure the Secretary of Justice (who is on the interview panel) gets the message, she writes Blue's name in the space for "any other candidates". Which to me looks like giving a clear steer to the interview panel.

(Also, given the secrecy around the other candidates, we have no idea whether Collins selected the strongest candidates, or deliberately selected weaker ones so that Blue would be the unquestioned recommendation of the panel. Its a question she needs to be made to answer, on the record, about both this and every other appointment she has made).

SSC's advice on the process (sought after Blue applied) stressed that
The management of any possible perception issues is best effected through the operation of a fair and proper process supporting the appointment. This would include a careful consideration by the panel of the qualities, experience, and skills of applicants against the EEO Commissioners role requirements

By involving herself so deeply in the appointment process and selecting the shortlist herself, Collins has fatally undermined that perception. At the first sign of this conflict of interest, she should have removed herself from the process, and let the Ministry do the shortlist and select the interview panel. Her failure to do that is suspicious. The tragedy here is that Blue would otherwise be a strong candidate for the job; Collins' control-freakery and contempt for process has undermined her reputation and appointment. Collins owes her a grovelling apology.

[Further documents on the Blue appointment can be found here]


Judith Collins' crusade to be "tough on crime" continues, with a new Objectionable Publications and Indecency Legislation Bill. The bill kicks child pornographers in an effort to grub votes increases the penalties for making, importing, and possessing objectionable publications, makes prosecutions easier by removing the requirement for the consent of the Attorney-General, and introduces a new offences of "indecent communication with a young person under 16". While there's some good ideas in here, in general the bill is a mindless kneejerk aimed at appearing "tough on crime", which distorts the justice system and will chill online communication.

While the government's rhetoric arond the bill is all about "child pornography", the legal definition of "objectionable" is somewhat wider than this, covering not just non-consensual and extremely degrading or dehumanising sexual practices, but also anything "injurious to the public good", including material encouraging crime, racism, or terrorism. A complete list of the books deemed objectionable is here; it includes books on how to grow marijuana, The Anarchist Cookbook, and a Cradle of Filth t-shirt. It also includes a large backlog of material banned in the 60's and 70's about homosexuality, polyamory, and interracial relationships which would never be considered "objectionable" today. So, the government isn't just kicking child pornographers - it is also kicking bookshop owners, heavy metal fans, and people who want changes to our drug laws (sadly I suspect that Collins' target demographic doesn't draw much of a distinction). And at this stage its worth mentioning that the bills' Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF] does not mention freedom of speech or the Bill of Rights Act once.

But even looking at it purely from a "fighting child pornography" perspective, the bill is still a mess. As the RIS points out, the proposal to increase penalties creates a perverse situation whereby making or distributing indecent material carries a higher penalty than the physical crime it depicts. For example, performing an indecent act with a child under 12 currently carries a penalty of 10 years imprisonment. Under the bill, filming it (or importing or distributing a depiction of it) will carry a penalty of 14 years. Sexual connection with a child under 16 carries a penalty of 7 years. Mere posession (a strict liability offence) of a depiction of it will send you to jail for 10. When depiction is punished more severely than the underlying physical offence, then something is deeply screwed up.

But worse, the bill creates a new offence of Indecent communication with young person under 16. What's an "indecent communication"? Sorry, its not legally defined. Which means that its down to ordinary police officers to decide, with no real guidance. As some of those police officers are fundamentalist Christian bigots, we're going to get some horror stories from this. i already have people asking me whether it is safe to link (an "indirect communication" with any 16-year olds who are reading) to sex education material, and its quite conceivable that the wrong police officer could decide that that's "indecent" and bring a prosecution - and there will be no check on them doing so. Previously, objectionable materials and indecency cases have required the Attorney-General's consent to prosecute. The bill removes that protection for all but private prosecutions, basically putting us at the mercy of ordinary plods (it does the same for the existing indecent object offence, meaning we can probably expect a police prosecution next time something like Piss Christ or Virgin in a Condom is displayed in New Zealand).

Such an uncertain law can only have a chilling effect on communication. It would be vastly improved by retaining the consent to prosecution protection for the indecency offences.

Winning the argument on food in schools

The government has finally bowed to the inevitable and introduced a school breakfast programme, directly funding Fonterra and Sanitarium's KickStart Breakfast programme and increasing their contribution to KidsCan for other assistance. Its a welcome move, which will do some good (though its worth pointing out that much of the problem it is trying to counteract is a direct consequence of the NeoLiberal policies pursued by National). So how does it stack up against Hone's Feed the kids bill?

Its mixed. While National's programme is wider in scope than that of the bill (applying to decile 1 to 4 rather than only decile 1 and 2), it only provides breakfast, not breakfast and lunch. Participation is voluntary, both on a school and individual level. On a school level, it means that uptake could be spotty. On an individual one, it still leaves us with the problem of stigmatisation that a universal, state-funded programme was supposed to solve. There's no nutritional guidelines, monitoring or evaluation. But most importantly, it is all grace and favour. The government has made this money available now, but they could just as easily cut it in future (and of course the money they provide doesn't have to be adequate for anything other than PR). Hone's bill imposed a statutory requirement, including a requirement to fund it, effectively creating an enforceable right. It is therefore much preferable to National's programme (which will now of course be used as an excuse to vote it down).

Still, its been a massive shift: the left has effectively won the argument on this, and forced the government to make some sort of response. While not everything we would have hoped for, it will do some good, and make it that much easier to establish a statutory programme later.

Monday, May 27, 2013

So much for "mum and dad investors" II

So, it turns out that National didn't just lie about their investors in Mighty River Power being ordinary kiwis - they lied about them even being people:

The 113,000 so called "mum and dad" investors who bought Mighty River shares earlier this month included companies, trusts and investment institutions Treasury has confirmed.


Today Treasury confirmed to NewstalkZB that those 113,000 investors, "could include companies, trusts or New Zealand investment institutions that did not wish to participate in the Institutional Offer and so chose to apply through the General Offer".

Treasury's admission comes just a few days after it revealed to the Green Party that half the shares in the retail offer went to just 13,000 investors and 10 per cent went to just 400 who made an average investment of almost $250,000 each.

Again this shows that rather than being a way of spreading wealth to all, National's privatisations were a means to further concentrate it in the hands of the corporate class. They took something which belonged to all of us, and which benefited all of us, and gave it to their donors and cronies. And we'll be paying for that greed for a long time to come.

The expected over-reaction

As surely as night follows day, Britain's political establishment is using the murder of Lee Rigby to grab more power, pushing for bans on non-violent political groups, widespread political web censorship, and of course their old favourite of recording everyone's phone and web traffic "just in case" they're a "terrorist" (a shifting definition which now seems to include people who expose how MI5 harassment may have contributed to one of the suspects' radicalisation). One murder, and Britain seems to be rushing headlong into becoming a police state.

If the goal of the terrorists is, as advocates of the endless "war on terror" keep telling us, "to destroy our freedom", then the British political establishment seem to be active collaborators. But then, they've never been very comfortable with our freedom anyway - it had to be won from them piece by piece, over centuries, with blood and votes. And to them, the "war on terror" is just a convenient excuse to take those hard-won freedoms back, and subjugate us once again.

Aussie tax cheats

So, it seems that many of Australia's top companies are tax cheats:

Almost two-thirds of Australia’s top 100 companies listed on the stock exchange have subsidiaries in tax havens or low-tax jurisdictions, a new report shows.

Thirteen of the top 20 companies, including two of the big four banks, have entities in well-known tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda.

A Uniting Church report, Secrecy Jurisdictions, the ASX100 and Public Transparency, reveals 61 of the top 100 companies held subsidiaries in ‘‘secrecy jurisdictions’’ as of April 2011 that have been targeted by tax authorities for sheltering companies dodging tax.

News Corporation, Westfield and the Goodman Group were among the worst offenders, the group said, holding more than 50 entities in low-tax jurisdictions each.

The report shows that while many of the companies may do legitimate business in low-tax jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, many subsidiaries exist with little evidence of commercial activity.

This should be a concern to us because Australia's top companies are our top companies. Westfield, Goodman, AMP, Toll and Fairfax all do business here - and if they're ripping off the Australian government, you can bet they're ripping off ours. And in the process, they're ripping off you and me, robbing us of the money we need to pay for schools and hospitals.

UK MP Margaret Hodge is right: this is a moral issue. These companies benefit from our government and the stable, functioning society it provides. And yet they are refusing to pay for it. They are simply parasites, and they need to be made to pay their fair share like the rest of us do.

New Fisk

Gunmen face off in Tripoli as sectarian battle escalates
Hezbollah’s war in Syria threatens to engulf Lebanon

The GCSB has been spying on all of us

The Herald had a major story over the weekend, revealing that in 2000 - 2001 the GCSB tested US spy software on the New Zealand public:

A high-tech United States surveillance tool which sweeps up all communications without a warrant was sent to New Zealand for testing on the public, according to an espionage expert.

The tool was called ThinThread and it worked by automatically intercepting phone, email and internet information.

ThinThread was highly valued by those who created it because it could handle massive amounts of intercepted information. It then used snippets of data to automatically build a detailed picture of targets, their contacts and their habits for the spy organisation using it.

Those organisations were likely to include the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) after Washington, DC-based author Tim Shorrock revealed ThinThread was sent to New Zealand for testing in 2000-2001.

So much for the GCSB's claim that they focus on foreign intelligence - they've been spying on us all along, trawling our traffic to build up pictures of our lives to give to the Americans. And its not just metadata - according to the description on ThinThread in this article, it intercepted actual communications, then encrypted them for storage until they were identified as being "of interest". So they were recording our phone calls and emails too.

All of this would have become illegal under the Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003, but National's new spy law would make it legal again. Unfortunately, the successors to ThinThread seem to be even more invasive - basically recording everything, just in case someone, somewhere is a terrorist. If they're allowed to do that, then we will have domestic surveillance more omnipresent than that of the notorious Stasi.

We cannot permit this. The mere existence of such systems chills free expression. As East Germany showed, you cannot have a free society where people are afraid to talk to one another. We cannot let that happen here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Still questions about the Devoy appointment

Last week, when I was busy with other things, I finally received a (late) response to my Official Information Act request about Susan Devoy's appointment as Race Relations Commissioner. The Herald has already covered the main point - that Devoy was in fact the second choice of a second round of interviews, after Michael Jones - but assuming they got the same documents that I did they missed a few things.

Firstly, the process. The Ministry of Justice sent Judith Collins a standard briefing on the need to advertise the appointment in June 2012, and a briefing summarising the applications received in mid-July (not scanned, because its basically a duplicate of the October document below). But also in the paper trail is a rather interesting pair of undated files notes in which Collins basically sets out to undermine the process she has already set in train. The first - dated by the Minister in her response as "circa August 2012" - talks openly about the need for "broadening the pool" of applicants. Exactly who wanted this broader pool and why is sadly redacted as a "free and frank" expression of opinion; but given that it is the Minister who makes the decisions we must assume that it came from her. As for why, we already know that it was not an issue of candidate quality - high quality candidates were summarily ignored. So it must be for some other reason. The Minister needs to answer some questions about this.

(If it was Collins, then the decision to withhold this as "free and frank opinion" is dodgy. Ministers can and should be expected to be held accountable for their views)

In the second undated file note ("circa October 2012", according to the Minister), the Minister discusses contacting alternative candidates before a single interview has been conducted. Which raises serious doubts as to whether the subsequent interviews were carried out in good faith.

In October 2012 the Ministry sent Collins a second briefing, basically a hurry up, asking her to select a short-list for interview. Some people may find it odd for a Minister to be taking such a close interest in the process, rather than letting the Ministry make recommendations, but as a remarkably frank email released in response to a similar request about Jackie Blue's appointment noted, "[t]he Minister's preference is to perform that task herself". Because all the names and candidate details have been redacted, we do not know if Collins selected the strongest candidates or the weakest ones (but again note that some very strong candidates were not even interviewed). What we do know is that the interview panel found both of Collins' shortlisted candidates to be unsuitable. (Devoy was subsequently the second choice of a second-round of interviews; the report of her interview panel is here)

Secondly, Devoy claimed not to remember who had asked her to apply for the job. But as this email shows, it was a Ministry of Justice staffer acting on the orders of Secretary for Justice Andrew Bridgman. There is no paper trail on who asked Bridgman to contact her, but we can only assume that it was Collins.

Thirdly, there's the issue of the Paris Principles. This is a set of rules the UN uses to rate national human rights institutions like our Human Rights Commission, and one of the fundamentals is that those bodies must be independent of the government. The October briefing to the Minister sets out the fundamentals: a transparent appointments process, and representation from civil society on the interview panel. It is questionable whether a process in which candidates are shoulder-tapped qualifies as "transparent". As for the second criteria, it is highly questionable whether an SOE-chair counts as a "civil society" representative rather than a government appointee, and their independence is certainly questionable. Collins may have put the Human Rights Commission's A-status accreditation with the UN at risk with her actions. If it is downgraded, we will know exactly who to blame.

Britain collaborated in rendition

Who'd have thunk it? Britain collaborate din US rendition far more than they have admitted:

The UK's support for the CIA's global rendition programme after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US was far more substantial than has previously been recognised, according to a new research project that draws on a vast number of publicly available data and documentation.

Evidence gathered by The Rendition Project – an interactive website that maps thousands of rendition flights – highlight 1,622 flights in and out of the UK by aircraft now known to have been involved in the agency's secret kidnap and detention programme.

While many of those flights may not have been involved in rendition operations, the researchers behind the project have drawn on testimony from detainees, Red Cross reports, courtroom evidence, flight records and invoices to show that at least 144 were entering the UK while suspected of being engaged in rendition operations.

When the media first revealed that the US was using the UK as a stopover point for renditions, Home Secretary jack Straw called it a conspiracy theory:
Straw told the same MPs that media reports of UK involvement in the mistreatment of detainees were "in the realms of the fantastic". Documentation subsequently disclosed in the high court in London showed that Straw had consigned British citizens to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba after they were detained in Afghanistan in 2001.

So basically the UK government made a secret alliance with the US to facilitate kidnapping and torture. The politicians responsible need to be held accountable for it. And the best way of doing that is to put them on trial before an international court for all the world to see.

So much for "mum and dad investors"

When National first moved to privatise Mighty River Power, it promised that the shares would go to "mum and dad investors", ordinary kiwis. Naturally, they lied:

A small number of wealthy investors including businesses and trusts snapped up nearly half the Mighty River Power shares set aside for retail buyers, sparking accusations the Government's sales pitch about selling to "mum and dad investors" was a cynical ploy.

An analysis of the partial float reveals that 101,000 "mum and dad" shareholders were allocated just 13.4 per cent of the former state- owned enterprise. Roughly the same amount went to a much smaller group of wealthy investors, charities, businesses and superannuation funds.

The figures, confirmed by Treasury, show that of the 113,000 retail investors who paid $912 million for shares at $2.50 each, 12,844 buyers who represented the top 10.9 per cent bought roughly half the retail pool. They invested an average $34,618.

Of those, a select sub- group of 394 investors bought $90m worth of shares in parcels of more than 100,000 shares - an average investment of $228,865

This is who National considers to be "ordinary kiwi mums and dads": the top 10% of the 2%. Or as the rest of us should know them, the 0.2%. As for the rest of us, we don't even feature in their worldview except as a peasant to be abused. If you don't have $30,000 sitting in the bank to steal a portion of a state-owned asset, then you're nobody to them.

Far from being a way of spreading wealth to all, National's privatisation was just a way of rewarding their rich cronies. And we'll all be paying for it - not just through higher power prices, but through the harmful social effects of the higher inequality it has caused.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Still losing the war on P

The latest Indicators and Progress Report for the Government’s Tackling Methamphetamine Action Plan [PDF] is out, and naturally the government is trying to put a positive spin on things and claim that it is winning its war on P. But while there's some good news - overall usage has reduced as P has become unfashionable and people have realised that its no fun turning into a raving psychopath - the core indicators around price and availability have remained unchanged. Methamphetamine still costs around $100 a point or $700 a gram, with possible a slight reduction in the bulk price. The price of precursors for cooking has dropped by around 25%, from $12 - $16,000 to $8 - $12,000. Availability is pretty much static. If that's "victory", then its a "victory" which changes nothing.

Meanwhile, we're pissing tens of millions of dollars a year away on an approach which is manifestly not working. It is a futile waste of time, money, and people's lives. There has to be a better way than this.

Selling out the conservation estate

So, as expected Nick Smith has granted Bathurst Resources an access agreement to turn the Denniston Plateau into a giant open-cast coal mine. But don't worry! The government is getting paid for it!

“The loss of conservation values is compensated by a $22 million package by Bathurst Resources. This will fund pest and predator control over 25,000 hectares of the Heaphy River catchment in the Kahurangi National Park, 4,500 hectares on and around the Denniston Plateau, as well as for historic projects on the Plateau itself. This is the largest ever compensation package negotiated by DOC for a mine or other commercial venture.

In other words, Nick Smith has just agreed to effectively sell part of our conservation estate for thirty pieces of silver. Not that he actually sold it, of course, because that would require a much tougher assessment, so instead he's leasing it for the purpose of being destroyed.

It will be interesting to see what the official advice says about this. Access agreements to Crown land must have regard to "the objectives of any Act under which the land is administered" (in this case "to promote the conservation of New Zealand's natural and historic resources") and to the purpose for which the land is held. And the advice will emerge - either under the OIA or as part of discovery in the inevitable application for judicial review. If its not absolutely bulletproof, than it will be overturned. And on that front the mere timing of the decision - the day before greater consultation requirements were due to come into force - provides prima facie evidence of bad faith on the part of the Minister. The last thing he wanted was the public being given a chance to have our say on the issue.

Where the bloody hell are we?

Australia has joined the Open Government Partnership, an international body dedicated to greater government openness and transparency. Meanwhile, what do we have from New Zealand? Silence. We missed the initial launch because Murray McCully was "busy" (likely paying attention to rugby). Since then there's been an internal note from MFAT [PDF] talking about the need to consider the issue, but apparently no further progress. This despite an acknowledgement that "the goals and principles of OGP are in line with the commitment of the New Zealand Government to transparency and openness" and a warning that

There are risks that New Zealand's absence from OGP may become increasingly glaring as membership expands, especially given our existing reputation for transparency and openness.

I think we're well past that point. We're being left behind by the Australians on this. Given their record on government secrecy, we should be seriously embarrassed.

Fallow on privatisation

Writing in the Herald, Brian Fallow assesses the future of the government's privatisation plans. His conclusion? Not good. The Labour-Greens proposed monopsony combined with uncertainty over the future of Tiwai Point means that

In these circumstances for the Government to press ahead with the selldown of the SOEs turns a policy that was merely kind of pointless - a solution in search of a problem - to one that is either cynical or bloody-minded.

But what about their public justifications for selling? None of them stack up. With high unemployment and rock-bottom interest rates, reducing debt isn't the highest priority, and there's no evidence that SOE's are badly run (by contrast, the problems seem to occur when they are privatised, or in the case of Solid Energy, when they act as if they have been). Finally, there's a real risk that bringing new suckers into the sharemarket encouraging new first-time investors will backfire horribly and just be a (money-losing, for those first-time investors) way of hiding eventual foreign ownership.

But, as Fallow said, the policy is cynical and blood-minded. They're selling because they've said they'll sell - not because its actually in the best interests of New Zealand.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

McDonald's: Wage-thieves

Wage-theft - workers not being paid what they are owed - is endemic in the US fast food industry, and is now the subject of a major criminal investigation in New York. Sadly, it turns out New Zealand fast food restraunts aren't immune, with McDonalds accused of stealing $2.5 million from its workers:

Unite are submitting an employment authority case against McDonald’s today for unpaid breaks that the union estimates has resulted in unpaid wages of $2.5 million.

"We have wage and time records from two stores (one a McCopco store and one a franchisee) for the last four months that confirm a consistent pattern of not paying for lost lunch breaks – as they are required to do under the collective agreement," said Unite National Director Mike Treen.


"We have done a calculation for the two stores and we estimate the unpaid breaks for all staff to be $2700 for each store for the four months. Multiply that by 6 to cover the two-year collective agreement, and again by 160 to cover every store in the country – and the total owed is $2.5 million.

That cheap burger you're eating? It's cheap because McDonald's steals from its workers. Throw it away and buy from somewhere that pays people properly instead.

Climate change: China agrees to a cap

Big news on the climate change front: China has agreed to cap its greenhouse gas emissions from 2016:

The battle against global warming has received a transformational boost after China, the world's biggest producer of carbon dioxide, proposed to set a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions for the first time.

Under the proposal China, which is responsible for a quarter of the world's carbon emissions, would put a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions from 2016, in a bid to curb what most scientists agree is the main cause of climate change.

It marks a dramatic change in China's approach to climate change that experts say will make countries around the world more likely to agree to stringent cuts to their carbon emissions in a co-ordinated effort to tackle global warming.

China has no cap up until now due to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities - that those historically responsible for the problem need to act first to clean it up. Despite agreeing to this principle in the UNFCCC, the US has used China's uncapped emissions to justify inaction and frustrate global climate change talks for a decade. Now the ball is firmly in their court. I wonder what excuse they'll use now?

(My guess: start whinging about India. Because the US's position was never about fairness and was always about undermining international agreements)

Unlawful, unjustified and unreasonable

On October 15 2007, the New Zealand Police conducted a series of "anti-terrorist raids" around the country. In the Bay of Plenty town of Ruatoki they terrorised the community, with armed police conducting searches and searching every vehicle going in and out. Effectively, they acted like an army of occupation invading a hostile area. Now, six years on, the Independent police Conduct Authority has found that their actions were "unlawful, unjustified and unreasonable":

Independent Police Conduct Authority Chair Judge Sir David Carruthers said today that the decision by the then Commissioner of Police to undertake the operation in Ruatoki Valley and elsewhere on 15 October 2007 was reasonable and justified.

“However, the road blocks established by Police at Ruatoki and Taneatua were unlawful, unjustified and unreasonable. While Police were warranted in taking steps to address possible risk to public safety there was no justification for believing there was a general threat to the people of Ruatoki.

“Police had no legal basis for stopping and searching vehicles or photographing drivers or passengers,” he said.

In addition police unlawfully detained and searched other residents at properties where they were executing search warrants.

All of this raises the question of whether police will personally apologise to and compensate those whose rights they systematically violated, and whether the officers responsible will be disciplined or sacked. Sadly, the police seem to be in their usual mode of denying they did anything wrong, so that seems unlikely. Their refusal to do so can only continue to undermine the reputation of the police as an institution, and the willingness of the public to cooperate with them - just as it continues to do so over Arthur Allen Thomas.

I'm also left with a question: the IPCA has found that police illegally photographed people at roadblocks (something the police are in denial over). Has that illegally gathered information been destroyed, or has it been databased somewhere, allowing the police to continue to benefit from the fruits of their crime?

(The full report is here [PDF])

Something to go to in Wellington

Want to know more about illegal GCSB spying and the new powers it is trying to grab? Journalist Nicky Hager, former MP Keith Locke and lawyer Michael Bott will be discussing these problems at a public meeting in Wellington next week:

When: 18:00, Monday 27 May
Where: Mezzanine Room, Wellington Central Library

A living wage for Hamilton

The Hamilton City Council has voted to adopt a living wage for all its staff:

Hamilton City Council has become the first in the country to vote in favour of paying its staff what campaigners have called the living wage.

Councillors on Tuesday voted eight to five in favour of paying $18.40 an hour to staff currently earning less.

As a result, 80 workers will get a pay rise in the next two years at an estimated eventual cost of $168,000 a year.

Good. Councils, like other employers, should pay their staff enough to live a dignified life. Unfortunately there's a big gap around contractors, who aren't employed by the council and so don't benefit from this - so the next step is to adopt that as a requirement for all contracted services. Which will incidentally remove the "race to the bottom", hire-the-same-staff-and-pay-them-less model which currently drives contracting out, so it will kill two birds with one stone.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Charter schools = quack schools

Who wants to run a charter school? Quacks and loons, according to the PPTA:

A list of organisations that have expressed interest in running charter schools has been outed, revealing a high proportion of religious groups, including a Manawatu church arguing it has the right to teach creationism using taxpayer money because state schools teach evolution.

The Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) has defended its decision to print the list in this month's edition of its members' magazine, which names 21 organisations that registered interest - almost half of them religious groups - with president Angela Roberts arguing that the process had been shrouded in secrecy.

Attempts to identify which organisations had registered interest were previously stonewalled.

The full list is here [PDF, p. 7]. In addition to the quacks and loons, there's also four Maori trusts and a cramming service (so we know how they'll get results). A handful of the applicants look credible, but then there's the obvious question of why they don't just set up a private school (or arrange with parents to lobby for a designated character school or Kura Kaupapa Maori instead).

As for the quacks and loons: it is absolutely inappropriate that taxpayers money is used to provide religious education. These groups are simply looking for a massive taxpayer subsidy for proselytising. And that's not something anyone should support.


So, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security has concluded that the GCSB did not actually break any laws. Colour me unsurprised. The Inspector-General is a total captive of the agencies he is supposed to be overseeing, reliant on them for support and information. Meanwhile, he's barred from inquiring into anything which is "operationally sensitive", which can be redefined by the agency at will to mushroom him. The net result: a paper "watchdog", who is no check and balance at all.

So its not really surprising that the Inspector-General echoes the GCSB's line that everything is fine and that the law is "unclear". "Nothing to see here, move along, and by the way we'll be having some extra spy powers thanks".

Meanwhile, we're expected to simultaneously believe that

all of the cases were based on serious issues including potential weapons of mass destruction development, people smuggling, foreign espionage in New Zealand and drug smuggling.

but also that
no arrest, prosecution or any other legal processes have occurred as a result of the information supplied to NZSIS by the GCSB.

Which if taken at face value means that someone is not doing their fucking job. Drug smuggling, people smuggling, WMD development and foreign espionage are all crimes punishable by severe penalties (basically 14 years to life imprisonment, unless the drugs smuggled are class C or lower). And they did all that spying and yet didn't manage to prosecute anyone? that suggests either incompetent prosecutors, or that the net is being cast too wide and that people's privacy is being invaded for no good reason. Either way, heads should roll.

Tax cheats don't like criticism

So, it turns out that the tax cheats don't like being called on their crimes:

The bosses of some of Britain's largest multinational corporations have urged David Cameron to stop moralising and rein in his rhetoric on tax avoidance ahead of a G8 summit next month.

Chief executives of companies such as Burberry, Tesco, Vodafone, BAE Systems, Prudential and GSK were keen to take a final opportunity to lobby the prime minister in advance of the meeting of political leaders in Northern Ireland.

Cameron has pledged to use Britain's G8 presidency to tackle aggressive tax avoidance by multinationals, but is also keen to heed the counsel of his business advisory group, which he met with on Monday.

Firstly, this shows that the strategy of naming and shaming tax cheats is working - it has made people aware of the problem, and it has encouraged them to do something about it. Just as no-one likes buying from a company which kills a thousand of its workers due to shoddy construction, no-one likes buying from a tax-cheat. Companies who trade on their reputation will need to be squeaky clean on the tax front, and make sure they are not using aggressive evasion tactics.

But secondly, it speaks volumes about the sociopathic character of major corporate executives that they think the response to this is to stop politicians talking about it rather than clean up their own act. These companies have no intention of paying their fair share of taxes - hell, in some cases their profitability depends on them not doing so. Which means we need government to force them. The question is whether government works for us, or the tax-cheats.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Not acceptable

It seems that while Tim Groser has been gallavanting around the world unsuccessfully campaigning to get himself a better job, he's been ignoring things at home - including such basics as answering OIA requests:

New Zealand First says Trade Minister Tim Groser’s refusal to acknowledge or answer Official Information Act (OIA) requests, brings the Minister’s performance of him and his office into question.

Associate spokesperson for Trade Andrew Williams says the Minister has so far failed to respond to five different OIA requests dating back to November 2012.

“While Mr Groser was off traveling the world at the tax-payer’s expense, trying to sure-up support for his failed WTO bid, his office has been failing to act on numerous OIA requests.

This is simply unacceptable. The OIA is not optional - it is the law. Ministers are legally required to respond to requests as soon as practicable, with 20 working days as the upper limit. And they should not be putting their personal career advancement before their legal obligations to the people of New Zealand.

Sadly, there's no penalty for breaking this law, and given the constant underfunding of the Ombudsman's office, complaining about late requests is pointless (for a start, it won't make them arrive on time). The only way this disease can be cured is by naming and shaming Ministers who ignore the law, so that voters can hold them accountable for their performance at the ballot box.

No asset sales in Christchurch

Some good news: Christchurch won't be selling its assets to fund the rebuild. They've looked at their finances, and drawn the sensible conclusion that its both unnecessary and stupid. They'd rather have the income to keep rates down long-term than a one-off cash infusion (and financial problems further down the track).

But they still have one problem: Gerry Brownlee:

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says there's a $600 million gap between what his city is prepared to spend on new projects, such as a convention centre, and what the Government wants.

Speaking on Firstline this morning, Mr Parker said the council has asked the community what it wants and how much it's prepared to spend, but the Government is pushing for more.

"Over a year ago, council ran a budget through a consultation with its community, and it said – take for example, the convention centre – that we would rebuild the convention centre, make it a little bit bigger, and build it on the old site," says Mr Parker.

"The Government plan came through and said no, we want it to be 50 percent bigger than you're planning to do, and we want it to be on a central city site, a different place about 500m closer into the heart of the city.

What gets built in Christchurch should be up to the people of Christchurch, not dictated by a Minister in Wellington. Sadly National still doesn't seem to understand this fundamental concept of democracy. The question is whether they will invoke CERA powers to force Christchurch to sell its assets to pay for infrastructure they don't want.

New Fisk

Where else but Northern Ireland would a killer on a school board even be mooted as a possibility?

Worse than I thought

One of the more odious features of Fiji's military dictatorship is its use of "ouster clauses", purportedly denying the jurisdiction of the courts to review its illegal policies. Such clauses have a long and dubious history in military dictatorships. But now National is using them here. Their New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Bill (No 2) - a discriminatory bill specifically intended to overturn the family carer's victory in Atkinson & Others v Ministry of Health, rammed through the House under all-stages urgency on Friday - includes an ouster clause purportedly denying the courts jurisdiction to review decisions made under it on human rights grounds:

On and after the commencement of this Part, no complaint based in whole or in part on a specified allegation [one that a decision under the Act discriminates on the grounds of marital status, disability, age or family status] may be made to the Human Rights Commission, and no proceedings based in whole or in part on a specified allegation may be commenced or continued in any court or tribunal.

As for cases that got in before then, apart from Atkinson, they are denied any effective remedy. The result is effectively to excise the Act from the jurisdiction of the courts, giving the government a free hand to discriminate on those grounds in its policies over home care, regardless of the Human Rights Act.

This is a direct attack on the rule of law, a direct attack on our constitution, and a direct attack on the rights of all of us. After all, if the government feels that it can excise family carers and the disabled from the Human Rights Act, what's to stop them from doing it to the rest of us? What's to stop them from excising our right to free speech, free assembly, or our right to vote? Nothing. The problem is what to do about it.

The immediate solution is to throw this government out on their arses at the next election. This is simply the latest in a long line of constitutional abuses, and they have clearly shown that they cannot be trusted with power. In the long term, we need to make sure that this can never happen again. And that means entrenching the Bill of Rights Act as supreme law and allowing laws which purport to contravene it to be overturned. Half-measures such as declarations of inconsistency and mandatory reporting will no longer cut it anymore. Parliament has shown that it will not act to guard our fundamental human rights. They have betrayed our trust. It is therefore time to take that role off them and give it to a body which can be trusted: the courts.

[Hat-tip: Andrew Geddis]

Friday, May 17, 2013

National's "innovation" agenda

The government has been trumpeting its support for science, claiming that it is investing $200 million of new funding over the next four years. Half of this is going on business R&D grants, but of the other half they're highlighting $73.5 million for their "National Science Challenges" and an extra $20 million for the Marsden Fund. But as usual for this government, its all spin and bullshit.

First, lets look at overall science funding, as laid out in the Estimate of Appropriations for Vote: Science and Innovation [PDF]. Core departmental funding? Cut from $33 to $29.6 million. Research funding (which includes both the Marsden Fund and various other specific categories of research, as well as core CRI funding)? Cut from $741.5 to $686.5 million. Overall they've sucked over $55 million out of science and innovation. They've introduced some new categories of funding - the "National Science Challenges" - and boosted the Marsden Fund. But those have come at the expense of much deeper cuts elsewhere.

And as for those "National Science Challenges": $73.5 million over 4 years equals $18.375 million a year. And there are ten of them, so each of these "priority areas" gets a mere $1.84 million in funding a year. That doesn't buy a hell of a lot of scientists, or a hell of a lot of science. But announcing it does buy headlines, which is all National is after.

This government is not supporting science - it is cutting it (oh, except for "energy and minerals research" - the miners and oil drillers keep their hidden subsidy). And in the process, they are cutting the future of this country. And you do not need to be a scientist to figure that out.

Another abuse of urgency

Parliament is currently in urgency to pass budget-related legislation. Usually, this is justified - for example, when raising taxes, or sending major policies to select committee. However, the government has included two bills in the urgency motion (for all-stages passage, no less), which do not seem to be justified.

The first - the Crown Minerals Amendment Act 2013 Amendment Bill - is a patch-up job on the Crown Minerals Amendment Bill they rammed through just a few weeks ago. It seems that National was in such a hurry they left significant flaws in the legislation. However, that in itself does not justify no select-committee scrutiny, especially when the amendments won't come into force for up to two years. There's plenty of time to send this to committee and make sure they're doing it properly this time. But to add insult to injury, the bill expands the Anadarko Amendment to apply to waters above the continental shelf but outside our EEZ - a legislative grab which may not be supported in international law (and which has BORA implications). Given the lack of scrutiny for the original amendments, you'd think this deserved some.

The second - the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Bill (No 2) - is worse. This is the government's response to the family carers in Atkinson & Others v Ministry of Health, and it is aimed at overturning that court victory so the government can pay family carers less than anyone else. The Attorney-General has given it a negative section 7 report on the grounds that it unlawfully discriminates on the basis of family status (not online yet), but it is being rammed through under all-stages urgency. Worse, the bill's Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF] - the primary mechanism for informing MPs of the consequences of their legislative actions - has been heavily redacted. So MPs are being expected to decide on a bill with serious human rights implications, in the absence of the legal advice which would tell them whether they are making the right choice.

Again, this is unacceptable. Human rights should not be violated under urgency, and to do so makes a mockery of the BORA's reporting process and again calls into question Parliament's right to legislate in this area. They are trusted to do so on the basis that they will only violate the BORA after thinking long and hard about it; every time they refuse to do that, they simply strengthen the case to take that right off them by making the BORA supreme law and giving the Supreme Court the power to overturn MP's lazy excesses. As for the RIS, it makes a mockery of the claim that Parliament's consent to this law is in any way "informed" - and by doing so it undermines the legitimacy not just of the law, but of Parliament as an institution. If Parliament is simply mushroomed by the government, then its votes carry no weight, and the laws it passes aren't. Its that simple. National's continued contempt for Parliamentary process is in danger of undermining our entire democracy. We should not let them get away with it.

Austerity kills

Back in 2009, The Spirit Level showed why that cherished right-wing value, inequality, was bad for everyone (including the very rich the right-wing project is supposed to benefit). Now another book has done the same for that cherished right-wing policy, austerity.

The Body Economic by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu looks at the effects of government austerity on public health. The conclusion? Austerity kills. Arbitrary cuts to health, social services and housing budgets, driven by economists not professionals, have terrible effects. Take Greece:

The consequences have been dramatic. Cuts in HIV-prevention budgets have coincided with a 200% increase in the virus in Greece, driven by a sharp rise in intravenous drug use against the background of a youth unemployment rate now running at more than 50% and a spike in homelessness of around a quarter. The World Health Organisation, Stuckler says, recommends a supply of 200 clean needles a year for each intravenous drug user; groups that work with users in Athens estimate the current number available is about three.

Disease and drug-use aren't the only consequence: Greece has seen a 60% rise in suicides. The US and UK, which have also suffered cuts to health and social services, have had similar (though less extreme) rises (data for New Zealand lags by two years, so we won't see what National has done to us in this department until they're gone).

And it is NeoLiberal austerity to blame. Countries which suffer economic crises but do not make cuts to health and social services budgets do not suffer these effects (and seem to have quicker recoveries as well). The conclusion:
Poorer public health, in other words, is not an inevitable consequence of economic downturns, it amounts to a political choice – by the government of the country concerned or, in the case of the southern part of the eurozone, by the EU, European Central Bank and IMF troika.

Public health - people's lives - should not be sacrificed for the profits of the greedy few. Societies should protect their people, and place the burden of crises on those most able to pay for it: the rich. By doing so, not only will they save lives - they'll also actually do better economically. But somehow, i think its a message that the rich and their servants just don't want to hear.

Who'd have thunk it?

It turns out that the oil companies have been engaged in widespread, LIBOR-style price-fixing:

The London offices of BP and Shell have been raided by European regulators investigating allegations they have "colluded" to rig oil prices for more than a decade.

The European commission said its officers carried out "unannounced inspections" at several oil companies in London, the Netherlands and Norway to investigate claims they may have "colluded in reporting distorted prices to a price reporting agency [PRA] to manipulate the published prices for a number of oil and biofuel products".

The commission said the alleged price collusion, which may have been going on since 2002, could have had a "huge impact" on the price of petrol at the pumps "potentially harming final consumers".

When LIBOR broke, there were fears that this sort of price-fixing was rife throughout the financial and commodities sector. It turns out that it is. Far from being "free", or markets are just gangs of organised criminals engaged in price-fixing and market-distortion for profit. And ordinary consumers like you and I are their victims. We pay more for food, we pay more for petrol, we pay more for electricity, we pay more for our homes because of their criminal profiteering. The question now is whether governments will actually do anything effective about this, or whether they'll blame a few bad apples, deliver a few token slaps on the wrist with a wet bus-ticket, and let it continue. Sadly, given the way that money dictates politics at the moment, I expect the latter.

National: Turning ex-pats into exiles

Once upon a time, when National Party Ministers were young, being a student was easy. You'd go to university, get an education, and get a decent job as a result. And because the state believed in the social benefits of education, it cost next to nothing.

Enter Roger Douglas and Phil Goff. Education became a "private benefit", which people had to borrow to pay for (Lockwood Smith simply applied the DHB scam to it so fees were charged by perpetually underfunded universities rather than government). But thanks to degree inflation and an austerity-induced recession, that benefit was rather less than what people were expected to pay for it (and its not as if they could "choose" not to pay: middle-class expectation and qualification inflation meant it was a life of debt or a life flipping burgers). For some, the gamble of education failed: either university was too much for them, or the promised decent job failed to materialise at the end of it, or simply life happened, and so they ended up burdened by unrepayable debt. Inevitably, due to the long tradition of the kiwi OE and the sudden incentive to exploit the exchange rate to repay education debt, some of those people were overseas.

Labour's interest-free policy made things easier for those still in New Zealand - at least their debts wouldn't grow. But those overseas were left out. And since then National has increased foreign repayment obligations, making them even more unrepayable and creating a stronger incentive to ignore the loan and get on with your life. And now, they've gone a step further, proposing to arrest student loan debtors at the border.

National thinks this will encourage those debtors to come home, or better yet, encourage them never to leave in the first place. I think it will do the opposite. While people may go overseas on a lark, they don't stay there for trivial reasons. These overseas borrowers will have lives, jobs, and families where they are - anchors overseas which keep them from coming home. And what National's policy will do is make sure they can never come home ever again. They can't come home for christmas, because they'll be arrested. If a New Zealand family member gets sick, they'll have to choose between their family and their freedom. They won't be able to come home for funerals. All of that is inhumane, vindictive and punitive, but it gets worse: they won't be able to do business here, because they'll be arrested. And they won't even be able to move back home, because if they come back for a job interview, the government will throw them in jail.

National likes to talk up the value of our ex-pats. But this stupid, inhumane, vindictive policy will turn them into permanent exiles. Way to go, National.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


That's the only way to describe this year's Budget. Another privatization - Meridian Energy this time - and a lot of reshuffling of spending, to achieve what? 5%-plus unemployment, stretching on as far as the eye can see. National's supposed "recovery" will be a jobless one, which will grow the underclass while funneling more money to their mates at the top. Public services get cut, while money gets shovelled at private schools, charter schools, and irrigation schemes (a direct subsidy to farmers). Meanwhile, contributions to the Cullen Fund are suspended for another two years, until 2020, so that National's rich old mates can continue to enjoy artificially low taxes at the expense of the next generation.

There are three bright spots. First, National bowed to sanity and continued funding for the Warm Up New Zealand home insulation scheme. It has enormous benefits compared to its costs, but it came from the Greens, so they hated it; I'm glad they've seen sense. Secondly, GCSB gets their budget for spying cut by $10.5 million. Do that for a few more years and we'll be safe from them. Finally, National's "surplus" has been achieved by reducing the operating allowance for extra spending next year - which means next year's election-year budget is going to be even more miserly than this one, hopefully reducing their chance of electoral success.

It is her job

Judith Collins' latest excuse for her refusal to bring a bill to implement the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on MMP? Its not her job:

Justice Minister Judith Collins has rejected criticism that she made no effort to reach an agreement on MMP reforms, claiming it was not her role "to organise the Kumbaya sessions of party leaders" to sit down to decide what they wanted.


"I have a very robust and full agenda. It is not my role to be the keeper of the parties in Parliament.

"There has been no attempt by any of them to sit down and work out what they want."

Bullshit. Parliament operates under MMP, in which governments typically do not have a majority and must gain the support of other parties for their agenda. In such a situation, if a Minister wants to pass a bill, it is absolutely their job to gain that support. Collins refused not because it wasn't her job, but because she did not want the bill to pass. And for her to pretend otherwise is simply dishonest.

Amazon: Still tax cheats

Last year internet bookseller came under fire for cheating on its UK taxes. Like many multinationals, Amazon routes its UK sales through a foreign tax-haven - in this case Luxembourg - in order to shift its revenue and profits to a lower-tax jurisdiction. This robs the UK government of hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue, and is a direct cause of the vicious austerity that country is suffering under.

Amazon's tax cheating is predicated on a claim that their Luxembourg subsidiary does not actually do business in the UK. But it turns out they've been lying about that:

Among the key indicators of whether a business is taxable in the UK is the location of those negotiating deals. A UK publishing executive confirmed that his contract was negotiated on behalf of Amazon EU Sarl, the Luxembourg company, by staff from the British head office in Slough.

"The contract may be with Luxembourg but it is the people from Slough who thrash out the crucial details of the contract such as the discount we agree to give them. There are also people in Slough who are charged with overseeing that the contract is properly executed," the executive said.

Meanwhile, job adverts posted this month on the careers page of invite application for scores of roles in the UK. Among them is a vacancy for a senior financial analyst. "Based at our UK Head Office in Slough, Amazon seeks a Senior Financial Analyst to support Amazon UK's Merchant Services business," the advert said.

There are more details here. The short version: it looks like Amazon's Luxembourg subsidiary trades in the UK from a fixed place of business, making it a "permanent establishment" whose activities should be taxed. The question now is why HMRC have allowed them to get away with claiming they do not.


A ballot for two Member's bills was held today and the following bills were drawn:

The former gives the Privacy Commissioner investigative powers and allows them to issue compliance notices when agencies are in breach of the Act. The latter requires the Reserve Bank to pay attention to jobs and exports rather than just inflation - a hot political topic at the moment. Sadly, I don't expect either to pass, but they are at least getting the issues on the agenda and promoting debate (which is one purpose of member's bills).

One hand washes the other

McDonald's workers in Auckland have been engaged in an industrial dispute for the last few weeks over pay rates and workplace discrimination. They've met with an "enthusiastic" response from police, who seem to think it is a crime for a strike to reduce the number of customers. Why? It turns out they're being bribed with cheap burgers.

The police are trotting out the politician's line, that it is "ludicrous" that they would prostitute themselves for so little. But this isn't transactional corruption, its relational. By giving police a regular discount, McDonald's creates a positive relationship and marks themselves as a friend to be vigorously protected, even when such protection involves unlawful interference with the rights of free expression and free assembly.

But regardless, it is against the Police Code of Conduct. Like public servants, police are required to act with fairness and impartiality, "and to be seen to do so, avoiding any potential or perceived conflicts of interest" (my emphasis). Accepting discounts creates a perceived conflict of interest, which is precisely why the police ban them. Sadly, it seems that that ban is ineffective. The police need to enforce it, otherwise we will all know that their vaunted code of conduct isn't worth the paper it is written on.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Equality comes to Minnesota

Minnesota has passed marriage equality:

Minnesota officially became the 12th U.S. state to approve same-sex marriage May 14 when Gov. Mark Dayton appeared before a jubilant crowd to sign a marriage equality bill into law.

"What a day for Minnesota," Dayton told the spectators, who huddled on the steps of the State House in St. Paul. "What a difference a year and an election can make in our state."

Dayton's signature came just a day after the state Senate approved it with a 37-30 vote, the Associated Press reported.

"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should certainly include the right to marry the person you love," he noted.

Twelve down, 38 to go.

Bad faith II

When we first learned that the GCSB had been illegally spying on New Zealand citizens, people who suspected they were victims were urged to contact GCSB and ask for their file. A few people took the offer at face value, and did just that - but now GCSB has refused to answer their queries on the grounds of "national security".

This is all very convenient for GCSB, of course. Anyone they have spied on has a strong case for compensation under the BORA. By refusing to tell them, GCSB removes that possibility. Fortunately, there's another option:

Ms Morse told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme she has made a request to the Privacy Commissioner, and she may also consider a starting a class action.

A barrister specialising in privacy law, John Edwards, says once people take their claims to the courts or the Privacy Commissioner there may be no grounds for the agency to withhold the information.

He says it may have to come clean on cases where it was monitoring people as part of a police prosecution.

I'm looking forward to this. Drag the fuckers into court. get discovery. Make them squirm. And ultimately, hold them to account for their crimes. Because it's crystal clear by now that the responsible Minister has no intention of doing so.