Friday, May 29, 2015



Britian protected murderers

More dirt from Britain's dirty war in Northern Ireland: they protected murderers for intelligence purposes:

The security forces protected “state sponsored serial killers” on both sides of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups who are responsible for some of the most notorious unsolved murders of The Troubles, according to a BBC Panorama documentary.

[...]

The murder of
Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan in 2001 and two massacres, at Sean Graham bookmaker’s in 1992 where five people died, and the killings of nine Protestant men returning from work in Kingsmill village in 1976, are among the cases where state and paramilitary collusion is alleged to have been covered up.

Panorama also revealed an assault rifle used in the Sean Graham massacre, which police said had been disposed of, ended up on display in the Imperial War Museum.

The programme also said the state paid an agent who helped develop a new IRA bomb that killed 34-year-old married RUC officer Colleen McMurray, before all the evidence surrounding her murder in 1992 went missing. The ombudsman’s report into Mrs McMurray’s death is yet to come out. It is one of dozens of ongoing investigations surrounding unsolved murders where state collusion with paramilitary groups is alleged.


By protecting these people, the British security services weren't just helping them escape justice; in many cases, they allowed them to kill repeatedly. Which turns them from an accessory after the fact into an active co-conspirator. The murderers who the British protected, and the agents who decided to protect them should all be facing justice.

Protecting the detection of a non-crime

Back in February we learned that police were monitoring and arresting "courtsiders" - people who leveraged the speed difference between the internet and broadcast media to rip off foreign bookies - during the cricket world cup. Which raised a few eyebrows because it doesn't seem to be against New Zealand law. Someone used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask for further information about this surveillance. The response is Kafkaesque:

The practice known as 'courtsiding' is not a crime under New Zealand Law.

The request for this information [on the surveillance, including training material and which social media accounts were monitored] is declined under Section 6(c) of the Official Information Act 1982 in that supplying the information would be likely to prejudice the maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation, and detection of offences.


So its not a crime, but the information has to be withheld to protect the police's ability to investigate it. Right. Sounds more like self-serving secrecy to cover them overstepping the mark to me.

Shifting the debate

Australia has long been an outlier on marriage equality, steadfastly refusing to follow the rest of the civlised world in recognising it. While Western Europe has recognised the need for equality, and the US is falling state by state, Australia is steadfast, standing there with its fingers in its ears, refusing to acknowledge the modern world and end bigotry, because that's the sort of thing kiwis do or something.

And then the Irish voted. And suddenly the debate is no longer about whether there should or shouldn't be marriage equality, but about who gets the political credit for it. The ALP put up a bill, the Liberals responded by demanding that one of their own front it so it would be "above politics", and now it looks like there'll be a bill and a conscience vote by the end of the year. And all because no-one wants to be left behind by the Irish.

So, thank you Ireland - your vote hasn't just brought marriage equality to Ireland, but shifted the political landscape and made it possible elsewhere as well.

Climate change: Costs and targets

The government is currently "consulting" on its post-2020 climate change target. The consultation document emphasises the costs and difficulty of action, implictly trying to stack the deck towards doing nothing. But as the Herald's Brian Rudman highlights, those "costs" are a little fishy:

First, the baseline - the counterfactual with which the various emissions targets are to be compared. It is a world in which no action to reduce emissions is taken by any country.

That is hardly business as usual. New Zealand already has a target of 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and a statutory commitment to 50 per cent below by 2050.

The expectation on every country is that the coming Paris conference will see them commit to doing more. The United States, China and Europe, which between them account for most global emissions, have already tabled offers which significantly increase their effort.

Surely the more relevant baseline would have been the status quo.


[The cost of inaction, of not doing anything, is of course not included in the model. But farmers might like to ask themselves how they feel about a drought every year, and the rest of us what that would do to the New Zealand economy]

By choosing this baseline, Infometrics is able to come up with a scary cost of $1300 a year per household for the clearly preferred scenario of a 10% cut. Landcare apparently comes up with half that. But the important thing is that this is just $30 a year per household more than the cost at present, which is absolutely negligible. Its also important to note that this "cost" isn't an actual cost, money you will have to pay, but instead the result of expected lower economic growth - money you will never have. Its like counting the cost of not winning Lotto first division (which BTW is about $30 per household per year). And when you remember this, what's clear is that making a substantial move towards meeting National's "50% by 2050" target is both affordable and will not have any significant effect on living standards.

And we do need to commit to making substantial progress - otherwise we're basically saying that that target is joke and that we never intend to meet it.

As for how much of a commitment, that target was set in 2007, when our goal was simply to reduce emissions to 1990 levels. A linear effort - a 50% cut in 43 years - suggests that we should be looking at a 27% reduction by 2030, which we should round up to 30%. And given the need to make cuts early and display ambition to encourage others to do the same, 40% would be better. But anything less than 27% is simply leaving future New Zealanders to do the work we should be doing, and committing ourselves to failure. Again.

Thursday, May 28, 2015



The value of a species

This morning we learned that, thanks to the government's failure to protect them, there are now fewer than 50 maui's dolphins left. When questioned about this in Parliament, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry made it clear that she wasn't going to lift a finger to actually help stop this species from being wiped out - but did try and pretend that the government was devoting significant resources to it. How much? $750,000. Or, to put it in context, less than the price of one average house in Auckland.

Climate change: Small ideas

Earlier in the week Gareth Morgan argued that continuing to drag our feet on climate change was "a short term strategy which portends awful long term consequences". Yesterday he followed that up with a piece grandly titled Three big ideas for New Zealand’s climate change target. With a title like that, you'd expect some concrete plans for emissions reductions, right? Wrong! Here's the first two:

One reason it’s so bad is that as soon as those pine forests are felled the current Kyoto approach counts them as emissions – as if we’d burnt the trees the next morning. If the forests are replanted then the carbon store slowly builds up again. This treatment of forestry under Kyoto was initially intended to keep carbon accounting simple, but it is something our Government should be questioning in Paris – after all it depends what we do with the timber – building and furniture sequesters the carbon (at least temporarily), and if we are exporting logs then it’s wrong to count these as emissions by New Zealand.

And
Another issue that New Zealand should question anyway is the treatment of methane. Methane is a short-lived gas – making it fundamentally different from other greenhouse gases. It is very potent, but only for a “short” time – in climate terms at least. So while we need to get global methane emissions under control and reduce them, we don’t have to reduce them to zero like we do with carbon dioxide, each tonne of which when emitted adds to the total concentration in the atmosphere pretty much, forever. Methane only adds to atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases temporarily.

[...]

Given how far astray we are off getting anywhere near the required greenhouse gas reductions, we need our officials resorting to all the tricks in the book we can come up with to get the rules changed!


Yes, two of Morgan's three "big ideas" are basically coming up with new ways of cooking the books to minimise our accounted emissions, while not doing anything to reduce emissions in reality. Don't plant more permanent forest, don't cap the dairy industry to stop it from ruining the climate as well as our rivers, don't push rapidly for biofuels and electric vehicles - just whine and plead at our international partners to let us count a lower level of emissions (while of course keeping the baseline set under the old rules). This isn't a policy, its a rort. And its just more of the same short-term thinking the current government suffers from.

But Morgan has one point, even if he doesn't recognise it: if we treat agriculture as a sacred cow (as we're certainly doing in the short term), then our emissions reductions are going to have to come from CO2. Even if we cap agricultural emissions at the level they are today, in order to meet National's 50% by 2050 target - the one they announced but have no measures or plan to actually meet - we will need to virtually eliminate CO2 emissions in NZ. Which means switching to all-electric or biofuel cars and all-renewable electricity generation within 35 years, as well as virtually eliminating (or finding some way to soak up) industrial emissions from cement, steel and methanol production. That sounds like a huge ask, but its quite doable in that timeframe if the government wants to - but if we want the transition to be low-cost, then it needs to start now rather than later.

RMA "reform" is dead again

John Key has confirmed, for the second time in a week, that his government's plans for RMA "reform" are dead:

Prime Minister John Key has confirmed there is no chance key parts of the RMA reform will go ahead, while reaffirming the need to speed up the construction of new houses in Auckland.

Speaking at a Property Council industry breakfast in Auckland on Thursday, Key said the probability of there being a change in sections six and seven of the Resource Management Act "is zero".


Good. Because contrary to the article, tinkering with these sections - which define matters of national importance and other core values the legislation is supposed to promote and protect - was never about making it easier to build houses. Instead, it was about making it easier to dig mines, cut-down forests, and basically ignore the environment, by removing environmental values and adding a development cause to over-ride the others. That extreme agenda was rejected last year by National's coalition partners; it had been revivied following the election because National had an easy majority with ACT for environmental vandalism, but now that they've lost the Northland by-election, that majority no longer exists. So National will have to do what it hates: seek consensus with the other parties, rather than just imposing an agenda to benefit their donors and cronies.

New Fisk

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Wednesday, May 27, 2015



Environmental Reporting Bill: Our fears are realised

Back in March, Statistics New Zealand announced their Ministerially-approved national environmental reporting topics for their 2015 Synthesis Report - basicly, a prototype for reporting under the yet-to-be-passed Environmental Reporting Bill. They were dismal, a political hatchet-job which ignored key drivers and impacts while obfuscating the causes of our environmental problems. And it wasn't just climate change: the other domains, air, land, freshwater and the marine environment all received similar treatment.

Statistics New Zealand made a lot of noise about the robust and independent method they used to develop the topics. So how did this happen? Because Ministers micromanaged the whole process and systematicly watered down the robust topic list developed by the Technical Advisory Groups. The dismal tale is told in a series of release from the Minister for the Environment, Ministry for the Environment (part 1, part 2), Statistics New Zealand, and (most illuminatingly) the Minister of Statistics. Some highlights:

  • From the beginning, Ministers pushed for highly detailed and prescriptive topics - "global greenhouse gas emissions" rather than "climate change", "economic production by primary industries" rather than "economic impacts of climate change". This caused consternation in Statistics New Zealand, with an email from MfE noting that "Stats are very keen to avoid any ultimatums being put to Ministers but clearly feel their independence is being compromised by the specificity of the topics areas". Eventually the Government Statistician issued a (heavily redacted) briefing note which appears to have basically read Ministers the Riot Act. Amy Adams did not agree, and there are a large number of highly specific topics in the final list. By saying "you will report on this in this way", they have prevented Statistics New Zealand from using more illuminating statistics.

  • Ministers also repeatedly watered down reporting on impacts on Maori, successively rejecting topics on wahi tapu and customary use in favour of a vague "cultural significance of the [X] environment to Maori" - which was then left out of the final report. This is pitched as due to Amy Adams seeing it as "a ‘nice-to-have’ and not ‘must include’", but earlier comments make her real reason clear: she wanted to avoid "unintentionally committing the Government to report on Treaty of Waitangi issues as part of the Environmental Reporting Bill". Unstated: because doing so might give rise to Treaty claims.

  • As an example of the suspicion Ministers regard the reporting with, they wanted to micromanage final peer review: "Ministers would like to be consulted on who peer reviews the synthesis report to ensure 'extreme ideas' don't find there way into the report."

  • The final topic list was signed off on September 1, 2014 - after which there was an election, a cabinet reshuffle, and a new Minister for the Environment. Who immediately wanted to interfere:
    Minister Smith expressed concern with some topics for the 2015 Environmental Synthesis Report, and requested time to consider them. He is concerned that officials may go wide of the mark and infer value judgements because of the measures selected. He is happy with draft ERB legislation with respect to Ministers setting topics, but wants to consider it further.

    Overall, Minister Smith was more comfortable with state topics than pressure or impact topics. He expressed doubt that officials could measure some of the latter topics rigorously; for example, Maori measures. He did note he wants to use international best practice, however.

    Unfortunately, information on exactly what effect Nick Smith had on the synthesis report was not part of the release. But given how it appears to have been watered down even further in exactly the way he suggested, he may have had some influence.
Supposedly, if the Environmental Reporting Bill is eventually passed, there will be a round of public consultation before the final topics are set by regulation. But looking at the process so far, I don't think we can have any confidence in that process. The big risk with the bill as it stands is that the Minister can choose the topics to suit themselves, steering reporting away from areas of key environmental concern. And judging by the behaviour of the Ministers involved, that concern is fully justified. As long as Ministers can set the topics, their environmental report is a joke with no credibility.

Displacement behaviour

Two months ago National lost its legislative majority in the Northland by-election (they still have one on confidence and supply, thanks to agreements with ACT, the Maori Party, and Peter Dunne, but don't have one for passing laws). So naturally, National's right-wing rump thinks that now is a great time to rock the boat by demanding the government water down health and safety legislation:

Disquiet among National MPs looks set to delay planned changes to health and safety law, with the Government poised to park the bill in a select committee for two more months to try and iron out contentious issues.

Recommended changes to the law were due to be reported back from the committee this week, Prime Minister John Key said on Monday.

But after National's Tuesday caucus meeting a well-placed source said approval would likely be sought for an extension to the select committee's deliberations.

The draft bill, prompted by the Pike River coal mine tragedy, was already set to be watered down in the face of a possible revolt by back bench Government MPs. That would likely include an exemption for small businesses from some provisions.


So, they appear to have got what they want in the caucus room. But will they get what they want in the House? Because no matter what Judith Collins and her followers think, the bill can't become law unless it has the support of either the Maori Party or United Future (or, I suppose, NZ First). And there's no real indication that they'd support extreme right-wing policies on health and safety, any more than they'd support them on the RMA. Which is likely to cause even more frustration on the right...

A political obituary

The Alliance (1991 - 2015). Born of Rogernomics, Ruthanasia, and everyone who was unhappy with them, it gained 18% of the vote in the 1993 election, but (thanks to FPP) only two MPs. After that it was all downhill, as their supporters either gave up voting due to being unable to produce change, while Labour moved away from NeoLiberalism and regained some respectability. MMP finally saw them gain proper representation, and they entered government in 1999 in coalition with Labour, but disintegrated under the pressure of Labour's backing for America's war in Afghanistan (and how's that gone, guys). Died after a decade-long case of irrelevance 26 May 2015. Survived by the Greens.

The Alliance gave us paid parental leave, and helped drive Labour back to the left. But after 2005, when they got just 1,641 votes, it was apparent that they were done. What's surprising is that it has taken them so long to admit that.

Meanwhile, we now have only 15 registered political parties, two of which (Ban 1080 and the Independent Coalition) are likely to disappear just by natural attrition, while one - the Democrats - has been on long-term life-support since it departed from the Alliance in 2005 and will probably die a natural death soon. If the health of a democracy can be measured by the number of options competing for office, we're not very healthy.

The fingerprints of a biased Speaker

Winston Peters has compiled the data on MPs ejected from the House by the Speaker, and found that yes, there's a pattern:

Opposition Members of Parliament are more than twice as likely to be expelled from the House as government MPs since National has become government, says New Zealand First Leader and Member of Parliament for Northland Rt Hon Winston Peters.

The data speaks for itself. Lockwood Smith threw out 17 MPs in his 4 year reign. 11 of those were from the Opposition, 6 from the government. But David Carter has thrown out 14 MPs already in just half that time - and just three of them have been from the government. So, the pattern of bias is both clear, and getting stronger.

As for what it means: a Speaker who has to throw people out this often simply does not enjoy the confidence of the House. We've seen again and again how Carter's biased decisions and his support of the government promotes disorder in the House. He's a rotten, biased Speaker, and he should go.

Corrupting the judiciary

National has appointed former Minister Kate Wilkinson to the Environment Court:

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson today announced the appointment of Hon Kate Wilkinson of Christchurch and the reappointment of Ms Kathryn Edmonds of Wellington as Commissioners of the Environment Court, both for a five year term.

Hon Kate Wilkinson was a lawyer for 26 years prior to entering Parliament in 2005. As a lawyer she was involved in property, commercial and corporate areas of law. She was Minister of Conservation from 2009 to 2013 and was responsible for the Government’s conservation aspects of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA). She was also involved in meeting the Crown’s obligations to Māori in Treaty settlement processes.

National has already stacked the Human Rights Review Tribunal with its cronies; now they seem to be moving onto the Environment Court. But putting cronies on the bench corrupts the judiciary and undermines its independence. It invites people to think that decisions of the court are made on political grounds rather than on the merits, bringing the entire system into disrepute. That may be the goal of the exercise, or National simply may not care; either way their appointment damages the courts and pisses on our constitutional norms.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015



No appetite for mining-sector transparency from National

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is an international organisation to promote transparency around mining. Its member states agree to follow the EITI Standard, which basically boils down to publishing a full breakdown of revenues and payments from mining, oil, and gas companies. Companies can join it too, allowing a full independent audit of payments, ensuring that companies don't cheat and governments aren't cheated.

The New Zealand government is supposedly committed to transparency. So does it want to join? Not really, according to documents released under the OIA. The Minister of Primary Industries asked about it early last year in response to international pressure, and MBIE's advice was that the benefits were low and that a full scoping report should be done. Naturally, it wasn't. So when the Minister came under more international pressure in November, he was reduced to empty talking points about 'ask[ing] officials to give me advice on whether New Zealand should be considering a scoping study" and "What would be the benefit of implementing the EITI for New Zealand".

Its clear from that that MBIE thinks there is no benefit - or rather, that the benefit of transparency in taming the notoriously corrupt minerals industry is small. But they did think there was one benefit:
EITI-benefit
Yes, that's right: they think that the EITI's requirement for a multi-stakeholder group could be used to "increase social licence", essentially by recruiting anti-mining groups and trapping them in a process which turns them into judas goats. Which tells you very clearly what the government thinks of the Land and Water Forum - and that no environmental NGO should ever participate in such a forum ever again. If "engagement" is seen by the government as a means of publicly suborning you to its agenda, it is better not to engage.

Don't you feel like you've been cheated?

Imagine this: you win an auction on TradeMe for a batch of 10,000 widgets. You pay for the full 10,000, but the seller ships you only 8,100. You'd complain, right? Not just give them low feedback, but (depending on the value) pursue criminal charges for fraud.

But that's exactly what SkyCity has done over their crony convention centre ("won" via a crony deal with National). And the government is doing nothing:

The size of the centre has also wandered from the 5000 person maximum, stated in a memo to then-minister David Carter in April 2011, to the 3500 person maximum in the June 2013 Heads of Agreement to the 3150 person maximum in the revised design announced today.

As well as conventions, the new design could accommodate 4200 people for a single event.

Other changes - which the Government and SkyCity said amounted to a maximum 10 per cent reduction - were a drop from the 10,000 sq m exhibition space heralded by SkyCity in its 2011 proposal Government to 8700 sq m and the eventual 8100 sq m in the latest design.

While the government is quick to claim this isn't costing us anything, it is: we paid for it with relaxed gambling laws, which will impose a significant social cost. And now, SkyCity is delivering only 80% of what we paid for. We should be prosecuting them for fraud.

Update: Quote changed to reflect the Herald correcting an error.

There's coal in the milk

Stuff this morning exposes the New Zealand dairy industry's dirty secret: there's coal in the milk:

For the most recent year that data is available (2013) from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, New Zealand's largest company used 410,000 tonnes of coal to turn liquid milk into powder, earning total revenue of $22 billion in 2014. Altogether the dairy industry burns 512,811 tonnes of coal.

Based on one tonne of coal producing 2.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide, Fonterra's coal-powered factories pump out 1.17 million tonnes of the climate warming gas. Add to that its gas-powered plants and tanker fleet, and the company becomes one of New Zealand's top greenhouse gas polluters.

Fitzsimons said that was "without mentioning cows and the methane they produce".


Which is a bit of a problem for an industry whose selling point is that its "clean and green". And its very easy to imagine the sorts of ads the environmental movement could run in Europe about this if Fonterra doesn't clean up its act. Fonterra's farmer-shareholders might want to consider the reputational and economic risk its dirty energy policies pose to their future income.

Tying yourself to a losing war puts lives at risk

With ISIS having taken Ramadi and the Iraqi army having no will to fight, the question has naturally arisen: how long will kiwi trainers be staying in Iraq? Sadly, John Key doesn't really want to give us an answer:

Prime Minister John Key says he has no advice that New Zealand troops are in greater danger following the advance of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, but would act to protect them if that was the case.

[...]

"[I am advised] there's no reason to change our thought process on the risks our people face in [Iraq]. It is a difficult environment as we know."

The trigger for a change in stance would be when NZDF believed there was "an absolute threat to our people".

Key is scheduled to travel to Iraq this year to visit troops and he said the IS advance had not changed those plans.

"Let's put if this way - I don't but if I had a planned trip there next week I'd go."


So, "nothing to see here, move along". And he'll keep saying that right up until the moment one of his toy soldiers has their head sawn off on live TV.

The problem for Key is that with his big "get some guts" act he has tied himself to a losing war. And having invested his political capital there, he will be reluctant to withdraw, because it would mean admitting that it was the wrong decision all along. So, I expect we'll see him forcing those troops to train to the last man, even when it is absolutely hopeless - and in the process exposing them to far greater and absolutely unnecessary dangers, simply to protect his political reputation.

Third rails and political honesty

Last election, Labour threw itself on NZ politics' third rail, promising to raise the retirement age. They suffered their biggest election defeat in nearly a century. You'd think the party would have learned something from that experience, but no - last week we saw Andrew Little back for another go, promising to means-test superannuation, and angrily denouncing National's "political recklessness" in refusing to fuck over the young for the benefit of his aging Boomer cohort. In the cold light of day he appears to have realised that that was a mistake, and is now saying that he doesn't want to means-test after all - but with the usual politician's arrogance, refuses to own his own mistake:



Yes, that thing he said in front of a camera? The journalists misunderstood it, apparently. This refusal to own your own mistakes and admit you were wrong, this desire to rewrite history to pretend that you have always absolutely backed whatever policy your focus groups have told you to back this week and that you have always been at war with East Asia is one of the reasons people distrust politicians. Its fine to change your views - that's what sensible people do in response to evidence - but to deny that you ever did so? That's dishonest and petty. And it immediately raises the doubt that you'll do so again while of course denying it.

And its not as if Labour has trust to burn here. Their 2014 policy made it clear that they can no longer be trusted to protect our welfare state. While they've supposedly resiled from it, their continued vacillation and flirting with it makes it clear that they haven't. Which means that if you want a society which takes care of all its members, young and old, now and in the future, you can't trust Labour to deliver it. And given that that sort of society is supposedly the point of the Labour Party, abandoning it makes them... pointless.

Monday, May 25, 2015



Britain now opposes freedom of thought

Earlier in the month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron reminded us all of what an illiberal place Britain had become, with the super-villain-esque statement that "for too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone". And now its got worse, with a senior police officer demanding that the UK polices the "private space" - meaning thoughts and beliefs - of Muslims:

Islamist propaganda is so potent it is influencing children as young as five and should be countered with intensified monitoring to detect the earliest signs of anti-western sentiment, Britain’s most senior Muslim police chief has warned.

Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty said children aged five had voiced opposition to marking Christmas, branding it as “haram” – forbidden by Islam. He also warned that there was no end in sight to the parade of British Muslims, some 700 so far, being lured from their bedrooms to Syria by Islamic State (Isis) propaganda.

In an interview with the Guardian, Chishty said there was now a need for “a move into the private space” of Muslims to spot views that could show the beginning of radicalisation far earlier. He said this could be shown by subtle changes in behaviour, such as shunning certain shops, citing the example of Marks & Spencer, which could be because the store is sometimes mistakenly perceived to be Jewish-owned.


Note that this isn't targeting extremist behaviour - its targeting extremist belief, victimising people not for their actions, but for their thoughts (unless they're white, of course, in which case these beliefs are considered harmless). And it pretty obviously violates the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion affirmed by the ECHR and in the UK Human Rights Act - not to mention the anti-discrimination clause (because only Muslims will be targeted for these beliefs). Bluntly, whether people celebrate christmas or approve of certain shops is no business of the state - and only a tyranny would believe otherwise.

But its also fruitless, because while the state can persecute and victimise and make people mouth the words and pretend conformity, it can't actually change what they believe. Meanwhile, that persecution and victimisation will further erode its legitimacy and make it clear that if people want the simple dignity of being left alone, they will have to overthrow the state. And to be honest, they'd be right to. A state which seeks to open windows into men's souls is a tyranny, and deserves to be overthrown.

Left behind

Ireland voted for marriage equality over the weekend, becoming the first state to approve it by referendum. Its a sign of how the cultural tide has shifted in the former theocracy, but its also putting pressure on other countries to make progress. Close to home, Australians are asking that if the Irish can do it, why can't they? And just over the border, Northern Ireland faces the shame of being the only country in Western Europe to still deny marriage equality. A look at the map shows that that's not entirely true - isn't Germany "western"? Aren't Britain's wretched, tax-cheating dependencies as much "countries" as Northern Ireland, a part of the UK? Ditto Greenland, a dependency of Denmark? But there's still a powerful sense that Northern Ireland has been left behind as a result of fundamentalist protestant bigotry - and something the Northern Irish will need to deal with if they want to pretend to be part of the modern world.

New Fisk

Suddenly it looks like we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive

Training an army that doesn't want to fight

Last week the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS. The reason? Iraqi forces fled rather than fighting:

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has said the rout of Iraqi forces at the city of Ramadi showed they lacked the will to fight against Islamic State.

Mr Carter told CNN's State of the Union the Iraqis "vastly outnumbered" the IS forces but chose to withdraw.


Which kindof blows the whole argument for New Zealand's involvement out of the water. The theory is that we'll train the Iraqis to defend themselves. But if Iraqis don't believe in their state enough to fight for it, why should kiwis put their lives on the line to train them? What's the point in training an army that doesn't want to fight?

There's a similar argument against the call today by the British military (through the usual channel of a retired mouthpiece) for "boots on the ground" to fight ISIS. If the Iraqis don't believe in their state enough to fight for it, why should anyone else? Who benefits, other than bloated militaries and the profiteering arms industry?

Friday, May 22, 2015



The price of rotten cops IV

Remember the Nelson Red Devils case? Back in 2012, drugs and firearms charges against 28 alleged gang members were thrown out because police abused the court process by forging a search warrant and an arrest warrant to build the credibility of a police spy. The police appealed, the Court of Appeal ruled that it had to be reconsidered, and it has been - with the same result. last week the High Court excluded all evidence against all but the most serious charges, on the basis that to allow it was disproportionate and a violation of the Evidence Act. And yesterday, Justice Collins issued a stay of proceedings on those serious charges because to allow them to proceed would be a gross abuse of the court process. And in case anyone was in any doubt, the full decision is absolutely damning. It suggests that the police committed multiple criminal offences by forging a court document, perjuring themselves, and (ironicly) failing to answer bail. They may also have perverted the course of justice (naturally, none of the police responsible for these offences have ever been charged - the law is for us, not for them). It goes on:

allowing the trial to continue invites the community to believe that the Courts implicitly condone the police misconduct in this case. Nothing could be further from the truth. Allowing the Crown to continue with this trial in circumstances where the significant misconduct of the police would be a focal point of the trial would diminish the Court’s ability to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system. There is a real risk that anything other than a significant response risks being seen as weak rhetoric.

Fourth, maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system, even at the cost of staying the remaining serious charges that post-date 1 June 2010, is a proportionate and appropriate measure that is required to uphold public confidence in the administration of justice. This Court must protect the criminal justice system from being “degraded” and “misused”.


And I agree. Its misconduct so outrageous that the charges have to be dropped. But the result is that 21 defendants walk free on 148 charges, which included not just drug dealing (which honestly I don't give a shit about), but conspiracy to commit arson, conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm, and various firearms offences. And that's the price of rotten cops right there: criminals go free. if the police don't want it to happen, they need to behave honestly, rather than breaking the law to get arrests.

Meanwhile, it raises the obvious question: how many other times have the police used a false warrant and false arrest under forged court documents to bolster the stories of their undercover spies? And how many people are currently sitting in jail because of such criminal misconduct?

An abuse of the OIA

In the wake of revelations that Prime Minister John Key had systematically and repeatedly bullied, sexually harassed and assaulted a cafe waitress, the New Zealand Herald published a piece exposing the victim. It seemed like retribution, and the involvement of dirty politics operative Rachel Glucina added to that impression. But the Prime Minister denied any involvement. Oddly, though, when asked about it under the Official Information Act, he clammed up, refusing to release any information because

It is not the practice of the media team or the Prime Minister to divulge details of the communications with journalists. This would also extend to any communications the Prime Minister or the media team has had with Rachel Glucina. Therefore, any information relevant to the scope of your request is withheld under the following grounds of the Official Information Act: [s9(2)(a) and s9(2)(ba)]

The problem? Neither of those sections is applicable here. Section 9(2)(a) protects the privacy of natural persons. It covers personal information - usually names and phone numbers of public servants, but also more detailed information where its held. If the Prime Minister disclosed personal information about his victim to a journalist, then it could be withheld under this ground - but the rest of the conversation, including the fact that it could be disclosed, could not be. There's no privacy interest in the official acts of government ministers - and by refusing the request on these grounds and implicitly accepting that the information withheld was official information, the prime Minister has admitted that any leak to his pet smearer was an official act.

As for confidentiality, the Ombudsman's guidelines are crystal clear on this: this clause (and related ones) exist to protect information given to the government. It simply does not apply to information given by them. A government agency simply cannot exempt itself from the OIA by claiming that its actions are "confidential", and to allow it to do so would make a mockery of the law. (And no, journalistic privilege does not apply - that applies to journalists, not sources).

The requester should complain to the Ombudsman. meanwhile, I've had some ideas for other ways of getting to the bottom of this.

Australia's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on torture

The prohibition against torture is one of the cast-iron features of international law. You're not allowed to torture people, and you're not allowed to return or extradite people to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe they will be tortured. The latter is one of the few guaranteed paths to refugee status: if you turn up somewhere, and you've been tortured, they can't send you back. But racist Australia doesn't want refugees, even ones who are victims of torture. So they have a simple solution: stop asking about it:

Asylum seekers will no longer be immediately asked by Australian officials if they have been tortured or suffer from trauma under new screening guidelines.

Documents lodged with the Senate have revealed the question was scrapped from the initial public health screening questionnaire in March.

It means asylum seekers will no longer be asked the question during their first contact with immigration officials and will instead have to wait until they proceed to another stage of screening.

Advocates fear it could also see asylum seekers potentially turned back to other countries before they have been given the option to formally declare themselves as victims of torture.


And according to a former member of the Immigration Health Advisory Group, the question was dropped explicitly because "there is a moral and ethical responsibility to respond to it".

This is the sort of country Australia is now: a country which refuses to ask about torture so that it doesn't have to respond to it. They have not a single shred of human decency left in them, and the sooner the entire country burns down in a bushfire, the better.

Fiji: Removing the opposition

Last year, Nauru's government abused its parliamentary majority to suspend the opposition from Parliament on a spurious privilege motion. Its a disease which is spreading: last night, Fiji's "democratic" regime did the same, suspending an opposition MP for making a derogatory reference to the Speaker during a constituency meeting:

Fiji opposition MP Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu has been suspended from the House of Representatives for the next two years.

FBC reports that late last night, parliament passed a motion to suspend Ratu Naiqama based on the recommendation of the Priviledges Committee.

He is not allowed to enter Parliament precincts including the Opposition Office until the suspension expires.

Ratu Naiqama uttered a slur against the Speaker Jiko Luveni last week.


In New Zealand we understand that the purpose of parliament's power to discipline its own members exists solely for the purpose of maintaining the order of the house, and ends at the chamber door (or at least at the edge of the parliamentary precinct). If an NZ MP calls the Speaker a biased National Party crony or worse outside the house, its a matter for defamation law, not the privileges committee. But even if you think that forcing MPs to pretend to respect the Speaker outside the house as well as in it is a matter of parliamentary order, the penalty is still grossly disproportionate to the offence.
Throw in the violation of natural justice - Lalabalavu's accuser got to sit and vote on the committee judging him - and it just looks like a tawdry stitch-up designed to remove an unwelcome voice of opposition from parliament. Which given that the purported purpose was to ensure respect for the institution of Fiji's parliament, seems to be an own goal.

Thursday, May 21, 2015



One good thing

Today's budget is a dismal affair, as the government shuffles money around and announces new spending while conveniently forgetting to mention that its a sub-inflation rise and that health and education are going backwards - as they have every year under National (Education has even been cut in nominal terms, falling from $11.5 billion in 2009 to $10.8 billion today). But amongst all the nipping and tucking and trying desperately to pretend that they're actually doing something to earn those fat Ministerial salaries and expense accounts, National has actually done one decent thing: they've raised benefits for the first time in nearly 40 years:

A $790 million package to lift children out of poverty will see benefits rise beyond inflation for the first time in 30 years, but it won't come for free.

The Government also imposing stricter work obligations.

The package, announced in the Governnment's Budget on Thursday, will give families on benefits with children a $25-a-week boost to their incomes, while-low income working families will get at least $12.50 a week extra.

The increase to benefits is the first, beyond inflation, since 1977.


Its not enough to restore living standards to the levels they were pre-Richardson, of course, let alone provide the decent support every kiwi needs, and its tied to more work obligations, which means that the increase will be eaten by childcare and transport costs. But its something. And its more than Labour ever did. As with housing, they're doing as little as they possibly can - but it looks like the left have won the argument on child poverty and benefit levels as well. The question is whether Labour will recognise this, or still remain committed to shitting on the poor in an effort to win the votes of the selfish rich.

Fuck TV3

TV3 has announced that they will be shitcanning Campbell Live. Oh, there'll still be a programme - but it won't have John Campbell, it'll only be four days a week, and it will almost certainly turn into the sort of fluffy bullshit you see on Seven Sharp.

Naturally, they announced this the moment the Budget embargo was lifted, in the hope that people wouldn't notice.

Campbell Live was about the only thing I continue to watch on broadcast TV. Unlike most other shows, it does real journalism, campaigning journalism. It has changed public opinion and government policy on child poverty, on housing, and in other areas. Which is why the government's friends on the Mediaworks board decided to get rid of it. But without it, there's just no reason to watch anymore. I get my new from the internet, and seeing stale news recited by talking heads doesn't meet my needs. I get my entertainment from the internet too, so I can watch what I want, when I want, and without ads. Campbell Live was the only new and interesting content TV3 offered. Without it, there's just no reason to watch them at all.

Transparency on MP's expenses in the UK

In New Zealand, information about MP's expenses is limited to an empty summary, despite them spending on average over $50,000 a year each of public money. In the UK, you can now get receipts:

Up to 1m receipts and invoices submitted by MPs since 2010 are to be released on demand by the parliamentary expenses watchdog.

It follows a decision by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) to drop a £187,000 legal fight to keep the documents out of the public domain.

Ipsa already releases summaries of MPs’ expenses in spreadsheet form. A spokeswoman said on Wednesday it would now release copies of MPs’ invoices and receipts in redacted form if requested through the Freedom of Information Act.


This is the same level of detail that we have for our Ministers. In that case, release of receipts has tamed spending; knowledge that it will become public has resulted in Ministers no longer splurging on expensive dinners or luxury hotels on the public's tab. It would be nice if our MPs were similarly restrained.

A lot of devils in those details

3News had a scoop tonight, with a slip-up revealing a major Budget initiative to open up government land in Auckland for affordable housing. At first glance, its superficially attractive: the government has the land, private developers have the capital, stick the two together with an easy credit arrangement and houses get built. But the devil is in the details, and the more you think about it, the more devils appear. And some of them have very sharp pitchforks.

Firstly, there's the land they're targeting:

Dr Smith is talking about land owned by universities, schools, tertiary institutions, health boards, defence, Housing New Zealand, the New Zealand Transport Agency and Department of Conservation reserves.
In the case of central government agencies, that's no problem - the Minister can simply direct them to hand over the land, and its done. But the Minister has no power to direct universities, and DoC reserves require an Act of Parliament to declassify. As for schools, the Minister can simply declare land no longer required for educational purposes, but then it must be disposed of under the Public Works Act.

Which brings us to the second problem: much of that land will have been acquired for public purposes under the Public Works Act, and the moment it is no longer required for the purpose for which it was acquired, must immediately be returned to its former owners. In the case of Auckland, some of those former owners will be Maori. The idea of the government taking land off iwi for a public purpose, then changing their mind and using it to feed Auckland's greedy property developers, where it will be subdivided, sold for private profit, and forever alienated from the Treaty claims process? That's just not going to fly. It'd be Paraparaumu Airport all over again.

(In retrospect, many of these issues also applied to Labour's "KiwiBuild" policy...)

Which brings us to the next problem: corruption. When the government is alienating public land, there's a suspicion that they're a) selling it to their mates; and b) selling it cheap. This has been the case in all previous privatizations, and there's no reason to suspect the corrupt, business-oriented National government will suddenly change its behaviour. They didn't over SOEs, and they're unlikely to now. The provision to let developers build first and pay later raises also raises all sorts of questions about who benefits from value increases - and base don this government's past performance, its unlikely to be the government.

And that's without even getting into the question of how they will ensure that the houses are in fact affordable rather than just more (higher-profit) palazzos for the rich, how they will ensure they are brought by first-home buyers rather than foreigners or greedy Boomer speculators looking for a new rental property, and whether they'll actually build enough of them to burst the bubble (which will make a lot of Auckland voters very unhappy as their paper wealth disappears) rather than helping their mates ride it (KiwiBuild at least seemed to get this end of things right, with the government doing the development and sale, and reaping the rewards, and properties being built specifically as first homes).

But maybe we'll be lucky. Maybe National will choose the land carefully, not pillage any reserves or sell school playgrounds and sports fields, deprive universities of their long-term expansion space for a short-term kick in the polls. Maybe they'll also avoid using land which was compulsorily acquired, or just outright stolen, and avoid creating further injustices to Maori by alienating their land. Maybe the sale process, unlike every other privatization programme in New Zealand history, won't be a wealth transfer to the government's mates. And maybe they'll actually build enough houses to burst the bubble, rather than feeding it to the benefit of those same mates. But base don their past performance, I doubt it.

Correction: Only national DoC reserves require an Act of Parliament to declassify - normal ones don't. However, declassification will still be subject to judicial review, and that could pose a significant barrier and significant delays (as it did to the Palmerston North City Council's decision to reclassify a reserve to allow the construction of a wind farm within it).

Wednesday, May 20, 2015



I wonder if this will make Hansard?

Today in Parliament, Ron Mark told another MP to "shut the fuck up". The comments are clearly audible on the IntheHouse feed at 4:04:


Under Parliament's Standing orders, showing video of MPs making asses of themselves is apparently a breach of privilege, so I expect they'll be censoring that video soon. But given the behaviour of Members, you wonder how they can show question time at all some days.

Poor leadership on freedom of information

In an interview on Nine To Noon this morning, Ombudsman Beverley Wakem publicly called out the Prime Minister over his leadership on the OIA [14m 10s in]:

Ryan: I hate to say this, but it was the Prime Minister last year who admitted on Radio New Zealand that the government sometimes waits till the end of a timeframe if its in our best interests to do that. That may be within the letter of the law but not the spirit.

Wakem: For a Prime Minister to say that and openly really admitting to breaking the law... its certainly an issue that I'll be taking up. That is about leadership. If the Prime Minister is saying that, what are his Chief Executives or his other Ministerial colleagues going to say if he tacitly endorses it?

And she's right to question this. The body politic rots from the head. Our Prime Minister has publicly advocated breaking the law, and effectively told public servants they can get away with doing it too. And that's a very bad message to be sending, and one he needs to be held accountable for.

Looking the other way on bribery

The government is currently in the process of passing the Organised Crime and Anti-corruption Legislation Bill, which will supposedly strengthen our laws against bribery. The problem? It still endorses the petty bribery of foreign officials:

Transparency International New Zealand is asking MP's to legislate to make bribes no matter how small - illegal whether paid in NZ or overseas.

The Law and Order Select Committee's report on the Organised Crime and Anti-corruption Legislation Bill continues to allow facilitation payments related to overseas transactions. Facilitation payments are small bribes and these are illegal in many jurisdictions, including in the UK under the UK Bribery Act.

Both Transparency International NZ and the Victoria University's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies made submissions to the Law and Order Select Committee on the grounds that allowing even small cases of bribery undermines New Zealand's strong reputation for being corruption free.

Transparency International New Zealand Chair Suzanne Snively, says the decision by the majority of the Select Committee not to deal with facilitation payments was a bitter blow, especially as the new legislation has been moving in such a positive direction.

"There is no dressing this up. Facilitation payments are bribes and by failing to address them, we are enshrining bribery in New Zealand Law", Suzanne Snively says.


The problem is in section 105C of the Crimes Act, which explicitly permits "small-scale" bribery to expedite "routine government actions". Such as, oh, bribing someone to give you a passport. Or citizenship. Or vote a particular way on legislation. Or not arrest you for murder. Providing its part of the official's job, and they're cheap, then its legal. The law is an explicit recognition and endorsement of corruption, and its one we should not have on our books.

McDonald's: Tax cheats

McDonald's has ripped off the Australian government to the tune of half a billion dollars:

International fast-food giant McDonald's avoided paying half a billion dollars of tax in Australia over a five-year period by shifting profits through the low-tax nation of Singapore, a new report by a global coalition of trade unions says.

The report, which has been funded and commissioned by a coalition of global trade unions including the Public Services International (PSI), the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), looks at how McDonald's has used "aggressive" tax strategies to avoid billions of dollars in taxes every year.

[...]

"McDonald's uses royalty payments from franchisees and foreign subsidiaries in major markets to route profits to tax havens," the report states. "These strategies may have allowed it to avoid up to US$1.8 billion (NZ$2.4m) in tax in those markets in the years between 2009 and 2013, including €1 billion (NZ$1.5b) across Europe and A$497 million (NZ$535m) in Australia."


That's half a billion dollars which could have gone to better public services for Australians, and instead flows into the pockets of McDonald's greedy and sociopathic shareholders. Of course, its all perfectly legal - and the fact that it is tells you that Australia's tax laws are inadequate.

Meanwhile, it poses the obvious question: is McDonald's doing this here? And if so, how much are they ripping us off by?

The full report on McDonald's tax cheating is here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015



A failure

I think John Key's campaign to change the New Zealand flag can now be officially described as a failure:

The first meeting in a $27.5 million project to chose a national flag has flopped.

It was reported that fewer than 10 people showed up to the first consultation meeting in Christchurch on Sunday.

The 12-strong Flag Consideration Panel outnumbered those in attendance.

While I want the flag changed and will vote for that, its pretty clear that there's no public enthusiasm for it. Even those opposed don't care enough to turn up and say "no". And under these circumstances, I can't see the second referendum succeeding.

Thanks, John Key. Treating this as your personal vanity project, a chance to literally "make your mark" on the country, has doomed it to defeat.

The problem with Labour

The New Zealand Labour Party says it stands for fairness and equality for all people being entitled to dignity and respect and equal access to our society. Naturally, its activists take this seriously - which is why they've passed (or, apparently, reconfirmed) a policy of free gender reassignment surgery. Which is now being attacked by Labour's MPs:

Labour MPs polled on their way to Caucus on Tuesday weren't overly keen on the idea and didn't think Labour voters would see it as a priority.

Napier MP Stuart Nash was at a regional conference where it was raised but he said he voted against it because he didn't think it was an important issue for New Zealanders.

"To be honest, never once in Napier has anyone ever said they're not going to vote for Labour because we're not funding gender reassignment surgery."

[...]

Mt Albert MP David Shearer wasn't entirely sure what the remit was but didn't think it sounded like "hardcore Labour policy".

[...]

Shearer doubted it was something that was the "main thrust" of what the party is doing at the moment.


Like IVF, gender reassignment is a procedure with limited need which makes a huge difference to the lives and happiness of those affected. Of course we should fund it. You can quibble the prioritisation of resources within limited health budgets (which Labour supposedly wants to expand), but not the principle here. Except that that's exactly what Labour's right wing - including its own leader - are doing.

This is the problem with Labour: it treats its young activists as serfs. Their role is to wave signs, knock on doors and hand out leaflets at election time - but to STFU about Labour's ideals between election. But people don't want to be serfs. Which is why young left-wing activists are voting with their feet for the Greens...

But its also a problem for Labour - because in addition to being its electoral workforce, those young, left-wing activists are the party's future. They're its future organisers and its future candidates. And if they go elsewhere, the party doesn't have a future.

MPs like Nash, Shearer and Little might want to think about that before they open their mouths.

Acquitted

John Banks has been acquitted on appeal of filing a false electoral return. This doesn't mean that he didn't accept two $25,000 donations from Kim Dotcom which he subsequently misdeclared as "anonymous", but that the evidence presented against him did not meet the required standard to prove that he did so knowingly, and therefore he could not be convicted of it. So, having taken over an important private prosecution, Crown Law indeed fucked it up. Heckuva job you're doing there guys. The integrity of our electoral system against corrupt politicians is safe with you.

Meanwhile, Banks is acting as if he's been vindicated and is innocent. Legally, that's certainly the case. But morally? Not so much. His evidence in court made it clear that he had structured his affairs so he could pretend that donations were anonymous when he knew damn well where they came from. While the prosecution failed to prove that knowledge in this specific case, his own words should condemn him, and rule him out from any future political career.

Finally, now that the legal process is over, perhaps we can see the report on the police handling of the case that the Independent Police Conduct Authority promised us?

Priorities

Two news stories today highlight National's priorities. Firstly, they're going to let Relationships Aotearoa, which provides counseling to victims of rape and domestic abuse, fold. And then there's this:

John Key has hinted that New Zealand's spy agencies will get more funding in the Budget, but signalled it would not be the same boost as in Australia.

As part of the May 12 Budget the Australian Government announced that they would be allocating another A$450 million (NZ$487.5m) would be allocated to federal police and spy agencies, to help collect information and identify security threats.

On Tuesday morning Key told reporters that there could be some more funding in Thursday's Budget, to cover increased workload, but signalled that the level would disappoint the spies.


So, no money to help domestic violence victims, but more money for spies. No resources for real problems, but buckets of cash for fake ones.

Defining poverty down

New Zealand has a problem: too many children living in poverty. But National has a solution: redefining poverty to make the problem look smaller:

John Key has completely invented a new poverty measure that drastically underestimates the extent of child poverty, presumably to avoid taking meaningful action in this week’s budget, the Green Party says.

In the last week John Key has put the number of children in poverty as low as 60,000, by inventing a new threshold for material deprivation that is higher than anywhere else in the Western world.

[...]

“John Key yesterday defined poverty as a child with nine to 11 attributes on the material deprivation index. In fact, the accepted definition of material deprivation is to have four or more.

“There is not one child poverty expert who would agree with the Prime Minister that only 60,000 to 100,000 kids are living in poverty here. Internationally accepted measures put the number up to four times as high.


This is how National deals with problems: not by acting to resolve them, but by PR, by redefining them into non-existence. But that doesn't actually make the problem go away - it just lets them continue to ignore it. And when we're talking about a problem like child poverty, which blights lives and consigns its innocent victims to poorer life chances, that is simply obscene. The fact that ignoring it will impose billions of dollars of ongoing costs on our society makes it obscenely stupid as well.

Monday, May 18, 2015



A state of terror

A study by Canterbury Community Law has confirmed what we all knew: beneficiaries are terrified of WINZ:

New Zealand's social welfare system "dehumanises" people in need, with beneficiaries described as "scared stiff" of Work and Income case managers, a report says.

A Canterbury Community Law (CCL) investigation, which looked at access to justice for beneficiaries, said beneficiaries felt they were treated as "non-humans" by Work and Income – not even allowed access to toilets during lengthy waits at offices.

Fear was at a level where people were forgoing entitlements from Work and Income, instead going to non-government organisation's food banks, or the Mayor's Welfare Fund because of previous negative experiences, the report said.


Morally, this is simply wrong. It is wrong for public servants to treat those they are meant to be looking out for as subhuman. It is wrong to deny people the basic dignity of access to toilets or a private place to discuss their personal business. Workers at WINZ who do these things should be ashamed of themselves, as should managers who permit such treatment. They are failing to live up to the moral standards we expect from our public service.

Legally, treating people this way is arguably discrimination on the basis of employment status, which is unlawful under the Human Rights Act.

And policywise, when people are too terrified to claim the assistance they are entitled to, then the system is not working (though it probably does wonders for their budget - yay, more trips to expensive resorts for WINZ bureaucrats!).

WINZ needs a culture change, so that it treats people with dignity, and so that it is seen as a source of assistance rather than terror. But that's difficult when successive Ministers have made it very clear that they see beneficiaries as subhumans with no privacy rights. The change is going to have to come from the top. And that means changing the government. Sadly, I'm not sure that "starve the poor if they don't vote for us" Labour would be much better.

A regulatory bribe

A couple of weeks ago we learned that the government had bribed a Saudi billionaire to get him to exert his influence over Gulf governments and back a free trade agreement. It was a sordid, disreputable deal, which undermined New Zealand's position on corruption. But it gets worse - because it turns out that we gave him a regulatory bribe as well:

An investigation by ONE News has discovered the Government agreed to "delete" a proposed rule around animal safeguards when a Saudi businessman asked.

[...]

Foreign Minister Murray McCully wrote an undated letter to Hamood Al Ali Al Khalaf, which ONE News understands was written in March 2012, detailing just how far New Zealand would go to help him. Mr Khalaf lost hundreds of millions of dollars when New Zealand banned the export of live sheep to Saudi Arabia nearly a decade ago.

Mr McCully said the export of sheep for breeding, not slaughter, could be allowed "relatively easily" providing some rules were put in place.

But Mr Khalaf didn't like all of them.

Mr McCully wrote to Mr Khalaf: "You expressed strong objection to provisions that extend past disembarkation." In other words, any rules around what happens to sheep once they land in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Khalaf responded saying local rules were strong enough.

Mr McCully caved, saying: "I agree to recommend deleting provisions past the point of disembarkation."


Which coincidentally creates an enormous loophole allowing live animals to be exported for slaughter again, provided the exporters lie that they're breeding stock. It would be interesting to know how many have been exported under this new provision - and how many have died in transit.

Meanwhile, wouldn't it be nice to have a government that stood up for our values, rather than giving them away as bribes to the rich?

New Fisk

Canada’s support of Israel is dangerous
Despite regional conflict, Lebanon is planning to become a railway powerhouse once again

Winning the argument on taxing capital gains

Last election, Labour campaigned on a capital gains tax to deflate the Auckland property bubble and provide fairness. National, of course, campaigned against it. And now that Labour has backed away from its CGT plans as a supposed election loser, National has decided to introduce one:

A capital gains tax on residential property sold within two years of buying it is being seen as a step in the right direction, but not far enough, with few expecting the new tax to have a big effect on Auckland property prices.

Prime Minister John Key announced the plan this morning as part of the Budget package.

The exemptions to this new bright-line test will be if the property sold is the seller's main home, if it is part of a deceased estate or inherited, and or if it is transferred as part of a relationship settlement.

The tax will be on the seller's normal income tax rate.


Yes, its weak - but it firmly establishes the principle of taxing capital gains. And as others have commented, it will now be very easy for future governments to extend it to make it more comprehensive. A future Labour/Green government will be able to extend that brightline test to five years, or to infinity, while widening the net to capture other sources of capital gains such as financial wealth. And that's a Good Thing - because the current situation where the poor pay tax while the rich get tax-free capital gains is manifestly unfair.

Its also clear that the left has won the argument here, as it has on child poverty and parental leave. The evidence that Auckland's property bubble is a problem is so obvious that even National, a party of and for property speculators, has to recognise it (or at least recognise that the public recognises it). Though I'd prefer that when parties changed their minds, they were honest about it, rather than trying to pretend that we have always been at war with Eurasia and that a tax which taxes capital gains somehow isn't a capital gains tax. If they're not sure how to sell that, then they could do worse than Keynes' "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Friday, May 15, 2015



What's Welsh for "fuck you"?

The Independent today has a fluff piece on "9 absurd things you're not allowed to do in [the UK] Parliament". Along with all the ones we have inherited - not speaking to one another directly, not calling people liars or hypocrites - there's also one which is outright offensive rather than merely absurd:

Speak in Welsh

The United Kingdom’s regions promote a number of languages: Most notably, Welsh has half a million speakers, Scots tens of thousands, and a similar number Irish.

Unfortunately for speakers of these languages, speeches in the House of Commons can only be made in English. Quotations in other languages are allowed, however.

Unlike in the European Parliament there are no live translation services available for members.


Pretty obviously, this is because the UK Parliament grew out of the English Parliament, which viewed the other constituent nations of the UK as subject peoples to be lorded over, rather than partners. But the UK isn't supposed to be like that now - instead its supposed to be a partnership, and is evolving towards a loose federation. In the modern UK, refusing to recognise the languages of the UK's constituent nations is a denial of that nationhood - and therefore of that partnership. Which isn't the way to go if you want those nations to stay together.

Gareth Morgan on the flag

Writing in the Herald Gareth Morgan makes it clear why we need to change our flag:

There is nothing sacrosanct about the current flag. The history of the New Zealand flag is told on the Stand For website and reflects the rather haphazard tale of using the British Navy's ensign with various symbols over the years. Since 1835, NZ has used a variety of designs as the national flag. Our current flag dates from 1902 and its history shows it is all about, and only about, British imperialism. Why do we remain sycophants to that?

In 1926 we became a Dominion and got our first Prime Minister. In 1947 we shook off the colonial shackle and became independent. In 1973 Britain cut our preferential trade links when it entered the EU. It wasn't until 1986 that our Constitution Act finally ended the right of the British Parliament to legislate here.

That's too long a period of subservience to an imperialist power, reflecting our low level of self-confidence.

Our current flag reflects that national immaturity. It broadcasts that Aotearoa New Zealand is still really someone else's possession. We belong to nobody else, and New Zealanders need to end this grovelling, stand up and acknowledge that we are grown ups now. Until we do, the colonial cringe remains part of our national identity.


Changing the flag and ditching the union jack will make it clear that we are our own country, not some south seas appendix of Britain. Unfortunately, running it as the Prime Minister's personal vanity project probably isn't the best way to achieve change. I'll vote for change, but I suspect a lot of other people won't, because John Key has made it all about him rather than all about us.

Thursday, May 14, 2015



A whitewash

The Auditor-General is supposed to be our watchdog against corruption and conflicts of interest in government. But today, they threw their integrity and reputation on the bonfire to protect National's Katherine Rich:

Conflict of interest claims against former National MP Katherine Rich will not be investigated by the Office of the Auditor-General.

[...]

"We are satisfied that there are no matters we need to investigate further. We have not identified problems with the management of conflicts of interest by the HPA.

"We consider it would be too simplistic to assume that the aims and activities of the HPA and FGC are incontrovertibly opposed and utterly incompatible, such that a person who was associated with one organisation was impossibly compromised from any association with the other.

"Similarly, it would be too vague and indirect to conclude that it is impermissible for Mrs Rich to participate in any matter relating to a broad general subject-matter, such as alcohol or tobacco."

The OAG said that its review of HPA's minutes had not identified any matters or decisions that might raise serious concerns about its management of conflicts of interest.


Right. So Rich can decide on alcohol, tobacco and sugar, despite being a lobbyist for those very industries. And there was no conflict, despite the fact that she actually did make such decisions. As for the concerns about her hiring Carrick Graham to subcontract sewerbloggers to run PR hits on health researchers, that's dismissed as "not relat[ing] to Mrs Rich's conduct on the HPA", despite it being a serious conflict in and of itself.

And the kicker? They didn't even bother to interview her. Some fucking watchdog. Instead of protecting the public interest, the Auditor-General is just whitewashing for the powerful.

Another IGIS investigation

Back in March, we learned that the GCSB had been abused to spy on friendly nations in the name of getting National's Tim Groser a better job. It was an outright abuse of power, verging on personal corruption. And now it will be investigated by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security:

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn has commenced an inquiry into the way the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) considers undertaking foreign intelligence activities.

The inquiry is in response to issues recently raised around a Minister of the Crown’s bid to become Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.

“I consider the issues raised about the process followed when the GCSB considers undertaking particular intelligence activity are of sufficient public importance to warrant an own motion inquiry,” Ms Gwyn said.

“While it is unlikely that I will be able to publicly confirm or deny the specific allegations relating to this process, I can inquire more generally into how the GCSB determines, within its statutory constraints, what intelligence activity to undertake and what policies and procedures are in place to regulate its activities.”


Which is good, because in this case, it looks like a state agency with highly intrusive powers was suborned for personal gain.

Meanwhile, that's two major IGIS investigations as a result of the Snowden revelations, and there are probably more to come. But it also makes you wonder what the hell the current Inspector-General's predecessor was doing during their time in the job, since they clearly weren't conducting an ongoing review and unscheduled audits of the GCSB's actions to ensure they were lawful and appropriate (as required by their governing legislation). In fact, you'd almost get the impression that previous IGIS's saw their role simply as a rubber-stamp and a sop to public opinion, not actually as a watchdog...

Taking care of their friends

During her time as Maori Party leader, Tariana Turia faithfully supported National. They rewarded her with a Ministerial position and a crony knighthood. And now they're taking care of her in her retirement as well:

Former Maori Party co-leader Dame Tariana Turia has been appointed to the Families Commission board.

The commission rebranded late last year and is now known as the Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, or Superu for short.

The organisation is tasked with monitoring, evaluating and researching to improve the lives of New Zealand families and communities, and it also funds services including the NZ Family Violence Clearinghouse.

Associate Social Development Minister Jo Goodhew announced Dame Tariana's appointment to the board, as well as Len Cook.


Unstated: how much money she'll get for this on top of her gold-plated parliamentary superannuation and her free travel perks. But regardless of how much it is, the sight of National rewarding their parliamentary cronies with public money is obscene.

Nauru is turning into a full-on dictatorship

Driven by the pressure of hosting Australia's unwanted refugees, Nauru is turning into a full-on dictatorship. So far the Nauran government has evicted the opposition from Parliament (for "treason" for speaking to foreign media, to boot), exiled the judiciary, and shut down Facebook. Now they're ending freedom of speech, with draconian laws to punish those who speak out against them:

The Nauru government is further tightening controls to curb dissent.

It is amending the criminal code to make any comment deemed to cause emotional stress and likely to threaten public order an offence punishable with up to seven years in jail.

In introducing the amendment, the justice minister David Adeang says the freedom of speech has of late been tainted with somewhat vile and tasteless words.


New Zealand currently provides $2 million a year to Nauru, a significant portion of the government's budget. But we're now funding a dictatorship. Isn't it time we stopped?

Britain's political monarchy exposed

Ten years ago, a Guardian journalist used the UK's new Freedom of Information Act to request correspondence between Charles Windsor, self-styled Prince of Wales, and government Ministers. The government refused. The Guardian appealed, won a ruling for release from the Information Tribunal, and managed to overturn a government veto in the Supreme Court. But they won, and today, Chalres" now-infamous "black spider memos" have finally been made public. The government had tried to veto them to protect Windsor's "political neutrality", out of fears that seeing how he really behaved might lead the public to believe he was not, in fact, neutral. And you can see why: because his secret lobbying was highly political:

From Blair, Charles demanded everything from urgent action to improve equipment for troops fighting in Iraq to the availability of alternative herbal medicines in the UK, a pet cause of the prince. [and we should note, a lucrative source of revenue - I/S]

In a single letter in February 2005, he urged a badger cull to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis – damning its opponents as “intellectually dishonest”; lobbied for his preferred person to be appointed to crack down on the mistreatment of farmers by supermarkets; proposed his own aide to brief Downing Street on the design of new hospitals; and urged Blair to tackle a European Union directive limiting the use of herbal alternative medicines use in the UK.


And Ministers, like crawling sycophants, obeyed. So despite Westminster's central bargain of the monarch staying out of politics, the monarchy are exercising secret influence at the highest level of government. And if this is a taste of what he plans to do as monarch, then the UK should respond in kind and end it for good.

You can read the full memos here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015



Suspicionless electronic border searches are unreasonable

Back in March we learned that Customs wants the right to search all your data whenever you enter New Zealand, without suspicion - and jail you if you refuse to give them all your passwords. Meanwhile, in the US, a Federal judge has just ruled such suspicionless electronic border searches unconstitutional:

A federal judge said the search of a traveler's laptop at a Los Angeles airport was "unreasonable," and violated his constitutional privacy protections.

In an opinion released Friday, US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson allowed a defendant to suppress evidence collected from his laptop in 2013, dealing a blow to the government's argument that he was selling aircraft parts illegally to embargoed Iran.

Jackson said the search should not have happened because at the time it was "supported by so little suspicion of ongoing or imminent criminal activity," adding that the search was "invasive" of the traveler's privacy.

What should have been a routine border inspection was anything but, Jackson wrote, because the laptop was taken 150 miles away so its data could be downloaded and stored for an indefinite period.


And that's the problem right there: an electronic "search" isn't a search, but a wholesale copying and retention for future unspecified uses of every aspect of our lives. And the data isn't just kept by Customs, but can be turned over to the police, foreign agencies, or even the SIS. Its an invitation to police to circumvent normal warrant requirements, for customs to sell out our privacy for "brownie points" from foreigners, and to the government to target their political opponents - something we're already beginning to see. And that's why we should not allow such suspicionless searches. If Customs wants to perv through our data, they should do what the police have to: get a warrant.