Wednesday, March 04, 2015



London's dirty-money property boom

London has seen a property boom over the last decade which is on the verge of driving ordinary people completely out of the city. And its all driven by dirty money:

Billions of pounds of corruptly gained money has been laundered by criminals and foreign officials buying upmarket London properties through anonymous offshore front companies – making the city arguably the world capital of money laundering.

Some 36,342 properties in London have been bought through hidden companies in offshore havens and while a majority of those will have been kept secret for legitimate privacy purposes, vast numbers are thought to have been bought anonymously to hide stolen money.

The flow of corrupt cash has driven up average prices with a “widespread ripple effect down the property price chain and beyond London”, according to property experts cited in the most comprehensive study ever carried out into the long-suspected money laundering route through central London real estate, by the respected anti-corruption organisation Transparency International.


The fundamental problem here is that Britain is a tax haven. While it pretends to be a good global citizen, its financial services industry launders money for tax cheats and the corrupt. And the spillover effects - finance-sector bonuses and dirty-money driven property booms - ruin life for everybody else. Shutting down this criminal enterprise by closing tax loopholes and forcing transparency would be good for the world, and good for ordinary UKanians. But since when have "their" rulers ever cared about them?

(Meanwhile, it makes you wonder about how much of the top end of the Auckland property market is being driven by dirty cash as well...)

"As soon as practicable" II

In New Zealand, "our" spies are part of the core public service. Every year the GCSB is required to submit an annual report to the Minister "as soon as practicable after each year ending on 30 June".

I've been waiting for the GCSB's annual report for a while. So, three weeks ago I used the OIA to ask the Minister whether they'd received it. According to the response I got yesterday, he has - on February 16, four days after I made my request. Whether this "as soon as practicable" is left as an exercise for the reader.

(By comparison, almost every other government department submitted their annual report in mid-October - the exception being the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which also slacked around until February).

Speak out against the war in Iraq

Don't like John Key's new war in Iraq? Peace Movement Aotearoa has organised a series of vigils around the country tomorrow night. If you're in Hokianga, Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton, Raglan, Otaki, Wellington, Takaka, Nelson, Christchurch or Dunedin, please go along and make your voice heard.

We need to talk about our police

Last night, in what may be the last appeal of its type, the British Privy Council overturned the conviction of Teina Pora. Its unclear at this stage whether there will be a retrial, but at this stage its hard to imagine one succeeding. I'm pleased to see a miscarriage of justice overturned, and hopefully Pora will be receiving compensation for his ruined life (though really, how can money compensate for the state robbing you of twenty years, your ability to function in modern society, and your relationship with your children? It can't). But once again, this raises serious questions about our justice system and the checks and balances within it.

The Police are making much of how, in dismissing Pora's "confessions" as unreliable, the Privy Council found that police did not exert pressure on him and were "fastidiously correct in their treatment of him". That may have been true within the interview room itself. However, the context paints a different picture. Faced with a suspect they knew was making unreliable statements (he had named others, who were cleared by alibis and DNA evidence), instead of dismissing them entirely, they built a case around one of them. When that case was overturned on appeal after Malcolm Rewa was convicted, they bribed witnesses to secure a conviction at retrial. Since then, they've steadfastly refused to admit that they did anything wrong, or that Pora may not have been the man they're after. In the process, not only have they ruined an innocent man's life - they've also let a guilty one go free. To be clear, the only reason Malcolm Rewa has not been convicted of Susan Burdett's murder is because the police didn't do their fucking job properly in 1993, fixated on Pora as an easy way of clearing the case off their books, and in the process created reasonable doubt for the actual criminal. Now that's a better work story!

The police will no doubt tell us that things are different today, that they actually investigate crimes rather than stitching up the first brown kid who falls into their hands, and that they have better institutional safeguards to prevent them from building cases around fantasies. I guess we'll find out in twenty years time when their current victims are struggling for justice.

So how do we stop this from happening again? Preventing police from relying on uncorroborated "confessions" at trial would be a good start, because they just seem to result in innocent people in jail. But its also clear that we need better review mechanisms that just the courts. The UK has a Criminal Cases Review Commission to review dubious convictions and refer potential miscarriages of justice back to the courts; after Thomas, Dougherty, Bain and Pora, its clear that we need one here too.

Should we limit local government pay as well?

On Monday, John Key announced that he would be legislating urgently to remove the unjust pay rise given to MPs' by the Remuneration Authority. I've already attacked the process National is using, and today we have a perfect reason to do it better: because Auckland Mayor Len Brown wants to look at local government pay as well:

Auckland mayor Len Brown and other local politicians have called for their pay to be reined in by the Government.

Extending pay reforms to include elected representatives in local government has drawn support from Mr Brown, deputy mayor Penny Hulse and right-leaning councillors Dick Quax and Cameron Brewer.

[...]

But Mr Brown and Ms Hulse have confirmed to the Herald support for the review being extended to cover local body representatives.

"At a time we are trying to keep average rates increases as close to the rate of inflation as possible, this makes absolute sense," Mr Brown said.


They have a point. In Auckland, at least, local body politicians seem to be paid well enough already and not need the enormous pay rises the Remuneration Authority will give them in a misguided belief that they're corporate CEOs or bankers. But Auckland isn't our only local body, and pay scales vary depending on the size of a local body; while Auckland's mayor may be paid well enough (and seriously, quarter of a million, or quarter of an Auckland house a year, is "enough" by any reasonable measure), the same may not be true of Hamilton's - or Stuart Island's. The issue is complicated enough that a simple one-line patch to the law might not work; it requires careful consideration, both before a bill is introduced and in select committee (where the public will very definitely have an opinion on whether mayors and councillors are paid enough).

John Key's abuse of urgency is specifically designed to prevent that consideration. He's not interested in giving us a proper say in how well he and his ilk should be paid, and the balance between the competing needs of preventing corruption and ensuring representatives are still connected to the people they purport to represent, rather than existing in the 1%'s bubble. There's no upside for him in debating the wider issues (which also touch on inequality in our society and how MPs pay contributes to it). Key just wants to stem some bad PR as quickly as possible and move on.

But if we want to stem inequality and social exclusion by and of our MP's, we need to have that conversation. Maybe someone should talk to Brown and do a member's bill on the topic...

Tuesday, March 03, 2015



NZ police violated legal privilege

There's a case going through the Supreme Court at the moment where the New Zealand police bugged an accused's conversations with their lawyer in an effort to gain an advantage during prosecution:

A convicted drug baron says police illegally intercepted phone calls he had with his lawyer, giving prosecutors unfair insights into his case.

[...]

The Supreme Court was told today that Beckham was locked up after some 220 hours of phone calls were tapped. His car and cellphone were bugged and he was arrested in December 2008.

He was a high-value target and police spoke publicly of their relief at Beckham being taken "out of circulation" when he was jailed.

Beckham's lawyer Simon Mount told the Supreme Court that phone calls Beckham made to his then-lawyer Murray Gibson were intercepted, giving police insights into discussions that were legally privileged.

Mr Mount said it was "extraordinary" for senior police to authorise or tolerate surveillance of conversations that gave the prosecution a heads-up on the defence strategy.

"We've got material that is clearly subject to litigation privilege."


Some of the interceptions were done by Corrections when Beckham was being held on remand. It is illegal for Corrections to monitor conversations with lawyers, and staff should have ceased recording and destroyed all records the moment they realised the conversation was privileged. While it wasn't illegal at the time for police to violate privilege in this way (it is now), its unquestionably a violation of the right to a fair trial. To point out the obvious, an adversarial justice system simply does not work if one side can bug the other and know their strategy, strengths and weaknesses in advance.

As for the remedy, the police won't learn to obey the law if they're allowed to convict people on the basis of illegally gathered evidence or by violating their fair trial rights. The court should throw out the conviction, and make it clear that it is the police's fault. If the police don't want the guilty to go free, they need to actually obey the law.

Don't fly Qantas

Welcome to Australia, where if you don't like the government's racist refugee deportation policies, their airline collaborator will ban you from flying:

Qantas has banned a Melbourne man from flying with them after he asked to be removed from a flight taking an asylum seeker from Melbourne to Darwin for deportation.

Paul Leary has filed a complaint with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal's human rights division, on the grounds that the ban discriminates against him on the basis of his political belief.

The 51-year-old was booked on a flight on February 2 this year and arrived at Melbourne Airport to find asylum seeker advocates handing out information about a Sri Lankan man who was on the flight.

[...]

Mr Leary said that while [a] protest was taking place, he and his business partner decided they wanted to leave the plane because they were not comfortable with the man's treatment.

[...]

Four days later, having made it to Darwin with a different airline, the pair went to Darwin airport for their Qantas trip home to Melbourne.

Mr Leary said a Qantas manager told them they could not board their flight because they were subject to a no-fly ban and a security review.


But pretty obviously, this isn't a "security" issue, but a political one. Leary is being punished for politely expressing disapproval of Qantas' actions. Hopefully the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal will make it clear that this is not acceptable. Otherwise I suppose there's always defamation action.

In the meantime, don't fly Qantas, because they're arseholes.

Climate change: The first climate war

One of the predictions about climate change is that climate change-induced drought and famine will lead to more wars. Sadly, it turns out that what is happening in Syria is one of those wars:

Drawing one of the strongest links yet between global warming and human conflict, researchers said Monday that an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was most likely due to climate change, and that the drought was a factor in the violent uprising that began there in 2011.

The drought was the worst in the country in modern times, and in a study published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists laid the blame for it on a century-long trend toward warmer and drier conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean, rather than on natural climate variability.

The researchers said this trend matched computer simulations of how the region responds to increases in greenhouse-gas emissions, and appeared to be due to two factors: a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.

[...]

Dr. Kelley, who did the research while at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and is now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said there was no apparent natural cause for the warming and drying trend, which developed over the last 100 years, when humans’ effect on climate has been greatest.


And ~200,000 people are now dead as a result.

Climate change isn't a distant, abstract issue. Its here, and its killing people in unexpected ways. Great chunks of the world - some of them nuclear-armed - are exposed to massively higher risks of drought and famine because of climate change. Which means massively higher risks of political destabilisation and armed conflict as well. Climate change is turning our world into a tinder-box. And because we have not yet cut our emissions of greenhouse gases, it is only going to get worse.

Another bailout for Solid Energy

Back in 2013, the government bailed out Solid Energy after Don Elder's empire-building basically destroyed the company. Just 18 months on, its softening us up to do it again:

Prime Minister John Key is refusing to rule out giving taxpayer cash to troubled mining company Solid Energy, which he says is in a "very delicate position".

[...]

Yesterday Key said injecting any more money into Solid was not the Government's preferred position, indicating its private debt was the banks' problem.

"They have a reasonable amount of private sector debt. We've made it quite clear to the company and to the bankers involved that debt is their responsibility," Key said.

"The banks have an exposure to the company and the question is how do they best believe they can get some of that money back."


We've seen how this goes over troops to Iraq: the "least preferred option" suddenly becomes government policy, with not even a Parliamentary vote. And Key is pretty obviously playing the same game here, planning to throw good money after bad.

He shouldn't. Solid Energy is a failed business with no future. We own it as a legacy, because it was important a hundred years ago. But now its just a dirty source of pollution which we need to shut down if we want to save the planet. Rather than bailing it out again, Key should let Solid Energy fail and instead spend the money on something useful.

Monday, March 02, 2015



I want MPs' pay reformed, but not like this

One of New Zealand's core political myths is the tale of how back in 1985 before MP's pay and conditions were set by the Remuneration Authority, they used urgency to give themselves a gold-plated pension scheme in just seven minutes - forever cementing their reputation as self-serving parasites. Next week, we look to see urgency used to do the opposite: to remove the pay-rise the Remuneration Authority just gave them.

While I'm pleased by the outcome, I'm not pleased by the process. The bill apparently hasn't even been written, and "Ministers anticipate more detailed advice from officials on the measure to be used". So, its a knee-jerk rush job, which we'll probably need to fix later. And while a case for urgency could have been made last week to prevent the pay-rise from happening, now that the evil it seeks to avert has happened, the case is much weaker. Since the government is already contemplating clawing back the pay rise, there's no reason it can't legislate by the normal process, allowing a full public debate on the criteria we should use to set MPs' pay, and ensuring a select committee (and the country's lawyers) can spot and plug any loopholes. But the focus groups have spoken, the government is bleeding popularity, so instead we see the democratic process abused once again, for purely PR purposes.

(I have no problem whatsoever with clawing back a politically set pay-rise which should never have been given in the first place. Or with amending the law to link MPs pay to that of other public servants. But this is a shit way to do it which shows yet more contempt for the public and for our democracy).

Successes?

Tony Abbott's visit to New Zealand gave Australian political commentators another excuse to highlight the failings of his leadership, by comparing him with John Key. However, their list of John Key's successes is a little... odd:

Key has, with a minimum of fuss since being elected in 2008, raised the GST and cut income taxes, put Christchurch back on the road to recovery after a major earthquake, overseen the introduction of same-sex marriage and set New Zealand the ambitious target of a 50 per cent reduction in emissions over the next 50 years.

Obviously the first is a success if you're a rich right-winger who wants to redistribute wealth upwards - and Key certainly is. But the rest? Christchurch won't be "recovering" any time soon, same-sex marriage was introduced and championed by a Labour backbencher, and Key's climate target is hardly ambitious and he's not doing anything to meet it anyway. I know they were looking for contrasts with Abbott, but to New Zealanders, this reads more like a list of Key's failures.

But I guess this is what happens when you have "political correspondent"s desperate for an angle but too pressed for time to do the research...

New Fisk

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

This stinks

The Herald's datamining operation has uncovered more very stinky stuff in candidate donation returns:

Talley's Group, a family-owned fishing and meat processing company based in Nelson, poured $42,500 into no fewer than nine separate races, mostly favouring National candidates fighting for regional seats.

Three members of the primary production select committee - Chester Borrows, Stuart Smith and Damien O'Connor - each received $5000.

The Primary Production Committee is responsible for any bill or inquiry relating to fisheries. It can make amendments (which are almost always accepted), or even recommend that a bill not be passed. In other words, a powerful influence on policy. Which makes Talleys' "donations" pretty obviously an overt bribe.

As for how to fix this, Dim-Post has a good suggestion:
The solutions are simple: (a) transparency, which means shutting down National’s latest donation laundering scam, and (b) strict policing of conflict of interest. If corporations believe in certain MPs so much they just have to shower them with money then that’s great, but those donations should preclude those MPs from sitting on Select Committees or holding portfolios that impact on their donors.
Or from proposing amendments or casting a vote on matters of interest to their donors. As Dim-Post says, "let’s see how devoted these companies remain if their political clients can’t deliver law changes for them." And I expect that those bribes "donations" would substantially dry up the moment MPs are forbidden from repaying them.

A cover up

Ever since rumours that (now former) National MP Mike Sabin was being investigated by police were made public, the question on everyone's lips has been "what did the Prime Minister know and when did he know it?" Sabin has since resigned to spend more time with his lawyer, but the PM's ever-changing answers to that question have simply increased suspicion that he hasn't been telling us the truth.

Attempts to get answers out of Ministers have met with a wall of silence, even in Parliament. But there are other ways of getting answers out of the government. The police are subject to the Official Information Act, so someone used FYI, the public OIA request service, to ask when the police briefed their Minister. The response was that saying so would be "likely to prejudice the maintenance of the law including the prevention, investigation and detection of offences and the right to a fair trial".

Really?

This isn't a question about the detail of alleged offences or how they were detected or investigated. It doesn't ask for information that could prejudice a fair trial (and to the extent that briefing documents revealed any of these things, they could properly be withheld). What it primarily asks for is a date: when the police briefed their Minister (as is usual, and as has been admitted) under the "no surprises" policy. Its a question of political accountability, not of police procedure. And its very difficult to conceive of how it could possibly prejudice the maintenance of the law. Instead, it looks like the police are simply engaged in a political cover-up to benefit their political masters. And that is not what they are paid by Parliament for.

(Note: if releasing the information would be contrary to a suppression order, then it would be refused under s18(c))

Friday, February 27, 2015



"CIA or Gestapo tactics"

Earlier in the week we learned that the Chicago police department had been running its very own black site, where prisoners were disappeared, beaten, shackled, hot-boxed, and held without access to lawyers (or any other form of due process). It seems to be turning into a major political issue in Chicago, and rightly so. While the Chicago PD has a dirty history of torture and abuse (so much so that when the US needed torturers for Guantanamo, they hired a former Chicago police detective), the idea that torture is happening in America is a bit too much even for Americans. And with a mayoral runoff election now on the cards, there might be some chance of change (or, it could just be swept back under the carpet, like Fergusson and police violence generally. This is America after all).

But what got my attention reading all this was the reaction of one local politician:

Until this week, the Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin only knew of the warehouse next-door – like the mother – as a police facility in a struggling Chicago neighbourhood.

“I hadn’t heard of the sort of CIA or Gestapo tactics that were mentioned in the Guardian article until it was brought to my attention,” Boykin said in an interview outside Homan Square. “And we are calling for the Department of Justice to open an investigation into these allegations.”


[Emphasis added]

Yes, the CIA now has such a reputation for torture that even Americans talk about it in the same breath as the Gestapo.

(Those who don't like the comparison may wish to consider this 2007 analysis of the two organisations' techniques. The major difference between the two seems to be that the Gestapo were better dressed).

Spies begat terror

The big news from the UK today is that one of ISIS's executioners has been identified as a London man known who was being monitored by MI5. But in addition to raising questions about MI5's competence, its also raising questions about their role in his radicalisation:

Emails and other documents that emerged on Thursday also showed that security services had been tracking Emwazi since 2009, starting when he was refused entry to Tanzania, until the middle of 2013 when they informed his family that he had crossed over to Syria.

During that period Emwazi complained on occasion that he had been harassed by MI5, but the Kuwaiti-born Briton eventually disappeared before arriving on the world stage as the murderous public face of Isis in August 2014.

[...]

Asim Qureshi, the research director of Cage, an advocacy group working with victims of the “war on terror”, said Emwazi’s repeated detention and interrogation by the security services would have ended up making him susceptible to radicalisation. Cage had previously advised Emwazi when he was complaining about his treatment five years ago.

Emwazi was refused permission to enter Tanzania in August 2009, and he told Cage that he was put on a plane to the Netherlands where he was questioned by MI5. In a subsequent series of emails sent to Cage, Emwazi said the British officer knew “everything about me; where I lived, what I did, and the people I hanged around with”.

He said that he was asked to become an informant but refused – and the MI5 officer was alleged to have said that “life would be harder”.


There's no question that Emwazi was an extremist - that's why MI5 was interested in him. But in this case, as in others, their heavy-handed tactics seem to have made things worse, not better, and pushed him over the edge into murder. Its the war on terror in miniature, where the US/UK's abuses simply drive more people to terrorism. we've seen it over US torture, which is a recruiting poster for radicals. We've seen it over Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US invasion provided an endless stream of atrocities. And we're seeing it in Australia at the moment, where Tony Abbott's war on Muslims is fuelling rather than quenching domestic radicalism. And sadly, John Key seems to be marching us down exactly the same path. And the only people who do well out of such tactics are spies and terrorists, who seem to paradoxically need each other to survive.

National is laundering donations

On Wednesday I highlighted a disturbing trend in the 2014 election candidate donation returns, where National Party candidates were almost entirely funded from the party's head office - suggesting that the party was laundering donations to hide the identity of donors to local campaigns. Yesterday, National MP Jono Naylor (who has prior on hiding the identity of donors, then paying them off with big favours) effectively admitted that was the case:

National Party list MP Jono Naylor was the highest spender in Palmerston North - he declared $22,048.97 in expenses and $25,688.34 in donations. Naylor said the money was drawn from donations to the party's Palmerston North branch.

[Emphasis added. The donation from the National Party was his only declared source of funding]

So, to make that clear: people donate to the Palmerston North branch to support National's campaign there. That money is then given to the local candidate. Meaning that the donations aren't party donations, but candidate ones, and the party is acting as a transmitter and should be identifying the contributors.

I'm sure that, like the banks who facilitate tax cheating, the National Party has a lawyer who says its all legal. But its certainly not within the spirit of the law. And if we want to end this sort of scam, we need to lower the party donation disclosure threshold so it is equal to the candidate one: $1,500. That way there's no benefit in this sort of laundering.

Crocodile tears from Key

In the wake of yesterday's obscene MP's pay-rise, John Key has made his annual statement that he's not happy and wants to see the law changed:

Prime Minister John Key says he supports changes to the law driving the annual pay rises MPs receive, but say they don't want.

[...]

Remuneration Authority chairman John Errington yesterday said that the MPs were the ones who set the rules the authority followed in deciding the pay rise.

Key said MPs' salaries were at an appropriate level, and politicians needed to look at changing the law the Remuneration Authority acted under.


Which we can add to all his other annual statements where he says the same thing, but does nothing.

Its time for Key to put his money where his mouth is. He has a Parliamentary majority. He has control of the legislative agenda. He can make this happen if he wants to. If it doesn't happen, then it will be obvious why: because he doesn't want to, and all those annual statements of disquiet are just crocodile tears.

Thursday, February 26, 2015



The Spy Cables

There's been another major leak of intelligence material, this time from South Africa to Al Jazeera and the Guardian. As usual, it exposes more dubiousness from governments, from Netanyahu's outright lies over Iran's nuclear program to South Africa's State Security Agency spying on its own government. It also appears much of the intelligence circulating to support the 'war on terror" is outright fantasy, given creedance by politicians because someone has stamped it "Top Secret". And then there's the really dubious stuff: South Africa spying on its own citizens at the request of other nations, and spying on non-hostile nations just so they've got something to trade.

And again, it raises the obvious question: if this is how the intelligence world works, are "our" spies doing this? Is the SIS spying on peaceful New Zealanders because some dipshit foreign authoritarian doesn't like what they say (yes)? Is the GCSB spying on our neighbours, who we quite like actually and want to get along with, because the US is interested in them (almost certainly). Such quid pro quo arrangements have nothing to do with our national security, and appear to be well outside our spy agencies' functions, and would therefore be illegal. But our intelligence oversight bodies are forbidden from investigating operational matters, or focused on process, rather than policy - which means that they don't provide oversight of this sort of thing. Which means the spies get to run riot.

No freedom of speech in Turkey

Merve Buyuksarac is a Turkish model. Last month she shared a poem satirising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan on her Instagram account. Now, she's been detained, and is facing two years in jail:

A former model and Miss Turkey could face up to two years for social media posts that prosecutors have deemed to be critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A lawyer for the model Merve Buyuksarac said today that an Istanbul prosecutor is demanding she be prosecuted on charges of insulting a public official. A court will decide whether to start proceedings.


The idea that you can't mock or satirise elected officials seems peculiarly authoritarian. But that's pretty much Turkey in a nutshell. They're not a democracy, and won't be until their leaders stop pretending they're still Sultan.