Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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:
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 sq m maximum, stated in a memo to then-minister David Carter in April 2011, to the 3500 sq m maximum in the June 2013 Heads of Agreement to the 2850 sq m 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.

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.