Thursday, October 30, 2014

An unmanaged conflict

Katherine Rich is a member of the government-appointed Health Promotion Agency, responsible for (as it says on its website) "inspiring all New Zealanders to lead healthier lives".

Katherine Rich is also Chief Executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, a lobby group for the food, sugar, tobacco and alcohol industries. As part of this role, she subcontract lobbyist Carrick Graham to run dirty politics hits on health researchers via Cameron Slater's sewerblog.

Rich's two roles appear to be in direct conflict. But the government says that that conflict is managed appropriately. Bullshit. While it has been declared, as Kevin hague pointed out in Question Time today, Rich has never recused herself from a single discussion or decision of the HPA, despite a clear requirement in the Crown Entities Act that she does so on any matter in which she has an interest.

There are two possibilities here. Firstly, despite its name, function, and the extensive contents of its website, the Health Promotion Agency has never in the time that Rich has been a member dealt with any issue related to sugar, alcohol, tobacco, or any of the other unhealthy products she peddles.

The second is that the chair of the HPA is a muppet and Rich's conflict is effectively unmanaged, contrary to the law.

Which seems more likely?

Robert Fisk

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A stretch

This morning the Herald revealed that Kim Dotcom had been convicted and fined for dangerous driving in 2009, but had not declared it on his application for residency. Immigration is now talking about deporting him.

So, this is what we are now: a country where the government talks openly of deporting its political enemies for traffic offences.

Deporting Dotcom would require the Minister to find that his residency was procured through fraud. That would require the Minister to find that Dotcom knowingly concealed his conviction, rather than viewing it as a speeding ticket. But given the summary nature of the proceeding, that would be a stretch. If the Minister did make such a finding, it would be subject to appeal to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, and to judicial review for bias. And I'm not sure the government would win such a case.

Sadly, this being third-term National, I don't think we can rely on them not to try. Which at least will be entertaining as they buy themselves another legal nightmare.

The obvious question

John Key says he knows who the hacker Rawshark is. So, will the police be raiding his home for ten hours and taking all his data, or is that something they only do to enemies of the National Party?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

National's failure on child poverty

National has failed on child poverty, according to the UN:

New Zealand's child poverty rates have come down by less than half a per cent since 2008, according to the Unicef report Children of the Recession.

By contrast, Australia reduced its child poverty rate by more than 6 per cent over the same period, and Finland and Norway, countries with similar populations, reduced theirs by more than 4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.

Key is hiding behind the Christchurch earthquakes and the global financial crisis as excuses for this lack of progress - but those countries also had to deal with the banker-induced recession. No, the real difference isn't because we had disasters, but because those countries have policy where we do not. Which simply illustrates a point made long ago: the level of child poverty is entirely a matter of choice by the government. Other countries choose to have a lower level than us, and set policies appropriately. Whereas for National, its just not a priority, ranking behind forking out tax cuts to the rich and pollution subsidies to polluters and farmers - policies which collectively cost us billions.

The message is clear: if we want action on this problem, we need to elect a government which will make it a priority, rather than making excuses. Sadly, we won't have that opportunity for another three years. How many kids will suffer stunted lives and restricted opportunities in the meantime?

GCHQ's backdoor spying

One of the suspicions about the Five Eyes spying pact is that it is a pact between spies to circumvent the restrictions put on them by their governments. The NSA isn't allowed to spy on Americans, the GCSB isn't allowed to spy on kiwis, and GCHQ isn't allowed to spy on UKanians - but they can all spy on each other's citizens, then trade the data through the backdoor.

GCHQ has just confirmed this practice:

British intelligence services can access raw material collected in bulk by the NSA and other foreign spy agencies without a warrant, the government has confirmed for the first time.

GCHQ’s secret “arrangements” for accessing bulk material are revealed in documents submitted to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the UK surveillance watchdog, in response to a joint legal challenge by Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International. The legal action was launched in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations published by the Guardian and other news organisations last year.

The government’s submission discloses that the UK can obtain “unselected” – meaning unanalysed, or raw intelligence – information from overseas partners without a warrant if it was “not technically feasible” to obtain the communications under a warrant and if it is “necessary and proportionate” for the intelligence agencies to obtain that information.

The rules essentially permit bulk collection of material, which can include communications of UK citizens, provided the request does not amount to “deliberate circumvention” of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which governs much of the UK’s surveillance activities.

Of course, whether its a "deliberate circumvention" is up to GCHQ and decided in secret, and its a fair bet that they never refuse to take information on this basis.

UK Ministers have gone on record to state that a warrant is required for all interception and analysis of UK data. GCHQ has just shown that they lied. We can't trust our spies, and we can't trust what our politicians tell us about them. The only way to be safe from mass-surveillance is to shut them down, permanently.

Women going backwards under National

The World Economic Forum has released its Global Gender Gap Report 2014. Last year we went backwards, dropping a place from 6th to 7th. This year its worse - we've dropped six more places to 13th, and our score has dropped even further. The reason? Its all down to "economic participation and opportunity", where we've dropped on nearly every measure. Labour force participation? Down. wage equality for similar work? Down. Earned income? Down massively. We've held our own on the proportion of women in technical and senior management positions, but economic discrimination appears to have increased.

Its not hard to see why. National has passed laws which have lowered wages and reduced employment rights. And that has a direct impact on the economic status of women. But that's what happens when you have government of, by and for dead white males.

A reminder

Earlier in the year, the World Justice Project released its Rule of Law Index, an assessment of 99 countries' complaince with the rule of law. New Zealand did pretty well on it, ranking first in the Pacific and sixth overall. But there was a down side: we ranked poorly for criminal justice, and we were trending down. And where we do badly tells a story:


[The green line is the average for high-income countries such as NZ; the orange line is the average for East Asia and the Pacific]

Looking at this, the problem is not with our law - it is with our police. If investigations are not timely, then evidence fades, criminals walk free, and justice is ultimately denied. Which is exactly what has happened with the Roastbusters case. But its not just this case - the Police are systematically failing to meet their targets for clearing cases. There is a big problem with underfunding here, but the problem with Roastbusters wasn't a lack of resources, but a basic lack of willingness to investigate serious, sustained criminal offending. And the fact that they're still not even bothering to talk to the victims tells us that this is a problem in this case.

Our police need to get their act together. If they fail consistently to investigate crimes, then people will rightly ask what purpose they serve. And at the moment, that purpose simply seems to be raiding the government's political enemies. If that's what the police are for, its time to burn down the organisation and start again from scratch.

Today's lesson

If your dad is a cop, you can get away with raping kids:

Police are to make an announcement this afternoon on Operation Clover, the investigation into the "Roast Busters" allegations.

The Herald understands the victim has been told that the alleged offenders will not be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence.

"Lack of evidence" meaning "we ignored the complaints for two years, then we dragged our feet for another year, then we decided that any testimony would be regarded as unreliable in court". Heckuva job you're doing there. I hope all of you wearing that uniform are proud of yourselves.

Meanwhile, the public should be asking themselves: if the NZ police can't prosecute a case like this, where offenders gloated online about their crimes and even posted video footage, what fucking good are they? And why are we paying them when they are clearly incapable of doing their job?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Australia deports another refugee to torture

What a surprise: a refugee Australia refused to recognise was tortured after being deported:

Mr Naseri arrived in Australia by boat in 2011 and spent time in detention before being granted a bridging visa. He was deported from Australia in late August after his refugee application was rejected by the Immigration Department.

Mr Naseri was reportedly abducted and tortured by the Taliban for two days but managed to break free from chains around his leg using a rock.

He said he was kidnapped while travelling from Kabul to his home district of Jaghori, along the same stretch of road where Australian-Afghan Sayed Habib Musawi, also a Hazara, was reportedly killed by the Taliban last month.

Mr Naseri told the ABC he was targeted within weeks of returning to Afghanistan because militants found evidence linking him to Australia.

"They found my [Australian] driving licence, then they understood I was from Australia. They beat me, they said 'this boy is from Australia, that country is full of infidels'," he said.

Whether an attempt to claim refugee status will itself lead to persecution is something that is supposed to be considered as part of an application for refugee status. But the Australian government pretty obviously ignored that risk, in violation of the Refugee Convention, the ICCPR and the Convention Against Torture. Sadly, I doubt this is the only example.


Also interesting in that OIA release about the Christchurch Convention Centre contract is the withholding of information under s9(2)(k) to

prevent the disclosure or use of official information for improper gain or improper advantage.

This is a rarely-used clause, and this is the first time I've seen it used in a commercial tender context (normally in such cases information is withheld as commercially sensitive, provided in confidence, or under the negotiations clause). And as the Ombudsman's guidelines make clear, "improper" gain is a very high threshold to meet, requiring the expected use to be almost illegal or extremely morally dubious. Its very hard to see that in this case, especially as the requester is not a bidder in the process and cannot gain any advantage by it. Instead, the obvious suspicion is that Brownlee thinks that the information will be used politically by the opposition, and that makes it "improper". Which tells us a great deal about the government's attitude to democracy and the law...

Cronyism in Christchurch II

Back in August, National announced they were handing a $284 million contract to build a new convention centre in Christchurch to a consortium which included the Speaker's brother. From the outside, it looks like cronyism, if not outright corruption, and in such cases, the onus is on the government to front up and show that the crony was in fact the best bidder. So did they? Yeah, right:

I wanted to know more, so I fired off an OIA request. Mr Brownlee refused to respond until after the election, even though this breached the normal four week time limit. Sadly, that was no surprise. He finally responded on 13 October, some nine weeks after receiving my request.

And what his reply reveals is… nothing at all, except the need for more investigating.

About half of the documents Minister Brownlee has released to me (part 1, part 2) have been redacted, including it appears any mention at all of Philip Carter of the Carter Group. They just aren’t there at all. Curious.

That's not quite correct - they're mentioned in a footnote on p13 of part 2 as being one of the constituents of the Plenary group. And only mentioning them in that way seems appropriate - Plenary is the official bidder. So I don't think that's curious. No, what's curious is that all information on the process for selecting the consortium was withheld. All we know is that the RFP was sent to five "previously shortlisted consortia" and that
Plenary's proposal also met the requirements of the Request for Proposal

Which, in a prima facie case of cronyism, seems oddly weak - and especially compared with the information released on the operation RFP, where they say outright that "Accor was the top ranking respondent". If there was a similar statement about Plenary, they'd release it. The absence of such a statement suggests that the Speaker's brother's consortium was not the top-ranked option.

The government owes us some answers here. They're refusing to give them. And based on what they've released, it looks a lot like they've got something to hide.

Criminalising the poor in Britain

One of the first things the Conservative-LibDem coalition in Britain did was cut benefit eligibility, requiring beneficiaries to jump through even more pointless hoops to gain state assistance. The purpose of this of course was that some of them would fail, allowing their benefits to be cut off. And now that's having the expected effect: the criminalisation of the poor:

What would you do to keep your baby from starving? Perhaps the same as Lucy Hill. At the start of October, the 35-year-old mother from Kidderminster was broke. After missing an interview at the jobcentre, her disability benefits had been stopped – which left her, her partner and her toddler of 18 months without anything to live on. So she went to the local Spar and stole a chicken and some soap powder.

Two weeks later, Hill was up before the magistrate. Her police interview noted that she said “sorry to the shop … but had no money … and was in a desperate situation”. She was ordered to pay compensation, a fine, costs and a surcharge: a total of over £200 to be taken off someone who’d only committed a crime because she had no money. Her solicitor John Rogers remembers that the mother’s chief worry was that the social services might find out and take away her baby.

After running me through the details, Rogers sighs. Cases like this keep coming his way, he says: “They miss an appointment so their benefits are sanctioned [docked or stopped altogether], so they have no money, so they steal.” His local office now handles “at least half a dozen” such cases each month – up from almost nothing a year ago.

He’s just one lawyer in one post-industrial town, describing a national policy: of starving the poor into committing crime.

The net result of this policy is that "savings" from cutting benefits are spent on police, courts, and prisons, while lives are ruined. But that's not on the welfare budget, and it allows the government to demonise the poor even further.

Meanwhile, its worth considering: our government has pursued exactly the same policy of erecting bureaucratic barriers to force people off benefits. It would be interesting to hear whether we are seeing the same effect here.

New Fisk

Isis attack on Idlib: Assad's army leaders 'slaughtered' as jihadists storm Syrian provincial capital
The 200,000 Syrian child refugees forced into slave labour in Lebanon

Cementing pay equity?

Yesterday was Labour Day. Today, National is going to celebrate it by removing your right to a tea break at work. The fact that this is their highest priority as an incoming government (as opposed to, say, reducing child poverty) speaks volumes about who they work for and the direction they plan to take New Zealand in over the next three years. "Governing for all New Zealand", my arse!

Also today, the Court of Appeal ruled in the case of Terranova Homes & Care v SFWU. The case was over pay equity - the principle of "equal pay for work of equal value". Terranova pays its caregivers barely more than the minimum wage, and the SFWU argued that this was because aged-care was a female-dominated profession with devalued wages. Last year, the Employment Court accepted that, based on a straight reading of the letter and purpose of the Equal Pay Act 1972. And today, the Court of Appeal backed that up, dismissing Terranova's appeal. Which means that the Employment Court is now free to state pay equity principles and conduct a comparison exercise which should result in Terranova employees (and hopefully everyone in the industry) getting the pay they deserve.

...unless the government legislates, that is. After all, they're taking away your tea-break today, purely out of spite. What do you think they'll do when the law is on the side of workers for once, and it threatens to cost their donors and cronies real money?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Freedom of information: A good idea from India

One of the better ideas for freedom of information implemented overseas is disclosure logs - agencies posting requests and responses publicly, allowing performance to be monitored and reducing repeat requests. This is widespread in Australia and the UK, but poorly implemented in New Zealand. But now India has taken the idea a step further, with a single, nationwide disclosure-log:

All Indian government agencies have been told to post online their replies to Right to Information Act requests by the end of the month.

The ministry overseeing the administration of the Indian RTI Act on Oct. 21 announced a new website feature that will allow placement of replies on the RTI Online system.

Agencies were instructed to contact the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT) for directions on the system upgrade. A one page memo by Sandeep Jain says the goal is to implement the policy by Oct. 31.

[Requests which include personal information won't be included]

The utility of the system will depend greatly on searchability and how good agencies are at tagging releases. But these are not difficult problems. And the advantages are huge. For a start, it will enable the collection of national statistics, not just about numbers, but also about the amount and type of information released. It will also allow appeal authorities to spot problems - e.g. if an agency is consistently misinterpreting the law, or making dubious withholding decisions. And of course its a huge benefit to journalists, academics and historians examining government policy.

We should do this here. It wouldn't require a law change, just a decision by the government to develop (or acquire) the software and fund the server. And the improvement in openness would be tremendous.

Christchurch's rebuild should be decided by Christchurch, not Wellington

Radio New Zealand has an appalling story this morning about the government's interference in the Christchurch rebuild over the new District Plan. Normally district plans are decided by elected local councils accountable to the voters who will live under them. But National has been using its extraordinary CERA powers to impose one from Wellington - and threatening to simply legislate for one if the council resists:

The email finished with a threat from the minister.

" should be noted that the Council should not consider the current track of a truncated process under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act the only option. An incoming government will always have the option of special legislation to create a standalone plan process for Christchurch as was done for the first Auckland unitary plan. I would urge the Council to carefully consider the relative risks and merits of proceeding with the current track."

This was a reference to what happened as part of the Super City legislation, where the Government required a new district plan for the whole region to be in place within three years and where the Government set the terms for how the new city should operate.

This is simply an affront to democracy. Christchurch belongs to the people who live there, and they should decide what it looks like. The only reason for National to bully the Council in this way is if their preferred options would not be approved by the people of Christchurch - which simply highlights why they should keep their nose out of it.

Turning a blind eye to corruption

As we are constantly reminded, New Zealand consistently leads the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index as the "least corrupt country in the world". And as we are increasingly becoming aware, that reputation may be undeserved. Today there's another nail in the coffin of that image, with a new report from Transparency International showing that we are dragging our feet on enforcing the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

We're not alone in this - most of the Convention's parties are similar unenthused about stopping their companies bribing foreign officials. But the real shame is that we are behind even corrupt Australia in our enforcement, being rated only as "Limited Enforcement" versus Australia's "Moderate". Our investigations into corruption by our companies go nowhere, while key legislation has been left to rot on the Order Paper. The Companies and Limited Partnerships Amendment Bill, designed to close the loophole which, among other things, allows foreigners to establish NZ companies for use in money laundering and fraud, has been before the House for three years. Its headline Organised Crime and Anti-corruption Legislation Bill hasn't even had a first reading. You'd almost get the impression that policing their corrupt corporate mates just isn't a priority for the National Party.

Political interference at Maori Television

A government-owned television channel arranges an interview with a former opposition MP, but the government-appointed CEO spikes it. Something from Russia or Cuba maybe? No - according to Hone Harawira its happening right here in New Zealand:

“[Maori TV CEO Paora] Maxwell also gave an undertaking that the changes were purely operational and that there would be no political interference in the decisions made by the News and Current Affairs Division.

“Well … that undertaking has lasted just one month, with Maxwell telling Native Affairs staff that there was no way he would allow me to come onto Native Affairs final show of the year, set to go to air live on Monday 3 November.

I had already been invited by Native Affairs to feature in the show alongside other ex-MPs, Tau Henare and Shane Jones (see emails below), but when Maxwell found out he called in the Native Affairs team and told them point-blank that I would not be allowed on the show. No problems with Henare, no problem with Jones, but no way for Harawira.

[Emphasis added]

Its not the role of the chief executive of a public broadcaster to interfere in editorial decisions. But that's exactly what National's crony CEO is doing, and specifically for political purposes. It appears the concerns about Maxwell - that he was appointed to gut Maori TV and turn it into a cheerleader for the establishment rather than a journalistic watchdog - were fully justified. But its hard to see how Maori, or the public, are well-served by the corruption of their public service broadcaster. Maxwell has to go, before he does any more damage.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More police misconduct

Another day, another IPCA report - this one into a police officer who unjustifiably set a police dog to savage a surrendering suspect:

A police dog was set on a man who had his hands in the air in what is described as ''an excessive use of force and unlawful'' by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA).


''The officer's use of his dog in this instance was an excessive and unlawful use of force,'' Independent Police Conduct Authority chair, Judge Sir David Carruthers said.

"Given that the offender was standing still with both hands in the air and making no attempt to resist arrest the deployment of the dog was unnecessary. There were other, less harmful tactical options available to the officer which he should have used rather than deploying the police dog," Sir David said.''

In a statement, assistant police commissioner Allan Boreham said they accepted the report's findings.

''We need to get our judgement right every time when using force, notwithstanding the hundreds of incidents our staff respond to every day,'' he said.

The officer involved would be ''subject to employment actions reinforcing police policy and the importance of good decision-making around the appropriate use of dogs and other tactical options,'' Boreham said.

Its good to see that the police accept the findings. But notice what's not on the table: prosecution. If a member of the public set a dog on someone, they'd be in court, and possibly in jail. So why isn't this uniformed thug? It appears that the police are still suffering from the mindset that they are above the law, and still committed to protecting their own no matter what they do...