Friday, August 28, 2015


That's the only way to describe the UK government's welfare "reforms", given their effects:

More than 80 people a month are dying shortly after being declared “fit for work” according to new data, prompting campaigners to call for an overhaul of the government’s controversial welfare regime.

Statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions on Thursday show that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 shortly after a work capability assessment (WCA) found they were able to work.

The administration of the WCA by officials has been widely criticised as crude and inaccurate by campaigners. There have been hundreds of thousands of appeals of fit-for-work decisions over the last few years, about four in 10 of which have succeeded.

While DWP is mongering doubt about the correlation, the Black Triangle Campaign has been tracking people who have died as a result of this policy. There's a list of the dead here. Those deaths can be laid squarely at the feet of the UK Cabinet, who should be tried as mass-murderers.

Meanwhile, it really makes you wonder how many have died here in New Zealand as a result of National's welfare "reforms"...

Places to go, people to be again

Yes, I'm buggering off again to go and pretend to be a succession of other people. This time I expect to be spaced, zombified, defrauded, murdered, classified, and villified.

Normal bloggage will resume on Monday.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Fisk

Why is Interpol doing the work of Arab despots?

Open Government: Doing it really wrong

Earlier in the week I blogged about the State Services Commission's response to an OIA request seeking information about their current consultation on the Open Government Partnership Midterm Self-Assessment Report. When faced with a clear request for advice on the consultation process, SSC played the "due particularity" game, asking "duh, which consultation" (they also refused a request for the report itself, which under OGP rules should have been released at the start of the consultation because that's what people are being consulted about). And now that I've jumped through their hoop and confirmed that when I asked about advice on the Midterm Self-Assessment Report, I really did mean the Midterm Self-Assessment Report, and not something else, they've come back with another delay: a two-month extension until October 27 due to the "large quantity of information" involved.

And if you believe that the SSC really got so much advice on their OGP consultation that they need two months to look through it all, I have a building on The Terrace to sell you. Instead, it looks like they're blatantly trying to bury information - not just until after the consultation period has ended and the report has been submitted, but until after the OGP Summit in Mexico (which just happens to be on October 27. What a coincidence!) You can draw some obvious conclusions about why they might want to be doing that, but regardless, its unacceptable. So I'm off to the Ombudsman with an urgent complaint. I guess we'll see whether I even get a number before SSC responds.

Meanwhile, people might like to think about the irony of SSC going to these lengths to bury information about open government - and what that says about New Zealand's commitment to the OGP.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Australia has effectively abolished its FOI watchdog

Last year the Australian government tried to gut the Freedom of Information Act by abolishing its enforcer, the Australian Information Commissioner. The move failed in the Senate, but that hasn't stopped the policy: instead of legally abolishing the position, they've simply defunded it. And now, they're refusing to appoint a replacement:

Attorney-General George Brandis​ refuses to say whether he will appoint a new freedom-of-information commissioner eight months on, amid plans to abolish his office.

Previous FOI commissioner James Popple resigned in January. The Attorney-General's department told a senate estimates committee this week that it had not started to select a replacement or set up a process to do so.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was set up under the Freedom of Information Act in 2010, as an independent body to manage the public's access to information and provide advice to government. Three commissioners responsible for freedom of information, privacy and information were appointed to oversee it.

The office would not be drawn on when a new commissioner would be appointed, referring the committee to the department's response to the question.

So effectively they've abolished it, despite there being no Parliamentary majority to do so. Its dubious legally, and even more so constitutionally - but its so very, very Abbott, isn't it?

What trials does National want to keep secret?

Yesterday we learned that National's Health and Safety at Work Bill - the one which exempts some of our biggest killers from health and safety coverage while cracking down on dangerous worm farms and lavender growers - contained a clause allowing secret trials with secret "evidence". The bill has now finished its committee stage, so barring a re-commital (highly unlikely), those provisions will become law. So what sorts of cases might they be used in?

Firstly, while the law has a section allowing for the appointment of a "special advocate" for non-government defendants, the law really only applies to cases against the crown. However it applies to "any criminal or civil proceedings (including public law and judicial review proceedings)" under the Act. So not just to (unlikely) prosecutions by MBIE, but to private prosecutions and claims for compensation or to enforce duties. So, this is aimed squarely at those who seek to hold government bodies to account for their failures.

Secondly, while the law supposedly restricts "classified security information" to operational information or information supplied by other governments on a confidential basis (and which furthermore would be prejudicial to security, international relations, or the maintenance of the law if released), it also makes the designation unreviewable:

The court must keep confidential and must not disclose any information provided as classified security information, even if it considers that the information does not meet the criteria set out in clause 3(2) and (3), unless the head of the specified agency that holds the information consents to its release.
Which means that in practice, government defendants can apply it to anything they want, and it will be kept secret.

Thirdly, the law doesn't just apply to defence and intelligence agencies (who BTW are already in practice exempt for actual deployments anyway), but to the police or any government department named in Schedule 1 of the State Sector Act 1988. So, it applies to Corrections and Immigration, but also to the Ministry of Health, or even to Internal Affairs (who are the nominal employer of the Beehive's politicised "ministerial advisers").

Combined, this is a recipe for government agencies who kill people through clear and obvious failings to co-opt the Judiciary to cover up the details.

As for how it might be used, think of some notable health and safety cases or civil suits against government agencies in the past. Here's a few examples:
  • The Army doesn't train its drivers properly, resulting in three men dying when their truck plunges into a river. Information on the army's training (or lack thereof) would obviously be "prejudicial to security" and revealing it would expose NZDF methods, so any trial can be cloaked in secrecy.
  • The RNZAF tolerates "a dangerous and deadly culture of rule-breaking" and allows unqualified pilots to fly, leading to three unnecessary deaths in a helicopter crash. Similar logic applies, so the evidence of this can be declared secret, hampering any private prosecution.
  • The police shoot and kill an innocent bystander during a gunfight on the Auckland motorway. Police information about exactly what happened is of course operational and might expose police methods (and incompetence), which of course would "prejudice the maintenance of the law". So any court case for compensation would be hampered by secrecy and likely not get off the ground.
  • Corrections doesn't bother to segregate high- and low-risk prisoners during transport, resulting in a young man being murdered in the back of a van while being taken to court. Information on prisoner transport policies is of course operational, and its exposure could help prisoners escape, which is clearly prejudicial to the maintenance of the law, so it can be classified and kept secret, preventing any OSH prosecution.
None of these are a particular stretch on classification, and well within the respective agencies' mindsets as revealed by OIA requests. But in each case, this law would have shut down a major government health and safety scandal and prevented justice. And that is its purpose. It is rotten law, and we should not accept it.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, but it has an unusual schedule. Thanks to leave given two weeks ago, most of the day is likely to be spent on David Seymour's absurd Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Extended licensing hours during Rugby World Cup) Bill. Because obviously Parliament should use special procedures to pander to drunk rugby meatheads. There might be some time for Chris Bishop's Financial Assistance for Live Organ Donors Bill, and if the House moves quickly they may be able to make a start on Denis O'Rourke's New Zealand Superannuation and Retirement Income (Pro Rata Entitlement) Amendment Bill. Both of these latter two bills have been formally reported as violating the Bill of Rights Act, so it will be interesting to see if Parliament does its job as the supposed defender of our human rights, or rubberstamps abuse to scratch some political itch. Sadly, I'm expecting the latter.

Due to the sportsball bill is there is unlikely to be a ballot tomorrow.

We can no longer trust Bill English's OIA responses

Yesterday in Question Time, Winston Peters accused Finance Minister Bill English of outright lying in the response to an OIA request:

“On December 16, 2014 Mr English replied to a specific New Zealand First OIA request detailing the nature and month, that no documents existed between himself or his staff and Federated Farmers in March 2013.

“We gave the Minister every opportunity because we made a slightly different request for the same documents detailing the nature and month. On August 17 2015 Mr English replied, again saying that no such documents existed.

“However, this was not true.

“On March, 26, 2013 Mr English wrote to Federated Farmers saying there were no plans to establish a foreign land ownership registry. This is attached and came in response to a letter on 13 February 2013 from the then President, Bruce Wills, to establish a register of foreign ownership.

Peters calls this an abuse of the OIA process, and that's a possibility (and one which would be a criminal offence in the UK and Canada, but not in NZ). But there's also an alternative explanation: English and his office could be such utter muppets that they either don't keep records of official correspondence (in violation of the Public Records Act) or can't find those records when asked repeatedly to look for them. But whatever the explanation, the clear upshot is that we can simply no longer trust OIA responses from Bill English to be complete and accurate. And that is just unacceptable.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

National introduces secret trials by stealth

Its no secret that New Zealand's spies want British-style secret courts, with secret "evidence" that the public - and defendants - aren't allowed to see. The Law Commission is currently conducting a review on the issue, and just a few months ago released an issues paper on it. But before the submissions have even been analysed, the government has jumped the gun and inserted secret trials into our health and safety law:

The New Zealand Law Society has expressed its significant concerns at the last-minute addition to the Health and Safety Reform Bill of provisions for a closed material procedure for court proceedings where national security is involved.

The Law Society has written to the Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, saying the provisions should not have been inserted at this late stage of the legislative process.

The provisions will allow a person to be tried and convicted of a criminal offence without seeing all the information relied on by the Crown and without the right to be present (or to have their representative present) during all the proceedings. This is inconsistent with the fundamental right to a fair trial, the Law Society says.

“We recommend removal of the provisions from the Bill, to await the outcome of an inquiry the Law Commission is carrying out on National Security Information in Proceedings,” Law Society President Chris Moore says.

Because this was done at the committee stage, the amendments were not subjected to a BORA analysis, which it would almost certainly fail.

Meanwhile, I think this tells us everything we need to know about the value of the Law Commission's review. Like the "independent" intelligence review, the spies have already decided the outcome, and the government will execute it for them. The review process is simply a rubber-stamp designed to lend legitimacy to the illegitimate. Its another example of the danger our intelligence agencies pose to our democracy, and why they must be abolished.

Climate change: Absolute madness

The government has recently set itself a patheticly unambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 11% on 1990 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, they're handing out tens of millions of dollars a year to big polluters as a direct subsidy for their emissions:

But in New Zealand, the Government provides a 50 percent subsidy to emitting companies that might otherwise leave New Zealand and set up shop in a country with no emissions controls at all.

Figures just released show the value of those state payments to big corporations.

They show the largest emitter, New Zealand Steel, received 1,073,489 credits: almost $7.3m at the current market price of $6.80.

Also getting lots of Government-paid credits was the Methanex plant in Taranaki, which makes methanol for export from natural gas, which picked up 777,432 credits, worth almost $5.3m.

Another big name is the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, which received 755,987 credits from the Crown, or just over $5m at current rates.

Fourth on the list is Fletcher Concrete and Infrastructure, which received 322,430 credits, which would value at over $2m.

Other big recipients were Pan Pac Forests, Norske Skog, Carter Holt Harvey, Holcim Cement, Balance Agri-nutrients and McDonald's Lime.

Yes, the government is spending tens of millions of dollars a year paying these companies to destroy the world. It is absolute madness. If we want our emissions to actually decrease, ending this subsidy for pollution would be a good start.

(Of course, this is nothing compared to the hundreds of millions they effectively pay the dairy industry by excluding it completely from the ETS. That madness needs to stop too.)

The core problem with UK democracy

Writing in the Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr puts her finger on the central problem with the UK's democracy: everyone went to Oxbridge:

There’s an invisible link that unites Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham. That connects them to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and Tony Blair. To David Cameron and George Osborne and Nick Clegg. To 12 members of the current cabinet. And 12 members of the current shadow cabinet.

In fact, it’s not invisible at all. It’s right there on their parliamentary bios and their Wikipedia pages and yet the word that links all three is so ubiquitous, so commonplace, that in weeks of campaigning it has barely merited a single mention or raised a single eyebrow. All three are Oxbridge graduates.


But the Oxbridge connection is more invidious than this and if it hasn’t been considered worthy of comment during the leadership contest, it’s in part because in Britain most people who do the commenting also went there. Oxbridge doesn’t just dominate the Palace of Westminster but an entire political class. From the politicians and the special advisers to the political editors, pundits and thinktankees, there’s a homogeneity of experience, of thinking, of networks, of power and of influence that has led to an in-crowd that doesn’t even recognise it’s an in-crowd. There’s arguably more that unites our political elite than divides them. The last election was a battle between one Oxford PPE graduate (Cameron) and another Oxford PPE graduate (Miliband).

Which reduces elections to a meaningless competition between different members of a homogenous elite who share the same worldview.

And no, its not about merit. The UK's elite - descendants of feudal barons and slavers and colonial plunderers - send their kids to segregated private schools, which vastly increase the odds of them getting into those top universities. 7% of UK kids go to private (or "public" as they call it) schools - but they get roughly 40% of the places at Oxbridge. That's not because the rich are smarter, but because they seize and hoard opportunity, while locking out everybody else. Its the very opposite of the meritocracy they pretend to be.

And that homogenous mindset is inculcated from a very early age, as George Monbiot's piece (about trying to track down the book which opened his eyes as a child) makes clear:
One of the functions of private boarding schools is to insulate their pupils from the world, ensuring that they remain embedded within the culture and interests of their caste. They sustain a political milieu so consistent that there is little chance of escaping from it. The children inducted into this system absorb the dominant mores without becoming aware that there might be an alternative.

Were these schools to do otherwise, I expect that the parents would ask for their money back: I doubt that anyone sends their children to such places in the hope that they will emerge fluent in the tenets of socialism. We should not be surprised to discover that the products of this system sometimes seem to be crassly insensitive to the lives and the needs of other people; it is not difficult to emerge from such schools with the conviction that other classes (and the other gender) are an alien species. Until the moment at which I read the book whose name I don’t know, there were no countervailing influences in my life.

Almost a third of MPs - and 48% of Conservative MPs - were shaped by such institutions. Its no wonder they all seem the same. And its no wonder that faced with a "choice" between competing Oxbridge graduates offering the same austerity, people want something different, someone who is actually like them.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Making Easter trading someone else's problem

The Easter Sunday trading ban is an absurd law, a relic of past Christian oppression. Every couple of years some National backbencher notices this, and puts up a bill to repeal it. These bills invariably fail because they fail to sufficiently protect workers from being forced to work on a long weekend, while being opposed by National's bigot rump. And the obvious solution - make Easter Sunday a public holiday - is opposed by the sorts of people who oppose the trading ban as a) religious and b) "anti-business" (because people forced to work would be entitled to time and a half plus a day in lieu).

But now National has a new solution: wash their hands of the issue and make it someone else's problem:

The Government is to enable local communities, through councils, to decide whether retailers can open on Easter Sunday, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse announced today.

“The current rules around shop trading over the Easter period are complex and relatively arbitrary. The law allows certain shops selling specific items to remain open, while others must close their doors.

“The proposed law change will enable communities to choose whether or not to allow trading. It will mean regions, especially tourist areas, can respond where there is strong demand for Easter Sunday trading,” Mr Woodhouse says.

Except that if the problem is arbitrariness, this doesn't solve it at all, merely makes it the responsibility of councils rather than central government. It is simply political sleight of hand, to make it seem like they have done something when they have not. And of councils really do make their own decisions, then we will still have the current patchwork where shops in some places can trade while others can not. Meanwhile, the equally arbitrary and absurd prohibitions against trading on other Christian holidays (and on Anzac Day), and on alcohol sales and TV advertising, will remain. Which means that while you may be able to shop, you won't be able to buy a coffee if your favourite cafe has a liquor licence.

As for their supposed "protection" of workers who want their long weekend, given their other changes to employment law (not to mention the existence of 90-day "trial periods"), these are simply toothless. All in all, it looks like a bad political fix.

Supposedly this won't be a conscience vote for National. I'd love to know how they got that past their bigot rump, and what ructions it might cause.


The Nauruan Court of Appeal has acquitted two men who had been convicted of rioting:

The convictions of two asylum seekers jailed over riots at the Nauru immigration detention centre were overturned after the Nauruan Court of Appeal identified serious flaws in the investigation and original trial.

In a scathing judgement, the court said the magistrate in the original trial failed to take into account serious flaws in the identification of the two men and also made "very prejudicial" comments that appeared to suggest there was an onus on the two men to disprove their guilt.

The court also said it was concerned Wilson Security appeared to have carried out the investigation that led to the men being charged, rather than the correct authority - the Nauruan Police Force (NPF).

Sadly, given past behaviour by the Nauruan regime, they'll probably respond by dissolving the court and exiling the judges. Again.

As for the victims, they'd already served months in jail. Will the Nauruan regime pay compensation for wrongful imprisonment?

The police and cop-cams

There's been a lot of good news over police body-cameras this year, suggesting that they are effective tools for collecting evidence while reducing both violence by and complaints against police. So why aren't they being used in New Zealand? Someone used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask. The response was generally unhelpful, refusing to provide information because it was "publicly available" or given to them "in confidence" by foreign police services (while refusing to provide a list of withheld material allowing the requester to find it themselves or challenge the decision). But it did produce three files: a briefing note from 2008 proposing a trial of "Body worn video surveillance", a Police Executive meeting report from September 2013 considering a new trial proposal, and an "Initial Concept Paper" from December 2014 assessing their technological options. Key information:

  • Police interest in bodycams is being driven by the need to replace tasercams. Apparently the tasercam relies on its power-source, but this is flakey, meaning that "as... Tasers age, the battery condition deteriorates which can corrupt the camera footage and affect its operational & evidential credibility". The police recognise that there is absolutely no going back on tasercams (if only they had gun-cams too!), so they're looking at using body or head-mounted cameras as a replacement.
  • Incidentally, police tasercam footage is all held in an offshore cloud service, That's... interesting (it poses huge privacy implications around sensitive material), but it has also produced technological lock-in, meaning a sole-source procurement (and the police getting rorted as a result).
  • The limited trials they've done so far appear to have been successful, and attitudes from police are positive: "those few staff that have already trialled a body worn camera system endorse the use of body worn cameras 100%". That's very good to see. Unfortunately, all the management feedback on the idea has been redacted, without any reason given.
  • They appear to be moving towards a trial deployment in Auckland sometime this year.

So once again a positive story, though it once again highlights just how awful the police are at responding to OIA requests.

New Fisk

Isis blinds journalists with its barbarity, but we must continue to report

Open Government: Still doing it wrong

Earlier in the month, the government announced that it was beginning public consultation on its Open Government Partnership Midterm Self-Assessment Report. When the consultation was announced, I immediately sent in an OIA request seeking all advice on it as well as information on whether they had begun drafting the report they were supposed to be "consulting" on. I got the response back on Friday, and its clear they don't want to talk about it, because they're playing the "due particularity" game. I guess that opening my request with information about the MSR consultation before asking for all advice on it wasn't "particular" enough for them; either that, or they're being deliberately obtuse in an effort to delay an embarrassing response. Which it is is left as an exercise for the reader.

But I did learn one thing. That report they're "consulting" on? They've written it already. But they won't provide a copy, even though the OGP's rules state that they are supposed to. I guess they've decided that the public don't actually need to see the thing they're supposedly being consulted about.

Transparency International is right: this is an insulting mockery of a consultation process. That's business as usual for this government, but the good news is that it gets independently monitored, so in this case it will result in international criticism and a big "failed" stamp. Which will do our reputation for transparency and openness wonders...

Friday, August 21, 2015

Exposing dirty politics

Back in April it was revealed that Prime Minister John Key had systematically and repeatedly assaulted and sexually harassed a cafe waitress (while his police bodyguards stood around and did nothing). Shortly afterwards, dirty politics operative and sewer-columnist Rachel Glucina ran a smear-job on the victim. When he was asked under the OIA whether he had had any communications with her about it, Key refused to respond. That refusal was one of the worst I've ever seen, and so naturally enough the requester took it to the Ombudsman. On Wednesday we learned that the Ombudsman was investigating the refusal. Key response to this has been to stand by his stonewalling [audio], citing a "long-standing view" and a "convention" that his interactions with the media shouldn't be released. The problem? None of that is in the law. The OIA specifies a number of conclusive and non-conclusive reasons for withholding official information - and the Prime Minister having a "long-standing view" that he should be above the law isn't one of them. And the grounds he does cite - "privacy" (his own) and "confidentiality" (offered for his own convenience) - are simply not applicable. If the system works as it should, Key should be forced to reveal whatever information he holds (subject to legitimate redactions for privacy - things like names and phone numbers, not whether he or his minions talked to a journalist).

As for the supposed consequences, I'm perfectly comfortable with them. As I noted earlier, if Key is so ashamed of his contact with Rachel Glucina that he is blatantly ignoring the law to avoid admitting it, maybe he shouldn't have contacted her in the first place. And if the threat of exposure deters him from making such contacts in future, then that would a victory for the OIA.

[Disclosure: I'm a party to this complaint, having complained about the refusal of my request for information regarding the existence of information]

"Low risk"

How "low risk" is farming? So "low risk" that the Minister was specifically warned how dangerous it was when considering health and safety legislation last year:

The Workplace Relations Minister was warned last year that agriculture was one of the worst performing in relation to health and safety - but has still decided to exclude most of that sector from rules facing high risk sectors.

Michael Woodhouse has been under fire this week for signing off on rules that will see worm farms and mini golf operators included in the new rules, but not sheep, dairy or cattle farmers.

Official documents show when he became minister last year he was warned that agriculture accounted for more workplace deaths in 2013 than the forestry, construction and manufacturing sectors combined.

This is an industry which reliably kills twenty people a year - half of them in quad-bike accidents. But because they donate overwhelmingly to the National Party, they get to be exempt from regulation which would help stop that. Again, this is a deliberate decision in full knowledge of the consequences, of people dying. And when people die because of it, it will be Michael Woodhouse's depraved indifference which kills them.

Another rotten state house

Radio New Zealand today is highlighting the plight of Te Ao Marama Wensor, whose stat ehouse is so rotten that it is literally killing her son:

It was two years ago when the same son was rushed to hospital after fainting and having a seizure.

Initially diagnosed with the flu, it later turned out the child has two holes in each lung, and an enlarged heart valve which pumps too much blood to his brain, causing clots.

He has had at least three strokes and is not allowed to run in case the valve ruptures, and he has a heart attack.

Ms Wensor said specialists have since told her that toxic bacteria from mould in their house was what had caused his lung problems, and contributes to the size of the heart valve.

She remains composed throughout the interview, but her voice wobbles as she says she worries she will wake up one morning, to find that her son has died in the night.

But despite repeated requests from health professionals to move the family, Housing New Zealand hasn't done anything. For two years. They say its because another home isn't available, but again, two years - they could have built one in that time. And its very hard to escape the conclusion that they simply do not give a shit, that it does not matter to them if their tenants live or die.

To say that this isn't good enough is an understatement. Homes shouldn't kill - and state-provided ones above all should be better than private sector ratholes. But National isn't interested in funding House NZ to ensure that all its home are warm and safe. They would rather spend the money on tax cuts for their rich mates, rather than ensuring that people don't die. And again, the name "murderers" seems applicable; this is a deliberate decision which shows a callous disregard for the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. And our politicians need to be held accountable for it.

Nothing to vote for in Greece

Last month, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sold out his own voters to the Germans and accepted even harsher austerity to repay the odious debt of previous corrupt governments. And now, the task done, he's called elections. The goal is presumably to gain post-facto approval of his sellout, while heading off a backbench rebellion by his own party. But now that SYRIZA has joined PASOK and New Democracy in the quisling camp, that doesn't leave Greeks who want a government who works for them, rather than Germany, much to vote for. The primary alternative are Golden Dawn, who are actual Nazis. Which isn't much of a choice. Election turnout has dropped by almost 7.5% since the crisis began, from 70.9% in 2009 to 63.6% in January (up from a low of 62.5% in June 2012, because there was something to vote for). And with nothing to vote for, and no real choice to make, it is likely to drop again.

That will likely suit the Germans very well, but with over a third of Greeks abstaining from their elections, the legitimacy of the system is in question. And when successive governments have so profoundly betrayed voters, you really have to wonder how long people will tolerate it.