Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why are we paying Louise Upston?

Louise Upston is the Minister for Women. As a Minister, we pay her $268,300 a year, plus slush fund - at least $120,000 more than she would get as a backbench MP. Astonishingly, we're paying her this money to not advocate for women:

But while Women's Minister Louise Upston released a statement repeating Key's apology, she refused to comment on issues of women's rights in the workplace.

"As the Prime Minister has said his actions were intended to be light-hearted. It was never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable," she said.

"He said that in hindsight it wasn't appropriate, and that is why he apologised."

Which invites the question: if the Minister for Women isn't going to advocate for women, why are we paying her?

If Louise Upston doesn't want to do her job, she should resign and make way for someone who will. It is that simple.

National's hand-wringing on housing

Auckland house prices have exploded again, and are at the silly stage where the houses actually earn mor ein capital gains than their inhabitants do in salaries. So what is the government doing about it? Nothing:

The Government has effectively left nothing "undone" to tackle sky-rocketing house prices in Auckland, Finance Minister Bill English says


"The best thing we can do for low and middle income families in Auckland is to allow the place to grow - growing up or growing out, that's the choice for Auckland to make," English said.

"You see in the media every day now commentators ranting about how the Government should do something about the housing market. Well I think Mayor Len [Brown] would agree there's pretty much not really anything left undone that can be done that happens fast enough.

Bullshit. There are two very obvious policies the government could pursue to end this rampanat inflation:
  • They could tax capital gains, and so make house price speculation unprofitable.
  • They could address the underlying supply issues with a mass building programme aimed at increasing the supply of decent, affordable homes.
So why don't they? For the obvious reason that a) government ministers and MPs are benefitting from the boom themselves; and b) any real action to curb Auckland's insane house-price inflation would see a lot of paper wealth evaporate and over-leveraged house-buyers trapped with negative equity - something unlikely to endear government to house-owning Auckland voters. So instead we get hand-wringing and claims of powerlessness. But those claims are false. The government is not powerless; it simply chooses not to act.

A serial creep

Yesterday we learned that Prime Minister John Key is a creep. But it also quickly became clear from photos splashed across twitter that he's a serial creep. First there's this:
That's from Justice Minister Amy Adams' website, no less (that's Adams grinning in the background). The caption on that is "Prime Minister John Key jokes with [NAME REDACTED] about cutting her hair".

Then there's the video, on the Herald here, of Key tugging another schoolkids hair while John Campbell asks her if she knows who he is.

And then there's this:

My 12-year old daughter watched the TV news last night and exclaimed ‘that’s what the Prime Minister did at Te Papa to my two friends”.

She was talking about the NZ Prime Minister John Key pulling the ponytail of a cafe worker, and previous footage of him touching a young girl’s ponytail.

So, the Prime Minister hasn't just attacked a waitress like this, but at least four schoolkids as well. And while he appears to think its all just a big joke, its not: its assault. And he should be prosecuted for it.

And again, you have to wonder what the Prime Minister's police bodyguards (who accompany him at all times) were doing during all of this: as police officers, shouldn't they be stopping him from assaulting children? Or does their job of intimidating the public and making the PM feel like a big man trump keeping us safe from him?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

National wants to jail people who expose politicians

Today, thanks to a post on The Daily Blog, we learned that Prime Minister John Key is a creep.

The post performed a valuable public service, exposing unacceptable behaviour from a person in a position of power. But the government is currently in the process of passing a law which would make similar posts in future illegal.

The law is the Harmful Digital Communications Bill. Section 19 of the bill creates a crime of "causing harm by posting digital communication":

A person commits an offence if—

(a) the person posts a digital communication with the intention that it cause harm to a victim; and
(b) posting the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim; and
(c) posting the communication causes harm to the victim.

For the purposes of the law, "harm" is defined as "serious emotional distress". TechLiberty's pointed out last year that this clause applied perfectly to the exposure of corrupt politicians, something which an ordinary reasonable person would think would cause them serious emotional distress. And it applies equally to exposing creepy ones as well. And no, there's no public interest defence. The kicker? The National-dominated select committee has increased the penalty for this offence from three months to two years imprisonment.

The message is clear: if in future you expose the Prime Minister as a creep using the internet, you'll be facing jail. So much for our democracy.

Save Campbell Live rallies

The Coalition for Better Broadcasting has organised a series of nationwide rallies to Save Campbell Live this Friday:

The Auckland rally starts on the corner of Karangahape Rd & Symonds St at 11.30. It will march to TV3/Mediaworks in Flower St.

The Wellington rally is at 4.30pm at Te Aro Park

The Christchurch rally is from 12 noon in Hagley Park (455 at the south end, next to the tennis club)

The Dunedin rally is at 4.30pm in the Lower Octagon.

If you want to stand up for decent journalism, then now is the time to speak out.

Another British coverup

Organophosphates are dangerous chemicals. Their best known use is probably in nerve agents, but they're also used as pesticides. As you might guess, the latter are dangerous, and can lead to some fairly unpleasant effects if not handled carefully. Which is why they're now banned in the EU. The British government, which used to require the use of organophosphates on farms, has always maintained that it had no idea of the dangers before it banned them. They lied:

Government officials knew of the dangerous health risks to farmers using a chemical treatment in the 1980s and 1990s but still refused to end its compulsory use, documents reveal for the first time.

At least 500 farmers across the UK were left with debilitating health problems after using organophosphate-based (OP) chemicals to protect their sheep against parasites, whose use was mandated by government until 1992.

Successive UK governments have claimed they did not know about the dangers farmers faced using the OPs for sheep dipping at that time and also dispute any link between repeated, low-level use of the chemical and chronic ill health, including serious neurological damage.

It has now emerged that government officials were privately warning of the dangers of exposure to even low doses of the chemical and criticising the safety measures offered by manufacturers, prompting calls by senior political figures for a Hillsborough-style inquiry.

From poisoning to pedophilia, the British establishment's default response to any problem is to lie and cover it up.

Meanwhile, I'm curious as to whether organophosphates were ever mandated in NZ. They've certainly been used here - there was a requirement for sheep dipping until 1993, which has covered the country in toxic sites, but the factsheets on that seem to worry mostly about arsenic and organochlorides like DDT, and there's no mention of specific chemicals being required as they were in the UK.

The Prime Minister is a creep

So, it turns out that John Key is a creep:

Prime Minister John Key has apologised to an Auckland waitress who accused him of harassment and bullying after he pulled on her pony-tail on repeated occasions.

In an anonymous article on the left-wing website The Daily Blog, the waitress said Mr Key behaved like a "schoolyard bully" when visiting her unnamed cafe in the past six months.

She said he later apologised by giving her two bottles of wine.

Key claims to have "apologised", but its the usual minimisation practised by bullies and creeps: "light-hearted", "never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable" etc. Which is bullshit. Invading someone else's personal space without their consent is the sort of thing which tends to make them uncomfortable. And only creeps do that. In the workplace, it'd be straight-out sexual harassment resulting in dismissal. When it comes from the Prime Minister, a person in a position of power who is surrounded at all times by armed bodyguards, its fucking scary.

(Speaking of those bodyguards, where the fuck were they? They're police officers, and someone was committing an assault right in front of them. Shouldn't they have done something about that? Or are they just part of the toxic police culture which sees sexually bullying young women as acceptable?)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Australia wants to beat refugees to death

Australia's Pacific refugee gulags are already brutal places, home to sexual abuse and institutionalised torture. And now the Australian government wants to make them even more brutal, by giving its hired goons the legal power to beat refugees to death:

A new law giving security guards in detention centres power to cause grievous bodily harm if they "reasonably believe" it is necessary to protect life or prevent injury is likely to encourage abuse of and violence against asylum seekers in detention, a Senate committee has been told.

Former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal Stephen Charles QC said the law allowed security guards to use lethal force "with impunity" because it would be "almost impossible" for them to face prosecution in the courts.

"These amendments will authorise detention centre guards to beat asylum seekers to death if they reasonably believe it is necessary to do so to save either themselves or another person from serious harm," he said.

As the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre points out, giving untrained goons the right to beat people is a recipe for abuse. But then, that's the point, isn't it? To "deter" refugees from seeking refuge in Australia by making their life a living hell of abuse and hopelessness. That's not what decent countries do, but its been clear for a long, long time that Australia isn't a decent country anymore. They ethnicly cleanse their indigenous people, they torture refugees, they detain children indefinitely. Beating refugees to death pour encourager les autres just seems like more of the same.

As for what to do about it, rather than spending ANZAC Day celebrating a century of shared military servitude to foreign powers, maybe we should use it to reassess our relationship with Australia - and tell them to fuck off until they are willing to behave like decent human beings.

That perks SOP

Last month, the government tried to double the travel rort of retired former MPs by stealth via an SOP to the Statutes Amendment Bill. Fortunately they backed down in the face of overwhelming public opposition, but I was curious about the process behind this stealth amendment, so I asked Simon Bridges, the Minister responsible for it, for all advice and correspondence relating to it. I received the response last week. Great chunks of it have been withheld as legal advice, but its still illuminating for what's not in it. Notably:

  • There is no assessment of whether the amendments meet the "technical, short, and non-controversial" requirement for inclusion in a Statutes Amendment Bill. Given the subject matter of the amendment, you'd expect it to have raised multiple red flags for controversy, and as Graeme Edgeler pointed out at the time, it wasn't "technical" either. But there's simply no mention of this. Were all those Ministerial Advisers and Policy Advisers asleep at the wheel? Or are their heads so far in the Thorndon Bubble that they no longer recognise political asbestos when they see it?
  • Simon Bridges, the Minister in charge of the SOP, only consulted government support parties. Its a requirement for anything to do with a Statutes Amendment Bill to be consulted on with all parliamentary parties (because it takes just one person objecting to sink it). But there's no evidence that Labour or the Greens were ever consulted. The parliamentary Counsel's Office did query this in early March, and were informed by Ministry of Justice that "we were informed by Minister Bridges office that we did not need to attend to this". There's a later email saying that "all parties confirmed support for the amendments", but there's no documentation of this whatsoever. The emails imply that Ministry of Justice would normally hold formal support letters, but there's no indication of these being sought or received by Bridges.

Which looks like a significant end-run around the normal procedural protections on this sort of bill.

As for the origins of the amendment, it came from Parliamentary Services, who had originally been planning to put it up in this year's Statutes Amendment Bill. So we may see them make another attempt. Unfortunately, parliamentary Services is immune to the OIA, so we can't delve any further into where this harebrained scheme to give Roger Douglas a stealth pay-rise came from.

New Fisk

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

"We do not comment on security matters"

When brave leakers and journalists have revealed the dirty deeds of "our" spy agencies, the government's response has been to consistently stonewall. "We do not comment on security matters", they say. Unless, apparently, they think they have a success story to tell us:

Prime Minister John Key says the SIS has talked would-be jihadists in New Zealand out of joining Isis after their parents approached authorities.

"There are some people we believe we have actually talked down from wanting to get engaged and leave [New Zealand]," Mr Key said at his post-Cabinet press conference.

"Often family members are involved in discussions that lead to the SIS having discussions with those individuals."

There are two points to make here. The first is obvious: so much for not commenting. But I'm sure that if anyone tries to OIA the SIS for further details, it'll be back to the stonewall. Protecting "national security" apparently means the spies telling us only what they want us to know, while hiding everything else - including whether they're doing their job properly or acting lawfully.

Which brings us to the second point: if John Key is telling the truth, the SIS have broken the law. Why? Because their governing Act says explicitly
It is not a function of the Security Intelligence Service to enforce measures for security.

The Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence has previously found that warning people not to pursue certain courses of action is a measure to enforce security and violates this clause. When the SIS detect evidence of serious crime - and participation in a terrorist group certainly qualifies, as does attempting to do so - they should turn that evidence over to the police. And this makes sense: spies are there to gather intelligence, but its the police who are supposed to protect public safety. Letting spies - who regard evidence of criminal wrongdoing as leverage with which to extract more intelligence - make public safety decisions leads to the sort of shit we're seeing in the UK, where they cover up for pedophiles to protect their intelligence sources (and their budgets).

As for what to do about this, it sounds as if Russel Norman is going to have to make another complaint to the Inspector-General asking them to investigate the lawfulness of spy actions. And if an investigation confirms that they have broken the law, again, after being specifically warned not to do this sort of thing, then it would suggest an entrenched culture of lawlessness within the agency. Given the hideous dangers posed by lawless spies, slow reform is not an option; the only cure would be disestablishment or a full-on purge.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off down to Wellington for Hydra larp convention. Over the course of the weekend, I expect to be gunned down like a dog, die tragicly of an alien plague, murdered by my neighbours, machine-gunned by gangsters (or eaten by a dragon - who knows in Chicago?), and be beheaded by a friendly lumberjack, before subjecting my friends to the horrors of a quasi-totalitarian state.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unlawful and possibly criminal

Today's Snowden leak: the GCSB has been spying on Bangladesh and sharing information with Bangladeshi torturers:

Secret documents reveal New Zealand has shared intelligence collected through covert surveillance with Bangladesh despite that country's security forces being implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses.

The documents shine light on the major role played by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in electronic spying operations conducted in the small South Asian nation.

The surveillance has been used to aid the United States as part of its global counter-terrorism campaign, launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001.


The intelligence gathered by the GCSB staff was also being forwarded to foreign intelligence agencies, including Bangladesh's state intelligence agency. In recent years, human rights groups have issued several reports documenting Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies' disregard for international prohibitions on torture and alleged involvement in politically motivated killings. In 2014, a case was filed in the International Criminal Court accusing the Bangladesh Government of committing crimes against humanity.

As with other GCSB spying, this raises the usual questions: how does this contribute to New Zealand's international relations and national security? And it has the usual answer: it doesn't. The GCSB isn't spying on Bangladesh because it poses some threat to New Zealand, but because the NSA has told them to and they want information to trade to their American masters. Whether that is in New Zealand's interests is left as an exercise for the reader.

But it also raises serious questions about what is done with the information the GCSB collects. Bangladesh's spy agencies are deeply unsavoury people who engage in torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial killings. There's an obvious political question here about whether we want our spies passing information to an agency which goes around kidnapping, torturing and murdering people. But beyond that, there are serious legal questions as well. Its hard to see how the GCSB's sharing of information with an agency known to torture and murder is consistent with the agency's obligations under sections 8 and 9 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which affirm the right to life and the right not to be tortured, which apply to any actions of the government, anywhere in the world, and for which there can be no "justified limitation".

But in addition to probably being unlawful, sharing information with known torturers and murderers is probably criminal as well. The Crimes of Torture Act 1989 imposes a penalty of 14 years imprisonment on anyone who
(a) commits an act of torture; or
(b) does or omits an act for the purpose of aiding any person to commit an act of torture; or
(c) abets any person in the commission of an act of torture; or
(d) incites, counsels, or procures any person to commit an act of torture.

There's no suggestion that the GCSB is itself torturing people, or that they're deliberately procuring it (unlike the CIA and MI6, who seem to do that all the time). But passing information to known torturers seems to fall squarely within clauses 3(1)(b) and 3(1)(c). And that means that the GCSB staff who do it are potentially on the hook for a very long jail spell. If you work for the GCSB on the Bangladesh desk, you should really be talking to your lawyer about now.

As for what we can do about it, a complaint to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security asking them to investigate on their own motion whether the GCSB has violated the BORA and/or the Crimes of Torture Act by sharing information with foreign agencies would seem to be the best bet.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Our glorious leader

NZ troops reportedly departed today for Iraq. Meanwhile, our glorious leader can't even name who they'll be fighting:

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, like the Australian Defence Minister, is unable to name the leader of Islamic State.

"Look I'll get it wrong if I actually name his name - it's al-Jabiri something - but whatever I mean, but yeah," Key said on Wednesday.


[T]he Islamic State's leader is universally recognised as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has declared himself the Muslim world's Caliph, is solely named leader by Islamic State supporters and is regarded as the leader by Western countries.

Yes, its lazy and cheap - an Australian minister screwed up, so someone thought it would be easy to ask Key the same question - but at the same time its deeply telling. Key is sending kiwi soldiers to die in Iraq. If he took that decision seriously, you think he'd at least know the basics of who they were fighting against. The fact that he doesn't shows how little regard he has for his job - and the lives of those he is sending to die for him.

Mass surveillance goes to the ECHR

The UK is a member of the Five Eyes and engages in mass surveillance. The UK is also a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, which affirms rights to privacy and expression. These two things don't seem to go together - so a coalition of human rights and privacy groups are taking the UK to the ECHR to see whether its conduct is legal:

Amnesty International, Liberty and Privacy International have announced today they are taking the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights over its indiscriminate mass surveillance practices.

The legal challenge is based on documents made available by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden which revealed mass surveillance practices taking place on an industrial scale.

"The UK government’s surveillance practices have been allowed to continue unabated and on an unprecedented scale, with major consequences for people’s privacy and freedom of expression. No-one is above the law and the European Court of Human Rights now has a chance to make that clear," said Nick Williams, Amnesty International’s Legal Counsel.


“Mass surveillance is a violation of our fundamental rights. Intercepting millions of communications every day, and secretly receiving millions more from the NSA by the back door is neither necessary nor proportionate,” said Carly Nyst, Legal Director of Privacy International.

“While the IPT sided with GCHQ and against the rights of millions of people, Europe’s highest human rights court has a strong history of ensuring intelligence agencies are compliant with human rights law. We hope that the Court continues this tradition and GCHQ is finally held accountable for its unfettered spying on the world’s communications.”

Here's hoping that they succeed. And if they do, it is likely to be influential in how our own courts interpret our laws.

A failure to deliver

National is very keen on announcing new funding for special education, because it sounds positive. Who doesn't like the idea of helping kids in need? Sadly, they're not so good at actually delivering on those promises:

More than $32 million of funding for children with special needs has languished in government coffers for two years, leaving schools to foot the bill.

The Ministry of Education says the underspend is because of the delay between announcing special education programmes and implementing them - a practice that isn't "unusual".


One of the programmes responsible for the education budget underspend is Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L), which has been championed by Education Minister Hekia Parata.

It has received annual cash injections since 2009, including more than $63m of an $80.5m budget in 2013.

This is despite the ministry revealing it didn't fill the staff vacancies needed to implement it.

Because why would you? I mean, its only kids who desperately need help, after all. But the side effect of this slackness on the part of the Ministry is not just that those kids don't get help, but that the funding disappears forever - because they're only allowed to spend the money appropriated in the particular year it was appropriated for. So, that $32 million isn't sitting in a bank account somewhere, just waiting for the Ministry of Education to get its shit together - its gone. One way of meeting your artificial surplus target, I guess.

Having it both ways

Yesterday I highlighted Rob Salmond's excellent work in digging into National's Northland bridge bribe, which revealed Transport Minister simon Bridges broke Cabinet Manual rules by requesting information from his Ministry for party political purposes. john Key's response when asked about this by the media was to deny that it was a breach and claim that

"You're allowed to use resources of the officials in terms of what would be Government policy."

But as Salmond points out today, this is exactly the opposite of what he was telling us a few weeks ago. When asked about the policy in Question Time back in March, he refused to answer on the basis that he had been wearing his National Party hat, not his Prime Minister's hat, and so he had no Ministerial responsibility for the issue. Which raises the obvious question:
if there’s no ministerial responsibility for the Northland bridge bribe, then why was Simon Bridges using his ministerial privileges in putting the bribe together?

Key can't have it both ways. If this is really a matter of government policy, then he should be answering questions about it in Parliament. If its a National Party matter, then Bridges abused his office and should be sacked. The current situation, where which hat a Minister is wearing depends purely on the political consequences seems designed to thwart accountability and encourage abuses of power. And that's not something we should tolerate from our government.

Off to Iraq

And they're off. But as usual, we have to hear about what our soldiers are doing from the Australians:

The first Kiwi troops going to Iraq to help in the fight against Islamic State (Isis) militants will reportedly deploy on Wednesday.

New Zealand is sending 143 troops to train the Iraqi military as part of an international coalition to defeat Isis.

The Australian Federal Cabinet on Tuesday signed off on that country deploying about 330 additional troops to Iraq.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra the deployment would start on Wednesday, and the force was expected to be operational by the middle of May.

It would be nice if we could learn about the deployment of kiwi troops from our own government, not a foreign country. But that might lead to accountability, which is the last thing that this government wants when kiwi lives are on the line. Make no mistake: this is an unnecessary deployment in someone else's religious civil war, and we should have no part of it. And if any of those soldiers come back in a body bag, it will be John Key's fault, and we should hold him accountable for it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

National on surpluses

Bill English, 2010 budget speech:

It is projected to improve steadily in each subsequent year, and to reach surplus in 2015/16, three years ahead of last year’s projection.

Bill English, 2011 budget speech:
The projected operating deficit will fall dramatically over the next three years. It will be in
significant surplus from 2014/15.

Bill English, 2012 budget speech:
This Government’s discipline means New Zealand is on track to return to fiscal surplus in
2014/15, and then to start reducing debt.

The forecast fiscal surplus in 2014/15 is $197 million. This surplus is forecast to grow to
$2.1 billion in 2015/16 and $4.4 billion in 2016/17.

Bill English, 2013 budget speech:
We are on track to get back to surplus by 2014/15.

And we are on track to reduce government debt to 20 per cent of GDP by 2020.

Budget forecasts show an operating surplus before gains and losses of $75 million in 2014/15.

Bill English, 2014 budget speech:
There will be a small surplus next year, and incr
easing surpluses are forecast over time.

Key maintains he can hit "artificial" surplus ahead of pre-Budget speech, Stuff, 13 April 2015:
Ahead of his first major Budget speech John Key is refusing to rule out the Government hitting a surplus this year, while at the same time dismissing the target as "artificial".


Key said New Zealand was a $220 billion dollar economy, the Government spent about $70 billion, meaning a deficit of a few hundred million dollars was irrelevant.

"It's really like trying to land a 747 on a pin head. It's just not that possible for the Treasury to get that right."

And just like that, National's major goal, the thing it has constantly said it (and opposition parties) should be judged by, is dimissed. And tomorrow they'll no doubt be telling us that they never promised a surplus and that Helen Clark had nine long years to balance the books (and she did, every year).

[Hat-tip: David Slack]

Here we go again

In 2013, the foreign owners of Tiwai Point scammed us for a $30 million handout to keep the smelter going. And now a key contract decision point is approaching on whether to continue operations, they're sticking their hand out again:

NZAS chairman Brian Cooper said the smelter was one of the most efficient in the world but currently pays one of the highest power prices paid by a smelter anywhere in the world, outside of China.

Only smelters in Eastern and Southern Europe pay similar prices.

NZAS also paid one of the highest transmission charges, faced by a smelter, in the world, he said.

Costs had dramatically increased, by $25 million per annum, over the past seven years – last year the smelter paid $64 million in transmission costs.

A transmission costs system, where the grid user pays for what they actually use, would deliver a better outcome for NZAS, he said.

"No decision had been made about the future of the smelter, and we are doing everything we can to secure a long-term commercially competitive electricity price for the smelter."

Translation: "give us more money or we'll leave". To which the government's response should be "here's the door". The smelter makes a profit. There's no need to subsidise a profitable business, and no point subsidising an unprofitable one. And if it shuts down, we can deploy the resources it currently wastes - 13% of the country's total electricity supply - to more profitable uses.