Monday, October 31, 2005

Written questions

DPF responds to my quick and dirty Question Time statistics, pointing out that this is not the be-all and end-all of Parliamentary performance, and that there are often good reasons why MPs do not ask anything:

However oral questions are a bad tool to judge how productive MPs are. If MPs don't ask many oral questions, it is usually not for lack of trying. The larger parties meet every morning to decide what questions will be asked, and who asks them. And often you have MPs try day after day and week after week to get their pet question asked. However if their colleagues don't agree it is a priority, then they don't get the chance. Also even if there is an issue in someones portfolio area, it may be given to an MP more experienced in trapping Ministers.

So you can't label someone an under-performer on the basis of their lack of oral questions.

I fully agree - Question Time is only part of the picture. We also need to look at (for example) whether they ask supplementary questions and whether they speak during debates on legislation. However, both of these are still limited resources, subject to the whims of the party. Fortunately, there's another metric which isn't quite so limited:

A better measure in my opinion would be written questions. Written questions (and OIAs) are how MPs dig up issues and scandals in their portfolio area. No matter how obscure the portfolio, an MP should be continually firing off written questions relating to it. You get to know the portfolio much better, and you often get good material for a release.

I suggested this in my original post on Parliamentary statistics - and the good news is that its fairly easy to gather raw numbers: the Office of the Clerk has a handy search page, and you can cycle through the names. As with Question Time, the database covers the period 13th February 2003 to 2nd of August 2005. The results are here. As before, I've sorted by party, then by number of questions asked.

As expected, government MPs virtually never asked questions. The average number of questions asked by non-government (meaning non-Labour and Progressive) MPs was 599, and the median 330. ACT's Murial Newman is by far the star performer, with almost 4000 questions asked, but there's also a swathe of ACT and National MPs who were extremely active in holding the government to account, with more than 1000 questions each. But there were twenty non-government MPs who submitted fewer than 100 questions over two and half years. Some, such as Clem Simich, Kenneth Wang, Tariana Turia and Donna Awatere-Huata, had excuses (though not good in the latter case). As for the rest - inlcuding Mike Ward, Shane Ardern, and most of NZFirst and United Future - you really have to wonder what they were doing with their time.

Again, I should note that this is not the complete picture, and it should be viewed in conjunction with other data. But looking at the information we have, there are already a couple of MPs who rank near the bottom in both. Maurice Williamson and Doug Woolerton asked exactly zero written questions over the last term, and had only three oral questions between them. So, what exactly are they doing to earn their salaries...?

Meet Jack

More jovial than scary, but that's just the way I feel about Halloween.

Christians and Halloween

Writing in the Herald (behind the paywall), Glynn Cardy shows that not all Christians are pouty-faced over Halloween:

The God I believe in - full of life, love and laughter - joins me as I giggle at ghosts and groan at the horror genre. To take such things seriously, to give them a "real" presence, allows them too much power.

Halloween is a day to celebrate the imagination, and to become for an evening something mysterious and strange.

It's a day to rejoice in make-believe. It's a day to thumb our noses at the real world and go skipping off with winged horses and fairy folk. There is a reality to fiction and a value in fantasy that is wonderful and God-given.

By contrast, Christians of the pouty-faced variety seem to be ruled by fear - fear not just that the things we laugh at on Halloween are real, but also fear that they are not, and that nothing bad will happen for mocking them. After all, if ghosts, goblins, ghouls and evil spirits aren't real, and people aren't punished for thinking that, what might that imply about their god...?

Some quick and dirty statistics on Question Time

Last week I posted about Parliamentary statistics, suggesting that we needed British-style participation tools (in the style of the Public Whip) to keep track of whether our elected representatives are actually doing their jobs. One idea was to take a look at Question Time, the time each day when the Opposition is supposed to hold Ministers accountable to Parliament, and (by extension) the government accountable to the public. Who is asking these questions (and more importantly, who isn't) may provide useful insight as to which MPs are worth their salary.

However, it's not quite so simple as that. Two factors which weaken the link between "number of questions asked" and job performance are:

  • Ministers answer questions, rather than asking them, so they will be systematically under-represented (and conversely, the "patsies" they get to ask soft questions so they can attack the Opposition will be over-represented); and
  • While questions are distributed to parties on a per-capita basis (meaning that every MP theoretically has the same chance of asking a question), they are not distributed equally within parties. Generally, the party leaders and front-bench get to hog the questions - and these positions reflect ability in political infighting and faction-building as much as any ability to hold the government to account. That said, a long-serving backbencher who never asks the government anything is probably a strong hint that they are a talentless time-server.

So, Question Time is more a guide to identifying systematic underperformers than anything else. But then, those are exactly the people we want to identify.

Last night I built a crude parser to extract the data on primary and supplementary questions. Unfortunately, the Hansard Office uses Word (bletch!) to produce their HTML - making it difficult to parse, and meaning that there are definitely some errors in the resulting data. But looking at the output and the various flags raised, it seems that the error-rate was less than 1%, and mostly corrected with manual checks. However, there were still around 5 questions (out of more than 2600) which could not be attributed. The sample covered Question Time from 12th February 2003 to 2nd of August 2005. The results are in this spreadsheet. I've identified some ministers and Parliamentary officers to provide context for their scores.

Focusing on the opposition parties, there are a few notables that stand out. ACT's Gerry Eckhoff and the Greens' Mike Ward both asked far less than their compatriots. Fortunately they are no longer with us, and neither are most of NZFirst's tail (with the notable exceptions of Pita Parone and Doug Woolerton). Unfortunately, all of National's notable underperformers - Shane Ardern, Sandra Goudie, Pansy Wong, and Lindsay Tisch - are still with us, and all hold positions of responsibility in National's new lineup.

It would be nice if, for the next term, we had a searchable database with both statistics and links to the questions asked, so we can see what our MPs are actually doing. But unfortunately, I just don't have the time...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Devil's Night

Tonight is the night before Halloween. In parts of the US (and the movie The Crow), this is known as "Devil's Night", and used to be marked by a spate of vandalism and arson. We set fires to celebrate it in NZ too - though usually accidentally, while playing with fireworks. We also have the annual spectacle of cultural warfare between people who like (or at least don't mind) the idea of Halloween (as seasonally out of place as it is), and the pouty-faced Christians who object to the celebration of Halloween as a "negative influence" (people dressing up as ghosts, witches and Elvis being apparantly a form of devil worship).

As someone who falls into the former camp, I am well-prepared. I have my chocolate, a pumpkin, and a knife. Photos of the results will be posted tomorrow.

Tonga and the death penalty

While we're on the subject of Tonga, I note that a Tongan jury has returned a "guilty" verdict in a murder case for the first time in 24 years. Sentance will not be passed until November 10th, but Tonga still has the option of the death penalty for murder, so this raises the spectre of the country carrying out its first execution since 1981.

The New Zealand government has a longstanding policy of opposing the death penalty; shouldn't our new foreign minister be speaking up about this?

Tonga: keeping up the pressure

A couple of months ago, the Tongan public service waged an unprecedented strike for a general wage rise - and for democracy. How have things gone since?

"Not well", is the answer. While the Tongan government promised to consider constitutional change when ending the strike, it has dragged its feet. This has resulted in further protests, and threats of a further national strike. Last week, the Tongan Parliament finally established a committee for political reform - but it is not expected to report back until next July. And that may not be soon enough. Just yesterday, Tongan democracy activists in New Zealand called for the royal family to step aside in favour of a fully democratic government:

Alani Taioni says the king must give up political and economic power immediately.


Mr Taioni says if the royal family and the nobles refuse, they will be forced out by peaceful means, such as people just marching into the king's house and taking over.

Hopefully the Tongan monarchy will see the writing on the wall and yield power before they face a "people power" revolution.

It's official

Georgina Beyer's Human Rights (Gender Identity) Amendment Bill has been given the chop.

While disappointing, this isn't exactly unexpected. And the brute fact is that (while there are possible other prospects for progress this Parliamentary term), the votes to pass it just weren't there. Under those circumstances, it's better for the government to save its efforts for other causes which can be advanced. The Revolution will just have to wait for a little while.

on the plus side, I've heard that Larry Baldock's Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment Bill will not be going ahead either.

New Fisk

All over the globe, our leaders seem to be suffering from a severe bout of infantilism

Saturday, October 29, 2005

An indictement

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has finally issued indictements in the Valerie Plame case, charging Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby with perjury, obstruction of justice, and making a false statement to the FBI. For those who don't know Valerie Plame was the partner of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who was sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase Uranium in that country. He inconveniently concluded that those claims - central to the Bush Administration's case for war - were false. The Administration retaliated by outing his partner as an undercover CIA agent, ruining her career and possibly endangering the lives of covert agents overseas.

Outing an undercover agent in the US is a crime, as is passing on classified information to someone not entitled to it. Plame's outing thus led to an investigation which pointed directly at the White House. But rather than charge Libby with the crime itself (which would be difficult to prove). Fitzgerald has fallen back on easy to prove charges of perjury and obstruction. This is based on more than just a "technical" slip up; as Kevin Drum notes:

Fitzgerald didn't charge Scooter Libby with mistakenly making a few unimportant false statements to the grand jury. He charged him with deliberately constructing a false story about how he learned about Valerie Plame, and then repeatedly telling this story to both FBI agents and the grand jury. That story was a lie, and it was a premeditated lie designed to cover up the fact that he had engaged in a long and persistent effort to uncover information about Joe Wilson's wife and disseminate it to reporters.

Libby could have told the truth, but then he would have had to admit his role in outing a CIA agent in order to score political points against a critic of the administration. He didn't want that campaign to become public, so he invented a cover story, repeated it under oath, and stuck to it on multiple occasions.

And this doesn't mean he's going to get off lightly; according to BBC, he faces up to 30 years in jail plus a fine of US$1.25 million on each count if the charges are proven.

From a distance, I find this vastly amusing. Firstly, it's good to see a Straussian believer in the "noble lie" hoist by his own petard. And secondly, I get to watch a bunch of Republicans, who just a few short years ago were crying that perjury was the greatest crime on earth, show how deeply hypocritcal they are by trying to excuse it and pretend it doesn't matter. It's also good to see the US media explicitly linking this to the Bush Administration's pattern of using selective intelligence and outright lies to "justify" the war - a war that has now killed 2000 US soldiers.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has no shame, and I suspect that Bush will simply issue a pardon rather than see a key underling found guilty.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A final kick

And just for a final kick of the dead horse (pending further stupidity from Mapp, that is), in this morning's Herald, Brian Rudman calls Wayne Mapp's position as chief PC eradicator a humiliation and a "nonsense role", and wonders whether Mapp will

ever be able to return to Auckland University without sniggers following him down the corridors.

Unfortunately, it's behind the paywall, so you'll have to use the search function to read it.

Proud to be PC

Via I See Red, Dean Knight has produced this delightful little logo which sums up nicely what those who object to "political correctness" are really objecting to:

Satire that might have been

It turns out there's a down side to the demise of Harriet Miers: an entire week of Doonesbury. Strips poking fun at her upcoming confirmation hearings had already been written, and are now redundant.

Fortunately, you can read them here.

Mapp vs the Waitangi Tribunal

Here's another case of outright fiction about about the roles of government bodies from Wayne Mapp. On the same Morning Report interview, immediately before he made his embarassing and inconsistent comments about secularism (it applies to Maori, but not to Christians, it seems), he provided the following example of a "politically correct" body in need of eradication:

[The] Waitangi Tribunal would be another good example. There's a mixture of remaking our history with [an] advocacy role, but also trying to make recommendations on settlement of claims. Well frankly it should stick to its [billing?], which is dealing with the recomendations on claims.

But as in the case of the HRC, this simply isn't true. A quick glance at the functions of the Waitangi Tribunal shows that it has no advocacy role. Instead, its role is solely to inquire into claims or legislation submitted or referred to it. Mapp may not like the results of those inquiries - but that hardly makes them "advocacy", any more than the Court of Appeal's decision in Ngati Apa v Attorney-General (grounded solidly in the common-law doctrine of aboriginal title) was. Mapp has been a spokesperson on Treaty and constitutional issues since 1999, and has sat on both the Maori Affairs and Justice select committees. He should know this - and if he doesn't, then you have to ask why he held those positions.

I should also point out that historical claims are verified by an exhaustive process of historical research by both the crown and claimants (this is one reason the process takes so long - there aren't enough historians); it is not the Tribunal which is "remaking our history", but historians. Again, their findings may make Mapp deeply uncomfortable - but the truth sometimes is.

Neither consistent nor liberal

Why do conservatives oppose "political correctness"? Over the last few days, we've seen a lot of bluster about how "political correctness" is about minorities attempting to impose their views on the majority, an attack on freedom of expression, and a threat to secularism. But looking past that, it seems that exactly the opposite is the case. Opposition to "political correctness" is primarily about the imposition of majority opinion onto minorities, rather than the protection of a free and neutral society or a marketplace of ideas.

There was an excellent example of this in Wayne Mapp's interview with Sean Plunket on Morning Report yesterday (hat tip: Keith Ng):

Mapp: Another example: the government now puts into law Maori spiritual values, and yet we don't even have Grace at state functions. Now that's wrong. In a secular state, all beliefs - you know, spiritual beliefs, religious beliefs - should be treated equally, because that's actually what secularism means. Instead, this government puts it into law that one set of values has preference. That's where the whole thing's got completely out of control, and we need a systemtic review of all of that to fix it - [in the name of?] freedom of speech.

Plunket: I'd presume you'd also get rid of the Lord's Prayer at the start of each Parliamentary session

Mapp: No, I think that's part of our history. I mean, things are part of our history.

Plunket: OK, so whose history? Whose history is that part of?

Mapp: The Nation's history, the nation's history.

Plunket: OK, because it would seem to me that if you're going to be secular right across the board, then that's got to go to.

Mapp: Well, there was this issue in North Shore, I can tell you the majority of the public did not like it, and the councillor who promoted it did not retain his position. Part of this whole issue is respecting the views of the majority, not always pandering to minority views...

So, minority religious expression must be eradicated from public institutions, but majority public expression is acceptable - because they're the majority. Similarly, laws outlawing "hate speech" against gays are bad, but laws outlawing blasphemous libel - "hate speech" against (the Christian version of) god - are OK. You don't have to be a genius to see that this position is neither consistent nor liberal. Instead, it is an appropriation of liberal language to mask gross illiberalism and the imposition of majority opinion. And even if the majority existed somewhere outside the National party's heads, it would be wrong. As John Stuart Mill famously pointed out,

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

This doesn't just follow from one interview. The idea that "political correctness" is about the struggle between majorities and minorities is encapsulated in Wayne Mapp's definition of the term in his speech "The Problem With Political Correctness":

A person, an institution or a government is politically correct when they cease to represent the interests of the majority and become focused on the cares and concerns of minority sector groups.

According to Mapp, democratic government means that "the ideas and values of the majority are able to prevail over other choices". According to liberals, they should not, at least in certain areas. And those areas - religion, sexuality, equality, substantive freedom - overlap precisely with the battlegrounds of "political correctness".

New kiwi blog

Newsoc, by the Alliance's Len Richards (Hat tip: Span).

Miers steps down

US Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers has withdrawn her nomination. She'd attracted bipartisan opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, and while I'd like to think that it was the fact that she was a crony manifestly unfit for the job which led to her demise, it seems instead that the religious right didn't think she was sufficiently anti-abortion for their tastes.

But while I'm pleased to see Miers step down, I'm also worried. President Bush described her as "the best person I could find". But if Miers is the best Bush can find, who will he pick in her place? The White House janitor?

Something to watch in Auckland

Russell Campbell and Alister Barry's film "Sedition: The Suppression of Dissent in WWII in NZ" will screen on Triangle Television on Sunday 20 November at 9.30PM. While it's a slight misnomer - WWII prosecutions (such as James Kellman's) were technically for subversion rather than sedition - they fall into our unfortunate tradition of using wartime hysteria to criminalise opposition to the government. The film goes beyond prosecutions to deal with the wider issue of the treatment of conscientious objectors, which while not as bad as the savagery meted out to WWI objectors like Archibald Baxter, is still something we as a nation should be ashamed of.

Joe Hendren has a review here.

Out of names II

Meet Tropical Storm Beta. It is expected to reach hurricane strength in the next 24 hours, and then smack into Nicaragua sometime on Sunday.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


It's only a day old, and already Wayne Mapp's role of eradicating "political correctness" is turning into an embarassment. On National Radio yesterday afternoon, he condemned the Human Rights Commission's advocacy role, calling it "propaganda". Today, his colleague Paul Hutchison is calling on the government to act on a recommendation from the HRC (produced as part of that advocacy role) to improve disabled access to public transport infrastructure. Frogblog thinks this is a cunning attempt by National to damn the government whatever they do - but this makes the mistake of ascribing to conspiracy that which can easily be explained by incompotence. A better explanation is that National's left hand simply doesn't know what the right is doing...

New kiwi blog

SNAP! - which appears to be an online version of the newssheet I see pasted to walls around Wellington whenever I go there.

Mapp vs the HRC

So, what exactly (other than equality) will Wayne Mapp be attempting to "eradicate"? On National Radio yesterday and this morning he indicated that the Human Rights Commission would be his first target. His reason? Purportedly, the HRC has both an advocacy and prosecution role, "combining judge and jury into one organisation". Unfortunately for Mapp, this simply isn't true.

The Human Rights Commission was established by the Human Rights Commission Act 1977 - a law passed by the Muldoon government - to advocate for human rights. Since the beginning it has also had powers to investigate and mediate complaints, and initiate proceedings in the courts and before the Human Rights Review (formerly Equal Opportunities) Tribunal. It is this latter body, rather than the HRC, which serves as "judge and jury"; the Human Rights Commissions role is limited to that of advocate, as in any civil case. Mapp is simply wrong.

But Mapp seems to have a wider problem with the HRC, describing it as "an organisation that has a set of values pretty much divorced from the main stream". I'm not sure what "mainstream" Mapp is swimming in, but last I checked, the vast majority of New Zealanders supported basic fairness and opposed gross and blatant discrimination in employment, housing and other areas. Perhaps in mapp's idealised version of the 50's it was considered acceptable to refuse to employ someone because they weren't Christian, or refuse to rent a house to someone because they were Maori, or pay a woman less than a man simply on account of her gender - but it wasn't even in Muldoon's day (that's why he set up the Commission), and it sure as hell isn't now.

Why we shouldn't keep prisoners in vans

The other day we learned that Corrections had started keeping prisoners in vans parked on the street in an effort to circumvent lockdown muster limits. They stopped the moment it became public, which tells you even they thought it was dodgy. Today, some public-spirited prisoners have given us a reminder of why this practice should never be restarted: they escaped from a van while being transferred to court. Hopefully Corrections will heed the lesson...

The Brown amendment

Something I missed and have just picked up while browsing Hansard for formatting data: in October last year, NZ First Deputy Leader Peter Brown kicked up a stink about the practice of secret split voting. On several controversial pieces of legislation - notably the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, but also reportedly the smoke-free legislation - parties were splitting their votes without any indication of who had voted which way. This made it impossible for the public to know what our representatives were doing or to effectively hold them to account for their votes. However, in the closing hours of the last Parliament, Michael Cullen moved an amendment to the Standing Orders to ensure that, when this occured, names were recorded so that MPs could be held to account. And even National - whose whips bitterly opposed any requirement for transparency - have come round:

SIMON POWER: Although initially reluctant to move in this direction, we had an interesting conversation in our caucus whereby we formed the view that this particular issue was more about the public’s expectation of knowing how particular members of Parliament voted, rather than a mechanism that may or may not suit a larger party on issues where that party has some members voting against the majority—or, indeed, on the odd occasion the numbers may well be even. So I say to Mr Brown that that is a fair rule to change.

I guess lobbying MPs actually had some effect for once...

Here's the revised sections of the Standing Orders [PDF]:

144 Procedure for party vote


(2) If a party casts a split-party vote the member casting the vote must deliver to the Clerk at the Table, immediately after the vote, a list showing the names of the members of that party voting in the various categories.


(5) The number of votes cast for each party and the names of the members of a party voting in each category on a split-party vote are recorded in the Journals of the House and in Hansard.

Darren Hughes christened the change "the Brown amendment", and its well-deserved. I don't like NZ First much, and I like Peter Brown even less, but on this he has done our democracy a service, and he deserves our thanks.

Parliamentary statistics

For a while, I've felt that New Zealanders need better information on our elected representatives - both their positions on various issues and the way they actually vote in the House. But while we have a New Zealand Parliamentary Votes Database for the 2002 - 2005 term, the tools we have are rather primitive, and I can't help but feel envious of the participation tools the Brits have available. Take a look at They Work For You, The Public Whip and WriteToThem and just imagine what we could do with similar tools in New Zealand.

I'm particularly interested in the idea of tracking MP's performance - including the most basic question of whether they bother to turn up regularly. While this matters a lot less than it used to - MPs can vote by proxy, and most votes are party votes anyway - Parliament is supposed to be a deliberative body, and I expect our representatives to turn up and deliberate. Unfortunately, the demise of individual votes also means the demise of easy attendence statistics, but there are some other metrics we can use. Things like the number of questions and supplementaries asked at Question Time, for example - or the number of speeches given in debate, or the number of written questions lodged. These all give some indication that an MP is doing something to earn their salary. And most of the necessary raw data is marked up in XML, making it extremely easy to automatically parse and collect statistics from.

Unfortunately, I just don't have the time to do this. But if anybody out there is feeling keen...

More thoughts on the opposition reshuffle

Wayne Mapp's joke portfolio aside (I guess they had to give him something to not do, after all), there's a few other things I noticed about today's opposition reshuffle. The first is that Georgina te Heuheu gets to sit at the back of the bus with Pansy Wong again. Isn't it time the two of them took a few lessons from Rosa Parks? Secondly, they seem to have forgotten someone: while they now have liaisons to Pacific Peoples, women, youth, and Asian New Zealanders, they don't have a liaison to Maori. It's a rather telling absence, and signals exactly the priority they put on consulting with or listening to Maori: none at all.

Thirdly, there's the justification for Nick Smith's appointment as energy spokesman:

With a PhD in engineering, Dr Smith is the most qualified MP in Parliament to take oversight of this area.

Well, except for the Greens' Jeanette Fitzsimons, who was lecturing and publishing in this area when Nick Smith was still in high school...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Eradicating equality

National has appointed Wayne Mapp its spokesman for "Political Correctness Eradication". Like I See Red, I wondered for a minute if National was taking the piss out of itself, or whether it had been captured by the sort of fringe loonies you see nailing themselves to Big Ben or Buckingham Palace as some bizairre form of protest against their ex-wives. And then I remembered that Don Brash is still in charge, and Murray McCully is still feeding him kool-aid... sadly, this is the shape of our "modern" opposition party - a party which openly bemoans the fact that the country is run by a "feminist cabal" and whose supporters abuse female politicians as "no kids lesbos". A spokesman for "Political Correctness Eradication" fits right in...

So, stifling the sniggers and taking the role seriously, what exactly will Wayne Mapp be trying to eradicate? Judging from Don Brash's comments this afternoon, the idea that public servants should have a basic knowledge of our constitution will be first in the gun. As for the broader question, I've addressed it before. Looking at the policies the right denounce as "politically correct" - things like treating people equally regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation; making sure that everyone can enjoy the basic equality and opportunities that people like Wayne Mapp take for granted; and working to ensure that everyone can participate fully in our society, and that everyone's voice can be heard, rather than just catering to or listening to dead white males - it is clear that the term stands for the expansion of equality and opportunity and the erosion of entrenched privilege. And it is no surprise at all that the National Party would want to eradicate that.

New kiwi blog

Capitalism bad; tree pretty. And it has this awesome quote from Pat Robertson:

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians."

It sounds much more interesting when put like that...

More wind?

Critics of wind energy like to pretend it is a fringe technology which will never contribute to New Zealand's electricity supply. Why? Well, one reason is that all developments so far have been relatively small - the largest, Te Apiti, is only 91MW, around a quarter the size of the average gas-turbine. That's already changing, with several projects announced in the 200 - 250 MW range, equalling the output of many of our hydro schemes. And now Meridian seems set to put the boot in. In order to meet demand from the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter (New Zealand's biggest single user of electricity, using 15% of our total annual output), Meridian is planning a 650 MW wind farm in Otago. That wouldn't just be the largest windfarm in New Zealand, it would be one of the country's largest generators - larger than the Clyde Dam, and almost twice the size of Might River's coal-fired Marsden B station. If completed, only Huntly and Manapouri would be larger.

Currently, Meridian is gathering wind-speed data to assess the viability of the project. But the fact they're willing to contemplate a project this big is good news for the future of wind (and sustainable energy) in New Zealand.

An unwelcome milestone

2000 US soldiers have now died in Iraq. And what have they got to show for it? An ongoing insurgency which seems to be getting worse rather than better, a government which uses systematic torture and death squads against its own people, and a civilian population living in fear of random violence from the insurgents, criminals, their own government and the occupying forces.

What a waste. What a terrible, tragic waste.

Rather strange

Prior to the election, Winston Peters argued that New Zealand's foreign policy should be more focused on the South Pacific. NZ First's foreign affairs manifesto included a specific promise to "enhance the special New Zealand association and interest in the South Pacific region" and "make the Pacific [our] major focus of attention". It's rather strange then that he will not be attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Papua New Guinea.

Though perhaps this is how it is meant to be for the next term: Helen Clark will serve as de facto foreign minister (at least for important negotiations), while Winston enhances his special association and interest in the small part of the Pacific known as Courtney Place.

Iraq gets a constitution

Iraqi voters have backed the new constitution, for all the good it will do them. Oh, don't get me wrong - I'm genuinely pleased that 63% of Iraqis braved bullets, bombs, and trigger-happy US troops to vote one way or the other. But a constitution designed from the outset to screw over Sunnis, which sidelined and ignored them during the drafting and confirmation processes, which was rejected by them by wide margins and passed over their heads on the votes of Shi'ites and Kurds will not bring Iraq together, and the government and laws which result will not be seen as legitimate by a faction which so overwhelmingly opposed it. The constitution is thus more of a missed opportunity than a new beginning.

OTOH, maybe I'm being too pessimistic. Maybe the Sunnis the constitution was intended to victimise and who consequently voted overwhelmingly against it will wake up this morning and say "other people voted to screw me over, so it must be OK". But I doubt it.

Tortured to death

For over a year now the ACLU has been using America's Freedom Of Information Act to hold the US government to account over its treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. So far, they've released documents showing that President Bush personally authorised the use of torture, that torture and abuse are widespread and routine across US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the US Army has failed to discipline soldiers and their commanders even when their own investigators found unequivocable evidence of mistreatment. Their latest batch is a compilation of autopsy and death reports for detainees who died in US custody. Out of 44 deaths, 21 were ruled to be homicides. Some were as a result of injuries sustained in combat, but several died during or shortly after interrogation. The autopsy reports show that they were "hooded, gagged, strangled, beaten with blunt objects, subjected to sleep deprivation and to hot and cold environmental conditions" - tortured - prior to death, and in many cases that this treatment was the direct cause of death. An example:

An Iraqi detainee (also described as a white male) died on January 9, 2004, in Al Asad, Iraq, while being interrogated by “OGA.” He was standing, shackled to the top of a door frame with a gag in his mouth at the time he died. The cause of death was asphyxia and blunt force injuries. Notes summarizing the autopsies record the circumstances of death as “Q by OGA, gagged in standing restraint.”

"OGA" means "other government agencies", usually CIA. And in this case, it seems they chained a man to a doorframe then beat the shit out of him to get him to talk.


A 27-year-old Iraqi male died while being interrogated by Navy Seals on April 5, 2004, in Mosul, Iraq. During his confinement he was hooded, flex-cuffed, sleep deprived and subjected to hot and cold environmental conditions, including the use of cold water on his body and hood. The exact cause of death was “undetermined” although the autopsy stated that hypothermia may have contributed to his death. Notes say he “struggled/ interrogated/ died sleeping.”

Note here that both Donald Rumsfeld and General Ricardo Sanchez authorised the use of "environmental manipulation" (meaning freezing and heating) as an interrogation technique. In this case, their orders seem to have led directly to the death of a prisoner.

And a third (from the autopsy summary rather than the press release):

Iraqi National male was captured by Navy Seal Team #7 and resisted aprehension. External injuries including multiple contusions are consistent with injuries sustained during apprehension. Fractures of the ribs and a contusion of the left lung imply significant blunt force injuries of the thorax and likely resulted in impaired respiration. Ligature marks of the wrists and ankles. Remote [in time - I/S] gunshot would of torso. No significant natural diseases identified. According to investigating agents, during interrogation of the detainee, a hood made of synthetic material was placed over the head and neck of the detainee. He died while detained at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Cause of death: Blunt force injuries complicated by compromised respiration. Manner of Death: Homicide.

Other documents refer to this man as being questioned by "OGA" and Navy Seals and dying during interrogation.

These three men, and others besides, were tortured to death by US forces as part of the "war on terror", in clear violation of both international and US law. But rather than prosecutions, the Bush Administration's response is to seek to explicitly permit the CIA and those engaged in "counterterrorism operations" to use torture and inhuman treatment. I think that speaks for itself about how far the US has fallen from its previously high ideals...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The power of quiet resistance

Rosa Parks is dead. For those who don't know, she is the woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man helped spark the US civil rights movement. Here's how she described it:

I had left my work at the men's alteration shop, a tailor shop in the Montgomery Fair department store, and as I left work, I crossed the street to a drugstore to pick up a few items instead of trying to go directly to the bus stop. And when I had finished this, I came across the street and looked for a Cleveland Avenue bus that apparently had some seats on it. At that time it was a little hard to get a seat on the bus. But when I did get to the entrance of the bus, I got in line with a number of other people who were getting on the same bus.

As I got up on the bus and walked to the seat I saw there was only one vacancy that was just back of where it was considered the white section. So this was the seat that I took, next to the aisle, and a man was sitting next to me. Across the aisle there were two women, and there were a few seats at this point in the very front of the bus that was called the white section. I went on to one stop and I didn't particularly notice who was getting on the bus, didn't particularly notice the other people getting on. And on the third stop there were some people getting on, and at this point all of the front seats were taken. Now in the beginning, at the very first stop I had got on the bus, the back of the bus was filled up with people standing in the aisle and I don't know why this one vacancy that I took was left, because there were quite a few people already standing toward the back of the bus. The third stop is when all the front seats were taken, and this one man was standing and when the driver looked around and saw he was standing, he asked the four of us, the man in the seat with me and the two women across the aisle, to let him have those front seats.

At his first request, didn't any of us move. Then he spoke again and said, "You'd better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." At this point, of course, the passenger who would have taken the seat hadn't said anything. In fact, he never did speak to my knowledge. When the three people, the man who was in the seat with me and the two women, stood up and moved into the aisle, I remained where I was. When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand up. I told him, no, I wasn't. He said, "Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested." I told him to go on and have me arrested.

He got off the bus and came back shortly. A few minutes later, two policemen got on the bus, and they approached me and asked if the driver had asked me to stand up, and I said yes, and they wanted to know why I didn't. I told them I didn't think I should have to stand up. . . . They placed me under arrest then and had me to get in the police car, and I was taken to jail.

Parks was fined $10 plus $4 costs, but her act of quiet resistance led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a unanimous Supreme Court ruling declaring segregated public transport unconstitutional, and eventually, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her example inspired millions, and America is a better place because of her.

Sedition in Australia II

Via John Quiggin: "writer and outlaw" Chas Savage has an excellent piece in yesterday's Age in which he urges opposition to John Howard's proposed revival of sedition by carefully and willfully violating every clause of the law. He urges hatred and contempt towards the sovereign and disaffection towards the constitution, government, and both houses of the Australian Parliament. While he disclaims any pretence of good faith, it is not without good reason; as he points out:

Under this constitution a High Court can rule that a man, charged with and guilty of no crime, can be locked up indefinitely. Under this constitution, rights are left to the mercy of predators such as Howard and expedient windbags like Beazley. The Australian constitution enables the government to spend without constraint to serve its own political interest. As such, it deserves the disaffection of decent, democratic people.

Howard's law would prevent people from saying things like that, on pain of seven years imprisonment. The fact that the Australian government is even considering such a law is reason to hold it in contempt.

I'm sure Don Brash will pay it for them

According to a press release on Scoop, the Chief Electoral Officer has upheld the Greens' complaint against the Exclusive Brethren's "Beware" pamphlet, and has forwarded the matter to the police:

I have concluded that the leaflet does appear to promote the party vote for National. I have decided to refer the matter to police for investigation as to whether an person has breached section 221 of the Electoral Act 1993, and if so, whether any prosecution in terms of section 221(4) is appropriate

(Link added).

If successfully prosecuted, the Brethren face a $3000 fine. Which I don't think will act as much of a deterrant to people who gladly blew half a million in an effort to influence the election.

The consequences of tougher sentences

For the past five years, the "hang 'em high" brigade has been baying for tougher criminal sentences, and the government has responded. This has caused pressure on our prisons, with the Department of Corrections being forced to hold prisoners in police cells for long periods in conditions that would result in prosecution if they were applied to animals, simply because they have nowhere else to put them. But now, prison overcrowding has reached its nadir, with prisoners being held in vans parked on the street in order to escape prison muster limits. The prisoners are then taken back inside once the head-count is done (thus keeping the prison technically within its capacity), or forced to wait for extended periods until a cell becomes available.

This isn't just inhumane - it is also unsafe. Prison vans are not meant for this sort of accomodation, and the conditions are even worse than those in police cells. There is also an increased danger of escape, and in the overcrowded prisons, of assaults on prison guards. But Corrections' management gets to pretend their prisons aren't overcrowded, which is clearly all that matters.

The Pacific Forum and the Pacific Plan

The Pacific Islands Forum is meeting this week in Papua New Guinea for their annual get together, in a summit that looks to be more contentious than most. The key issue is the adoption of the Pacific Plan, a regional strategy to boost economic growth, sustainable development, good governance, and security. This has raised the usual issue of the domination of the Forum by New Zealand and (particularly) Australia; the plan is seen as written by and pushing the interests of the larger countries, particularly in the area of security, and PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare has openly denounced it as a plan for Australian control of the region:

They want to control the region so that the prime minister can go back and talk to the prime minister of Britain and the president of the United States and say, `the Pacific is no problem, we're looking after it'.

The other contentious issue is over free trade. The plan calls for both the expansion of the Pacific regional free trade agreements PACER and SPARTECA and the inclusion of trade in services. However, it also calls for easing of immigration restrictions to allow the "temporary movement of labour" as well as goods. The smaller countries, perched precariously at the bottom of the latest UN Human Development Report, see free trade (or rather, free access by Australian and NZ goods) as a threat to their development rather than an avenue for it, while Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand are not interested in worker's visas or temporary migration, seeing it as a threat to local workers and a source of overstayers and illegal immigrants. There's just a whiff of racism about this; in New Zealand, most overstayers and illegal workers are British backpackers - but it only seems to be a problem if you are brown. Still, New Zealand is at least giving some ground on temporary migration, as opposed to Australia, who have refused to even consider it.

While the plan is likely to be approved, these disagreements do not bode well for the future. If the Forum comes to be seen as a venue where the big nations extract one-sided agreements by twisting the arms of the smaller ones, then it calls the entire project into question - and raises the question of why the small nations should bother to participate at all.

Ending the democratic deficit

One of the biggest problems with the European Union is the "democratic deficit". While there is an elected European Parliament, it cannot initiate legislation. Instead, that function is performed by the European Commission, the "executive" of the EU analagous to the NZ Cabinet. Unlike the Parliament, the Commission is not elected, but appointed by the member-states, and is frequently used as a sinecure for retired or has-been politicians. The result is a lack of legitimacy and accountability; the Commissioners are not generally accountable to those in whose name they govern (they are not really accountable to Parliament, and are forbidden from taking direction from their national governments).

Last year saw the first stirrings towards correcting this, with the European Parliament leveraging its power to approve the entire Commission into a veto on individual Commissioners. Now, one of the diaries on European Tribune is proposing the next step: taking the choice of the President away from the (again, unelected) Council of Ministers and making them subject to the Parliament. The mechanism for this is simple: the President must be approved by the Parliament, so one of the Pan-European political parties or party groups should simply choose a candidate of their own, and threaten to veto anybody else. They would of course require a majority, which in practice would mean gaining the support of other party groups - but that is no more difficult than the appointment of a Prime Minister in many countries. The joy of the proposal is that even if it does not work, it will encourage the other parties to do the same thing, and help build a truly European political culture, rather than one which is mostly about national issues on a larger stage.

The EU isn't yet a super-national government, and despite the commitment of its individual member-states to democracy, it is not yet democratic. But the potential is there, and given time (and a few ambitious politicians) I have no doubt that it will be fulfilled.

Monday, October 24, 2005

New Fisk

The real story behind those rumours that the Americans banned me from the US

Out of names

While the world is focusing on Hurricane Wilma, the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season has officially broken the 1933 record for the most tropical storms in a single season. Tropical Storm Alpha (they use Greek letters when they run out of names) spawned in the east Caribbean on Saturday, and has already clobbered Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing five people. And there are still five weeks to go...

The spirit of Parnell

Here's one example of the spirit of Samuel Parnell on Labour Day: rural industries which insist on pre-employment drug-testing are having trouble finding employees:

A South Taranaki processing plant has noted a downturn in applicants. The company, which did not want to be identified, said that before a drug test was required the phone "rang off the hook" with job seekers.

That had changed to "about a dozen" calls after drug testing was introduced this year.

While there are definite safety issues with being stoned on the killing floor, drug testing is also an intrusion into people's private lives, and one which they clearly loathe enough to vote with their feet against. And given that that unnamed meatworks cannot force people to work for them, they will either have to change their policy, or accept that they will not be able to find workers in the future.

Labour Day

Today is Labour Day. For those who don't know, the day exists to celebrate the establishment of the eight-hour day in New Zealand - something we had earlier than anywhere else in the world, and at a time when workers in Britain were being sweated for twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many of the colonists who came to New Zealand came to escape exactly those conditions, and resolved that here, things would be different. One of them was Samuel Duncan Parnell, pictured below:

(Picture stolen from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography)

Parnell was a carpenter, who had emigrated to Wellington in 1840 hoping to found his own business. His DNZB entry relates the tale of how he established the eight-hour day:

Among Parnell's fellow passengers was a shipping agent, George Hunter, who, soon after their arrival, asked Parnell to erect a store for him. 'I will do my best,' replied Parnell, 'but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day.' Hunter demurred, this was preposterous; but Parnell insisted. 'There are,' he argued, 'twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.' 'You know Mr. Parnell,' Hunter persisted, 'that in London the bell rang at six o'clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to he lost a quarter of a day.' 'We're not in London', replied Parnell. He turned to go but the agent called him back. There were very few tradesmen in the young settlement and Hunter was forced to agree to Parnell's terms. And so, Parnell wrote later, 'the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot.'

Other employers tried to impose the traditional long hours, but Parnell met incoming ships, talked to the workmen and enlisted their support. A workers' meeting in October 1840, held outside German Brown's (later Barrett's) Hotel on Lambton Quay, is said to have resolved, on the motion of William Taylor, seconded by Edwin Ticehurst, to work eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone offending to be ducked into the harbour. The eight hour working day thus became established in the Wellington settlement.

From 1890, the newly-formed union movement celebrated this occasion with an annual procession in late October, which became a public holiday in 1899. But it wasn't until the 1940's that the government formally legislated to confirm the practice. This legislation was repealed by the Employment Contracts Act, and has not been restored. As a result, we have seen a gradual erosion of the eight-hour day, particularly at the top and bottom end of the labour market. According to the CTU, 20% of New Zealand workers now work more than fifty hours a week, with a consequent effect on people's health and family life. We're going backwards.

As Parnell said, "We're not in London". Neither are we in Saigon or Shanghai. Employment conditions do not defend themselves, and if we want New Zealand to be better than a Victorian sweatshop, we actually need to fight for it. That's something we should all remember this Labour Day.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Frog week

According to DOC, next week is frog week, "designed to raise awareness of New Zealand frogs, and of the hazards that threaten the survival of these special animals".

I'm sure Frogblog will be pleased.

A seditious question

If the Australian government, through its foreign policy, excites disaffection against itself, is it sedition?

Sedition in Australia

In the wake of terrorist threats against Melbourne and more bombings in Bali, the Australian government is attempting to pass draconian new anti-terrorism laws. The draft of the legislation had originally been kept secret, but last week it was leaked by ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope, who while approving it, believed that legislation with such an impact on civil liberties should be open to public scrutiny and debate. John Howard seems to regard this as practically treason. But fortunately he'll soon have the tools to combat this sort of betrayal of Australian values, because the legislation would modernise the law relating to sedition.

As with New Zealand, Australia has long had anti-sedition legislation on the books (see sections 24A - 24F of the Australian Crimes Act 1914), but it had fallen into disuse (though somewhat later than it had in New Zealand). The last prosecution was in 1960, when Department of Native Affairs office Brian Cooper was prosecuted for urging "the natives" of Papua New Guinea to demand independence from Australia. He was convicted, and committed suicide after losing his appeal. The draft legislation [PDF] would repeal the old offence of "uttering seditious words", but replace it with five new ones. It would also double the penalties for sedition, from three years imprisonment to seven, and allow convictions on the basis of "recklessness" rather than requiring specific intent. But most importantly, it would signify an intention on behalf of the government to actually use the legislation and prosecute people for saying things deemed disloyal to Australia or to indirectly incite terrorism. And there's no doubt about who the targets would be...

Fortunately, this is producing something of a backlash in the press and public opinion. There's a particularly good piece by Ben Saul in The Australian which lays out why sedition laws are incompatible with democracy:

There is a danger that criminalising the expression of support for terrorism will drive such beliefs underground. Rather than exposing them to public debate, which allows erroneous or misconceived ideas to be corrected and ventilates their poison, criminalisation risks aggravating the grievances underlying terrorism.

Although some extreme speech may never be rationally countered by other speech, the cut and thrust of public debate remains the best option for combating odious or ignorant ideas. The criminal law is ill-suited to reforming expressions of poor judgment or bad taste.

Every society has the highest public interest in protecting itself and its institutions from violence, but no society should criminalise speech that it finds distasteful when such speech is remote from the practice of terrorist violence by others.

A robust and mature democracy should be expected to absorb unpalatable ideas without prosecuting them.

Unfortunately, unlike other western democracies, Australia has only weak protections for freedom of speech. Which is precisely why they need a formal bill of rights...

Finally, there is one curious aspect of the proposed law which ought to concern even those of us in New Zealand. The section on sedition includes this clause:

80.4 Extended geographical jurisdiction for offences

Section 15.4 (extended geographical jurisdiction - category D) applies to an offence against this Division

According to the Australian Criminal Code, this means that the offence applies

(a) whether or not the conduct constituting the alleged offence occurs in Australia; and
(b) whether or not a result of the conduct constituting the alleged offence occurs in Australia.

This is quite deliberate; the Australian Criminal Code provides for other forms of extended geographical jurisdiction of lesser reach, providing defences where neither the person nor the victim is an Australian or the crime does not impact on Australian territory. But this is the true "universal jurisdiction" clause, used for war crimes. And it's being used here not just to cover sedition, but also treason. This is utterly unprecedented. To the extent that either sedition or treason are crimes, they are crimes of disloyalty, predicated on some obligation to be loyal to the Australian government. What Howard is saying is that everyone in the world has a duty to be loyal to and not criticise Australia, on pain of imprisonment. As a non-Australian, I'm not too impressed by this.

Surprise, surprise

The UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has pointed to the direct involvement of Syrian officials. Surprise, surprise. So, will those reponsible be tried for murder, or will they all mysteriously "commit suicide"?

New Fisk

On tour with my ghosts

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cat, meet pigeons

Is the UK a foreign power?

That's the question asked by Otago University's Gregor Macaulay in the latest issue of the New Zealand Law Journal. And the reason it matters is because of our habit of making our Prime Ministers (and sometimes other senior politicians) members of the Privy Council. This means that they get to call themselves "Right Honourable", as opposed to merely "Honourable", which is what Cabinet Ministers (or rather, members of the Executive Council in our inherited, kludged-together constitutional parlance) get to call themselves. But it also means they have to swear an oath of office [DOC], in which they swear "to be a true and faithful Servant unto The Queen’s Majesty" and "to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance" to her. In the time of Dick Seddon, this was unproblematic; we were unquestionably part of Great Britain. But now, legally speaking, we are not. That ended with the confirmation of our adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1947, and the final nail was hammered into the coffin with the passage of the Constitution Act 1986, which finally removed the ability for the British Parliament to pass laws for us. Even our monarchy is legally technically seperate from the UK; in our law, unless specifically stated otherwise, references to the Queen mean "the Queen in right of New Zealand" - not the Queen in right of the UK. And since the passage of the Imperial Laws Application Act 1988, the Privy Council in anything other than its judicial role has not been part of our law. It is a British institution, and its oath unquestionably refers to the Queen in right of the UK.

This would be merely a curiousity, except for one thing: s 55(1)(b) of the Electoral Act 1993 requires that an MP's seat be declared vacant

if he or she takes an oath or makes a declaration or acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign State, foreign Head of State, or foreign Power, whether required on appointment to an office or otherwise

(Emphasis added)

"Harry's Law" meant that this did not apply in the last Parliamentary term, and further allows Members to renew dual citizenship or foreign passports. But it doesn't allow them to swear allegiance to a foreign head of state. This isn't a new provision; it's been present in our law since the very beginning. It's the relationship with the UK that has changed.

Which brings us back to our original question: is the UK a foreign power? While older New Zealanders and staunch monarchists would deny it, legally it's quite uncertain. The term is defined in some of our laws (though not the Electoral Act) as "any country other than New Zealand", and the High Court of Australia (whose judgements a New Zealand court would be likely to at least examine) has ruled that the UK is a foreign power under Australian law. But if this is the case, then we have problems: various ministers and MPs would not have been entitled to hold their seats (and hence be ministers), thus allowing regulations, contracts, and decisions made by them to be retrospectively overturned - exactly the same problem we faced with Harry Duynhoven. And the only answer is to legislate to clarify the position - otherwise someone will force the issue. This will necessarily mean further clarifying our relationship with the UK, which IMHO can only be a good thing.

Biggest hurricane ever

After Arlene, Cindy, Dennis, Katrina, Ophelia, Rita, and Tammy, the US is now about to face another hurricane: Wilma. And it's now officially the strongest hurricane on record, in a season which is tied with 1933 as the most intense ever. It's so intense they've run out of letters - and there's still a month to go.

Of course, this has no connection to global warming. None whatsoever.

Spanish judge issues arrest warrant for US troops

In April 2003, in an attack widely believed to be deliberate, a US tank fired at media in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing Spanish journalist Jose Couso and Ukranian cameraman Taras Protsyuk. Today, in a landmark decision, a Spanish judge has issued an arrest warrant for three of the tank's crew on murder and war crimes charges. The charges are possible because Spain claims jurisdiction over the murder of its citizens abroad - something which has enabled them to pursue South American dictators like Augusto Pinochet as well as former members of Argentina's military regime.

They'll never face trial, of course - the US has flatly refused to extradite. Instead, they'll just join the list of Americans who cannot travel outside of their country for fear of arrest. But it is good to see that at least someone is making an effort to hold them to account.

Is monetary policy doomed?

I've just got hold of the latest Listener, and the cover story - "High Anxiety" by David Young (offline) - reminded me of some stuff I've been throwing round in my head for a while about the future of monetary policy. Back in June, the Dominion-Post carried an opinion-piece by Bernard Hickey with the rather memorable title of "Bollard probably needs a new gun". Talking about the Reserve Bank governor's then-latest interest rate decision, Hickey said:

This week Dr Bollard kept interest rates on hold, but warned that inflation was right at the limit of his patience and the merest hint of higher prices would have him pulling the trigger to raise official interest rates.

In the language of central bank governors he is talking very tough.

He practically pulled out his gun and waved it in the face of the market and yelled: "I have an itchy finger and I know how to use it."

The markets and the banks gave him the figurative finger right back. ANZ, National and Kiwibank all cut their fixed mortgage rates by 15 to 20 basis points.

Needless to say, this is not how monetary policy is supposed to work. What was supposed to happen is that the banks would raise their rates, thus discouraging borrowing and (eventually) cooling off the housing market. The reason they didn't is down to one thing: globalisation. Our banks can also borrow overseas where interest rates are lower, and can thus ignore the Reserve Bank's signal. Young's article talks about the consequences for home-loan borrowers and whether the economy will have a hard or soft landing. But the problem goes deeper than that - in fact, it undermines the whole basis of our monetary policy. If banks can borrow cheaper overseas, and pass those lower interest rates onto borrowers (including home-loan borrowers, but particularly business), then the strong linkage between interest rates and economic activity which the Reserve Bank depends upon to control inflation is broken. And suddenly, they have no control at all...

Young points out that this is due to the fact that our economy is out of step with the rest of the world: while we've been doing well, they've been in recession, with the consequence that their interest rates are significantly lower than ours (low enough for all parties to profit while still undercutting the Reserve Bank). In the next few years, that gap should narrow - but I'm not sure whether it will do any good. As Young points out,

The best hope is to take advantage of the foreign cash and continue shifting to relatively cheap, longer-term mortgages, and try to stay slightly ahead of the wave.

And the Reserve Bank.

The upshot is that for the forseeable future, the Reserve Bank is essentially powerless. And this probably goes for the long-term as well. Globalisation has cut the foundations out from under our monetary policy, leaving us at the mercy of the market - and I don't think there's a damn thing we can do about it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Even Saddam deserves a fair trial

Saddam Hussein goes on trial tomorrow for crimes against humanity over the 1982 Dujail massacre. While I'm looking forward to this, and believe that Saddam has no defence under international law, I am concerned that justice may not be done. The most basic problem is the standard of proof: rather than the accepted standard of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt", the tribunal simply has to be "satisfied" of guilt. This is a significant violation of fundamental standards of justice.

Why does this matter? Two reasons spring to mind. The first is that, despite the fact that he is a monster, even Saddam deserves a fair trial. The Nazis got one, and I don't think he's any viler or less deserving of proper justice than them. The second is that any deviation from fundamental standards of justice undermines the credibility of the trial, and hence of its judgements. If we want the judgements to stick, and if we want international law and the idea of trials for crimes against humanity to be credible, Saddam's trial must be conducted according to the highest standards, and he must be given every opportunity to defend himself properly. Anything else, and his apologists will always be able to claim that the trial was just a show, and its judgements "victor's justice". And, in a sense, they'll be right.

But there's also another reason why we shouldn't use a lower standard of proof in Saddam's case: it would be unnecessary. The evidence of Saddam's crimes is so overwhelming that I don't think there's any doubt about his guilt. The only question is what he is actually convicted of - Dujail, Halabja, the Al-Anfal campaign in general, or any of his other atrocities. What those who support a lower standard of proof are really saying is that they doubt the strength of the case against Saddam, and so they need to stack the deck against him to secure a conviction. Which makes you wonder why they're bothering with the pretence of justice at all...

Cabinet announced

The interesting news (to me) is that Goff is out of Justice (yay!), David Benson-Pope gets Social Development and Environment, David Cunliffe is Minister of Immigration (and thus the person who may decide Ahmed Zaoui's fate), and David Parker gets Energy, Transport, and Climate Change. Clearly, this government has a thing for people called "David".

The full lineup is here.

The next three years

Helen Clark has given some idea of her agenda over the next three years in an address to the CTU conference yesterday:

This term will be about smart policy and strategies for growth, innovation, and productivity in the economy, and for quality and best practice in our social policy and services.

It will be about sustainable development and meeting the big challenges in energy and transport.

It will be about enhancing the reputation of our small country as an independent, principled, and engaged member of the international community.

It will be about the development of our national identity as a unique nation; as a tolerant and inclusive nation able to accommodate diverse peoples and beliefs and proud of its heritage; as a creative nation which celebrates those who express what’s special about us through music, dance, theatre, literature, film, and design; and as a nation which takes pride in all its successes across many fields.

So, the focus is going to be on economic (rather than social) policy. Labour wants to shift us towards being a high-skill, high-wage economy, rather than National's vision of a low-skill, low-wage one. In order to do this, it needs to encourage productivity growth - but by getting people to work smarter rather than harder. This is more difficult than it seems; we have an entrenched "low-cost" business culture, which sees productivity improvements as coming from wage cuts and more warm bodies rather than investing in their business, and this will take a while to change. On the plus side, much of the groundwork has already been done. The recent tax changes to depreciation rates will encourage capital investment and upgrades, and the labour shortage, ERA and union activism all raise the cost of labour relative to capital and thereby encourage investment over hiring more people (assuming they can be found). Increasing the minimum wage will strengthen this trend even further. Together, these policies send a clear economic signal to business encouraging them to move in the right direction - and another three years of Labour should give that signal time to get through.

As for the other parts, I'm pleased to see energy and transport getting a mention. These were priorities for the Greens, and Labour has stolen many of their best ideas in these areas. Hopefully they'll be able to implement them. I am however wondering how having Winston Peters as our Minister of Foreign Affairs will enhance our international reputation, or how Labour will be able to encourage tolerance and diversity while having to depend on the regressive bigots in NZ First for confidence and supply...

One of the cleanest countries in the world

Transparency International have released their annual Corruption Perceptions Index, and once again New Zealand ranks as one of the cleanest countries in the world. We share second place with Finland, with Iceland taking the top spot. Positions 4 and 5 are taken by Denmark and Singapore respectively; the worst countries were Bangladesh and Chad.

One of the things that is clear from the index is that while there is a definite correlation, it is not just poor countries that suffer from corruption. Italy ranks below Botswana, while Namibia scores equal with Greece. And it is poorer countries - Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria - that have made significant progress, while richer ones such as Canada and Ireland have slipped. What matters is transparent public accounts, effective enforcement, and above all a culture that simply does not tolerate such things.

In an effort to reduce corruption, the UN General Assembly negotiated and approved the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2003. The convention obligies parties to work to prevent and criminalise corruption, to establish legal jurisdiction over their own nationals involved in bribery overseas, and to cooperate with other nations on enforcement and asset recovery. New Zealand has signed the convention, but has yet to ratify it. Perhaps that's something the new Minister of Foreign Affairs should be asked about when Parliament resumes...

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Captain Jack gets his own show!

So not only do we get another season of Dr Who, we also get to see his former companion chasing aliens around Cardiff. Hooray!


Imagine if the coalition talks had turned out differently. If Gerry Brownlee's claims of support had been something more substantial than outright bullshit, and if Don Brash had been able to swallow his pride enough to meet Winston's price on superannuation (and why not? The Nats clearly don't believe in sane economic management, and it would just help build the strategic deficit anyway). Then Don Brash would currently be leading a government much like the one we're all bitching about, except with the Maori Party for extra excitement. So naturally, he's calling that government "a dog's breakfast" and saying that it is not one he would have liked to lead.

Is that relief I hear in his voice...?

Cabinet changes

Labour has held a ballot and elected a Cabinet. It's pretty much as you'd expect - Lianne Dalziel will be back, and Nanaia Mahuta has gained a cabinet post as a reward for her loyalty. David Parker and Clayton Cosgrove have also made it in ahead of a slate of associate ministers such as Dover Samuels, Harry Duynhoven, and Taito Phillip Field - though as associate positions are appointed seperately, some may be reappointed. The big surprise was Jim Sutton deciding not to stand - I guess he'd rather focus on his electorate. Meanwhile, the farmers who de-elected him but yet insisted that he remain as Minister of Trade Negotiations to serve their interests may want to rethink their strategy a bit.

No news on portfolios yet; that will likely have to wait until Wednesday.

Interesting reading

John Quiggin, on The Winter Palace, and after - some thoughts on revolutionary violence and reform.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

That was going to be my post title if by some miracle Don Brash managed to form a government. But somehow, Johnny Rotten's sneer seems appropriate to the new arrangements announced today. Labour voters, who voted for at least a nominally left-wing government, have got one so reactionary that the Greens cannot in good conscience support it. And looking at the policy agreements, it's easy to see why. New Zealand First [PDF] gets a review of the whole immigration system, new measures to target youth offending (because of all those pensioners scared shitless by the young), the return of waka-jumping legislation, and support at least to select committee for bills to purge the Treaty from the law and to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 (so we can join countries like the US and Sudan in jailing kids for life). Meanwhile, United Future [PDF] gets a review of company taxes and the carbon tax, and a review of the Prostitution Reform Act, public funds funneled to private hospitals for private profit. And both get a hefty dose of pork in the form of big roading projects in their electorates. If I'd voted Labour, I'd be feeling pretty cheated about now. Still, you play the hand you're dealt, and Labour has made the best they could of it given the Maori Party's descent into pure spite. And it is still better than a tax-cutting, wage-slashing, union-smashing, RMA-gutting, Maori-bashing National government led by Don Brash. But only barely.

I feel very sorry for the Greens; while they got a few policies, they were forced aside by the reactionaries. Still, it means they get to spend the next three years being the conscience of the government, and reminding everyone of what we could have had - and I don't think that will hurt them at all. And if they are smart, and build their own bridge with the Maori Party, they may be in a position to step in and save things when Winston inevitably throws his toys out of the cot.

Oh, there's a plus side - a higher minimum wage, increased eligibility for student allowances, a rewrite of the Cabinet Manual to further weaken Cabinet Collective Responsibility and a further shift towards an MMP-style of government - but the overall feeling is of disappointment. And the lesson is simple: if we want a progressive government, we have to vote for one. Hopefully three years of Winston jerking the chain and trying to lock up twelve-year-olds will remind people of that fact.

Habemus government

Or at least, we will at 5pm.

And the Maori Party have categorically ruled out supporting National, and said they will most likely give Labour confidence and supply while avoiding formal coalition.

Eat that, Don Brash.

Cullen on history and the foreshore and seabed

Nga korero o te wa pointed me at Michael Cullen's Michael King Memorial Lecture, Two Ticks for Clio: Reflections on NZ Politics and History. The first part, on Michael King, history, social democracy, includes an interesting discussion on "vision" vs broader "values and principles" in politics. As a survivor of Rogernomics, Cullen is suspicious of "vision", noting that

Those who support the neo-classical laissez faire vision show both a contempt for facts (and, therefore, pragmatism) but also a lack of concern for the damage to many people’s lives the imposition of their theories cost. In New Zealand the cliché “no gain without pain” was but one of many trite phrases used to cover an unnecessary lack of humanity in the application of policies which were, in part, no doubt necessary.

Instead, Cullen prefers to be guided by broad "values and principles", combined with

[p]ragmatism, a sense of human fallibility, a knowledge of the historical difficulties of effecting improvements, [...] virtues inconsistent with the imposition of grand plans, whether it be for a thousand year Reich, the creation of a new Socialist utopia, or any of the other mass delusions of the twentieth century.

Which is all very sensible as far as it goes; we should be aware of how much is practically achievable in the short-term and how things can go wrong when we set out to change the world (and that is what advancing our values and principles is ultimately about). But in amongst the pragmatism and sensible progressiveness, something has got lost. Not necessarily the policies: Working For Families, the gradual re-universalisation of the health system, making tertiary education more accessible - these are all big steps. What's missing is any effort to bring us with them, to sell those values and principles to the wider public. I cannot remember hearing Helen Clark stand up and talk about equality, freedom, a "fair go" for all, and how such and such a policy specifically advances those values. And I don't think I've ever heard Michael Cullen talking, even in the broadest possible outline, about what sort of society he'd like to live in, and the (practical, achievable, concrete) steps we can take to get there. Maybe it's because they think its too close to having "vision" - but if they want their policies to stick around, it is not enough simply for them to be driven by certain values and principles; the rest of us have to share them. And that means convincing people, either of your values, or that your policies advance them.

Labour doesn't do nearly enough to do this. But if they want to maintain and grow a progressive majority in this country, they are going to have to. Their flavour of social democracy advances deeply-held New Zealand values such as egalitarianism and fairness. It wouldn't hurt if they reminded us of that every so often.

The latter part of Cullen's lecture (and the part noted by NKOTW) deals with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Here Cullen says essentially that the Court of Appeal was correct in overturning 90 Mile Beach and ruling that Maori had the right to pursue claims before the court. But he goes on to say that the political realities meant that that right could not be respected, that given "the depth of pakeha anger and alarm", it was "not a real possibility". For those with a sense of history, "pakeha anger and alarm" is exactly what drove the raupatu in the Waikato - the difference being that now the government at least has the decency to show a little shame about it. And they should be ashamed, because our government abrogated its fundamental duty to protect the rights of all its citizens - instead of standing against the lynchmob, they acted as its agent. And that is not something I will ever be able to forgive them for.

Britain's kiwi refusenik

It was only a matter of time. Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank gave rise to the refuseniks - soldiers who refused to participate in what they saw as unlawful military operations. Now Britain has them too - and their latest one is a Kiwi. Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an RAF medical officer who grew up in New Zealand is currently facing court-martial for refusing to serve in Iraq. His reason for refusing is that the war is illegal, and that the British government had spun the evidence. And he's reportedly quite prepared to go to prison over it.

Every civilised country gives soldiers the right, if not the duty, to refuse unlawful orders. The problem is that opinions may differ on what is unlawful. In these situations, a soldier is faced with a choice between either betraying their own conscience, or facing court-martial. I'm just glad to see that at least some have the courage to follow their conscience.

I'm trying to track down contact information for people who want to send messages of support; I'll post an update later if I get any responses to my enquiries.

Grossly dishonest

The Greenhouse Policy Coalition have released a report [PDF] claiming that meeting our Kyoto obligations will stifle growth. While it could be pointed out that the GPC - a collection of New Zealand's worst carbon polluters - have just a smidgen of self-interest in claiming this, and that the author, Alex Sundakov, is one of New Zealand's highest-paid prostitutes, I think it's better to focus on the real problem: the report is simply grossly dishonest. It makes a number of highly questionable assumptions and uses some frankly shoddy mathematics in order to vastly overstate the scale of the problem and build a straw-man argument that we cannot meet our target solely from emissions reduction and that therefore we shouldn't bother.

Questionable assumption number one is that no energy savings can be made in the household sector. 75% of household energy use goes on water and space heating, and due to the poor quality of our housing stock, most of this is simply wasted. There are a number of simple measures - insulation and (in many areas) solar water pre-heating - which can produce significant savings in this area, as anyone who has lived in a properly insulated house will attest. These are ruled out on the basis that they reduce the cost-per-square-meter of heating, and therefore will result in increased energy demand. Perfectly rational, if your knowledge of the world is limited to the supply-demand curve, but if we take this seriously, it is telling us that the way to reduce household energy demand is to ban insulation, thus ensuring the price is high and usage is low. Running it in reverse like this exposes the flaw: our demand for heating doesn't fluctuate much with price - instead its fairly sticky, and there's a concrete limit to how much we want to use set by basic comfort issues. Which means that efficiencies are real savings, rather than invitations to greater use.

Questionable assumption number two is that no energy savings can be made in the transport sector - despite this being the easiest area to make savings in. As with household energy use, the assumption is that any efficiency gains will be eaten by increased consumption (in this case, driving more and bigger cars). This may have held when petrol prices were falling in real terms, but its certainly not holding now - the recent high prices have seen people changing their transport patterns and ditching their SUVs in favour of cars that are cheaper to run. Change clearly is possible, and it is just a question of driving it with the right policies.

Which brings us to the shoddy mathematics. The report rightly points out that we cannot expect to make savings from the agricultural sector, and that industrial processes tend to be covered by Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements - which means that any savings have to come from the domestic transport and domestic and commercial energy sectors (commercial transport being mysteriously excluded). Together, these sum to around 36% of our total emissions. The report then continues:

By 2012, New Zealand's emissions are expected to exceed its Kyoto target for the first commitment period by about 35% [footnote]. In other words, if we were to try to meet our targets through a substantive attempt at emissions reductions (as is expected under the Kyoto Protocol), the emissions from the target categories would need to be almost entirely eliminated. This is clearly not plausible...

(Emphasis added)

And its not. But it's a straw-man, because the government has never suggested that we try and meet our target solely through emissions reduction. The Kyoto Protocol allows emissions to be offset by land use changes - basically, forest sinks - and new plantings will absorb around two-thirds of our gross emissions increase. Our true target is a reduction of 36 MT CO2-equivalent, or 12% - not the 35% the GPC claim. This is still a big target, but with the right policy mix - biofuels, carbon taxes, changes to the building code, forest planting and high petrol prices - it is perfectly achievable.