Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Climate change: no upper limit

One of the key international bodies working on global warming is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Every five years, they produce a series of reports incorporating the latest scientific information on climate change, its mechanisms, likely impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation. The next report is due out this year - and according to a draft leaked to the Guardian, it sets no upper limit on the potential impact of climate change.

This is important. As Tim Flannery notes in The Weather Makers, the IPCC is by its nature an extremely conservative body. It has to be, when every word has to be fought over with outright deniers such as Saudi Arabia and the USA. So, when it says something, you expect the reality to be much, much worse. In their last assessment, summarised in the 2001 Synthesis Report, they said that, if current emissions trends continued, average global temperatures could be expected to rise by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees, a rate of warming "without precedent during at least the last 10,000 years". Since then, models have improved, and begun to take into account some of the positive feedback loops in the climate (such as massive methane releases from melting permafrost or warmer oceans, or releases of soil carbon from the desertification of the Amazon) - resulting in expected warmings of up to 11 degrees. We're already seeing evidence that this is occurring, and not even the IPCC can ignore it. As a result, they've now raised their baseline estimate to between 2 and 4.5 degrees (a fairly important increase by itself), and noted that higher increases are possible.

What this also means is that the "large-scale, high-impact, non-linear and potentially abrupt changes in physical and biological systems" they warned about - things like melting ice caps or a slowdown in ocean currents, are also more likely. And this means that governments have to sit up and take notice. The risk assessments that underlie greenhouse policy have so far ignored these scenarios, considering them too unlikely to be considered a basis for policy. Now they're looking a lot likelier, lending support to a precautionary approach.

Slave Labour

Great. Our prisons are now renting their inmates out as fruitpickers, with the prisoners being paid as little as 20c/hour. Now, the ultimate employer isn't paying that - they're paying Corrections the minimum wage - and all the prisoners are "volunteers", but given the implicit coercion involved in the prison system, this amounts to little more than slave labour.

I first looked into this a couple of years ago, when prisoners were manufacturing pre-fabricated components for the construction industry. There at least the work scheme was providing training so that prisoners could better find work when they were eventually released. But it still paid well below the minimum wage, with no employment contract, no effective means of dispute resolution, and no enforceable workplace safety standards. In this case, there's not even any training benefit: prisoners are being used to plug a local labour shortage and provide cheap labour to orchardists. Given that this is a labour shortage, they are likely not displacing other workers - but they are depressing wages. Is that really what our prisons are for?

Prisons should provide employment, as both training and giving prisoners something to do other than stare at the walls of their cell all day. But such work should be voluntary, subject to normal employment standards, and any benefits should flow directly to prisoners, with any deductions being made transparently. The current system simply encourages prisons to rent out their inmates as forced labour to supplement their budgets - something we should not be tolerating in a civilised society.

The devil's work

More evidence of how distorted the world-view of our local religious wackos is: according to Garnet Milne of Reformation Testimony, trying to ban smacking and prevent parents from beating their children is doing the devil's work. Meanwhile, actually beating children, that's perfectly OK...

These people should speak up more. Really, I can't think of anything more likely to make the average New Zealander support an end to smacking as a froth-mouthed religious fanatic screaming about how it's "god's will" that children be beaten. Destiny Church's "Nuremberg rally" helped assure public support for the Civil Union Act, and hopefully Mr Milne here will have just assured public support for the repeal of section 59.

Democratic reform in the UK

In 2004, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust established an independent inquiry to investigate how to improve democratic participation in Britain. Yesterday, it reported back [PDF], laying out a blueprint for sweeping changes to Britain's constitutional system to strengthen democracy at every level.

The problem with Britain's democracy is not that people have given up on politics (a favourite claim among politicians, but one belied by increased public involvement in every political organisation other than formal political parties). It's that they've given up on politicians, and on a political system where their voices are not heard and their votes do not seem to make a difference. On the latter point, most of the UK's single-member constituencies are safe seats for one party or another, meaning that their constituents can be safely ignored. Only voters in marginal seats seem to count. Meanwhile, as ministers and party spokespeople are usually carpetbagged into safe seats, the public has no effective way of holding them to account. And on the former, the government acts as if responding to strongly expressed public opinion - for example, the massive protests against British involvement in Iraq - is akin to giving in to terrorism. And then they wonder why people refuse to endorse them with their vote...

If Britain's democracy is to improve, this has to change. And the first and most obvious step is ditching the UK's archaic "first past the post" (simple plurality) voting system and replacing it with one which ensures that every vote counts equally, and where politicians can properly be held to account. The report doesn't specify a solid preference here, though it does seem sympathetic to STV. Personally, I prefer the greater proportionality of pre or hybrid PR systems such as MMP - but given the woeful state of the UK's electoral system, pretty much anything would be an improvement.

The other "headline" recommendation is lowering the voting and candidacy age to 16. The aim of this is to get more young people involved, but I think the better argument is that these people's interests (and they do have them) are not currently properly represented, which goes against the general principle in democratic systems of trying to cast the net as wide as possible. The inevitable arguments will be made that sixteen year olds lack sufficient judgement to vote, or will vote according to "fashion" (as if older people don't) - but the same arguments were made a hundred years ago against women voting, and earlier than that against the poor. Meanwhile, they are considered old enough to go to jail, which is a fairly strong argument in favour. After all, if they're subject to criminal law, shouldn't they have some say in what that law should be?

In addition, the report recommends capping political donations, notifying the public of Minister's meetings with lobbyists and industry groups, electing most (but not all?) of the House of Lords, and generally weakening the executive while strengthening Parliament and devolving power to local authorities. It's an excellent recipe for democratic reform in the UK - and one that I expect will be never be implemented, at least while Tony Blair (with his authoritarian and centralising tendencies) is still Prime Minister. But that will eventually change, and then hopefully we'll see some real democratic reform in the UK.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Not the end of the world

When the government agreed that it would raise the minimum wage to $12/hour over the next Parliamentary term, the Auckland business clique said that the sky was falling. And when Sue Bradford put her bill to abolish youth rates before Parliament, they said it would be the end of the world. However, it seems their fellow business-owners in Wellington disagree. 69% of respondents in a recent survey of Wellington businesses agreed with raising the minimum wage to $12/hour, 88% said that next month's increase to $10.25/hour wouldn't hurt them, and 85% said the same about ending youth rates. And these are respondents who are more likely to be small business owners or involved at the lower end of the market, rather than representatives of large multinational corporations who pay subs to the Business Round Table.

It seems that raising the minimum wage and improving working conditions and pay for ordinary New Zealanders won't be the end of the world after all...

New Fisk

Defeat is victory. Death is life
Is the problem weather, or is it war?

Those dastardly terrorists

In a column in the Guardian, British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempts to defend his increasingly draconian anti-terrorist policies on the basis that

Organisations that support terrorism take enormous care to avoid infringing the strict letter of the law.

Those dastardly terrorists. Not doing anything illegal. Whatever vile tactic will they think of next?

Civil unions in Australia?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Liberal backbenchers are considering bringing a private member's bill to allow civil unions, despite John Howard's ban on gay marriage.

Good on them.

Pandering to minorities

According to an article in the Sunday Star-Times, couples are saying "I don't" to civil unions. In the year since their introduction, only 362 couples have celebrated civil unions compared with over 15,000 marriages.

Conservatives will no doubt see this as a failure, and complain about the cost of establishing a parallel system to pander to a minority. And on the latter point, I agree entirely. What I disagree on is the identity of that minority.

Bluntly, the reason we have a parallel system with all its resulting bureaucratic overhead is because of a small minority of religious bigots who felt that they had exclusive ownership of marriage, which they believed would somehow be "debased" if they had to share it with others. We should not have such a system. Instead, we should have allowed gays to use the perfectly good system we already had: that of the Marriage Act.

United 4 Belarus

On March 19th, Belarus - Europe's last dictatorship - goes to the polls in Presidential elections. The incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, is widely expected to fix those elections, just as he has the last two times. But despite violence, intimidation, arrests and disappearances, the democratic opposition are not giving up without a fight. They've united behind a single candidate, Aliaksandar Milinkevich, and are going to do their best to win, or at least present an alternative to authoritarian rule.

The British LibDems have set up an international solidarity campaign, United 4 Belarus, so that people can show their support for democracy in Belarus. As well as sticking the logo on your website, they also suggest various practical ways support can be shown. Unfortunately, New Zealand has no Belarusian embassy to protest outside, or even an honorary consul to write to. All we can do is wish the opposition luck, and hope for the best.

News on the democracy campaign in Belarus can be followed here.

(Hat tip: Forceful and Moderate)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Almost a thousand a month

That's the death toll in Baghdad from Iraq's death squads, according to former UN human rights ambassador John Pace. According to his monitoring, approximately three quarters of the bodies in the city's morgue show evidence of execution or torture - which, turned around, means that around three times as many Iraqis are being murdered by the government as die of natural causes. And that's only the ones being killed.

Much of the statistical information provided to Mr Pace and his team comes from the Baghdad Medico-Legal Institute, which is located next to the city's mortuary. He said figures show that last July the morgue alone received 1,100 bodies, about 900 of which bore evidence of torture or summary execution. The pattern prevailed throughout the year until December, when the number dropped to 780 bodies, about 400 of which had gunshot or torture wounds.

"It's being done by anyone who wishes to wipe out anybody else for various reasons," said Mr Pace, who worked for the UN for more than 40 years in countries ranging from Liberia to Chile. "But the bulk are attributed to the agents of the Ministry of the Interior."

Those agents - many of whom were recruited from the Badr Brigade, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's private militia - are completely shameless about their activities. They arrest people openly and publicly in broad daylight, and then a couple of days later the bodies turn up in a rubbish dump with a bullet in the back of the head and drillholes and burn marks and bruises all over them. Some are still restrained by government-issued handcuffs. The net effect is to create a vicious circle, where people are driven to turn to extremist groups for protection from their own government, the association with which is then used as an excuse by that government to torture and murder them.

This is the "new Iraq" that Bush and Blair have created. And honestly, it seems to be little different from the old one. The only difference is in who is in charge and who their victims are. And that is no real difference at all.

The same old game

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, President Arroyo seems to be celebrating the twentieth anniversary of People Power by dispersing protests, intimidating the media, and detaining her critics - all under the guise of putting down a military coup. Over 100 people have been arrested so far, including students, university lecturers, lawyers, and opposition politicians. Some have been charged with "inciting sedition" under the Philippines' notoriously loose sedition law, which effectively outlaws any call to public protest. Others have curiously been charged with coup attempts dating back twenty years. The picture seems to be that of a general roundup of political opponents, rather than dealing with a military rebellion.

So, twenty years after People Power, a corrupt Philippines president who fraudulently stole an election seems to be using the same tricks that Marcos did when he was in power. It really is the same old game...

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Twenty Years of People Power

Over the last week, there has been a significant anniversary which has passed almost without discussion: the 20th anniversary of the People Power revolution in the Philippines.

It began as so many of these things have begun since: with a disputed election. On February 7th, 1986, the Philippines went to the polls, and at the end of the day, thanks to violence and vote rigging, president and strongman Ferdinand Marcos was "re-elected". The elections were condemned as fraudulent by the United States, as well as by local Catholic bishops. Two weeks later, on February 22nd, they were also condemned by Marcos' Defence Minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Lieutenant General Fidel Ramos. Enrile and Ramos subsequently barricaded themselves in two army camps on the outskirts of Manila. A Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas, put out the call for people to surround the camps and prevent Marcos from sending in the army to put down the rebellion. And the rest is history. An estimated three million people showed up, and when Marcos' tanks arrived, they were met by singing nuns with rosaries and forced to retreat.

Two days later, Corazon Aquino, the real winner of the elections, was sworn in as President. Marcos fled later that night, leaving behind only bad memories and his wife's enormous collection of shoes. The Philippines had overthrown a dictator almost without a shot being fired.

The People Power revolution set the pattern for practically every revolution since - for Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and the fall of the Berlin wall; for Serbia's "Bulldozer Revolution", and the later "colour revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. But while it set the pattern, it was also by any assessment a failure. Before People Power, the Philippines was effectively ruled by a corrupt oligarchy of crony capitalists. Today, it still is. The players have changed, but they're still playing the same old game. By itself, "people power" isn't enough. There must be a willingness to improve the government and hold it to account - not simply to change it.

Pledge progress report

The pledge I created on Pledgebank to encourage people to lobby party leaders about next week's Parliamentary motion condemning Guantanamo is doing well, with eight signups so far. At this rate, it will hit its (modest) target sometime over the weekend, and our party leaders will have some lovely messages to read when they head back to Parliament on Monday.

I'm not sure when exactly the motion will be debated, but I'll be paying very close attention to the Hansard of the debate and vote when it is released.

Pledgebank seems to be quite a useful tool, and I'm wondering what else we can do with it. Any suggestions?

More European complicity on rendition

It's not just the British government who are turning a blind eye on rendition. According to UPI, the EU agreed in 2003 to allow the US to use its airspace to transport prisoners - and then tried to cover it up:

Documents obtained by British civil liberties group Statewatch show that at a high-level meeting of European and American justice officials in Athens on Jan. 22, 2003, the two sides agreed on the "increased use of European transit facilities to support the return of criminal/inadmissible aliens."

This crucial phrase was deleted from the minutes of the meeting made available on the Web site of the Council of Ministers, the body that represents EU governments in Brussels. A spokesman for the council told Statewatch the deletions were made out of "courtesy" for the United States.

Because of course it would be rude for the EU to adhere to the basic tenants of democracy and tell its citizens what is being agreed in their name.

Meanwhile, five members have defied the Council of Europe's call for information on how they are acting to prevent renditions from or through their territory: Belgium, Bosnia, Georgia, Italy and San Marino. In the latter case, it's probably due to not having anything to say; San Marino doesn't have an airport. In the others, its downright suspicious. What are these countries trying to hide?

Friday, February 24, 2006

My head explodes

Quantum computer solves problem, without running:

By combining quantum computation and quantum interrogation, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found an exotic way of determining an answer to an algorithm – without ever running the algorithm.


Utilizing two coupled optical interferometers, nested within a third, Kwiat's team succeeded in counterfactually searching a four-element database using Grover's quantum search algorithm. "By placing our photon in a quantum superposition of running and not running the search algorithm, we obtained information about the answer even when the photon did not run the search algorithm," said graduate student Onur Hosten, lead author of the Nature paper. "We also showed theoretically how to obtain the answer without ever running the algorithm, by using a 'chained Zeno' effect."

This is why I hate quantum mechanics. Wave-particle duality, fine. Uncertainty principle, fine. Superposition, fine. I can even cope with there being no hidden variables and the potential for "spooky action at a distance". But eventually, my head just explodes...

J.B.S. Haldane was right: "Reality is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine".

In the ballot VI

Another batch of private member's bills currently in the ballot. Previous batches are indexed here.

Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Informed Consent) Amendment Bill (Gordon Copeland): I have little information on this, but according to Mr Copeland it "introduces Counselling into the process before a woman makes a final decision to request an abortion". Mr Copeland did not provide a copy of the bill (and the Clerk's Office will generally not provide the "fair copy" MPs are required to submit in case their bill is drawn), so exactly what such "counselling" will entail will have to be left to the imagination.

Education (Schools Review Authority) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford): This would establish an independent body to review decisions by schools concerning stand-downs, suspensions, expulsions and exclusions. Currently, such decisions can be reviewed either by the High Court or by the Ombudsman, but neither is particularly accessible to parents or students. A specialist review body would solve that problem, and help ensure that students are treated fairly and that their right to education is upheld.

A full copy of the bill is here [PDF]. Note that this is actually being put forward on behalf of Metiria Turei's bill, who was clearly hoping to benefit from Sue's ballot mojo.

Human Tissue (Organ Donation) Amendment Bill (Dr Jackie Blue): This would amend the Human Tissue Act 1964 to comprehensively update the rules on organ donation. Currently people become organ donors by ticking a box when they apply for a drivers' license. The problem is that the wishes expressed there can be overridden by a donor's next of kin - assuming anybody even notices anyway. The bill would replace this with a comprehensive register administered by the Ministry of Health which will include details on exactly what a donor wants to donate and for what purposes (transplants, anatomical study etc). Importantly, people will also be able to register and say that they do not under any circumstances wish to be a donor. Either way, people's wishes will be respected and will not be able to be overridden by their families. Because of the requirement for informed consent, everyone on the LTSA database will have to reregister, but after that the system will run much more efficiently. Donors will be able to opt in or opt out at any point (currently difficult), and will have much more control over the process. Finally, the registrar would be empowered to conduct public information campaigns to encourage organ donation.

This is an excellent bill. Like a million other New Zealanders, I ticked the box when I applied for a driver's licence, and its always annoyed me that my wishes could be ignored and that the system was so flakey. I'd like to see it fixed, and this bill seems to be a good way of doing it.

Building (Protection of DIY Builders) Amendment Bill (Bob Clarkson): This would amend the Building Act 2004 to allow DIY builders to conduct "restricted building work" (meaning work that is "critical to the integrity of the building and the health and safety of its occupants" or similar work as defined in the Building Code) without requiring the supervision of a licensed building practitioner. They will still have to formally comply with the building code; there just won't be any practical measures to ensure that they do so.

As usual, I'll have another batch when I collect enough responses from MPs.

Turning a blind eye on rendition

The British government has consistently denied that it knew that British airspace and airports were being used by the US to assist in its policy of extraordinary rendition. Then the National Air Traffic Services spilled the beans, revealing that the CIA's torture planes had ravelled through and landed in Britain "on a number of occasions". That number seems to be more than 200. But still the government denies everything, with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declaring that he

[knows] of no occasion where there has been a rendition through UK territory, or indeed over UK territory, nor do we have any reason to believe that such flights have taken place without our knowledge.

And Tony Blair has gone further, insisting that there is "no evidence" that British airspace has been used for the transport of prisoners. But he won't look, and he won't ask for an assurance that kidnapped prisoners are not being transported through Britain. In the circumstances, that amounts to a wilful blindness to rendition, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy for torture. And the reason for it is simple: according the British government's own legal advice, if they knew, it would be illegal. And so they cover their eyes and plug their ears, and ignore the screams and the blood - because otherwise, they might have to do something about it. And that would be so unseemly, wouldn't it?

Show the bastards we're watching

Keith's motion calling on Parliament to condemn Guantanamo is good, but if we want it to pass, we should make sure our politicians know how we feel on the issue. So, I suggest emailing Helen Clark and other party leaders asking them to support the motion. The appropriate email addresses are:

Show the bastards we're watching, and that we'll judge them on how well they stand up for human rights.

Update: I've now created a pledge on Pledgebank for this, for people who want some indication that they won't be acting alone. You can sign it here.

Weaseling on Guantanamo

Yesterday, Green MP Keith Locke tried to put the government on the spot over Guantanamo, by asking in Question Time

Will [the Minister of Foreign Affairs] be calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre following the recent United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ report, issued 15 February 2006, which highlights the systematic practice of torture and the indefinite detention without trial of detainees; if not, why not?

The Minister's answer?

The Government’s position is that all persons detained at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere should be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Which is a lovely piece of bland sophistry. There's no recognition, for example, that detainees at Guantanamo are not treated according to those laws. Instead its just straight-out weaseling. And it is simply shameful. Where is our credibility on human rights, when we condemn abuses in other nations, but steadfastly refuse to do so when the US is the abuser?

Fortunately, there's something they can't weasel on. According to the Order Paper, Keith has put up a motion

That, in light of the UN Commission on Human Rights report on Guantanamo Bay dated 16 February 2006, this House endorse the position adopted by the European Parliament on 16 February 2006, which: 1. calls on the United States Administration to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and insists that every prisoner should be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and tried without delay in a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, impartial tribunal; 2. condemns all forms of torture and ill-treatment and reiterates the need to comply with international law; 3. stresses that contemporary terrorism, particularly global terrorism directed against democracies and their populations, poses a threat to the basic and fundamental rights our societies enjoy; 4. reiterates that the fight against terrorism, which is one of the priorities of the [European] Union and a key aspect of its external action, can only be successfully pursued if human rights and civil liberties are fully respected.

If Labour wants to be chickenshit about Guantanamo, let them put their votes where their mouth is, rather than weaseling on it any further. Then at least we will know exactly where they stand: on the side of international law, or on the side of the torturers.

Against the 100 MP bill

This morning Barbara Stewart's Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot. The bill would reduce the number of MPs to 100, by amending s191 of the Electoral Act 1993 to effectively reduce the number of list MPs (interestingly, s191 seems to be the only place the size of Parliament is defined). The number of electorate seats (or rather, the mechanism for allocating them) is left unchanged, as the relevant section (s35) is entrenched and requires a 75% majority or a referendum to amend. The change would take place at the next election

Like DPF, I oppose this bill, for the simple reason that it would break MMP. Overhangs would become much more likely, and they would generally be major-party overhangs rather than the minor party overhangs we have so far experienced. For example, in the 2002 election, Labour won 45 electorate seats and 41.26% of the party vote. Under Stewart's bill, they would have received no list seats, and held 2 more seats than they were entitled to (the difference being due to the "wasted vote", those parties which failed to make the 5% threshold). And this would become increasingly common, due to both the cube rule and the fact that the number of electorate seats will continue to grow at the expense of the list.

A second reason for opposing this bill is that it would undo all the progress that has been made in reducing the power of the executive. Since the shift to MMP we've seen a growth in the power of select committees, who now actually look at legislation rather than merely rubberstamping it, and even launch their own inquiries against the wishes of the government. This is essentially a function of the size of the House - there are enough backbenchers to pay proper attention to the job - and a smaller House would mean a lot less effort in this area. And that, IMHO, would make our democracy very much the poorer.

Repealing blasphemy

This week's controversy over C4's screening of the "Bloody Mary" episode of South Park and the attempt by an extreme Catholic group to have the TV station prosecuted for blasphemous libel has made something crystal clear: it is time for this archaic law to go.

The "crime" of blasphemy has no place in our modern, secular society. The law itself discriminates on the basis of religion, in that (in the opinion of most legal scholars) it applies exclusively to Christianity. It is fundamentally inconsistent with the freedom of expression affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. And it has never been used successfully - the only prosecution brought (against John Glover in 1922 for publishing Siegfried Sassoon's poem "Stand-To: Good Friday Morning") resulted in acquittal. However, that has not stopped governments and religious organisations from threatening prosecution, and as long as the law remains on the books, they will be able to use it as a tool to suppress free speech.

No religion should have a veto over free expression. This law must be repealed. I've drafted a bill, and I am now seeking a Member of Parliament with an interest in freedom of speech to take up the cause and put it in the ballot. Anyone interested should contact me at idiotblogid@REMOVEyahooTHIS.co.uk (after removing the obvious munge, of course).

Crimes (Blasphemy Repeal) Amendment Bill 2006

Title and Commencement

1. This Act is the Crimes (Blasphemy Repeal) Amendment Act 2006

2. This Act shall come into force immediately upon receiving the Royal Assent.

Amendments to the Crimes Act 1961

3. Section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961 is hereby repealed.

Past Offences

4. No person shall be liable to be convicted of an offence against section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961 committed before the commencement of this Act.

As with the sedition bill, I do not care which party picks this up and runs with it. All I care about is seeing this archaic law repealed. And if its fronted by one of National's liberals, or even someone from ACT, then its fine by me...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A warm welcome

US war criminal General John Abizaid arrived in Wellington today - and Peace Action Wellington were there to greet him:

US General John Abizaid arrived at the military terminal of Wellington Airport at 2pm this afternoon to peace activists demanding his immediate arrest for war crimes. Activists shouted 'scum' 'get out' and 'war monger' during the formal military welcome which included a haka.

It's good to see that someone is taking a stand where the government fears to tread.

South Park and blasphemous libel

In my post of the Mohammed cartoon controversy, I pointed out that if the cartoons had been about Jesus or mocked Christianity rather than Islam, anyone publishing them in New Zealand could have been prosecuted. Yes, we have a blasphemous libel law on the books, and while it doesn't call for decapitation, it does punish speech offensive to one particular religion: Christianity. And now Catholics want to use it against C4 for screening an episode of South Park:

Catholic Action's lawyer Greg King wrote to the Attorney-General to complain that it breached the Crimes Act by being blasphemous libel.

Mr King said the programme at worst amounted "to a hate crime" and urged the office of the Attorney-General to intervene.

Fortunately, prosecution requires the consent of the Attorney-General, and I can't imagine him giving it. Quite apart from questions of freedom of speech, the prosecution would almost certainly fail on BORA grounds, just as in the flag-burning case. But as long as this law is on the books, we will have to put up with Christians trying to use it to silence speech they disagree with on religious grounds. This is both an affront to our secular society and to its values of freedom and human rights. No religion should have a veto on freedom of speech. This law should be repealed.


The ballot for private member's bills has been held, and according to my spies, the following bills have been drawn:

  • Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill (Barbara Stewart)
  • Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill (Wayne Mapp)

The former is a desperate attempt to roll back the clock to the pre-MMP days when Parliament was smaller, a fixation shared mostly by the old and which I've never been able to understand. The latter is doomed from the start. National needs the support of either the Maori Party or the Greens to pass legislation, and given their strong positions on labour issues, I can't imagine either supporting a bill which will make workers even more vulnerable and casualised than they are at present.

The bills will have their first reading on the next Member's Day, in two three weeks' time.

Correction: Corrected time of next Member's Day.

Putting them on the spot

On Monday, I was intrigued by a section in Scoops audio of the Prime Minister's post cabinet press conference where it sounds as if someone is asking her for her opinion on the recent UN report on Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately, the questions are unclear - but the Prime Minister's answers certainly aren't:

We are staying out of that particular row between the UN and the US


I'm just not getting involved in the discussion about it

(This segment begins at 17:50 in the Scoop audio. I'd very much like a cleaner copy, or a transcript if anybody out there has one).

Now, in today's questions, the Greens are going to properly put the government on the spot over this:

9. KEITH LOCKE to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Will he be calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre following the recent United Nations Commission on Human Rights' report, issued 15 February 2006, which highlights the systematic practice of torture and the indefinite detention without trial of detainees; if not, why not?

So far, the government has maintained a shameful silence on Guantanamo, and its time they were put on the spot about it. We've traditionally taken a strong stand on human rights in the international arena, and we should not remain silent now.

Sparking protest

It seems that somebody was paying attention to my post on John Abizaid and war crimes, and has organised a protest. This is what I got by email:

Meet 1pm outside Defence HQ, Stout Street (near the end of Lambton Quay).

General John Abizaid is visiting Wellington today to meet with PM Helen Clark. As commander of CENTCOM, he is the top ranking member of the US military responsible for the occupation of Iraq, reporting directly to defence secretary Donal Rumsfeld. Let him know he is not welcome here!

Good on them.

Today's ballot

My request for a spy in Parliament has borne fruit, and several people have emailed me a copy of today's ballot. And there's some interesting-looking bills on it. For example:

  • Human Tissue (Organ Donation) Amendment Bill (Dr Jackie Blue)
  • Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Informed Consent) Amendment Bill (Gordon Copeland)
  • Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill (Barbara Stewart)

There's plenty more as well, and I'll be emailing MPs to try and get details.

As for the odds, there are 31 bills this time, and slightly under half of them (15) from National. The Greens and NZFirst have again used their full allocations (6 each). There is nothing from ACT, and nothing from the Maori Party. I guss they're still working on things. But the biggest underutilisation of the resource has to be Labour's, with only three Labour MPs putting bills forward. While they get to advance legislation through being the government, surely more of them have pet projects they want to advance? And if they don't, I can give them a few...

Treaty Principles Bill Defeated

Rodney Hide's Treaty of Waitangi (Principles) Bill has failed its first reading, with only National voting for it. Good. While I have some sympathy for a legislative definition, Rodney's preferred principles (sovereignty, protection of property rights, and equality before the law) were far too narrow, and his attempt to unilaterally impose them far too divisive. I would rather that any attempt at legislative definition were conducted in full consultation with Maori, and through some mechanism such as a Royal Commission, rather than the overtly partisan process of Parliament. Alternatively, those who complain constantly about how the principles are "undefined" could actually do some fucking reading. Te Puni Kokiri has an excellent guide to The principles of the Treaty of Waitangi as expressed by the Courts and the Waitangi Tribunal [PDF], and the Waitangi Tribunal also has their own document on The Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi [PDF]. These documents are not difficult to find (in fact, they're linked to from the first hit on Google for the obvious search), and I'm sure people like Rodney would find them most informative.

With this bill out of the way and Sue Bradford's Minimum Wage (Abolition of Age Discrimination) Amendment Bill sent to committee, there'll be a ballot tomorrow to draw two replacements. Some of the possible candidates can be reviewed from here.

In the ballot index

Posts in the "In the ballot" series:

  • 03/09/2012 In the ballot L: The final batch: Coroners Amendment Bill (Lianne Dalziel), Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) Amendment Bill (Hone Harawira), Marriage (Court Consent to Marriage of Minors) Amendment Bill (Jackie Blue).
  • 28/06/2012 In the ballot XLIX: Maritime Transport Amendment Bill (Phil Goff), Public Broadcasting Foundation (TV 7) Bill (Clare Curran), SuperGold Health Check Bill (Barbara Stewart).
  • 22/06/2012 In the ballot XLVIII: Climate Change Response (Low Carbon Economic Development) Amendment Bill (Gareth Hughes), Electricity (SuperGold Cardholder Discount) Bill (Andrew Williams), Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Amending Primary Function of Bank) Amendment Bill (Winston Peters).
  • 02/05/2012 In the ballot XLVII: Conservation Natural Heritage Protection Bill (Jacqui Dean), Defence Overseas Deployments Amendment Bill (Ian Lees-Galloway), Local Government (Salary Moderation) Amendment Bill (Annette King).
  • 04/04/2012 In the ballot XLVI: Oaths and Declarations (Upholding the Treaty of Waitangi) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell), Plain Language Bill (Chris Hipkins), Wild Animal Control (Increased Fines and Sentences of Imprisonment) Amendment Bill (Ian McKelvie).
  • 07/03/2012 In the ballot XLV: Local Electoral (Finance) Amendment Bill (Denise Roche), Local Government (Public Libraries) Amendment Bill (Grant Robertson), Local Government (Salary Reform) Amendment Bill (Denis O'Rourke).
  • 28/02/2012 In the ballot XLIV: Income Tax (Universalisation of In-work Tax Credit) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei), Land Transport (Safer Alcohol Limits for Driving) Amendment Bill (Iain Lees-Galloway), Prohibition of Gang Insignia in Government Premises Bill (Todd McClay)
  • 17/02/2012 In the ballot XLIII: Energy Efficiency Conservation (Warm Healthy Rentals) Amendment Bill (Gareth Hughes), Land Transport (Admissibility of Evidential Breath Tests) Amendment Bill (Scott Simpson), Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Shopping Centre Opening Hours) Amendment Bill (Trevor Mallard).
  • 09/02/2012 In the ballot XLII: Commerce (Code of Practice for Supermarket Grocery Suppliers) Amendment Bill (Steffan Browning), Continental Shelf (Oil Exploration Safety) Amendment Bill (Moana Mackey), Summary Offences (Possession of Hand-held Lasers) Amendment Bill (Cam Calder).
  • 09/02/2011 In the ballot XLI: Environmental Reporting Bill (Chris Hipkins), Habeus Corpus Amendment Bill (Chris Auchinvole), Summary Proceedings (Warrant for Detention Conditions) Amendment Bill (Jonathan Young).
  • 09/09/2010 In the ballot XL: Joint Family Homes Repeal Bill (Jo Goodhew), New Zealand Flag Bill (Charles Chauvel), Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Essential Financial Services) Amendment Bill (Kevin Hague).
  • 09/08/2010 In the ballot XXXIX: Financial Assistance For Live Organ Donors Bill (Michael Woodhouse), New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control (Entrenchment) Amendment Bill (Maryan Street), Overseas Investment (Restriction on Foreign Ownership of Land) Amendment Bill (Russel Norman).
  • 17/06/2010 In the Ballot XXXVIII: Ethnic Broadcasting Commission Bill (Ashraf Choudhary), Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell), Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (1080 Poison Prohibition) Amendment Bill (Rahui Katene).
  • 06/05/2010 In the ballot XXXVII: Children’s Commissioner (Reporting on Legislation) Amendment Bill (Rajen Prasad), Education (Board of Trustee Freedom) Amendment Bill (Roger Douglas), Land Transport (Give way to Buses) Bill (Gareth Hughes).
  • 10/02/2010 In the ballot XXXVI: Climate Change Response (Cancellation of Emissions Trading Scheme) Amendment Bill (John Boscawen), Depleted Uranium (Prohibition) Bill (Phil Twyford), Employment Relations (Probationary Period Repeal) Amendment Bill (Carmel Sepuloni).
  • 20/11/2009 In the ballot XXXV: ACT special: KiwiSaver (Contribution Flexibility) Amendment Bill (John Boscawen), Tariff Act Repeal Bill (Roger Douglas), Victims’ Rights (Victim Impact Statements) Amendment Bill (David Garrett).
  • 09/10/2009 In the ballot XXXIV: Electricity (Renewable Preference) Amendment Bill (Chris Hipkins), Goods and Services Tax (Exemption of Healthy Food) Amendment Bill (Rahui Katene), Members of Parliament (Code of Ethical Conduct) Bill (H V Ross Robertson).
  • 06/10/2009 In the ballot XXXIII: Crown Minerals (Protection of Conservation Land Listed in the Fourth Schedule) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei), Fisheries (Precautionary Approach) Amendment Bill (Kevin Hague), Resource Management (Requiring Authorities) Amendment Bill (Ruth Dyson).
  • 30/09/2009 In the ballot XXXII: Electoral (Disqualification of Sitting Members in By-elections) Amendment Bill (Jim Anderton), Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Amendment Bill (Winnie Laban), New Zealand Public Health and Disability (Change of Electoral System for District Health Boards) Amendment Bill (Michael Woodhouse).
  • 25/09/2009 In the ballot XXXI: Code of Airline Consumer Rights Bill (Ashraf Choudhary), Employment Relations (Workers’ Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill (Tau Henare), Fair Trading (Soliciting on Behalf of Charities) Amendment Bill (Amy Adams).
  • 01/09/2009 In the ballot XXX: Employment Relations (Protection of Young Workers) Bill (Lynne Pillay), Human Rights (Disability Commissioner) Amendment Bill (Catherine Delahunty), New Zealand Order of Merit (Modernisation of Titular Titles) Bill (Rahui Katene).
  • 18/08/2009 In the ballot XXIX: Education (Kōhanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa Māori, and Early Childhood Standards) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell), Resource Management (Enhancement of Iwi Management Plans) Amendment Bill (Nanaia Mahuta), Te Ture Whenua Maori Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei).
  • 13/08/2009 In the ballot XXVIII: Supercity Referendum bills (various), Christchurch International Airport Protection Bill (Clayton Cosgrove), Customs and Excise (Cruelty to Animals) Amendment Bill (Sue Kedgley).
  • 06/08/2009 In the ballot XXVII: Animal Welfare Amendment Bill (Catherine Delahunty), Crimes (Self-Defence) Amendment Bill (David Garrett), Smoke-free Environments (Removing Tobacco Displays) Amendment Bill (Iain Lees-Galloway).
  • 08/07/2009 In the ballot XXVI: Outlawing aggression
  • 03/07/2009 In the ballot XXV: Crimes (Reasonable Parental Control and Correction) Amendment Bill (John Boscawen), Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Change of Date for Full Funding) Amendment Bill (David Parker), Smart Meters (Consumer Choice) Bill (Jeanette Fitzsimons).
  • 18/06/2009 In the ballot XXIV: Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill (Maryann Street), Local Government (Protection of Auckland Assets) Amendment Bill (Phil Twyford), Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Easter Sunday Local Choice) Amendment Bill (Todd McClay).
  • 18/05/2009 In the ballot XXIII: Ending provocation
  • 10/12/2007 In the ballot XXII: Minimum Wage (Meal Breaks and Rest Periods) Amendment Bill (Sue Moroney), Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill (Darien Fenton), Social Security (Benefit Review and Appeal Reform) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford).
  • 10/08/2007 In the ballot XXI: New Zealand Superannuation (Non-Qualified Spouse Entitlement) Amendment Bill (Pita Paraone), Parental Leave Entitlement (Lump Sum Payments) Bill (Paula Bennett), Citizenship (For Descendants of Those in the Service of New Zealand) Amendment Bill (Judith Collins).
  • 30/07/2007 In the ballot XX: Auckland and Wellington Local Government Reform Bill (Mark Blumsky), Environment (State of the Environment Reporting) Amendment Bill (Nick Smith), Infant Feeding Bill (Steve Chadwick).
  • 30/11/2006 In the ballot XIX: Criminal Cases Review Tribunal Bill (Richard Worth), Public Works (Offer Back of and Compensation for Acquired Land) Amendment Bill (Te Ururoa Flavell), Ethical Investment (Crown Financial Institutions) Bill (Maryan Street).
  • 03/11/2006 In the ballot XVIII: tinkering with climate change: six Green Party bills targeting climate change.
  • 23/10/2006 In the ballot XVII: Foreshore and Seabed: Foreshore and Seabed Act (Repeal) Bill (Tariana Turia).
  • 18/10/2006 In the ballot XVI: Fireworks Safety Bill (Marian Hobbs), Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (Heather Roy), New Zealand Taxpayer Bill of Rights Bill (Rodney Hide).
  • 16/09/2006 In the ballot XV: Sale of Liquor (Objections to Applications) Amendment Bill (George Hawkins), Local Government (Rates Poll Demand) Amendment Bill (Rodney Hide), Treaty Of Waitangi (Removal of Conflict of Interest) Amendment Bill (Pita Paraone).
  • 28/07/2006 In the ballot XIV: Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill (Darien Fenton), Regulatory Responsibility Bill (Rodney Hide), Airport Authorities (Sale to the Crown) Amendment Bill (Darren Hughes).
  • 30/06/2006 In the ballot XIII: Gay adoption
  • 16/06/2006 In the ballot XII: Education (National Standards of Literacy and Numeracy) Amendment Bill (Bill English), Teen Health Check Bill (Barbara Stewart), Corrections (Contract Managed Prisons) Amendment Bill (Simon Power).
  • 23/05/2006 In the ballot XI: Resource Management (Overdue Consents) Amendment Bill (Colin King), Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford), Human Rights (One Law for All) Amendment Bill (Rodney Hide).
  • 16/05/2006 In the ballot X: Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Bill (Lynne Pillay), Liquor Advertising (Television and Radio) Bill (Nandor Tanczos), Dog Control (Cancellation of Microchipping Requirements) Amendment Bill (Jeanette Fitzsimons).
  • 21/04/2006 In the ballot IX: Education (Establishment of Universities of Technology) Amendment Bill (Brian Donnelly), Land Transport Management (Public Private Partnerships) Amendment Bill (Gordon Copeland/Judy Turner).
  • 20/03/2006 In the ballot VIII: Dog Control (Exemption of Farm Dogs) Amendment Bill (David Carter), Dog Control (Epilepsy Assist Dogs) Amendment Bill (Sandra Goudie), Parole (Truth in Sentencing) Amendment Bill (Heather Roy), plus some thoughts on the transparency and openness of the Member's ballot system.
  • 17/03/2006 In the ballot VII: Resource Management (Restricted Coastal Activities) Amendment Bill (Nick Smith), Marine Reserves (Consultation with Stakeholders) Amendment Bill (Eric Roy), Local Government (Rating Cap) Amendment Bill (Rodney Hide).
  • 24/02/2006 In the ballot VI: Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Informed Consent) Amendment Bill (Gordon Copeland), Education (Schools Review Authority) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford), Human Tissue (Organ Donation) Amendment Bill (Dr Jackie Blue), Building (Protection of DIY Builders) Amendment Bill (Bob Clarkson).
  • 14/02/2006 In the ballot V: Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill (Ron Mark), Consumer's Right to Know (Food Information) Bill (Sue Kedgley), Friendly Societies and Credit Unions (Capacity for Competition) Amendment Bill (Bill English).
  • 13/02/2006 In the ballot IV: Weathertight Homes Resolution Service Amendment Bill (Nick Smith), Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei), Sale of Liquor (Increase of Drinking Age) Amendment Bill (Pita Paraone), Waste Minimisation (Solids) Bill (Nandor Tanczos).
  • 08/02/2006 In the ballot III: Death With Dignity: Death With Dignity Bill (Peter Brown).
  • 03/02/2006 In the ballot II: Resource Management (Climate Protection) Amendment Bill (Jeanette Fitzsimons), Head of State Referenda Bill (Keith Locke), Land Transport (Left Hand Law) Amendment Bill (Dr Lockwood Smith), Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Easter Trading) Amendment Bill (Steve Chadwick).
  • 01/02/2006 In the ballot I: Official Information (Openness of District Health Boards New Zealand) Amendment Bill (Jo Goodhew), Control of Noisy Exhausts Bill (Nicky Wagner), Easter Sunday Shop Trading Amendment Bill (Jacqui Dean), Residential Tenancies (Damage Insurance) Amendment Bill (Maryan Street).

(This is an index page so I have a central location to point to in future)

Both scary and pathetic

Tony Blair's justification for his massive expansion of anti-terrorism powers is that they are needed to protect the public. Protect them from what? From dangers such as peaceful protestors, hecklers, and Muslims. But now, the UK faces a new, more insidious threat: the threat of actors:

Four actors who play al-Qaida suspects in a British movie that won a prestigious prize were detained by the police at Luton airport as they returned from the Berlin Film Festival and questioned under anti-terror laws, alongside two of the former terrorism suspects they play on screen.


The film's producers say four actors from the film, who all play terrorism suspects, were detained at Luton airport after flying back from Germany on an easyJet flight. They included Rizwan Ahmed and Farhad Harun, who were stopped along with Shafiq Rasul and Rhuhel Ahmed, the former Guantánamo inmates they play on screen.

In a statement, Rizwan Ahmed said police swore at him and asked if he had become an actor to further the Islamic cause. He said he was at first denied access to a lawyer and was questioned about his views on the Iraq war by a policewoman. "She asked me whether I intended to do more documentary films, specifically more political ones like The Road to Guantánamo. She asked 'Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?'"

This is where Blair's Britain has sunk to: people who make films critical of government policy and the "war on terror" being harassed as "suspected terrorists" in the name of "public safety". It's both scary and pathetic at the same time.

More details here and here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Counterproductive solutions

According to the Dominion-Post, there has been a big rise in Kiwis leaving for Australia. But the right's analysis of the problem and proposed solution leaves a lot to be desired:

National's finance spokesman, John Key, said the number of New Zealanders voting with their feet and moving to Australia was alarming.

"The Government continues to be in a state of denial about the increasing competitiveness of the Australian economy," he said.

"Quite clearly the massive tax reductions that (Australian Treasurer) Peter Costello has been signalling in Australia are continuing to attract more and more skilled Kiwis."

His view was echoed by Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly, who said the latest figures showed how important it was for New Zealand to become more competitive to attract skilled new migrants.

And how would they make us "more competitive"? Cuts to wages and employment conditions, of course! Yeah, that will encourage people to stick around...

If we want to catch up to Australia, then we need to abandon the right's view of a low-wage, low skill economy in favour of a high wage, high skill model. This won't be achieved by National's preferred policies of wage cuts and kicking people off the sickness benefit and DPB; that will simply encourage employers to continue the bad old habit of hiring another warm body rather than investing in training or plant to improve productivity. But then, the right's policies in these areas have never been about catching up to Australia or improving the economic performance of the country; they're simply about putting the interests of employers and business owners first, and enabling them to capture a larger slice of the economic pie - just as they did in the 90's.

Sedition by Example XVIII: The Maoriland Irish Society

(An ongoing series intended to excite hostility towards our archaic law of sedition)

Advertisment in the New Zealand Truth, August 10th, 1918:


We beg to appeal to the Irish people of the Dominion for subscriptions to the above fund. This is the first appeal of its kind abd your response may be regarded as an indication of the interest you take in the destiny of the land of your forefathers.

We presume you are now aware that both above named Irishmen have been sentenced to 11 months' hard labour for publishing articles dealing with Ireland, which, under the War Regulations, were considered seditious.

One of the articles complained of was written in commoration of the "Memory of the Dead," and referred to that gallant band of heroes who gave their lives during Easter Wekk, 1916, or in connection therewith.

In their zeal for the great cause, Messers. O'Ryan and Cummins did not take time to consider the possible consequences; their mission was to expound the Irish question and place the Irish situation in its true perspective and to advocate the interests of democracy, irrespective of nationality.


The "Exiled Sons and Daughters of Erin" should rally to the assistance of their imprisoned countrymen and see that their dependants are provided for while their breadwinners are absent and thereby show that they at least believe in what we hear so much about, "Liberty, Justice and the RIGHTS OF SMALL NATIONS."

All willing to assist please forward names and addresses.

Contributions may be forwarded to
Hon. Secty. Maoriland Irish Society,
Box 886, Wellington.

The reference to "that gallant band of heroes" was deemed to excite disaffection against the King, and the Society's president, David Griffin, and its secretary, John Troy, were charged with sedition. Each was fined five pounds.

(Sources: New Zealand Truth, August 10th, 1918; Maoriland Worker, October 2nd, 1918; Irish Issues in New Zealand Politics 1868 - 1922, by Richard P. Davis, University of Otago Press, 1974).

A step too far

The Maori Party wants to ban smoking. I can see where they're coming from, given the havoc tobacco addiction wreaks among their community, but this is a step too far. You can justify banning smoking in offices and bars in order to defend the rights of people who don't choose to give themselves lung cancer. You can justify age limits on sale and larger and larger warnings on the grounds that people should know what they are getting into. And you can justify taxing the crap out of it to ensure that smokers pay the full social cost of their addiction. But actually banning what people do in their own homes, or outdoors when it won't affect anyone else, is grossly illiberal.

And OTOH, as DPF points out, cigarettes would almost certainly fail to gain approval from product safety authorities if they had been invented today. We only accept it because its already widespread. And many of the policy problems against prohibition (such as the risk of simply creating a black market) are consequences of this fact. Policywise, we have to work with the world we've got, a world where regulation of tobacco consistent with other goods we allow on the market simply will not work.

Meanwhile, in America...

The radical right want a new sedition law to punish "traitors" who oppose their glorious king president:

Much of the language of the "loyal opposition" has been anything but loyal. In September 2002, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) called President Bush a liar on Saddam Hussein's turf, then added that Hussein's regime was worthy of American trust. On "Face the Nation" back in December, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) stated that American troops were "going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort of the customs of the -- of, of, of historical customs, religious customs …" Howard Dean, the head of the DNC, averred in December that the "idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong."

At some point, opposition must be considered disloyal. At some point, the American people must say "enough." At some point, Republicans in Congress must stop delicately tiptoeing with regard to sedition and must pass legislation to prosecute such sedition.

America has made this mistake before - twice. In 1798, President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which outlawed criticism of the government. Rather than suppressing criticism, the law inspired it, and it became an election issue. It ultimately expired in 1800 when the President it was designed to protect left office. In 1918 they passed a similar Sedition Act which likewise criminalised criticism of the US's form of government, its military, flag, and military uniforms, and was used to persecute Socialists and other opponents of the US's participation in WWI (among them Eugene Debs, for this anti-war speech). While upheld at the time, the law is now considered grossly unconstitutional - which is why the US's current sedition law is interpreted as being limited to speech which poses a "clear and present danger" of producing actual violence. Mere criticism or advocacy or disagreement with government policy is insufficient to justify punishment.

Interestingly, the current version of the page on the US Sedition Act of 1918 has this to say:

Historically, these types of acts have been suggested and/or passed when a presidential administration or congressional majority has lost general public support and additional, judicial tools are necessary to minimize public dissent. The Sedition Act was the most recent attempt by the United States government to limit “freedom of speech,” in-so-much-as that “freedom of speech” related to the criticism of the government, or, more applicably, the political policies of the presidential administration or congressional majority.

Which pretty much sums up the radical right's position perfectly.

Of course, if they had their way, then saying even that would be sedition...

Sedition in the Philippines II

Two and a half years ago, three hundred Philippine soldiers mutinied and seized control of a Manila shopping complex. They soon surrendered, but a small group recently escaped from jail and went on the run. Now one of them, First Lieutenant Lawrence San Juan, has been recaptured. And in addition to charges relating to his mutiny and escape, he is also reportedly facing charges of incitement to sedition. The reason? He urged people to protest against the president:

He urged the people to not only to come out in the streets but also to wear red armbands to show their disgust for the regime of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

He said the red band would symbolize the true sentiments of the people towards the present leadership.

"From now on, let us wear red arm bands to show her what the real truth is. And through this, open her eyes to the reality that the only way towards genuine and peaceful change would be for her to step down from office," he said.

As pointed out in an earlier piece on sedition in the Philippines, that country's sedition law is incredibly broad, and criminalises practically any call for public protest. Last year, the law was used to punish a whistleblower who revealed that President Arroyo had conspired with electoral officials to manipulate election results, truth apparantly being no defence.

I have no truck with military mutineers, and Lieutenant San Juan should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for his crimes in that area. But the sedition charges are clearly a crock, the result of an overbroad law and a government seeking to punish those who speak out against its corruption.

More European hypocrisy on free speech

Via Crooked Timber, another story of European hypocrisy on freedom of speech. Many commentators have talked about the effrontery of Muslims in demanding that expression be censored to conform to their religious sensibilities. The problem is that, in most European jurisdictions, speech can and is already limited to conform to the sensibilities of Christians. For example, in 1989 the film "Visions of Ecstasy" (a short porn movie about "the ecstatic and erotic visions of St Teresa of Avila") was banned in the UK on the grounds that it was blasphemous - i.e. offensive to Christians. The film's director appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that a blasphemy law contravened the guarantee of freedom of expression in the European Convention of Human Rights. He lost. Following a previous judgement, in which the court had

accepted that respect for the religious feelings of believers can move a State legitimately to restrict the publication of provocative portrayals of objects of religious veneration,

the court ruled that

[F]reedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society... however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory

This doesn't justify the death threats to cartoonists or the violent riots happening in various parts of the world, of course - but it does show that Muslims have a fair point in asking why their religious sensibilities don't count when other people's do. My answer of course would be that no-one's religious sensibilities should count; that legal protection of any religion from criticism, insult or "blasphemy" is a violation of the freedoms of religion, conscience, and expression which make an open and tolerant society possible. Unfortunately, most European nations (and, I must add, New Zealand) would rather be hypocrites.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The ten worst New Zealanders

Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty has a list of the ten worst New Zealanders. In chronological order, they are:

  • Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose plan for a "better Britain" included mechanisms - a "sufficient price" for land and an oversupply of workers - to ensure that the poverty and subjugation of the British class system (the very thing people were coming here to escape) was replicated.
  • John Bryce: war criminal and Native Affairs Minister who commanded the troops at Parihaka.
  • Robert Logan, first Administrator of New Zealand occupied Samoa. In addition to his racist policies as administrator (he annulled all marriages between Samoans and Chinese indentured labourers and banned cohabitation, or even members of the different races entering one another's houses, in order to keep the Samoan race "pure"), he also allowed 20% of the Samoan population to die in the 1918 Influenza pandemic. His attitude of neglect on the latter - summed up in his comment "I do not care if they are going to die. Let them die and go to hell" - simply beggars belief.
  • Those who made Gallipoli a myth, for glorifying a pointless slaughter in the name of a stupid, inbred criminal aristocracy on the other side of the world. The dead deserve our pity and our respect - but the "cause" and the war they died in deserves our utter contempt.
  • The 1937 McMillan inquiry, which supported the continued criminalisation of abortion and instead urged women to be "less selfish" and breed for the glory of New Zealand and to avoid "race suicide".
  • Peter Fraser, Prime Minister and hypocrite. Having gone to jail for sedition for opposing conscription in the First World War, he then turned around and jailed conscientious objectors during the second.
  • Fintan Patrick Walsh, who betrayed the Waterside Workers Union and supported the government during the 1951 waterfront strike.
  • Robert Muldoon. Left wingers hate him for his authoritarian, his divisive politics, and his support for racism at home and abroad. Right wingers hate him for being a "socialist". The only person who still loves him seems to be Winston Peters.
  • David Lange, as representative of the Revolution, and for dodging responsibility for it.
  • Names Suppressed, the four men currently appealing their conviction for gang-rape (representative of others).

That's a pretty compelling list, though a little constrained by a desire to be fair to all eras. I've been considering a similar post for a while, and had been thinking of the following:

  • James Prendergast, for his infamous ruling in Wi Parata v Bishop of Wellington that the Treaty of Waitangi was a "simple nullity" and that a contract with "savages" could not possibly be binding. Quite apart from being legally incorrect, this precedent was used to assist in the systematic dispossession of the Maori people. It has only recently been overturned in law (Ngati Apa vs Attorney-General is hopefully the final nail in the coffin), but it is still hanging around like a bad smell in the political consciousness of far too many National Party politicians.
  • Robert Semple in the place of Peter Fraser. Like Fraser, he had been jailed for sedition for opposing conscription in the First World War. During the Second, he didn't just support conscription: he was Minister of National Service, and drew the marble for the first conscription ballot (I have a photo somewhere...)
  • William Massey, Prime Minister from 1912 to 1925. He used special constables ("Massey's Cossacks") to break the 1913 waterfront strike, had practically the entire leadership of the Labour Party jailed for sedition during World War One (and then delayed the elections anyway, just in case he didn't win), ensured the passage of the War Regulations Continuance Act 1920 which allowed him to continue wartime censorship and the persecution of communists (plus the odd Catholic Bishop), and (last but not least) gave us the flu because he was too important to wait in quarantine. Over 8000 people died as a result, leading to him being memorialised in a children's song: "Big Bill Massey brought the 'flu, parlez vous...".
  • Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Lets not beat about the bush: the amount of suffering these two caused New Zealand was criminal. They gave us mass unemployment, gross inequality, lower wages, and cuts to government health and education services just when people needed them. Richardson was crueller with her benefit cuts, but Douglas started it all. Their names should be vilified to prevent the memory from fading.

As for who I'd drop, I'd go for Lange, Fraser (in favour of Semple, though its much of a muchness), "Names Suppressed", and probably the McMillan inquiry (I juggled the latter with the glorifiers of WWI, who include Massey, but I'm surprised by how strongly I feel about that pointless waste of life).

Irving jailed

David Irving has been jailed for three years. I'm shocked and appalled. Irving's statements were poisonous, anti-semitic lies - but in a free society he should not be facing jail for them.

Comparisons will inevitably be made with the recent republication of the Danish cartoons in three Austrian newspapers, and the conclusion is inescapable: Austria is hypocritical on freedom of speech. It is a "principle" applied to defend the vilification of Muslims, and ignored where the subject is Holocaust denial and the vilification of Jews. The inconsistency is inescapable, and I doubt that it will go unnoticed in the Middle East.

Welcoming a war criminal

According to the PM's press conference yesterday, General John Abizaid will be visiting New Zealand sometime soon. Abizaid is commander of CENTCOM, responsible for the US occupation of Iraq. He is also, by any reasonable definition, a war criminal. Quite apart from his role in the invasion of Iraq - an illegal war of aggression waged without the authorization of the UN Security Council - Abizaid bears command responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib (and has said as much). There are also credible reports that he ignored warnings that prisoners were being abused in his command. According to Seymour Hersh's book, Chain of Command,

an army officer communicated concerns over abuses at Abu Ghraib both to General John Abizaid, the US central command (Centcom) chief at the time, and his deputy, General Lance Smith.

The officer told Hersh: "I said there are systematic abuses going on in the prisons. Abizaid didn't say a thing. He looked at me - beyond me, as if to say, 'Move on. I don't want to touch this.'" Centcom has disputed the allegation.

This is not someone we should be letting into the country, except for the purposes of arresting them and turning them over to a competent international tribunal for trial (something likely barred by existing treaties with the US). But rather than seeing Abizaid get the justice he deserves, Clark will probably shake his hand - just as she did with Pakistan's President Musharraf.

Update: It seems that Clark's meeting with a war criminal was supposed to be secret, and was not supposed to be announced. Well, that's one way of limiting public critcism, I guess.

Democracy in danger in Venezuela

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, currently facing re-election this year, has said that he is thinking of amending the constitution to remove the current two-term limit - allowing him to potentially run for a third term in 2012. And so the popularly-elected president threatens to turn into the "president-for-life" which has plagued so many nations for the past half-century...

No constitution is carved in stone, but seeking an amendment specifically to prolong your term in office is not how the game is played. A constitution is not something to be tinkered with by those in power for their own electoral advantage. If Chavez had any respect for democracy, he would abandon this idea, and accept the fact that one day he will not be in power. Until he does that, democracy in Venezuela must be considered to be in danger.

The Decent American

The New Yorker has a long piece on the bureaucratic struggle against torture within the Pentagon, focussing on a detailed historical narrative [PDF] written by Naval General Counsel Alberto Mora. In 2002, Mora was told by the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) that NCIS agents at Guantanamo had learned that some detainees "were being subjected to physical abuse and degrading treatment", reportedly "authorised, at least in part, at a 'high level' in Washington". This caused him to go on the warpath, working his way up the chain of command, opposing torture at every turn. His opposition was strengthened after he had read Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's December 2nd memo on Counter Resistance Techniques [PDF], which authorised (among other things) prolonged isolation, "removal of clothing", and "using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress". And after being put off by one of Rumsfeld's hacks, he went nuclear:

Mora delivered an unsigned draft memo to [Pentagon General Counsel William] Haynes, and said that he planned to “sign it out” that afternoon—making it an official document—unless the harsh interrogation techniques were suspended. Mora’s draft memo described U.S. interrogations at Guantánamo as “at a minimum cruel and unusual treatment, and, at worst, torture.”

By the end of the day, Haynes called Mora with good news. Rumsfeld was suspending his authorization of the disputed interrogation techniques. The Defense Secretary also was authorizing a special “working group” of a few dozen lawyers, from all branches of the armed services, including Mora, to develop new interrogation guidelines.

Score one for decency! Unfortunately, this apparent victory was simply another put-off: the working group's recommendations were to be guided by John Yoo's now-infamous torture memo, which essentially argued that the only limit on the treatment of prisoners was the arbitrary whim of the Absolute Monarch President. Mora fought that too, and apparently won again - the working group's report (which concluded that torture was acceptable) was never formally signed off, and Mora thought it had been buried. Instead, Rumsfeld had adopted it [PDF], without informing its authors, and it was being used to sanction cruel and degrading treatment and torture in Guantanamo.

Without Mora’s knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version, enunciated in Haynes’s letter to Leahy [which said "we do not and will not torture" - I/S], aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade.

The reason for this was precisely to prevent people like Mora from objecting on the record, where it could later be used against those approving such atrocities.

Alberto Mora was a decent American. When faced with a policy fundamentally at odds with American (and human) values, he opposed it to the best of his ability. And he was not alone. Others within the US military, particularly within the US Navy, also stood up against barbarism. In the end, they lost, but they at least fought for the values America is supposed to stand for. Their opposition to torture deserves to be remembered, even as we condemn those like Yoo and Rumsfeld and Bush who supported it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Irving on trial

"Historian" David Irving goes on trial today before an Austrian court on charges of denying the Holocaust. Rather than denying the charges, Irving is expected to plead guilty and seek a suspended sentance. And it's easy to see why. Looking at what he is alleged to have said, Irving wasn't just denying the Holocaust, but was an outright apologist for the Nazi regime:

[The case] centres on two lectures Irving gave in November 1989. In the first, he told a 300-strong audience in Leoben that Kristallnacht - the night in November 1938 when 1,350 synagogues were destroyed - was carried out by "unknowns" dressed up as members of the SA, that Anne Frank could not have written her diary herself, because the Biro wasn't invented until 1949, and that Hitler never gave an order to exterminate the Jews.

He cited research by the (now discredited) American execution technician, Fred A Leuchter, which concluded that no significant traces of cyanide gas were found at Auschwitz, and accused the Jewish World Congress of spreading the "legend" in 1942 that the Third Reich was preparing its Final Solution.

During the second lecture, a day later, in the back room of a Vienna pub, he went even further. A tape of his speech contains such views as "Auschwitz is a legend, just like the Turin Shroud", and "the existence of witnesses proves that there was no mass extermination".

The Times's version is even nastier:

The authenticity of the Holocaust, [Irving] said, could not be established by documents, but only by the testimonies of survivors who were “psychiatric cases”.

The fate of the six million Jews, he said, was clear. “Seventy-four thousand died of natural causes in the work camps and the rest were hidden in reception camps after the war and later taken to Palestine, where they live today under new identities.” The comments were tape-recorded.

These statements can only be described as poisonous, anti-semitic lies, but Irving shouldn't be facing court or prison for them, any more than Turks should be for facing charges of "insulting Turkishness" for talking about the Armenian genocide, or Danish cartoonists should be for insulting (and in some cases, villifying) Muslims. If freedom of expression extends only to speech the majority agree with or find inoffensive, then it is no freedom at all.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bypassing Parliament

The Westminster System has often been called an "elective dictatorship" on account of the dominance of the legislature by the executive. However, despite this dominance, laws must still be approved by Parliament, and the executive doesn't always get what it wants (or at least, has to pay a price for doing so).

In the UK, that's all about to change. A bill currently before the British Parliament - the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill - would grant sweeping powers to Ministers to legislate without Parliamentary approval or oversight. They could do this on any topic, with few limits. Such legislation could not create new criminal offences with a penalty of more than two years imprisonment, compel the giving of evidence, or allow police to forcibly enter people's dwellings without warrants, for example. However, this allows wide scope for legislation; according to a group of legal experts writing in The Times, it would allow the government to

  • create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred, punishable with two years’ imprisonment;
  • curtail or abolish jury trial;
  • permit the Home Secretary to place citizens under house arrest;
  • allow the Prime Minister to sack judges;
  • rewrite the law on nationality and immigration;
  • “reform” Magna Carta (or what remains of it).

And even the weak limits mentioned above can be bypassed on the recommendation of one of the UK's (unelected) Law Commissions. The only thing absolutely forbidden is raising (but not lowering) taxes - which is revealing about what the Blair government thinks is important.

The hallmark of democracy is that laws are made by the legislature - not the executive. While democratic systems allow delegated legislation, this is only on very narrow subjects, and only with the express approval of the legislature. This bill, if passed, would delegate virtually everything, and remove utterly the prospect of Parliamentary scrutiny and democratic accountability. In short, it would effectively remove democracy itself. It cannot be allowed to stand. Unfortunately, this being Britain, it probably will be.

(Hat tip: Perfect.co.uk)