Sunday, August 31, 2008

Labour's list: looks like New Zealand

Labour has released its party list. Where last time they focused on incumbent protection (with a consequent lack of new blood), this time round they've taken the opposite approach. After the core team and top-ranked cabinet Ministers, they've generally ranked younger, newer MPs ahead of older ones, with the aim of renewing their party even if they lose MPs. And the list looks like New Zealand, with 40% women in the top 30 and solid Maori, "Asian" and Pasifika candidates.

As with last election, I've done a table showing the top candidates relative placements with last time. The big winners are Labour's new Cabinet picks - Chris Carter, David Cunliffe, Maryann Street, Shane Jones and David Parker, who are clearly expected to form the core of Labour's future team. The big losers are underperforming Maori MPs, who have generally seen their list places drop (possibly in an effort to threaten their electorates into voting for them) and older MPs like Rick Barker, Martin Gallagher and Judith Tizard.

2008 RankName2005 RankDifference
1Helen Clark10
2Michael Cullen20
3Phil Goff6+3
4Annette King7+3
5Parekura Horomia50
6Pete Hodgson12+6
7Chris Carter19+12
8David Cunliffe31+23
9Maryan Street36+25
10Nanaia Mahuta----
11Winnie Laban20+9
12Rajen Prasad----
13Ruth Dyson14+1
14Trevor Mallard8-6
15Lianne Dalziel26+11
16Shane Jones27+11
17David Parker37+20
18Clayton Cosgrove----
19Darren Hughes34+15
20Jacinda Ardern----
21Raymond Huo----
22Sue Moroney42+20
23Mita Ririnui15-8
24Su'a William Sio47+23
25Moana Mackey41+16
26Phil Twyford55+29
27Charles Chauvel44+17
28Carol Beaumont----
29Kelvin Davis----
30Steve Chadwick33+3
31Ashraf Choudhary25-6
32Lynne Pillay40+7
33Darien Fenton43+10
34Rick Barker21-13
35Carmel Sepuloni----
36Stuart Nash60+24
37Damien O'Connor----
38Judith Tizard18-20
39Mark Burton16-23
40Mahara Okeroa22-18
41Martin Gallagher32-9
42Dave Hereora39-3
43Louisa Wall46+3
44Lesley Soper45+1
45Clare Curran----
46Grant Robertson----
47Chris Hipkins----
48Iain Lees-Galloway----
49Brendon Burns48-1
50Hamish McCracken49-1
51Erin Ebborn-Gillespie69+18
52Errol Mason----
53Chris Yoo57+4
54Jo Bartley----
55Don Pryde----
56Michael Wood58+2
57Farida Sultana----
58Denise MacKenzie50+8
59Julian Blanchard----
60Hamish McDouall----

Not on the table is sitting MP Lesley Soper, who has gone from position 45 (and a seat in Parliament) to number 77. They must really, really hate her.

Update: So, Scoop's original version of the list (which had a gap at 44 and Soper at 77) was incorrect; according to the Herald and the PDF on The Standard, she's at 44 and has gone up a place. I wonder what happened?

Discriminatory, illegal, and wrong

On the front page of the Dominion-Post yesterday morning: some Auckland high schools are banning pupils from taking same-sex partners to their school ball unless they sign a contract saying they are gay. It's discriminatory, it's illegal, and it's wrong. It's also failing to provide a safe and respectful environment for their pupils which allows them to develop regardless of who they are. But most of all, it makes you wonder what century these schools are trapped in. The nineteenth, perhaps?

Has the US learned?

For the past few days I've been watching Hurricane Gustav as it has strengthened and pointed itself at the US gulf coast. Now it's heading for New Orleans - and residents have been told to evacuate. Which means we get to see whether the US has learned anything from Katrina a few years ago - whether it will bother caring for the poor, the sick and the elederly, or whether it will leave them to drown, starve and die.

New Fisk

Why do we keep letting the politicians get away with lies?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day of the Disappeared

Today, August 30, is the International Day of the Disappeared, created to draw attention to the victims of forced disappearance. Forced disappearance doesn't happen in New Zealand, but it happens around the world - in the Philippines, in Pakistan, in Belarus and in Iraq. In those countries, people are abducted at gunpoint by the government or terrorist groups, held incommunicado, tortured, and murdered, and their families are left with no clue as to their ultimate fate. As the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances [PDF] points out,

Enforced disappearance challenges the very concept of human rights: it amounts to the denial of the right of all persons to exist. Enforced disappearance turns a human being into a non-being. It is the ultimate corruption, the abuse of power that allows the perpetrators, while committing abominable crimes, to reduce law and order to something insignificant.
This is a serious human rights abuse, and like torture, one that needs to be stamped out.

A key goal of the Day of the Disappeared this year is to help do that by highlighting the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and encourage states to sign it. The Convention outlaws forced disappearance, and requires its parties to cooperate in extraditing or prosecuting its perpetrators. Like the Convention Against Torture, it is aimed at strengthening international law, ensuring that human rights abusers will face justice wherever they flee, and preventing backsliding by signatory nations. So far, 73 countries have signed, and 4 have ratified. New Zealand is not one of them. This is a shameful position, and one totally at odds with our normal support for human rights and international law.

This is not an issue we can do nothing on. Our government should sign and ratify the Convention as soon as possible. And on Tuesday, I'll be presenting a petition to Parliament urging the government to do exactly that. It's small, but it should show them that at least some people here give a damn. And hopefully it will get them to stop, think, and decide to support human rights after all.

Escaping the Winston bubble

While the NZ media and political blogosphere has been focusing on the drama of the Winston Peters bustup, other things have been happening:

  • The police have decided they want tasers, so they can "induce compliance" by routinely threatening members of the public with electric torture-weapons.
  • The government signed an FTA with ASEAN, which includes Burma. So, we rightly isolate Fiji for being a dictatorship, while we sign up to trade with an even worse dictatorship, murderous regime which massacres its own people (to the extent that they use chemical weapons against rebels). So much for consistent (let alone moral) foreign policy.
  • Former All Black coach Brian Lochore reminded everyone of why we should hate rugby thug culture
  • Barack Obama was officially nominated as Democratic candidate for President, showing that the American dream does still mean something.
  • And finally, John McCain picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running-mate, so whichever way the election goes it will result in a historic first. I'm tempted to snark about how it has only taken the Republicans 24 years to catch up to the Democrats on this, but that would gloss over a deeper failure: while the Democrats were indeed the first major US party to nominate a woman for the Vice-Presidency, it a) took too long, and b) was a one-off - every Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidate since then has been a man. I'm hoping Palin's candidacy will change that (in the same way I'm hoping Obama's will usher in greater equality on race) - but given that US politics is so overwhelmingly white, male, and aristocratic, it may be expecting too much.

Update: Added Brian Lochore's little outburst.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sanity prevails

According to Radio New Zealand, Winston peters has agreed to stand aside while the Serious Fraud Office conducts its investigation. No news on who will replace him (presumably Phil Goff), but it suggests that the government retains confidence and that we won't be having an election before the ETS can pass.


Update: Helen Clark will be replacing Peters as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Given that she was doing much of the job anyway, this seems appropriate.

Climate change: the ETS is safe(r)

Winston Peters has said that NZ First will vote for the emisisons trading bill regardless of whether he is stood down from his Ministerial roles or not. That's a relief - but it still requires avoiding a dissolution and early election, and I'm not sure we can take that for granted yet.

Climate change: melting

More bad news from the Arctic:

Arctic sea ice has shrunk to the second smallest extent since satellite records began, US scientists have revealed.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says that the ice-covered area has fallen below its 2005 level, which was the second lowest on record.

Melting has occurred earlier in the year than usual, meaning that the iced area could become even smaller than last September, the lowest recorded.

They're talking about a tipping point, and the Arctic being ice-free in summer within five years. This is seriously scary stuff.

If you want to track this, then NSIDC has geekery here.

Transgender discrimination in Wellington

Back in the mists of time, Labour MP Georgina Beyer introduced a Human Rights (Gender Identity) Amendment Bill to amend the Human Rights Act to outlaw discrimination against transsexuals, transvestites, transgenders, and cross-dressers. The bill was eventually withdrawn after much pressure from the government (which didn't want a repeat of the divisive civil unions debate - cowards). But as part of that process, the government produced a legal opinion [PDF] stating that discrimination on the grounds of gender identity was already covered by the existing "sex discrimination" clause.

Its time for the government to put its money where its mouth is. Earlier in the month, a Wellington bar evicted three drag queens after a blatant display of homophobia from staff. In response, Wellington's transgender community planned a "drag-in" protest. They were locked out, apparently on the basis of their gender identity. This sort of discrimination is simply unacceptable, no matter who it is done to, and the Human Rights Commission should investigate. This may lead to court action which tests the validity of Crown Law's opinion, but that's a winning proposition either way: either it shows that sex includes gender identity, or it shows that Beyer's amendments really are necessary and should be passed ASAP.

Justice for disappearance

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina's military junta waged a campaign of violence against dissidents, students, and unionists known as the "Dirty War". Thousands were disappeared, tortured and murdered by government death squads, their bodies flung from the backs of planes over the Atlantic Ocean to prevent any evidence from coming to light. Today, two of the worst perpetrators of those crimes were finally held accountable for their actions during that era. Antonio Bussi and Luciano Menendez, both senior generals in the military regime, were sentenced to life imprisonment for the kidnapping and disappearance of a leftist senator in 1976. Given that they are in their 80's, that jail sentence might be short, but they have been held to account. After 32 years, there has been some justice for the disappeared.

This is why the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance is so important: it means that people like these will not be able to find sanctuary anywhere in the world, but will instead face justice for their crimes. And that is why New Zealand should sign it.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 72nd Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Washington interns gone bad.

Fisk on Radio NZ

Morning Report interviewed Robert Fisk yesterday. Downloadable MP3 here.

What happens if Winston pulls the plug?

Assume the worst: tomorrow, Helen Clark will bow to the inevitable and suspend her Minister of Foreign Affairs. In retaliation, he repeats his grand toy-throwing exercise of 1998 and withdraws his support for the government. What happens? National's answer is "an election". That was Clark's answer too in 1998. But the reality is somewhat more complex.

The fundamental rule of our system of government is

The Queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as it has the support of the House of Representatives.
Obviously, NZ First withdrawing its support would call the confidence of the government into question. But it would not mean that it has clearly lost it (that would require actually losing a confidence vote in the House). However, confidence would be unclear. In these circumstances, the Cabinet Manual has the answer:
In some cases, the confidence of the House may be unclear, for example, in the case of a change in coalition arrangements. The incumbent government will need to clarify where the confidence of the House lies, within a short time frame (allowing a reasonable period for negotiation and reorganisation).
The government would not even need to go into caretaker mode (though they should be already this close to an election).

How does this work in practice? On 14 August 1998, Winston Peters led his NZ First colleagues out of a Cabinet meeting over the proposed sale of Auckland Wellington Airport. A week later, he formally terminated his coalition agreement with National. Parliament continued to meet, and it rapidly became clear that National had confidence and supply from ACT and a few former NZ First members, but it was not until the next month, on 9 September 1998, that Jenny Shipley formally confirmed her new governing arrangements by winning a vote of confidence in the House.

Since 1998, the acceptable timeframe for negotiation has probably shortened (OTOH, Shipley arguably had confidence for most of that period, though she had not formally put it to the test). And it is worth remembering that Parliament expires in just over a month anyway. Under these circumstances, with an election pending, the window for negotiation is likely even tighter. Clark would have quite a short period in which to negotiate and demonstrate confidence, or else we would simply have the election a bit earlier than planned (though ironically, exactly when some parties are expecting it, in early October).

Of course, Clark would also have the option of advising the Governor-general to dissolve Parliament and call an early election. That's her sole prerogative as Prime Minister (but see below). But the point of the above is to argue that she would not have to, if she could quickly negotiate alternative confidence arrangements and demonstrate them by winning a confidence vote in the House. Whether that is possible, and whether it would be worth it, of course, are other questions entirely.

Correction: It was Wellington, not Auckland airport. D'oh! Also, the power to call elections is not entirely absolute - two years ago the Governor-General made it clear that in the event of a mid-term collapse, it was (like everything else) subject to the caretaker convention and requires the support of the House. Realisiticly, I don't think that's an issue here - an election this close to the expiry of Parliament doesn't thwart the expressed will of the people (as it would mid-term when there are clear alternative arrangements available), and I expect any move by Clark to call one will meet with National's enthusiastic support.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Putting up

This morning, Winston Peters challenged the Serious Fraud Office to "put up or shut up" on the question of his donations. Now, it looks like they've gone for the former option.

At this stage, now that he is the subject of a serious criminal investigation, I can't see how Helen Clark can possibly avoid suspending him. The question is whether he will accept it, or try and topple the government in retaliation.

Freedom of speech 2, National nil

DPF reports that the National Party has failed in its attempt to silence the EPMU. The full decision is here. As expected, the court refused to second-guess the Electoral Commission's assessment of the facts, instead concerning itself with whether the Commission had misinterpreted the law or failed to consider important issues. It hadn't, and so the Commission's decision that the EPMU is entitled to be listed as a Third Party stands.

Update: Fixed title.

Leaders on 7

Why I like TVNZ 7: because they're committed to doing stuff like this. Now I'll just have to make sure to watch it online...

iCount fails

Earlier this year, a new minnow party popped up: iCount. Basically a "grumpy party", they promised an innovative solution to the "problem" of politicians not doing what they want "breaking their promises": remote-controlled list MPs. Party policy would be determined by polling the membership through the website, with any MPs contractually bound to mirror those views or resign (an arrangement which seems to be a contempt of Parliament).

According to my sources, the party has now accepted that it cannot get enough members to register and contest the party list. Instead, they'll be turning themselves into a discussion website, with the hope of trying again next time. Still, at least they tried.

Goodbye Brian

Brian Connell is resigning from Parliament, effective from Sunday. Good riddance. Quite apart from being one of Parliament's more conservative MPs, he's also a cat-beater. Plus, he's been largely silent since being exiled from the National caucus back in 2006. Due to the closeness of the election, there won't be a by-election; instead the House will only have 120 members until it rises (which has to happen by 7 October).

The latter is a gift to the government, and it has come at a crucial time. Right when Winston threatens to perform his triennial toy-throwing, Connell's resignation has shifted the balance of power, and made it easier for the government to win a confidence vote should that become necessary. They'd still need to cobble together a temporary coalition (primarily, flipping the Greens from abstention to active support), but it will no longer be so hard. Which means if things spiral out of control over the next week and the PM does the decent thing and sacks Winston, she won't necessarily have to sacrifice her government to do it.

Social Report 2008

The 2008 Social Report has been released, and I've spent the last half-hour or so digesting it. The headline news is that income inequality - as measured by the ratio between the incomes of the top 20 and bottom 20 percent of people - has dropped. It's only slight, but its the first decrease since 1988, and it is entirely attributable to the government's policy of boosting incomes at the lower end of the scale by hiking the minimum wage and helping out with Working For Families (it is not attributable to lower unemployment, as that hasn't changed significantly since 2004). So, a big success for Labour, and it shows that inequality can be reversed. But despite that, we're still at the levels we had in the mid-90's, which even then were unacceptable, so we're looking at a turning supertanker rather than a problem which can be solved overnight.

Also in the "success" category is a marked decrease in relative poverty, with the proportion of households earning less than 60% of the median income dropping from 17% to 13%. Again, it's directly attributable to government policy, but again it's a turning supertanker - we're still above 1990 levels, so we have a long way to go yet.

In the "meh" category, the employment rate has continued its climb. I see this as lost leisure rather than as necessarily a Good Thing, but OTOH looking at the (2006) work-life balance satisfaction data, most people seem pretty satisfied with it (though I'm waiting for a time-series to see if dissatisfaction rises in the long-term, or falls due to more flexible employment policies).

Finally, in the "bad news" category (and strangely absent from the government's press release), housing affordability has declined. Worse, we have a drinking problem, with rates of hazardous alcohol use (as measured by the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test [PDF], sample here) rising across all age groups except the 45-54 bracket. And it's serious - looking at the scoring method, you don't hit the danger level even with sustained moderate drinking (you can have a glass or two of wine every night and dinnertime, and still score only 4); you need to be having actual problems to get into that category. So, it is a real problem; the question is what we can do about it. And on this, I think we have to work on changing patterns of consumption and educating users rather than pursuing the counterproductive prohibition mentality...

Overall, the Social Report shows that most areas are fine, reflecting Labour's generally good record on these issues. But its real value will come in allowing us to see the impacts of any future right-wing economic changes across a variety of statistics. Which makes you wonder whether National will try and get rid of it...

Climate change: today

The day has come. After months of waiting, the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill is back before the House for its second reading today. Which means that if Question Time isn't turned into a zoo again (a highly likey proposition given that several MPs will be trying to ask questions about Winston Peters), we may see it passed before the end of next week.

MMP symposium: the morning

Over the past two days I attended the New Zealand Centre for Public Law / Institute for Policy Studies / Birkbeck, University of London's Centre for New Zealand Studies' symposium on MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward. I have covered the evening session here. Here's a rundown of the morning session. As usual, any errors are due to my poor memory and worse handwriting.

The morning session had the theme of "the future".

First up, at the horrifying hour of 7:30 am, Professor Philip Joseph (University of Canterbury) spoke on MMP and the Constitution: Future Constitutional Challenges. He argued that MMP has not changed the basic ground rules of the Westminster system. Instead, it has made them more visible. The key rule - summarised in the Cabinet Manual as "The Queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as it has the support of the House of Representatives" - is now out in the open, and governments must continuously demonstrate (rather than simply assume) that they hold the confidence of the House. And that is a Good Thing for our democracy. It has also revealed that the old "convention" of Cabinet collective responsibility was nothing of the sort; rather, it was simply a pragmatic arrangement, which could be changed to suit the times. Finally, it has weakened the fundamental dichotomy between "government" and "opposition", with non-government parties able to wield real influence over policy if they play their cards right.

Joseph highlighted several challenges. He thinks the Maori seats are likely to produce an inbuilt overhang, undermining proportionality (I think he's focusing on those electorates, rather than, say, the Auckland electorates, or South Island electorates, simply because they are brown). Population growth (or rather, unequal growth in the North and South Islands) will erode the number of list seats, eventually eroding proportionality and requiring either an increase in the size of the House, or a growth in the size of electorates (which will mean a reduction in the number in the South Island) (he also continued his earlier theme by suggesting the abolition of the Maori seats as a quick fix for this). Finally, the National Party is attempting to change the system - something Joseph thinks will be vetoed by the minor parties in future Parliaments. Overall, he thinks a return to FPP politics is now inconceivable. Quite apart from the political challenges any such reaction would face, MMP has generally met people's expectations around dispersing power. This is sometimes uncomfortable - the continual shenanigans of Winston Peters provide evidence enough of that - but it is better than the alternative.

Professors Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts (VUW) spoke on "Future political challenges" [online next week sometime]. They looked at current proposals for another referendum as a repeat of the 1992 / 1993 process, and considered the options we had then. John Key has already said he does not want to return to FPP, and many of its supporters in 1992 (e.g. Jonathan Hunt) have subsequently admitted they were wrong. STV is ruled out by the unfortunate experiences with using it in DHB elections. PV is a minor cruft, nothing more. Which leaves SM ("sado-masochism"), the system which came last. They looked at the results of the 1996 - 2005 elections if they had been held under SM, assuming that parties would only get list seats if they gained 5% of the list vote (DPF has a similar exercise with slightly different assumptions here); their conclusion was that coalition would be rarer, but still necessary. 1999 and 2002 would have seen Labour majority governments, but 2005 would have been as tight as it was under MMP, with the Maori Party as kingmaker.

Instead of looking at such drastic solutions, they thought it might be worthwhile to consider what problems there might be with MMP. They identified five: the one-seat threshold (which produced the unfairness of NZ First being returned to Parliament with 5 MPs with fewer votes than the (unsuccessful) Christian Coalition gained in 1996), the different treatment of independents and minor parties, overhangs, closed lists, and dual candidacy (or rather, the dislike of the disparagingly-named "backdoor" or "zombie" MPs - those defeated in their electorates, but elected on the list) (I am surprised the threshold level was not on this list). They pointed out that these are all minor changes, and none really require a referendum to fix (though switching to open lists would require a 75% majority to comply with the Electoral Act's entrenchment clause, since it would change the method of voting). Referenda should be reserved for changing the system as a whole; for these sorts of minor changes, the government should use the normal legislative process, preferably with the widest cross-party support possible. Finally, they pointed out that in assessing changes, we should look back to the 1986 Royal Commission's criteria for judging voting systems. These are a clear statement of the issues, still relevant today, and give us strong reasons for preferring the current system.

Professor Jonathan Bradbury (Swansea University) spoke on MMP, Party Politics and Constitutional Change in the UK: the Experience of Scotland and Wales and Implications for UK Electoral Reform. While we think of the UK as still struggling with the unfairness of FPP, in fact they have embraced proportional representation at a regional level and in EU elections. Both Scotland and Wales use MMP (though with different numbers of list seats and regional lists), while Northern Ireland uses STV. A major driving force in this shift has been "Westminster as a negative template" - a desire to escape the problems of traditional FPP. But party political reasons have also played a role, and a far stronger one than in New Zealand. Scotland, for example, got MMP in an effort to prevent a future Scots Nationalist majority government capable of declaring independence; Wales' system is much less proportional in an effort to advantage the incumbent Welsh Labour Party. MMP has produced clear multi-party systems in all the areas it is used, with a shift to (generally) majority coalition government (though the current Scottish government is a minority coalition). And it has led to much greater diversity among representatives, and far more women in power. Finally, it has led to real competition among representatives to represent their constituencies (particularly in the area of constituency work). This has led to both Scotland and Wales cracking down on the ability of list representatives to do constituency work, with Wales even going so far as to ban dual candidacy in an effort to protect Labour MPs from competition in this area from their electoral competitors (something we in NZ would regard as undemocratic madness).

While these MMP governments are providing a good alternative model for how politics might work under PR, Westminster is still in the grip of the two-party duopoly, and there is no real appetite for reform from those in power. In 1999 the Jenkins Commission recommended that the UK adopt an MMP system with regional lists; despite the majority labour government having promised real electoral reform, it was ignored. But there is real disillusionment among the electorate with FPP, and it is now a straitjacket on an electorate which wants a much more diverse range of candidates (only 60% of voters support the 2 major parties now). Eventually, this pressure will force one party to act to avoid being seen to be standing in the way of change - but as in Scotland and Wales, their solution is likely to be driven more by selfish party political reasons than democratic principle.

Following Bradbury's paper, we had a short unscheduled presentation from Margaret Wilson, Speaker of the House and former Labour Party President. She supports MMP, and agreed with much of what had been said earlier. There is a big conceptual battle in electoral systems between majoritarianism and proportionality, but the majoritiarian solution - FPP - "certainly isn't participatory democracy". She saw some need for reform, and particularly supported the removal of the one-seat threshold, calling it a distortion on the electorate vote. As a former party president, she saw MMP as a gift - it allowed the internal debate within parties to be formalised and made public - "everyone gets their own party now". The party system can't always cope with the legitimate differences of members, but MMP put them up for election, making the result far more legitimate. I'm wishing I'd bugged her for an interview now and picked her brain, but at the time I couldn't think of much to ask...

After a short break, there was a panel discussion, with some of New Zealand's leading constitutional and legal experts (Sir Kenneth Keith; Mai Chen), Dr Thomas Lundberg from the University of Glasgow, and... DPF filling in for Chris Finlayson as he was attending a select committee meeting. It was a very interesting discussion, covering possible reforms (ditching the one-seat threshold was again popular), codification of government formation ("unnecessary"), corporate lobbying (Mai Chen: minority government equals leverage), and of course the Maori seats. Unfortunately its a bit much to summarise here.

Ministerial standards

What standards has Helen Clark set for her Ministers in the past? Here's a brief history lesson:

  • In February 2004, then-Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel was forced to resign after lying to the public. She had categorically denied leaking casenotes about a refugee claimant to the media in a crude attempt to smear them. That denial turned out to be a lie.
  • In May 2005, then-Education Minister David Benson-Pope was stood down from his portfolios "at his own request" (because it was better that than at the Prime Minister's) while an investigation was conducted into allegations that he had assaulted students while working as a teacher. The Prime Minister accepted his denials, but agreed that due to the seriousness of the allegations swirling around him, it was best that he stood aside for the duration.
  • In March 2006, Helen Clark accepted the resignation of then-Attorney-General David Parker, after he was accused of falsifying company declarations. While the Prime Minister accepted that the offence was more in the nature of a mistake than a crime, she agreed that high ministerial standards required that he give up his portfolios. He was subsequently reappointed to most of his positions after being exonerated by an independent investigation.

There's a clear standard running throughout this: when a Minister is credibly (or even incredibly, given that some stuff comes from Ian Wishart) accused of serious malfeasance, they are stood down (or encouraged to resign) while an investigation is conducted. Where they have been shown outright to have misled the public, they are sacked.

Winston Peters has been credibly accused of serious malfeasance, in the form of both fraud and corruption. And he has been shown to have misled the public. According to Clark's usual standards, he should have been stood down or sacked. So why hasn't he?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Climate change: we have the numbers

NZ First has agreed to back the ETS, meaning the government now has the numbers to pass it. Hopefully this means it will feature in tomorrow's Business Statement. Unfortunately, though, the entire process - and years of hard work - may yet be derailed by Winston Peters' corruption and ego. I'm pretty sanguine about this - if it happens, it happens, and there's nothing that can be done about it; no legislation is worth turning a blind eye to corruption for. At the same time, if it does, it will be deeply disappointing, and another reaosn to hope for the rapid exit of this malign influence from our political system.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and it should finally see the passage of Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill. As Bradford points out, this will be a big achievement - only three other member's bills have been passed by Parliament this term, and two of them (section 59 and the abolition of youth rates) were from her (the other was from her Green party colleague Sue Kedgley).

However, that old warning about not counting preferred animal species may apply - there's two local bills up, and the last ten minutes of the committee stage of the Waste Minimisation Bill has been moved forward, so there's plenty of opportunity for a filibuster. And that's before we even get into the antics in the House in Question Time today.

There are now at most two more member's days remaining in the Parliamentary term - September 10 and possibly October 1. So if things today go as planned, then we will likely see the waste bill passed into law next month, and maybe, just maybe, Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill will make it through without needing to be adopted as a government bill. Assuming, of course, that Winston's ego doesn't push us into an early election...

Peters must be sacked

In the wake of yesterday's accusations of outright corruption, it looked like it couldn't get any worse for Winston Peters, but it has. Today, Owen Glenn revealed that Peters asked him for a donation, thanked him for the $100,000, and that he had never heard of Brian Henry. This flatly contradicts Peters' assurances to the Prime Minister that everything was above board, which leaves her with just one option: sack him. You can't have a Minister who outright lies to the PM over such an issue.

Unfortunately, Peters has a gun to Clark's head: if she sacks him, he could topple her government. I hope the other minor parties in Parliament will do their bit to defuse this gun, offering the government confidence in order to give them the security to enforce our constitutional norms. But if they don't, she should do it anyway. Some things just cannot be tolerated, and a lying, corrupt Minister is one of them. This man has abused our democracy long enough. He has to be dumped, even if it means an early election.

I expect fireworks in parliament today. Unfortunately, it will all be going down while I'm on a bus. Bloody Murphy's law...

MMP symposium: the evening

This evening I attended the New Zealand Centre for Public Law / Institute for Policy Studies / Birkbeck, University of London's Centre for New Zealand Studies' symposium on MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward. Here's a rundown of the evening session. As usual, any errors are due to my poor memory and worse handwriting.

The evening session had the theme of "evaluating the New Zealand experience".

Dr Ryan Malone (Law Commission) spoke on the effect of MMP on the Parliamentary process [PDF]. Under FPP, Parliament was effectively in the grip of an executive dictatorship, with majority government and Cabinet collective responsibility combining to allow small cliques to utterly control the policy and legislative process by leveraging dominance of Cabinet to control caucus, and then the House. MMP has decisively undermined this. Proportional allocation of select committee memberships has meant that most committees are now far more independent than they used to be, while the need to build legislative majorities around each issue has meant that the government has much less control of its own legislation. On some occasions, legislation has been delayed while a committee subjects it to further scrutiny; on others, opposition parties have effectively built majorities of their own to force amendments to government bills at the committee stage. Hostility to urgency has meant the government can no longer rush things through. The upshot is fewer bills, passed with much more care and negotiation than before.

Associate Professor Andrew Geddis (University of Otago) gave a short talk on the effect of MMP on political parties [PDF]. He focused on changes to the legal framework governing parties, and concluded that while those changes had been significant, they were not tied to MMP, but rather a recognition of the growing importance of parties in our democracy.

Professor Jonathan Boston (VUW) spoke on the effect of MMP on the executive [PDF], focusing on the progressive shift towards looser forms of government as a response to the small parties' "unity-distinctiveness dilemma" (how to form an effective government while retaining your identity as a party). A key part of this has been the erosion of the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility in favour of the current "selective collective responsibility" seen in recent confidence and supply agreements. Our current arrangements, where parties have Ministers outside Cabinet who are bound by collective responsibility only within their portfolios, are apparently unique in the world; other countries have been able to manage governments under MMP without needing such loose arrangements (but then, they haven't had to contend with Winston Peters). But while unusual, these arrangements haven't undermined the effectiveness of the government, and have broad cross-party acceptance. It is likely they will continue well into the future.

After supper, there was a very interesting talk by Professor Andre Kaiser (University of Cologne) on MMP, Minority Governments and Parliamentary Opposition [PDF]. This sought to answer two questions: why has New Zealand tended towards minority government over the past decade, and what implications does it have for the Parliamentary opposition. New Zealand is an outlier again here, with most MMP systems producing majority coalitions due to vote-splitting and pre-election deals. But rather than being a feature of our electoral system, instead it seems to be a feature of our parties. Kaiser analysed the parties' positions (from their election manifestos) on economic and non-economic issues, finding on the former that most small parties were solidly on the left, while on the latter Labour was solidly in the middle, with potential partners to either side of it. This puts them in a superior bargaining position in coalition negotiations, while National seems constrained to working with ACT. More importantly, the large divisions among non-government parties limits coordination among "the opposition", resulting in a split between a powerless real opposition (National and ACT) and other parties who can wield real influence over policy and legislation and thus achieve some of their goals without ever being part of the government. This creates incentives for both sides to pursue such loose arrangements, and Kaiser thinks they will continue (though its worth noting that his dataset only goes up to 2002 and does not include United Future; his conclusion certainly reflects the 2002 arrangements where Labour could get its agenda through by finding a partner on the left or right as necessary, but I'm not sure that it looks so good with the current setup where majorities are hard to come by).

It's a fascinating paper, and well worth reading.

Finally, Associate professor Raymond Miller (from the "exotic location" of Auckland) dug into the New Zealand Election Study to examine the public's reaction to MMP and coalition government [PDF]. Lots of crunchy data in here about how attitudes vary with party affiliation, age, gender and ethnicity. Two key points I noticed: firstly, support for MMP is strongly correlated with age, with younger voters strongly favouring MMP and coalition government (though also with a high proportion of don't knows reflecting their lack of experience with any other system). By 2011, 36% of the electorate will have grown up under MMP and will be reluctant to change. Meanwhile, the elderly supporters of FPP will be dying off. So this really is National's last chance to turn back the clock on democracy and go back to the "good old days" of the elective dictatorship. Which in turn makes it vitally important to saddle them with a coalition partner who will veto any attempt. Secondly, divisions over MMP and coalition government reflect deeper divisions on the purpose of an electoral system and of government itself - whether it is supposed to elect a stable government which can "make tough decisions" (a traditional authoritarian position), or give us a government that keeps its promises and does what people want (a modern, democratic one). On that front, you'd hope that FPP proponents would be persuaded by the stability of our MMP governments - only one (1996) has had a messy coalition breakup, and only one (1999) has failed to go full term (though that was by choice rather than necessity). OTOH, given that its really all about the older generations refusal to accept change coupled with a naked play for electoral advantage, I'm not sure how much empirical evidence actually matters to them...

More to come tomorrow, assuming I can wake up for it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More Electoral Commission decisions

The Electoral Commission has released another bunch of decisions - mostly good, but one really bad one IMHO. We'll start with the good:

  • National's "Our policies so far" document isn't an election advertisement [PDF]. Their reasoning:
    The Electoral Commission does not regard this material as an election advertisement. While statements of policy logically can be regarded as encouraging or persuading voters to vote for the party or candidate concerned, the statutory test requires that statements "reasonably" can be so regarded.

    It is essential to democratic elections that parties can inform the public of the policies which will be implemented if elected. It would not be reasonable to regard statements of policy as election advertisements and subject to the restraints which follow. New Zealand Bill of Rights Act considerations arise.

    They note that this isn't absolute, and that plastering too many party logos and slogans over an ostensible statement of policy may transform it into an advertisement. But so far, so good.
  • Neither are ads inviting people to public meetings with party leaders, though this (as always) is a question of degree and context. There seems to be more latitude given to ads for meetings organised by third parties as part of a series to inform the public [PDF] than to meetings clearly intended to promote a particular candidate [PDF]. But even the latter falls on the safe side of the line.
And now the bad: the Electoral Commission has decided that the Employers and Manufacturers Association's "Stop Mallard" ads are an electoral advertisement, and have referred them to the police [PDF]. I disagree - IMHO, the ad is very clearly an issue ad, aimed at encouraging the public to lobby politicians on a specific policy. While there's a case that it can be reasonably regarded as encouraging people to vote against Labour, this is also an area where the protection of the BORA is likely to be at its strongest. But I guess that's now up to the courts. Given the cost of the Herald ad alone, the EMA has already broken the $12,000 unregistered third party spending limit, and so is potentially facing a $10,000 fine. But they'll get a hell of a lot more than $10,000 of publicity out of this, so even if convicted, they'll probably regard it as money well spent.

Climate change: the sane decision

So the Greens have taken a long hard look at their options, consulted their base, and decided to back the ETS. Good. It was IMHO the best decision to make, and the best long-term way of advancing their environmental goals. While an estimated 2% emissions reduction over CP1 doesn't sound impressive, it at least caps growth, and opens the door for much deeper cuts in the long-term.

Meanwhile, it seems they've also won further concessions from the government, including a billion dollar fund for domestic energy efficiency, a new Projects Mechanism, an agricultural target to give a clear steer to farmers, and investments in reducing emissions from fertiliser. his is all good stuff, which improves the scheme. And hopefully, they'll be able to use the electoral system and coalition negotiations to improve it more in future.

So, now we're just waiting on NZ First, and their support is even less certain than the Greens. But hopefully the Olds won't screw it up for us again...


If you have downloaded and signed the Disappearance Convention petition, its time to post it back. I'm planning on presenting it next Monday, so if you want your signatures to count, its vital they arrive at the Wellington dead-drop by Saturday.

Speaking of which, if anyone is going to Drinking Liberally in Auckland on Wednesday night, I'm after a couple of people to take it along and pass it round. I'll make arrangements with the organisers, but I need backups just in case someone forgets or is hit by a bus...


I'm hitching a bus to Wellington today to attend the New Zealand Centre for Public Law's symposium on MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward. It's held in conjunction with Birkbeck, University of London's Centre for New Zealand Studies over a videolink, which means its inconvenient for attendees on both sides of the world - we each get to do an evening and an early morning, and I'm really not looking forward to the latter.

I'll blog the conference when its done (though I may have some stuff up on it later tonight). In the meantime, there probably won't be much from me today.

Things fall apart

Pakistan's governing coalition has collapsed, with former Prime Minister Nawaz Shari's PML-N splitting from the Pakistan People's Party after a dispute over the Presidency and the reinstatement of judges.

Oh well. At least they got rid of Musharraf.

ASBOs = children in jail

Since 1999, the British government has embarked on an unprecedented criminalisation of youth, issuing Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) backed by jail sentences in an effort to cut down on "anti-social behaviour" such as wearing only one glove, playing football, feeding the poor, being poor, or suffering from Asperger's or Tourette's syndrome (there's a fairly horrifying list from Napo, the UK trade union for family court and probation staff, here). The victims of these orders are almost always young, and frequently mentally ill; the conditions they impose frequently cannot be complied with. The result, inevitably, is jail. According to today's Independent, after eight years and more than 12,000 orders, more than 1,000 children have been jailed for breaching ASBOs:

Penal reformers and children's groups warned last night that the heavy-handed use of Asbos against youngsters risked turning them into criminals in adult life. And new figures showed that 986 children aged 10 to 17 were jailed for breaking Asbos between 2000, when they were launched, and the end of 2006. Another 300 to 400 youngsters are thought to have joined the total in 2007 and 2008.
Half of those jailed serve more than four months, and the mean is 6.4 months - compared with the 4.9 months for adults (pedophobia in action!). And remember, all of this is without any semblance of a fair trial, and for doing things that are frequently entirely legal.

And people want to bring this insanity here?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Trotter versus democracy

So, according to Chris Trotter, I'm mentally ill for calling him on his undemocratic tendencies. I guess that barb struck home, then.

To explain myself further, Trotter is simply being sniffy and arrogant about the Greens ETS consultation. Sure, we live in a representative rather than a direct democracy, but that doesn't mean that parties are free-floating entities. The purpose of a party is to represent its constituents (another concept Trotter seems to have problems with). Obviously they should use their judgement and any special expertise when doing so, but at the same time, its nice for them to check every so often on what those constituents actually think, rather than arrogantly assuming they know best. This is especially important on such a fraught issue as the ETS, where there are genuine divisions among Green supporters over whether it is worth supporting or not and on the degree of political pragmatism which is acceptable, but its a good general principle to have as well. Involving people in the political process is always a Good Thing. It's treating us as adults entitled to an opinion, and taking the idea of democratic citizenship seriously. So the Greens' consultation should be praised, not condemned, and I think our political system would be a lot better if more parties followed their lead and actually talked to us once in a while.

More troubling is Trotter's attitude to electoral democracy and the rule of law. Despite characterising himself as a social democrat, he makes excuses both for overthrowing governments by force and for evading electoral spending limits. Neither attitude is consistent with democracy.

On the former, the overthrow of the Chilean government on September 11 1973 wasn't wrong because (to put it crudely) Allende was on the left and Pinochet was on the right; it was wrong because usurped and denied the will of the Chilean people, as expressed through free, fair, and democratic elections. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Fiji. Fiji's electoral system is far from perfect, and should be improved - but it is good enough to convey popular legitimacy. The Fijian government was not engaged in wide-scale human rights abuses or genocide; it was simply pursuing policies the military leadership did not like. I didn't like them either, but there was still absolutely no justification for a coup.

On the latter, the purpose of electoral spending limits isn't to prevent the right from buying elections, but to prevent anyone from doing it, on the basis that money interferes with a free vote. The fact that in 2005 National was quite legally evading those restrictions by spending up large before the three-month limit kicked in highlighted the fact that the law was in desperate need of reform, but it did not justify breaking it. As any kindergarten teacher will tell you, two wrongs don't make a right, and "they're doing it too" is no excuse. Neither do I accept his argument that violating electoral law was necessary in order to "head off a cash-rich National Party poised to inflict enormous damage on New Zealand society". This is dangerous logic, which has been used to justify a hell of a lot more than electoral overspending, and its more than a little reminiscent of Kissinger's infamous "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people".

The link between the two positions (in fact, all three) is arrogance. Trotter thinks he knows better than the Fijian people what sort of government they want, and he thinks he knows better than the New Zealand people what sorts of policies we want, and he's quite willing to countenance extreme measures to impose his vision on us. That's not democratic - in fact its the exact opposite. Democracy is predicated on the moral equality of all people - everyone has interests, and no-one's interests count for more than anybody else's, so we get "one person, one vote". Once you give that away, and start saying "your interests are illegitimate so we can overturn them if we don't like them", you're giving away the farm. And of course you don't have a leg to stand on if it happens to you (and here I note that Trotter would be screaming to high heaven if the BRT hired Blackwater to overthrow the government and give itself a tax cut. But that just shows his hypocrisy).

In a democracy, the proper judge of the consequences of electing a particular party is not Chris Trotter, but the electorate as a whole. Sometimes we get it wrong and we make a mistake, just like we did in 1990. But that's our right, and the joy of democracy is that it is self-correcting: if we make a mistake and elect a government which does things we really don't want, we chuck them out and get someone better - just like we did in 1999. It's an imperfect system, but its far, far better than the alternative of coups and self-appointed philosopher-kings deciding what's good for us and what we "really" want without bothering to actually ask.

Political "logic"

Over on Kiwiblog, DPF suggests that the Greens should vote against the ETS in order to keep it in play as an election issue. It's exactly the sort of logic you'd expect from a political consultant, focusing on the election race and winning votes. Meanwhile, the reasons they are bothering to contest elections in the first place - effecting change, implementing their polices - are completely ignored.

Actually, its worse than that. There are real questions around whether the ETS is good enough to support, and whether there's a credible chance of a better option in the near future, but none of this matters to DPF. He's not actually interested in what is at stake. All he's interested in is the game. This isn't a matter of juggling policy and electability, as seen so memorably in The Hollow Men. What DPF is suggesting is that a party should actively work against its own policy goals so that it can gain votes from the "lack of progress". And this applies regardless of the merits of the actual policy. If that's the quality of his political "logic", then he's been playing the game too long and needs to get out, and soon.

The Olympics are over

Hooray! Perhaps now I can get some real news...

The cost of tax cuts

Ever since National started on their usual electoral bribe of promising big tax cuts for the rich, people have been wondering how we would end up paying for it. Would it be service cuts to hospitals? Schools? Would the cost be dumped on our children through higher public debt?

Now it seems we have part of the answer: under National, you'll have to pay for roads. If you want to drive across Auckland or get to work in a reasonable time, you'll have to fork out "between $3 and $5" to one of their cronies for the privilege. Multiply that out by two trips a day, five days a week, and you're looking at $30 - $50 a week - or almost exactly the amount they're promising to give out in tax cuts.

That doesn't seem like a very good deal to me.

Update: Just to make this clear, it is for new roads only - but given the list of possible toll projects (e.g. Transmission Gully), they are very obviously roads which are going to be built anyway and which people would be able to use for free under the current government.

It also seems that Bill English has squashed Williamson's figures of $30 - $50 a week; instead it'll only be $20. But he refuses to commit to free alternate routes being available, and even suggests tolling existing roads in order to guarantee the profits of his cronies pay for new ones. Which still leaves them open to the same question: if the government gives you a tax cut, and then rips it straight back by making you pay more for roads, schools, and hospitals, are you really better off?

The right to stand

One of the things I hate about the political blogosphere is that most of the people in it are hacks, who can reliably be expected to put party before principle, no matter what. To them, right and wrong are defined not by any moral principles, but by who is doing what to whom. Over the past few days we've been treated to a particularly unseemly display of this, as left-wing bloggers who should know better have lined up to defend the right of bad employers to victimise their employees if they dare to run for election for the wrong political party. If the political shoe was on the other foot, they'd be screaming about it, but because in this case the bad employer is the EPMU - one of "us" - and the employee wants to run for ACT - making him one of "them" - they have been falling all over themselves in an effort to justify unconscionable, unfair, and discriminatory treatment.

This isn't just an employment issue, it's a matter of basic democratic rights - something any decent lefty should support even for their enemies. The left has fought long and hard for democracy - for universal suffrage, the secret ballot, and laws against threats and intimidation so that people's votes could be exercised freely and without fear. But democracy isn't just about the right to vote - its also about the right to contest elections and stand as a candidate. And that right needs to be protected in law, just as the right to vote is.

How can we do this? I have a few ideas. Firstly, the existing clause in the Electoral Act against undue influence needs to be extended to protect the right to stand as well as the right to vote. Just as people aren't allowed to threaten or victimise you to force you to vote their way, or stop you from voting, they shouldn't be allowed to threaten or victimise you to stop you from standing. Secondly, we need to protect the practical right to stand by backing up the provisions of the Employment Relations and Human Rights Acts with concrete protections for employees seeking office, in the form of job protection and an entitlement to unpaid leave for the duration of the campaign. The obvious model here is s52 of the Electoral Act, which requires public servants to take a leave of absence from nomination day (or earlier, in some cases) until the day after polling day in order to protect the neutrality of the public service, though the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 (which creates entitlements to parental and extended leave, requires employers to keep parents' jobs open, and bars terminating an employee because they have or will take leave) provides a possible alternative. Either way, this sort of legal protection will prevent candidates from being intimidated by their employers - whether they be the EPMU or the Business Roundtable.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

New Fisk

A voice recovered from Armenia's bitter past

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Leaving Iraq

Finally, the US accepts withdrawal:

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from the country by the end of 2011, and Iraqi officials said they are "very close" to resolving the remaining issues blocking a final accord that governs the future American military presence here.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said several difficult issues remain, including whether U.S. troops will be subject to Iraqi law if accused of committing crimes. But the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to discuss the agreement publicly, said key elements of a timetable for troop withdrawal once resisted by President Bush had been reached.

"We have a text," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said after a day-long visit Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Doesn't this mean that the terrorists have won?

Snark aside, this is a Good Thing. The US is the major source of trouble in Iraq, and if they weren't there, there wouldn't be a resistance. Once they're gone, Iraq can get on with its life and finally try to rebuild.

Maori Party List

The Maori Party has released its party list. It's much shorter than last time, with only 19 candidates, but this makes a lot of sense. Quite apart from the fact that they're electorate-focused (and heading for an overhang on current polling), they're a small party and even in their wildest dreams not expecting to get more than 10% of the vote. So why bother listing candidates (and dealing with the whole issue of inflated and/or bruised egos) as if they expect to get 50%? For a small party, a short list saves a lot of hassle, and I'm surprised more small parties aren't doing it.

As with the other parties, I've done a table showing the candidates and their relative placements with last time. As with the other small parties, there's a large amount of churn, though nowhere near as much as ACT.

2008 RankName2005 RankDifference
1Hon Tariana Turia10
2Dr Pita Sharples20
3Hone Harawira----
4Te Ururoa Flavell10+6
5Angeline Greensill9+4
6Derek Fox----
7Rahui Katene----
8Naida Glavish----
9Iritana Tawhiwhirangi----
10Hector Matthews----
11Te Orohi Paul13+2
12Amokura Panoho----
13Grant Hawke----
14Bronwyn Yates140
15Josie Peita21+6
16Richard Orzecki32+16
17Mereana Pitman----
18Te Awanuiarangi Black----
19Georgina Haremate-Crawford40+21

As mentioned earlier, the Maori Party are primarily electorate-based, and headed for an overhang on current polling, so the list will only really come into play if they lift their party vote to ~6%.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A referendum on smacking

The childbeaters have finally been successful in gathering enough signatures to force a referendum on section 59. Except its not actually on section 59 - despite clearly wanting to repeal the 2007 amendments outlawing smacking, asking directly "should those amendments be reversed?" would encourage people to consider the actual law and could produce the wrong result. So instead, they've cloaked it in motherhood and apple pie and vague generalities to give us this rather slanted question:

Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
Which of course assumes that beating your children can be part of "good parental correction" - a highly arguable proposition. It's a perfect illustration of the flaws in our current referendum legislation - and of the twits who seek to use it. Is it really too much to ask that they ask us a solid question - the one they actually want to ask, even - rather than abusing the process and wasting our time this way?

They're too late to force a poll during the upcoming election, so instead we'll be having a postal ballot next year. Which means turnout will be low, which means in turn that there is every chance that this extremely noisy minority will "win". But whether it actually results in repeal, or simply more screaming is another question entirely.

Robert Fisk in Wellington

Author and journalist Robert Fisk will be speaking in Wellington as part of Amnesty International's 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) lecture series. The first talk is at 20:30 on Sunday, 7 September, on "Human rights and the Middle East". The second is at 19:30 on Monday the 8th on his career and on journalism generally. Both talks will be at the Embassy Theatre and cost $25. Tickets can be booked from Ticketek.

Climate change: the debate on the ETS

The Greens' going to the people on whether to support the ETS has already resulted in a flood of responses - though, sadly, many are reportedly from deniers and self-interested industry lobby groups after a last bite of the pollution cherry rather than the people whose opinions they might be interested in. It's also resulted in some good debate in the blogosphere, with The Standard and 08 Wire arguing "yes", Toad on GBlog arguing "No", and Stevedore (again at GBlog) reluctantly leaning towards making the best of a bad deal. Meanwhile, I'll repeat the offer I made on Frogblog: if anyone wants to write a well-written piece from an environmental perspective (rather than a denier troll one) arguing why the Greens should oppose the ETS, I'm happy to publish it as a guest post. While I have my own opinion on this, I think its a debate worth having and highlighting to the public.

Meanwhile, Chris Trotter goes absolutely feral at this exercise in democratic consultation, calling it "avoidance behaviour on a truly disreputable scale" and declaring that the Greens need a damn good smacking. But then, we all knew that he has a basic problem with democracy (one he even confirms today)...

Drinking Liberally in Auckland

Drinking Liberally is on in Auckland again next week, with union leader (and former Alliance leader) Laila Harre as speaker.

When: Wedensday, 27 August, 19:30
Where: London Bar, cnr Wellesley & Queen Sts
How much: Buy a drink

And remember that its on in Palmerston North tonight as well.

Just not on

Shawn Tan works for the EPMU. He is also an ACT candidate, ranked at number ten on the party list. Since the list was announced, his employer has suspended him from work.

That's just not on. It's unfair, it compromises the right of everyone to participate directly in our democracy, and if the political shoe had been on the other foot - if Tan had worked for Business NZ and was standing for Labour - they would be shouting this to the heavens. But quite apart from being unfair and hypocritical, it is also illegal. "Political opinion" is a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Act. Employers are forbidden from refusing to employ someone, offer them less favourable terms and conditions and opportunities, or terminate or subject them to any detriment, on the basis of their political beliefs. While there is rightly an exemption for work of a political nature, it only covers political advisors to politicians or candidates, or employees of a political party. And as the Electoral Commission noted a few weeks ago, the EPMU isn't the Labour Party.

The EPMU should give Tan his job back. And otherwise, they deserve to be taken to the cleaners over this.

Update: Corrected link.

MI5 facilitated torture

Remember Binyam Mohamed? A UK resident, he was detained in Pakistan and questioned by US authorities, all the time being beaten, hung from leather straps, and threatened with firearms. He was then disappeared and rendered to Morocco, where he was systematically tortured by having his chest and genitals sliced with a scalpel, before ending up in the US gulag at Guantanamo Bay.

A UK judge has just found that the British security services colluded in and facilitated this abuse:

Today's judgment said the foreign secretary accepted that Mohamed had established an arguable case that he was "subject to torture during his detention by or on behalf of the United States". It was also accepted that he had an arguable case that he was subject to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

"The court finds on the basis that what was done was arguably wrongdoing, the [British] security service facilitated it," the judgment said.

As a result, they've ordered the UK government to turn over to Mohamed's lawyers secret information relating to his torture and resulting "confession", so that it can be used in an attempt to defend his case before a military tribunal in Guantanamo. It seems the British courts take the prohibition on evidence extracted under torture seriously, even if the Americans and their toadies in the Foreign Office do not.

New Fisk

Al-Qa'ida keeps its promise to be 'bone in crusaders' throats'

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Climate change: waffle

That's the best way of describing National's climate change policy, released under the radar by Bill English yesterday. Where Labour has something concrete - the ETS - to point to, and the Greens a host of detailed policy prescriptions, National has only vague platitudes. Sure, they have a long-term goal of reducing emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2050 - but they have given no indication of how they plan to achieve this. Yes, they're promising to "[work] on the world stage to support international efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions", but this is simply a promise to keep participating in talks, which we were going to do anyway. And yes, they're promising their own ETS - now to be passed (rather than simply introduced to the House) "within nine months of taking office", which is making rather heroic assumptions about the Parliamentary timetable. This isn't a promise of action - it's hot air!

What about the details of that ETS? More hot air. It will "strike a balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests" - but they won't say where that balance is. It will be "fiscally neutral" - but whether this means that other taxes will be cut to compensate for revenue, or whether it simply means permits will be given away for free (a massive privatisation of a public asset which is most definitely not "fiscally neutral") is anyone's guess. It will be "closely aligned" with the Australian scheme - but does not highlight any areas which need to be changed to ensure this (that's because there aren't any, at least according to the Australians). There's (a little) more, but its in a similar vein: waffle. Policy detail clearly is for pussies.

About the only concrete policy in the entire speech is a promise to gut the RMA to make things easier for large electricity projects - something which will have exactly the opposite effects from those they intend.

On the most important issue of public policy facing this nation, with long-lasting effects, the public deserves a lot better than this. But sadly, it doesn't look like we'll be getting it from National.

Another way of putting it

A reader has eamiled me with another, far more graphic way of illustrating MMP's effect on diversity: Since 1933, 98 women have been elected to the New Zealand Parliament. Of those 98, 38 are there now - 39% of all the women ever elected. With Pacific Peoples, the numbers are 4 and 3 (75%); with "Asians", 2 and 2 (100%).

Before Helen Clark was elected in 1981, only 16 women had been elected to Parliament. 78 have been elected since - 54 of those under MMP. Anyone who thinks it hasn't made a difference is simply ignoring the facts.

Climate change: progress II

Jeanette Fitizsimons has a progress report on negotiations over the ETS:

"On some of the issues we have not been able to make progress. We have not been able to get agreement to phase in transport instead it will come in in one lump in 2011, so this has not changed. We have made very little progress on agriculture but we are still talking about this. Very importantly we have not found a way for Government to accept a biodiversity standard to ensure that planting pines does not destroy biodiversity.

"On the other hand, it appears there will be substantial financial assistance to help people make their houses warm and dry. We have also made good progress on ensuring that the ETS does not lock our economy into old technology and that there is room for innovation. There will be better rules about allocation plans.

The Greens are now asking for feedback on whether they should support the scheme or not. You can email them at

As for my view, I think I've made it clear enough: at the very least, it will prevent further growth in emissions, and create a mechanism by which they can be seriously reduced. In addition, the alternative on the table - leaving emissions completely uncontrolled while National dithers for two years - is no alternative at all. The pragmatic path is to support it, and then use every future electoral advantage to hammer that cap lower. It's a long game, but the best hope for long-term change.

[Hat-tip: Frog Blog]

New kiwi blog

Chris Trotter, finally joining the field.

MMP and representation

In an editorial this morning praising the diversity of National's list, the Herald makes the following rather astounding claim:

[Pansy Wong] has been almost a solitary Asian voice in Parliament, for Labour has supplied only the Pakistani Ashraf Choudhary, who has been practically silent, and the smaller parties have offered no seats to non-Maori minorities. MMP's list system was supposed to improve the representation of women, Maori and immigrants but has not really done so.
(Emphasis added)

Really? Here's the data on women's representation in the New Zealand parliament, from the Social Report 2007, expressed as a percentage of total seats (a full list of all past women MPs is here):

The Herald attributes the rise in female representation to "Labour Party selection policies that were in train before MMP and would have continued without it". But as we can see, the list has been an essential part of the story. The necessity to compete for the party vote nationally produces pressure on parties to appeal to women - exactly as the Royal Commission suggested.

As for Maori, here's the same chart, derived from the Electoral Commission (post 1993) and Wikipedia's archive of New Zealand Parliaments (1984 - 1990):


I may have missed an MP in the early years, but the picture is pretty clear: MMP has played a key role in increasing Maori representation (as for the Herald's claim that its all down to the Maori seats, "which are not a product of MMP", they need a history lesson: the reform which allowed the number of Maori seats to rise to match the Maori electoral population was a key part of MMP).

For "Asians" (a horrifically broad term) and Pacific Peoples, I think the Electoral Commission's data speaks for itself: MMP has played a significant role here as well, particularly with the latter, though both communities are still under-represented (a flaw which National's list perpetuates, I might add). Basically they're talking shit. When it comes to our electoral system, it would be nice if our self-proclaimed "newspaper of record" bothered to check its facts before mouthing off.

Funding journalism

There's an interesting discussion on Hard News today about the idea of a trust to promote independent investigative journalism, kicked off by this comment yesterday from Stephen Judd:

As far as the Guardian and its funding go: l pledge $100 this year and every year that I am employed, towards any trust or non-profit body that will employ journalists, in any medium, to research, and write or produce really good New Zealand stories.

I bet if a few other PA posters and lurkers did the same, we could get an article or two out of it at rates that would be better than the current freelance ones.

(Link added)

The idea of a media trust has been raised before. At the Journalism Matters conference last year, former City Voice editor Jeremy Rose suggested it (or alternatively, a reader buyout) as a way of getting around the problems caused by current ownership structures (short version: leveraged buyouts equals high debt loadings equals demand for higher profits equals cost cutting equals underinvestment in reporting). Though here the suggestion is a vehicle to fund specific pieces of journalism rather than a newspaper or media outlet. It raises a number of interesting questions - not least who would publish the stories - which are currently being hashed through. Join the discussion here.

Climate change: progress?

Radio New Zealand reports that negotiations on the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill are in their final stages and seem to be making good progress. Which is very good news. At this stage of the game, we can't afford to piss around for another two years developing yet another version of the same policy. So they have to get this through before Parliament rises for the election.

The Greens apparently still have major reservations and could still walk away. I urge them to put those reservations aside and support the bill. Yes, it's an ugly compromise which rewards polluters and doesn't do nearly enough to reduce emissions in CP1, but it will at least prevent future emissions growth and open the door to long-term reductions by progressive lowering of the cap. Alternatively, if short-term reductions are so important, then the bill is still better than the alternative of walking away and letting emissions rise for another two years while National dithers over a weaker scheme. All along, our climate change policy has been crippled by a consistent pattern of rejecting imperfect controls now in favour of supposedly perfect controls in the future. I urge the Greens not to repeat this mistake.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Threatening the electorate

ACT has released its party list, and stuck Roger Douglas at number three. From their point of view, its an effort to threaten their voters into voting for them: "if you want Roger, you'll have to tick ACT". For the rest of us, its just a threat. Douglas is a reminder of a dark time in New Zealand politics, an unrepentant throwback whose chief regret is that he didn't fuck up our lives enough. And given ACT's position as National's default preferred coalition partner, the thought of him exercising any influence at all over a future National government ought to be truly terrifying to anyone who remembers his first time round. Which means that ACT has just given Labour the perfect election slogan: "vote Key, get Rogered". I bet they're printing the stickers already.

As with last election, I've done a table showing the top ten candidates relative placements with last time. The fifth spot is apparently being held open at this stage while they look for another high-profile candidate.

2008 RankName2005 RankDifference
1Rodney Hide10
2Heather Roy20
3Roger Douglas----
4John Boscawen----
6Hilary Calvert----
7Peter Tashkoff----
8John Ormond----
9Colin du Plessis----
10Shawn Tan----
11Ron Scott----
12Aaron Keown----
13Nick Kearney51+38
14Lyn Murphy----
15David Olsen14-1
16Frances Denz28+12
17Dave Moore----
18Mike Bridge----
19Lech Beltowski18-1
20Beryl Good----
21Ashok Kumar----
22David Tattersfield----
23William Wong----
24John Thompson----
25Kevin Campbell----
26Mark Davies52+26
27Michael Bailey----
28Carl Friemann----
29Chris Albers----
30Vince Ashworth----

What's surprising is the almost complete turnover in the list: apart from Hide and Roy, none of them were on ACT's list in 2005, and all ACT's former MPs seem to have completely disappeared. It's as if it was a completely new party - though sadly, its still promising the same old thing.

Update: Updated table from list of full candidates. Still an awful lot of new faces there. I know minor parties have churn, but when you lose almost all of your previous top ten candidates (basically, anyone who didn't get a seat), that's something else.