Friday, July 31, 2009

What regulation can do

Back in May, the US government set tough new standards for vehicle fuel efficiency as part of its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The regulations applied to the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold, which obviously does nothing to improve the efficiency of the existing vehicle fleet. So in order to handle that aspect of the problem, the government also introduced a "cash for clunkers" scheme, which would pay people to take inefficient vehicles off the road. The scheme offered up to US$4,500 for replacing an inefficient car with a more efficient one. And it has proved so popular that it has exhausted its funds in less than a week.

what this tells us is that a) the incentive - 10% of the average cost of a car - was very generous; b) Congress didn't allocate enough money; and c) these sorts of schemes work. Which raises the question of why we don't have a similar policy here. The government's obvious rejoinder would be to argue that they don't have any money and so can't afford it. But beyond that, the US has a large domestic car industry, while we do not. Over there, it was also a disguised stimulus, to prop up domestic manufacturing; in New Zealand, the money would go straight overseas. OTOH, we'd get more efficient cars out of it. We don't need to be as generous as the US - we could use much narrower targeting, for example - but we could certainly do something to get the most inefficient vehicles off our roads.

MPs' expenses

I was rather busy yesterday, so I didn't get round to commenting on the release of MPs' expenses. Unfortunately a lot of the media reporting and commentary has focused on criticising them for spending so much money. IMHO this is a crock of shit. In the real world, if you have to travel as part of your job, and spend nights away from home, then your employer pays for it. In their role as legislators, MPs have to spend at least three nights per sitting week in Wellington. But MP's aren't just legislators - they are also representatives, and in this role they must also travel frequently to different parts of the country (or even overseas) as part of their portfolio duties or to represent their wider constituency. This is a vital part of our democratic conversation, and a vital part of their jobs, and I'm more than happy to foot the bill for it. Our democracy would be a lot poorer if MP's were intimidated by negative press coverage from performing this function - not to mention a lot more stacked in favour of the wealthy.

Post-retirement entitlements, such as those enjoyed by Roger Douglas, are a different story. That's no part of the job, and that's why those entitlements were discontinued. Unfortunately, there's still a few people who enjoy them - in a grossly hypocritical fashion, in Douglas' case.

I do want more transparency around these entitlements, and the best way to do it is to extend the OIA to cover Parliament. But the general principle of paying the necessary and reasonable expenses for MP's to do their jobs properly should be absolutely uncontentious. We'd expect it if we had a job with those travel requirements, and we should extend them the courtesy of being consistent.

How to support a yes vote

An email from the Yes Vote campaign:

Now is the time to engage support for the Yes Vote

With the referendum so close, now is the time to reach as many New Zealand voters as possible with the Yes Vote message.

People have asked how they can help. Here is what you can do:

  1. Have a conversation. Encourage people to vote. A strong Yes Vote outcome will help secure the 2007 law – now and in the future. A Yes Vote is a strong statement in support of the law, not voting, or spoiling the ballot paper, leaves the floor open to the No Vote.
  2. Visit the website [] – there is a wealth of information there about why New Zealanders should be voting yes.
  3. If you have not already done so sign up as a supporter – individually and also get your agency to join – this way we can keep in touch with you. The list will also be useful evidence of support for the law if we need to resist the reintroduction of legal assault on children in the future. Type your e-mail address in the box on the right of our web page [].
  4. Visit our website and download the flyer [] print this off and give to friends, family and clients. Take a walk in your local neighbourhood and distribute the flyer in letter boxes.
  5. Tell your MP you are voting Yes by using our website to send the message. []

The 2007 law change plays a part in reducing violence to children and within families in New Zealand. It will play a part in securing more positive outcomes for many children. Please help us keep this law secure by supporting a YesVote in the 2009 referendum.

Please pass this on in email or printed form to your contacts and their networks.

(The date of this post has been changed to keep it at the top of the blog)

Compassion wins in the UK

There's been an important victory for compassion and clarity of the law in the UK today, with the Law Lords ruling that the UK's Department of Public Prosecutions must give clear guidelines on when a person may face prosecution for assisting suicide. The case was brought by Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. She wants to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to die with dignity at the time of her choosing, but was afraid her partner would be prosecuted if he accompanied her. While no-one has ever been prosecuted in such a case (and over a hundred people have used the free market in legal jurisdictions to end their lives), several have faced investigation, and the uncertainty was a significant deterrent. If it continued, Ms Purdy would not only have been forced to choose to die earlier, while she was still able to manage it herself - but also been forced to die alone. A clear statement from the DPP on what constitutes criminal behaviour around assisted suicide will hopefully help her to avoid that fate.

In passing, the Law Lords also upheld the right to die in the manner of one's own choosing, saying:

Everyone has the right to respect for their private life and the way that Ms Purdy determines to spend the closing moments of her life is part of the act of living.

Ms Purdy wishes to avoid an undignified and distressing end to her life. She is entitled to ask that this too must be respected.

It's not a legalisation of assisted suicide - the court notes that the House of Lords recently rejected such a measure - but it is a recognition of personal autonomy and a right to at least die with dignity if you want to.

The full judgement is here [PDF].

A yes vote

(Image deleted to avoid breaching electoral law)

Today I got a letter from the Orange Man. It had one of these in it. I ticked the box, and sent it back.

(Hopefully blacking out the barcode and writing "sample" on it is enough to make it clear that I have no intent to forge, counterfeit, or fraudulently deface a ballot. I am proud of my vote, and I'm quite happy to show it to people).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Subverting the OIA

A couple of months ago, the Herald reported that National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi was suspected by the Immigration Service of paying off a woman at the centre of allegations he had made bogus job offers. The information - a report on the investigation from the Immigration Service - was obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act. In response, Immigration Minister started a witch-hunt to find out why the information was released without his permission.

I was appalled by this outrageous attempt to limit OIA releases on political grounds, so I did some digging. Unfortunately, Immigration's parent body, the Department of Labour, would not release the report of Coleman's witch-hunt on a number of spurious grounds, including s6(c) (maintenance of the law) and s9(2)(e) (potential loss to the public, though given that no civil or criminal proceedings can be brought for a good-faith release under the Act, I am left wondering as to what that "loss" might be). They did, however, provide a summary [PDF], which listed the conclusions as:

The process followed was not as robust as it should have been. It was noted that there was:
  • little consideration of the reputational risk in dealing with this OIA request;
  • misinterpretation of the meaning of the legal advice received; and
  • no management oversight of the material released.
(Emphasis added).

It goes on to recommend establishing "a process for triaging OIA requests" - i.e. identifying those which might be "politically sensitive" and ensuring that they are appropriately buried. A briefing for the Minister [PDF] expands on this:

Immigration NZ has recently put in place a further OIA triage process. This includes a panel to decide how and by which workgroup each OIA should be dealt with and to provide advice.


All OIA requests, including those received in regional offices, must be registered centrally in the Government, Executive and Ministerial Unit (GEMS).

GEMS will allocate all OIAs to the relevant 3rd tier manager.

GEMS will provide advice, assistance and monitor timelines.

(The briefing also contains an Orwellian note that the Herald reporter, Patrick Gower, has since lodged six further OIAs in the week leading up to the briefing. because obviously, the Minister needs to know that).

All of this is contrary to the spirit of the Act. As the Danks report noted way back in 1980,

The fact that the release of certain information may give rise to criticism or embarrassment of the government is not an adequate reason for withholding it from the public.
The Department's own updated OIA policy agrees with this, listing political sensitivity and the potential for Ministerial embarrassment as unacceptable reasons for withholding information. But the processes the Department has established seem to be aimed at withholding or denying information on those very grounds. And that is simply unacceptable.

Progress and regression on the death penalty

China has decided to reduce the use of the death penalty to "an extremely small number". It's slow progress, but progress all the same - and given the massive use of capital punishment in China, we should take all the progress we can get (and then ask for more).

Unfortunately, its not all good news. Following some particularly heinous murders, the Papua New Guinea government is apparently planning to enforce its death penalty (on the books since 1991, but never used). If they actually do it, it will be the first execution in the South Pacific in over 25 years. Human rights groups are lobbying the PNG government, but New Zealand could also help, by speaking out against the reinstatement of the death penalty at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Cairns this weekend. If you'd like to encourage them to do this, I suggesting emailing John Key and Murray McCully and ask them politely to do what they can to convince Papua New Guinea not to regress to barbarism.


The usual ballot for member's bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Social Security (Benefit Review and Appeal Reform) Amendment Bill (Sue Bradford)
  • Crimes (Abolition of Defence of Provocation) Amendment Bill (Lianne Dalziel)
  • International Non-Aggression and the Lawful Use of Force Bill (Kennedy Graham)

All three have been previously covered in "In the ballot", here, here, and here. The drawing of provocation is timely, given recent events - as is Kennedy graham's non-aggression bill given the government's plans to send the SAS off to Afghanistan again.

The full list is on Red Alert here. There were no new bills this week.

I'll try and put together an "In the ballot" post sometime soon, when I gather some more bills.

More bullying

Hot on the heels of Paula Bennett's ugly information thuggery, we have more bullying - this time from ACT's David Garrett. At a hearing of the Law and Order Committee yesterday on the government's private prisons bill, Garrett explicitly threatened a group of prison officers opposing the bill with retribution in the employment market:

After Bart Birch, Uaea Leavasa and Satish Prasad criticised how Auckland Central Remand Prison was run under private contractor GEO between 2000 and 2005, Mr Garrett weighed in.

"You say that you don't want to go back to working in this environment - to the private [sector]. You'd be aware that given your submission here, you wouldn't get offered a job anyway, would you?"

To their credit, other MPs were appalled by this - perhaps because they understand that such future victimisation would interfere with the right of the public to give evidence before committees and so constitute contempt of Parliament under Standing Order 401(w). To the extent that he has intimidated other witnesses from speaking, Garrett himself may have committed a contempt under Standing order 401(t). But none of that seems to matter to him - incredibly, he claims not to have been interfering with free debate at all.

Some on the right (e.g. the sewer) seem to take positive delight in this sort of bullying and thuggery. But there should be no place for it in our political system. And those MPs and parties who support it need to be driven out.

National votes for slavery

This evening, Maryan Street's Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill went before the House for its first reading. It was defeated 63-58, with National and ACT voting against.

I am absolutely appalled by this. Slavery is one of the worst human rights abuses on the planet. Despite being defined as a crime against humanity in international law and banned in practically every country in the world, between 12 and 27 million people are still slaves. Their exploitation is a US$100 billion a year industry. This bill would have helped, in a small way, to do something about that - and by providing a positive example, might have encouraged other countries to take action as well. It would have been in the best tradition of New Zealand human rights policy: acting, and by doing so, setting an example for others to follow.

But National and ACT didn't support it. Oh, they made it quite clear that they disapprove of slavery. But they were unwilling to actually do anything about it.

Edmund Burke once said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. National has helped evil triumph tonight. Their votes supported the continuing existence of slavery as a blight upon the human conscience. And that is absolutely unforgivable.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A disclaimer

On this blog it is likely that, from time to time, the authors and commenters will criticise government policy, speeches, and political tactics.

We would like to reassert that this is neither explicit nor implicit consent to release any private information about the authors or commenters that is held by any government agency, minister’s office, local government organisation, political party, or any other person, organisation or agency.

For the purposes of clarification this non-consent includes, but is not limited to, the following information:

  • benefit status or history;
  • family status or history;
  • ACC status or history;
  • health status or history – including information held by DHBs, PHOs, central government agencies and private providers whether directly or indirectly contracted by the state;
  • interactions with justice or law enforcement – including complaints, interviews, interactions, documents supplied;
  • employment status or history;
  • any grants applied for or received; and
  • tax payments, status or history.

In addition we would like to restate that posting or commenting here does not give implicit or explicit consent for any private information held about any author or commenter to be used for a purpose other than the purpose for which is was supplied. This non-consent includes, but is not limited to, the reuse of personal information for political purposes.

(Stolen, with permission, from KiwiPolitico)

Shorter Nick Smith

"Ministers should not have to answer questions if they criticise the government."

Yes, really (transcript to follow here).

Which makes you wonder: what does he think Question Time is for?

Unimpressed III

Last night Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was interviewed about her information thuggery on Campbell Live (video here; for some reason it doesn't work in Firefox, but does work in IE). During the interview she specifically and repeatedly claimed to have received advice before deciding to release personal information about solo mothers Jennifer Johnston and Natasha Fuller, saying

there's Ministerial guidelines and they are there and I looked at them before I did it, took some advice...
Bennett: I certainly took advice before I did it.

Campbell: Who from?

Bennett: From my office. I've got people there to give me this sort of advice and I took that advice.

So, naturally, I asked for that advice. What did I get in response?
The Minister has forwarded me your information and I would like to refer you to the following website.

I hope this is helpful

I am currently seeking clarification as to whether this is their full and final response, and whether it should be interpreted as the Minister not in fact having received any advice (despite her public claims to the contrary), or simply as an egregious refusal of my request, in which case the ombudsmen will have my complaint by the end of the day. Either way, I am decidedly unimpressed.

Update: The website Bennett's flack pointed at me has been pulled (it was there last night); the link now points to a cached version.

Update 2: Bennett's office have now assured me that my request will be put through appropriate channels and will be responded to in due course. I guess they are afraid of the Ombudsmen then.

New Fisk

Gulf War legacy flares as 'stingy' Kuwait puts the squeeze on Iraq

Member's day

Today is a member's day, with another four bills up for first reading. First up is Jeanette Fitzsimons' Sustainable Biofuel Bill, which reinstates the sustainability standard for biofuels removed by National last year. National has said it supports it, so this one should go quickly. Then we have Meyt's Marine Animals Protection Law Reform Bill, which improves protection for dolphins and whales. Third we have Maryan Street's Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill, which does exactly what it says on the label; I have no idea yet whether National will vote for it or vote it down as a "non-tarriff trade barrier". And finally, there is Rahui Katene's Te Rā o Matariki Bill/Matariki Day Bill, which would make Matariki a public holiday. Again I have no idea where the government stands on it (and their support is necessary for it to progress) - but the desire for good coalition relations with the Maori Party should at least see it sent to select committee.

With no local business to distract them, the House should get through the first three and make a start on the fourth - which means a ballot tomorrow for three bills.

For those interested in listening in, the slavery bill should be up around 20:00, with a vote around 21:00.

The Privacy Commissioner on Bennett

The Herald has finally got a response from the Privacy Commissioner on Paula Bennett's information thuggery:

Ministers and departments need to consider the Privacy Act when they release personal information, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says.


Ms Shroff did not say whether she believed a breach had occurred, but would consider any complaint made.

"When an issue is raised publicly, it will often require the minister to make a careful judgment about how far he or she can go in response," Ms Shroff said.

Considering a complaint she would look at "whether the person involved had authorised a minister to talk about their case publicly, or whether their authorisation can be inferred from their statements in going public with their case".

Another consideration was whether disclosing the information directly related to the purposes for which the information was obtained.

There are limits on what Shroff can say due to the fact that she will be judging any complaint, but her summary of what she would need to look at - whether there had been authorisation for disclosure and whether such disclosure was directly related to the purpose the information was collected for - is pretty damning. If those are the key questions, Bennett is toast. The only question is how much her bullying has cost us.

Another reason to vote "yes"


New Zealand Herald: Man convicted for breaking son's leg

A man whose kick broke his three-year-old son's leg was convicted when he appeared in Blenheim District Court yesterday.

Otto Lereiti Misivila, 51, had admitted kicking out at his son with a socked foot to halt boisterous play with his one-year-old daughter.

From the rest of the story, it is clear that Misivila did not intend to cause grievous bodily harm. But that's what happens when you use physical violence against children, and why we should vote to retain the ban.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Implied consent"

In Question Time today, the opposition began excavating Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's appalling information thuggery. The Herald's headline on the matter says it all about what a shallow lightweight thug the Minister is: Bennett: I consulted website before releasing mums' benefits:

Paula Bennett has this afternoon told Parliament that, apart from reading the Privacy Commission's website, she did not seek any advice before releasing personal details about the benefits received by two solo mothers.

Ms Bennett told Parliament that guidelines for ministers on the Privacy Commissioner's website allow people to give "implied consent" for their details to be released.

The website in question is here. And what it makes very clear is that in such circumstances Ministers should disclose no further information, and that if the public is not getting the full story, merely say that there are undisclosed facts and publicly ask for permission to release them. Consent to disclosure can only be implied if the individuals concerned ask specifically through the media for a public response on their particular case (and even then, it can only be claimed for information directly relevant to the particular decision in question). It cannot be claimed where people are criticising a general policy, rather than asking for reasons in their particular case. It certainly cannot be claimed, as Bennett suggests, simply because someone is criticising the government.

Bennett has seriously abused her powers here, resulting in a significant breach of privacy and a serious attack on freedom of speech. This is simply not acceptable in a government Minister. If Bennett does not apologise, then she needs to be relieved of her portfolio. And if the Prime Minister indulges this bullying behaviour, then he needs to be relieved of his at the next election.

More at KiwiPolitico and The Standard.

New Fisk

Why does life in the Middle East remain rooted in the Middle Ages?

Espiner on Bennett

Colin Espiner weighs in on Paula Bennett's information thuggery:

Ministers have to be extremely careful about using the power of their office to come down on pesky complainants like a tonne of bricks. Bennett has extraordinary access to beneficiaries' private lives through the Ministry of Social Development.

The concern with something like this is that it sends the message that if you criticise the Government, it will hit you back 10 times as hard. And while I think actually that this information WAS relevant in this case, I'm not sure it was up to the minister's office to release it.

The other question is where the matter stops. What say a minister decided to release the tax return details of a complainant? Or their shonky work history? Or some criminal conviction that had been long buried? Let's face it, it's not a fair fight.

And that's the real problem here. The government collects all sorts of information about us as part of its ordinary business - information on tax, crimes or criminal complaints, health, travel, education - and we expect that the relevant departments will generally keep that information private. We do not expect it to end up in the Minister's hands to be used as political ammunition if we dare to raise our voice.

Bennett has committed an extraordinary abuse of power here, which reminds us of the bad old days under Muldoon or Shipley. It is authoritarian, it is totalitarian, and it shows no respect for individual's rights or privacy. But apparently, these things now come second to government spin.

Climate change: the government gives up

It's official: National has given up on doing anything about climate change. At this press conference yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister John Key said that New Zealand would aim for an emissions cut of about 15% by 2020.

This is far lower than the 25% - 40% recommended by the IPCC, far lower than what is necessary to convince China and India to come on board, and far lower than what is being offered by countries which are serious about the problem. On the latter front, the EU is offering 20% unilaterally, and 30% if others come on board; the UK has a legislated binding target of 34%, Germany is going for 40%, and Scotland has set a target of 42%. Costa Rica, which isn't even an Annex I party, is offering 100% - as are tiny Tuvalu, the Maldives, Niue and Tokelau.

What Key's statement tells the world is that New Zealand isn't serious about climate change. What it tells our Pacific neighbours is that we are happy to see them drown. Either way, the consequences for our global "clean and green" brand - the foundation of our tourist and agricultural wealth - cannot be good.

Information thuggery

Last week, Jennifer Johnston and Natasha Fuller, two ordinary solo parents, publicly criticised the government's plans to cut the training incentive allowance, which allows solo parents like them to gain qualifications and escape the DPB. Their cases were later used in Parliament to illustrate the effect of National's cuts. Today, Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett retaliated by releasing details of the benefits they were receiving.

This is an appalling abuse of the Minister's powers, and aimed purely at political intimidation. The message is clear: shut up and don't criticise us, or we will publicise your private details. Ugly, ugly stuff, reminiscent of Muldoon at his worst.

But in addition to being ugly, it is also illegal. The Minister and her department have almost certainly violated the Privacy Act by using and disclosing personal information without permission and other than for the purpose for which it was collected. In addition, WINZ have likely violated legislation regarding the secrecy of benefit and income information. This bullying behaviour has exposed the government to legal action, and the taxpayer to financial penalties. But hey, the Minister got her headline, so I'm sure it was worth it.

Trade and slavery

Maryan Street's Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot last week, and is likely to come before the House on Wednesday. The bill does exactly what it says on the label: adds goods produced by slavery alongside those produced by prison labour as prohibited imports.

The bill is a moral necessity. While slavery is unambiguously banned in international law, and illegal in practically every country, it still exists [PDF]. There are an estimated 27 million slaves around the world, including hereditary slaves in Mauritania and Niger, child slaves in the plantations of West Africa, bonded debt-slaves in India, Brazil, Peru and the Philippines, illegal forced labour in China, and trafficked sex-slaves on every continent. The trade will only stop when the world unites not just to stick slavers in jail, but also to prevent them profiting from their crime. Street's bill will help do that.

The US does it already. The Tarriff Act of 1930 prohibits the entry into the US of

all goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions...
The US law defines "forced labour" as including "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily". It includes both slave and forced child labour.

Some (including, sadly, the government-dominated Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee [PDF]) interpret trade agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and prohibiting such a ban. This relies on an extremely narrow interpretation of the GATT, and ignores the provision in Article XX to ban imports where necessary for the protection of human life and health or public morals. That article also includes a specific provision allowing the prohibition of goods produced by prison labour. It would be odd, to say the least, if this did not also extend to worse forms of forced labour produced under prison-like conditions, particularly when those forms are banned under international law and their use invites prosecution in New Zealand or in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But conceivably, another country could complain about it. And to that, I say "bring it on!" - this is exactly the sort of fight a progressive country like New Zealand should be picking.

Unfortunately it is not clear yet whether the government will support the bill. But hopefully they will. I find it difficult to imagine that even National would vote in support of slavery.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A real threat to our security

In my last post, I asked the question of what threat the Americans would be defnding us against in exchange for us sending people to die for them in Afghanistan. I'd been thinking of something external - penguins, alien invasion, Aussie bankers - but in fact the real threat to New Zealand's national security is internal: cows with guns:

The joys of a benign strategic environment

The US's latest tactic in their attempt to bully us into sending troops to Afghanistan is to suggest that if we help them, they'll help us:

"God forbid there be a threat directly to New Zealand. Wouldn't it then be good for a country like Holland or Canada or Slovakia or the US to be there [for you]?"
Which sounds good in theory. But in reality, the chances of our being invaded by penguins from Antarctica are rather low. So, what "threat" would we be being "defended" against? Seriously?

Climate change: Our policy is a joke

Scoop's Lyndon Hood on the government's inaction on climate change:

Climate Change: New Zealand To Stand On Proud Record Of Doing Nothing

In the face of mounting international consensus on the need for action on climate change, New Zealand intends to rely on its reputation for vague intentions backed by no action.

After the results of widespread public consultation favour strong action, Climate Change Minister Nick Smith has explained that New Zealand's emissions target should take into account the way "we haven't done anything towards it in the past and don't want to do anything in the future."

Since human-induced climate change was recognised as a problem, New Zealand has failed to introduce a carbon tax, then briefly introduced an emissions trading scheme, until we realised it wasn't watered-down enough.

"This Government has delayed the ETS and taken a range of other policy decisions such as cutting funding for public transport," said Smith, "So really, we're starting at a disadvantage. Is that fair?"

"Let me be clear: Doing nothing is no longer an option," he said.

"The time has come to do as little as possible."

I guess National are hoping that overseas governments planning border carbon taxes will also see the funny side.

Climate change: Another strapped chicken

The government is currently pretending to consult on its international climate change target for the upcoming post-Kyoto negotiations in Copenhagen. And right on time, Nick Smith has released an "independent" report [PDF] from NZIER and Infometrics to show that its all too expensive, and that therefore we shouldn't bother making any real effort.

I've commented on the work of the Minister's chosen economic mercenaries before, and like their last one, its an exercise in dishonesty, what is known in the trade as a "strapped chicken". They assume carbon prices of NZ$100 - NZ$200 per ton - between two and four times the worst estimate used by the US Congressional Budget Office in their modelling. More importantly, they assume that this will not result in any increased tree planting. That's right - our most important means of offsetting emissions, and these clowns assume it out of existence from the outset. And so you get the usual dire predictions of economic catastrophe.

How much of a difference does the exclusion of forestry make? The Business Council for Sustainable Development points out that the report itself notes that MAF predicts that a $20 / ton carbon price would in the long term lead to increased planting of 100,000 hectares per year, sucking 30 MTCO2-e (around 50% of 1990 emissions) out of the atmosphere by 2020. MAF's previous work on forestry has been hideously wrong before, and I think this particular one should be taken with a grain of salt (I'll be using the OIA to try and get to the bottom of it) - but the BCSD is undoubtedly right in saying that the ridiculously high carbon prices used in the report would lead to an enormous land-use change, and likely to the conversion of most existing sheep and wool farms to forestry (compare: $400 - $500 per hectare for sheep farming in Gisborne, vs an average $1700 per hectare from $100/ton carbon assuming pine on a low-fertility site and a 30-year rotation (table here); or you can use LandCare's carbon calculator (designed for natural manuka / kanuka in hill country), and just multiply the revenue at the maximum price ($25) by 4 or 8 to get a rough ballpark figure).

It ought to be clear from the above that NZIER's report simply isn't worth the paper it is written on.

As for the Minister, he obligingly takes the worst case scenario - a 40% target with no international trading, and presents it as the baseline, conveniently neglecting to mention that we expect there to be trading so the price will halve, that the cost excludes our biggest, cheapest and easiest form of response, and indeed that we'll all still be better off under his strapped chicken scenario, and that that "cost" is merely forgone growth rather than money taken out of your pocket now. But he has a very clear agenda of scaring us all into doing nothing, so National's polluting donors and cronies (including the biggest polluters of them all, the farming sector) can continue to get us to subsidise their profits.

The amazing shrinking cycleway

Back in February, John Key came up with a bold plan to stimulate the economy, create jobs, and end the recession: a cycleway the length of New Zealand. Today, he announced the first possible components of it - a series of local cycleways [PDF] in Northland, the Waikato, the central North Island, Whanganui, Marlborough and Southland. In the process, the cycleway has shrunk from a single national trail to a series of interconnected local "great rides", and the number of jobs it is expected to create from 3,700 to a paltry 300. Meanwhile, more than 1,300 people a week are signing up for the dole. So, for the whole of this year, the cycleway should generate as many jobs as were lost on Monday and Tuesday this week.

But it gets better. According to the cabinet paper [PDF] on the issue, projects were supposed to be chosen and assessed by an advisory group. But according to the Commerce Committee's report on the estimates for Vote Tourism [PDF], the group has not yet been appointed, and isn't expected to be until the end of August? So how were these proposals chosen? They seem to have been pulled out of the Prime Minister's arse (and at this stage, it is worth noting that every single one of them is in a National-held electorate). Early advice on the project [PDF] noted that one of the risks was "being seen to be inequitable" in the choice of early projects, and that

Announcing early projects by name before proper assessment may compromise the chance to negotiate later.
The Prime Minister seems to have ignored this warning. By naming these projects, he has effectively committed to fund them, regardless of whether they later turn out to be unsuitable, and regardless of whether other projects are a better investment of the governments money (e.g. produce more jobs and economic activity per dollar spent).

I have already submitted an OIA request to find out whether (unlike the scheme as a whole) any of these projects have been subjected to any cost-benefit analysis. The response should be illuminating.

Spin instead of policy

The UK government is apparently planning a referendum on electoral reform at the next election. But not because they're actually committed to electoral reform themselves - their timid push for the "alternative vote", the electoral reform you have when you don't really want electoral reform, shows that. No, they're doing it solely in an effort to paint Conservative leader David Cameron as an opponent of reform.

And that's the entire New Labour project right there in a nutshell: policy pulled out of their arse, driven not by any principle, but by spin.

New Fisk

Lessons in justice and fairness from a no-nonsense historian

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Disproportionate interest

This morning's Sunday Star-Times reveals the shock news that people don't trust the financial sector. Next they'll be "revealing" that the sky is blue. But the story included this little bit on the correlation of distrust with income:

There was also a correlation of lower trust with lower incomes sharebrokers, for example, were trusted not at all by 32% of respondents with household income below $60,000. The corresponding figure for incomes over $150,000 was 19%. However, the different income groups appeared to share a similar low opinion of insurance advisers.
What's the problem with this? Well, for a start, their definition of "lower incomes" includes 86% of all New Zealand taxpayers. Meanwhile, the contrasting figure - for those earning over $150,000 a year - represents about 1% of New Zealand taxpaers, or around 12 people if their 1200 person sample is representative (which means that they're also not particularly statistically reliable).

It's just another example of how the media dialogue - around tax, around benefits, and now around trust - disproportionately focuses on the views of and impact on a tiny wealthy elite, while ignoring or discounting the vast majority of kiwis. We just don't exist as far as they are concerned.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fresh Python

Terry Jones: He's not a very naughty boy

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thwarting Parliamentary oversight

One the chief purposes of Parliament is to oversee the government and hold it to account. An important part of this is the annual Estimates cycle, in which Ministers appear before select committees to answer questions on their appropriations for the year and how they will be used. Select committees must report back on these hearings within two months of the budget - i.e. by Monday or Tuesday next week - and so the reports are flooding in.

Unfortunately, it seems the government has been abusing its majority on the committees to prevent proper oversight. So for example, we have this complaint from the Law and Order Committee's report on the 2009/10 Estimates for Vote Police [PDF, p. 4]:

The ability of opposition members of Parliament to scrutinize the Executive is a critical part of our democracy in order to ensure accountability and transparency especially those that relate to the expenditure of public money. It is anti-democratic to prevent open questioning of the Executive and promotes the notion that the interests of the Executive are being protected. Labour members are very concerned at the Chair’s refusal to accept a list of supplementary written Estimates questions that we would like to gain answers to even though there was surplus time available to the committee for consideration of the questions. Therefore, Labour members had no choice but to submit the questions via the Parliamentary written question process. We append that list of questions for the record
The list is four pages long. It includes basic questions about budgetary allocations and the performance of police - how much money they're getting for specific types of crime (gangs, drugs, illegal street racing) and its allocation, where the money saved in the "line by line review" came from, how many vehicles will be cut from each district, how much it is having to pay out in redundancy and in personal grievance payments, how many staff they have in various roles etc. This is all basic stuff, the bread and butter of a select committee holding the government to account; the chair abused their power and the government abused its authority because the Minister couldn't be bothered answering any of it.

There's a similar complaint (with 6 pages of questions the Minister - Judith Collins again - thought were beneath her) in the committee's report on Vote: Corrections [PDF], and judging from this question in the House on Tuesday (the first of four), there will be more in the Education and Science committee's report on Vote: Education.

And so one of the best changes of MMP - increased accountability of the executive to Parliament - has been rolled back in an instant by a government with an easy majority. The result is the 80's all over again - committees reduced to a rubberstamp, and a government free of oversight. And that is something we should all be afraid of.

Reported back

The law and order committee has reported back [PDF] on the Gangs and Organised Crime Bill. The bill is part of the government's "tough on crime" posturing, and makes several changes to the law around organised criminal groups - notably doubling the penalty for participation and allowing judges to consider gang membership as an aggravating factor at sentencing. The bill would also broaden the definition of a criminal group, and broaden police wiretapping powers.

The "gang membership as an aggravating factor" provision constitutes collective punishment, and arguably punishment without trial (in that gang members convicted of a crime by a jury will effectively also be convicted of and punished for a second crime based on the actions of their associates). Increasing sentences for a crime nobody is ever prosecuted for may get headlines, but it is unlikely to be an effective deterrent. The broader definition is an attempt to "solve" that, by lowering the threshold for prosecution - so if the police are too lazy to do their jobs properly and convict people of real crimes, they can convict them of crimes of association instead. Which is beginning to smell a lot like the bogus "crimes of association" the French government uses against those they want to call "terrorists"...

Finally, the wiretapping threshold. Wiretaps have a definite role in solving serious and organised crime. But under this bill, the government would be able to tap people's phones for anything with a penalty of more than 7 years - which includes burglary and robbery, about as ordinary as you can get. And so the exceptional becomes the mundane, and no doubt will soon become the trivial. It's a perfect example of the authoritarian slippery slope in action, and why should be very careful indeed about granting additional powers to police.

No "right" to discriminate in Saskatchewan

The issue of "conscientious objection" and same-sex marriage has reared its head again in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, after a marriage commissioner (what we would call a celebrant) lost his appeal of a Human Rights Commission ruling that he had unlawfully discriminated in refusing to solemnise a same-sex marriage. The full ruling (Nichols v Human Rights Commission, 2009 SKQB 299) is here [PDF]. The key part:

I agree with the tribunal’s finding that Mr. Nichols performs a governmental activity when he acts as a marriage commissioner. As a government actor, he is not permitted to consider his personal religious views when performing his public functions.

I also agree with the tribunal that there is nothing in the [Saskatchewan Human Rights] Code, or in The Marriage Act, that provides Mr. Nichols with a defense of bona fide justification based upon his religious beliefs. Mr. Nichols has a personal right to freedom of religion, but it is not a right enforceable against M.J. It is not M.J. who is interfering with his religious beliefs, but the duties imposed upon him by The Marriage Act.

M.J. and other members of the public do not have to depend upon encountering a marriage commissioner who has no moral or religious objection to performing a same sex marriage in order to gain access to an entitlement to be married without discrimination. Regardless of the religious basis of Mr. Nichols’ views, his acting on them in this manner constitutes discrimination in the provision of a public service on the basis of sexual orientation. Any accommodation of Mr. Nichols’ religious views, if the duty to accommodate exists, is not the responsibility of those who seek the services that he is legally empowered to provide. If any accommodation is due to Mr. Nichols for his religious views, it must be accomplished without risking what occurred here – where the complainant sought a service and was expressly denied it on the basis of his sexual orientation.

(Emphasis added)

And there you have it: your freedom to discriminate on religious grounds stops when you start performing a public function. The Saskatchewan government is talking about legislating to allow "conscientious objection", but given the rulings cited in that judgement, it is difficult to see how it would survive a test of constitutionality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The interesting point is that the same logic would almost certainly apply in New Zealand when we legalise same-sex marriage. Marriage celebrants do not solemnise marriages as private individuals, but as people performing a public function - which means the Bill of Rights Act applies to the performance of that function. And the BORA forbids discrimination by the government on any of the grounds listed in the Human Rights Act - grounds which include sexual orientation. The same already applies should a celebrant refuse to solemnise a marriage on the basis that someone is Maori, or pregnant, or does not share their religion - and the fundamental point is that homophobic discrimination is no different from, and no less vile, than these other forms.

Unsafe prisons

On Wednesday, Clayton Weatherston was convicted of the murder of Sophie Elliot. Today, the prison guards are saying that they can't guarantee his safety in prison. So why are we paying them again?

The job of prison guards is not just to keep prisoners from escaping, but also to keep them safe. Having incarcerated people, the state is totally responsible for their care and wellbeing. If its agents cannot do that then they are not doing their job properly. It is that simple.

Another reason to vote "yes" next month


Steel-capped kick 'over the top'

A Waitara widower kicked his teenage daughter in the backside with steel-capped boots and tweaked her ear when he caught her smoking, the New Plymouth District Court was told.

Graeme Taputu, 41, pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of assaulting a child on July 1.

His lawyer, Patrick Mooney, said Taputu's wife, the mother of their three teenage daughters, had died 18 months ago and Taputu had been struggling to bring them up on his own.

He came home to find his 13-year-old daughter smoking after warning what he would do if he caught her.

"He was endeavouring to discipline his young child and was somewhat aggrieved to find her smoking."

The girl had not been injured, Mr Mooney said.

This is the behaviour - along with punching children in the face and repeatedly shoving them over - that the child beaters are defending. Under the old law, it would likely never have been prosecuted, due to the defence of "reasonable force for the purposes of correction". Now it can be. And that is a Good Thing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Power on Provocation

This afternoon Justice Minister Simon power gave a speech to the Institute of Policy Studies on his plans to reform criminal justice policy, in which he announced his plans to repeal the archaic defence of provocation:

Finally, the partial defence of provocation in homicide cases will be the subject of reform.

I want to say right now that I do not believe this defence has any place on the statute books.

It wrongly enables defendants to besmirch the character of victims, and effectively rewards a lack of self-control.

Unfortunately, he gave no timeline, so it could sit around in the queue for years - just like it did under Labour. But hopefully, they will listen to the public mood and move quickly.

Climate change: More shame

Tokelau has become the latest Pacific island nation to declare a 100% renewable energy target. Like Tuvalu and the Maldives, Tokelau has a strong incentive to act: at only 4 metres above sea level, climate change could literally wipe their country off the map. And they can already see it happening...

The irony here is that Tokelau is still part of New Zealand, and every single one of its inhabitants is a kiwi. Our government's current policy is that their homes and livelihoods should be sacrificed without compensation in the name of higher profits for our polluting farmers. It is not "foreigners" our governments inaction is threatening - it is us.

Once again, the poor, who have the least responsibility for the problem and the least ability to respond, are being forced by necessity to lead the way, while the rich make excuses and lag behind. It makes a complete mockery of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", and we ought to be deeply ashamed of it.

An end to provocation?

With a public groundswell in favour of removing the archaic partial defence of provocation from the books, the opposition is planning to put the government on the spot by seeking leave to introduce their member's bill on the issue. But it looks like the government will pre-empt them. Good - a government bill means it will likely happen faster, and avoid taking up valuable space on the member's section of the Order Paper. And it doesn't matter who gets the credit, provided it gets done.

Update: The government has just denied leave for Dalziel to introduce her bill. This may mean a quicker repeal in the long run, but it looks pretty petty.

Drinking Liberally tonight in Wellington and Palmerston North

Drinking Liberally is happening tonight in both Wellington and Palmerston North. In Wellington, the guest speaker will be Geoff Keey from Greenpeace, who will be talking about their Sign On campaign. In Palmerston North, we'll have the Greens' Metiria Turei, talking about the upcoming "anti-smacking" referendum.

When: 17:30, Thursday, July 23
Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith Street, Wellington

When: 17:30, Thursday, July 23
Where: Brewers Apprentice, 334 Church St, Palmerston North

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Climate change: "taking the problem seriously"

This afternoon in Question Time, Green MP Dr Kennedy Graham asked the Prime Minister a series of questions on climate change, starting with this:

Dr KENNEDY GRAHAM to the Prime Minister: Did Pacific Island leaders with whom he met during his recent trip convey any concerns over the threat climate change poses to vulnerable Pacific island countries; and, what expectations, if any, did they raise with him regarding New Zealand’s policy in response to that regional threat?
This was then followed up by serious questions on climate change targets and plans to accept climate change refugees. The Prime Minister's response was to endlessly repeat his soundbite of the day: that we are "taking the problem seriously".

No we're not. If we were taking the problem of climate change seriously, we'd actually be doing something about it. Instead, the government has put the ETS on hold, repealed all existing policy, and is currently desperately trying to avoid setting a credible emissions reduction target. If that's "taking the problem seriously", then I'd hate to see what doing nothing looks like...

Something to be proud of


Foreign Policy magazine has released a failed states index, which tracks the stability of states using indicators such as demographic pressure, human rights, the number of refugees and so forth. Obviously, New Zealand comes out as "stable" - but interestingly, we come out as more stable than Australia, more stable than the UK, and more stable than the US. As usual, we lag behind the Scandinavian countries - but clearly we are doing something right (and much better than the countries National keeps telling us we lag behind). The full rankings are here.


Well, I'm glad that tawdry spectacle is over. And now, can we perhaps repeal the law which allowed him to drag his victim's bleeding corpse through the mud again and effectively blame her (if unsuccessfully) for her own death?

Update: And according to The Press, the government is working on it. But they've got competition - and with anothe rballot next week, there's a chance that Dalziel's bill will be drawn first...

A success for ProgBills

Earlier in the year, I set up the New Zealand Progressive Bills Project to develop ideas for progressive, left-wing legislation. That project had its first success today, with the drawing of Maryan Street's Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill (developed here; initial draft here) from the ballot. Hopefully it will be the first of many.


Thanks to a couple of deferrals, a ballot for Member's Bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill (Maryan Street)
  • Te Rā o Mātāriki Bill/Mātāriki Day Bill (Rahui Katene)

I've previously covered both bills here and here.

Lianne Dalziel's bill to repeal provocation finally made an appearance, and there were five other new ones: a Te Ture Whenua Maori Amendment Bill from Meyt, and four bills from Labour MPs attempting to force a referenda for various parts of the Auckland SuperCity. I'll try and cover some of them in an "In the Ballot" post later this afternoon.

What is productivity anyway?

With the appointment of Don Brash to lead the government's new 2025 Taskforce into restoring parity with Australia, its worth asking: what is this "productivity" thing that the politicians are obsessing about? below is my attempt at a simple answer.

At its simplest, productivity is the ratio of economic output / inputs. While there are a lot of inputs, the common international comparison is GDP per hour worked. New Zealand does badly on this measure, with a productivity 25% lower than the OECD average, and 33% lower than Australia.

From the mathematics of the thing, it should be clear that there are two ways to increase productivity: you can increase output, or lower inputs. The first can be done by investing in a better widget-maker, or teaching people how to make them better, or coming up with new widgets which you can sell for more money - in other words, it needs investment by business in plant, training, or R&D. New Zealand's business "leaders" are fundamentally averse to that - investment requires money which they could instead take as profits - and so they have instead chosen to do it the other way: by lowering wages. That's what the Employment Contracts Act (and more recently, the 90 Days of Slavery bill) were all about: lowering wages and cutting workplace entitlements so they could get the same amount of work for less money, producing a boost in productivity. But this was counterproductive in the long term, leading to stalled capital investment and the opening up of the "productivity gap" with Australia (it was also politically unacceptable to most New Zealanders, leading eventually to the election of a Labour government, changes in employment law, and wage rises - which in turn decreased productivity - hence the current bout of whining).

Which path will the government take? Their statements in opposition are enlightening. As leader of the opposition, Don Brash pushed for weaker employment laws, fewer workplace entitlements, and a return to the "low wage, low skill, hire another warm body" economy he presided over as Reserve bank Governor in the 90's (John Key followed the same path). Meanwhile, Bill English was complaining that large wage rises in the health and education sectors (brought on by a decade of erosion under National) had decreased productivity. Which means we are likely to see more of the same: wage cuts by erosion, and a consequent lower incentive for real productivity gains. This will lead to strikes, particularly in the health and education sectors (teachers, doctors and nurses all know their power, and will use it to defend their position against this sort of madness) - but their business mates will book an easy profit by doing so, and that is all National cares about.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The OpenLeft Project

With the UK currently witnessing the final death of the New Labour project, thoughts are beginning to turn to what comes after. Not in terms of government - sadly, that answer is likely to be a Conservative government, which makes New Labour look good by comparison - but for the left. In an effort to find an answer, the Demos thinktank has launched the OpenLeft Project:

Open Left is about rediscovering the Left’s idealism, pluralism and appetite for radical ideas. It starts from a belief that the future of the Left requires a new openness for a new era of open politics:
  • Idealism: open about its political values and goals.
  • Pluralism: open about disagreement and debate.
  • Radicalism: open to new ideas and policies.

We want to hear views and ideas from across the family of the Left, whether people identify with a political party or not. We welcome debate about political values and goal, and don’t presume to have a monopoly of knowledge about how to bring about effective and enduring change.

We are starting by asking an essential but contested question: what does it mean to be on the Left today? We’ve asked ten leading Left wing thinkers to answer six questions about their political motivations and beliefs. Check out what they said and then contribute your own perspective.

There's some interesting essays up already - check out Polly Toynbee's, or Billy Bragg's - but also a few too many by Blairites desperately trying to spin themselves a future.

Meanwhile, The Standard suggests that it "wouldn't be a bad idea here". I agree. The New Zealand Labour Party did not betray its base in anything like the same way the UK one did, but it still needs to reconnect. This sort of two-way conversation about ideals and principles would help.

[Hat-tip: Crooked Timber]

Banning cluster bombs

Last year, the New Zealand government was one of the first to sign the new Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty banning the use, production and stockpiling of cluster bombs. Today, they introduced a bill into Parliament to enable ratification - the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill. The bill would ban anyone in New Zealand from using, possessing, developing or transferring cluster munitions, and more importantly, would ban members of the New Zealand armed forces from requesting the use of cluster munitions when they are operating with other states overseas. So for example, if John Key sends the SAS to Afghanistan to fight the US's losing war there, they would not be able to call in US airstrikes which use cluster munitions to indiscriminately massacre Afghan civilians. And this is a Good Thing.

I'm now wondering whether to adapt some of this language for the Depeleted Uranium (Prohibition) Bill...

The cost of unsustainability

Bottom trawling is a hugely destructive form of fishing which bulldozes whole swathes of the seafloor in an effort to get a few more fish. It is, by definition, unsustainable. So naturally, our dirty fishing industry uses it.

Now they are beginning to pay the price, with a UK supermarket chain refusing to stock New Zealand Hoki because it was bottom trawled. This despite it being certified as "sustainable" by the greenwash Marine Stewardship Council.

Hopefully this will provide an incentive for New Zealand's fishing industry to clean up its act. And if not, then as more markets refuse to stock unsustainable fish, hopefully it will drive them out of business.

(There is more information on the unsustainability of New Zealand's Hoki fishery here)

The ghosts of National's past

So, just nine months into National's term, and suddenly all the ghosts of its past, which it had tried to sweep under the carpet, are crawling out of the woodwork.

First, we have Treasury, returning to its 80's and 90's mentality with a call for public sector cuts and privatisation. Naturally, this call doesn't extend to itself - they increased their core departmental budget by 10% this year [PDF] so they could give better advice on how to further gut the public service.

Second, we have the Business Roundtable, crawling out from under its rock to call for the unemployment benefit to be replaced by loans (so the unemployed can be forced to borrow to eat and turned into debt-slaves for the rich), for privatisation of welfare services (complete with financial incentives for providers to reduce numbers i.e. deny legal entitlements), and for the DPB to be abolished to "discourage pregnancy". It's like a blast from a particularly noxious group of nineteenth century social darwinists. Which is essentially what the BRT's brand of free market fundamentalism amounts to.

And finally, we have failed opposition leader Don Brash being appointed to head the government's new 2025 Taskforce on productivity. As Reserve Bank Governor during the 90's, Brash was infamous for stepping down hard on "wage inflation" - workers getting a fair day's pay for a fair day's work - and for hiking interest rates to keep unemployment high and wages low. His recipe to improve productivity is likely to be more of the same: lower wages, worse conditions, longer hours.

National was elected in 2008 on a centrist platform. It promised that it would not restart the Revolution and take us back to the 90's, but would continue Labour's policies with a fresher face. It must keep that promise. Otherwise, they are likely to be de-elected with extreme prejudice.

A bully pulpit

Over the past few months, concerns have been rising about profiteering by the major trading banks during the recession. Reductions in interest rates by the Reserve Bank have not been passed on, instead going straight into the coffers of the major banks' Aussie owners. The Reserve bank is concerned about this, but earlier in the month, government MP's prevented the Finance and Expenditure Committee from holding a formal inquiry into bank profiteering. So today the opposition decided to launch one of its own.

The inquiry has no official status and will have no formal powers. OTOH, banks refusing to cooperate with it can expect to be named and shamed in the media and have their name dragged through the mud under the full protection of Parliamentary privilege. It's an excellent use of Parliament as a bully pulpit by the opposition, and hopefully it'll result in some change from the Aussie profiteers.

If you'd like to submit to the inquiry, details are on its website here.

Climate change: we should be ashamed II

Back in 2006, Helen Clark showed some vision for once and announced a bold plan to make New Zealand carbon neutral. The new National government has since abandoned that goal in favour of a relaxed "50% by 2050 (and nothing now)" - but in the meantime others are moving ahead with it. The latest is Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific island nation, which has just announced that it plans to be carbon neutral by 2020:

The tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu has said it wants all its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.

Public Utilities Minister Kausea Natano said his nation of 12,000 people wanted to set an example to others.


The government hopes to use wind and solar power to generate electricity, instead of imported diesel.

"We look forward to the day when our nation offers an example to all - powered entirely by natural resources such as the sun and the wind," Kausea Natano said.

The BBC article is slightly misleading, in that Tuvalu is targeting only electricity rather than primary energy (which would include transport fuels) - but still: another developing nation is adopting an ambitious climate change goal, despite the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", and more importantly, taking concrete steps to achieve it. And this despite the cost - $20 million is peanuts to our government, but its one and a half years of Tuvalu's GDP. They are taking climate change seriously - not least because with a highest point only 4.5 metres above seas level, they're in danger of being washed away if the oceans rise. And meanwhile, our government, with vastly more resources at its disposal, is trying to get away with doing the least amount possible - in the process shifting the burden of paying for it from countries like us, who caused the problem in the first place, to countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, who didn't and have far less ability to pay for it. This is fundamentally unjust, and we should all be ashamed of it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Abortion rights under threat

Abortion is back before the High Court, in a case which could see a dramatic restriction of a woman's right to an abortion. Following a ruling which impugned the legality of most abortions performed in New Zealand and a farcical appeal, Right To Life were back before the High Court today arguing that they should force the Abortion Supervisory Committee to act as "an advocate for the unborn child" and micromanage the medical decisions of certifying consultants. The decision has been reserved, but there's a real risk here of a restriction on abortion rights - which in turn means dangerous backstreet abortions, smuggled Chinese pharmaceuticals, expensive trips to Australia, and ultimately women being forced to have children they do not want.

That situation is likely to be even more unacceptable to New Zealanders now than it was in the 70's. If the courts send us back three decades, then Parliament must be prepared to legislate immediately to clarify the law and restore the status quo. In the longer term, as the fundamentalists are clearly not willing to respect our ugly compromise, then its time we overturned it, and joined the modern world by allowing abortion on demand.

Climate change: Nelson and Napier

SignOn reports from the final climate change target consultation meeting in Nelson:

Last night, the final public climate change 2020 target consultation wrapped up in Nelson. It was a lively crowd with 180 odd people packing the Rutheford Hotel. The mood was upbeat, and like all the consultations I’ve attended, the call was loud and clear for 40%. We kicked off the night with a giant projection of messages from Sign On supporters on to the Rutherford Hotel.

The Minister, must be exhausted after this two week tour but I couldn’t help but notice his optimism or ambition from these consultations haven’t improved. He’s still framing the debate squarely around the economic costs, and downplaying the chances of a needed and ambitious target. From soil carbon experts, to geologists, from community board representatives to high school students (and Trevor, who is recently back from a training session with Al Gore) the message was – we need leadership and to focus on the enormous opportunities.

Meanwhile, out in the wops, they're still mired in Denial. The irony here is that Hawkes Bay is one of the areas most at risk from climate change, with severe drought expected to become eight times more frequent by 2080 in the medium-high warming scenario (which is looking more and more likely). That means a (currently) "one in twenty year drought", costing farmers around $500 million, every two to three years. These people aren't just ignorant - they're completely stupid.

Geneva for me, but not for thee

In February 2002, following extensive discussions about what to do with prisoners captured in the US's (then) new war in Afghanistan, President Bush issued an order [PDF] declaring that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to captured Taliban soldiers on the grounds [PDF] that Afghanistan was a "failed state" and the Taliban was "not a government but a militant, terrorist-like group". It then proceeded to detain Afghan prisoners without trial, render them to Guantanamo and its network of "black sites", photograph them for the purposes of public humiliation, and torture them.

Which makes the US's current complaint that the Taliban parading a captured US soldier on camera violates international law just a bit rich. Having denied the protection of international law to their opponents, they can hardly claim it for themselves.

No blood for trade

John Key is hinting strongly that the SAS will be sent back to Afghanistan to fight and die for America. On Q&A on Sunday, he said:

"I do think it's important that New Zealand plays its role, and plays its part in trying to get on top of what is a terrorist hotspot,"
I have just one question for Mr Key: why?

Why would we want to fight in a war without any legal mandate from the UN?

Why should we prop up a government whose policies include theocracy, legalised spousal rape, unfair trials and the death penalty, where people who protest against these things are publicly stoned?

Why should we send people to die for nothing in a pointless war which has already been lost?

If the first two reasons are not enough, the final one should be absolutely compelling. One of the basic considerations in any decision on whether to use force is whether it will be effective in achieving your goals. But the war in Afghanistan was lost long ago, and sending more people to die in the graveyard of empires will not change this. It would simply be an empty gesture of loyalty to the US, a modern echo of the immoral "blood for butter" policy which saw Key's ideological predecessors sacrifice 18,000 kiwis on the altar of our previous imperial patron. Which begs the question: if this is about sacrificing lives to prove loyalty, why not do it here - say, shoot a handful of SAS soldiers on a US flag outside Parliament? Obviously, that would be monstrous. But is it any less monstrous to send them to be shot in Afghanistan instead? The only difference is the location.

IMHO, we should not be participating in illegal wars, we should not be propping up immoral governments, and we should not be engaging in human sacrifice for imperial favour. We should tell the US to fight its own stupid war, and that we want no part of it.

Carnival of the Liberals

The 95th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at the Neural Gourmet.

A difference between Australia and New Zealand

Currently Taito Phillip Field is on trial on 15 counts of bribery as an MP. If found guilty, he would become the first NZ MP ever convicted of this offence.

Meanwhile, over the ditch, former Queensland Cabinet Minister Gordon Nuttall has just been convicted on 36 charges of receiving secret commissions while in office and sentenced to seven years. And he's not the first. He's the fifth Queensland Cabinet Minister to be jailed for corruption (four were jailed as a result of the Fitzgerald Inquiry) - and that's just Queensland. Other Ministers have been jailed for corruption in New South Wales, where Corrections Minister Rex Jackson took bribes to let people out of jail, and Western Australia, where two former Premiers and a former Deputy Premier were jailed after a Royal Commission into corruption.

While we have a lot in common, this is a fundamental difference between our two countries. Despite the ravings of the sewer, New Zealand is fundamentally not a corrupt country. Meanwhile, tight connections between business and government mean that high-level political corruption is endemic in parts of Australia. So how did things manage to go so wrong over there?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Fisk

Some lessons in sacrifice from Liverpool in two world wars

Friday, July 17, 2009

UK government to repeal sedition

First, we take Wellington. Then we take London:

Laws dating from the Star Chamber that can see people jailed for speaking out are to be abolished after a campaign by writers and actors, lawyers and politicians.

Lord Bach, the Justice Minister, has bowed to the weight of criticism and agreed that the offences of sedition and criminal libel are “outdated” and should be abolished. “Sedition and defamatory libel are arcane offences from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today,” he said.

But it was not just a case of removing some redundant offences. The laws may not have been used much lately in Britain, but their significance was the legitimacy they provided to other countries to suppress public criticism.

As Lord Bach acknowledged: “The retention of these obsolete offences has been cited by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws that have been used to restrict press freedom.”

This is an excellent move, and long past due. The UK Law Commission recommended the abolition of sedition in 1977, but it has hung around on the books like a bad smell for a further 30 years. Meanwhile, this bit illustrates perfectly why sedition has to go
The offences date from the time of the Star Chamber and were used in 1792 against Thomas Paine on the ground that the Rights of Man brought into hatred and contempt the present sovereign, Parliament, kingdom, constitution, laws and government.
Paine's "crime"? He advocated democracy. There's no better example of how sedition has been used by bad governments in an effort to suppress good ideas.

Double bunking is murder

The government is currently planning to use double-bunking as a "solution" to the crisis in prison numbers bought on by their failed "tough on crime" policies. Greg Newbold has warned that this will lead to rapes, bullying and violence. He'd know - he spent time in prison in the 70's before becoming a criminologist. But that's not the half of it. As this piece in the Guardian points out, double-bunking is a recipe for murder:

In September 2003, Anthony Hesketh was forced to share a cell with Clement McNally, who was serving a life sentence for stabbing a friend to death. McNally was known to have a personality disorder and was prone to uncontrollable outbursts. He had daubed the walls of his cell with satanic symbols and told other prisoners that he was "Satan's hands and eyes". A prisoner told the jury that "everyone could see that McNally was losing his mind" and alleged that officers "laughed off" suggestions that he had serious mental health issues. The jury found that staff failed to carry out a CSRA on McNally before putting him in a cell with Hesketh, who was garrotted by his killer.

A year after that killing, another prisoner, Shahid Aziz, was beaten and stabbed to death by his cellmate, Peter McCann, at Leeds prison. McCann had a history of violent attacks on fellow prisoners. The day before the killing, a probation officer phoned the prison warning that McCann was a threat to prisoners. Her warning was ignored and, in 2007, an inquest jury heard that the CSRA process was confined to staff asking McCann if he was dangerous. McCann said he was not.

The piece lists other examples, including one in which a racist prisoner beat his young Asian (in the UK sense) cellmate to death with a tableleg, and another where a prisoner not only killed his cellmate, but started to eat him. All told, there have been 14 deaths due to double bunking in the UK in the last nine years - and there is no sign of it stopping. In overcrowded and chaotic prisons there is no time to do proper psychological assessments and ensure that risks are managed, while staff institutionalised not to care have no interest in protecting prisoners from each other. The upshot is that despite the abolition of the death penalty in the UK, people die as a direct result of their imprisonment, in a completely preventable way. And if we follow in the UK's footsteps and introduce double-bunking, the same will happen here.

Espiner's constitutional illiteracy

Over on his blog, Colin Espiner comments on Sian Elias' speech on the failure of "tough on crime". In passing, he claims:

So we'll just build more prisons. Lock more people up. The crime rate will continue to rise. And Dame Sian will be quietly replaced, probably within the next year.
The clear implication is that the government will "replace" the Chief Justice - a position Espiner continued to cling to when challenged on it:
You're an intelligent guy, so I'd expect you to know that while the government can't sack judges, the Chief Justice essentially serves at the Government's pleasure. Yes, she's appointed by the Governor-General - on the recommendation of the Attorney-General. But you can't tell me that the Government has no influence over that appointment, and its lifespan.
Judges may be appointed for life, but in reality chief justices serve for ten or eleven years (check if you don't believe me) each. Dame Sian has served for ten.
Of course the Government doesn't have the power to remove her. I never suggested it did. Neither does it have the power to sack a single state servant. But there are ways and means of getting the message across.
Espiner isn't just utterly constitutionally illiterate here, but dangerously so. The government cannot sack a High Court (or Court of Appeal, or Supreme Court) Judge in New Zealand. Section 23 of the Constitution Act makes it clear:
A Judge of the High Court shall not be removed from office except by the Sovereign or the Governor-General, acting upon an address of the House of Representatives, which address may be moved only on the grounds of that Judge's misbehaviour or of that Judge's incapacity to discharge the functions of that Judge's office.
That motion can only be initiated by the Attorney-General, and then only in response to the recommendation of a Judicial Conduct Panel or if they are convicted of a serious offence. The reason for this is that we learned back in the seventeenth century that judges needed to be secure in their tenure so they could rule without fear or favour according to the law, rather than in the interests of the government of the day. Hence appointments to the judiciary are permanent, and judges hold office until they hit the mandatory retirement age (currently 70, increased from 68 in 2007).

The reason Chief Justices have tended to hold office for ten years in recent times is because the last couple were appointed at the age of 58, and served until retirement. Looking further back, judges served until the age of 72, and even longer before the 50's. One - O'Leary - died in office. The rest hung around until retirement, which in the case of Stout was for 27 years. None have ever been sacked, or "quietly replaced", or eased out. In the case of Elias, she was appointed at age 50, and can serve until she is 70. Meaning she will, barring accident or retirement, serve for another ten years.

As for Espiner, I'd expect a basic degree of constitutional literacy from a gallery journalist, particularly one as senior as himself. It's his job to know, so he can put politics in context for the rest of us. Unfortunately, in this case he doesn't seem to be doing it very well.