Thursday, December 31, 2009

The right to laugh at the ridiculous

Writing in Werewolf this month, James Robinson decries the "prejudice" against christians. As usual with these sorts of exercises, he conflates the right to believe with a right not to be laughed at - and that's the problem right there. There is simply no such right. People are free to believe what they want, and to express those beliefs - but if others find those beliefs laughable, then they can express that too.

In the past, Christianity was powerful enough to suppress such expressions, either legally or socially. Now its not. As a result, Christians are having to face the fact that many in society find their beliefs backward, ridiculous, or just plan silly, on the same level as those of the flat-earthers or those who believe in ghosts and faeries. They'd better get used to it. We don't have to pretend respect anymore, and we won't. And if their beliefs can't withstand such ridicule, then so much the worse for them.

New Fisk

Why did no imams plead for Akmal Shaikh's life to be spared?

For services to his own bank balance...

The New Year's honours list is out, and in addition to the expected and well-deserved ONZ for former Prime Minister Helen Clark, there's also a nasty surprise: a knighthood for Doug Myers. For those who have been asleep for the last two decades, Meyers was a driving force behind the neo-liberal revolution in this country, and along with his Business Roundtable mates was responsible for driving the place into the ground (while laughing all the way to the bank, of course). His business behaviour meanwhile typifies the sort of corrupt, self-serving practices we have come to expect from New Zealand's business "leaders". Giving him an award smacks of National (and ACT - they demanded a position on the Honours and Appointments Committee as part of their Confidence and Supply Agreement [PDF]) rewarding their donors. Unfortunately, due to vehicles like the Waitemata Trust, which laundered National's donations and kept the identity of their wealthy backers from public scrutiny, we will never know how much he paid for it.

Still, there is one positive side: National is showing us all why we shouldn't have knighthoods. As if "Sir" Roger Douglas and "Sir" Michael Fay weren't enough...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Fisk

The silent cleric who holds the key to Iran's future

Monday, December 28, 2009

Time to Mondayize our public holidays

Today is nominal Boxing Day. While the day itself was on Saturday, the public holiday is Mondayized, to ensure workers get their day off regardless. But while we're enjoying our three day weekend, we might want to look ahead to 2010, when both Waitangi Day and Anzac Day fall on a weekend. These holidays are not Mondayized, and so the net result will be that we get two holidays fewer than we are entitled to.

In Australia, ANZAC Day is Mondayised. While the commemorations happen on the day itself, the holiday is shifted to the Monday to give everyone a day off. We could do the same here - and for Waitangi Day too.

For Waitangi Day, the law change is trivial. For Anzac Day, its a bit more difficult, thanks to overlap with Easter (in 2011, Anzac Day coincides with Easter Monday) - but this too can be solved. So, anybody want to bring a bill?

New Fisk

In Ypres I suddenly realised what this war has been about

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The blogosphere is not above the law

Since the beginning, there's been a meme on the internet that the law doesn't really apply here, and that we can get away with anything. But while there may be practical difficulties (particularly if people are smart and careful), it certainly does, and if the government can track you down, they can certainly hold you to account for any misdeeds.

The New Zealand blogosphere is about to be reminded of this. Earlier in the month, a well-known sewerblogger published the name of an accused rapist, in violation of a suppression order. He is now being prosecuted, and if convicted he could be fined up to $1,000. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy...

But while this may give some bloggers pause for thought, it is not going to solve the wider problem of suppression orders being violated on the internet. Like it or not, we have a free market in legal jurisdiction now, meaning that people can simply view information legally published overseas. And if the government tries to crack down on that (as the Law Commission ahs suggested), the internet will simply interpret their attempted censorship as damage and route around it. It is now, in a practical sense and regardless of the ethics, impossible to keep such information secret. Which means the government is fighting a losing battle.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

None of their business

Over in the UK, the Conservative Party's families spokesperson David Willetts is concerned that marriage is becoming the preserve of the middle class, and that lots of people are simply no longer bothering to seek religious or state recognition of their relationships. As a "solution" he's proposing state promotion of marriage through discriminatory tax treatment, relationship lectures during civil marriage ceremonies, and a whole host of other intrusions into people's private affairs.

He should butt out. The state has no business in our bedrooms, and neither does it have any business in the form of our relationships. Provided everyone involved is a consenting adult, whether we are single, de facto, married, poly or swinging is simply none of their concern, any more than the gender of the participants is. They should have no role beyond providing a non-discriminatory legal framework for the attendant legal issues (next-of-kin / inheritance / property on separation). Trying to force us to conform to some preferred type of relationship with incentives and finger-wagging lectures is the worst sort of nanny-statism, and a gross abuse of state power.

No mercy for Lockwood

Last month, Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith threatened the parliamentary press gallery, saying that kick them out of their offices and instead treat them as lobbyists if they kept publishing stories about crooked politicians rorting the system. Today, the gallery got their revenge, highlighting his all-expenses-paid trip to India with his partner. You give it out, you get it back...

But while it may be satisfying, the story is actually a beat-up. Smith's travel is entirely legitimate. He's going there for a Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth, a bi-annual get together which fosters stronger relations and information exchange among Commonwealth parliaments. The gallery will no doubt sneer at this - but I think such gatherings are worthwhile; we learn about parliamentary practice from other countries, and they learn from us. Yes, he gets to take his partner with him - but given the pressures on MP's families caused by them having to work in Wellington while representing their electorates, I don't have a problem with that. And if the gallery do, they should actually make that argument, rather than trying to smear all travel by MPs as a rort.

A perverse incentive

National is concerned about poor outcomes at universities - too much money wasted on people failing courses. So they've announced that in future, university funding will be linked to student grades, and reduced if too many fail.

The aim is higher academic standards. But maintaining them means marking down or failing those who don't make the grade, so there's an obvious perverse incentive for grade inflation and passing marginal students - the exact opposite of what the government says it wants. But pass/fail rates will likely improve, so the government can claim it is getting what it wants (and issue a few press releases about how it has "improved" university standards), while the quality and reputation of our universities goes down the toilet.

(Meanwhile, the reduced funding will mean the government "has" to remove caps on fees, which will naturally see them rise. Which means an even higher entry fee on our meritocracy, and reduced social mobility as a result. National's rich backers, who want to perpetuate their own wealth and privilege, will be very happy with this. But the rest of us, who want the next generation to have a fair shot, should not be).

The Nasty Party

Not content with trying to force terminal cancer patients and those without limbs into the workforce, National is now planning a broader attack on beneficiaries by putting a time-limit on the unemployment benefit and forcing everyone to reapply after a year. This may very well dissuade some of the vanishingly small number of benefit cheats we have in this country - but at the cost of further victimising and punishing a much larger number of innocent people who are merely victims of economic circumstance and the government's unemployment-creating monetary policy. We wouldn't tolerate that sort of approach in the criminal justice system, and we shouldn't tolerate it in social policy either - especially when people's lives are on the line.

As for "savings", as The Standard points out, anyone ineligible for the benefit can already be removed from it, while processing benefit applications isn't cheap. The net result is that the government will be wasting millions of dollars a year needlessly reprocessing people simply in order to look tough. Meanwhile, the victims of this cruel PR exercise will be left utterly destitute. If the government follows the usual playbook and announces that "no-one truly in need will miss out", then they will be eligible for Temporary Additional Support, so there will be no savings. If they don't, or if people miss out and fall through the cracks, then the money "saved" will be respent ten times over by the police, courts, and corrections system as they respond to the inevitable increase in crime. Either way, all that stress, victimisation, and humiliation will be for nothing.

As with their other welfare policies, this is simply an expensive and wasteful exercise in sadism. And it shows that National really does deserve its name: the nasty party.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Democracy and foreign policy

Writing in the Guardian, David Wearing highlights the democratic deficit in UK foreign policy. 90% of the public opposed the war in Iraq, but Blair invaded. 61% opposed Israel's attack on Lebanon - but the UK government supported it. 63% oppose the UK's nuclear deterrent, but the government is renewing it. And this in a country with free elections and the right to protest, which is generally seen as a democracy.

Wearing identifies the core problem as the undue influence of wealth, which benefits greatly from the UK's "special relationship" with the US. That's part of the problem, but only part; a bigger problem is that foreign policy is traditionally seen as being about protecting the "national interest" - and both due to a legacy of absolute monarchy and the influence of foreign policy realists, that interest is seen as being independent of the will of the people, an idea which is simply anathema in a democracy. After all, if government policy isn't in some way reflective of our desires, then it has no mandate and is simply illegitimate.

New Zealand too suffers from this disease - our foreign policy is about making farmers rich and appeasing the American hegemon. MFAT fought tooth and nail against the nuclear ship ban, opposes international human rights treaties which might upset the US, and still opposes real action on climate change. But believe it or not, they've got better. Thanks to MMP, we have more control over the government, which in turn controls MFAT. And on core issues of foreign policy - the nuclear ban, or sending soldiers to die for American imperialism, governments know they will pay a heavy price at the ballot box. Our government can no longer do what it wants on the world stage, secure in the knowledge that we cannot effectively hold it to account.

Which points to one way forward for the UK. Yes, they need to rein in the power of lobbyists and eradicate those undemocratic attitudes amongst the foreign policy mandarins. But they also need electoral reform. Proportional representation will finally make the UK government accountable to its people. And that in turn will start to bring foreign policy under democratic control.

Conflicts of Interest at Environment Canterbury

The Auditor-General has ruled [PDF] that four Canterbury Regional Councillors violated conflict of interest rules to vote down a motion which affected them financially. The motion would have imposed user-charges on large water consent holders to cover the cost of allocation and enforcement. The councillors were all farmers, or had interests in farm companies. One was listed in the top twenty consent holders most affected by the charges. Despite this clear financial interest (which in one case was over $13,000 a year), the councillors ignored conflict of interest warnings and voted on the motion, defeating it. And they laughed all the way to the bank...

Sadly, they won't be prosecuted. But they should be. And hopefully it will also cause other councils - which tend to be dominated by farmers and property developers - to take a serious look at their own conflict of interest provisions to prevent such abuses in future.

Interestingly, the councillors involved played a key role in ousting former ECan chair Kerry Burke, who had laid the complaint against them. Revenge?

[Hat-tip: DPF]

Update: Switched link on ousting to a better one. And it was definitely revenge - all four of them voted to roll the chair who had complained about their conflict of interest.

Police support discrimination

The Dom-Post reporting on another bar owner trying to ban under 20's, says the move "could breach the Human Rights Act". There's no "could" about it. Age - meaning any age over 16 - is a prohibited ground of discrimination. It is illegal for businesses to discriminate in the provision of services on such grounds. The bar owner's actions are clearly unlawful, and the Dom-Post should say so.

But what's really disturbing about this case is that the police are supporting the ban:

Sergeant Jacquelyn Muir said police had to deal with youths fighting, drinking and loitering in the car park on Friday and Saturday nights.

She supported the pub's ban on under-20s.

"The bar are just trying to stamp it out. They're trying to attract a responsible crowd regardless of age or anything else, and good on them."

The police are charged with upholding the law. But here, they are explicitly supporting clearly illegal behaviour. And they wonder why people don't trust them...

Neeson appointment hits the media

Brian Neeson's appointment to the Human Rights Review Tribunal has hit the media, with stories in the Herald and on GayNZ. Sadly, neither Neeson nor Justice Minister Simon Power is fronting up to defend the appointment. The latter speaks volumes, but isn't exactly surprising - you don't announce something on the last Friday before the holidays if you want it to get attention. But Ministers have an obligation to front up and explain their actions to the public, and Power is failing in his duty here.

Fortunately, there is another potential source of information: Neeson's appointment (and the advice on it) will be documented, and those documents can be OIA'ed. And hopefully, some of those professional journalists are requesting them right now. And with the holiday break, the response will be due back right when Parliament resumes in February.

Equality comes to Mexico

Last month, Argentina almost became the first part of Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage, after a judge in Buenos Aires ruled that it was legal. Unfortunately, the ruling was swiftly overturned and is now before the country's Supreme Court. While they've been dithering, Mexico City has beaten them to it, with Federal District legislators voting 39-20 in favour of equality. Better, they're now working on a same-sex adoption law as well.

So, on social issues, New Zealand is now behind Mexico. Makes you proud to be a kiwi, neh?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Doing away with juries

Earlier in the year, Justice Minister Simon Power floated the idea of raising the threshold at which defendants can elect to be tried by jury from three months to three years - effectively doing away with jury trials for a host of offences. Now the government is pushing the idea further, publishing a draft bill [PDF] and discussion paper [PDF]. According to their figures, the move would eliminate around 40% of all jury trials, saving around $4 million a year, and freeing up court time for other cases, resulting in cheaper, speedier trials for all. You can hear the bureaucrats already: "it would be so much more efficient..."

But the gain in efficiency would come at the cost of justice. Juries are a vital element in our justice system, a bullshit detector which ensures the police do their job properly and prevents abuses of power by the state. Which is why 800 years ago the Magna Carta declared

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.
In practice, we've created a distinction between "minor" and "serious" offences, the latter of which deserve jury trials while the former do not. And this points out the real flaw in the government's thinking: that a punishment of three year's jail is "minor". And this is simply bullshit. Even a short jail term handed out as a summary punishment can result in a loss of employment and severe financial stress (that’s simply on the practicalities, without considering the effects of the actual conviction). When you're talking years, then the sentence automatically becomes one of unemployment, and frequently one of relationship breakup as well.

If Power really thinks three years is "minor", he should put his money where his mouth is and volunteer to serve such a sentence. Then we can see whether he still thinks it when he gets out.

Brian Neeson's greatest hits

On Friday, the government appointed former National MP Brian Neeson to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, a judicial body which decides on human rights complaints. This isn't just a case of cronyism - as I argued on Friday, the man is an outright bigot. Courtesy of Hansard, here's a few of his greatest hits:

  • In 1991, during the committee stage of the Employment Contracts Act, Neeson voted to allow employers to discriminate on the basis of gender.
  • In 1993, Neeson voted to exclude sexual orientation from the Human Rights Bill (which became the Human Rights Act). He also voted to exclude AIDS and HIV from the definition of "physical health" in the prohibited grounds of discrimination, to allow health professionals and teachers to be sacked for being gay, to allow the armed forces and the police to continue to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, and to allow employers to "conscientiously object" to the requirement not to discriminate, effectively granting a licence for bigotry. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful on all counts.
  • On the Human Rights Act (third reading speech, 27 July 1993):
    I voted against the amendments. I did so through a sincere belief that an exclusive group that chooses to behave in the way that it does [he is talking about gays - I/S] will get superior treatment under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. I do not for one moment believe that any group that chooses to behave in the way that it does should have exclusive treatment in the way that it does. At the same time I do not believe that any group in society should be singled out simply because its members are known to behave in a certain way, and, because of that, are given the sack from a job or from any other area of society.

    In my day I have employed many people and it has never come into my head that I should even ask somebody what his or her preferential behaviour is when it comes to sex or to his or her own sexuality---and I would never ask.

    But at a time when someone behaves in an extreme way it is up to me to have the right to tell that person that that is not the way to behave, and it does not matter whether he or she is homosexual or anything else. I think that everybody would agree with that. When it comes to that particular point an employer should have the right to be able to turn around and say to someone: ``Enough is enough; that's not the way that you are going to behave in my premises or in my employ, whoever you are.''.

    The latter is of course exactly what the Human Rights Act, Commission, and Review Tribunal are established to prevent. Elsewhere in the debate, he compared gays to paedophiles.
  • In 2000, during the committee stage of the Property Relationships Amendment Act 2001, Neeson voted against the extension of the law to cover de-facto couples and specifically same-sex de-facto couples, supporting several amendments at Committee which undermined the aim of the Act.
  • On families (debate on appointments to the Abortion Supervisory Committee, 30 August 2001):
    Family life means a mother, or a woman, and a father---which equals a man---taking responsibility for their actions together. Today, we live in a very selfish ``me, my, and I'' type of world. We do not have a situation any more in which ``they, we, and us'' is very important---unless it affords some personal gain.

    If this continues, and we continue to have a meltdown in family life, abortions will continue to rise, along with the problems we have every day with teenage suicide, and with our children out there, who do not know who the hell they are any more or what is real, what is up and what is down. All the fences that protected them in the past have been broken down, and today it is not women who have been set free, it is men who have been set free from responsibility. Many women who go into relationships find that when they get into a situation that a man cannot stand or take, he simply walks away from it. The law does not provide any remedy that does nearly enough to bring that person back to face his responsibility in any way.

    Marital status and family status are both prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Human Rights Act. Neeson's views of an ideal traditional family structure with which all should conform are diametrically opposed to those principles of non-discrimination.
  • On the Human Rights Amendment Act 2001 (Third reading speech, 11 December 2001):
    The Human Rights Amendment Bill is probably one of the most dangerous bills that I have seen come into this House. It is not a bill that provides benefits to anyone. It is a bill of Orwellian proportions that takes away from people fundamental freedoms: the freedom of expression, the freedoms to think as one will, to speak as one will, and to do as one will, as long as one does not transgress the basic sensibilities and basic rights of any human being...

    This document has nothing to do with rights; it has everything to do with social engineering and social control. This document is set up to make sure that the average New Zealander is watched over by Big Sister---not by Big Brother. We have gone beyond the protection of individual rights in the original bill---which I personally did not support even then...

    (Emphasis added; the Act folded the former office of the Race Relations Conciliator into the Human Rights Commission and gave the HRRT the power to bring inconsistent law to the attention of Parliament. Quelle horreur!)
I think this shows enough of Neeson's views. The man is a bigot who supports discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, and family status. Appointing him to the Human Rights Review Tribunal is like appointing Taito Philip Field to an anti-corruption taskforce.

Less than sincere

TVNZ has upheld complaints against Paul Henry, agreeing that his comments about singer Susan Boyle were in bad taste. That's good news - it suggests that they at least know what the words mean - but I'm left wondering whether it will change anything. There's no suggestion that Henry will face any punishment for his abuse, and TVNZ's head of news goes out of his way to defend him, saying that his "boundary-pushing style" and "sense of humour" have a "legitimate place" in broadcasting. Yeah, right. We don't tolerate abusing people for their disabilities or their appearance in public; why should we tolerate it on TV?

The result is that TVNZ's finding looks less than sincere, an attempt to placate the public while doing absolutely nothing to address the underlying problem of Henry's overinflated ego and nasty sense of superiority. Which means he'll simply do it again in a month or two.

Update: And according to the Herald, Henry has made the usual non-apology, "apologising" that "ome people have taken what I said in a way that I never intended". In other words, its not his fault - its ours for being "hypersensitive". What a prick.

One person, one vote

The above is the core principle of democracy. Everyone is morally equal, and so their voices should count equally in choosing a government.

Unfortunately, its not a principle we respect in local government. In local elections - but not national ones - we have a special class of "ratepayer electors", non-residents who pay rates on property, and are thus entitled to vote. Of course, the place they actually live also elects a local government, and so the net effect is that the wealthy get to vote twice (or more, if they own property in more than one local authority). And we wonder why our local government works in their favour...

As Matt McCarten points out, Rodney Hide's latest Auckland dictatorship bill includes a clause extending this process to the new Auckland boards. This seems to be necessary because they are neither "communities" nor local authorities in terms of the Local Government Act. But Hide's clause does not include the safeguard preventing the nomination of multiple individuals by absentees who own multiple properties, and it seems to be privileged above the general bar on multiple voting in the Local Electoral Act - with the net effect that "one person, one vote" is replaced with "one property, one vote". And as McCarten points out, this could shift the results decisively:

This is not a small matter. Almost a third of Aucklanders own or have an interest in a second property, while another third are renters. That potentially means that a third - the wealthiest - Aucklanders will be entitled to double the votes of the renting third. The region's poorest neighbourhoods currently have three-quarters of their houses owned by others. In Labour and Green strongholds in the inner city and the western suburbs of Manukau, absentee landlords would potentially outvote the locals. So much for citizens controlling their own communities.
If this bill goes through, people will be disenfranchised in their own communities, outvoted by absentees with a strong interest in undermining the services they depend on in order to minimise their rates bills. And that's simply not democratic.

But while the proximate cause is Hide's bill, the real problem is the archaic retention of "ratepayer electors" in the Local Electoral Act. Its time we did away with this, and returned to "one person, one vote", rather than giving the rich an unequal say.

Climate change: A picture is worth a thousand words


Legally binding emissions reduction targets were the key goal of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Copenhagen Accord [PDF] doesn't contain any. And without them, the document is simply a waste of paper.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Fisk

If you think we can ignore these linguistic crimes, think again

Climate change: Meaningless

Copenhagen is wrapping up, and world leaders are trumpeting the fact that they have reached a "meaningful agreement" on climate change. But as the Guardian points out, its a lot less meaningful than it sounds:

The climate change summit had three big tickets on its agenda: emissions, financial assistance and the process going ahead. And on each of these counts the accord – which was effectively hammered out not by the whole conference, but rather by the US, India, China and South Africa – fell woefully short. There was no serious cementing of the positive noises on aid that had emerged earlier on in the week. On emissions, a clear-eyed vision for the distant future was rendered a pipe dream by outright fuzziness about the near term. And most alarmingly of all, there was no clear procedural roadmap to deliver the world from the impasse that this summit has landed it in.
I'm with Jeanette - this is worse than failure, in that it gives the illusion that something is being done, while in fact allowing things to continue exactly as they are, and it is a disgrace that New Zealand is backing it. Instead, we should be working with the EU to get a real climate deal, with legally binding emissions targets and a proper mitigation funding mechanism. Anything less is simply spin and bullshit.

Our leaders have failed us today. All of them. And they should suffer the electoral consequences. Eicite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius!

Friday, December 18, 2009

National's human rights appointments

The Human Rights Review Tribunal is a body established under the Human Rights Act 1993 to hear complaints of discrimination. It is a judicial body with powers to make orders and award compensation. In certain circumstances, it can even declare legislation to be inconsistent with the BORA and force Parliament to respond.

You'd expect those appointed to such a body to be experienced in law, particularly human rights law and discrimination. National has just announced nine new members of its panel. And while some meet that description, it also includes the following:

  • Wendy Gilchrist - real estate agent and failed Christchurch local body candidate (Independent Citizens - which is the local National Party);
  • Pastor Ravi Musuku - failed National Party candidate (Mt Albert, 2008), a fundamentalist Christian bigot who thinks that "having no kids makes you inferior".
  • Brian Neeson - former National MP, archconservative who blames everything bad on prostitution and abortion and who virulently opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Human Rights Act. More recently, he opposed the Human Rights Amendment Act 2001, which restructured the HRC and HRRT as well as removing various discriminatory provisions from new Zealand law, as an "Orwellian" bill about "social control" by "Big Sister".
  • Ken Shirley - former ACT MP.

In other words, National is treating the human rights bench as a sinecure for its failed candidates and mates, at least two of whom are outright bigots. The former is merely tawdry cronyism; the latter undermines the Tribunal itself. Musuku and Neeson are simply unfit to be appointed to the HRRT. Their previously expressed views call into question their ability to rule fairly and according to law on cases involving discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, marriage, family status, and sexual orientation. Their presence on the panel calls the fairness of the Tribunal into question, and risks making it a laughing stock.

Time for the Governor-General to pay tax

For the past year the Law Commission has been reviewing the portions of the Civil List Act 1979 relating to the funding of the Governor-General. Yesterday they released their report [PDF], in which they call for the Governor-General to pay tax.

It's a good call. The present situation, in which the Governor-General's salary is tax-exempt, is a monarchical holdover from the days when it was the Queen's government rather than the people's, and it made little sense for the monarch to be paying tax effectively to themselves (besides, they didn't want us peasants to know how filthy rich they were, lest we decide that a little redistribution was in order). But the Queen has "voluntarily" paid tax on her UK income since 1993. It is time her New Zealand representative followed suit.

This would make little difference to the Governor-General - the law would take effect at the next appointment, and their salary would simply be increased to compensate. But it would firmly establish the principle that in New Zealand, we are all equal under the law, and end another monarchical relic.

Killing Wanganui softly

Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson has finally made a decision on W(h)anganui - and decided to make both names official. This is being presented as a compromise, respecting both parties - but with crown agencies expected to use the "h", its more a slow death for the traditional spelling. After all, who other than a few diehard Taranaki rednecks calls it "Mt Eggmont" anymore?

Climate change: Bribery

One of the heroes of the Copenhagen conference has been Tuvalu, which has stood up for the global climate and called for tougher emissions targets, much to the embarrassment of rich polluting nations. And surprise, surprise, the Australian government has tried to bribe them to shut up. According to Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia:

There are some countries like Australia who have been trying to arrange a meeting with us to probably water down our position on 1.5 degrees celsius. We did not attend that meeting, but I heard from other small islands that Australia was trying to tell them if they agree to the 2 degrees limit, money would be on the table for adaptation process. That’s there choice to accept the money and back down. But Tuvalu will not. As I said in my speech, 1.5 degrees celsius is our bottom line…
The problem for Australia is that for Tuvalu, this isn't a matter of money - its a matter of survival. Their future is at stake, and their country will cease to exist if climate pollution is allowed to continue. If someone offered you money to be quiet while they murdered you, you'd look at them as if they were crazy. But that's exactly the situation Tuvalu is in. We are killing them. And we shouldn't expect them to meekly shut up about it.

Climate change: Key needs to put his money where his mouth is

John Key arrived in Copenhagen this morning, and immediately gave a a speech recognising the needs of vulnerable nations, and calling on developed nations to "give a little, so we as a world can gain a lot".

Fine words. But I'd like to see some action. Its easy to talk and call for commitment, but Key needs to put his money where his mouth is and put something on the table - for example, by unilaterally committing to a greater emissions cut than he is offering at present. Until he does that, then this is just more hollow words from a hollow man, who like the rest of them is lying to us.

[Hat-tip: Sign On]

Climate change: Our leaders are lying to us

World leaders are gathering in Copenhagen in an effort to hash out a deal to control greenhouse gas emissions. A core part of the deal will be a pledge to restrict the global temperature rise to less than two degrees. But a leaked UN draft shows that the emissions cuts offered so far are inadequate - and that unless they are raised, we are on track for 3 degrees:

The paper was drafted by the UN secretariat running the Copenhagen summit and is dated 11pm on Tuesday evening. It is marked "do not distribute" and "initial draft". It shows a gap of up to 4.2 gigatonnes of carbon emissions between the present pledges and the required level of 44Gt, which is required to staying below a 2C rise. No higher offers have since been made.

"Unless the remaining gap of around 1.9-4.2Gt is closed and Annexe 1 parties [countries] commit themselves to strong action before and after 2020, global emissions will remain on an unsustainable pathway that could lead to concentrations equal or above 550 parts per million, with the related temperature rise around 3C," it says.

This is serious. According to the Stern Report [PDF], that extra degree means an extra 160 million people flooded out of their homes, an extra half billion suffering from famine, and an extra 5% - 10% of the world's species going extinct. Plus of course a much greater chance of "abrupt changes" such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. That's the price of our leaders' greed and selfishness - and its not a price we as a planet can afford.

The dishonesty of this is appalling. Our leaders are lying to us, promising something while working to ensure that they cannot deliver. But this only works if we are ignorant. And now that we are not, we must tell them clearly: be honest, keep your promises, make meaningful emissions cuts that keep temperature rise below 2 degrees - or be de-elected.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The question

The Clerk of the House has determined the final form of the question in Larry Baldock's proposed referendum on referenda:

Should Parliament be required to pass legislation that implements the majority result of a citizens initiated referendum where that result supports a law change?
Its a long way from his original "Should Citizens Initiated Referenda seeking to repeal or amend a law be binding", but it covers the same ground. At the same time, it also permits the same unclarities that led to the question being asked in the first place. For example, the Fifth Labour government would argue that it did indeed pass legislation to implement the result of the 1999 "law and order" referendum. Sure, it didn't institute hard labour, but it increased sentences, imposed minimum sentences, gave greater regard to the needs of victims and restored weregild (sorry, "restitution" and compensation). Or, to pick the more obvious example, the present government would argue that the result in the recent child-beating referendum did not in fact support a law change, due to the nonsensical question (a "smack as part of good parental correction" apparently not being a criminal offence in New Zealand).

If Baldock's referendum passes and is enacted into law (though note that it will not itself be binding), then referendum promoters are going to have to be a lot clearer in their questions than they have been in the past if they want them to be acted upon - something they seem to have a constitutional inability to do.

Of course, we're a long way from that. Baldock needs to collect over 300,000 valid signatures in the next year in order to force a vote. And while he will be hoping to ride populist anger over the "failure" of the government to act on the previous referendum, the fact that the law is working, not to mention the repeated demonstrations of bad faith on the part of him and his pro-child-beating allies, may defuse that somewhat.

He won't be getting my signature. While I support the general idea of binding referenda, I want to see them as part of a robust process which ensures a clear question and that there are checks and balances to protect human rights and prevent things like the Swiss atrocity. And that is simply not what Baldock is proposing.

Andrew Geddis has more at Pundit here.

Climate change: Saying no to "clean coal"

While the Copenhagen talks are still bogged down in disagreements between rich and poor, one good thing has come out of them: carbon capture and storage has been shut out of the Clean Development Mechanism, meaning that companies won't be able to get credits for investing in CCS plants in the developing world. The reason? Because the science is still unclear about how long the carbon will stay in the ground - and hence whether the "reductions" it offers are real or illusory. There are also strong legal issues about the liability for any seepage - quite important when companies will be getting millions of dollars in credits for any storage.

The rejection of CCS means that the CDM will not be hijacked to subsidise dirty, polluting coal. It will also help to further discourage coal generation, by ramming home the fact that reliable CCS is still years away. And that this stage of the climate battle, that is exactly the message we need to be sending.

Swiss minaret ban goes to court

Last month, in an appalling display of xenophobia and religious bigotry, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban minarets. Now the ban is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

IMHO the challengers have an open and shut case. The European Convention on Human Rights affirms the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to manifest one's beliefs alone or with others in public or in private. Such manifestation can only be subjected to such restrictions as

are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
The minaret ban infringes this right, by restricting the right of Swiss Muslims to build their preferred religious buildings. Other religions with similar buildings - Christians with belltowers, for example - are unaffected. That's a prima facie case of discrimination right there. And it does it specifically in an effort to prevent the growth and visibility of that religion. In other words, the law is a deliberate attempt to interfere in religious freedom.

The interesting bit is that the Swiss government opposes the ban, and will be arguing against it in Strasbourg. Which makes you wonder why a hearing is necessary at all. Can't they just settle and save everyone the time?

Let the silly season begin!

Parliament adjourned for the year yesterday, and all the MPs went home for a threetwo-month holiday. They will next sit on 9 February. So, no politics for a while.

As a result, the posting rate here will slow down over the holidays. It will pick up again when normal politics resumes. In the meantime, enjoy the sun.

Correction: math-o.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prisoners deserve the vote

New Zealand is a democracy. This means every adult gets to vote, right?

Wrong. The Electoral Act 1993 disqualifies various groups from voting. Some of this is reasonable - people who don't actually live here, for example, or those convicted of corrupt electoral practices like electoral fraud. Some of it is not. Currently we disqualify those undergoing long-term treatment for mental health - a measure inconsistent with Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which we ratified earlier in the year. We also disqualify those serving terms of imprisonment of three years or longer, including life sentences and sentences of indefinite detention.

We actually used to be worse. The Electoral Act 1956 disqualified anyone "detained in a hospital under the Mental Health Act" or "detained in any penal institution pursuant to a conviction". This was only repealed with the passage of the Electoral Act 1993, largely due to the influence of the BORA, which affirmed electoral rights subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society".

I'll leave the mental health disqualification for another day, because I want to focus on prisoners. National MP Paul Quinn currently has a bill in the member's ballot which seems to be aimed at returning us to the pre-1993 status quo, and stripping all prisoners of the vote. And this is simply untenable. While they have committed offences and are detained in prison, prisoners are still members of our society. They still have interests, which are no less important than anyone else's. And while they may not have to worry so much about healthcare and taxes, the fact that they are fully subject to the coercive power of the state means they have very strong interests in holding politicians to account for how that power is used. This means that we shouldn't be taking the vote off prisoners again - instead, we should be giving it back to them, and making sure that everyone in our society, even those serving long prison terms can vote. Anything less is simply undemocratic.

This has sparked some discussion over on Red Alert, and after a request, I've drafted a bill: the Electoral (Prisoners' Voting Rights) Amendment Bill. The trick now is finding an MP courageous enough to make the principled argument for democracy and put it in the ballot. Any takers?

Correction: I had misinterpreted s80(c)(iii), which applies only to those who become mentally disordered in prison. People who are merely detained for treatment, but not criminals or criminally insane are fully entitled to vote. Mea culpa, mea culpa. But it does make for a nice simple amendment to the bill.

Equality wins in Washington DC

The Washington DC City Council - effectively the federal district's governing body - has voted 11-2 to legalise same-sex marriage. The bill will become law in the next few days when it is signed by the mayor, and absent a Congressional veto (highly unlikely), gay couples could begin tying the knot as early as March.

What National means for health

Thanks to constant underfunding, my local public hospital is now seeking corporate sponsorship. I can imagine it now: they could have the McDonald's heart-disease unit, the Tui Accident & Emergency room, and the British-American Tobacco cancer ward. Because that's why we have a public health system: so we can plaster the names of the companies who cause many of our health problems all over it.

Worse, the immediate financial pressure which has driven them to this comes from the government. Since the 80's, the government has charged bits of itself a "capital charge" to cover depreciation on capital assets (which are typically centrally funded; the charge theoretically allows them to buy a new asset at the end of its expected lifetime. You local crumbling school or hospital is an example of how the government reneges on its end of the bargain). A recent revaluation has increased the book value of the DHB's assets by $19 million, which means an extra $2.5 million a year on depreciation. Doing the maths, that means the government is demanding a 13% return on investment - or effectively replacing every hospital building and major medical instrument every 8 years. Somehow, I don't think they're doing that.

This makes an absolute mockery of the government's promise to focus more on frontline services. Instead, money is being ripped out of actual healthcare to keep the bean-counters happy, and my DHB is having to put out a begging bowl to make up the difference. Its just not good enough. And with English tightening the fiscal screws, we're only going to see more of this over the next few years.

Jon Morgan on dirty dairying

The Dominion Post this morning has a piece by farming correspondent Jon Morgan in which he comes out against dirty dairying. Having previously accepted the assurances of farming organisations such as Fonterra and Federated Farmers that dairy farming was being unfairly targeted by "shrill and vindictive" environmentalists, he has now changed his mind. The reason?

It's the science. Tests of the Manawatu River show poor ecosystem health, caused, the scientists say, primarily by dairy runoff. Sure, there's other factors - town sewage pollution is a disgrace and regional councils should be more diligent about curbing it - but the scientific finger is pointing at those cows calmly ruminating in their fields.

That's just one river. Others around the country are also affected, maybe not so badly, but it cannot be a coincidence that the worst are in dairy regions. Hill country farmers don't escape blame, either. Sediment from slips on denuded hills is given as a reason for low native fish populations.

His conclusion? "In sensitive areas... the only alternative may be to reduce cow numbers". Though he also suggests going organic as a way to preserve farm incomes by producing a premium product (in financial terms at least) from a smaller herd.

Its good to see that at least one farm advocate can change their mind based on the evidence. Now, if only Federated Farmers and Fonterra would do the same...


Thanks to another bill being delayed, a ballot for member's bills was held this morning, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Resource Management (Requiring Authorities) Amendment Bill (Ruth Dyson)

It has previously been covered in "In the ballot", here.

The full list of bills is on Red Alert.

There was one new bill in the ballot today: Nicky wagner's Family Proceedings (Paternity Orders and Parentage Tests) Amendment Bill.

Pundit on flags

Pundit's David Lewis has the perfect rebuttal to those "concerned" about flying the tino rangitiratanga flag alongside the colonial one on Waitangi Day:

When the English flag – the cross of St George - flies next to the Union Jack on Windsor Castle, does that shake the foundations of Westminster democracy? Likewise the Scottish flag of St Andrew ‘s cross flying over the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, or the Welsh dragon flying on official buildings in Wales?
And the answer is "of course not" - it merely recognises people's dual identities as English / Scottish / Welsh as well as part of the UK. This is no different. And to refuse it, to insist that people have no identity but being a "New Zealander", is a toxic, puerile nationalism.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Not OK

The "it's not OK" campaign against family violence has been hugely successful, leading to an increase in reporting and intervention. So naturally, the government is stopping it from June next year. Instead, they'll be spending the money on a new "Aroha in Action" campaign, targeted solely at Māori. The subtext? Family violence is an exclusively Māori problem, and rich Pakeha like this guy never beat their partners.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has responded to questions about this by saying

Victims are disproportionately Māori. In 2006 nearly 50 percent of hospital admissions because of family violence were Māori. If the victims are disproportionately Māori, should not the solution be, as well?
But we're not talking about a "disproportionately Māori" solution here - we're talking about an exclusively Māori one - and one that by Bennett's own admission ignores half of the problem while stigmatising Māori. And that's just not OK.

Holding Israel to account

Two important stories from the Guardian this morning on the world's attempts to hold Israeli leaders to account for their war crimes in Gaza and Palestine. Last month, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon cancelled a fundraising trip to the UK after he was warned that he could face arrest for his role in the indiscriminate murder of civilians in Gaza in 2002. Better, a court actually issued an arrest warrant on war crimes charges for former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni over her role in directing Israel's war crimes [PDF] in Gaza in January this year. The warrant was subsequently withdrawn after Livni also cancelled her trip - but unlike Ya'alon, she does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and had she set foot in the UK, could have been arrested and prosecuted.

The message to Israeli politicians is clear: the UK is not a safe haven for war criminals, and if they go there, they may face prosecution.

Playing with our identity

Yesterday, Cabinet finally confirmed its decision to fly the tino rangatiratanga flag on Waitangi Day. Good. As I noted when the in-principle decision was made last month, this makes a strong statement about what sort of country we are: one which includes rather than excludes Maori, and one which looks forward to its future in the Pacific rather than its past with Britain.

Not everyone agrees with that statement. In the Herald, Audrey Young warns darkly of "resentment" and (with the typical conservative fear of change) that it "could be the turning point or rallying point for something quite unforseen". But those disagreeing are largely the old, who grew up in a little white Britain-in-the-south-seas, and who have grown increasingly uncomfortable as the country has become increasingly diverse and Maori have become more assertive about their rights (the Brash / Goff / Winston demographic). At every assertion of Maori identity and power, these people have cried "separatism" - and every time they have been wrong. Young's piece is just the latest of these cries. And meanwhile, the demographic she is writing for dies off, their hold on our national identity weakens and power shifts to a new generation more comfortable with our bi- and multi-cultural heritage.

The next stage in that shift in identity is clearly to recognise Maori in our official name ("Aotearoa-New Zealand" sounds like a good idea to me) and our flag. But we'll have to wait for a few more old people to die first...

Sitting on a Thursday

Buried in the Order Paper: a Sessional Order to allow the House to sit, by motion, on Thursday mornings. Its not urgency, and wouldn't allow the normal rules around the introduction of legislation or gaps between readings to be bypassed, but it would allow more time while also allowing select committees to operate.

This neatly strips the government of its major Crosby-Textor spin line used to justify its systematic abuse of urgency: that they like to "work hard" (in supposed contrast to the opposition, and implicitly smearing anyone who wants proper scrutiny of legislation as "lazy"). Sadly, I don't think that will stop them doing it - the reason for urgency has almost always been about a desire to shut down the conversation and legislate before the public can object, rather than any real need for speed. But it will reduce the extent of the abuse somewhat, and hopefully will help build the culture that urgency is unacceptable even further.

Climate change: A poor performance

With negotiations at Copenhagen underway, Germanwatch and the Climate Action Network have released their fifth annual Climate Change Performance Index [PDF], which ranks major industrialized and developing nations on their efforts to combat climate change. New Zealand ranks 55th out of 60 - worse than the United States. Unfortunately they don't have a breakdown of our score, but looking at the methodology [PDF], it will suffer because we have rising emissions, a poor performance against international targets, a high emissions intensity, poor domestic policy, and we are fast becoming a climate villain on the international stage. About the only thing that's saving us from being down there with Canada and Saudi Arabia is our high level of renewable energy (and the government wants to erode that by building coal-fired power stations).

We have to do better than this. There is currently a yawning gap between our "100% pure", clean and green image, the way we like to think of ourselves, and reality. Our government should be closing that gap. Instead, it seems to want to widen it. And that will eventually have serious repercussions on our tourism and dairy exports, making us all worse off. But I guess by then the cannibals with golf clubs who run this country will all be dead, leaving us to clean up their mess.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chile votes

Chileans went to the polls today in the first round of presidential elections, and seem to be on-course for a major change, with right-wing candidate Sebastián Piñera leading on 44% of the vote. That's not enough to avoid a runoff, but the fact that he is leading signifies a significant change in Chile, which has not elected a right-winger to the presidency since the return of democracy 20 years ago. In the last election, he got only 24.5%, so opinion has definitely shifted.

As for the man himself, he's a media and football billionaire who profited from Pinochet's privatisations and supported the dictatorship in the 80's. There's an obvious comparison to Italy's Berlusconi there, but he'd have to work hard to be that bad.

The runoff election will be on January 17th.

Meanwhile, the right seems to have done well in Parliamentary elections as well, with partial results indicating a bare majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Interestingly, those results also show it winning that majority with fewer votes than the opposition, thanks to Chile's unfair electoral system (d'Hondt within 2-seat districts). It clearly needs to be changed, but with the right in power, that won't be happening any time soon.

Climate change: Reports from Copenhagen

John Key headed off for Copenhagen today. He's late. There's already three opposition MP's there, and they're using their party blogs to give us regular updates on what's going on.

Over on FrogBlog, Jeanette Fitzsimons blogs about the importance of forestry and the need to end illegal logging - responsible for half of all deforestation - by import bans in the countries the environmental criminals are selling to. Meanwhile, Kennedy Graham talks about patriotism, internationalism, and his first street protest. And over on Red Alert, Labour's Charles Chauvel looks at what New Zealand can do to make a better contribution (short version: have policies which actually reduce emissions).

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that por nations are preparing a mass walkout on the final day if as expected the rich countries continue to negotiate in bad faith and attempt to push a bad deal through at the last minute. As I said, they've had enough of these antics in WTO negotiations, and have learned that the way to deal with them is to refuse to participate. Unfortunately, the rich countries - and that includes us - seem unwilling to cease these abhorrent tactics, or put selfishness aside for the sake of the planet.

Climate change: A war for the future

Worldchanging's Alex Steffen has a piece on the intergenerational battle over climate change, pointing out that the vast gulf in perspective between the old dead men who "lead" us on this issue, who will almost certainly be dead by the time the effects really begin to be felt, and the young, who will see those effects in their lifetimes. Like Steffen, I'm between the two groups, officially untrustworthy. But I have even odds of making it to 2050, and so my future is at stake too. Which makes the following resonate powerfully:

To be young and aware today is to see your elders burning our civilization down around our ears. To hear scientists tell us we’re in the final countdown, with the risk of runaway climate change (along with the ecosystem collapses and horrific human suffering it will bring) mounting with every day we run business as usual. To hear nearly a chorus of credible voices—from doctors and scientists to retired generals and former bankers— warning that to lose this fight is to lose everything that makes our world livable and gives the future hope.

You wouldn’t think a war could start over such simple ideas.

To be young and aware is to see old people—from the U.S. Senate to Wall Street, from newspaper editorial desks to corporate boardrooms—stalling action on every front, spouting platitudes about “balance,” committing themselves wholeheartedly to actions to be undertaken long after they’ve retired and died. To be told that the world’s scientists are participating in a giant hoax; to be chided for not understanding how the real world works; to be warned that doing the right thing will bankrupt us; to be told that not wanting to melt the ice caps and circle the equator in deserts makes you too radical to take seriously.

To be young and aware is to know you’re being lied to; to know that a bright green future is possible; to know that we can reimagine the world, rebuild our cities, redesign our lives, retool our factories, distribute innovation and creativity and all live in a world that is not only better than the alternative, but much better than the world we have now.

To be young and aware is to suspect that, in the end, the debate about climate action isn’t about substance, but about rich old men trying to squeeze every last dollar, euro, and yen from their investments in outdated industries. It is to agree with the environmentalist Paul Hawken that we have an economy that steals the future, sells it in the present, and calls it GDP. It is to begin to see your elders as cannibals with golf clubs.

"Cannibals with golf clubs" - the phrase perfectly describes Key, McCully, Smith, Groser, the membership of Federated Farmers and the boards of the major polluters who are working to ensure that New Zealand does nothing about this problem, is part of it rather than part of the solution. These fuckers are eating the future - my future, my friends' future, their kids' future. And if we want them to grow up (and us to grow old) in a future which hasn't been ruined by climate change, we need to stop the old now.

Was it worth it?

So, after weeks of argument, we finally know what Phil Goff's pandering to racism was worth: a 4% rise in a poll that (having previously shown National at a historic high and Labour at a low) was almost certain to rise anyway. The obvious question for Labour is "was it worth it?" Pissing all over your principles and burning your relationship with Maori and the Maori Party for that?

As someone who takes those principles seriously, I don't think it would be worth it even if such Brash-channelling had produced an Orewa-like response. But those who don't, and who see sacrificing the fundamental commitment to equality which lies at the heart of the left-wing project simply as a matter of cost-benefit analysis, might want to think about whether the "benefit" was worth it - or if it can even be distinguished from the noise.

New Fisk

You can glimpse the divine in a carpet as in a cave

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In defence of (some) name suppression

So, someone in the sewer has outed the olympic sportsman currently accused of rape. They're outraged that name suppression was granted in this case - and given some recent cases, where it seems to have been granted to the rich and famous solely on the basis of their manufactured celebrity, I agree there are strong reasons for suspicion. But this is not such a case. There are a number of perfectly valid reasons why pre-trial suppression orders can be granted in the interests of justice, and this clearly falls into that category. Unfortunately, making that argument would likely also breach the suppression order. So, I'll simply say this:

The accused sportsman faces four charges of rape, one abduction charge, one charge of unlawful sexual connection, five charges of assault, one of threatening to kill and one of threat of intent to injure.
These are serious charges, and if you believe the accused to be guilty of them, then what you should be hoping for is that they are tried, convicted, and punished according to law. Violating the suppression order puts that process in jeopardy. It creates instant grounds for appeal, and some risk of an acquittal to prevent a miscarriage of justice. If you think they're guilty, then that is the very last thing you should want to see happen.

Friday, December 11, 2009


The Cluster Munitions Prohibition Act 2009, which bans the use, development, possession, and transfer of cluster munitions by New Zealanders, members of the New Zealand Defence Force, and New Zealand companies, unanimously passed its third reading last night. Good. Cluster bombs are a totally indiscriminate weapon which make no distinction between military and civilian targets and are intentionally designed to create a long-term danger to civilian lives. They are a scourge on humanity. And I'm glad that Aotearoa is doing its bit to outlaw them internationally by ratifying the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

If only they were as devoted to fixing climate change...

Drinking Liberally Auckland

Drinking Liberally is on again in Auckland next Tuesday, with guest speaker Political commentator Andrew Campbell giving a year in review:

When: 19:00, Tuesday, 15 November
Where: The Kingslander, 470 New North Rd, Kingsland (note change in venue!)

New Fisk

A glittering palace that's built on shifting sands

More on industrial dairying

Resource consent applications for five industrial dairy farms in the Mackenzie basin have attracted over 1500 submissions, some from as far away as Europe. People clearly have an opinion on this, and its a bad one. Its a pity then that Waitaki District Council has already granted land-use and irrigation consents to three farms without public notification. Perhaps they were afraid of what people might say?

That story also highlights the sort of people we're dealing with: one of New Zealand's dirtiest dairy farmers, with multiple convictions for dumping his cowshit in our rivers:

An Amberley farmer with plans to build controversial dairy farms in the Mackenzie Basin has one of the worst compliance records in Southland.

Cornelis Zeestraten, also known as Kees, is the director of Five Rivers Ltd, which wants to build seven dairy farms near Omarama, with plans to keep up to 7000 cows in cubicle stables 24 hours a day for up to eight months of the year.

Mr Zeestraten is also the director of Union Station Dairies Ltd, which owns a Tussock Creek (Central Southland) farm that was fined $25,000 by the Environment Court in August for unlawfully discharging dairy shed effluent to land.

The company was fined $5000 in 2004, and $15,000 in 2007, for similar offending.

Environment Southland compliance manager Mark Hunter said no other Southland dairy farm had been prosecuted three times.

Once convicted, a company was automatically prosecuted for further breaches, he said.

Environment Southland records show another company of which Mr Zeestraten is a former director, Southern Friesians, was also served with at least two abatement notices and an infringement notice while he was a director. His Pebbly Hills dairy farm was served with an abatement notice in 2004-05.

This man is clearly a serial polluter. And he's going to be setting up right next to some of our most pristine and sensitive waterways.

The one good point about the government's RMA reforms is that they allow consents to be cancelled in response to consistent non-compliance. But that's an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and we shouldn't have to wait for it to happen. Past non-compliance is apparently not taken into account in resource consent applications. It would be a very simple amendment to fix that, and protect our environment from this sort of environmental serial criminal.

Update: Bill here. Who's game?

Privatising the prisons

A couple of months ago, the government passed a law allowing private prisons in New Zealand. When they passed it, they told us that these would be new prisons. Now it turns out they're planning to turn existing prisons over to the private sector.

This is privatisation, pure and simple. A state asset will be given to the private sector, who will be paid to run it. John Key promised that there would be no privatisations on his watch. He lied.

This is also not a recipe for safe prisons. Contract lowballing and the need to make a profit will mean cuts to wages, safety, or both. And underpaid prison officers in understaffed prisons create incentives for corruption and brutality. Worse, thanks to privatisation, we won't be able to uncover it - as Labour's Clayton Cosgrove points out,

The Labour Party's main concern with the legislation was the loss of transparency, removing the ability to access information directly from the Corrections Department.

Mr Cosgrove said he could no longer raise a parliamentary question to the minister directly about private prisons.

"The auditor-general does not have the same level of penetration into a private sector company as he does in the department. "

That inability was "very dangerous in respect in protecting prison officers and ensuring that the public is safe".

Immunity from the OIA is bad enough - but immunity from Parliamentary oversight is simply untenable. Imprisonment is the sharp end of the coercive power of the state; the idea that MP's won't be able to effectively monitor how that power is used (or abused) is simply frightening. Particularly when you remember that the overseas evidence shows that private prisons are worse prisons. But I guess stopping MPs from uncovering that and holding the government to account for it is the point...

A worthy recipient

Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre director Shamima Ali has been awarded Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand's inaugural Human Rights Defender Award. She's a worthy recipient. Through her work with the FWCC, Ali has done a lot for women’s' rights in Fiji. And she has been a staunch opponent of Fiji's military dictatorship, speaking out despite threats and intimidation. Long may she keep up the good work!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Value for money?

Back in September, Local Government Minister Rodney Hide took an official trip with his partner to London, Toronto, Portland and Los Angeles. The trip took a week, and cost taxpayers $100,000. So, how long did he spend on official business during this vital fact-finding mission?

Only nineteen hours, or about two hours a day:

“Aucklanders will be fascinated to learn that, according to the official trip diary, Rodney Hide spent around 10 hours on Auckland governance, three and a half hours on regulatory reform, four and a half hours on ACT party policy, one hour in media interviews, and seven and a half hours having breakfast and lunch with his tour party who accompanied him on the trip,” Mayor Williams said.

“When you break it all down, the trip which is estimated to have cost over $100,000 for the Minister, his companion, and two staff members, bought the taxpayer around 19 hours of official meetings and discussions over 12 days...”

Hide says the trip was "value for money". I don't think so. Instead, it looks simply like a rort, a taxpayer-funded junket so he could show his new partner the sights on the people's tab. A decade ago, Hide would have been screaming at such an abuse. Now, he is the abuser. How the perkbuster has fallen...

Succumbing to peer pressure

No Right Turn is now available on Twitter.

Two more to go...

Last week, Burkina Faso ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. on Tuesday, Chile followed suit. The Convention needs 20 ratifications to come into force, so it only needs two more. Who will it be?

Sadly, New Zealand still hasn't signed the Convention, let alone ratified it.

Parliament on demand

The Office of the Clerk has now set up a website to make ParliamentTV available on demand: Every debate, every question, categorised by MP and topic, and available to be linked and embedded by blogs, facebook, or other webpages.

I am impressed. Broadcasting parliament live was a great step, but this is like a video version of Hansard. Wow.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Atheist buses hit New Zealand


Late last year, the UK got an Atheist Bus Campaign, designed to counter religious advertising with some atheist counterpropaganda. Now New Zealand has its own version - and they're looking to raise $10,000 to stick the message "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" on the side of buses in Auckland and Wellington.

I've previously criticised the campaign as caring too much about something people shouldn't be caring about at all. I don't waste my time believing in gods; religion is just irrelevant to me. So why would I waste my time and money proclaiming this to the world? But others may care more. If you want to donate, you can do it here. Currently they're at a mere $190; it will be interesting to see if it takes off in the same way it did in the UK.

Human rights day

Today is Human Rights Day, the annual anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year the focus is on discrimination and the need to eliminate it so all can be "free and equal in dignity". Its an issue that needs highlighting, given data from StatisticsNZ showing that one in ten New Zealanders was discriminated against in the last year, and cases such as that of Rangiora New Life School. The Human Rights Commission is taking the opportunity to highlight its work in resolving these issues - and if more people used it, rather than meekly accepting bad treatment from employers, businesses, and government, then there'd be a lot less discrimination in our society.

If you want to celebrate Human Rights Day, Amnesty International is holding a party in Auckland, and there is a Human Rights Fiesta in Wellington. They'll also be announcing the winner of their Human Rights Defender Award tonight. Will it be Sue Bradford? Or one of the other worthy candidates (because they're all worthy)? We'll find out later tonight...


A ballot for a single member's bill was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Amendment Bill (Luamanuvao Winnie Laban)

The bill has previously been covered in "In the ballot" here.

There were no new bills in the ballot today, as everyone is in pre-holiday winddown. But hopefully there'll be more next year.

Easter trading defeated

Todd McClay's Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Easter Sunday Local Choice) Amendment Bill was defeated at its first reading tonight, 62 - 59. It was a conscience vote, but Red Alert has the full list here. The margin this time was smaller than last time (62 - 59 vs 64 - 57), so it will only take a few votes to switch.

I'm a little surprised at this result - I'd expected the bill to at least make it to select committee, as it did the last two times - but also glad. While I don't give a damn about Easter, and think trading bans are a little silly, when it is repealed, it has to be done right. And that means making Easter Sunday a public holiday so that people's current de facto holiday is protected.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Earlier in the year, the Law Commission announced it was reviewing the Official Information Act. Now they're seeking submissions through their TalkLaw website. The list of questions can be downloaded here; responses are due by 22 January 2010.

I encourage everyone who uses the Act or has an interest in freedom of information issues to respond. The OIA is a vital part of our democratic infrastructure, and its important that the Law Commission hears from its users, rather than just officials and Ministers interested in secrecy.

Climate change: A fair deal or nothing

The Guardian reported this morning that the Copenhagen climate talks were already in disarray after the text of the rich world's draft agreement was leaked. The "Danish text", agreed by a secret group of rich countries including the US, UK and Denmark, proposed abandoning the Kyoto Protocol and its principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" and commitments to fund adaptation and technology transfer in developing countries. Instead, it proposes using the World Bank's financial leverage to force developing countries to cut emissions by making funding contingent upon emissions reductions. Worse, it enshrines a perpetual right of the rich to emit more than the poor, giving them a per capita allowance almost twice as great as citizens of poor countries.

You can see why this would not be popular with the developing world (and rightly so - common but differentiated responsibilities, the principle that those who caused the problem should shoulder most of the burden of fixing it, is simply just; abandoning it is simply trying to dump the problem on the poor). And this draft is a real threat to any deal. In recent WTO negotiations, we've seen a rising feeling of third world solidarity, which has seen developing countries walk away en mass from shit, one-sided deals. If the rich countries try and serve the same self-interested shit at Copenhagen, we could very well see the same. And then we all lose.

Poorer countries know climate change is happening. They know they have to come on board and commit to binding emissions reductions eventually. But this sort of one-sided deal which locks in existing inequalities and is negotiated without their involvement and presented as a fait accompli is not the way to make that happen.

Outright discrimination

Campbell Live last night had a disturbing story about religious discrimination at Rangiora New Life School. One student was kicked out and several more punished for having sex or starting a family without being married.

This is clearly unlawful discrimination on the basis of marital status and family status, in violation of sections 21(1)(b) and s21(1)(l) of the Human Rights Act 1993. It may also constitute discrimination on the basis of religious belief in violation of s21(1)(c). Rangiora New Life School is a religious school, so it has an exemption for the latter - but not for the former. It can not legally exclude or punish students who have children or are in de facto relationships, any more than it can exclude or punish them for being divorced (or the children of people who are divorced). And hopefully the Human Rights Commission will be telling them that in no uncertain terms.

But there's another aspect to this: Rangiora New Life School is a state integrated school, and therefore effectively part of the state education system. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act therefore clearly applies. By discriminating against its students and denying them any involvement in the decisions about them, the school has violated the right to be free from discrimination and the right to justice. And that is something we should not be tolerating from any part of our government. Rangiora New Life School's board must be told to obey the law, cease its discrimination, and reinstate the student it has excluded. And if they do not, they should be replaced.

Anti-environmentalist spite

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee has announced a reform of the electricity sector, forcing asset swaps between state-owned generators to enhance competition and abolishing the Electricty Commission. Rather than being "sweeping" or the "transformation" it is being sold as, a lot of the changes - e.g. forcing retailers to hedge and requiring them to compensate customers if they run a dry-year conservation campaign - are simply minor tinkering. But the asset swaps are big news. And the biggest consequence of them is to utterly destroy Meridian Energy's brand as a 100% renewable generator.

That brand is worth money. Tens of thousands of people (including myself) have switched to Meridian in the last few years because we want to give our money to a company which generates solely from renewable sources such as wind and hydro, rather than unsustainable and polluting gas or coal. The government has just overridden that decision, shafting both Meridian and its environmentally-sensitive customers, by forcing Meridian to trade two South Island hydro stations for oil-fuelled Whirinaki, the most polluting and inefficient power station in the country. It hardly ever runs - it is a backup generator - so its hard to see how owning it will improve Meridian's ability to supply power and hence compete in the North Island. But merely owning it is enough to make Meridian's renewable brand untenable - meaning a loss of value for the company (not least because the millions of dollars they've spent building that brand in the last few years will have been wasted).

(Yes, I know the electrons all come out of the same pipe, and that I don't get special renewable electrons where other people get dirty coal ones. But giving my money to Meridian means I am altering the profitability of renewable vs non-renewable assets, and encouraging investment in the former. Why does the government not want me to do this?)

If you've made the choice to switch to Meridian for environmental reasons, this is worth raising at the Select Committee stage. We've made a positive consumer choice to benefit the planet. And the government is over-riding it for no apparent purpose. The decision looks like simple spite from an anti-environment government which wants to deny consumer choice.

Same-sex marriage update

Two updates on same-sex marriage:

  • In New Jersey, a bill allowing same-sex marriage was narrowly approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is expected to be voted on by the Senate on Thursday. The bill has not yet been passed by the House, and they have a very tight timeline to get it through in time for it to be signed into law by the outgoing governor, rather than vetoed by the new one.
  • In Ireland, a Civil Partnership Bill, which effectively grants "marriage in all but name" civil unions, is currently being debated by the Dail. It has government support, and is likely to pass early next year. Considering that Ireland only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, that's a pretty big step forward.

Hopefully we'll have some good news from New Jersey in a couple of days.

Member's Day

Today, by leave, is a Member's Day. Unfortunately, thanks to a broad strategy by MPs of delaying their bills until the time is right (or, in the case of ACT and the Maori Party, to be a sword of Damocles hanging over the government's head), there's hardly any bills to debate - just a private bill and the two National bills drawn in November.

The first of these - Amy Adams' Fair Trading (Soliciting on Behalf of Charities) Amendment Bill - is uncontroversial. But the second - Todd McClay's Easter trading bill - is likely to be a standup fight. The last time this bill was introduced, back in 2005, it was defeated by a coalition of social conservatives who believe Easter is sacred and unionists who want the day off. This Parliament has fewer unionists, but, thanks to National, more social conservatives, and I don't think the numbers for the bill are likely to be much better. There's a way to break this deadlock - make Easter Sunday a public holiday - but the sorts of people who introduce Easter trading bills are also the sorts of people who oppose public holidays, so I don't see that happening any time soon.

The House is likely to get through all its business today, so there'll be a ballot tomorrow for two bills to give them something to work on in the new year.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Will they be prosecuted?

This morning, a loose tailgate saw a truck spew a foot-thick trail of offal and animal guts along a 15km stretch of State Highway 2, causing several accidents and the closure of the road. People have been working all day to clear away the stinking, hazardous waste.

So, the obvious question is, will those responsible be prosecuted for this utterly vile environmental pollution? And if not, why not?