Monday, May 31, 2010

A scandalous question

If a judge, through their actions, lowers the authority of the court or brings it into public derision and contempt, is it scandalising the court?

Digging a deeper hole

Earlier in the month, the Judicial Conduct Commissioner recommended that a judicial conduct panel be appointed to investigate the actions of Justice Bill Wilson. The allegations against Wilson - that he presided in a case despite being in business with a QC appearing before him, and owing that QC quarter of a million dollars - are serious, and call Wilson's impartiality in that case, and the court's processes for monitoring and preventing conflicts of interest, into question. As a result, the Attorney-General this morning formally appointed a panel of two judges and the Ombudsman to inquire into it.

Justice Wilson's response has been to file for an immediate judicial review of the decision, on the grounds that the seriousness of the findings would not warrant his removal as a judge, meaning the Attorney-General did not have jurisdiction to convene a panel. That may or may not be true. But in the process, he has undermined his own case so severely as to make his continuation in office untenable.

The problem for Justice Wilson is that this is not just a question of law, but of politics. And the standard the New Zealand public demand from our judges is very high: their integrity must be unquestioned, their impartiality beyond doubt. They must not only be fair and unbiased, but they must be seen to be so. And Justice Wilson has already failed the latter test. That may or may not be worthy of a sacking - that's what the inquiry is meant to decide. But fighting that process unquestionably makes it worse in the eyes of the public, and is unacceptable behaviour from someone who is, ultimately, our servant. It makes it look like he has something to hide. And under a political standard of judgement, that is enough.

No Green breakthrough in Colombia

Today, Colombians went to the polls in the first round of presidential elections. Up until last week, it was expected that the Green candidate, Antanas Mockus, would make a strong showing, strong enough to win the second round and become the world's first Green head of state. Unfortunately, things didn't work out like that:

Former Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos has won the first round of the country's presidential election.

With almost all the ballots counted, Mr Santos - who is supported by popular incumbent Alvaro Uribe - is credited with about 47% of the vote.

His main rival, Antanas Mockus of the Green Party, achieved 21%.

Although Mr Santos failed to win outright, he is expected to get the support of some defeated candidates and to win the 20 June run-off.

So the polls, which have been consistently reporting Santos and Mockus neck-in-neck, were horribly wrong. Those polling companies should really be looking at their methodology.

Mining isn't worth it

When the government first proposed digging up our national parks, they talked up the gains, with Gerry Brownlee throwing around figures like $140 billion and $194 billion in an effort to persuade us that if we allowed him to turn the Coromandel into one giant open pit, we'd all be rich (if only in the nominal sense of higher GDP, even though all the profits would be exported offshore). But two independent reports commissioned by Forest & Bird show that this isn't the case. Instead, they show that mining the conservation estate just isn't worth it.

The first report, on Valuing Mineral resources [PDF] shows that the government's numbers for the expected benefit are dubious. They've followed a mining consultant in taking the gross sales revenue (expected resource times current market price), without accounting for the costs of extraction, let alone remediation. The result is "large but economically meaningless". Instead,

The economic value of the nation’s mineral resources is measured correctly by taking the present value of the resource rents that could flow to New Zealand after all costs of mining, including the cost of capital, have been covered. The best estimate of this value, by Statistics New Zealand, is about $1 billion - less than 1% of the MED’s figure. This represents the price which the entire mineral estate would be expected to fetch on sale to the highest bidder.
The minerals under the areas the government wants to open up apparently account for 10% of this figure, or about $100 million. That works out to a one-off payment of less than $36 per voter, or less than $25 per New Zealander. So, the question is: if someone walked up to you on the street and offered you $25 in exchange for being allowed to utterly despoil the Coromandel, Great Barrier Island, and Paparoa National Park, would you say yes? Put like that, almost all Kiwis (apart from people like DPF, who would probably pay $25, and more if he got to watch) would say "no".

The second report, on Mining’s impact on Tourism [PDF] highlights the reliance of our tourism sector on our "100% Pure" brand, and its consequent vulnerability to large shocks to that brand. A decision by the government to dig up national parks, a prime tourist attraction, is such a shock - and its impact is estimated to be on the order of 1% of GDP - equal to the effects of a large recession, and about the same as the total contribution of all mining and quarrying to the New Zealand economy.

So, the government's proposal is that we dig up our national parks, for a one-off gain of $100 million for largely foreign mining interests, at the cost of a between $1.7 and $2.7 billion which will be felt throughout the New Zealand economy. If a business executive proposed this sort of "plan", they'd laughed out of a job. But apparently that's the sort of thing which "makes economic sense" to former woodwork teacher Gerry Brownlee.

Forest and Bird is right. Even if we ignore the environmental values, this just isn't worth it. Instead, it is 100% pure madness.

Good news from Malawi

Two weeks ago gay couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were convicted of "unnatural acts" and gross indecency and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. Yesterday, they were pardoned by Malawi's president. It seems that international pressure had some effect after all.

But while this is good news, the problem remains. Malawi is still a bigot-state. It still bans private consensual sexual behaviour between same-sex partners and punishes gay people for who they are. And that is simply barbaric. What consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes is no business of government. And that applies in Africa every bit as strongly as it applies here.

New Fisk

Remorse and redemption in a terrorist's mind

Friday, May 28, 2010

"No interest" - yeah, right

The latest excuse from John Key about his not-really "blind" trust: he is now trying to say that he has "no beneficial interest" in Whitechapel Ltd, which (according to his lawyer's letter [PDF]) is owned by the Aldgate Trust and used as its investment vehicle. So it doesn't really matter that he can see what it owns.

There are two problems with this. The first of course is that this doesn't get him off the hook for lying to Parliament and the public. He told us and the House that his trust was "so blind I haven't got a clue what's in it". That is demonstrably false. Secondly, he declares an interest in the Aldgate Trust in the 2010 register of pecuniary interests. So we're supposed to believe that he has an interest in the trust, but not in anything it actually owns. That might be true in a strict, legal interpretation of "beneficial interest" - but not in the "reasonable prospect of gain" sense used by ordinary people (and the Cabinet Manual) to judge politicians. Unlike lawyers, the public understands very well that if Earl of Auckland, or Devils Creek vineyard, or Dairy Investment Fund Ltd benefit, then John Key and other members of his family will also eventually benefit. And that is what is known as a potential conflict of interest.

In New Zealand, we require such conflicts to be declared so that we can see that everything is above board, that politicians are not behaving corruptly and making decisions which financially benefit themselves. By hiding his assets in a not-blind trust, John Key has deliberately tried to prevent this. And that is politically and morally unacceptable. The standard is clear: our politicians must be seen to not be corrupt. By behaving in a way which thwarts that necessary oversight, Key has betrayed the public's trust.

I should add that this points to a wider problem: Key is not the only politician with a trust (though he is perhaps the only one to gloat about how "blind" it is), and he is therefore not the only one with potential conflicts of interest shielded from public scrutiny. If we are to prevent corruption, those interests must be exposed or eliminated. The only acceptable courses of behaviour from rich politicians are complete transparency - or complete divestment.

Australia acts on whaling

Before the 2007 election, the Australian Labour Party promised to take Japan to the International Court of Justice if it did not cease its bogus scientific whaling program in the Southern Ocean. Now, they're finally going ahead with it - a case will be filed in The Hague next week. ICJ cases are not binding - jurisdiction is basically by consent - but as a country with a judge on the court, Japan cannot refuse without suffering a tremendous loss of face. Which means the legal issues will be hashed over, and there will be a ruling one way or another.

So, what's the New Zealand government doing then? Nothing. On a key environmental issue where we should be leading the world, we're instead standing on the sidelines. Nice one, National.

A Tui


"Mere speculation"

That's John Key's response to the discovery that his blind trust isn't as blind as he says it is. Apparently the opposition is "making it up" as part of a smear campaign.

Except they're not. You can check the contents of Key's "blind" trust on the web at the Companies Office (The Standard has them all here in one place if you can't be arsed doing the searches yourself). And so, therefore, can John Key.

There is no proof that Key ever did, of course, and unless he is very very foolish I doubt there ever will be. But there doesn't need to be. The mere fact that it is possible shows that Key's claims about his trust's blindness are false, and that he has misled both Parliament and the public. Furthermore, the fact that the trust arrangement seems designed to enable this - to produce a trust that is blind to the public but not to him, suggests that this was the point all along.

Our politicians must be above reproach. They are responsible for ensuring that "no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty". John Key has failed that test. He has behaved in a manner which suggests he intended simply to give himself plausible deniability about conflicts, while ensuring they would still exist. I have no tolerance for politicians who behave in such a corrupt and self-serving fashion. Do you?

New Fisk

Power to change

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Our third world health system

If you live in Wellington, don't get sick next month: Wellington hospital will be shutting down for a week because it has run out of money:

In an internal email sent to staff, DHB chief operating officer Shaun Drummond said a "planned reduction in activity" was scheduled for the week of June 21 and staff would be asked to take annual leave.

In a written statement to The Dominion Post, Mr Drummond said elective surgery and non-essential support services would be reduced, although no targets had been set for the week.

"The planned reduction in hospital activity will have little effect on patients but it will help us to better live within our means."

This is a direct consequence of government underfunding. There are sick people who need treatment, but the government will not fund that treatment, while it is also placing intense pressure on DHB's to conform to financial targets. And so we get third-world / California-style shutdowns.

This is not good enough. Thanks to National's cuts, our hospitals are no longer delivering even a basic service. Either the government must change this, or we will get one who does.

More than one way to do it

This year, both Waitangi Day and Anzac Day fell on a weekend. This meant that workers who would normally work those days did not receive the usual public holiday; instead, they were forced to work at the usual rate. The unfairness of this has led to calls for all our public holidays to be Mondayized. The commemoration would still happen on the day itself, but the public holiday would be shifted to the following Monday.

Unfortunately, this requires a law change. But there's more than one way to do it. The EPMU is pushing to have Mondayized days off for Waitangi Day and Anzac Day included in its benchmark metals and manufacturing agreement. If they are successful, then it is likely to spread throughout the engineering sector, and through the wider workforce. Which, in the long run, could leave Parliament with no option but to legislate to recognise the change.

The call for these holidays to be Mondayized is reasonable - hell, even DPF thinks so. The question now is whether the politicians are going to lead or follow on it.

Restoring democracy to Canterbury

Labour will bring a member's bill to restore democracy to Canterbury, by forcing ECan's commissioners to call an immediate election. Good. The sacking of Environment Canterbury's elected representatives and its replacement with unelected dictators was an affront to democracy, and it should be reversed as quickly as possible. I'm pleased to see the opposition will be using all the tools at its disposal to make that happen.

Blind to us, but not to him

John Key is a very wealthy man. With wealth comes investments - otherwise known as "conflicts of interest" to politicians. Which is why when he became Prime Minister he put his investments in a trust "so blind I haven't got a clue what's in it".

Except it turns out that that might not be true. Three News reported last night that Key was boasting about owning an Otago vineyard after he'd put it into the trust. By itself, that wasn't a big thing - Key's boast was only a month after he'd established the trust, too soon for it to have made any major changes in its assets, so it was a reasonable mistake to make. But in the process, Three News discovered that Key's trust wasn't really blind: due to the way he'd set it up, its contents can be found simply by checking the companies register. So the trust is blind to us, but not to him.

This is unacceptable. The rules around disclosure of politician's interests exist for good reason: to ensure that our political decisionmaking is untainted by any suspicion of corruption or personal aggrandisement. And now that we know this, some of Key's decisions look very suspicious indeed. Key owns (and still owns, through his "blind" trust) a property development firm. Yet we're supposed to believe that it is a coincidence that he and his government opposed any land tax, capital gains tax, or other effective means of preventing the damaging effects of rampant property speculation. Key also owns (and still owns, through his "blind" trust) an Otago vineyard. Yet we're supposed to believe that it is also a coincidence that he immediately ruled out any increase in excise tax on alcohol. While we were ignorant, these decisions didn't look suspicious (stupid and shortsighted, yes, but not suspicious). Now we know that Key's trust isn't so blind, they look suspiciously well-aligned with his business investments - in other words, corrupt.

Key will no doubt make a personal explanation to the House today claiming that despite his trust not being as "blind" as he claimed it was, he never looked. The House, by Standing orders, will be obliged to take him at his word. The rest of us shouldn't be so stupid. We should demand that our politicians and cabinet ministers are above reproach in these areas. John Key has failed that test, and he is unfit to be a Member of our Parliament.

Institutionally, we can not take the word of politicians that they are not corrupt. Instead, they must be made to prove it. That's what the register of pecuniary interests is about. It is now also clear that we cannot take the word of politicians that their trusts are truly blind. Which means we must demand either proper standards to ensure that they are - or complete divestment.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A shameful day for New Zealand

Today is a shameful day for New Zealand. Last night, the government's "three strikes" bill became law. The law violates the Bill of Rights Act [PDF], imposing disproportionately severe treatment or punishment and requiring judges to impose unjust sentences even in cases where a sentence where it is manifestly unjust to do so. It violates the ICCPR and Convention Against Torture, and is a threat to our international good name. It also utterly disconnects the severity of punishment from the severity of offending, while providing a strong incentive for hardened criminals to murder witnesses, police officers, and prison guards. The government was warned about all of this by its own Ministry of Justice, but they didn't want to know. Instead they have forced a bad law upon us, a law we will all have to live with the consequences of.

Meanwhile, there's a perfect example of the hyperbole around this law with David Garrett's claim today that it will reduce crime by 10 to 20 percent because "people cannot harm members of the public when they're in jail". To point out the obvious: offences covered by the law - broadly, the categories of abnormal sex, sexual affronts, sexual attacks, homicide, grievous assaults, serious assaults, kidnapping and abduction, and robbery - comprised only 7.5% of total offending in 2009. In order for crime to be reduced by the amount Garrett suggests, offending in these categories would have to be negative - a simple impossibility. But maths has never been Garrett's strong point, has it?

Torture in the Pacific

Torture is something we think of as happening in far-off places suffering under dictatorships. But its happening right in our backyard. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak has just completed a fact-finding mission to Papua New Guinea. And what he found should horrify all of us:

After spending almost two weeks touring the impoverished Pacific island country, the UN's special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak said police often brutally beat detainees with car fan belts, gun butts, iron rods and stones.

"I found systematic beatings of detainees upon arrest or within the first hours of detention, including during interrogation," Nowak said in a statement on his preliminary findings issued in Port Moresby.

"Very often beatings are inflicted by the police as a form of punishment of suspects, reflecting complete disrespect for the presumption of innocence and the dignity of persons suspected of crimes."

Nowak, who carried out unannounced visits to police lock-ups and jails and conducted confidential interviews with detainees, said he was disturbed by some of what he heard.

"I am very concerned about the practice of the police to deliberately disable persons suspected of serious crimes and those who escape from detention," he said.

In jails, those who tried to escape were tortured upon recapture as a standard practice, he said.

This included brutal beatings with machetes or rifle butts, shooting the legs and feet of detainees at close range and cutting their tendons with knives and axes to cripple them.

Women were particularly vulnerable while in police custody, with many allegations of sexual abuse, Nowak said.

"Some officers also appear to frequently arrest women for minor offences with the intention of sexually abusing them," Nowak said.

"As a punishment, some women were also threatened or were placed in cells with male detainees for a night, where they were subjected to collective rape by the other detainees."

(Emphasis added)

PNG is not a party to the Convention Against Torture, and it has not yet explicitly criminalised torture in law (OTOH, assault, mutilation and rape are all crimes, and the police officers responsible for them should be prosecuted). It is however a member of the Pacific Islands Forum. And the New Zealand government should be using its participation in that forum to force it to clean up its act. Torture is not acceptable anywhere, and we should not be tolerating it in our neighbours.

More election fraud in the UK

Electoral fraud is something we think of as happening in Central Asian tyrannies, or in emerging democracies with a weak state and weaker democratic tradition. Unfortunately it happens in the UK as well. Five years ago six Labour councillors in Birmingham were convicted of electoral fraud over a massive operation to farm postal votes. And now there are allegations of serious fraud in a marginal seat in the recent general election, after more than 4,000 postal ballots were delivered by hand to polling stations in the electorate of Halifax:

Local Tory officials raised questions over the validity of some of the postal ballots after they discovered that a number of empty and derelict addresses in one particular ward had voters registered to them. They allege that Labour Party activists spent the days before the election "farming" postal ballots to deliver directly on 6 May and have asked both the police and the Electoral Commission to investigate.

Labour's incumbent candidate, Linda Riordan MP, only managed to hold on to her seat by a relatively small majority of 1,472 votes.

It is believed that a large number of the postal ballots were handed into polling stations in Park Ward, an area of Halifax with a large Asian community and a traditional Labour stronghold. According to the electoral roll, 2,283 people are registered as postal voters in the Park Ward area. The Tories say they have uncovered evidence of voter impersonation, phantom registrations and voter intimidation which they have passed on to the police.

(There's a deep irony here in that two Tory local body candidates for the same area were arrested two weeks before the election on suspicion of electoral fraud. I guess it takes one to know one).

The common link here is postal votes, enabled by the UK's archaic system of electoral administration. Rather than filling out a form (allowing them to be checked against birth and residency records as happens in NZ), voters in the UK are enrolled by election workers visiting houses and asking the "head of household" who lives there - a system the Council of Europe has criticised as being open to childishly simple fraud. This allows phantom voters to be enrolled, and postal votes to be "farmed" by corrupt party workers. In addition, the postal voting system apparently lacks checks to prevent multiple voting - a basic feature of any serious electoral system.

This is no way to run a democracy. Unfortunately, fixing it does not seem to be on the UK government's agenda. It should be.

A bad start in the UK

Yesterday the UK had its state opening of Parliament and Queen's Speech, in which the Conservative-LibDem government promised a Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill which would, among other things, "[allow] members of the public to protest peacefully without fear of being criminalised". Meanwhile, just outside the House in Parliament Square, police were arresting peaceful protestors, while the Mayor of London has announced that he will permanently clear the democracy camp which has sprung up there by trespassing its participants from a public space.

For a government which promises to restore civil liberties eroded under Blair, this is a very bad start.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pure incompetence

Recently I've been taking an interest in the processes government agencies have for handling and tracking OIA requests. The aim of this project is to find out whether it is possible to use agencies own internal tracking software to generate OIA performance statistics for government departments. But departments aren't the only agencies responsible under the OIA - Ministerial offices handle a large number of requests as well. So I've begun poking into them too.

From the responses I've had back so far, it seems the standard way Ministerial staff track OIA requests is via a spreadsheet or Word document, which records things like the date a request was received on, when a response is due, the requestor's name and address, the general subject of the request, and when a response was sent. Which is what you'd expect. Except that not every Minister's staff does this. For example, Tony Ryall's staff for the State Sector portfolio track requests coming in - but make no effort to track when responses were sent - or whether one was sent at all.

This is pure incompetence. How the hell can they tell if they're complying with the Act if they don't track this?

(I should add: Ryall's staff in the State Sector Health portfolio do things properly. Which invites the question: do these people ever talk to one another?)

The worry is that this could be widespread through Ministerial offices (at least one government department seems to have the same problem). And if it is, then its no wonder responses are regularly late.

The people scream

Submissions on the government’s plans to dig up our national parks close tomorrow, and it has apparently generated an enormous number of submissions. RNZ this morning said 35,000; TVNZ says 40,000. Either would make it easily the largest public consultation exercise in living memory. And most of those submissions will be against. The people are screaming; the question now is whether the government will listen.

(If you haven't already submitted, there's a submission guide here, or if you're in a hurry then you can send a quick form-submission here).

A Green breakthrough in Colombia?

This weekend, Colombia will go to the polls in presidential elections. And according to the Independent, they look set to elect the world's first Green head of state:

If Antanas Mockus wins the Colombian elections – and polls indicate that he will – he won't be your average president. Not only did he make his name when rector of the National University by dropping his pants and mooning a packed auditorium of rioting students, but he has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. And then there's his party. If the 58-year-old is elected, he will be the first Green head of state in the world.
Given the two-round process, we will likely have to wait until June 20 for the final result - and things could change radically before then. But even getting a Green as one of the top two candidates is an enormous achievement.

Something to go to in Wellington

Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, and the WSPA will be holding a protest at Parliament next Wednesday to deliver a petition against whaling and urge the government to reject plans to allow the resumption of commercial whaling.

When: 12:30, Wednesday, 2 June
Where: Parliament grounds, Wellington

Be there, and help save the whales.

Don't sell Kiwibank

National is talking up the prospect of selling Kiwibank to "mum and dad" investors. The problem? Kiwi mums and dads already own it. Yes, its through a trust called the New Zealand Government, but we own it. And this ownership has certain advantages.

The primary one, of course, is that it works for us. Which means we can get bank accounts without paying exorbitant fees and mortgages at reasonable rates. The dividends go towards paying for hospitals and schools, rather than straight offshore to Australia. Plus of course it actually pays its taxes - unlike those thieving Aussie banks.

All those advantages will be lost if National sells it. While National talks about selling it to ordinary kiwis, the reality is that it will be sold to an Australian bank. Which means it will become just another Aussie bank: greedy, rapacious, part of the cosy little oligopoly Kiwibank was established to break.

Kiwibank is a great example of the success of state-owned companies. It performs an important public function: making banking services available to all, and ensuring there is competition in the banking market. And it makes a profit while doing so. This benefits all New Zealanders. No wonder National wants to get rid of it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

This stinks

This afternoon, a senior public servant was acquitted by a jury of assaulting his son. Unusually, the judge then ordered his interim name suppression to be made permanent to protect his career.

This stinks. Ordinary people accused of a crime have to face the glare of publicity, regardless of the effects on their career. That's part and parcel of open justice. But in this case, the accused received special treatment. Name suppression was not necessary to protect the identity of the victim. It was not necessary to protect the interests of justice and avoid contaminating the jury pool for a future trial. It was done solely to protect a powerful man from the consequences of his actions.

I know who this man is and what he does. And while his behaviour was not proven to a criminal standard, the witness reports are sufficient to give rise to grave concerns about his ability to do his job fairly and impartially. This name suppression is an attempt to quash those concerns, to sweep it all under the rug. There are sometimes good reasons for name suppression, but this is not one of them. It is simply a case of the powerful protecting their own.

Inequality and social mobility

Bill English isn't the only one bullshitting on inequality. Over on Kiwiblog, DPF spouts the old right-wing meme that inequality doesn't matter provided you have social mobility. This of course assumes that there is social mobility in New Zealand. And the evidence on that isn't very good.

The Standard looked at this last year, using Statistics New Zealand data on the movement of people between income deciles between 2002 and 2007. The short version:

most people are in the same decile five years later or very close to it. There’s some mobility among the lower deciles and some mobility among the higher deciles but very few people (only 18%) who were in the 10th (richest) decile in 2002 were below the 8th five years later. Only 10% of people who started off in the lower five deciles made it into the top two or three.

In fact, the mobility you can see is largely a factor of life-cycle – students moving into high paid jobs etc. The study breaks down the age groups and income mobility is very low with life-cycle movement taken out.

(Emphasis added).

That's just a five year period. I'd like to see more, but social class and inequality is largely unstudied in New Zealand because of our myth of being a "middle class society". That's something we need to change. Just as we can't talk about discrimination without facts, we can't talk about inequality either.

To add to the picture: the OECD looked at social mobility earlier in the year. While they didn't have direct data from New Zealand, they did have a good causal model, in which education policies play a key role. Unfortunately, New Zealand has a very strong relationship between parental socioeconomic background and educational achievement, which suggests lower than average social mobility. And the government seems intent on making that problem worse.

But apart from the evidence, DPF is just wrong. Inequality does matter, regardless of social mobility. The level of inequality in a society affects rates of physical and mental health. Societies with greater inequality have poorer educational outcomes and greater rates of violent crime and imprisonment (they also have low social mobility as well). This is not DPF-style ideological bullshit; it is a proven empirical fact. Inequality is bad for everyone. And social mobility doesn't solve that.

Tax cuts and inequality

Bill English thinks that his massive tax cuts for the rich will have no effect on inequality and will leave the gap between rich and poor "about the same". Yeah right. We've seen what happens when you cut taxes for the rich and dump the cost on the poor, because Labour did it in the Douglas era. And the result was a rise in inequality and a wider gap between rich and poor. Don't believe me? Take it from Statistics New Zealand, the OECD [PDF], or the Ministry of Social Development [DOC], or the Social Report. Or you could look at the graph below, which compares the Gini coefficient - the basic measure of income inequality - with the top tax rate:


(Source: Top tax rate data from Te Ara. Before housing costs Gini coefficient data from Ministry of Social Development, Household Incomes in New Zealand: Trends in Indicators of Inequality and Hardship 1982 to 2008, p. 61).

So, given this evidence of the effects of tax cuts for the rich in the past, the obvious question for Bill English is "why does he think it'll be different this time"? And the answer is, he doesn't - he's just bullshitting while he (and his mates) laugh all the way to the bank.

Something to go to in Wellington

The Campaign for MMP is holding a meeting in Wellington for those interested in helping out with their campaign next year. The meeting will be also useful for those wanting to submit on the Electoral Referendum Bill.

When: 18:30 - 19:30, Wednesday 26 may
Where: Fellowship Room, St Johns In The City, cnr Willis and Dixon Sts, Wellington

The UK's homophobic asylum policy

New Zealand is a liberal country where its relatively safe to be gay. We decriminalised homosexuality in 1986, and while there is still some bigotry and the odd hate crime, there is no official persecution. Elsewhere in the world, things aren't so pleasant. At least eight countries have the death penalty for homosexuality. In others, gays may face imprisonment, persecution, or violence. As a result, some flee and seek safety in more civilised countries. And if they make it to the UK, the government sends them back to face persecution and death:

Britain's immigration system is guilty of "institutional homophobia", according to a new report. The result is that 98 per cent of gay asylum-seekers fleeing persecution for their sexuality are returned home to a likely fate of death or persecution, says the report.


The report, No Going Back, found that between 2005 and 2009 almost all cases involving people claiming asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation were refused by the Home Office. During the same period the general refusal rate for asylum-seekers in the UK was 76.5 per cent.


Many cases are turned down simply on the basis that someone fleeing a country where homosexuality is punishable by death or hard labour could simply "live discreetly" – in other words, go into hiding. UKBA staff admitted this was discriminatory.

No shit its discriminatory - the massive disparity in success rate between gay and non-gay asylum seekers shows that. Its also absolutely monstrous. And when case workers are asking people questions like "Why do you choose to be homosexual when you know it is illegal in your own country," it shows both a complete lack of understanding and a complete lack of empathy.

(And before anyone gets too smug: that demand to "live discretely" is one New Zealand makes of those fleeing religious persecution...)

No-one should have to "live discretely". Everyone should be free to be who they are. And where countries persecute people for their racial, ethnic, religious, political, or sexual identity, then other countries should provide protection to anyone who escapes. It is simply the decent thing to do.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Fisk

Beirut is determined to kill its rich Ottoman past
Tea with Bin Laden...and other stories

Friday, May 21, 2010

The other shoe drops

Now that he's handed out enormous tax cuts to his rich mates, Bill English is working on National's other core policy: privatising our state assets:

Finance Minister Bill English has signalled the Government is again considering partial state asset sales - including Kiwibank.

At a post-Budget lunch in Christchurch today, English told business leaders that National would "get to grips'' with its position on state asset sales in the next eight months.

He revealed the Government was conducting a stock-take of its assets and their worth and would produce an "investment statement'' next year.

''It seems to me, and I have checked this, that there is a strong demand among the mums and dads for a Kiwi investment model and if we put product into the market people would buy it. Would I be right about that?''

A few hands went up in the room.

''In fact I think there would be a bigger proportion of the population than that would have a crack at it. So we will have a think about it,'' English said.

Of course, when English talks about "mum and dad" investors, he's not talking about ordinary kiwis - we don't invest in the sharemarket because we don't trust it (we were taken for suckers in 1987 by the business class. Never again). Instead, he's talking about "mums and dads" like himself. What privatisation is about is taking the revenue from a state monopoly away from the public, where it is used to fund things like schools and hospitals, and instead diverting those monopoly profits into their own pockets. Like tax cuts, like PPPs and contracting out, its just another way the rich loot the state for their own advantage.

Justice for torture in the UK?

The new LibDem-Conservative coalition in the UK has got at least one thing right: they've ordered a judicial inquiry into the security services' collusion in torture. Good. And hopefully those responsible will be dragged screaming out into the light of day, prosecuted, and sent to jail where they belong.

Synthetic life

This is big: A scientist has created a cell with an entirely synthetic genome, effectively creating synthetic life:

The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.

What this means is that we can now design genomes in the lab, run them off on a synthesiser, insert them into a host cell, and culture a bacteria which does whatever we want. Though at the moment, we're still in the copy-and-paste stage, rather than designing genes from scratch, so we are limited to enzymes that already exist. Still, the industrial potential is massive. For example, we could make bacteria that were hyperefficient at eating oil to clean up spills like Deepwater Horizon (though there are obvious dangers with using such bacteria in the wild). Or just use bacterial cultures to crank out fuel and pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, it also means that biological warfare is no longer a matter of physical security of weaponised cultures; if the genome of a potential biowarefare agent has been sequenced and published (and many have, as part of ordinary medical research into those bugs), then it can be run up in the lab, inserted into a host, cultured, and hey presto! Instant bioWMD! But that's a threat we are going to have to learn to live with. The knowledge now exists. The genie is now out of the bottle. And with a free market in legal jurisdiction, it cannot be put back in.

ECE cuts matter

So what's in the Budget other than tax cuts for the rich? Cuts, of course. Bill English's desire to shrink the state to reduce the tax burden on people like him mean he is slashing spending across government services. Housing gets cut, with an 80% reduction in the budget for buying and improving state houses. Health gets a sub-inflation rise, which means DHBs will be forced to make cuts. Ditto education. And the significant victim here is Early Childhood Education, where $400 million is being ripped out of ECE subsidies over the next four years.

National has never cared about ECE, regarding it as simple babysitting, but it matters. ECE is one of the greatest drivers of equality, significantly reducing the effects of parental socioeconomic background on education throughout a child's life. Basically, it gives everyone a better start in life, allowing every child to rise to their full potential. It also enables greater choice and higher workforce participation rates, freeing up parents (usually mothers) from having to stay home to take care of the kids. Cutting these subsidies will mean that ECE centres will have to charge higher fees (or, if they provide 20 hours free, stop providing it so they can charge - saving the government even more money), which in turn will reduce uptake - meaning that kids won't get that start in life, and parents will have to give up work.

This isn't just National's privileged elite pulling the ladder up after them - they're now actively stamping on the fingers of those below them. Its cruel, vicious, and bad for the vast majority of kiwis - but again, so very, very National.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rich man's justice

Mark Breyers defrauded 3,000 investors of more than $80 million through his failed "Blue Chip" finance company. Today, he was sentenced on 34 counts of improper record-keeping related to his fraud. The sentence? 75 hours of community service.

I can't think of a better example of rich man's justice than this.

Who benefits from National's tax cuts?

So, who benefits from National's budget for the rich? As usual, I've done the numbers. And the results are completely unsurprising:


(Methodology: This calculation is for the total package. Effects are calculated from Treasury's 2010 detailed model data, percentages and numbers of taxpayers from Budget 2010 Who pays income tax and how much?. Due to a lack of information on projected income distribution, I've been forced to use the bands from the latter).

Not on the table: those earning over $150,000, the top 2%, pocket $430 million, about 11.5% of the total. This is almost exactly the amount the government has to borrow to fund this package. The people of New Zealand will be saddled with further debt to pay for the greed of the few at the top.

Also not on the table: the effects of increased GST. This will effectively claw back everything gained by those earning under $20,000, and most of what is gained by those earning under $70,000. Only the rich will be better off. And that's without even getting into the effects of higher ACC charges or reduced government services.

Basically, the vast majority of New Zealanders have just been screwed over for the benefit of a tiny percentage of parasites at the top. John Key is right - we shouldn't be envious: we should be angry.

A budget for the rich

National is a party with one idea: cut taxes for the rich, and dump them on the poor. Today, faced with trying to restore the government's books to surplus after the worst recession in decades, they responded by... cutting taxes for the rich and dumping them on the poor. Sure, they've cut middle rates too, but that's all eaten up by increased GST; meanwhile, the rich get to laugh all the way to the bank with an enormous cut to the top rate.

The tax cuts are expected to cost $3.7 billion a year. Those earning over $70,000 will get $1.625 billion of that, or 44%. Within that group, those earning over $150,000 (the top 2% of income earners) will get $430 million, or 12% of the total. Meanwhile, the GST increases and twiddles to depreciation don't fully compensate for the cost, so the government will be borrowing an extra $400 million, dumping it on taxpayers and giving the money straight to the rich. This is neither fair nor sensible. Instead, it is pure greed, a looting of the state by National for its rich mates.

Budget day

Today is Budget day. In just a few hours, we'll learn what Bill English and John Key have in store for us.

In the Herald, Claire Trevett compares it to christmas:

Only the parents know what is in the big box under the tree. They sit there smugly repeating "wait and see" while the children do their damnedest to get just one peek under the wrapping or a shake to see whether it rattles.
Except that its christmas only for the few. That big box under the tree? Bill English is giving it to himself. As for the rest of us, we don't even get a lump of coal. Instead, we get to pay for Bill English's greed through higher GST and reduced services.

This is classic National: line their own pockets and those of their rich mates by fucking over everybody else.

The price of oil

The Financial Times wouldn't print this ad highlighting the consequences of Shell's pollution in the Niger Delta, but I'm more than happy to:

Oil has a price. That price is pollution. In the west, we limit by forcing companies to pay to prevent it (though not enough, as the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is showing). But in countries with weak and corrupt governments, it is dumped on the local population, violating their rights to clean air, clean water, clean food, and ultimately to health. Western companies such as Shell profit by doing this. It is evil, it is wrong, and we should not let them.

Fiji: Backwards to barbarism

Floggings. Forced labour. Dress codes for women. Taliban Afghanistan? No - it's Bainimarama's latest plan for Fiji:

VILLAGERS who break the law will be flogged in public under proposed village bylaws.

But flogging will only be used as a form of punishment if the accused refuses to have his or her case referred to the criminal court.

Other penalties will require offenders to work on a farming quota or clean the village.


Also included in the bylaws are dress codes which will stop women from wearing long and short pants or short dresses.

Men will not be allowed to wear headgear unless this is approved by the turaga ni koro.

This plan would turn every village chief into a little Bainimarama, enforcing their whim through brutality and sadism. Fiji's dictator is remaking its society in his own image. As for the dress codes, I guess if there aren't enough petty criminals around, they get to subjugate and victimise women instead. Bainimarama calls this modernizing Fiji. But it is simply a return to barbarism.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Labour's budget livestream

Labour will be livestreaming a budget discussion this evening at 20:30. You can watch it here.


In December last year, gay couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were symbolicly married in Malawi. They were immediately arrested, subjected to intrusive medical tests and denied bail. Today they were convicted of "unnatural acts" and gross indecency, and could face up to 14 years imprisonment.

This is absolutely barbaric. What people do in the privacy of their own homes is no business of government. Jailing people for 14 years for consensual and private sexual activity is a gross violation of human rights, and the homophobic and bigoted government responsible for it needs to be held accountable by the international community.

Spinning on tax cuts for the rich

Stuff has a lovely piece of spin on tax cuts for the rich today:

A $300 million tax dodge – by which half the country's rich don't pay the top tax rate – will be cracked by changes tipped for tomorrow's Budget.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that tax-avoidance loopholes were being targeted.

The top income tax rate of 38 per cent has encouraged wealthy Kiwis to move their money into family trusts, which pay tax at 33 per cent, or into companies, which attract only 30 per cent tax.

The Budget is expected to align the top and trust rates, making such evasion (and it is evasion; its being done to avoid paying their fair share) by the rich unnecessary. Calling this a "crackdown" is like saying that you are cracking down on P by legalising it.

Here's a better plan: instead of turning a blind eye to tax cheats, the government could actually crack down on their evasion and make them pay their fair share. But that's not likely under a National government.

A conflict of interest II

And while we're on the subject of conflicts of interest, here's another question: how many Cabinet Ministers - who as pointed out below stand to gain an appreciable amount from the government's expected tax cuts - declared any conflict before considering the issue around the Cabinet table?

The Cabinet Manual requires Ministers to "ensur[e] that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty". As for what a conflict is, it uses the ordinary sense:

A pecuniary conflict of interest may arise if a Minister could reasonably be perceived as standing to gain or lose financially from decisions or acts for which he or she is responsible.
Ministers "could reasonably be perceived" to (screw it: will) benefit from top-rate tax-cuts. This is, in the terms of the Cabinet Manual and in the eyes of the public, a clear conflict of interest. So, what, if anything, was done about it?

My guess is nothing. Highly paid Ministers don't regard passing laws to benefit themselves as any form of conflict. What's good for them is good for New Zealand. We don't buy that bullshit from corporations, and we shouldn't buy it from them.

A conflict of interest

An excerpt from Parliament's Standing Orders:

160 Financial interests

(1) A financial interest is a direct financial benefit that might accrue to a member personally, or to any trust, company or other business entity in which the member holds an appreciable interest, as a result of the outcome of the House’s consideration of a particular item of business...

161 Declaration of financial interest

(1) A member must, before participating in the consideration of any item of business, declare any financial interest that the member has in that business...

Tomorrow, the government will announce its budget, which is expected to include enormous tax cuts for the rich. Ministers and Members of Parliament will benefit directly from this. The Prime Minister, on his salary of $393,000 [PDF], will reap $16,150 a year if the top tax rate is eliminated as expected (plus probably ten times that much from the income from his $50 million fortune). Bill English, on $276,700, can expect $10,000. Cabinet Ministers, on $243,700, can expect $8,600. Backbenchers, on $131,000, can expect $3,000. By any ordinary understanding, this is a direct financial interest - MPs will be voting on a matter which will result in a direct financial benefit to themselves. So, how many MPs will make a declaration under Standing Order 161 before speaking on these tax cuts?

My guess is zero. MPs have had a consistent tin ear on these issues; in Parliament, "financial interest" means something different and more limited than what we plebs out in the street would understand it to mean. For example, there are not one, but two Speaker's Rulings declaring that MPs and Ministers have no financial interest in their own salaries, and one that says "A farmer member does not have a financial interest in a bill to provide for the payment for and marketing of dairy produce". Tui couldn't have come up with anything better.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

National turns a blind eye to tax cheats

Since coming into office, National has been keen to emphasise its "tough on crime" credentials, cracking down on civil liberties, eroding fair trials, and increasing punishments. But there's one type of crime it isn't keen on cracking down on: tax evasion. Since coming into office, there has been no correspondence between the Minister and his department on dealing with the staggering levels of tax fraud by the rich reported by the Tax Working Group. Instead, they have cut over a hundred jobs from IRD's Assurance & Litigation unit, the people whose job it is to chase down that fraud. Meanwhile, the number of small business audits has shrunk dramatically from 44,484 to 12,707.

The reason for this is obvious: this tax evasion is done by the rich. And the last thing National wants to do is upset its mates. Instead, it wants to reward them with a whopping tax cut.

Its so very, very National, isn't it?

We don't matter

That's the clear message of John Key in saying that we should not be jealous that the rich will get massive tax cuts while everyone else gets crumbs. The rich, apparently, are "core and crucial" to the economy. As for the rest of us, well, we're just dead weight carried by these mighty Atlases of industry.

Bullshit. To point out the obvious, Rob Fyfe (who gets paid $2.5 million) doesn't run Air New Zealand by himself. Other people handle the bookings, load the baggage, care for the passengers, fly the planes, and make sure they don't crash. But these people who do the actual work of running an airline won't be seeing much from John key's tax cut. Instead, the parasite at the top is in line for a cool $120,000 extra a year - far more than any of them are paid.

Pick another business, its the same story. The people who do the real work will get nothing, and will end up paying more in GST to boot. The managers and owners will be rewarded for the work of others. Meanwhile, lawyers and accountants - people who are in a strict economic sense entirely parasitic (just ask Adam Smith) - will get a windfall because they're "crucial" as well.

This isn't a fair tax shift - this is John Key rewarding his mates while shafting everybody else. And rewarding himself too - he'll be getting around $14,000 more from his Parliamentary salary. That's more than many beneficiaries get in a year.

Key's justification is that we need to hand out these enormous tax cuts to the few to ensure they stay in New Zealand. But there are other ways of doing that. If, for example, we are worried about "doctors... scientists... school principals, [and] nurses" - state employees, all - going overseas in search of higher wages, the government could pay them more. If they are concerned about the wider workforce, they could continue Labour's policy of raising the minimum wage and strengthening unions while making strategic pay settlements in the public sector to close the wage gap with Australia. If they want to broadly reduce taxes, they could shift thresholds; introducing a tax-free bracket at the bottom would give a boost to everyone, while raising the top threshold to $100,000 would capture almost all the people Key uses as examples while not giving enormous gains to the rich. But benefiting them isn't the point - they're just the cover. The whole point of the policy is to deliver enormous windfall gains to people at the top, at the expense of everyone else. To deliver an immediate 5% income boost to people like Rob Fyfe, people like John Key. And that money will be taken from everyone else through higher GST.

This isn't necessary, and it isn't fair. Instead it is just greed. National is the party of the greedy ultrarich. And Thursday is the day they deliver to their backers - and rob you to pay for it.

Equality comes to Portugal

Earlier this year, Portugal's Parliament passed a law allowing same-sex marriage. Today, the day after the Pope visited to warn of the impending homopocalypse, President Anibal Cavaco Silva announced that he will ratify the law. This will make Portugal the sixth country in Europe (after Belgium, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden) to allow same-sex marriage.

So, when is New Zealand going to join the civilised world? We've had five years of civil unions, and the world hasn't ended. Its time we took the next step, gender-blinded the Marriage Act, and let people decide how they want their relationships recognised.

Against a four-year term

Over on Red Alert, Iain Lees-Galloway floats the idea of extending the Parliamentary term to four years. A four-year term is standard in many overseas regimes (e.g. Germany), and its certainly not an undemocratically long period of time to have between elections (unlike Samoa and the UK's five years). But I'm against it. And the reason is simple: I don't trust politicians and want to keep them on a tight electoral leash. And judging by the enormous majorities in favour of retaining the three year term whenever it has been put to the vote, most New Zealanders agree. We saw in the 80's and 90's what rogue governments could do. A short term is the ultimate protection against such governments. Yes, we have to endure - but only for a short while. After which we get to chuck them out on their arses - the democratic substitute for stringing them from lampposts.

What's surprising is how many of our politicians are still completely tone-deaf on this. But I guess it looks different from inside the bubble. From that perspective, three years isn't enough time to do anything, and they could do a lot more with an extra year without the distraction of having to fight for re-election. The thought that the public doesn't want them to "do things" and that we want them to constantly live in fear of the ballot box never enters their heads.

A short Parliamentary term gives us accountability. It gives us the opportunity to change the government if we do not like their direction or their attitude. It gives us control. We yield that control to politicians at our peril.

I was wrong on renters

Several people have emailed me over the post I did yesterday, on who will pay for National's tax cuts, which suggested that the poor would pay twice, as tax increases on landlords would be passed on as higher rents. I was wrong about this. As Icehawk points out quite convincingly on The Standard's original post, renters are not the captive market landlords like to pretend they are - they can change household size, flat with other people or move back in with their parents if prices are too high. This makes the demand for rental property a lot more elastic than the supply. The upshot is that landlords end up competing with each other for tenants, meaning that prices are limited by the market.

Alternatively, we can think of it another way: while all my landlords have been nice, they are in general greedy scum, with an interest in maximising the return on their investment. If the market could bear higher rents, we would already be paying them. We're not, so it can't, Q.E.D. (though this is awfully like the economists argument that you never find money on the footpath, because someone would already have picked it up).

So, those tax changes - which are in general a good idea - are unlikely to end up being dumped on renters. Instead, we will see highly leveraged landlords, the people who drove the property boom and cut first-home buyers out of the market, go to the wall and be forced to sell. Which is not something anyone should shed any tears over.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Australia retaliates against Wikileaks

Wikileaks is a public interest website devoted to exposing information governments want to keep under wraps. Last year they leaked the Australian government's secret internet blacklist. The leak was deeply embarrassing for the government, as it exposed just how tawdry their blacklist was; alongside the material it was meant to be banning, it also included

a slew of online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions such as satanic sites, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist.
Its a perfect example of the mission creep and false positives which mean that we cannot trust any government to block the internet. The government's retaliatory action - blocking Wikileaks - underlined the point. But today, they went one further, cancelling Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's passport. Assange is an Australian citizen. but he has now been effectively forbidden to travel overseas by his government, apparently because he embarrassed them.

This violates the freedom of movement affirmed in the ICCPR, to which Australia is a party. But the Australian government doesn't care, and as they have no equivalent of our BORA, that right is unenforceable. Which is another example of why they need strong, enforceable human rights legislation now.

A fairer tax shift

The National government is describing their upcoming tax cut for the rich as a "tax shift", a simple readjustment of the tax burden. They are trying to pretend that everyone will be financially better off by doing this, but by definition, this cannot be true. The rich get stonking great tax cuts. That means someone has to pay for them. And in true National Party style, the people paying will be the poor, through higher GST and higher rent.

Meanwhile, the Greens have launched a better plan, a "mind the gap" policy to reduce inequality. The core policy? A $10,000 tax-free bracket, funded by a comprehensive capital gains tax which excludes the family home.

That's a far better tax shift than what National is offering. This one benefits the poor at the expense of the rich, rather than the other way round. And taxing capital gains will help squash the damaging property boom-bust cycle and redirect investment away from economically valueless property speculation. That's fair, it reduces inequality, and it solves one of the big problems in New Zealand's economy. But somehow, I doubt National will be interested.

You can read the Greens' full policy here [PDF].

New Fisk

Dubai police hunt Briton over murder of Hamas official

A defeat for the government in Samoa

Last year, the opposition in Samoa began organising themselves into a new political party. The government responded by throwing them out of Parliament, declaring their seats vacant and forcing by-elections. On Saturday, those by-elections were held, and the result was a massive defeat for the government, with two of the three seats in contention returning their opposition members (one of them unopposed). The HRPP was expecting to crush the opposition and maintain their record of winning every by-election; instead, they lost in one seat, and could not even find a candidate in another.

It seems the Samoan public is finally tiring of the HRPP's undemocratic actions. Hopefully the HRPP will get the message, and stop trying to turn Samoa into a one-party state.

Who will pay for National's tax cuts?

On Thursday, Bill English will present his second budget, which is widely expected to include a package of tax cuts for the rich. The top tax rate will be eliminated, removing the most significant progressive element in our tax system. This will be paid for by hiking GST to 15% and by tax changes to the treatment of losses on investment properties.

The winners will pretty obviously be the rich, who will gain 5% of their incomes over the threshold. In the case of John Key, on a $350,000 salary, this means a windfall of $14,000 a year (his backbenchers will only get $2,500 each). The losers will be the poor: GST is a regressive tax, which impacts more on those who spend most of their incomes on necessities. Cleaners in Porirua and supermarket workers in Manukau will be paying 2.5% more for their food, power, and clothing, so John Key can have another Hawaiian holiday. Fair? I don't think so.

But its actually worse than that, because as Marty G points out at The Standard, the burden of those tax changes on investment properties will ultimately be dumped on renters. And who rents? The statistics speak for themselves:

  • 29% of households pay rent.
  • They are mostly low income – 50% of renting households have incomes of under $50,000 a year. The median household income is $68,000.
  • We’re not talking just students or young people. 260,000 of the 400,000 renting households are families.
  • Renting households tend to be larger, so a lot more people rent than the % of houses that are rented would suggest. 1.4 million of 3 million adults do not have tenure over their residence.
  • 60% of non-Pakeha don’t own the house they live in.
  • One million of the people who don’t own their residence have incomes below $35,000.
  • Approximately 100,000 households spend more than a third of their incomes one rent.
What we are looking at here is massive upwards wealth-transfer to the rich. The poor will face a double-whammy of higher GST and higher rents to pay for the greed and excess of people like John Key.

This is not how a fair society should operate. Instead, we should be using the tax system to help people on the bottom, not to screw them over. This will grind people deeper into poverty, and further widen the gap between rich and poor - something which is bad for everyone. But then, that's what National does, isn't it?

Update: People have pointed out that I was wrong about this.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

New Fisk

Silenced for speaking the truth about Guantanamo

Friday, May 14, 2010

A conflict of interest in the Canterbury dictatorship

David Bedford is chair of Enterprise North Canterbury. Enterprise North Canterbury is a major force behind the planned Hurunui Water Project, which would drain the Hurunui river dry in order to give the water to greedy dairy farmers. David Bedford is also one of Canterbury's dictators. And the dictatorship wants to appoint him to the Hurunui-Waiau zone committee to decide on water issues in North Canterbury. But apparently this isn't a conflict of interest, no - its just using his local knowledge.

Bullshit. Appointing an advocate of irrigation to decide on irrigation and water use calls the neutrality of the process into question. It's a prima facie case of bias on any water-management decision he makes in that role - meaning that all of those decisions are potentially subject to High Court judicial review. The same applies to any decision he makes on Hurunui water management issues as part of the dictatorship - for example, the decision on the Hurunui Water Conservation Order. Given this, you really have to wonder why the government bothered to appoint him.

Another election in Nauru?

Last month, the people of Nauru went to the polls in parliamentary elections. The elections were called in an effort to break a political deadlock - parliament was evenly split between supporters and opponents of President Marcus Stephen, and repeated confidence votes were becoming disruptive. However, the move failed - every single incumbent MP was re-elected, and the deadlock remained. Worse, the new Parliament could not agree on a Speaker, let alone a government - meaning that the previous government continues in caretaker mode.

Yesterday, on the sixth attempt, they finally managed to elect a Speaker. His first advice was to dissolve the House and call new elections. While this would be convenient for the caretaker government, it is grossly undemocratic. The people have chosen their representatives, and their decision should be respected. As for the MPs, they just have to lump it and make the best of it that they can.

It does expose a flaw in the Nauruan constitution, though: an even number of MPs enables deadlock. The caretaker government has suggested adding an extra MP to ensure that this is less likely to happen again. That sounds like a very good idea, and one New Zealand should look at as well.

They kept this quiet

Last Friday, someone tried to set fire to Government House. You'd have expected an arson attack against the official residence of the Governor-General (and one of NZ's premier historic buildings) to be big news, at least as big as sticking an axe through the PM's electorate office window, but it seems to have been hushed up until today.

Now I'm wondering about the alleged offenders motive. Was it political? Are they a whackjob who believes the Governor-General is actually important, rather than being a rubberstamp for the elected government? Or are they just a random firebug?

Washing his hands

Yesterday, Victoria University of Wellington closed its doors to semester two undergraduates due to lack of funding. Today, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce is trying to wash his hands of the matter and denying that the government has anything to do with the decision.


The reason VUW has had to do this is because the government won't fund further enrolments. It is that simple. The TEC has had an enrolment cap in place for some time, but this was based on projections made long before the recession, and it has always been flexible. In the face of unanticipated skyrocketing demand - people taking the opportunity to upskill themselves when jobs were scarce - it was expected that it would be relaxed. Instead, National has turned it into a straitjacket. The result is that people are being denied tertiary education. This is the government's fault, and no amount of wiggling can change that.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Time to abolish ratepayer electors

Later this year, New Zealanders will get to vote in local body elections. But there's a dirty secret to our local democracy: some people - those who own property in a region, district or community other than the one they live in - will get to vote more than once.

The reason for this is that the Local Electoral Act creates a special class of ratepayer electors, entitled to vote on the basis that they pay rates to a local authority. There aren't very many of them: 1100 in Auckland, 225 in Wellington, 147 in Manukau and 89 in Palmerston North - so Matt McCarten's fears of absentee landlords dominating elections seems unfounded. But like the monarchy (something else which makes little practical difference) their very existence is offensive and an affront to democracy. Ratepayer electors take the principle "no taxation without representation", once a rallying cry for democracy, and perverts it into a justification for the unequal representation of the rich.

This institution is the last vestige of the Victorian attitude that only the wealthy and those with property deserved the vote. In the democratic era, we recognise that principle is morally repugnant. What matters is not property, but citizenship. Everyone who lives here has an interest in our society, and no-one's interest is more important than anyone else's. Recognition of this fundamental moral equality leads to the idea that we must all have an equal voice - one person, one vote. But the institution of ratepayer electors gives extra weight to the interests of and a louder voice for the non-resident wealthy - for them, its "one property, one vote". And that is simply wrong.

It is time we did away with this undemocratic institution and restored "one person, one vote" in New Zealand. It is time we did away with ratepayer electors.

John Key: Dirty racist

It looks like that nice man john Key isn't so nice after all. First, he destroys a good Treaty settlement to pander to the rednecks in his own party. Now, he's telling racist "jokes" about Maori:

Prime Minister John Key has joked about Tuhoe being cannibals during a speech to a tourism audience in Auckland.


In a speech on Thursday to about 200 people from the tourism sector, Mr Key alluded to the dispute in a joke.

"The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner," he said, "which wouldn't have been quite so attractive."

Tuhoe aren't impressed. We shouldn't be either. Key's election as National Party leader was supposed to end the redneckery of the English-Brash years. But I guess nothing ever changes - National is a redneck party, and their leader reflects that.

[Hat-tip: Frogblog]

For fixed-term Parliaments

As an aside to my post on the UK's move to fixed-term Parliaments and a supermajority to call an early election, I should point out that while we don't yet have fixed term Parliaments, we have already made a similar change to the UK. Back in 2006, the then-Governor-General Silvia Cartwright staged a quiet revolution, announcing in a speech that the power to call elections is covered by the "caretaker convention". Which means that if a Prime Minister is defeated in a confidence vote (e.g. as a result of coalition collapse), they can't just call an election. Instead, they become a caretaker Prime Minister while Parliament has a chance to form an alternative government. An early election is only called if the majority of the House supports it.

The reason for this is pretty obvious: the people have elected a Parliament. Our will in who makes up that Parliament should be respected. Prime Ministers shouldn't just be allowed to make us vote again if the results turn out to be inconvenient for them.

Except of course, they still can, because the above rule only applies to Prime Ministers who have actually lost a confidence vote. A Prime Minister who still retains the confidence of the House is free to call an early election, either to thwart an upcoming confidence motion or at the time of maximum electoral benefit. While we have a strong political norm against this, enforced by the electoral punishment of parties who go early, that's not enough. Which is why we need to legislate for a fixed parliamentary term. We elect Parliaments to represent us, and our will should be respected. The politicians should just have to lump it.

Confidence vs dissolution

One of the problems with the Westminster system is the ability of the Prime Minister to call an election whenever they want. In the past - in 1951 in New Zealand, and every four years in the UK - this has been abused to go early when the polls are in the government's favour. In New Zealand, we now have a strong presumption that this is not permitted - governments calling an early election tend to be punished. But in the UK, it is the norm; their parliamentary term is technically five years, but elections tend to happen after four.

The solution to this abuse is to remove the prerogative power of the Prime Minister to call an election, and instead fix the term of Parliament. Over in the UK, the LibDems have secured an agreement to do this as part of their coalition agreement. But the rider to this is causing some discussion:

Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed-term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.
Incredibly, this is being widely reported as raising the threshold for a vote of no confidence. That would of course be dangerous and undemocratic, a denial of the fundamental rule of the Westminster system that the Prime Minister must hold the confidence of the House (as opposed to the confidence of only 45% of the House). But the agreement doesn't actually suggest that. Instead, as with the reporting around this whole election, it shows that the UK is still trapped in the mire of pluralitarian, FPP-thinking.

The important point, which people are failing to distinguish, is that unseating a Prime Minister is not the same thing as dissolving Parliament and calling an election. The UK has traditionally conflated these, in that Prime Ministers defeated in a confidence vote have resigned and called an election. But it doesn't have to be that way. If, for example, there is someone else who commands the confidence of the House, then they could be appointed Prime Minister. UK political tradition is explicitly designed to thwart this - the defeated PM gets to rob their opponents of their victory by forcing an early election as a final act of spite.

The Tory-LibDem coalition's proposal fixes this. Now, if a Prime Minister is defeated, Parliament will have to work to find another one. Only if they explicitly vote with a supermajority do they get an early election. But the problem isn't that 55% is too high a threshold for calling an early election - rather its that, against the backdrop of an unfair electoral system which regularly hands parties more than 60% of the seats on only 40% of the vote, it's not high enough. This "fixed term parliament" arrangement will work fine in a hung Parliament - but will be utterly useless under UK politics as usual.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wealth inequality in New Zealand

A while ago I linked to an American article on 15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America, and commented that we need similar facts about New Zealand. Here's the first: a pie-chart of wealth distribution.


(Source: Te Ara)

It looks terrible - 50% of the population own only 7% of the wealth, while the top 10% own nearly as much as everyone else put together. But it could be much, much worse. Just look at America...

I'd like to do an income one to match that chart mapping the income of the top 1% to changes in the top tax rate - but income data is difficult to come by in New Zealand. Te Ara has historic decile shares (with an unfortunate data switch in 1981 which ruins the time series), and top tax rates (which have basically gone down, down, down) - but there seems to be no info on the top 1% or top 0.1%. If anyone can help out, I'd love to know.

Goff on the economy

Labour leader Phil Goff gave a speech in Nelson today laying out his views on the economy. They were refreshingly left-wing. After attacking the government's record on the Cullen fund, KiwiSaver, GST and tax cuts, Goff talked about Labour's broad direction, including:

  • Revising National's tax changes to benefit the many, rather than the few;
  • The retention and if necessary restoration of a top tax rate, though with a higher threshold (around $100,000);
  • Taking a good look at removing GST from healthy food. While Goff favours simplicity, he has seen the evidence on the health benefits, and things it is worth serious investigation.
  • Broadening the Reserve bank's focus beyond mere price stability, while giving it more tools to influence monetary policy;
  • Restoring the Cullen Fund, rebuilding KiwiSaver and examining a shift to a compulsory scheme in the long-term;
  • Reforming the Overseas Investment Act to provide greater protection for strategic assets, monopoly businesses, and farm land;
  • Boosting R&D investment, with a particular focus on clean technology and renewable energy.

So a fairer, greener economy focused on meeting the needs of New Zealanders rather than foreign landlords and monopolists. Sounds good to me.

A deal in the UK

The UK election has been the most exciting thing I've watched in ages. Yesterday, it looked like the Tories would be thwarted. This morning, David Cameron is Prime Minister. The deal includes a referendum on preferential voting, fixed-term parliaments, an elected House of lords, the abolition of ID cards, and LibDem cabinet ministers. The question is whether this will be enough for the LibDems' supporters, or whether they will face a serious backlash at the next election (and with only PV, rather than proportional representation, they won't benefit much).

As for Labour, it's their own fault:

A [LibDem] spokesman said key members of the Labour team "gave every impression of wanting the process to fail" and the party had made "no attempt at all" to agree a common approach on issues like schools funding and tax reform.

"Certain key Labour cabinet ministers were determined to undermine any agreement by holding out on policy issues and suggesting that Labour would not deliver on proportional representation and might not marshal the votes to secure even the most modest form of electoral reform," he said.

They had their chance, and they blew it. They have no-one to blame but themselves.

As for whether it will last, that depends on whether the Tories treat the LibDems as equal partners, or follow their usual pattern of behaving like arrogant born-to-rule pricks. But in the case of the latter, the LibDems can just withdraw their support and announce their backing for a Labour Prime Minister instead.

Plans to mine a schedule-4 protected wetland

The Southland Times this morning reports on L&M Lignite's plans for a lignite to diesel plant in Southland. L&M, you may remember, were the people who convinced Gerry Brownlee to exclude an area from the Oteake Conservation Park last year. Now they want to dig up that area, and other areas around Southland, to fuel a filthy, carbon-polluting coal-to-lignite plant.

But the real news in the article isn't their plans for the lignite plant - its their plans for where else they may want to dig up:

L&M Lignite holds exploration permits for all or part of seven deposits in Otago and Southland, including the Hawkdun deposit in Central Otago, the Ashers-Waituna reserve near Invercargill and the Benhar sector of the Kaitangata coalfield.
(Emphasis added).

Yes, they want to dig up a reserve - but not just any reserve. Ashers-Waituna is the old name; the area is now known as the Awarua Wetlands. Its a Ramsar site, recognised as being of outstanding ecological significance and protected by international law - and Schedule 4. L&M currently has an exploration permit for this area, granted back in 2003 before the Ramsar site was expanded. Digging up this area and turning it into an open cast mine would be pure ecological vandalism. Even having one nearby would pose a significant danger to the wetland due to mine drainage and associated pollution.

This plan cannot be allowed to go ahead. The Awarua wetlands are too valuable to dig up, too valuable to pollute. L&M must be stopped now.

(As for the inherent insanity of lignite plants, I'll save that for another day)