Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jack is back!

Last year, Jack took a holiday, and died of terror at Fright Night 2009. This year, he's back, and clearly happy to be home:


I have the usual pile of chocolate to hand out. I wonder whether anyone will want any, or whether I'll get to eat it all myself.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Key supports transparency

Yesterday, Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith slammed the door on transparency, announcing that from henceforth MP's use of their international travel rort would remain secret. As the Herald points out [PDF] this would have prevented us from knowing about Rodney Hide's taxpayer-funded $25,000 Hawaiian holiday, Roger Douglas' taxpayer-funded $44,000 trip to London, and John Carter's taxpayer-funded $13,000 Rarotongan retreat - all of which caused justifiable outrage from the public. And the result will be to further tarnish the reputation of Parliament in the eyes of the public. Unless, that is, MP's speak up about it. And so far, one has: John Key:

Mr Key yesterday said he had been discussing the issue with Dr Smith for some weeks and understood his logic.

"But personally I've been of the view that transparency is a good thing. As Prime Minister I've tried to lead that charge when it comes to transparency and on that basis I made those feelings clear."

Disclosure of the travel perk information saw tarnished Rodney Hide's claim to be Parliament's "perk buster" as his extensive use of it was revealed last year.

Mr Key said Dr Smith's decision to deny the public that information about their elected representatives would probably not go down well with the public. They would see it as a reversal of transparency, a risk Mr Key said he communicated to Dr Smith.

"The reality is we have worked on a process where we've opened up MPs' expenses, and now in a way it will at least look to the public that we're closing the door slightly."

The article also quotes the Greens' Metiria Turei as calling for a review of the expenses system. Meanwhile, Phil Goff, whose party recently hosted a mini-conference on increasing government transparency, stays silent. Guess he's doing his bit to earn that reputation then.

(Note that those who have come out against this are younger MPs. This is partly a generational divide around transparency, but also one of self-interest. Both Key and Turei have only been in Parliament since 2002, and so both only get the 50% perk. Meanwhile, both Smith and Goff get the 90% perk, and have been enjoying it for over a decade. Its hard not to see a sense of entitlement in their explicit or tacit defence of their "right to rort"...)

Finally, while I am pleased to finally see some MPs breaking the conspiracy of silence and speaking up on this issue, its worth pointing out that nothing is preventing them from independent disclosure beyond the level required by Smith. So, there's a challenge to Key and Meyt: put your money where your mouth is, and get your MPs to disclose. Parliament is on the wrong side of the people on this, but by voluntarily disclosing, you can force everyone else to do the right thing. Plus, you'll get the PR kudos of changing the Parliamentary culture for the better. So, are you up for it? Or does your support for transparency not extend to actually practicing it?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Earning that reputation VI

This year, pushed by scandals overseas, we've seen an unprecedented opening of Parliament's books, with MP's accommodation and travel expenses being revealed for the first time. This has been uncomfortable for several MPs, as the public has raised questions about their level of spending, or the discrepancies between their public statements and their private behaviour. So Lockwood Smith has stepped in to spare them such discomfort in the future, by slamming the door on transparency:

Parliament's Speaker has introduced new rules preventing public disclosure of individual MPs' spending on tax-payer funded overseas jaunts.

The change mean trips like those taken by Rodney Hide and his partner to Hawaii and through Europe last year are now secret.

Mr Hide admitted at the time that he made a mistake, but Speaker Lockwood Smith today said the matter was private and should never have been made known to the public.

"It is taken out of members' salaries and it is private," Dr Smith said.

"It is not a public expense, it is a private matter."

Bullshit. This is our money they're spending, and we have a right to know how it is spent so that we can judge whether it is spent well. And what we've seen in the past is that it is often not spent well. Keeping it secret seems to be exactly the wrong solution to this - unless you're an MP wanting a taxpayer-funded overseas holiday, I guess.

With this move, Smith has done his bit to ensure that MPs continue to be held in contempt by the public. If MPs don't want to be tarred as corrupt and self-serving, then they need to speak up for transparency and denounce him. Otherwise, they will have again earned their reputation, and have no-one to blame but themselves.

The fastest legislature in the west strikes again

Back in 1979, in his book Unbridled Power, then-law lecturer Geoffrey Palmer infamously called the New Zealand Parliament "the fastest legislature in the west". The lack of checks and balances around the use of urgency allowed a law to go from an idea in the mind of a Minister to the law of the land in 24 hours.

We've just had a potent demonstration that Palmer was right, in the form of the Hobbit Enabling Act. The bill made far-reaching changes to industrial relations law for workers involved in film and video game production, effectively stripping them of all employment rights. It was drafted on Wednesday night, introduced at 15:00 Thursday, rammed through all stages under urgency, and passed just before 13:00 today.

This isn't the first time National has done this to us. This time last year, National had rammed through nine controversial policy bills by abusing urgency in this fashion. They had forced low-paid workers into a 90-day fire at will period, amended campaign finance rules to advantage themselves, removed bail rights, and forced the SuperCity upon Auckland, all without any chance for the public to consider these changes, let alone have a say on them. Since then, they've also abolished democracy in Canterbury, allowed the police to make laws as well as enforce them, exempted Corrections from the RMA to allow them to house prisoners in substandard conditions, and made Gerry Brownlee a dictator with powers to amend any law as he sees fit.

This has to stop. There is occasional need for urgency powers. But they do not exist to allow the government of the day to inflict their policies by surprise on the public. National is using them to systematically abuse our democracy, and us, its citizens. We should not tolerate it any longer.


Reasons I do not want to go to Palmerston North Hospital #57: because they stick "do not resuscitate" orders on people without their consent:

An 85-year-old woman who wants a chance at life, no matter what, was shocked to find a not-for-resuscitation order placed on her file at Palmerston North Hospital's emergency department.

Her son, Tim Wallace, is angry the order was filled out by a doctor without consulting him, as her enduring power of attorney, or his mother, who was too sick to speak for herself when admitted. Mr Wallace has laid a formal complaint with MidCentral Health, which has launched an investigation.

It is unclear whether this was done by the hospital, or the rest home the woman was living at, but either way it is utterly monstrous. Respect for personal autonomy means not just respecting people's right to die, but also their right to live. And this was a person who had expressed very clearly a desire to cling on for every last moment. That decision should not be overridden by a doctor, or anyone else for that matter. And it certainly shouldn't be overridden by any employee of a body which has a clear financial incentive to minimise its cost of care.

MidCentral Health is investigating, but if they find who is responsible they're likely to treat it as an employment issue or a medical disciplinary offence. Its not. Instead, what we're looking at here is attempted murder, and it should be prosecuted as such.

What the Hobbit Enabling Act means

Over on the Hand Mirror, Maia points out what the Hobbit Enabling Act really means: protecting the "right" of film producers to grope 16-year old girls, then sack them if they complain:

She is 16 years old and she's an actress. Her friends may perform in school plays, but she is an actress - she has a job. She's in a TV show.

Today she is in wardrobe. One of the producers comes in - someone always checks the costumes. He touches her breast.

She tells her parents and her agent. They ring up the producers; they're angry. Her contract is terminated that day - breach of confidentiality - she talked about being sexually harrassed. By the next day the scripts have all been rewritten

I didn't make that up. It happened on a New Zealand film set this century.

Employment law includes numerous protections to prevent these sorts of abuses of power. Removing those protections enables those abuses - and the abusers. But its not just sexual harassment it enables. Its not just the casting couch. The law will also allow employers in the film industry to sack people who complain about health and safety, sack people for being pregnant, sack people for being gay or Catholic or getting a divorce. And the employee - sorry, "contractor" - will have no real recourse in any of those situations.

This is an unfair, abusive law. It enables unfair, abusive behaviour by employers. And if its the price of keeping The Hobbit in New Zealand, sorry, but that price is simply too high.


The debate over The Hobbit has seen a fair bit of thuggery, with actor's meetings cancelled due to threats and intimidation from angry film technicians. But its gone far beyond that, into death threats:

Actresses and unionists have received threats, including some against their lives, during the heated row over The Hobbit movie.

Police have been called and private security arranged for some of those targeted.

The worst threats appear to have been aimed at Australian union boss Simon Whipp and Actors' Equity organiser Frances Walsh, although actresses Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Robyn Malcolm have also been abused.

The threats have become so bad the union has hired a guard for its Auckland office.

Malcolm is selling her home and has pulled back from some high-profile marketing. She was reluctant to comment this week on any abuse.

I understand that livelihoods are at stake and that some people feel pretty strongly about the movie, but this sort of thuggery is absolutely unacceptable, for anyone. It's also a crime, and I sincerely hope that the pricks doing it are caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Hobbit Enabling Bill

The government has finally released the text of the Hobbit Enabling Bill (AKA the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill). Its a short bill, and it basically exempts any "person engaged in film production work" from the factual test of employment status. Meaning that if their employer says they are an independent contractor, then that settles the matter, and no challenge shall be entered into, even when it is patently bullshit. So, what's "film production work"? Well, for a start, it includes video games - so the entire computer games industry in NZ will be effectively excluded from basic employment protections. Secondly, it includes not just actors, stunt doubles, voiceover artists etc, but also anyone engaged in any capacity at any stage of the process, from pre-production to post-production, plus promotion and marketing, whether on off the set. So, not just the Weta Orcs (who are already virtual slaves under Peter Jackson's anti-union regime), but everyone even vaguely connected with the movie. All of these people will be stripped of basic employment protections, including the minimum wage, annual leave and holidays, sick leave, protection from discrimination, and protection from unfair dismissal.

So, that's the cost of The Hobbit: the entire film and video game industry gets to be slaves. I hope all you people at Weta are happy with yourselves, arseholes.

Legislating in secret - again

Last night, I completed my formal submission on the Review of Standing Orders. In addition to the points I raised earlier, I also took the opportunity to complain about the government's habit of legislating in secret. When the government moves urgency, it must identify the business which it is moved for. However, Gerry Brownlee has made a habit of vague and obfuscatory urgency motions, seeking urgency on (for example) "accorded the introduction and passing of Government bills dealing with taxation, employment relations, bail, education, and sentencing"; "the introduction and passing of a Government bill"; and "the introduction and first reading of Government bills". None of these bills were specifically identified, effectively making the urgency motion a blank cheque.

And today, he's done it again, seeking urgency for "the introduction and passing of government bills". He subsequently identified one of these bills as amending the Employment Relations Act for the benefit of Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers. As for the other one, he would only say that it "deals with provisions which are of a legal nature". Which is pretty much anything.

We know that Brownlee is rock bottom when it comes to open government, but this is the absolute pits. He's denying our Parliament the right to know what it will be voting on, until it is sprung on them by surprise. And he's also denying the public the right to scrutinise the Parliamentary process. And that is not acceptable in a democracy.

ECE: Another broken promise?

During the 2008 election campaign, John Key promised to close the gap with Australia. In fact, he widened it. He promised he wouldn't raise GST. He raised it. He also promised not to cut 20 hours free ECE. You can guess what's coming next, right?

The 20 hours of free care children 3 and over receive in early childhood centres is under review, despite the Government's election promise that it would not cut or change the popular scheme.

Education Minister Anne Tolley established an independent taskforce this month to review the effectiveness of spending in the early childhood education sector and propose innovative ideas about learning.

Questioned this week in Parliament about whether funding for the 20-hours scheme would be exempt from the review, she replied: "No, but this Government promised to retain the subsidies and fee controls that make up 20 hours' early childhood services."

We all know how this goes. "Under review" today means cut tomorrow. And the result of that will be more kids pushed out of education, and more parents who can't afford to work. Such a move wouldn't just be dishonest - it would also be stupid. Early childhood education is one of the highest quality social investments we can make, improving education levels and employment prospects and reducing health costs, crime, and inequality. But National doesn't care about that; all it cares about is strip-mining government services to provide tax cuts for its rich cronies.

Meanwhile, Key also made another promise in the 2008 election campaign: not to sell state assets. He's already gone back on two core promises and looks to be about to on a third. So can we really trust him on the fourth?

Banana republic II

So, a major foreign corporation threatens capital flight, and the Key government obligingly bends over for them, offering a further NZ$34 million in subsidies. The one good thing to come out of the 80's was ending the government's habit of subsidising failing businesses (at that time, the entire farming sector) for votes. Now we're subsidising successful ones, who don't actually need the money.

Worse, the deal will also see a law change clarifying that film industry workers are contractors (i.e. removing all their employment rights) rammed through Parliament today under all-stages urgency, with no select committee process. In other words, our laws are not being made in Wellington, but Hollywood; not by New Zealanders, but by foreigners; and not to benefit us, but to benefit them. Trader John hasn't just signed away $34 million of our money - but our independence as well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More British torture

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks released 400,000 classified reports on the US's conduct in the war in Iraq, exposing its tolerance of torture by its Iraqi allies. Meanwhile in the UK, there's been an equally explosive torture-related leak, with the leaking of a British Army training manual which instructs interrogators to use Abu Ghraib tactics against prisoners of war:

The British military has been training interrogators in techniques that include threats, sensory deprivation and enforced nakedness in an apparent breach of the Geneva conventions, the Guardian has discovered.

Training materials drawn up secretly in recent years tell interrogators they should aim to provoke humiliation, insecurity, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety and fear in the prisoners they are questioning, and suggest ways in which this can be achieved.

One PowerPoint training aid created in September 2005 tells trainee military interrogators that prisoners should be stripped before they are questioned. "Get them naked," it says. "Keep them naked if they do not follow commands." Another manual prepared around the same time advises the use of blindfolds to put prisoners under pressure.

A manual prepared in April 2008 suggests that "Cpers" – captured personnel – be kept in conditions of physical discomfort and intimidated.

This is all contrary to international and UK law, and it may constitute a war crime. Unlike the US, though, there's actually some chance that those responsible will be held to account. The British military's treatment of prisoners in Iraq is already the subject of an independent inquiry as well as multiple court cases. While this isn't prosecution (yet), there is a high chance that that treatment will be declared unlawful, putting the acid on the government to prosecute those responsible.

Krugman on austerity

Another day, another Question Time in which Bill English tries to pretend that the fact that New Zealanders have no money is a good thing, and pushes for further cuts to avoid debt. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman has been attacking this austerity logic. He's writing about the US and the UK, but he might as well be writing about us:

Both the new British budget announced on Wednesday and the rhetoric that accompanied the announcement might have come straight from the desk of Andrew Mellon, the Treasury secretary who told President Herbert Hoover to fight the Depression by liquidating the farmers, liquidating the workers, and driving down wages. Or if you prefer more British precedents, it echoes the Snowden budget of 1931, which tried to restore confidence but ended up deepening the economic crisis.

The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits — and so it is. But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction. It would cut government employment by 490,000 workers — the equivalent of almost three million layoffs in the United States — at a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment. It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn’t at all ready to take up the slack.


What happens now? Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. As always, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Krugman points out that increased government spending is the solution to this sort of recession, even when it requires more borrowing. Our government is sadly doing exactly the wrong thing. And we only have to look over the Tasman (where the government spent up large and avoided both recession and unemployment) to see that.

Australians support same-sex marriage

A new poll has found that 62% of Australians support same-sex marriage - up from 60% last year. Among the young, support is even higher - 80% among 18 - 24 year olds. 74% of Labour voters support change, and 78% of all voters support the issue being decided by a conscience vote. So why does the government oppose one, and insist that Labour MP's bloc-vote against their own supporters?

As I've argued before, its the electoral system, stupid. Australia's non-proportional system means that the votes of swing voters in key marginal seats are more important than the votes of voters elsewhere. And those voters are bigots. So, a progressive move supported by the majority of Australians is held hostage by a minority, thanks to the disproportionate power granted them by an unfair electoral system. I'm just glad that we don't have the same problem in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering what New Zealanders think of the issue. While civil unions are now accepted, is there support for further progress? Are there any polls?

Banana republic

On the same day we're recognised as the least corrupt country in the world, the Prime Minister is offering to change our labour laws to benefit an international investor:

Speaking yesterday after meeting with the executives, Mr Key said the "paramount" problem was that film workers on independent contracts could be legally seen as employees, even if their contracts specifically called them contractors.

That followed a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 on James Bryson, a model maker on the Lord of the Rings movies, who was deemed an employee, even though he was hired as a contractor.

"They're not arguing people can't be employees," Mr Key said.

"They're just saying that if someone is engaged by their production company as a contractor, they want to know if that's how it's going to end up, and if it doesn't, that has other economic consequences for them.

"They're out of here, if we can't give them the clarity. There's no question about that."

Other reports suggest that this change could be specific to the film industry, or even "unique to The Hobbit". So, in addition to the Canterbury Enabling Act and the Rugby World Cup Enabling Act, we may see a Hobbit Enabling Act (no doubt rammed through under all-stages urgency) as well.

If OTOH its a broader change, then what Key is actually suggesting is giving employers the power to opt out of the protections of employment law (including the minimum wage, holidays and sick leave, union rights and grievance provisions) entirely, simply by arbitrarily designating workers as "independent contractors". Some bad employers (including Peter Jackson) already try and do this, but the law currently subjects such contracts to a factual test. If that test is removed, then its open season. And the primary victims won't be film technicians or actors, but retail workers and cleaners. Supporters of The Hobbit may wish to ask themselves whether seeing the movie filmed in New Zealand is worth their pay, their holidays, their sick leave, and their right to be treated fairly by an employer - because that is what Key is putting on the table.

Something to be proud of

New Zealand has once again topped Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index , ranking as the least corrupt country in the world. But while that's good news, its not as good as it sounds - our score actually dropped from last year, from 9.4 to 9.3. In other words, we're heading in the wrong direction. The reason seems primarily to be laziness and a non-awareness of the potential problem (something that's easy to understand given the absence of corruption in our society). For example

Only 44% of companies on the NZX50 have policies prohibiting bribery & corruption (this compares with 72% in the UK and 68% in the US) Only 14% of companies listed on the NZX 50 have sought to control the way in which facilitation payments are made by adding restrictions into their codes of conduct Only 10% prohibit facilitation payments altogether.

Mr Tan says “When we look at the study results for the NZX50 and then factor in the 2010 CPI results of some of our major trading partners, for example China is 78th with a composite score of 3.5, we believe there is a real risk that New Zealand organisations do not take the risks of bribery and corruption seriously when operating offshore.”

But its not just our business community which is lax - our government still hasn't ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption, despite having signed it back in 2003, and our anti-corruption law is weak by international standards. If we want to retain that top spot, clearly we need to do better.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More New Fisk

Exodus. The changing map of the Middle East

How to buy a government

You are a large natural resources extraction company. You want to control the natural resources of an impoverished nation, but the government refuses. So, you fly half their MPs to an exclusive resort, wine and dine them, and pay them to switch sides so as to destabilise the government and force an election. Then you fund the opposition in that election to ensure there will be a change of government, and that the new regime will do exactly what you want.

It sounds like the plot of a movie, but its been happening right in our backyard. Australian-based phosphate company Getax wanted complete control of Nauru's phosphate reserves, and when the company refused their predatory loan deal, they bribed government MPs and bankrolled the opposition in order to get it. And they almost succeeded, producing a parliamentary deadlock that has continued for six months. The company and its dealings are now under investigation by the Australian Federal Police (this sort of bribery being a crime under the United Nations Convention against Corruption). Hopefully they'll succeed in bringing charges. As for Nauru, its still under emergency rule, and the deadlocked Parliament has not been summoned for months. The real casualty here has been Nauru's democracy.

Why we need an enforceable BORA

National MP Paul Quinn, with the full support of his party, is currently trying to ban prisoners from voting via his Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill. Meanwhile, over in the UK, it looks like they're going to be forced to repeal such a ban. Five years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners voting violated the right to vote affirmed in the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. The ruling is binding on the UK government, and if not implemented soon will result in sanctions, including suspension from the Council of Europe and European Union. As a result, the UK government will be forced to change its law, most likely to one mirroring the present NZ law, and sooner rather than later.

This is the difference an enforceable human rights instrument makes: it stops the government from wantonly and egregiously violating human rights. And what this bill shows is that we need one here. As Andrew Geddis pointed out, if Parliament passes this bill it will forfeit all legitimacy as our supreme lawmaker. It will have shown clearly that it cannot be trusted to uphold and protect our fundamental rights, and that it will piss all over them whenever it fells it can grub votes by doing so. It will have shown that we need judicial checks on Parliamentary power. And the way to do that is by elevating the BORA to supreme law, and allowing the courts to strike down such abuses.

The US enabled torture in Iraq

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks dropped another bombshell, with the release of the Iraq War Logs - 400,000 classified reports on the war and occupation of Iraq from 2004 to 2009. There's a number of dirty secrets hiding in the warlogs, from the US's estimate of the bodycount (over 100,000, not including the battle of Fallujah) to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by US helicopter gunships to the murder of Iraqis who were trying to surrender. But the worst of it is what it reveals about torture in the "new" Iraq. Apart from numerous reports of the abuse of prisoners by US troops (often deliberately downplayed), it also reveals that the US had a deliberate policy of not investigating abuse by their Iraqi allies. The result is predictable: having supposedly invaded Iraq to end torture, the US ended up turning over prisoners to Iraqi torture squads:

In Samarra, the series of log entries in 2004 and 2005 describe repeated raids by US infantry, who then handed their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for "further questioning". Typical entries read: "All 5 detainees were turned over to Ministry of Interior for further questioning" (from 29 November 2004) and "The detainee was then turned over to the 2nd Ministry of Interior Commando Battalion for further questioning" (30 November 2004).

The field reports chime with allegations made by New York Times writer Peter Maass, who was in Samarra at the time. He told Guardian Films : "US soldiers, US advisers, were standing aside and doing nothing," while members of the Wolf Brigade beat and tortured prisoners. The interior ministry commandos took over the public library in Samarra, and turned it into a detention centre, he said.

An interview conducted by Maass in 2005 at the improvised prison, accompanied by the Wolf Brigade's US military adviser, Col James Steele, had been interrupted by the terrified screams of a prisoner outside, he said. Steele was reportedly previously employed as an adviser to help crush an insurgency in El Salvador.

Turning over prisoners to a jurisdiction where there are substantial grounds for believing they will be tortured is a violation of the Convention Against Torture. It may also violate the Geneva Conventions, the UCMJ, and US domestic law. And there's no question that the US had those substantial grounds - one of the warlogs reports that a US officer explicitly threatened to turn a prisoner and their family over to this unit for torture. Sadly, that officer is not identified - because if he could be, that's a pretty ironclad conspiracy charge right there.

What these leaks show is that the US engaged in crimes against humanity in Iraq as a matter of deliberate policy. And those responsible need to be held to account for it. The people who made the decisions to indiscriminately murder civilians and enable torture, on both a policy and operational level, need to go to jail. And until they do, we should regard the US as a rogue nation, no better than the torturing, murdering regime it unseated.

New Fisk

The shaming of America

Monday, October 25, 2010

Labour Day

Today is Labour Day, when we celebrate the establishment of the eight-hour day in New Zealand. Back in 1840, Samuel Parnell and his friends broke the British custom of 12 - 14 hour days, and ensured that right from the beginning, New Zealanders would have time in their lives for things other than work. And its entirely fitting that we celebrate this victory for leisure with a holiday in the sun.

The CTU is taking the opportunity to highlight the erosion of Parnell's achievement. But I think we need to go beyond just defending past gains against the greed of the bosses, and instead present a positive goal to aim for. The 40 hour week recognised that there is more to life than work, that we need time to spend on ourselves and our friends and families. I think we should have more of that. Overseas, they're experimenting with 4 day weeks, effectively changing work patterns to give everyone a three-day weekend. Other countries have tried shifting to a 35-hour week, and taking their increased living standards as time rather than material goods. Both of these are worth pursuing. Parnell won us the eight hour day by refusing to work any longer, and by persuading others to do the same. I think its time that we collectively followed his lead, and demanded more time in our lives.

(Meanwhile, there will be anti-union rallies in Wellington and Auckland today. I understand that those involved are trying to protect their livelihoods. But doing so by trying to limit the right of others to do the same? That's just shameful.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Fisk

They're trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge again

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some "watchdog"

The Independent Police Conduct Authority are our watchdog for the police. So how independent are they? A story in the Dominion Post this morning gives the answer: not very. Confronted with a case showing appalling unlawful behaviour by police in persecuting an innocent woman, they refused to release their report as it was "not in the public interest":

The Dominion Post has a copy of the secret September 2009 IPCA report into a string of complaints laid by former policeman Dave White about the 2005 arrest of Mrs Teokotai, his mother-in-law.

The IPCA did not make public its findings because the authority deemed them not of sufficient public interest. It found:

[Superintendent Gary] Smith and [Bay of Plenty police professional standards head Garth] Bryan acted unlawfully by not telling Commissioner Howard Broad and the IPCA about Mr White's complaint.

Mr Burns and Mr Bryan showed "poor judgment" and failed best practice and police instructions by appointing a Tokoroa senior sergeant with "a clear conflict of interest" to look into the complaint.

Detectives involved in the investigation into Mrs Teokotai acted unprofessionally and two officers appear to have refused to be interviewed about the complaint.

Tokoroa police acted unlawfully by arresting her and lacked justification to incarcerate her and seize her passport and property.

Police breached their legal responsibility to disclose their evidence against her until six months after the case was dismissed.

The initial internal inquiry into complaints against the officers involved "lacked any semblance of independence and professionalism".

The response to Mr White's complaint was "totally mismanaged by senior officers".

I would have thought that releasing this sort of report was very much in the public interest. It would show that the conduct of police was being monitored, thus building faith in the system. Instead, by keeping it secret, the IPCA have simply shown that when it matters, when police behave unlawfully, they will cover it up for them. And then they wonder why the public has no faith in them...

And then there's the kicker: the officers criticised by the IPCA have been promoted. Smith, who covered up the complaint, got a top job in London as a police liaison. Bryan got a senior job at Police National Headquarters. These are cops who covered up for their mates, who have no place in our police force. The fact that they are still wearing the uniform speaks volumes about the police's tolerance for the criminals among them and their utter lack of commitment to cleaning house. It shows us they have learned absolutely nothing from the police rape scandal. And it shows us that they are utterly unworthy of our respect.

Friday, October 22, 2010

This stinks

Back in July, The Queenstown lakes District Council part-privatised their airport, selling a 24.99% stake to Auckland International Airport. The deal was stitched up in secret, without consultation. How secret? Well, they didn't even tell the council - their owners - until the deal was done:

The partial sale of Queenstown International Airport was kept secret because there was no time to consult the public, the airport's board decided.

Records of a Queenstown Airport board meeting on June 28 – released under the Official Information Act [sic] – show the board was concerned informing the Queenstown Lakes District Council would delay the sale for up to a year.

"Markets for QAC [Queenstown Airport] is strong right now; this may not be the case next year."

Delays associated with the possible election of a new district council was another reason given for keeping the deal under wraps, the records show.


Councillors, including Ms van Uden, were only told of the deal the day it was finalised. The only two elected members who were told in advance, and sworn to secrecy, were outgoing mayor Clive Geddes and deputy mayor John S Wilson, neither of whom sit on the new council.

This is utterly appalling. It suggests the airport company - a Council Controlled Organisation - was effectively allowed to part-privatise itself, with no input, oversight, or mandate from the council, and in questionable compliance with the consultation provisions of the Local Government Act. The latter has already resulted in a court challenge, which will be heard next year, and we should all hope it is successful. Because if it is not, this undemocratic behaviour will be legitimised, and councils (or worse, CCOs) will have a carte blanche for this sort of privatisation by stealth.

More bullshit from Gilmore

Last month, National MP Aaron Gilmore was exposed as having lied on his CV. After initially trying to blame Parliamentary Services, Gilmore has finally come clean and taken full responsibility. Or has he?

However, yesterday he said the error, and four others, were made in his own office and he took "full responsibility for those errors".

He also told the Herald it had been confirmed that the information was not sent by him.

"However, there is an email from my secretary saying: 'Here is the information' which had all the errors in it, so that is where the problems have arisen.

"I accept that I should have checked the published information and accept full responsibility for not having done so."

Mr Gilmore said he was not going to take the matter further.

"These things do happen."

Obviously. Detailed CVs appear from nowhere all the time, with no input from the person they're about. And if you believe that, I've got a brewery in Mangatainoka for sale...

In reality, this is just another refusal to accept responsibility from Gilmore. Having been caught bullshitting, his response is more bullshit. But then, did we really expect anything different from a manager?

Google is evil

Google's motto is famously "Don't be evil". So why are they engaging in tax avoidance?

Google, the internet giant which makes profits at a rate of $1m every hour, is shielding billions of dollars from tax across the world by using complex financial structures known in the industry as "the Double Irish" and "the Dutch Sandwich".


The company is pushing the bulk of its non-US business revenues, including all the revenue generated in the UK, through an Irish subsidiary, and then on to the Caribbean tax haven of Bermuda – a structure that tax experts say is entirely legal and is becoming increasingly common among multinational corporations.

Its unquestionably legal. Its also unquestionably evil. Google is using complicated schemes to avoid paying its fair share, in the process robbing governments of billions of dollars. And we all suffer as a result, through higher personal taxes and inferior government services. A corporation which truly believed in not being evil, in not maximising short-term profit at the expense of the public interest, wouldn't do that.

Why we need judicial oversight

When the government passed the Canterbury Enabling Act, a law which allowed Gerry Brownlee to change any law, for any reason, with just a flick of his pen, a lot of people were concerned. Such powers are obviously open to abuse, and the government's promises not to do so obviously an insufficient safeguard. Now, with the government panicking over the fate of a movie, we may be about to see such an abuse, with suggestions they could use the powers of the Enabling Act to amend our employment laws for the benefit of Peter Jackson and a bunch of Hollywood money men. To be fair to Gerry Brownlee, he has not threatened such a move (he certainly doesn't mention it in the RNZ interview people are pointing to), and its hard to see why he would when he could just ram it through as proper law under all-stages urgency. But what if he does?

What's clear is that the law's supposed "safeguard" - review by the Regulations Review Committee under the Regulations (Disallowance) Act 1989 - would utterly fail in such an eventuality. Despite such an amendment clearly being outside the purpose of the law (it being hard to see how making a movie is necessary for the reconstruction of Canterbury) and therefore ultra vires, no member of the Regulations Review Committee is going to want to stick their neck out and expose themselves to a public backlash by declaring it so. The "safeguard" would be ineffective, even in the face of a regulation which was clearly unlawful.

Simply contemplating this possibility shows us what a constitutional affront the Enabling Act was. And it makes something crystal clear: we cannot trust politicians to review the application of this Act, because when push comes to shove, they lack the independence required to uphold the law. We need judicial, not political, oversight.

Thoughts on Standing Orders

Parliament is currently engaged in its triennial review of Standing Orders. Its a fairly arcane subject, but I can think of a few subjects I'd like to raise with them.

Firstly, the Bill of Rights Act. Standing Order 261 echoes the requirements of s7 of the BORA and requires the Attorney-General to report on any inconsistency with the BORA when a bill is introduced. This is a useful mechanism to ensure that when Parliament violates the BORA, it actually means to - but it does not go far enough. As we've seen several times in recent years (notably with the three strikes law), amendments can be proposed either by select committee or at the committee stage which are inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. These receive no formal scrutiny, and this calls into question whether Parliament actually means to violate the BORA, or whether they are merely ignorant. The problem could be resolved by requiring the Attorney-General to report inconsistencies not only on introduction, but before the second and third readings as well. Alternatively, the Attorney-General could report on individual amendments proposed at the committee stage, though this would require more work.

Secondly, privilege. Standing Order 401(n) lists as an example breach of Parliamentary Privilege the following:

reflecting on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in the member’s capacity as a member of the House
As with the law of sedition, if interpreted strictly, this would outlaw virtually all criticism of MPs. Reflecting on the character and conduct of MPs in the performance of their duties, and judging whether they are ignorant, stupid, foolish, venal, self-interested or merely incompetent, is what citizens in a democracy do. But apparently, we're not allowed to, on pain of being hauled up before a kangaroo court of MPs and persecuted for daring to think bad thoughts about them.

This is an obvious prima facie violation of the right of free expression and one which is unjustifiable in a democracy. If MPs feel they have been unfairly maligned by public criticism, then they already have a remedy for that: they can sue for defamation. But they should not be allowed to punish non-defamatory speech, let alone in a manner which allows them to be judges in their own case (or to have their mates judge it for them). If this Standing Order allows punishment beyond that permitted under law, then it is unjust; if it does not, it is unnecessary. Either way, it should be removed.

(Alternatively, it could be amended to add "As a member...". If the House wants to forbid its members from reflecting on each other's character, it can. How Parliament regulates itself is its own affair. If it wants to regulate the public, it should do so by statute, not by standing orders and private law).

Thirdly, there's pecuniary interests. As we've already seen, the rules here are problematic, effectively allowing MPs to evade proper scrutiny by stashing their assets in a trust. And if you go through the register, you will find a large number of MPs availing themselves of this opportunity to thwart public oversight and prevent any scrutiny of their conflicts of interest.

There's an obvious solution to this: bust the trusts, and require MPs to disclose all significant assets in trusts they manage or are beneficiaries of. That way, we can see that our MPs are clean, and that they are not voting to enrich themselves or mingling their public and private interests.

Finally, there's the prayer. If you've ever watched Question Time, you'll know that the House opens with an explicitly Christian prayer, asking that the great bearded sky fairy guide them in various things, including "the maintenance of true religion" and "the glory of thy holy name". This is a violation of freedom of religion. The separation of church and state requires the latter to be neutral regarding religion. What god(s) people believe in is their own affair, but its no business of the state. Opening each day with a prayer violates that neutrality. It excludes every kiwi who is not a Christian - 44.4% of us at last count - by casting Parliament as an explicitly Christian body. And it dedicates "our" House to explicitly religious goals, every day.

We don’t allow prayer in schools for these reasons, and we should not allow it in our Parliament. The opening prayer has no place in a religiously neutral state. The religious beliefs of individual MPs are their own business, but here the beliefs of some are being imposed on the House - and through it, symbolically upon the whole of New Zealand. That cannot be allowed to continue.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wilson goes

Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson has resigned. Good riddance. His position was politically untenable from the moment the Judicial Conduct Commissioner recommended he be investigated. The integrity of our judges must be beyond reproach, their impartiality beyond doubt. Thanks to a poor decision around a potential conflict of interest, his wasn't. And that meant that he could no longer credibly serve on our highest court (or any other, for that matter).

The only question is why the government paid him a million dollars (including his legal fees in his pointless, vainglorious challenge to his removal) to go. Given Wilson's friendship with Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, it smacks of National looking after its mates with our money. Can't we for once sack someone without giving them an enormous golden handshake?

The usual story

Anne Tolley's response to the teacher's strike: there is no money for higher wages. Meanwhile, her Chief Executive Karen Sewell gets a $20,000 raise. Its just the usual story: the people at the top tell us to tighten our belts, while gorging themselves at our expense.

New Fisk

Lebanon – land of phantom oil deals, spies and political murder

The battle for France

The French government, in an effort to save money and lower taxes for the rich, wants to raise the retirement age. The people don't like it. And so they've responded the way the French do, with marches, strikes, and blockades. Things are now getting serious - the country is running out of petrol, the electricity system is collapsing, and there have been riots. Faced with this level of protest and public opposition - 71% of people are apparently against the change - any normal democratic government would have seen the writing on the wall and buckled. So why haven't the French?

First, there's the normal insulation of the government from the people. The strikes and protests don't affect them. There is always petrol for government Ministers, they can always fly wherever they want, they are always protected by their security detail and staff from ordinary life. They don't buy their own coffee, they don't do their own shopping, they don't drive their own cars, and this effectively makes them immune to the pressures of ordinary life. But more importantly than that, unlike Westminster systems like New Zealand, Ministers are not elected. Under Article 23 of the French Constitution, they cannot be members of the National Assembly or Senate. They depend for their position solely on the Prime Minister. Their political careers aren't on the line. And this makes them immune to popular pressure.

So what about the individual legislators who are actually passing the bill? Well, its currently before the Senate - who are also not directly elected. Instead, they're elected indirectly by 150,000 local officials (mayors, city councillors and the like). Worse, they serve a nine-year term. With their next election in 2017, they really don't have to give a shit what the people think.

And that's why France is such a mess at the moment, and why large protests there almost inevitably escalate to rioting: because they have an unresponsive government, constitutionally insulated from popular pressure. The people can't credibly threaten to vote them out. Which leaves burning stuff as their only way of getting their point across.

Obama appeals for bigotry

It's official: the Obama Administration is appealing for the US military's homophobic "don't ask, don't tell" policy to be retained. Their reason?

President Barack Obama has said he supports getting rid of the policy, but his administration believes that overturning it immediately could cause problems for the military.
I expect people said the same thing about desegregation back in the 50's. But then, the government realised that its most pressing duty was not to make life easier for racists, but to immediately end discrimination. President Eisenhower didn't ask for more time to implement Brown v. Board of Education - he sent the army to Arkansas to enforce the constitution and ensure that kids could go to school regardless of the colour of their skin.

With this appeal, Obama has shown that he is not the man that Eisenhower was. He's a mouse, unwilling to stand up for his beliefs, unwilling to take the opportunities to implement the change he campaigned on. He doesn't stand for change or hope - just for the same old bigotry.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sometimes you win

For the past year, Green MP Catherine Delahunty has had a bill in the ballot (and now before the House) to amend the Human Rights Act to require the government to appoint a specific disability commissioner within the Human Rights Commission. Today, the government adopted that proposal:

Disability Issues Minister Tariana Turia today announced further measures to promote, protect and monitor the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The measures include the establishment of a full-time Disability Rights Commissioner within the Human Rights Commission, a protection and monitoring role for the Office of the Ombudsmen and resourcing a formalised role for disabled persons' organisations.


Chief Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan has welcomed the Government's decision to establish the position of a full-time Disability Rights Commissioner and will in the interim personally hold the designation jointly with EEO Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor.

Its a nice example of how a member's bill can force the government to do the right thing (and this is the right thing), and a solid achievement for Delahunty. Hopefully there'll be many more.

McCully ignores torture

Murray McCully is in Indonesia at the moment, talking trade (of course) and closer cooperation. Meanwhile, the Indonesian military are torturing people in West Papua [graphic video]. McCully's response? "I know nothing!"

As that Scoop story points out, this is almost certainly bullshit. That video has gone around the world. Its been in all the major media, and major governments and NGOs have commented on it. His office has been specifically informed about it. It beggars belief that MFAT would not have briefed him on it. Either they are grossly incompetent (which I find hard to believe), or the Minister was briefed and chose to remain silent in the face of clear evidence of torture. Which is it?

Fairness at work

More than a thousand people rallied outside Parliament today in opposition to the government's plans to extend the 90-day fire-at-will law to all workplaces. Other protests are taking place across the country. Its good, but its not enough. We've seen what we need to change the government's mind - 50,000 people marching up Queen Street. And that was on something it ultimately didn't care about that much. Lowering wages and removing all worker protections, OTOH, is part of National's core agenda. It'll take a lot more than a thousand people to change their minds.

Meanwhile, there's a chilling reminder of industrial relations under National, with DHBs walking out of negotiations with radiographers, then demanding they be forbidden to strike. In other words, make them slaves. This is unlikely to make reaching a settlement easier. If DHBs want to avoid the sorts of problems they have identified, then they need to pay radiographers what they are worth. In the meantime, my advice is don't break a leg.

Foreshore & seabed: Sinking the bill?

The Māori Party has announced that it may not support the government's Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill:

However Mrs Turia said yesterday that the party would take its lead from its people and the submissions during the select committee process.

"If people round the country, if our constituency says it is not worth our while progressing this, of course we wouldn't [support it]."

The reason for this is of course ACT's amendment requiring free access. While requiring people to do something they were offering to do anyway doesn't sound like so much, the fact that it is being forced on them by ACT is going to stick in a lot of craws. In many ways, its a microcosm of the whole foreshore and seabed debacle - the problem with the original act isn't so much where it ended up (you have only to look at the current bill, which is nearly identical, to see that) as how it was passed. And sadly, ACT seems to be driving the government to make the same mistake, imposing a settlement on Māori without, rather than with, their consent.

Ultimately this could sink the bill. ACT won't vote for it. The Greens won't vote for it. And Labour would be fools to vote for it if the Māori Party opposes it (Peter Dunne is irrelevant, as always). Even if it does pass, it will have lost all legitimacy. Any legislation on the foreshore and seabed is only legitimate insofar as it has the support and consent of Māori - and the Māori Party's votes are key signs of that support (especially given their practice of consulting iwi first). The result will be to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.

So what happens if the bill fails? The current Act stays in place, and we go round again, with the Māori Party pushing for change through the coalition process. The difference will be that attitudes will have hardened, and they will be pushing for a better deal - which they will be well-placed to demand. The cost of Hide's redneckery may very well be the very thing he ostensibly wants to avoid: Māori gaining outright ownership of the foreshore as a default, and being able to charge people who use it, just like Alan Gibbs.

Members' Day

Barring urgency, today is a Member's Day, and with a bunch of National member's bills having emerged from select committee, the House has some second readings to get through. The first of these is for Paul Quinn's renamed Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill, a poorly-drafted, undemocratic disaster of a bill which is a perfect example of why we need to emasculate Parliament and make all our laws subject to a supreme, entrenched Bill of Rights Act. It directly contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and if passed will do serious damage to our international reputation as a supporter and upholder of human rights. But National, desperate for the redneck vote, will pass it anyway. After all, the inevitable spanking from the United Nations Human Rights Committee likely won't happen on their watch, and they'll get to scream and pound their shoe on the table about being "soft on crime" when we're forced to repeal it.

Second up is Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, a nasty spiteful little bill aimed at eliminating student government (and all the services it provides to students) simply because so many Labour politicians start off there. It's ACT's agenda writ small, opposed not just by student's associations (who have a certain amount of self-interest here), but also by students (who value those services) and universities (who will have to pick up the pieces). But again, it'll pass anyway, and our future tertiary students will pay the price for it.

Third up is Tau Henare's Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill, but they're unlikely to get to that. Meanwhile, with the top of the Order Paper clogged with second readings (which means committee stages and third readings), things are likely to slow down somewhat. We're unlikely to see another ballot for the rest of the year.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

We can clean up the Manawatu

The Manawatu River is one of the most polluted in the western world. It is unsafe to swim in or drink from. In places, it smells like burnt sheep and faeces. Its easy to despair when you read reports like that. But it doesn't have to be that way. And looking overseas, the tale of the Thames shows that rivers can be cleaned up:

Filthy, opaque and stinking of rotten eggs: this was the River Thames of 1957. Declared biologically dead thanks to its soaring pollution levels, Britain's most famous waterway was paying the price for decades of human use – and not for the first time. Since the 18th century, it has been a hotbed of industrial activity; during the "Great Stink" of 1858, the stench of human waste along the riverbanks forced Parliament to drench its curtains in chloride of lime and almost prompted the city's law courts' evacuation to St Albans.

A century and a half later, things look rather different. With 125 different species of fish navigating its curves, 400 invertebrates wallowing in its mud, and a selection of seals, otters and dolphins to be spotted, the Thames has achieved a transformation of staggering proportions. Eighty per cent of the Thames is now judged to have "very good" or "good" water quality, while the past five years have seen almost 400 habitat enhancement projects and more than 40 miles of river restored.

In the case of the Thames, that didn't come about from a single, co-ordinated effort - just from the gradual tightening of standards over the years. We can, and should, do the same here.

Vote for the next Governor General!

Sadly, not really. Despite being a democracy, we have an enormous democratic deficit in our highest office - the Governor General is selected by one man (John Key) by an opaque process which excludes any public scrutiny. To highlight this, the Republican Movement has been running an online election. The top ten nominees are profiled here, and you can cast your vote here.

Another eye on Parliament

Scoop launched a new service today: Parliament Today, "dedicated to the timely and accurate coverage of the New Zealand Parliament". It compiles the material issued by the Clerk on questions for oral answer with Tom Frewen's "Today in Parliament" service and updates about business before the House. While some of this information can be gleaned from the Order Paper, there are also reports of votes taken, which will be very useful when I'm trying to find out what has happened on bills I care about.

Contempt for the public

One of the problems with our democracy is that people don't involve themselves enough in it. There are many reasons for this - lack of interest and lack of time being two obvious ones - but one thing is certain: abusing people who bother to submit to select committees, as Tau Henare did the other day, is not going to help:

James Sleep, 18, convener of the the [sic] Council of Trade Unions youth sector, gave evidence to the transport and industrial relations committee on the Employment Relations Amendment Bill last month.

He said the list MP used "bullyboy tactics" by interrupting his submission and accusing him of lying about his evidence in "a bit of a tirade".

"I was telling the story about how a worker had been sacked under the 90-day trial ... We have several cases ... and in my written submission I had talked about another story and he just went off his head really.

"He interrupted and said: 'You are just a liar, you are bullshitting.' I went on and he stopped [me] again: 'You're just lying, you are misleading us."'

And then MPs wonder why no-one submits, why only a small fraction want to give evidence in person, and why the public generally treats them with contempt. Here's a hint: because you treat us that way. And every time one of you abuses one of us, you earn that reputation just a little bit more.

If MPs don't want their collective reputation tarnished by Henare's bullying, then they have a simple solution: publicly condemn him, either individually or by a formal motion of censure. If you don't speak out against it, your silence will be taken by the public (however unfairly) as complicity. Your reputation is in your hands. How do you want to be seen?

Housing New Zealand thinks it is above the BORA

Yesterday a case was heard in the Court of Appeal which is important for all of us. Last year, Housing New Zealand evicted three women from their state houses for being partners of gang members. They've been challenging it on human rights grounds ever since. The reason that its important is because of the argument advanced by the government:

Housing NZ should have the same legal rights as a private landlords which meant they could serve a 90-day eviction notice without cause, [Housing NZ's lawyer Karen Clarke] said.
Or, to put it another way, "Housing New Zealand thinks the BORA does not apply to it".

But this is simply nonsense. The BORA is very clear: it applies to any act by the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of the government and to anybody exercising a public function. Housing New Zealand is captured by both clauses. It is a public body, exercising statutory powers. And it is a branch of the executive. The BORA therefore applies to every decision it makes. While this includes the obligations of the Human Rights Act, it goes beyond that - in addition to not discriminating, Housing New Zealand must also respect the freedom of expression and freedom of association of tenants (oh, and not torture them - but that is less likely to be relevant). Any decision it makes contrary to those rights is unlawful and void.

Whether the tenant's claims to be the victims of discrimination are correct, and whether the tenancy tribunal can consider the lawfulness of Housing New Zealand's eviction order are open questions (though on the latter, the tenancy tribunal is likewise bound by the BORA, and the interpretation clause suggests it must, unless there is a clear legal prohibition on doing so). But the idea that Housing New Zealand, a government body, can act like a private landlord simply fails the laugh test.

[More from Dean Knight here]

Monday, October 18, 2010

The stupidity of drone attacks

On Friday, US drones killed another ten people in Pakistan. As usual, the victims were mostly civilians. Meanwhile, in the Independent, Johann Hari points out the obvious: these strikes are stupid, counterproductive, and endanger us all:

David Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency expert who worked for General Petraeus in Iraq and now advises the State Department. He has shown that two per cent of the people killed by the robot-planes in Pakistan are jihadis. The remaining 98 per cent are as innocent as the victims of 9/11. He says: "It's not moral." And it gets worse: "Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased."

Professor of Middle Eastern history Juan Cole puts it more bluntly: "When you bomb people and kill their family, it pisses them off. They form lifelong grudges... This is not rocket science. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be."

In other words, by indiscriminately killing people, they're feeding the insurgency they are trying to suppress, and driving people to the very behaviour they're supposedly there to prevent. These tactics are threatening our lives. But I guess they keep the CIA and military in business.

"An excellent offer"

Teachers will be going on strike this week after unanimously rejecting the government's pathetic pay offer. Meanwhile, the government is trying to point the finger at them, saying that they had turned down an "excellent offer". Really? Let's look at it:

Teachers were offered a half-per cent pay increase in the first year, a 1.9 per cent increase in the second year, a one-off payment of $1000 and an additional 3000 middle management allowances worth $1000 each

That compared with an earlier offer of no increase in the first year, a 1.8 per cent increase in the second, and the one-off payment.

A claw-back in teacher conditions was still on the table, and a previous offer of preparation time for part-time teachers had been taken away, Ms Gainsford said.

So, in exchange for claw-backs and reductions in working conditions, they get half a percent, around a third of inflation. As for next year, they're being offered 1.9% when inflation is expected to top 4%. These aren't pay increases - they're cuts.

If that's all the government is offering, then its no wonder teachers are going on strike. And unless they start offering something of actual benefit, then the strikes will continue, and the parents of New Zealand will have to start minding their own kids.


At the Labour Party conference over the weekend, Phil Goff signalled a change in economic direction, promising restrictions on foreign ownership and land sales, amendments to the Reserve Bank Act, better labour laws and a more interventionist government position. The commentators have been quick to catch on: as Vernon Small put it, for the first time in over twenty years voters will have a real choice on the economy:

It will be the first time since the late 1980s that the two parties will not be arguing from roughly the same bedrock of economic "orthodoxy" inherited from the Rogernomics and later Ruth Richardson eras.

Helen Clark and Michael Cullen took some steps in that direction, but National tended to dog their footsteps on issues such as KiwiSaver, Working for Families, interest-free student loans and the Cullen fund.

This time there is little possibility that John Key and Bill English will follow in lock- step.

And so we'll actually get to vote on NeoLiberalism - a vote that has been denied us since 1990. Its an exciting prospect. And also, hopefully, a vote winner. These policies have impoverished us as a nation. They have widened the gap between rich and poor, lowered the living standards of the majority of kiwis, reduced social mobility and killed people. And now, finally, we'll have a chance to vote them out and get something different. Its ironic that this change is being led by Goff, a former Douglas acolyte - but unlike Douglas, he seems to have changed his mind in response to the failure of these policies. Though it would be nice if he actually stood up and said so, rather than treating us like goldfish.

As for National, they'll try and pretend that these policies spell economic ruin. Given their track record in government - higher unemployment, lower living standards, a promised decade of deficits to fund their tax cuts for the rich and ETS subsidies - that will be hard to take seriously. Alternatively, they can try and differentiate themselves by moving even further to the right - but that takes them away from being moderates into truly toxic territory. Labour's shift to the left leaves them with nowhere to go, isolated as the only supporters of a failed economic system (the Greens and the Maori Party don't support it, and ACT and United Future likely won't be around). Which will only make their coalition game harder.

There is one concern though: what happens if Labour loses? The usual course of events would see the blame heaped on the policies, which would then see Labour recommit to NeoLiberalism. That would be a tragedy for the New Zealand left. We need to make sure it does not happen.

Labour on the republic

Labour held its annual conference over the weekend, and on the first night, party president Andrew Little committed to moving towards a republic:

"It's a cop-out to say, 'Yes, I'm a republican, but it's not time', that it be left up to somebody else.

"That's a failure of leadership, in my view," said Mr Little.

He was not saying it was something that had to be done tomorrow.

"But it is saying we are committed to making a move and we do it in a courteous and respectful way."

The Republican Movement's Lewis Holden (who ran "fringe" sessions onthe issue at the conference) puts this down to realpolitik - National's return to feudalism has created the space for Labour to differentiate itself on this issue. That's certainly part of the explanation. But it wouldn't be happening if there wasn't already a large base of support in the party. Labour MPs voted en-masse for Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill so that the issue could be debated, and so a shift wasn't done in a rush around a royal funeral. And its no wonder. Labour is a progressive party. But monarchy just isn't progressive. Instead, its a symbol of the old British feudal order - and one that has no place in a modern, democratic, multicultural nation like Aotearoa.

New Fisk

What I learned the day I took tea with Ian Blair

Friday, October 15, 2010

Goff postures on police chases

Phil Goff's response to the police killing 15 people so far this year in police chases? Increase penalties for people fleeing police! Yeah, that'll make a difference - not. As the Independent Police Conduct Authority pointed out in their report [PDF] on police chases, the typical driver is a stupid, scared teenager who isn't thinking about the consequences of their actions. Increasing penalties will not deter such people, because they are not thinking about them. But it lets Goff posture as "tough on crime", and gets him a few headlines. Meanwhile, the real problem - poor police decisionmaking and a police culture of wanting to punish people for contempt of cop - goes unsolved. Until that is addressed, until the Minister stops supporting the police in their defiance of the IPCA, the bodies will keep piling up.

The UK's deportation system claims a life

We've known for a long time that the UK's deportation system is a human rights scandal. A 2008 report from Medical Justice [PDF] found that private security guards hired to accompany deportees engaged in "widespread and seemingly systemic abuse", including beatings, kicking, stomping, and that this sometimes resulted in serious injury. That trend has now reached its nadir with the death of a deportee at the hands of security guards last night:

A man who died while being deported to Angola was being heavily restrained by security guards and had complained of breathing problems before he collapsed, a witness has told Guardian.

Jimmy Mubenga lost consciousness while the British Airways flight was on the runway at Heathrow on Tuesday night. The commercial flight was cancelled and Mubenga was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Kevin Wallis, a passenger on the aircraft, said he had been sitting across the aisle from Mubenga and watched as three security guards restrained him with what he believed to be excessive force.

Wallis said he heard Mubenga complain: "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" for at least 10 minutes before he lost consciousness, and later observed that handcuffs had been used in the restraint.

The death is being blamed on positional asphyxia, an inability to breathe due to the position Mubenga was restrained in. But the real cause is the attitude of the security guards, who want deportees to shut up and be quiet, will use force to achieve that, and ultimately don't give a shit about their health. A similarly callous approach led to the death of Joy Gardner at the hands of police in 1993; because she wouldn't shut up, they wrapped her head in 13 feet of duct tape, and smothered her to death.

UK police are apparently investigating, but it'll almost certainly be the usual whitewash. The UK police care as little for deportees as the security thugs, and certainly don't want to create a precedent of holding people accountable for excessive use of force. After all, it could be applied to them.

Meanwhile, its worth noting that the company these guards worked for - G4S - is one of those the government wants to run our prisons. Given their involvement in this incident, and in assaults and beatings, they should be barred from security operations in New Zealand. Their organisational culture is clearly incapable of treating prisoners lawfully, let alone with the level of dignity and humanity required by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. If the government ignores this and hires them, then they will be directly responsible for the inevitable subsequent abuses.

Against regulating the blogosphere

Yesterday in Parliament, Justice Minister Simon Power announced that he had asked the Law Commission to look at ways of regulating the blogosphere. The reason?

“It’s a bit of a Wild West out there in cyberspace at the moment, because bloggers and online publishers are not subject to any form of regulation or professional or ethical standards.

"Issues I’m concerned about include how trials can be prejudiced by information posted on websites and seen by jurors, real-time online streaming of court cases, breaches of court suppression orders, and re-publication of a libel.

These are all things worth looking at, because the law needs to keep up with the technology (if it can). But Power is fundamentally mistaken about two things. First, he's fundamentally mistaken in thinking bloggers should be treated as if they were professionals, because we simply aren't. The typical blogger is a private individual mouthing off on the internet. Some of us know a little about what we are mouthing off about, some of us don't - but fundamentally, its no different from people talking in a cafe. The government wouldn't dream of trying to regulate and force "professional standards" on that, and rightly so. So why is it trying to regulate and force professional standards on the same conversations in the blogosphere? It smacks of another example of the old problem of things being suddenly scarier the moment you attach the word "internet" to them.

Secondly, the claim that we are not subject to any form of regulation is simply false. As a blogger, I'm subject to exactly the same laws as Power is in issuing his press releases. If I defame someone, I can be sued. If I publish objectionable material, I can be prosecuted. If I breach a court suppression order, I can be fined. Rather than showing that the blosophere is a "wild west", the recent Whale Oil case showed that the law is perfectly capable of dealing with it.

The problem for the justice system isn't the blogosphere, but the net's combination of strong anonyminity and a free market in legal jurisdictions. The same technology that allows human rights activists to hide from the Iranian regime and circumvent the Great Firewall of China also allows people to read or post or host information which undermines our justice system. It could be used, for example, to set up a website whose sole function is to violate New Zealand suppression orders. If located in the right jurisdiction, such a site could never be taken down at source. It could never be effectively blocked - "the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it" is an old saw, but its also true (in that such blocks are also fundamentally ineffective). And unless the authors were very, very stupid, they would never be caught.

But there's nothing the government can do about that. Nothing. The collective minds of the world's most powerful dictatorships can't stop it, so I doubt New Zealand could. More importantly, adding new laws does nothing to help. The problem is not that such behaviour wouldn't be illegal, its that we now have reliable technological means to not get caught.

But the blogosphere isn't in that space. Its already subject to existing laws. And those laws seem to generally be up to the task. We don't need new ones.

New Fisk

Israel comes face to face with the man who would wipe it off the map


President Obama was elected on a platform of change. He promised to repeal the US military's bigoted and discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy. So why is he appealing to preserve it?

Instead of change, it looks like Americans are instead getting more of the same.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bolger recants

Having led a privatising National government during the 1990's, former Prime Minister Jim Bolger seems to be backing away from privatisation:

The sale of Telecom in 1990 was a mistake and New Zealand Governments have generally proved themselves inept at privatisation, says former Prime Minister and departing NZ Post chairman Jim Bolger.

Telecom was split off from the NZ Post Office in 1987 and sold by the Labour Government for $4.25 billion shortly before Bolger's Government was elected in 1990.


Looking back, he said "some of our privatisations were done for a song".

"Sir Roger Douglas was worse than hopeless at privatising, to be honest."

While he defends his government's unconscionable sale of New Zealand Rail (which led to it being strip-mined and run into ground by a consortium of greedy foreign investors), his overall thrust is clear: the privatisation of the 80's and 90's was a mistake. If only he'd said that at the time, rather than waiting 20 years...


The Australian couple charged with procuring an abortion have been acquitted by a jury. As for why, we'll never know. But the judge gave them a perfect excuse to acquit with this:

Judge Everson said if the jurors were not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the drugs supplied by Mr Brennan and taken by Ms Leach were “noxious”, both defendants should be acquitted.

He defined noxious as a substance that was harmful or injurious to the health or physical wellbeing of the person taking it.

(Emphasis added).

Which means that guilt comes down to the effect on the mother, not the foetus.

But regardless of the reason for acquittal, this barbaric episode in Queensland's legal history is over. And now hopefully the state legislature will do what it ought to have done in the first place, and reform the law to decriminalise abortion.

Discrimination on the foreshore

Meanwhile, over on Pundit, Andrew Geddis asks whether ACT's proposed amendment to the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill is discriminatory. No. Customary rights aren't freehold title, and its invidious to directly compare the two. What matters is whether the rights accurately reflect those held in 1840. And insofar as they do, and that free public access does not interfere with them, then ACT's amendment isn't discriminatory (though as pointed out in my previous post, it does seem motivated by an underlying racist mindset).

The bill as a whole OTOH is another story. It suffers from the same problem as the original: that no matter how strong a claimant's case, usage-based customary rights are all they can ever get. If an iwi or hapu in practice exercised full ownership over a patch of foreshore and seabed in 1840, the law does not permit that ownership to be recognised. Except if they sold it to Pakeha, where the private property rights of "established" (meaning white) landowners suddenly reign supreme.

That is discriminatory. Its also irrational. Either the property rights exercised in 1840 amounted to freehold title, or they didn't. If they did, then the court should be able to award that title. If they didn't, then the claims of Pakeha landholders to exercise it over the foreshore should be ignored, as the rights they thought they were buying never existed. But the current position - that Māori can never own foreshore, but Pakeha can - is discriminatory and wrong.

As for the solution, obviously I'd like to see the bill amended to permit Māori to receive full freehold title from the courts. And if this does not happen, and a specific case strong enough to support freehold title presents itself, then we will see the law relitigated through the coalition process until the discrimination is removed.

ACT: Property rights for all, except for Maori

There have been appalling scenes in Parliament this week, as new ACT MP Hilary Calvert takes up her predecessor David Garrett's cause of whipping up racism over the foreshore for political profit. The focus of ACT's ire is the spectre of Māori charging people to go to the beach - something the bill doesn't really let them do, and something they've consistently said they're not interested in doing anyway. But through this fearmongering, ACT has now managed to get the government to agree to amend the bill to prohibit charging for public access. And so now they're turning to their real target: access for business:

Hilary Calvert: Does the Attorney-General agree that iwi customary marine title holders will be able to charge a fee for new mussel farms over the foreshore and seabed for which they have title, via a veto that his bill gives them through the planning process?
Note that a mussel farm by its nature restricts public access. So, ACT's position is that marine farmers should be able to restrict access, but that iwi and hapu shouldn't be able to, and certainly shouldn't be able to ask for consideration from those farmers as compensation for them not being able to exercise their customary uses. Māori should just surrender their property rights, however defined, to Pakeha, for free. Which is a pretty toxic attitude for ACT to take. Such attitudes in the past are one reason why we're having to go through a Treaty settlements process today.

On the face of it, an amendment which prohibits Māori from doing something they didn't want to do anyway shouldn't matter much. But the danger here is that such racist pandering will undermine Māori consent for the bill, and hence its legitimacy. This bill is effectively an informal settlement, and thus depends crucially on the consent of the iwi and hapu whose rights are being affected. If it comes to be seen by them as just another redneck dispossession, then it will fail. That may suit ACT very well. But its bad for the rest of us, who want a fair, just and durable solution.