Monday, February 28, 2011


The government announced its initial earthquake relief package today. According to John Key, it will cost around $120 million over six weeks, or about $20 million a week. By way of comparison, that's about a quarter of what they are currently borrowing every week to spend on tax cuts for their rich mates.

That's National's priorities in a nutshell, really. Billions for people who don't need it, and crumbs for those who do.

Thwarting the will of Parliament

When Parliament passes a bill through its third reading and it is rubberstamped by the Governor-General, it's the law, right? Well, yes - and no. Every law in New Zealand has a commencement date. Some come into force immediately, some on a specified date (to allow alignment with the tax or calendar year, or for implementation to be finalised), and some on a date "to be appointed by the Governor-General by Order-in-Council". These latter ones can lead to problems.

According to this list [PDF] from the Parliamentary Counsel's Office, there are 43 laws which are at least partly waiting to be brought into force by such an order - some of them dating back to the 1980's. Some (e.g. the Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Act 2008) are waiting to be properly implemented. Some (e.g. the Nuclear-Test-Ban Act 1999, and parts of the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading) Amendment Act 2008) are waiting for international agreements to come into force. But some have not been implemented because the government has not bothered to fund them, or in some cases has changed its mind about what it wants to do and now has no intention of implementing them. This is untidy. But its also constitutionally dubious. After all, Parliament has passed a law. The executive should therefore be implementing it. If they don't want to - if they change their mind or there is a change of government - then the appropriate response is to repeal that law, not to simply refuse to bring it into force.

As for the solution, I think that unless there is a good reason for such a contingency, such as a treaty, such clauses should have a default commencement date of e.g. two years in the future, unless brought into force earlier by Order. That way, the executive will have to dance to parliament's tune, rather than being allowed to effectively legislate by their own whim.

A question for oral answer I'd like to see

Does the Minister of Police believe looters should be raped in prison?
She'd deny it, of course, and likewise the obvious followup of whether she believes they should be beaten. But there's really no other way to read her comments to the Herald on the subject:
Police Minister Judith Collins said the actions of looters was akin to "people who rob the dead".

She expected to see the judiciary throw the book at looters.

"I hope they go to jail for a long time - with a cellmate."

This is absolutely repulsive. But entirely in keeping with Collins' character and her lynchmob mentality. Meanwhile, we have a government Minister - the Minister of Police and Corrections, no less - who is attempting to solicit (deniably, of course) serious criminal activity. So much for "law and order"; as we've seen in the case of Bruce Emery, what its proponents are really advocating is lawlessness and revenge.

We live in a society, not an economy

Over in Public Address, Keith Ng attacks the idea that suppliers in Canterbury should price gouge to ensure a "more efficient" allocation of resources. As he points out, this isn't just pointless - people wanting to flee town, or thinking they might need to will buy petrol no matter what the cost - but also deeply corrosive of social solidarity. And that solidarity has made a real difference in this disaster:

The most remarked upon fact after the earthquake is the way in which people have been helping each other. Many people have acted in complete defiance of economic self-interest, and as a result, housing, labour, transport, equipment, all kinds of goods have been given to people who most need it.

Somebody can probably wrangle an explanation out of this that's consistent with classical economics. Perhaps helping the community is in their own long-term self-interest, and perhaps helping others means that they get helped in return.

But the bottom line is that a whole lot of people told the rational economic agent to take a hike*, and as a result, they did a much better job of efficiently allocating resources (that's Economistspeak for “helping people and getting shit done”) than the market ever could.

Its a powerful reminder that at the end of the day, we live in a society, not just an economy, and that there's more to resource allocation than just economist's "efficiency". But it should also cause us to ask some hard questions about our wider society. In Christchurch at the moment, there are people without homes who are being sheltered, and without food who are being fed. This response is a Good Thing, and its a sign of our fundamental decency and recognition that we can't just leave our neighbours to starve. But there are people outside Christchurch with these problems as well, victims not of a natural disaster but a man-made economic one (but still every bit as blameless). Shouldn't they be receiving the same help? Shouldn't the government be acknowledging that basic duty of care to every New Zealander in need, not just to those in Christchurch?

Economists tell us that it is "efficient" to leave people starving and homeless, or with less than their basic needs. It may very well be. But its not decent, its not right, and its not fair. And that applies not just in Christchurch, but in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin, and Eketahuna as well.

We live in a society, not just an economy. We're seeing that in Christchurch. Its time we saw it elsewhere as well.

A well-deserved electoral kicking

Irish voters went to the polls on Friday in snap elections, and have delivered their (former) government a well-deserved electoral kicking. Fianna Fáil, Ireland's default party of government, who had responded to the financial crisis with a no-questions-asked bailout of the banks followed by a crippling austerity program which drove the Irish economy into the ground, were massacred, losing 75% of their MPs. The Greens, who had been their partners in crime, have been utterly wiped out. As for the new government, a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, their first move looks to be renegotiating the EU / IMF "rescue package" which is strangling their economy. They're also planning a full inquiry into their predecessor's corrupt bank bailout, which saw the Irish people carrying the bag for risky (and in some cases illegal) behaviour by bankers.

As electoral revenge goes, its pretty comprehensive, and some are asking whether Fianna Fáil will ever recover. But that's what happens when you sell out your voters to a bunch of bankers: they kick your arse out on the street.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

New Fisk

The destiny of this pageant lies in the Kingdom of Oil

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Shock Doctrine already

Here we go. As surely as night follows day, the Herald's Fran O'Sullivan is using the Christchurch earthquake as an excuse for cuts and privatisation. Recalling Solid Energy's invocation of force majeure clauses in its contracts after the September earthquake, O'Sullivan goes on:

Key should do the same. This is the opportune time for him to review the extent of his Government's tax-cuts, which are being funded through borrowing and not healthy surpluses, and the extent of the interest-free student loans and Working for Families tax credits bequeathed by the previous Government.

But it goes further than sacrifices Key might be able to exact at national level through a snap financial package to help the traumatised people of Christchurch.

This tragic event should also be the spur for Auckland's leadership to get on to its own feet and stop being a drain on the nation's finances. And for businesses to show the way by committing to reinvest in the city.

Put frankly, Auckland can no longer be the priority for the national infrastructure spend. It has had lots of Government cash spent there for the Rugby World Cup.

It's now time for Len Brown to flick a few of the Auckland Council's gold-plated assets to fund his pet infrastructure project instead of asking for tax funds.

Obviously, this disaster is going to mean a reprioritisation of government spending, both in terms of policy and geography. Equally obviously, it is going to mean that Auckland is not going to be the centre of financial attention for a while, and will have to come up with more money itself. What's not obvious is why this should mean local body asset-sales rather than deferred projects or rate-rises, cuts to services and going back on promises rather than a disaster levy and keeping them.

Well, OK, there is an obvious reason: because O'Sullivan is a diehard NeoLiberal who espouses these solutions no matter what the problem. Fiscal surplus? Cut services! Privatise assets. Recession? Better cut some stuff, and sell SOEs. RWC loss? Sell everything! In ordinary times, she's just another of the right's broken records, a higher-rent Lindsay Mitchell. In the present context, it looks suspiciously like the shock doctrine - cynically using a disaster to impose policies which people never voted for and would reject if given a democratic choice.

Fortunately, we have exactly such a choice later in the year. In nine month's time, we will get a chance to judge the government on its response. And while I think there will be an acceptance of shared sacrifice, the opportunistic imposition of a radical right-wing agenda that O'Sullivan espouses is unlikely to be a hit with the electorate.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Potentialy unlawful

This morning, in response to the latest Christchurch earthquake, the government cancelled the census. According to Patrick Gower, they repeatedly refused to give any commitment on when it would be run.

While I'm sure its a reasonable response in the situation, it is also clearly unlawful. Section 23 (1) of the Statistics Act 1976 is very clear:

The census of population and dwellings of New Zealand shall be taken by the Department in the year 1976 and in every fifth year thereafter.
While there's no criminal penalty for failing to do so, its as binding on the government as the requirement to hold elections every three years.

Hopefully, the cancellation will merely be a delay, and we'll be filling out our forms later in the year. If not, then the government will have to amend the law. The proper way of doing this is of course through Parliament. It would be one of the few cases where extraordinary urgency was justified, and I have no doubt such an amendment would pass unanimously.

What worries me is that the government might not do that. After all, they have the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act; isn't this exactly what it was designed for?

Well, no. CERAA is very explicit: its purpose is to "facilitate the response to the Canterbury earthquake", meaning "the earthquake that occurred on 4 September 2010 in Canterbury, and includes all of its aftershocks". This is a new earthquake, so CERRA cannot legally be used.

But the government has a possible solution: use CERRA to modify itself! It wouldn't need to muck with the prohibited sections (listed here), so they could certainly legally do that. But CERRA was constitutionally objectionable, and abusing it in this fashion would be even more so. Unchecked, unreviewable, self-modifying emergency powers. Which is one of the things people in the Middle East are revolting against ATM.

Sadly, given this government's habits of exercising power, I think it is their most likely solution. But I am very much hoping to be wrong on this one.

An earthquake levy

Now that the extent of the damage caused by the Christchurch earthquake is becoming clear, people are beginning to wonder how to pay for it. On the one hand, this is exactly what we have EQC for: saving for that rainy day when the big one hits. On the other, after two major earthquakes in Christchurch, EQC is looking pretty cleaned out, so there will be problems if we have another serious natural disaster in the next decade or so. In Australia, the government imposed a disaster levy - a temporary rise in income tax, with the revenue tagged to disaster relief - in response to the Queensland floods. Now the Greens are proposing a similar measure here.

Its a good idea. We need to raise the money somehow, and doing it through income tax is the fairest and most effective method. The Greens' proposal would raise between $460 and $920 million a year, depending on the rate at which it is imposed - which is enough to make a serious difference. And while it means that people in Auckland and Wellington will be helping to pay for Christchurch's earthquake, that's what living together in the same country means: sharing the burden and bailing each other out.

John Key is reportedly lukewarm on the idea, so I guess we'll get to see who he puts first: the people of Christchurch, or his rich mates. Time to choose, John...

New Fisk

Tripoli: a city in the shadow of death

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Except for gays" in Montana

Last year, the city of Missoula Montana became the first area in the state to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination, through a local ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression within the city. This has offended the Republican-dominated state legislature, so they're passing a law to overturn it and prohibit any such ordinances within the state:

As sponsor, Hansen said HB516 would prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances or policies that seek to protect residents from real or perceived discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender as Missoula did through an ordinance and Bozeman through a policy.

She said the Missoula City Council adopted the ordinance and provided an enforcement mechanism that fell outside of that in the Montana Human Rights Act.

"It would apply retroactively to the city of Missoula's ordinance in order to keep all businesses and all entities on a level playing field," Hansen said. "All discrimination claims will have to go through the human rights procedures as designated by the Montana Human Rights (Commission)."

Of course, the Montana Human Rights Commission does not currently protect LGBT rights (another bill proposes expanding its jurisdiction to do so, but it is unlikely to pass). But then, that's the point: to ensure that such discrimination remains legal. To keep gays outside the protection of the law. To protect the current status quo of hate and bigotry. And as for that constitutional provision requiring equality under the law, as far as Republicans are concerned, it implicitly includes a disclaimer: "except for gays".

The US really is an appalling place, isn't it?

UK torture whitewash fails

When they were elected, the UK government promised a formal judicial inquiry into the UK intelligence services' collusion in torture. When the inquiry was formally launched six months ago, it looked like a whitewash - headed by the spies' tame watchdog and hearing evidence in secret, a perfect combination to ensure that any unpleasant allegations are quietly swept under the rug. And now the UK's human rights NGOs are threatening to boycott it, alleging that it fails to meet basic standards of fairness and transparency demanded by international law:

a series of meetings between Gibson, a retired judge, and representatives of nine rights groups including Liberty, Amnesty International and Reprieve has resulted in the NGOs expressing concern that the credibility of the inquiry risks being undermined by the high level of secrecy it appears will surround the hearings – at the insistence of the very agencies whose activities are being scrutinised.

Specifically, the NGOs say they are concerned that Gibson's inquiry will fail to meet the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights, which they say establishes standards that must be met by official investigations into torture.

They say these standards include the need for a mechanism independent of government to decide what evidence should be made public, and powers to compel evidence. In a joint letter to Gibson the nine groups have warned that a higher level of public scrutiny is needed "to prevent any appearance of [the government's] ongoing collusion in or tolerance of unlawful acts".

The problem is that transparency and public scrutiny would result in exactly what the government doesn't want: exposure. But not having it turns the inquiry into a farce which will lack any credibility with the public - or with international courts who may be called upon to investigate these crimes. Because that's what we're talking about here: criminal acts, which need to be punished by a court of law, not covered up by the usual whitewash.

Class war in America

While everyone is watching the Christchurch quake, and the revolutions in the Middle East, something interesting is happening in America. Newly-elected Republican legislatures and governors are using the recession as an excuse to finally destroy the unions, attempting to pass laws ending collective bargaining rights for public sector workers (the last groups which are still unionised) and prohibiting businesses from collecting union dues on behalf of unions. The result has been extraordinary. Rather than meekly accepting a further erosion of their living standards, there have been mass protests against these laws, first in Wisconson and now in Indiana and Ohio. And to prevent their passage, Democratic lawmakers have rendered their legislatures inquorate by fleeing to other states.

As Paul Krugman points out, this isn't just about wages and working conditions, but power. Unions are pretty much the only organisations in America speaking out on economic issues who don't work for the plutocracy. Destroying them will silence that voice, making America "less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy". Krugman's conclusion: "anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people" should hope this plan doesn't succeed.

Victory by default

The US federal government is refusing to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. Good. DOMA is an act for federal marriage bigotry, requiring the federal government to refuse to recognise same-sex marriages and granting states permission to refuse to recognise same-sex marriages performed in other states. It is an explicitly discriminatory law, and its constitutionality is being challenged in the courts. And with the federal government refusing to contest it, that means the law will be struck down by default.

But while this is great news for same-sex marriage, it does set a dangerous precedent. Gaming the adversarial system in this way allows the President to effectively overturn laws without any real scrutiny at all. And under a different administration, that power could be used against different targets. Healthcare, union rights, abortion - all are targets of constitutional challenges from right-wing whackos, and all it will take for them to be overturned is for a future President to refuse to defend them - or for a future congress to deny any funding to defend them. While on the one hand the government shouldn't be defending the indefensible, OTOH questions of constitutionality should be decided by the courts, not by the whim of one man, however well-intentioned.

New Fisk

Gaddafi raved and cursed, but he faces forces he cannot control

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Buried in the Welfare Working Group's report [PDF]: a call for eugenics:

The Welfare Working Group recommends that ready access to free long-acting reversible contraception be provided for parents who are receiving welfare.
Free contraception for all would be a good thing; it would enable human choice and give everyone control over their fertility. But that is not what we're talking about here. Instead, we're talking about free contraception for some, given in the hope they will use it. Instead of individuals controlling their own fertility, this is an attempt to impose state control, on the basis of socioeconomic status, along the lines of the creepiest of C19th eugenic theories. But then, did we really expect anything different from a group advised by Peter Saunders?

Hone is out

And in other news, Hone Harawira has quit the Maori Party, and cut a deal with them to ensure an undisputed run in Te Tai Tokerau. In exchange, he appears to have agreed not to criticise them. It seems like the party got the better deal there; Hone's critique of their sell-out over the foreshore was powerful, and if they have bought his silence (or rather, directed his anger at National rather than them), then they've dodged a serious bullet. OTOH, the idea of Harawira biting his tongue for anyone is pretty laughable, and we'll see how long that lasts.

The real question now is whether Harawira will found or join another party, and compete with the Maori Party for votes. While competition for the party vote means nothing as far as they're concerned 0 it simply adjusts the size of the overhang - competing for electorates could seriously damage the Maori Party. At the least it would erode their majorities and increase Labour's chances of regaining the Maori seats; if Maori opinion is on Hone's side, he could do to his old party exactly what they did to Labour in 2005, and lead a hikoi to the ballot box for a better foreshore law.

New Fisk

Cruel. Vainglorious. Steeped in blood. And now, surely, after more than four decades of terror and oppression, on his way out?

No difference

And for those further insisting that a national state of emergency somehow allows the government to do more to help those suffering in Christchurch, here's what John Key had to say about it in his speech:

Under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act, this declaration means the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management John Hamilton may control the exercise and performance of functions, duties, and powers of CDEM Groups and Group controllers. There are no other differences between the powers under a state of local emergency and a state of national emergency.
(Emphasis added)

So, the only difference is who is in charge. Make no mistake: this is a cynical political exercise, all about who gets the limelight (and hence the credit) in an election year. Again, it is a gross abuse of power. But entirely par for the course for National.

A national state of emergency

This morning, in response to yesterday's devastating earthquake in Christchurch, John Key declared a national state of emergency.

An explanation, for those who aren't aware of the constitutional niceties here: States of emergency exist in two flavours: local, affecting a particular regional council or territorial local authority, and national, affecting the whole country. When a state of emergency is in force, it gives the state enormous power in that area: civil defence authorities can do whatever is necessary to limit the scope of the emergency and deal with its aftereffects. They can forcibly evacuate areas to preserve human life. They can order anyone to do anything. They can close roads and limit the fight of free assembly. And the police can arbitrarily arrest people if we don't jump when they say so.

These powers are necessary to deal with disasters, but at the same time they are a Big Deal in a democracy. A declaration of a national state of emergency is such a big deal that the Minister must formally inform Parliament when one is declared. If Parliament is not in session, it must be recalled as quickly as possible. The subtext: such sweeping powers require democratic authorisation - and oversight, to prevent any abuse.

The question we should all be asking is whether this is really necessary. No insult to current inhabitants of my former city, who obviously want everything possible to be done, but a severe but local earthquake in Christchurch does not justify a power of arbitrary arrest in Whanganui. Neither does it justify a power to close public spaces in Invercargill. A local state of emergency allows everything that is necessary to be done. Why take it national?

I can think of some very cynical reasons for this. Primarily, it tells everyone that the government is doing something - and in particular, it tells everyone that John Key is doing something.

The message that the government is going to respond strongly to this disaster is welcome. But trampling all over our constitution to send it is not. National states of emergency are intended for disasters affecting the entire country - wars, epidemics, that sort of thing. Instead, we're seeing one cynically used for political purposes, essentially for spin. That is a gross abuse of power, and one we should not accept.

Update: I have since OIA'd the government's advice on this declaration, which should include their reasons. If they have a case, they can make it - and we can judge them on it. But from here, this like another case of National's kneejerk authoritarianism, alongside its dissolution of Environment Canterbury and its grant of dictatorial powers to Gerry Brownlee in response to the first earthquake last year.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Protest for Libya in Wellington tomorrow

At the moment Libyans are in revolt for a democratic future for their country. They are protesting in the streets with placards and slogans. Their government is responding with live bullets and strafing runs.

If you'd like to show your solidarity with the people of Libya, then there will be a protest in Wellington tomorrow:

When: 12pm, Wednesday 23 February
Where: Midland park, Wellington

A recipe for a vicious society

The Welfare Working Group's final report is out. The first impression? its as if they've taken Gordon Campbell's excellent piece on Ten Myths About Welfare and taken it as a guidebook. Harsh work-testing in a period of mass unemployment. Restructuring WINZ so that its primary purpose is not to ensure that people get the support they need, but to throw people off benefits. Requiring parents on the DPB to find work when their youngest child is three, or when their youngest child is just three months old if they have further children (Cthulhu knows what this means for people who get divorced while pregnant). And of course the usual "tough" sanctions of cutting people's benefits for infractions - meaning leaving people to starve. One particularly cruel point is to require all 16 and 17-year olds on a benefit to live with a "responsible adult". Of course, in order to get a benefit at that age, you have to be unable to live with such an adult, due to things like abuse. So what this will mean will be teenagers forced to continue to live with abusive parents, rather than being able to get out.

This is not a recipe for a decent society. Instead, it is one for a vicious society, where people in need are stigmatised and left to starve. We are supposed to have a welfare system to prevent that. Instead, our system is going to be further perverted to create those very circumstances. If this is how John Key "helps" the underclass, then I think we'd all rather he'd stayed at home.

Of course, this may just be another cynical exercise like Don Brash's reports on "catching Australia", designed to establish a baseline of such barking madness that whatever the government does looks moderate by comparison. And Key seems to be promoting that idea, saying that the report makes him "queasy" and calling it "extreme" and "a step too far". We can only hope that that is the game they are playing. But even so, this promises the sort of extreme stigmatisation and crackdown that we last saw under Jenny Shipley in the 90's.

You don't need a clique of overpaid insane "consultants" to recognise that the key to getting people off benefits isn't repeatedly kicking them in the face with a steel-capped boot, but providing jobs. The number of people on the unemployment benefit fell over the 2000's as we reached full employment. So did the number of people on the DPB (which is mostly a short-term benefit). As for the sickness benefit, here's a suggestion: give people the treatment they need so they can work again. But that would cost money; steelcapped boots are cheaper.

Tax cheats III

It seems that someone was listening to yesterday's post. From todays Questions for Oral Answer:

RAHUI KATENE to the Minister of Revenue: Is it true some of our biggest companies are paying a lower tax rate than the average pensioner; and if so, how can private company tax which enables companies to benefit from huge tax breaks be considered morally fair or acceptable?
And that's the key question: not whether it is legal, but whether it is fair. While tax accountants can come up with all sorts of legal scams to shuffle money around to hide it from the IRD, if they do so, they are evading their social responsibility. And ordinary people, who pay their taxes automatically with their wages through PAYE and recognise that those taxes mean schools for their kids, hospitals when they're sick, a social safety net when the bankers fuck the economy and throw them out of work, and a pension in their old age, can recognise the blatant unfairness on display here. If companies are using these scams, then they are not paying their fair share - and stealing from all of us in the process.

The usual solution

Last week, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was formally indicted on charges of paying an underage prostitute and abuse of power. After a couple of days of embarrassed silence, he has responded with the usual solution: "reform" Italy's justice system. The proposed "reforms"? Impunity for all politicians and outlawing the use of wiretaps as evidence. These would allow corrupt politicians to go unpunished and rob police of a key weapon against organised crime. But they'd get Berlusconi off the hook, and that is all that matters to him.

The question now is whether he can muster a majority to push these self-serving changes through. His coalition has been slowly falling to pieces, and the latest charges have increased the pressure. Last month, he barely survive a confidence vote. Hopefully, this time he'll lose.

New Fisk

Bahrain – an uprising on the verge of revolution
Blooms replace bullets in Bahrain, while the region hits boiling point

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tax Cheats II

Spurred by my previous post, I've spent the afternoon browsing annual reports of NZSX50 companies. Its been an interesting exercise. And its turned up some shockers:

  • Abano Healthcare Group Limited reported a 2010 pretax profit of $81.5 million, but paid only $2.6 million in tax - an effective rate of 3.19%.
  • Ryman Healthcare Limited [PDF] reported a 2010 pretax profit of $83.8 million, but paid only $5.4 million in tax - an effective rate of 6.5%
  • Infratil [PDF] reported a pretax profit of $106 million, but paid only $11 million in tax - an effective rate of 10.4%
  • The NZX [PDF] itself reported $43.4 million in profit, but paid only $4.7 in tax - a rate of 10.9%.

(And that's not even including the worst of them: Goodman Property Trust [PDF] paid only 1.9% tax on its $506 million profit. But they're Australian, so its the Aussie taxpayer they're ripping off, not us).

Given that we had a headline corporate tax rate of 30% last year (dropping to 28% from this year), companies paying less than half that rate deserve intense scrutiny. While I'm sure that everything they are doing is legal, just as everything Barclays Bank is doing in the UK is legal, that does not mean it is moral, or acceptable. I think the average kiwi would be appalled to discover that some of our biggest companies are paying a lower tax rate than the average pensioner. It suggests that these companies are conniving to avoid paying their fair share. And that is something we should not tolerate.

Tax cheats

Barclays bank is one of the largest banks in the UK. In 2009 it booked profits of £11.6 billion pounds, despite the financial crisis, and paid out £1.5 billion in bonuses. So how much tax did it pay on its enormous profit? Just £113 million - a rate of less than 1%:

Barclays Bank has been forced to admit it paid just £113m in UK corporation tax in 2009 – a year when it rang up a record £11.6bn of profits.

The admission stunned politicians and tax campaigners. It was revealed on the eve of a day of protests planned against the high street banks by activists from UK Uncut, a group set up five months ago to oppose government cuts and corporate tax avoidance.

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who lobbied Barclays' chief executive, Bob Diamond, to reveal the tax paid by the bank, described the figure – just 1% of its 2009 profits – as "shocking".

While some of its profits will have come from overseas subsidiaries - many deliberately established in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and Guernsey precisely to evade tax - this is still tax cheating on a grand scale. The headline company tax rate in the UK is 28%. And Barclay's is pretty obviously not paying its fair share. And the result of that cheating is to rip more than three billion pounds out of the public purse - three billion pounds that could be used to pay for hospitals, schools, and public libraries.

In the UK, people have made the connection between corporate tax evasion and government cuts, and this weekend they retaliated by occupying and shutting down banks. We should look into this in NZ. Are our leading corporates really paying their fair share? In the UK, Barclays' shocking figures emerged from select committee hearings. We should do the same here, and hold a select committee inquiry into corporate tax evasion. Unfortunately, such an inquiry's natural home - the Finance and Expenditure Committee - is tightly controlled by National. And I doubt they would be interested in inquiring too closely into whether their donors and cronies are paying their fair share.

Credit where credit is due

Two weeks ago it emerged that several MPs had enjoyed a "last hurrah" on the taxpayer, booking international travel using their unjustifiable travel rort before the rules were changed. Now Ruth Dyson, who had booked herself a taxpayer-subsidised trip to Ethiopia, is paying back the subsidy for her trip - all $16,000 of it:

Labour MP Ruth Dyson says she is paying back the cost of a recent private trip to Ethiopia for herself and her husband because it is no longer appropriate for taxpayers to subsidise such trips when so many Kiwis are struggling to make ends meet.

“When I applied for funding for the trip in July last year, it was before the rules were changed, and the subsidy was perfectly within the rules,” Ruth Dyson said.

“However, I felt uncomfortable about the subsidy all the while I was overseas, and when I got back yesterday I informed Labour Leader Phil Goff I would be repaying the subsidy of just under $16,000, and making a statement about it. Phil said he believed my decision was the right one.

Good on her. The world has changed, and MPs need to recognise the new political reality: that international travel needs to be justified, and that we are not going to fund their extravagant private holidays. Now, if only Shane Ardern, who seems to have enjoyed a similar holiday on the taxpayer, would do the same...

New Fisk

These are secular popular revolts – yet everyone is blaming religion

Some "watchdog"

The Independent Police Conduct Authority is supposed to be our watchdog on the police, ensuring they are investigated and if necessary prosecuted for abuse of power and criminal behaviour. So when a Wairarapa police officer hid more than a hundred child abuse cases from his superiors, allowing children to suffer in silence and abusers go unprosecuted while he got a promotion, you'd expect them to at least interview him while investigating the complaint, right?

Yeah, right:

THE POLICEMAN accused of covering up the extent of child abuse cases in Wairarapa was never interviewed by the Independent Police Conduct Authority, a "glaring" omission, says the Police Association.

Former Wairarapa CIB head Mark McHattie is the officer who came out worst in the authority's report last week, which found "serious failings" in the investigation of child abuse.

It was revealed McHattie wrongly told superiors in Wellington that the number of unresolved child abuse files in his district had fallen from 121 to 29 in September 2006. He wrote: "With my hand on my heart, I can honestly say the total number of [child abuse] investigation files currently held for investigation is 29."

Later McHattie was promoted to detective senior sergeant and headed Auckland's serious crime squad. But an internal investigation found 100 of the Wairarapa child abuse files were inappropriately resolved or misfiled, with 46 closed in two days at the end of August 2006.

Quite apart from sheet incompetence on the part of the IPCA, this is also a gross breach of Mr Mchattie's right to natural justice. A key part of natural justice is audi alteram partem - "hearing the other side" - and this seems to have been completely ignored. And this will have consequences: if a police disciplinary tribunal finds against McHattie on the basis of the IPCA's report, he may be able to legally challenge it. The IPCA's stupidity may mean letting a corrupt, incompetent cop stay in the job - which is exactly what they're supposed to be protecting us from.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

New Fisk

'They didn't run away. They faced the bullets head-on'
Dark humour in a time of dictatorship

Friday, February 18, 2011

Compare and contrast

Back in September last year, South Canterbury Finance went under due to mismanagement. Its investors were bailed out, no questions asked, despite the fact that it was in violation of its government guarantee or that some of those investors had got in solely in the expectation of such a bailout. Total cost: $1.6 billion.

This week, some of New Zealand's lowest-paid workers won a case in the Court of Appeal upholding their right to be paid the minimum wage (rather than a paltry "allowance") when working overnight shifts. This looks set to cost the government a lot of money, as those workers indirectly work for them. If they want such overnight care services, they are going to have to pay more for them in future. And if they want those services to be available, they are going to have to stump up the cash for backpay for those affected (otherwise the providers will go out of business, and they won't have anyone to subcontract to). The total cost looks set to be $560 million. The government's response? Threaten a law change to rob these people of their wages and allow them to continue to be underpaid.

You couldn't get a starker reminder of this government's priorities - or of who it cares about. When the rich get into trouble through their own greed and stupidity, National shovels money at them. When the poor succeed in proving that they are entitled to a decent wage, the government refuses to pay and conspires to take it off them.

[Hat-tip: Kaupapa]

Calling Key's bluff

When he first floated the spectre of privatising our state-owned electricity companies, John Key promised he would ignore public opposition, saying he would press on with the plan even if there was widespread protest. The public may just have called his bluff. A poll by 3 News shows 60% of voters are opposed to Key's plan, with only 30% in favour. In other words, Key isn't even convincing his own party's supporters that privatisation is a good idea.

Bill English is hanging tough, saying that National has no plans to back down. But faced with a choice between keeping faith with his party's uber-rich donors, and the voters who determine who holds power, something is going to have to give. This policy is an election loser for National - attitudes against privatisation are strongly held (and rightly so, given our past experiences with it), and the sort of thing which swings a floating voters' mind. If National doesn't drop this policy, it may find itself in opposition in December.

Still, better to be safe than sorry. The best way of protesting against privatisation is to vote against National and its coalition partners in November. If they are not in power, there is no threat, problem solved.

How unsurprising

It turns out that the government's first response to the news that it was buying itself flash new limos while telling the rest of us to tighten our belts - "we know no-think!" - was a lie:

However, answering on behalf of Mr Key in Parliament today, Gerry Brownlee admitted ministers had been informed following the department's decision.

"Ministers were not briefed ahead of the decision to replace the fleet, which was made by the Department of Internal Affairs in November 2010. Following the department's decision, it is my understanding that the Minister of Internal Affairs wrote to the Minister of Finance on 17 December about the retention of surpluses on the sale of VIP fleet vehicles," he said.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard said Mr Brownlee had also confirmed Mr Key was responsible for the budget used to buy the cars.

Which means the buck stops with him. And maybe if he'd kept a better eye on his portfolio, rather than just sticking it on his business card and treating it as a courtesy title, he wouldn't be looking like a hypocrite right now.

Good riddance

Roger Douglas is retiring (again) at the election. Good. And hopefuly this time they'll make sure he stays dead. I understand burial at a crossroads works in a circle of salt works for this sort of recurring zombie.

As for what he's planning to do, he says:

"I'm looking forward to watching my grandson play cricket, things like that."
And of course swan around the world on his 90% taxpayer-funded travel rort. Yes, the enemy of state spending is a total hypocrite when he gets his snout in the trough. But aren't they all?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Climate change: Policy failure

According to Gerry Brownlee in Question Time today, Solid Energy's proposed lignite plant in Southland will emit between 10 and 20 million tons of CO2 a year. By way of comparison, our total emissions in 2008 were 74.66 million tons. So if Solid Energy's project proceeds, it will increase our emissions by 25%.

The government has set itself an emissions reduction target of 20% by 2020, and 50% by 2050. These are reductions in net emissions - gross emissions less offsets. But even so, if this project continues, it will make those targets impossible to meet.

This is policy failure on a grand scale, and it is goign to cost us hundreds of millions of dollars. A serious, credible policy would have made it clear that Solid Energy's project would not be allowed to proceed. Instead, it is likely to receive free carbon credits. So the government is going to subsidize the undermining of its own targets, and the destruction of the global environment.

National's climate policy is empty spin - targets, without any policy to meet them. Can I have some grown ups in charge of the country, please?

A simple choice

One of the government's new BMWs, unnecessarily purchased so government Ministers wouldn't have the shame of being driven around in a three year old luxury car, costs around $200,000 (plus extras).

An ambulance costs around $220,000 - $150,000 for the van, and $72,000 for the fitout.

Which would you rather have? Self-indulgent luxury for rich politicians, or public services for all?

Chester Borrows: Bigot

While we're tackling MPs for their bigotry and homophobia, here's what National's Chester Borrows had to say on Back Benches last night about the prospect of reviving the Hero Parade:

I'm not in support of a hero parade. Well, I am in support of a hero parade, but I don't think that's a hero parade because actually they're not heroes...

Heroes are people like Willie Apiata. Heroes are people who have done something... I don't think a hero is someone who wears leather shorts singing YMCA down Queen Street.

What a bigot. The people of Whanganui must be really proud of being represented in this way.

But then, Borrows' views aren't that uncommon in the National Party. Just look at their voting record on the issue.

An incitement to murder

South Dakota has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in America. Because of Roe v Wade, abortion is legal - but only after women have been forced to attend counselling, wait 24 hours, view a sonogram of their fetus, and sit through an inaccurate anti-abortion lecture delivered by the doctor who is supposed to be helping them. The result is a service which is inaccessible in practice to women; there are no abortion providers in the state (Planned Parenthood flies one in), and women need to travel up to six hours if they need an abortion.

But all of that isn't enough, apparently, and so the Republican-dominated state legislature has hit on a new plan: make it legal to murder abortion providers:

A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus—a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions. The Republican-backed legislation, House Bill 1171, has passed out of committee on a nine-to-three party-line vote, and is expected to face a floor vote in the state's GOP-dominated House of Representatives soon.
This bill will pass the Republican-dominated House. It will pass the Republican-dominated Senate. The state's Republican Governor will sign it. And then some whack-job will use it as an excuse to murder someone. And all of those people will wring their hands and say "we never expected this", just like Sarah Palin never expected people to start shooting Democratic legislators she was putting on hitlists and sticking crosshairs on.

Its time we called them on this bullshit. What is going on here is an incitement to murder, using the state as its vehicle. And if the Republicans don't want to own their shit, then maybe they should stop doing it.

Let them eat cake

John Key's response to reports that demand for food parcels is at a record high, and that food poverty - academic / bureaucratese for "people going hungry" - has doubled in National's time in office:

[I]t is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one’s bills. That is true, because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit actually pay for food, rent, and other things. Some make poor choices, and they do not have money left.
So, there we go. According to Key, if people are slowly starving on benefits, its not because his party set benefits at starvation levels back in 1991 as an "incentive", its not because they're basically inadequate to sustain people at a decent (as in "not indecent") standard of living, able to ensure their basic needs for food, clothing, and a roof over their heads are properly met; no, it's because they made the wrong choice. Qu'ils mangent de la brioche indeed.

What an arsehole.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Saved for another year

The Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean is reportedly going home early - and we can thank Sea Shepherd for it:

No immediate official confirmation was available from Japan. But the factory ship, Nisshin Maru, was today steaming towards Drake Passage, below South America, pursued by the Sea Shepherd group's vessel Bob Barker, having left its nominated whaling grounds 2000 nautical miles behind.


The whereabouts of the fleet's three harpoon ships is unknown, but they have been unable to kill whales without the Nisshin Maru to process the the mammals.

A smaller whaling fleet came under sustained Sea Shepherd pressure from the delayed outset of its season this year, sharply reducing its capacity to catch a quota of up to 935 minke whales and 50 fins.

The activists located the fleet as soon as it reached the Antarctic, kept two of the three Japanese harpoon ships engaged for weeks, fouled the propellers of one, delayed a fleet refuelling operation and then sent Nisshin Maru on the run.

Japan will have to report on how many whales they caught, and then we'll be able to see just how effective Sea Shepherd has been. But it looks like they've saved hundreds of whales from Japanese harpoons, and likely made the "scientific" whaling industry uneconomic in the process.

New Fisk

Three weeks in Egypt show the power of brutality – and its limits

Maybe this time II

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been formally indicted on charges of sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power. He will go on trial in April, and faces 15 years imprisonment if convicted. While he'll no doubt try some of the same tricks - impunity laws, gutting the justice system - he has used to escape conviction in the past, he may not have the Parliamentary majority to force such changes through anymore. His coalition partners have grown tired of his dirt, and the prosecution will likely spark further defections as politicians and parties seek to distance themselves. Given the narrowness of his majority - Berlusconi's coalition has already been significantly eroded by his scandals - he may very well end up losing power. If so, it will be good riddance.

Fiji: Torture

Some disturbing news from Fiji. Over the weekend, Coup 4.5 reported that the regime had detained a number of prominent Fijians for questioning, apparently over a plot to overthrow Bainimarama. But the disturbing bit is this:

All three were released but Padarath is in the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva being treated for burns received during the interrogation.
How did he get those burns? An earlier post has the details:
Ben Padarath was admitted with burns caused by hot water used by military during his interrogation at the Queen Elizabeth barracks earlier this week.
So, they're now pouring boiling water on people in an effort to get them to talk.

This is a new step for Fiji's regime. Previously they're "merely" used beatings and sexual assault to punish critics and extract "confessions". Now they're getting medieval. And now we have torture happening in one of our closest neighbours.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, the first one of the year - and it may promise some fireworks. After an obligitory non-controversial local bill, we'll be seeing the committee stage of Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, and maybe of Tau Henare's Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill. Both are bills driven by spite - spite towards students,and spite towards unions. The first will permanently gut student government in New Zealand, leading to a withdrawl of vital services from university campuses (and all because ACT doesn't like the fact that most students don't vote for them). The second sounds like a good idea, until you realise it means employers will be able to challenge strike ballots in the courts; in the UK such challenges have made it virtually impossible for unions to strike, leading to industrial disputes rolling on for years without resolution (see for example British Airways). The bill needs major amendment if this is to be avoided.

These committee stages will eat the day, and there's a second reading for a non-controversial bill lined up after them, which means we are unlikely to see a ballot for some time.

Austerity for some, but not for others II

The National-led government is big on austerity. They're cutting public servants, they're cutting health, they're cutting education, all in the name of a balanced budget. Meanwhile, they're also buying themselves flash new cars:

The government has ordered 34 new BMWs to replace its current fleet which is just three years old.

Just a few weeks after Prime Minister John Key said that Kiwis "have to tighten their belts, we have to do the same", the government is to spend taxpayer money on the impressive limos.

The government said it would receive a bulk discount for the fleet of BMWs, which cost around $200,000 on the market but are so exclusive they are yet to arrive in New Zealand.

However, it would will not say how much public money will be used on BMW's flagship 7 Series cars, citing the excuse of commercial sensitivity.

Clearly austerity is only for us plebs. Meanwhile, our lords and masters roll around in luxury at our expense. What a pack of self-interested, greedy hypocrites.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New Fisk

Mohamed Heikal: 'I was sure my country would explode. But the young are wiser than us

Must read

Werewolf is out, and its lead article is a must read. Ten Myths About Welfare tackles the bullshit the right spreads about welfare, and exposes them as entirely false, an exercise in class villification for political purposes. Worse, it impedes real solutions to this problem, and allows the government to shirk its fundamental duty to care for every single New Zealander and protect our living standards.

Something to go to in Wellington

The Coal Action Network will be holding a public meeting in Wellington to oppose Solid Energy's plans for lignite mining:

When: 19:00, Wednesday 16 February
Where: St John's Church Hall, corner of Willis and Dixon Streets, Wellington
Speaker: Jeanette Fitzsimons

If you live elsewhere, don't worry, you won't miss out - they'll be holding similar meetings in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin in the near future.

Answers on NZ's collusion in torture

Since New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan, there have been ongoing concerns about arrangements for prisoners of war. The Afghan government are torturers. Handing over prisoners to them is a clear violation of our obligations under both the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, not to mention the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and Crimes of Torture Act. Handing over prisoners could see individual kiwi soldiers prosecuted under international or New Zealand law.

The NZDF was asked about this during the select committee hearings on their annual financial review [PDF]. With regards to the SAS, they relied on the same sophistry as John Key: the SAS don't take prisoners and turn them over to be tortured, they merely provide the muscle so the torturers can capture them. I don't see much of a distinction there, and I don't think a court would either; either way our troops are helping people to be tortured, and either way its a conspiracy charge. This is not something kiwi soldiers should be involved in, and if they can't operate in Afghanistan without such an arrangement, then they shouldn't operate there at all.

Its a different story with the Provincial Reconstruction Team - unlike the SAS, they are authorised to take prisoners, though reading between the lines suggests they haven't actually detained anyone. The NZDF also had this to say:

The Chief of Defence Force told us that defence personnel require his permission before handing over any detainee to the Afghan authorities. His decision is based on an assessment of the circumstances of the detention, New Zealand’s ability to monitor the human rights of the detainee, and the legitimacy of the detaining institution. We are aware that the Governments of Afghanistan and New Zealand have an agreement that both parties will comply with their obligations under international law in respect of the treatment of any detainee handed over to Afghan authorities by New Zealand Defence Force personnel.
(Emphasis added)

So, firstly, we can monitor at least the number of transfers using the Official Information Act. And secondly, if a transfer ever results in torture, the Chief of Defence Force gets to go to jail as a co-conspirator. I hope he considers that possibility before signing any such document.

Hoist by their own petard

In 2008, National swept to power on a platform of being a better financial manager and eliminating government "waste". Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have turned out that way. A report on 3 News last night investigated the government's "Community max" scheme - a high profile scheme which has been Paula Bennett's stock answer when asked "what are you doing about unemployment". What it found was disturbing: hundreds of thousands of dollars spent with poor oversight and no tangible results. A "community garden" which produced a single pumpkin. A scenic reserve maintenance scheme which seems not to have had any effect whatsoever. A scheme to sew linen for local marae which turned into one altering clothes from second-hand shops. None of these schemes did what they were paid to do. And yet MSD kept handing over the money.

On one level, this is irrelevant. As the Dim-Post points out, if the purpose of the scheme is to provide a fiscal stimulus, then you could just give money to people for nothing, or pay them to dig holes (or hide the money in holes and let them dig it up). But you get a bigger dividend from such stimulus when you pay people to produce something useful, such as basic infrastructure. This doesn't seemed to have happened in this case.

But the real problem here is one of oversight. Paula Bennett - and by extension the entire government - has shown a basic lack of care here with public money. There is an expectation in this country that when the government pays someone to do something, they should bloody well do it, and there should be people checking that they do it (and not e.g. deciding to do something else, or just take a holiday in the Cooks). They shouldn't just ignore it, then lie to us about what is happening while trying to bury the evidence (oh yes - as usual Bennett did her utmost to prevent any oversight via the OIA, a disturbing habit with that Minister).

And Community Max was a small scheme. If this is how National manages our money, imagine what will happen when they start throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars through Whanau Ora.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How it works in Samoa

A country is having an election, but there's a problem. The law states that all candidates must have their nomination form endorsed by a public official. But those officials - who tend to be members of the party which has ruled for the past 25 years - are refusing to sign the nominations of opposition candidates.

No, its not Uzbekistan, or some other Central Asian despotism. This is happening right in our own backyard, in Samoa. And its just par for the course there - other tricks include trying to sack public servants who run against the government, manipulating Parliamentary rules to prevent the recognition of opposition parties, then kicking out MPs when they combine to form a new party large enough to be recognised, and good old-fashioned corruption, bribing voters and denying basic public services to electorates who vote for opposition candidates.

This is how the Human Rights Protection Party has stayed in power for 25 years - by cheating. By abusing the process. By denying its citizens one of their most basic human rights: the right to choose their own government.

This isn't acceptable, and our government should be saying so.

New Fisk

Is the army tightening its grip on Egypt?
Cairo's 50,000 street children were abused by this regime

"Protecting" the environment

Over the past few years National has made a lot of noise about its "BlueGreen" credentials, and promised greater protection of the environment through a new Environmental Protection Authority. But it turns out that in practice, the EPA doesn't protect the environment. Rather, it does the opposite:

Currently Horokiri, Ration and Pauatahanui Streams near Porirua are strongly protected under the Wellington Regional Freshwater Plan. And for good reason – they are the home of a lot of endangered New Zealand fish.

But these streams and their gullies are also the proposed route for Transmission Gully motorway from Porirua to Kapiti.

So you guessed it. The Nats are moving to de-protect these stream so they can build the motorway on them.

They are doing this by rushing through a plan change using the Environmental Protection Agency [sic].

So to recap, the Govt is using the Environmental Protection Agency to remove protection from endangered New Zealand fish habitat so that we can build a motorway on it, with the resulting increase in greenhouse emissions.

This is all made possible by changes to the RMA National rammed through under urgency in 2009, which widened the scope for Ministerial call-ins for projects of national significance. And reading Nick Smith's direction to the EPA, its clear that he's trying to widen that law further, equivocating on what the matter of national significance is to conflate the proposed plan change with the transmission gully motorway itself. Which means, basically, that no local plan is safe.

So this is how it will be now: a powerful developer - either the government or one of their favoured crony capitalists - will be able to override local democracy and lobby the Minister for changes to regional and local plans, overriding the wishes of local voters who will have to live with the results.

The whole point of the RMA was to empower local communities to make their own planning decisions and protect their local environment, and hold their politicians to account for not doing so. Now, none of that means anything. You can vote for green regional councillors, they can set up a plan which protects your waterways or your trees or your rugged hillsides - but none of it means a damn. The Minister can override any of it on a whim, because he wants to push through a particular project.

In other words, what we have now is statutory Muldoonism - exactly the problem the RMA was supposed to prevent. Except where Muldoon had to get Parliament to pass a law to enable the Clyde Dam, Nick Smith can just do it on a whim.

National has perverted the RMA into a developer's charter. This has to change. And the way to change it is to throw them out in November.

And while we're on the subject

John Key is claiming that National has a strong record on gay rights. Oh really? Lest anyone forget:

I think that speaks for itself about National's - and Key's - record on gay rights.

(Yes, they repealed provocation - but only because it was being used to excuse the murder of a straight woman rather than another gay man, and only after Labour had a repeal bill drawn from the ballot. Until then, it was just not a priority for them).


Yesterday was the Big Gay Out in Auckland, an annual celebration of Auckland's gay community. This being an election year, the politicians were out in force - which led to this odd exchange:

Radio host Steven Oats invited [Prime Minister John] Key to his stall and asked him whether he would support civil unions if a conscience vote were held tomorrow.

"I voted against it last time. It was a very marginal call. But we're not going to face that again, so ..."

Mr Oats persisted, but Mr Key would not reveal his cards.

"I'm leaving it until my book. I know the answer, but just wait until my book," he said.

Come on John, tell us what you really think!

This is utterly, absolutely spineless. Key is Prime Minister of New Zealand. He's accountable to us for his political views. And yet he's too chickenshit to say what they actually are for fear of offending someone (either his wealthy donors, who tend to be old and bigoted, or ordinary decent members of the public, who think homophobia just isn't acceptable anymore). And then to add insult to injury, he effectively demands to be paid at some stage in the future for information he should be giving out as part of basic, democratic accountability.

But then, this has been Key's problem all along: no principles. A desire to be everyone's mate, and to achieve that by telling everyone exactly what they want to hear. But this is not an issue he can be everyone's mate on. He can either do what is right, or what is wrong. Us or the bigots, Mr Key - pick a side.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New Fisk

A tyrant's exit. A nation's joy
Full circle on Tahrir Square as history comes in gulps

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The tyrant falls

I woke up this morning to the news that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had resigned. Sadly, he bypassed Egypt's constitutional succession processes to turn over power directly to the army. But the important bit is done: the tyrant has gone. Now Egyptians have the long hard task of building a democracy ahead of them.

Meanwhile, this has put the Arab world's other dictators - and dictators everywhere - on notice. The people are angry. The dominoes are falling. They are next. They can either reform or be driven out by the people.

Friday, February 11, 2011

New Fisk

As Mubarak clings on... What now for Egypt?

Turitea windfarm partially consented

Back in 2006, the Palmerston North City Council climbed into bed with Mighty River Power to develop a wind farm in the Turitea Reserve behind Massey University. In addition to supplying water to the city, the reserve is also a large area of remnant native forest, inhabited by various native birds, including Kereru, Tui, and the rare New Zealand Falcon. The Council bent over backwards to help Mighty River, abusing the law to add "renewable energy generation" as a purpose of the reserve; in exchange, it was paid "milestone payments" by Mighty River (and would earn more when consent was granted).

When consent time came, however, the government called it in to a Board of Inquiry. Not because they were concerned about a local government that was transparently for sale, I must add - but because Nick Smith wanted to show he was serious about amending the RMA to allow this sort of project to be rammed through. Now that board has reported back. And the news is not good for Mighty River. Consent has been granted for only 61 of 105 (originally 120) turbines. And this may threaten the viability of the project.

Here's hoping. I support wind energy - but not when it comes at the cost of clearfelling native bush to generate it. As I noted when the issue first came up, there is plenty of space elsewhere in the Tararuas which does not require this sort of environmental vandalism. I'd like to see more windfarms there, so that they benefit the environment, rather than degrading it.

Earning that reputation VIII

Back in November, Lockwood Smith abolished sitting MPs' international travel rort, under which some of them had enjoyed up to 90% discounts (paid for by the taxpayer) on their international holidays. There was absolutely no justification for the rort, and its abolition was hugely popular with the public (who at the same time wondered why the travel rort of former MPs, which has even less justification, wasn't being abolished as well).

Unfortunately, the abolition wasn't retrospective, and MPs who rushed to book their holidays before the guillotine have enjoyed a "last hurrah" on the taxpayer. Chris Carter was caught, and had to cancel his taxpayer-funded Sri Lankan holiday at the last minute, but both Shane Ardern and Ruth Dyson seem to have gotten away with it, each spending more on international travel in the December quarter than they did for the rest of the year combined. And now neither is willing to front up and explain to us how our money was used.

This is a perfect example of why the public has such a low opinion of MPs. And if MPs want to change this reputation, then they need to stand united in condemning this self-serving, corrupt behaviour. Otherwise, the public will take their silence as tacit approval of this plunder, and they'll have no-one to blame but themselves.

The big push


Hate the government's shortsighted ECE cuts? Want to do something about them? If you live in Auckland, then you can. The NZEI is holding a protest march up Queen Street in a fortnight, aimed at showing the government the depth of public opposition to its ECE cuts. Go along, and show them you want to invest in New Zealand's future.

When: 10:30, Saturday, 26 February
Where: Starts Queen Elizabeth Square, and marching up Queen St
Bring: Children, friends, prams.

If you don't live in Auckland, then you can sign a petition against the cuts [PDF] instead. Print it out, sign it, and send it back. The more signatures, the greater the threat to the government - and in election year, those threats count.


More evidence that the government's ECE cuts are shortsighted: an American study showing that for every dollar invested in ECE, it returns nearly $11 to society over a child's life:

Reynolds and his colleagues did the cost-benefit analysis of the [Chicago Public Schools' federally funded Child Parent Centers] using information collected on about 900 children enrolled in the 20 centers starting when they were three and first enrolled in a preschool program. The study continued until the children were nine and taking part in a school-age program that featured smaller classes, teacher aides, and instructional and family support. Follow-up interviews were done in early adulthood and information was collected from many sources until age 26. These children were compared to a group of about 500 comparable children who didn't take part in the CPC but participated in the usual educational interventions for disadvantaged youths in Chicago schools.

The CPC resulted in significantly higher rates of attendance at 4-year colleges and employment in higher-skilled jobs and significantly lower rates of felony arrests and symptoms of depression in young adulthood.

The program's economic benefits in 2007 dollars exceeded costs, including increased earnings and tax revenues, averted costs related to crime and savings for child welfare, special education and grade retention. The preschool part showed the strongest economic benefits providing a total return to society of $10.83 per dollar invested -- equivalent to an 18 percent annual return on program investment. Gains varied by child, program and family group.

When the researchers included the benefits from reductions in smoking, total returns rose to more than $12 per dollar invested.

(Emphasis added)

And while we're at it, here's more: an OECD study showing that pre-school attendees are better readers at age 15. Wasn't the government making some noises a while back about wanting to boost literacy rates?

Contrary to the government's views, ECE is not just babysitting. It is an extremely high-return investment in our future, paying off in a multitude of ways. Its exactly the sort of investment a government wanting a "step-change" in our economic performance should make. Instead, National is cutting it, to pay for the tax cuts they gave away to their rich mates. Another example of National's asset-stripping.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Parliamentary noise"

That's what Attorney-General Chris Finlayson thinks of concerns about the process used to ram through the government's Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. By extension, its also what he thinks of our democracy. Parliamentary process isn't just a formality which can be dispensed with - it exists to legitimise lawmaking. The outcomes of Parliamentary debates may be predetermined by the numbers, but the debate itself is important as a signifier of public consent. Abusing that process, by denying debate, ignoring submissions, preventing proper select committee consideration, and using urgency, undermines that consent - and in the process our democracy. That's why I make a fuss when a government, no matter what stripe, abuses the process. That's why we all should. Because that process is one of the things that separates us from a dictatorship. And parties which abuse it are little better than dictators.

English dishonest over SOEs

So, Bill English thinks our state-owned electricity companies have been making "excessive" returns. Which invites the obvious question: does he really think they will make lower returns in private ownership? That private shareholders will voluntarily relinquish profits and accept lower dividends than the government does now?

These are absurd beliefs, and I don't for a minute believe English holds them. Corporate directors are legally obliged to maximise the return to their shareholders - i.e. gouge us for all the profit they can - and the Minister of Finance knows this. Instead, he's pretending that's not the case so he can talk down the value of those SOEs, and so make the case for their privatisation (oh, and also ensure they can be sold on the cheap). This is deeply dishonest. But it does show how far English is willing to go to transfer these assets (and the wealth they represent) from the public of New Zealand into the hands of his rich mates.

New Fisk

Hypocrisy is exposed by the wind of change sweeping Arab world

Giving away our money

National has made a lot of noise about how the government spends too much money, and of the need for "fiscal restraint" to "put the books in order". So why is it planning to give away $5 million of our money to its mates for doing nothing?

Up to $5 million has been set aside to recompense companies bidding for the contract to build and run a private prison at Wiri, Auckland, should National lose the November election.

The money, which has yet to be approved by the Cabinet, is to instil confidence in public private partnerships (PPPs) and acknowledge the political risk of the project not proceeding if Labour wins, said Jeremy Lightfoot, PPP director for the Corrections Department.

This speaks volumes about the government's competence at handling PPPs and the way they are likely to approach them. The whole idea of PPPs is supposedly to get stuff cheap by transferring financial risk to the private sector. Instead, our government is carrying that risk, and handing these companies risk-free profits. If this is how they're handling the pre-negotiations, I'd hate to see an actual contract.

Meanwhile, Mr Lightfoot is described as having "significant private-sector experience in PPPs". That should have been a warning sign to the government. In the UK, where Mr Lightfoot comes from, PPPs have been a complete disaster, an instrument for looting the state and providing guaranteed, risk-free profits to the private sector. The UK government wastes billions on this, paying £262bn so far for assets worth only £55bn. And there are still 37 years to go on the contracts...

National looks set to take us down the same path, overpaying the private sector for our prisons, our roads, our schools, and our hospitals. Its just a legalised form of theft, another type of wealth transfer. Instead of getting good public services, our taxces will be misspent on boosting the profits of private corporations. We should not allow this. But if we want to stop it from happening, we need to turf National out in November.

Climate change: The Kyoto scam writ large

The Greens have a press release this morning pointing out that the government's much-vaunted "50% by 2050" emissions reduction target - the one they've legally committed to fail to meet - actually means an increase in net emissions from 1990 levels:

“It’s just an accounting trick. The Government’s actual target is for our net greenhouse gas emissions to increase slightly from 1990 to 2050.

New Zealand’s net emissions in 1990 were 29 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2e). Dr Norman said that National’s net emissions target for 2050 was 30 million tonnes CO2e.

“They try to pretend that this is a reduction by comparing the gross figure in 1990 with the net figure in 2050.”

This is all true. The figures are all there in the latest inventory. But its also entirely consistent with the international norms. While the Kyoto Protocol requires us to reduce our average annual 2008 - 2012 emissions to 1990 levels, that's its using net 2008 - 2012 emissions vs gross 1990 emissions (oh, and better yet - gross 1990 emissions as we computed them in 2006. If you can "refine" your measurement of emissions in a way which lowers them in 1990 and now, you get to benefit from the reduction while the baseline remains fixed. MAF has an active program of trying to find such recalculation benefits so as to juke the stats). So when the Greens lament that
“If the rest of the world takes this disingenuous approach to reducing carbon emissions, we have no chance of averting dangerous climate change.
They already are. Everyone is comparing apples and oranges in this way. And it means that those "bold" emissions reduction targets need to be subject to intense scrutiny to ensure that they actually involve reducing emissions.

(Another favourite trick: moving the baseline from 1990 to, say, 2000 - giving the impression of a cut, while actually giving the country a decade of free pollution and no real progress at all).

Such scams may make the government's books look good. They may fool people into thinking government is acting, rather than just handing out subsidies to polluters. But you can't fool the planet. Carbon is carbon, and if we keep polluting, its going to catch up with us. But John Key would no doubt be "relaxed" about that, because it'll happen on some other government's watch.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Absolutely appalling

And while we're on the topic of appalling bigotry in the House, British MPs really take the cake. Over there, they've been abusing and mocking an MP for having cerebral palsy.

There is a name for people who abuse and mock the disabled: "arseholes". And I think we can comfortably apply that term to the entire House of Commons.

Labour's homophobes

Back in 2009, we learned that Labour frontbencher Trevor Mallard was a homophobe, when he repeatedly called Chris Finlayson "tinkerbell" across the House. Today, he continued this trend, coming up with a new witty name for John Key: the "Prime Mincer". And he wasn't alone - both Clare Curran and Kris Fa'afoi repeated it over Twitter.

All these MPs seem to think that someone's sexuality or imputed sexuality is a reason to abuse them. That people should be abused and mocked for engaging in behaviours they regard as stereotypically gay. That's not cool, and its not funny. Its simply bigotry.

(As for Key, he's in the same camp and pretty clearly has some rather bigoted views about male models. But that doesn't excuse Labour's abuse).

I expect better from my elected representatives. And I expect better from the Labour Party. Once upon a time, they did the decent thing and opposed this sort of shit. Now they don't. And against a backdrop of homophobic hate crimes, that's exceptionally disappointing.

New Fisk

Week 3, day 16, and with every passing hour, the regime digs in deeper

Reported back

The Māori Affairs Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, and recommended that it be passed without amendment. That's right, nothing - not even the usual technical amendments to clarify intent. Reading Labour's minority report shows why: the government has rammed this bill through, prevented the committee from taking advice from the department on proposed amendments, and ignored all submissions. The 500 page summary of submissions was only made available to Labour Members yesterday, and the bill approved without amendment that same day. This is the same mockery of a legislative process we have grown to expect from National with its headline legislation - it was also used for Three Strikes and the government's prisoner disenfranchisement legislation - and quite apart from the obvious democratic problems, it does not lead to good legislation. But National wants this rammed through, and if this means squashing democracy and ignoring submissions, tough.

Its worth noting that the Māori Party colluded in this, providing National with the majority to do all this. So much for their commitment to the democratic process, or for "listening to their people". Their people submitted on the bill in good faith. Te Ururoa Flavell helped shut them down and shut them out to aid his National Party masters.

We can now expect this bill to be rammed through under urgency in the next fortnight. It will pass on Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples' votes. And they will be held accountable for that in November.

In the ballot XLI

Another batch of Member's Bills currently in the ballot. Previous batches are indexed here:

Environmental Reporting Bill (Chris Hipkins): A rewrite of Nick Smith's Environment (State of the Environment Reporting) Amendment Bill from a few years ago, this would require the new Environmental Protection Authority to report on the overall state of our environment (using a set of standardised environmental indicators) at least once every five years. It's a good idea, and Smith has promised to implement it now that he's Minister. Hipkins is hoping to beat him to it, or at least force him to keep that promise.

Habeus Corpus Amendment Bill (Chris Auchinvole): Not as threatening as it sounds, this bill implements the recommendations of the Law Commission's 2007 report [PDF] on further simplifying the process for Habeas Corpus. This should really be a government bill, but National has a conscious policy of advancing minor reforms such as this through the Member's Ballot to clog it up and reduce the chances of opposition bills being drawn.

Summary Proceedings (Warrant for Detention Conditions) Amendment Bill (Jonathan Young): Again not as threatening as it sounds, this amends the Summary Proceedings Act 1957 to allow the court to impose conditions when remanding a defendant in custody - for example ordering them not to contact or associate with certain persons. This can already be done if a defendant is bailed (e.g. to prevent them from interfering with witnesses or further harassing victims, or to protect the victims of domestic violence), but imprisonment was presumed to stop such contact. Its an odd little loophole, born of the era before prisoners had access to phones, and there doesn't seem to be any harm in plugging it. Again, this one should really be a government bill.

As usual, I'll have more bills as I acquire them.